Tag Archives: Culture

Actually, Justice Looks More Like This Show Getting Cancelled

USA is wheeling out a new “legal drama” called, “Fairly Legal,” about a woman who was a lawyer at her father’s firm, but quits after her father dies, and begins working as a mediator. The preview begins with a narrator with a male voice saying, “So, what does justice look like? About 5′ 5”, brunette, great smile . . . .” This sexy embodiment of justice, called “Kate,” is played by Sarah Shahi of “The L Word.” The preview continues with Kate doing lots of cute things, like winking at the camera, and running around in high heeled shoes and tight skirts. You can see for yourself by clicking the link…

http://widget.usanetwork.com/singleclip/singleclip_v1.swf?CXNID=1000004.19010NXC&WID=4984adb196fcedf7&clipID=1261580

Now, I’m sure a lot of people reading this will say, “What are you worried about? No one watches USA anyway.” And that may be true. But, there is always the chance that someone, especially some little girl, or a girl in middle or high school, will turn this on, and get the idea that this is what lawyers look like. Yes, girls are already bombarded with images telling them how they should look, but there is something even more appalling when these ridiculous beauty standards are tied together with a profession that does not depend on or care about the attractiveness of the people who are a part of it. Kate is portrayed as a successful attorney and a successful mediator. Her good looks and sex appeal are part of her success. All she has to do is wink at the guys and she gets her way. This presents a few problems: (1) The risk that people watching will believe that a woman needs to be “attractive” (read: look like Kate) to be a successful attorney, and/or (2) more generally, that a woman must look like Kate in order to successful at all. It also presents a problem for female attorneys who do look like Kate, but got where they are because they worked hard, and not because of their looks. Male attorneys and judges may think, “She only got this far because of the way she looks.”

It is frustrating to no end to constantly see being conventionally good-looking tied together with happiness and success for women. Jessica Wakeman, writing for “The Frisky,” points out that a man with his own show is allowed to be brilliant at his career without having to meet certain height, weight, and attractiveness requirements, and she gives the great example of “House.” House is a white, male doctor who is somewhat of a misanthrope, and also a genius at diagnosing mysterious medical conditions. Can you think of a show that starred a female professional who was brilliant at what she did, where the emphasis was not placed on what she looked like? Can you think of a show where a female who was brilliant at what she did was somewhat misanthropic? Of course not, women must be attractive AND social butterflies in order to be good at their jobs.

I still remember seeing “Ghost World” in the theater for the first time. It was like a whole new world opened up. Girls! Being misanthropic! And sarcastic! And they’re not wearing all-name-brand, shiny, gold, skin-tight crap! You should see “Ghost World,” or read the comic, if you haven’t.

As a law student, I can personally attest to the fact that the majority of women in law school do not look like this Kate character. The vast majority do not run around in high heels and wink at people. The same can be said about female lawyers I have worked with in internships. While, of course, there are many attractive women in the profession, being a good lawyer does not depend on that at all. The women I’ve met while in law school care much more about being good at what they do, and about fighting for their clients, than about what they personally look like. I have never read an opinion in which the judge decided in favor of a female lawyer for being good-looking. I have, however, heard of female lawyers being referred to as “baby,” or “sweetheart,” by male lawyers and male judges, and I’ve also heard of female lawyers receiving sexually suggestive e-mails and phone calls from male clients. As long as shows like “Fairly Legal” continue to get on the air, more men will get the idea that it is OK to treat women as sexual objects, including female professionals. It may also lead women to think it is OK. What is really scary is the idea that shows like this can make some girls think twice about going to law school because they do not look like Kate. If you are reading this, and it did that to you, listen to me very carefully:   It is all bullshit.

Call or e-mail USA to tell them that this show should be cancelled. Contact information is here.

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bell hooks, race & representation, essentialism and “authenticity”

My first post in AGES is a final presentation I gave in my Critical Race Theory course.  Enjoy?

My presentation is on race and representation in three books by bell hooks.  I am particularly interested in essentialism and how essentialist thinking creates notions of “authentic” black experience.  I began by reading “Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics,” published in 1990, then “Black Looks: Race and Representation,” published in 1992, and finished with “Outlaw Culture,” which was published in 1994.

Essentialism posits that for any specific kind of concept, there is a set of characteristics or features that that thing must possess; that must belong to that thing’s essence.  My first introduction to essentialism, without knowing that was the correct term to use, was in my freshman year of college, for the entire span of which I read Plato’s dialogues.  In the Meno, Meno, a young man from an aristocratic family, famously asks Socrates whether virtue can be taught.  In typical Socratic dialogue/law professor fashion, Socrates asks Meno what he thinks virtue is in the first place.  Meno answers by saying that there is one virtue for a man, one for a woman, one for a child, an elderly man, a slave, and so on.

