Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links for the Week)

I've been slacking. There are a ton of things to share today. Here are the things that have made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious) in the relatively recent past.

The Good

If you haven't watched Bob Dylan's interactive video for "Like a Rolling Stone" yet, go do it now! It's why the internet was made

Jennifer Lawrence's Daily Show interview is so delightfully strange:

This photography project has people looking at their younger selves in mirrors. Pretty powerful.

More Americans have died from domestic gun fire than in all of the wars our country has been involved in . . . combined.  

Here's a post about roller derby that includes a great explanation of how it is feminist: 
Roller derby’s true countercultural contribution is its relatively sophisticated approach to feminist praxis. I would argue it is the western world’s first feminist sport. Feminist philosophers/thinkers/intellectuals in academia talk a lot about ‘praxis’ – essentially putting ideas into practice. The ideas derby puts into practice every day
I love this post from School of Smock about imagined toddler apologies.

The Bad

A Charleston, SC birth center is facing potential forced closure through a new interpretation of health regulations. 

Early in my blogging days, I got in a debate with a follower of the To Train Up a Child book on an attachment parenting thread. The coldness, cruelty, and exactness of his argument left me chilled to the core. Now another couple has been charged with murder after following the book's "parenting" suggestions. 

A man in my home state will probably hold the distinction of being the first published case of the flesh-eating heroin epidemic in the U.S. If people are willing to do this to themselves for a high, how can legal penalties alone ever combat our drug problems?

The Curious

Caitlin at Fit and Feminist has an interesting post about running in the dark. She talks about going for a run with her male partner and realizing his social conditioning about the activity was a lot different from hers:
Our divergent responses to the same situation made me think critically about my emotional reaction to running in the dark, specifically how I was so afraid of it while he considered it just another adventure. In this I could see our differences both in temperament but specifically in our socialization. I am positive that he has never been bombarded with cautionary tales about the peril he is sure to face if he walks or runs alone at night, at least not the way women are.
What do you think of the Lulu app that allows women to rate men they've dated and hashtag them with tags like "#DudeCanCook" and "#ObsessedWithHisMom"? Would you (or do you) use it? It's being touted as a way to help women date more safely. What do you think?

This post examines why giving children in need toys for Christmas is about more than providing them a little fun:
No matter the age, personal possessions fulfill emotional and practical needs. As children develop from infancy through adolescence, their possessions reflect and support a growing self-identity. That is why the gifts we delivered were age-appropriate for kids between the ages of birth through 12 years old.
Thought Catalog has an interesting look at the things people couldn't believe about America until they moved here.

Bicultural Mama has a post on how difficult it is to find racial diversity among Christmas tree angel toppers.

Tori at Anytime Yoga talks about her reaction when one of her high school students called her a bitch.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Health as Moral Imperative: Chasing Gold Stars

Saturday night, I went to the wedding of a friend from my childhood. It was the first time that both my husband and I had been out, together, child-free, and with a safe ride home in over a year. We drank, danced, laughed, and had an amazing time.

Then I got up Sunday morning and ran three miles.

Should you praise me? Do I deserve a gold star?

Gold star

Sure, after a night of partying, it would have been a little easier to just tuck myself back into bed. So it took an element of discipline and willpower to get going. And yes, I think discipline and willpower are positive qualities, but I don't run to punish myself or beat my body into some sort of submissive rhythm. I run because I like it. 

And I don't think that I deserve praise for it any more than I deserve praise for, say, getting really good at chess, learning to play an instrument, knitting an awesome scarf, or parachuting out of an airplane. 

I was thinking about this today because I read an interesting article that examines whether the Health at Every Size approach has a healthism problem. It explains healthism as a concept: 
Healthism was originally defined by Robert Crawford as a “preoccupation with personal health as a primary – often the primary – focus for the definition and achievement of well-being.” It has evolved into the often unspoken idea that there is a moral value to health; it emerges as the assumption that people should pursue health.
Healthism as it manifests itself in our cultural norms is a deeply privileged position:
It seems to me that healthism is reflective of deep privilege; it is (in my opinion) a classic “first-world” problem. Healthism can only thrive in a culture where the dominant groups do not have to worry about such things as famine, infectious disease, war, poverty, and hatred as factors that affect their health. It’s privilege that allows us to make health a “project” that we can judge others for not taking up.
And at the end of the article (which you should really go read in its entirety, as I'm not even touching on some of its more interesting points), we're asked this question:
Do we need an asterisk on every health recommendation – an implied “but only if you want to”?
The Moral Imperative To Health 

If you spend much time at all reading about fat activism or Health at Every Size approaches, you'll see people arguing that health is a moral imperative because of the collective costs to society that the unhealthy bring with them. They'll talk about shared healthcare expenses and the Puritanical notions of moderation and personal responsibility in the maintenance of a particular level of fitness.

It is your responsibility to your self and to your community to be as healthy as you can be, the logic goes.

It's right up there with jury duty. Slog through it for the good of the whole! 
I don't buy it. 

I don't buy it for a couple of different reasons. First of all, if we culturally valued health as a moral betterment for the society at large, then Lululemon wouldn't be saying that their pants aren't designed for large bodies or that they can't be made beyond a size 12. When Professor Rebecca Hains explained her petition against the company, several of the commenters demonstrated a cultural norm that has nothing to do with health and everything to do with appearance:
Nobody....and I mean nobody, wants to see a size twelve woman wearing yoga pants! It would be the equivalent of two St.Bernard dogs stuffed into a black bag having a fight as she walked down the street! And enough with the stupid mantra that everybody gets a cupcake for just for being there! The company that produces this line of clothing are designed for people who actually care about being fit and looking good not a bunch bob bon eating slobs who are too fat to put on a pair jeans! -ziggy24
It is a crime against humanity when a plus-size woman wears stretch pants. Sickening. If that makes me a sexist so be it. This professor is an idiot. -EddieD_0206
I wear a size 12. Apparently, I am committing a "crime against humanity" every time I put on some athletic wear and go for a run. At the same time, I am failing to do my cultural duty of ensuring I am healthy enough not to be a burden on society if I don't put on those pants and go for a run. Fat people--we just destroy society no matter what we do.

If the mantra for health in American culture truly were about the personal responsibility of individuals to be as healthy as they can, then people would be praising fat people for working out and demanding that our high-end athletic companies make clothes that allow them to do that. We would also pay attention to the research that suggests thin and healthy aren't all that correlated anyway.

But we're not (at least most of us aren't), and it's because we really don't care about collective health at all. We care about reinforcing narrow beauty ideals, and if someone eats nutritiously void food and never works out but is a size 2, we don't bat an eye. I haven't heard people lining up to call that a "crime against humanity."

But the second reason I don't buy the health as collective moral imperative argument is because there are plenty of things that are good for us that we aren't required to do to be considered an acceptable member of society.

Take one of the examples I used above. Playing chess has scientifically-supported health benefits. It grows dendrites in the brain, reduces the risk of Alzheimer's, and improves problem-solving skills. If you can argue that you have to work out in order to reduce the social cost of supporting your healthcare, couldn't you also argue that you have to play chess to reduce the social cost of your poor problem-solving? After all, our social safety nets have to catch you when you can't solve your problems yourself.

But why stop there?

Playing a musical instrument has been linked to a reduction in biological stress responses linked to heart disease and cancer.

Learning a second language protects against dementia.

I'm sure that scrapbooking increases spatial reasoning skills, singing increases lung capacity, and basket weaving improves dexterity.

And if we're truly concerned with ensuring that every person reduces their potential negative impact on the collective health costs, then we should also penalize athletes who get injured or put themselves in dangerous situations like running on roads or climbing trails where they might fall.

The health-as-collective-responsibility argument just doesn't hold up with the demands we actually make on people.

So, Can I Have My Gold Star Now?

Since everyone in the whole world has written about it, I'm sure you've seen this picture:

Plenty of people have taken this photo to task. While it purports to promote health, it really only promotes a particular definition of beauty. The implication is that other mothers are using their children as an "excuse" to keep them from their moral obligation (to themselves and society) of fitness. 

I can't imagine a picture of a chess player posed sexily with her pawn in hand while her children play at her feet. "What's your excuse?" Imagine a violinist making bedroom eyes over his instrument while his kids run in the background: "What's your excuse?" 

Fitness (especially the type of fitness activities Maria Kang promotes) is a choice that requires a commitment of time and energy. It's a choice just like any other hobby or activity that we choose to do. We all have the same 24 hours in the day. Some of us have more of it taken up by specific obligations on our time than others (someone who works two jobs to pay the bills or has to spend three hours on a bus each day to get to and from school (as many of my students do), for instance, doesn't have quite as much hobby time to play with). 

Still, on average, we all have some flexibility on how we spend our spare time. This video does an amazing job of summing that up (watch it. Really.): 

At the end, it asks how you will spend your time. You have lots of ways you can answer. You can spend it running miles of pavement while listening to Fannie Flagg's new book on Audible (that's what I did this week). You can spend it learning to play the violin. You can spend it reading War and Peace. You can spend it playing chess. You can spend it painting portraits, cooking fresh bread, creating scrapbooks to keep your memories fresh, decorating your home, shopping for new clothes, playing with your pets, making crafts with your children, doing crunches, restoring old furniture, writing blog posts, riding roller coasters, traveling the world, gardening, canning peaches, sculpting, learning French, watching bad horror movies. . . 

For most of us, we use that time in a combination of activities. Some make us happy and fulfilled. Some we do out of obligation or to help make someone else happy and fulfilled. Some we do for our health. Some we do for fun. 

Every once in a while, we hit upon an activity that combines all of those things into one. Do those things. They're rare. 

And when you find things you like, find people who like them, too. Get a community of people who can encourage you to finish knitting that big project, paint that wall in the complicated pattern, master that hard song on the guitar, run that marathon. 