Essentialism comes out when Socrates asks Meno what it is that enables him to call all of these separates and seeming distinct acts virtue?  What is it that makes all these particularly different things the same?  The answer to that would ultimately be the “Form of Virtue” in the world of ideas.  Plato’s philosophy is founded upon his theory of “forms.”  There is a Form of virtue, a Form of justice, etc.  These are “universals” that manifest themselves in the particulars of everyday life that we experience.  Thus, if Socrates and Plato were alive today, they might assert that there is a form of “blackness” and of “whiteness.”  But, this idea of essentialism, as we shall see, is a potential problem when it comes to race.

In the Introduction to “Outlaw Culture,” bell hooks says that studying popular culture to develop a critical consciousness can decolonize minds and imaginations, and “can be and is a powerful site for intervention, challenge, and change.”  In the Introduction to “Black Looks,” however, hooks describes the mass media and representation of race not only as pedagogical tools for the development of a counter-hegemonic consciousness, but as tools that “maintain oppression, exploitation, and overall domination of black people.”  Mass media and representation in popular culture propagate white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values that contribute to the oppression and devaluation of blackness.  hooks roots this claim in history by noting that  white supremacists since the time of slavery “have recognized that control over images is central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination.”

Although hooks does not discuss minstrel shows in these books of hers that I read, I thought of them to help me understand the history of oppression through images.  In the 19th Century, “blackface” makeup was used on white and black actors portraying black people in minstrel shows, which included comedy skits, dancing, and music.  “Blackface” makeup consisted of either a layer of burnt cork or black grease paint on the face.  Exaggerated bright red lips were painted around the mouths. The actors were white, and after the Civil War, increasingly black, but a black person could not get on stage and perform unless in blackface makeup.  Some stereotypical characters included the Mammy, which was pictured as a wise, good-natured, heavyset woman; or the Coon, a “lazy, inarticulate buffoon.”  The images of the minstrel show were used by white people to maintain a system of racial domination by portraying black people as inferior through a few stereotypical characters.  Such a device serves a dual function: 1) to reinforce in white peoples’ minds that they are superior, and 2) to convince black people that they are inferior.  It is also important to note for purposes of our discussion that these minstrel shows exhibited black people and black experience in America according to white people.

Today, metaphorically speaking, black people are still not allowed on stage unless they are in blackface makeup.  In her essay, “Postmodern Blackness,” in “Yearning,” bell hooks says, “It is rarely acknowledged that there is a far greater censorship and restriction of other forms of cultural production by black folks—literary, critical writing, etc.  Attempts on the part of editors and publishing houses to control and manipulate the representation of black culture, as well as the desire to promote the creation of products that will attract the widest audience, limit in a crippling and stifling way the kind of work many black folks feel we can do and still receive recognition.”  Thus, representations of black people and black experience in mass media are still controlled and dictated by whiteness.

As an example of these modern-day limitations on representations of black experience, we can compare and contrast two films: Fish Tank, directed by Andrea Arnold, and Precious, directed by Lee Daniels.  I went to see both of these films at the Philadelphia Film Festival in the fall of 2009.  Just before Fish Tank came on, a film critic spoke to us in the audience, and gave us some background.  He described that both films fall into a genre called, “Kitchen Sink Realism,” which emerged as a British artistic movement in the 1950s and 60s that graphically and unapologetically depicted the lives of the working class.  Usually, the main character of a Kitchen Sink Realist work was an “angry young man.”  The film critic at the festival made a point that Fish Tank and Precious are somewhat revolutionary for the genre because they actually feature “angry young women.”

Let’s watch previews for Fish Tank and for Precious so that you have a taste of what I’m talking about.

First, we’ll watch a preview of Fish Tank, in which we have Mia, who is a white, teenage girl growing up in a housing project in England with her alcoholic/drug-addicted single mom who treats Mia like dirt.  Mia’s mother gets a boyfriend who rapes Mia, and with whom Mia becomes infatuated.

Next, we’ll watch a preview of Precious, in which we have a black, teenage girl growing up in a housing project in Harlem, New York with her alcoholic/drug-addicted single mother who treats Precious like dirt.  Precious is raped by her father more than once and has two children by him.  She later discovers that she is HIV positive.

Although I have noted many similarities between the two films, there is a stark difference in the way the two “angry young women” are portrayed: while Mia displays resistance, Precious displays passivity.