And when you see someone sharing an accomplishment, encourage them. They don't need gold stars, but they might need your support. 

Life is short. Use it well.  

Friday, November 15, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Athletics and the Rhetoric of Violence

In 1998, Deborah Tannen wrote The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words in which she rightfully calls into question the combative, dichotomized, win-at-any-cost rhetoric that often fills our culture (especially our mass media). Unfortunately, she erroneously labeled this practice "agonistic."

It should be clear from my penchant for exploring the term that agonism is an interest of mine, and I really regret that the most mainstream exposure it has gotten (as Tannen's book was more popular than academic) was a misrepresentation.

Arguing Penguins

Tannen mislabeled. What she describes is not agonism, but antagonism, but her mislabeling does not negate her observations. Through a series of specific examples from news shows and popular culture, Tannen establishes a pattern of antagonistic interaction that is definitely troubling.

At one point, she takes a close look at the rhetoric of athletics, maintaining that the way sports are talked about has changed because of what she calls "the argument culture."

Because an antagonistic interaction is only concerned with "winning" (as opposed to agonistic ones, which are dependent upon the interaction and process of debate itself), "sports announcers emphasize not the process of play but the outcome." Tannen ties this obsession with the win into the violence of sports. Media coverage (the slow-mo replays of hard hits, the emphasis on pain as it connects to a culture of "toughness") insists that the violence is a necessary component of a game well played:
That players are being physically hurt, it implies, is what gives the game significance, even though the rules prohibit the use of undue force. . . When viewers were shown the segments [of rough play] without commentary, they accurately judged the rough-play segment as more action-packed, enthusiastic, rough, and violent (and, not incidentally, more entertaining and enjoyable). But when they viewed the same segments with the commentary superimposed, their judgments were reversed. They saw what was actually normal play as rougher, more action-packed, and more enjoyable. The commentary shaped what they saw, overriding what they witnessed with their own eyes.
Tannen uses that last study to demonstrate the power announcers have over the audience's perceptions. We can be convinced that what we see is rough (and therefore meaningful and entertaining) or not based on what they say. It is the sports announcers that transmit the culture of the game onto the broader audience.

Questioning a Culture of Violence

A quick YouTube search will provide you with hundreds of compilations of football's "hardest hits" or the hockey "fights of the decade."

With the athletes' faces obscured by athletic wear and amidst the cheers of the stadium and the excited announcers, it can be hard to remember that those "hardest hits" are causing real damage to human bodies.

The NFL recently settled a class-action lawsuit brought by some of its players over concussions. The research coming out of the aftermath has some fans torn over whether they should keep supporting the game. And when NFL player Jovan Belcher tragically shot his girlfriend and himself in front of their infant, much of the discussion turned to the long-term mental impacts of the damage of the game.

Of course, we have a more recent discussion of locker room culture unfolding today. When Jonathan Martin left the Miami Dolphins and alleged that he had been bullied and tormented by fellow player Richie Incognito, he opened up a much broader discussion about the culture of sports.

For a stunning explanation of why this culture of "toughness" matters, take a look at this Grantland post by Brian Phillips. The Martin-Incognito bullying scandal has extended the conversation of damage to athletes' bodies to damage of athletes' minds, and Phillips does an excellent job of demonstrating the link between the two:
 The brain is a part of the body. It's an organ. It's a physical thing. Sometimes it breaks. Sometimes it breaks because you beat it against the inside of your skull so hard playing football, and sometimes — because it's unimaginably intricate, the brain, way more intricate than even a modified read-option — it breaks for reasons that are harder to see. 
Athleticism is supposed to be a virtue, one tied into concepts of discipline, self-awareness, hard work, and natural skill. By stepping into the athletic arena, we have the opportunity to display the range of the human bodies' abilities. Our individual feats of athleticism become points of pride for our collective culture. That's why the Olympics is such a big event, and it's why the origin of the Olympics (athletics in ancient Greece) is tied so closely with virtues, pedagogical ideals, and rhetoric (as Debra Hawhee eloquently explores (and I wrote about here). 

Taking Hawhee's explanation of the close connection between rhetoric and athletics, it would make sense that the distortion of one (via the rise of Tannen's "argument culture") would manifest itself as a distortion in the other. What was once a display of virtue has instead become a display of cultural disease.

Not Just for Professional Athletes

The problem with athleticism does not end with the glitz of the million-dollar paychecks of professional athletes or even the dazzle of the Friday night lights for a high school team. It extends to our cultural understanding of fitness as a whole.

Culturally, we are very devoted to notions of fitness as a virtue for the same reasons that the ancient Greeks lauded athleticism: a fit body is typically a sign of dedication, hard work, self-discipline, and skill. A picture of some sculpted abs or a flexed bicep becomes an enthymeme for the virtue we're supposed to be seeking. You get the sculpted body because of the hard work, but it's the hard work we're supposed to be praising.

Tannen explains that when sports announcers shift from the action of the game itself to focusing primarily (or even entirely) on the outcome, our rhetoric devolves into violence.

The same thing has happened with personal fitness.

Instead of valuing the steps that it takes to maintain health, we value the end results. We cherish the six-pack abs over the miles of running or cycling or swimming it took to get them. If someone does put in the hard work but doesn't get the result, we don't consider it a "win" at all. It's abs or bust, baby.

A recent dust-up over comments from expensive activewear company Luluemon has brought this problem to the forefront. When the creator of the fancy pants disputed charges of poor quality clothes by shaming women's bodies as too big, he created a backlash. Rebecca Hains has led the charge against him with a popular petition and a demand that he rethink his understanding of health as beginning and ending with a certain body size:
“His brand is about providing products to women who want to be healthy,” she said. “He has a responsibility to understand what healthy is.”
Since we stopped valuing the process of fitness and started only valuing the end result, our personal discussions of "health" have devolved in much the same way Tannen is noting professional sports rhetoric has deteriorated. The messages we send to ourselves to get "healthy" are often violent.

In the name of making ourselves healthier, many of us are committing acts of violence against our own minds and bodies. 

This can most readily be seen in several examples of "fitspo," the images and phrases people use to motivate themselves to get fit. While the idea sounds innocuous at worst and productive at best, there are actually several kinds of fitspo that enact violence.

Kevin Moore has a great article explaining just how dangerous some of these fitspo messages can be. "No limits. No excuses." That's a common theme that is absolutely false. Your body has limits there are excuses. If you don't listen to those limits, you risk injury and a much longer (or even impossible) path to your fitness goals.

Perhaps nothing has demonstrated this as clearly as the joke of putting fitspo messages over pictures of people drinking:

Taking these out of the realm of "health" and putting them in the context of a vice like drinking, we recognize the messages for what they really are: damaging.

Health is not about the finished product, but we live in a culture where our rhetoric is so heavily dichotomized that we can't handle the middle ground. It seems inconceivable that someone could have flat abs and be unhealthy or that someone could be less than sculpted and an athlete. By collapsing a very complex narrative about personal image, biology, body size, and fitness into a simple thin=healthy=good, fat=unhealthy=bad dichotomy, we ignore the process for the product, and we fall into a culture of violent, harmful words and actions--violence we end up enacting upon ourselves.

P.S.- If you're looking for some body-positive fitness and health inspiration that doesn't fall into this trap, I've started collecting images on a Pinterest board. I also recommend reading Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss and Fit and Feminist.

Photo: Adam Arroyo 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Anti-Rape Panties and Bulletproof Jackets: Are We in Combat Zones?

A successfully funded Indie Go Go project called AR Wear is an anti-rape plan designed to keep women safe from rapists through indestructible underwear. The creators of this project explain it like this:
We believe that the tools of self-defense currently available are not effective in many common settings of sexual assault. Training in martial arts or products such as pepper spray, tear gas, stun guns, etc. can only help if the potential victim is extremely alert and bold when an attack occurs. Worse still, products of self-defense can be taken from the victim and used against her.
Here's the video explaining their solution:

Understandably, this project has garnered a lot of negative response. Coming fast on the heels of Slate's Emily Yoffe's command to college women to stop drinking if they don't want to get raped, many people are questioning the effectiveness of the AR Wear tactic, and many more are questioning the impact of once again putting the responsibility on the victim to prevent the crime.
This entire conversation reminds me very much of the one that I had earlier in the year (and wrote about here).

I got into an argument with an acquaintance about whether this image was an acceptable message:

The image was a response to this advice that women should pee their pants to turn off a would-be rapist (ridiculous advice, I agree). Over the course of this discussion, this acquaintance repeatedly compared women's bodies to cars. In doing so, he made an argument that equated rape with a property crime. 

It's one that I've heard a lot. Wearing anti-rape underwear, in this argument, is no different than putting a club on your steering wheel or locking the doors to your house. You prevent the crime to the property by taking commonsense measures to protect it.

There has also been a recent innovation of a cup that changes colors when date rape drugs are detected.

In this argument, this is like arming your car alarm or setting motion detectors for your porch lights. You want to detect a potential threat to your property while you have time to act upon it.

By making this analogy between bodies and property, the proponents of these anti-rape measures are able to make feminist detractors out to be ridiculous and careless. It's not your fault if your house gets broken into, but why would you just leave the door unlocked? It's not your fault if your car gets stolen, but really shouldn't you just take the 30 seconds to put a club on the steering wheel?

Two Clubs

The body-as-property analogy is at the center of ideas that a woman's virginity can be "stolen." It's tied up in the idea that a woman's body can be "pure" or "sullied" depending on what she has done with it sexually.  

This analogy allows a diversion away from the feminist argument against anti-rape measures. In order to get the conversation focused back on where it needs to be focused--preventing rape by addressing rape culture--we need to get to the heart of this property vs. body comparison.

My body is not a car. My body is not a house. My body is not property that can be damaged or stolen.