Mia is visibly angry and defiant.  We see her acting out her rage in the way she walks, and speaks, the way she picks fights with neighbors and strangers.  She has outlets, however.  She finds some peace in regularly taking care of a horse that she finds chained to a tree.  She also finds a way to express her anger by practicing her break dancing, a traditionally male-dominated artform, in an abandoned apartment building.  The film does not have a happy ending by any means, but we are left with the image of a girl who has enough passion in her to resist her oppressive surroundings through dancing and through connections with nature.

On the other hand, Precious, as Slate Magazine’s Dana Stevens said, “is supposed to be about the heroine lifting herself out of abjection, yet the film itself wallows in abjection . . . .”  The preview we just watched opens with Precious declaring her determination to achieve capitalist materialist success by becoming a television star, and her desire to have a light-skinned boyfriend.  These valuations are not critiqued in the film; they are presented as worthy goals.  Unlike Mia in Fish Tank who is able to transcend a capitalist value system by finding freedom and beauty in things she can have regardless of her socioeconomic status, namely, dance and nature, Precious is unable to do this.  Although it could be argued that Precious does find friendship and education once she transfers to an alternative school, it is not clear, first of all, that these are things Precious wants and loves, rather than what the world wants and loves for her, and second, it is not clear that she finds a resistance to her oppressive surroundings in her friendships and education, or if they are things that merely help her get by.

In the essay, “Revolutionary Black Women” in “Black Looks,” bell hooks talks about her own experiences being accused of not having an “authentic” black voice when she talks about how she had a positive experience of blackness growing up in the rural South.  She recounts how, since she had shared a narrative of resistance, as opposed to victimization, she was deemed inauthentic by her listeners.  It seems to me that this a danger that films like Precious seem to ignore.  By continually representing black females as victims, any voice of resistance runs the risk of being deemed “inauthentic.”  This assigning of victimization as the “’authentic” black female experience is a problem of essentialization.

Precious does not challenge the racist system of domination that creates oppressive economic circumstances.  Indeed, in many ways, it conforms to white stereotypes of black experience by showing a passive victim living in poverty who longs for capitalist success, lacking a critical consciousness or voice of resistance.  Precious, and other more mainstream films representing race are no different from a minstrel show insofar as they feature black people and experience conforming to white stereotypes of black people and experience.

Again, like the minstrel show, defining black experience so narrowly and representing it that way accomplishes a dual function: 1) since “authentic” black life is portrayed as taking place in segregated inner city neighborhoods—white people find reassurance that black people will not “infringe on their turf,” as hooks says.  Also, much worse, it gives white people something to feel superior about.  Dana Stevens, of Slate, described it as a type of voyeurism.  She writes: “[I]t’s as if the audience is being encouraged at once to recoil from Precious’ world and to congratulate ourselves for being brave enough to confront it: a combination that I find complexly icky.”  The other function of defining “authentic” black experience so narrowly is the continued oppression of black people.  Instead of allowing individual black people to shape and determine their own “authentic” experiences, it encourages them conform to what white people’s essentialist notions of what black experience is or should be.  These essentialist idea of “authentic” black experience also gives publishing houses, production companies, etc. reasons to reject diverse portrayals of black experience by claiming that it is not “authentic,” thus making less black people represented in the media overall.

I do not exactly know what this critique of essentialism means for Plato’s theory of the Forms.  I’m sure many people much smarter than me have written about it.  I just thought it was interesting to note that a Platonic Theory, which many take to be Gospel, is not infallible.  It reminds me of something Karl Marx says in The German Ideology: “Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology . . . have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking.   Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”

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Seriously, What is it With Skinny Jeans?

I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately by the news.  There is almost too much going on right now.  You’ve got Arizona making a bunch of crazy laws, the Times Square scare, the Gulf oil spill crisis, and (while it isn’t all over television news, it has been making quite a splash in the legal community) the racist email written by a Harvard law student.  Is that all?  I feel like I’m missing something.

Well, as I was slogging through a bunch of these grim stories on my Google reader, I realized something: Skinny jeans and leggings have been in the news a lot lately!  Really, they have!  It’s weird.  And since it is weird, I began to question myself:  What if skinny jeans and leggings have been in the news no more than usual?  What if this is just me acting out of a need for “lighter” news in these trying times for our nation?  Or, are skinny jeans and leggings really loaded cultural symbols that reflect societal opinions and beliefs?

The story that began all of this came out of Australia.  On May 1st, a jury acquitted a 23-year-old man accused of raping a 24-year-old woman because she was wearing skinny jeans.  Yes, you read right.  Apparently, skinny jeans are the type that cannot be removed without collaboration and teamwork.  The jury found it unbelievable that a man would be able to pull these jeans off of this tiny, tiny woman (42 kg, or 92.4 lbs., according to the article) without her help.  Over at Feministing, Jos Truitt argued that this decision “smacks of slut shaming and victim blaming.”  Truitt continues, “I think focusing on the skinny jeans is meant to suggest that the survivor was dressed provocatively, which in turn is meant to imply she must have wanted it.”  I agree with Truitt, and the Italian court that reportedly said, “Jeans cannot be compared to any type of chastity belt,” when upholding a rape conviction in 2008.