My body is the physical space in which my self exists and is presented to the world.

To reduce my physical embodiment of self to a possession or a piece of property is to devalue my humanity. To make putting on indestructible underwear the equivalent of putting a club on my steering wheel is to ignore the fact that my mind and body are interconnected. My body is not a piece of property in which my self resides like a house; my body cannot be separated from my identity in that way.

When we talk about rape with the metaphors of property crimes, we ignore the fact that rape is not a crime against a thing. It is a crime against a person.

Rape is much more akin to physical assault, murder, kidnapping, and other crimes against people, but it continues to be metaphorically linked to crimes against things.

Interestingly, we also have preventative measures for crimes against human beings. There are, of course, the things we consider basic safety measures: helmets for bikers, seat belts for motor vehicle passengers, parachutes for airplanes. In these cases, we put on safety equipment specific to the act in which we are engaging. Most of us do not wear a helmet 24 hours a day even though our brains are always vulnerable to blunt force. We weigh out risks and benefits and use the safety equipment that fits that analysis.

There is more sophisticated equipment designed for preventing crimes against human bodies, though.

Suit of Armor

People (traditionally men) on the front lines of battle often have preventative technology designed to protect their bodies from physical harm. We've luckily moved away from suits of armor, but we now see that technology present in tactical gear for high-risk jobs like police work and fire fighting. 

A Sailor checks his fire fighting gear in a mirror.

The SWAT team has found you....

This is the kind of equipment we have designed to protect bodies that are in danger because of high-conflict activities like fighting a fire, negotiating with armed criminals, or going to war.

The next time that someone says putting on anti-rape panties is the equivalent of locking the door to your house, they need to be reminded that the metaphor falls flat. Putting on anti-rape panties is the equivalent of putting on a bulletproof jacket. And what you are telling a woman when you tell her it is common sense to take that step is that her every day actions are the equivalent of going to war. That stepping out of her house is necessarily a battle. That she should be as fearful of her surroundings as humanly possible. (And a reality that grim is exactly the context behind measures like the anti-rape condom that clamps down on a rapist's penis. The designer of the device is from South Africa, which has one of the highest rates of rape in the world.)

If you have to wear a bulletproof jacket to go to the grocery store, there is something wrong with the culture around you. And if you have to wear locked panties to go on a first date, then the problem isn't common sense safety measures; it's the culture that supports rape in the first place.

If you feel safer wearing locked underwear or putting your drinks in a cup that changes colors when tainted, I don't want to ignore that. Safety is an important thing, and I think you should have the right to the safety measures technologically available. But we should not act as if these measures are practical. And we should definitely not act as if these measures are offering any tangible solutions.

At best, it's giving people a bulletproof jacket until the war ends. At worst, it's putting people inside a suit of armor and asking them to race next to people unencumbered by such concerns.

Image: Alain-Christian, Josef Meixner, U.S. Navy, The Adventures of Kristin and Adam

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

You Know What They Say About Assumptions, Right?

As Miami Dolphins player Jonathan Martin walked off the team and his teammate Richie Incognito is suspended amid hazing and bullying allegations, I've seen a lot of people asking how a 315-pound man can be bullied.

The assumptions tied up in these statements astound me. Not only is this man's body size and type being used as a proxy for his ability to withstand a mentally abusive situation, but these people are also assuming that just because someone has the physical ability to aggressively stand up to his/her bully that they must take that action.

It is, in my mind, very similar to asking how someone in a mini skirt could be raped. Instead of holding perpetrators of violence and abuse accountable for the environments they've created, we're holding those living within those crafted environments accountable for not getting out of them.

It's not the only place I've seen assumptions flying lately.

A man left a cruel note on a BMW (with a handicap tag) parked in a handicap spot at the gym scoffing that he would "like to see [the driver's] wheelchair." Since the driver was there to play wheelchair rugby, he could easily have obliged, but why should he have to justify his existence (or ability to buy a nice car) to some passer-by?

Employees at Barney's assumed that young black patrons couldn't possibly afford the merchandise they were buying. 

Scary Mommy has a post about a food drive at her child's daycare. One of the other parents scoffed that "those people" wouldn't know how to cook quinoa anyway, implying that the drive was a waste of good food to unrefined palates. The author had previously used the food pantry to get her family through some lean times, and the woman had no idea what kind of assumptions she was making about "those people" to their face.

We're told all the time not to judge a book by its cover, not to make assumptions, not to think we know the whole story from a glance. But we do it anyway. We do it because the brain likes simple categories. We do it because if we can put "those" people into simple boxes we don't have to question our other assumptions like what kind of culture our NFL advertising dollars are supporting, what kind of resources we aren't giving to people who use wheelchairs, why someone might be willing to spend a huge portion of their paycheck on designer clothes, or what kind of food people in our own communities can't access.

We do it because it is easier.

Challenge yourself and others to see beyond the simple story. It is almost never complete.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links for the [past two] week[s])

I've been a bad blogger who hasn't updated a link list in quite a while, so this one's kind of long. Tell me what I missed in the comments!

Here's what I've been reading that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious).


Grad school Barbie. 

Wouldn't this proposed high speed rail system for the US be amazing?

I just started this weightlifting program, and this site has a built-in Excel sheet that does all the math for you! (Because math is the hardest part of weightlifting.)

I want this book. A pictorial history of women with muscles. 


The House is trying to kill ENDA as it passes through the Senate with bipartisan support.

This woman gave out letters fat-shaming kids she deemed too obese for Halloween candy. For real.

Well, Ron Paul practices what he preaches, and it led to one of his key campaign staffers dying penniless and uninsured.

Street harassment is not just an inconvenience. It can be deadly. (Trigger warning for sexual violence).

Some of the most shocking, cruel, and terrifying things I've seen said in a public forum have been aimed at trans* people. These tweets from former South Carolina GOP executive Todd Kincannon fit into that appalling group. (Warning for abusive language.)

I'm not even a spider-squeamish person but . . . AHHHHHHH!


Ken Cuccinelli is expected to lose tomorrow's gubernatorial race in Virginia tomorrow, and it's largely because of his extremely poor performance with female voters. Perhaps the rest of the country should take note. Women think and vote.

Tressie McMilliam Cottom has a brilliant post about the logic of "stupid" poor people after many scoffed at why the poor people discriminated against at Barney's would have been shopping there to begin with.

If you must think about your weight, Adios, Barbie suggests you think these things.

Sociological Images has an interesting post comparing Django Unchained with 12 Years a Slave.

I already linked to this article in a post that I wrote inspired by it, but I loved it so much I'm posting it here, too. Vanessa Veselka has a beautiful piece asking why all of our quest narratives are about men. That post inspired me to read her earlier article recounting her teen years spent as a hitchhiker (including a brush with a probable serial killer) (WARNING: That second link has some potentially triggering discussions of violence and sexual assault.)

This post at Love, Joy, Feminism brings up some interesting questions about children, junk food, and teaching healthy habits.

The language gap in early childhood predicts academic performance for years to come. Pre-K initiatives and a close questioning of what's causing these disparities are very important.

After that Roma couple turned out to be telling the truth about their unofficial adoption of a blonde (also Roma) little girl, we are forced to grapple with the fact that families don't always look the way we think they do.

I'm going to end with this long but beautiful infographic on the perspective of time:

A Perspective on Time
by mayra.artes.
Explore more infographics like this one on the web's largest information design community - Visually.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Of Rolling Stones and Freebirds, Suns and Moons: The Gendering of Rambling

Vanessa Veselka has a piece asking why almost all of the American identity travel narratives focus on men, and it is brilliant. If you haven't yet, you should go read it. Veselka was herself a teenage runaway who spent years hitchhiking on her own. She recounts terrifying moments including the almost-constant threat of rape and a brush with a probable serial killer. She broadens from her own personal experience to explain that the toll of violence against girls and women who travel the road is high indeed. The FBI even opened a special initiative to try to solve the increasing stack of unsolved murders that took place along highways; almost all of them involved the discarded bodies of women, many of them in very public spaces. Yet no one seemed to remember them, their lives or their deaths. They had become invisible people and that made them targets. 

Veselka argues in her piece (if I didn't convince you the first time, I'm going to try again. Go read it.) that this invisibility mirrors our literary narratives on quest. She notes that there are plenty of narratives of men taking to the road to discover themselves, and they are complex journeys that involve a dynamic change for the character, usually a maturation process. Huck Finn, On the Road, Moby Dick: these men put themselves in dangerous positions for the sake of adventure and discovery, and they are rewarded through experience and literary respect. Veselka explains that women have few similar options:
The woman on the road then ceases to be human, as with many on the margins, and instead becomes a barometer, a tool by which the onlooker’s (or reader’s) humanity can be measured or determined. She is an object fetishized by their compassion (rather than, say, the “male gaze”) and the onlooker can choose to save her, choose to watch, or choose to ignore her as her fate plays out; these choices become the heart of the drama.
So a man on the road becomes an agent in his own life. Even if the situations he finds himself in are beyond his control, his choices are the story. For women, our choice on how to read her (in print of in the flesh) becomes the tale. And that is why most narratives about women in these positions are focused on vulnerability. The danger of being raped and murdered becomes the primary narrative of the female on the road.

Hitchhiker's Thumb #1

That's the reason that our cultural symbol for hitchhiking in general is the extended thumb while the image for a woman getting a driver's attention is a bared, hiked leg. Women on the road are tied up with sex and desire, often in violent and dangerous ways. 