Moving on to skinny jeans appearance #2.  This story also happens to come from Australia, but involves people from many other places as well.  An amazing and, as she would say, fancy girl named Natalie from Australia has a blog in which she writes about art, design, fashion, and advocates for fat acceptance.  Natalie posts many pictures of herself on her blog to show readers her outfits and accessories, and she also lists where she bought her things.  One such picture of Natalie ended up being posted to a facebook group called, “There’s a weight limit on leggings & skinny jeans.”  I felt ill when I heard this existed and even more ill when I saw that it has over 700,000 members (including a facebook friend of mine… who has since been de-friended).  Anyway, Natalie wrote an incredible blog post on how she dealt with this situation, and on how she deals with society’s rejection of body type-diversity in general.  I wish I were as level-headed and confident as her all of the time.

Skinny jeans: Some collaboration required.

After reading these two stories, I became very suspicious of skinny jeans.  Here we have one piece of clothing that is being used to deride women who wear them in one instance (rape case) and to praise them in the another (facebook group – albeit in a way that simultaneously insults others through exclusion).  But, isn’t this bizarre?  You, skinny girl, who we, as society, deem worthy to wear these skinny jeans, should feel exalted, loved, and worthy as part of a select group who get to don these denim duds without derision.  But, be careful!  We also think you are kind of slutty for wanting to wear them in the first place because you are showing everything, and if you ever claim, “rape,” we will know that it just isn’t true because you just had to help him get those crazy jeans off of you!

I really had it with skinny jeans and leggings when I read a recent article in the New York Times called, “On Formspring, an E-Vite to Teenage Insults.”  Now, this article deals with another world of issues that, as a law review article author-turned-blogger might say, is beyond the scope of this blog post.  The basics are that there is a new website/social media tool called Formspring, which allows you to post a question about yourself and have a bunch of your friends answer it anonymously.  Now, why on earth I would ever want to do that, I just don’t know… but 13-year-old-me would probably be all about this, and according to the NYT, many 13-year-olds are all about it.

The NYT spoke to Ariane Barrie-Stern, a freshman at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in New York City, who said, “I think it’s interesting to find out what people really think that they don’t have the guts to say to you.  If it’s hurtful, you have to remind yourself that it doesn’t really mean anything.”  Except it did mean something to Ariane.  She stopped wearing leggings after she received a comment about a certain pair that she had worn.

Where did all of these expectations about “the kind of woman” that wears skinny jeans and leggings come from?  Why are they the expectations that they are?  Where did skinny jeans and leggings even come from?  I can’t help but see skinny jeans and leggings as more wheels in the machine that make women overly self-conscious.  They’ve become another part of the daily puzzle when getting dressed to walk the lines between being pretty and attractive, but not slutty or “inviting,” and certainly not “manly.”  This is the year 2010, people.  It’s about damn time to once and for all shift the focus away from what we, as women, should or should not be wearing, and put it on what we can and will be learning, achieving, and changing.

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The War on Terror Against Women

I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Fascism comes in many forms.”  Well, so does terrorism.  Merriam-Webster actually defines “terrorism” as, “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.”  With that in mind, let us watch:

Better yet:

Brinks Home Security actually has an entire page on YouTube dedicated to these commercials (My personal favorites are “First Date” and “The House Party”) .  All of them feature male intruders. All of them feature female victims.  And all of them feature male saviors in the form of Brinks employees.

The consistent male intruder  –> female victim –> male savior scenario tells us that not only are women subject to violence from men, they are also dependent upon them for their safety.  This creates an especially terrifying picture:  the very people I am supposed to trust are also the ones that will hurt me!  And in my own home!  Without consciously or explicitly thinking this, a female viewer will probably still feel the effects.

Brinks hopes that the terror its ads inspire in female viewers will cause them to purchase a home security system, and indeed, many of them may do so.  However, the ads may effect a woman’s thinking in more ways than that.  It may cause her to feel uncomfortable being alone in her apartment or house.  It may cause her to be more distrustful of men, but at the same time, it may cause her to feel more dependent upon men.  She may only feel safe at home if a man is there with her.  And yet, she may not feel safe on a first date unless a girlfriend is there, too.

Of course, one viewing of a commercial like this will probably not cause a tremendous shift in thinking all at once.  But, it’s naive to think that our ideas, opinions, and beliefs are completely uninfluenced by such subtle (or not so subtle) messages.

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