While Veselka does not downplay the reality of these dangers (and has, as she's shown, clearly experienced them firsthand), she notes that there are plenty of dangers with stealing a slave and running away with him, going on a whaling ship, or hitchhiking penniless across the country, but we don't make those dangers the crux of the story when the protagonist is male. His vulnerability is not exciting the way a woman's vulnerability is. Veselka theorizes that this is because a man on the road has a purpose, something to gain, while a woman on the road has only run out of options:
If we look once again at our gut response to a woman on the road we can see that its substrate is exile. A man on the road is caught in the act of a becoming. A woman on the road has something seriously wrong with her. She has not “struck out on her own.” She has been shunned.
Their decision (or non-decision, as we tend to see it) to place themselves in this danger despite the cultural narratives forbidding it makes them throwaways in our minds:
Although we have a deeper reservoir of cultural pity for women like that today, the actual concept of “the road” as a pathway to female selfhood, or a new future, or a different America, is nowhere evident in our popular songs or stories. Women on the road are like figures on a green screen. We think we see them when what we are really seeing is the cutout lines, the shadow of their displacement. We’re seeing absence. We’re reading motion sensors. Once placed upon that screen, we can throw anything up behind them behind—a meth lab or a barn or a motel—and make them into whatever we want. We can do anything to them because they only achieve agency through context and context through our projected narrative, rape and death. 
Rambling Men Grow, Rambling Women Fail

Veselka's excellent analysis reminded me of a blog topic I'd been trying unsuccessfully to tackle for months. I'd been interested in why there are so many positive (or at least interesting) narratives of "rambling" men, but not of women. The songs that came to mind shared common themes. I had kept trying to force them into some kind of commentary on our cultural stereotype that men are afraid of commitment while women come without any wild oats to sow, but Veselka made me realize why that approach wasn't working. This isn't about the ability to commit. It is about something much more essential: visibility and agency. Who gets to tell their stories and for what purpose?

Men are granted the opportunity to put themselves in danger for the sake of discovery. We don't call them stupid for doing it or insist they were "asking for it" when something goes wrong. We are wrapped up in their story to see what happens to them as a result of their choices. Most of the time, when a woman does something similar, we don't hear her story at all, but if we do, it is either as a periphery to a man's story or as a victim.

The clearest example of this to me is the movie Almost Famous. It gives us a side-by-side case study in this narrative. Our protagonist, Russell, is a young teen who gets the opportunity to travel with a rock band for a Rolling Stone story. His adventure covers the traditional quest ground. He stumbles, he falls, he redeems himself, he learns, and he grows.

Next to him, though, is another teenage rambler: Penny Lane. His adventure is presented as a one-time experience, but Penny Lane is well acquainted with the road. She is a "band aid," one of the young women who follows the band, present for sexual ambiance and good times, but always cast aside (in Penny Lane's case, traded for a pack of beer) before the girlfriends of the band show up.

Penny Lane is the one with worldly experience and knowledge. She acts as the tour guide for Russell's path away from naivety. Yet it is Penny Lane who falls victim to the treatment of the road. When she attempts suicide because of her mistreatment, the student surpasses the teacher as Russell steps in to save her. Penny Lane's story is the tragedy that operates to show Russell's growth through his journeys, but all of her journeys (much more numerous than his) only operated to set up her tragic fall. 

In the same movie, we are given yet another example of rambling. Russell's sister Anita runs off to escape her mother's well-intentioned rules and regulations. When she reappears later in the movie as a flight attendant with a wealth of experience herself, we see that her story may have indeed led to growth through quest, but--of course--her story doesn't actually make it on the screen. 

Because men have so much to gain from the experience of going on the road, many of the pop culture texts we have about them doing so revolve around the people surrounding them needing to let them go. 

The Man Has Got to Be FREE

"Freebird" Lynyrd Skynyrd

Perhaps the quintessential rambling song, "Free Bird" presents us with a protagonist who croons somewhat darkly about his inability to commit: "If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?" He insists that his need to leave is just that: a need. "If I stay here with you, girl, things just couldn't be the same." Staying would break him. She wouldn't even want him anymore if he could stay because he wouldn't be worth having. 

Early on, it seems like the woman is trying to tie him down, evident by his aggressive insistence that "this bird you cannot change." But by the end, it's not about her anymore: "Lord knows, I can't change." The song suddenly becomes less an enjoinder to let him be and more a cry for help. Still, at the end of the day, he'll be "travelin' on," and it would be so un-Rock n' Roll for her to try to stop him.

"Free Fallin'" Tom Petty

The opening lines set up the familiar dichotomy of the "good girl" who just loves her parents, horses, and boyfriend and the "bad boy" who doesn't even miss her as he breaks her heart by taking off. 

His conclusion, too, suggests some remorse over the state of their respective roles. He doesn't necessarily want to be "standing in the shadows" with all the other bad boys while the girls are home "with broken hearts." In fact, he wants to "write her name in the sky." But, again, that's not the script, and he has to play his role and move on because it is through moving on that he gets the chance to grow. 

"Gotta Go" Trey Songz

In this song, the speaker is telling his female partner that he has to go even though he'd like to stay and love her a little longer. Even though he doesn't want to leave, he explains that "The streets be callin' me /They be callin' my name/And when they call I gotta go." Perhaps most interesting is his request that she remain where she is and not "change [her] position." While the implication is that he's asking her to remain in a sexual position, he is also insisting that she remain in her narrative position. Her position is static while his is dynamic. 

And Good Women Let them Be

There's a flipside to this rambling equation, and that's that good women let their men go because they know not to hold them back from their destinies. Often, their songs about this decision are full of sadness but ultimately the belief that they did the right thing. 

"Ain't No Mountain High Enough" Diana Ross

Whenever I think of this song, I tend to remember the chorus and it seems like a moving tribute to true love that can't be stopped. But that's not actually what's going on. There's this:

I know, I know you must follow the sun
Wherever it leads, but remember
If you should fall short of your desires
Remember life holds for you one guarantee
You'll always have me.

And if you should miss my lovin'
One of these old days
If you should ever miss the arms
That used to hold you so close, or the lips
That used to touch yours so tenderly
Just remember what I told you
The day I set you free.

So, it is a tribute to undying love, but it's a one-way love. She's pining for a man that has given up on her, moved on to "follow the sun."

"Bobby McGee" by Janis Joplin

In this narrative, the speaker was a rambler in her own right. She was a hitchhiker traveling the road and gaining all its knowledge and grit right along with her lover. The narrative that we focus on, though, is not what she gained but that she lost Bobby McGee, and she lost him because she "let him slip away." He left because "he's looking for that home" and despite all her pain she "hope[s] he finds it." 

"Nothing" is "all Bobby left" her, but she still pines for him and sees his decision to leave as a necessity for his quest. She was on her own quest, but that's not the story we listen to, and there's no sense in its continuation after he abandoned her. 

"Other Side of the Game" by Erykah Badu

I don't think it takes that much stretching of the imagination to extend living out on the streets with living the "street life," which might be a more contemporary narrative that explores the same themes as our more traditional quests. It has the same focus on physical instability and personal growth through dangerous interactions with a tumultuous world. 

In this song, the speaker is torn between worrying about her man's illicit street life and reaping the benefits that it brings her. Most powerfully to me, she notes that as this pattern emerged between them "he became the sun" and she "became the moon." If we, the readers of this story can be thought of as "earth," then this line essentially makes the same argument Veselka did. When we're reading the man's story of rambling, we read his own actions and agencies. We wait for his choices to dictate the course of the story. But when we're reading a woman's story, we make it revolve around us, turning our own choices about how we see her into the catalyst for the action. 

But Women Ramble, Too

"Monday Morning" by Melanie Fiona

On the surface, this song seems identical to "Freebird." The speaker is telling her love that she can't stay even though she loves him/her (unlike most of the songs from a male-perspective, there isn't the gender-marking language as she speaks to her partner). She's moving on no matter what. 

But a key difference in this song is that she doesn't insist on the element of solitude. In fact, she would prefer some company: 

This flower needs somewhere to go
No room to grow
on these dusty roads
I got two tickets and a dream
8:15 I'll save you a seat

While the songs of rambling from a male perspective demonstrate their female lovers to be anchors that tie them down, this same topic from a woman's perspective welcomes partnership and company. Rambling isn't about getting away from human connection.

"Not that Different" by Colin Raye

This song is unique among this list in that it is a male-narrated tale focused on a female rambler. The woman leaves because she feels the need to search for a more exotic life. He tries to convince her to stay by insisting that they're "really not that different." Her need to ramble takes her away, though. 

But she comes back. "Was it time? Was it truth? Maybe both led her back to his door." Her rambling did not end with growth and dynamic change. It ended with her coming right back where she started, having learned only that she should have listened to the man to begin with. Her rambling is not seen as a necessary component of questing. It is seen as the selfish act of immaturity. There's no pressure on the man to accept her need to ramble the way there was on the women above because he knows she'll come back. He is the center of the narrative, and she is like the moon, revolving around him even when she's at her most distant. 

What Does it Mean?

If Veselka is right and women are being erased from these narratives in favor of blank spaces for the audience to read our own tales onto them, there is a very real danger in this fiction. 

As Veselka explains, it's not that there aren't any women on the road to have stories. There are plenty of them. Too many of them end up as bodies in dumpsters or abandoned sheds, victims of the very invisibility we've read upon them. This is a micro-example of a larger cultural narrative that blames women for their own victimization. That makes it worth looking at in its own right, but its also more than that. 

If the idea of questing is essential to the construction of identity, denying women access to that narrative arc essentially limits who they can become. While I'm not literally calling for women to pack up their belongings and hit the road (and neither is Veselka), I am concerned about what the stagnancy of women's place in these very essential identity constructions means for women's place in a larger society. 

The moon is beautiful in its own right, but we need to be the sun in our own stories. All eyes should be on the force of our own movement; the audience does not have the right to pull us wherever is most convenient or exciting. We are more than walk-ons in our own movies. 

(If you didn't click any of the links to it because you were so enthralled with reading what I had to say, you are very kind. Now go read Veselka's piece.)

Pictures: Matt Lemmon