2017 is the year I’m abandoning the NFL. I’ve been a dedicated Patriots fan for years (born and raised) and an avid Fantasy Football player. I’ve swallowed a lot of garbage–turned deliberately aside–in order to keep watching and playing. But this is the year that ends. Here’s why:
The NFL gives no fucks about women. On occasion they pay a little lip service, like last year’s campaign against domestic violence. Or they slowly add women as sideline reporters, which took both network and NFL changes. These things are good, but they’re not enough. The NFL, at best, slaps the wrists of those accused of domestic violence, but that’s not even common. Vice reports that 44 current players, ready to start the season, have been accused of physical or sexual assault. Players can pretty much do anything short of kill someone and still have the NFL’s blessing, so long as you still play well. Then there’s the cheerleaders: they work hard, they’re athletic, and they’re paid peanuts. Having cheerleaders on the field is thus solely about exploitation–the NFL could pay them better, but doesn’t.
The treatment of Colin Kaepernick has been awful. He’s been effectively blackballed after protesting police violence by kneeling during the national anthem. So, if I understand this correctly, this is how things work: fighting dogs is ok but protesting racist state violence is not. For shame.
Those two things are really more than enough for me after years of pretending like they don’t bother me. But the unwillingness of the NFL to deal with its head injury problem–and the amount of damage their lack of concern has led to–is disturbing. I get why they like big hits–big ratings, especially in a season that competes with basketball, America’s most popular sport. And players know that head injuries are a risk of the job. However, the NFL has hidden behind an “it’s not so bad, let’s not talk about it” ethos for years. It has to stop.
And here in New England, Robert Fucking Kraft. Sure, he’s built a great team and he seems like a charismatic enough guy. But supporting 45–giving him a Superbowl ring with his own name on it recently–is disturbing. What’s the line at which he says “yeah, not anymore”? Kraft’s got lots of African American players on his roster–45’s response to Charlottesville didn’t shake him up in some way, make him wonder at his own ethics? If he hires all these guys and has no trouble with 45’s response, we should start to pull apart his motives. He’s there to make money–he doesn’t give a shit about the players themselves, either as individuals or groups. It’s appalling.
The season starts soon and it’ll be weird not to have my usual background sounds on while I work on the couch on Sundays. I love football. I’m going to miss it. I’ve got family ties built around it that I’ll miss this fall. But the NFL owes the people far more than it has given, and it needs to do more to renounce its misogynistic, racist ways before I come back. Here’s hoping for 2018.
Last week was a personally rough week. I didn’t post much as I dealt with stuff. I was thinking about a Monday post about that jackass at Google, until that seemed like the second or third most important story of the week–escalating tension with North Korea being another, and Charlottesville a third. So here we are.
What you might not know about me is that I’m a professional historian by trade. I know US history pretty well, and I know its social contours–its constructions of power based on constructions of race and other issues–particularly well. I’m a historian of women–that’s my own work–but I teach the whole kit and kaboodle. And while I’m sorry for some that they found the events of the last week shocking, as someone who teaches US history for a living, well, the most I can say is that I’m horrified while not surprised.
Everything old is new again.
So here’s a history lesson for you. Someone tweeted the other day that the (justifiable) anger using the word “Nazi” this week misses a key point–that we have a long history of our own white supremacy (would that I had any idea who it was so I could share). In fact, the Nazis based some of their laws and social policies on our very own Jim Crow. And our very own Jim Crow is based on what were called “black codes” and “slave codes” from the era prior to the Civil War.
The other piece you should know is that when the South lost the Civil War, Johnson–who took office when Lincoln died–effectively pardoned the Confederacy. Congress was recessed, so he took it upon himself to forgive confederate members, so long, essentially, as they promised not to do it again. When Congress came back, it was furious and overturned Johnson’s measures, but the real damage was already done. Johnson’s laissez faire approach to the south enabled what was known as the “Lost Cause” to emerge–the assertion, after a long, brutal war, that the South’s cause was just. The south’s cause, of course, was maintaining slavery–that was the ‘state’s right” they were concerned about, and the reason they seceded. (Check out Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech” ca 1861. He was the VP of the Confederacy.)
In any case, Congress was really forceful about Reconstructing the south both physically and mentally following the war. White northerners (denigrated as “carpetbaggers” by southerners) went south to help establish schools for freedpeople and Republican strongholds (don’t be fooled–the two parties switch sides, and while the GOP was once the party of progressivism and Dems of slavery, that all changed by the Depression and cemented by the Civil Rights Movement) the combination of Lost Cause sentiment, time, and northern racism allowed that force to drift quickly away.* By the mid-1870s, the KKK’s violence had led to Republican departure and the erasure of Black gains (political and otherwise). We get what’s called “Redemption”–the returning of governance to those who ruled prior. And the north was happy to look away.
By the 1890s, veterans held JOINT reunions, agreeing that all had been brave. Left out of that narrative both implicitly and overtly were people of color. It’s not a surprise that Jim Crow became entrenched and lynchings commonplace in that time. And that shit spread beyond the south, unsurprisingly. Race riots–which is the not-entirely-adequate term for when one race (African Americans) were attacked by another (whites)–rampaged across the nation through the early 20th century.
So, here’s my argument: What we’re seeing in Charlottesville is a visible, high-profile manifestation of a problem that’s been bubbling along for centuries. It’s not just a resurgence of Nazism and fascism, though that’s part of it–it’s a manifestation of a deeper, mean part of our own homegrown history. It’s neo-Confederate, neo-Lost Cause (hear the rhetoric of “we won’t be replaced”–it’s akin to the ranting and raving in the 19th century that there could be no equality, only replacement of one supremacy by another).
Another day, we can talk about sex, gender and STEM–that’s what I research, and let me tell you–the shit from that ex-Google employee, embraced by many, is the same rhetoric as in 1910. Maybe History Corner can be a recurring piece.
*Not that white do-gooders were without problems, but that’s a whole other story. On all of this stuff, check out David Blight’s Race and Reunion. (<–Affiliate link!)
There are few phrases I hate more than “political correctness,” but not for the reasons you expect. People love to use that turn of phrase to be derogatory, seeing it as a great burden. But what do people mean when they say, “I have to be politically correct” or “I hate political correctness”? What are they actually referring to?
My Casual Observation
In my experience, people decry political correctness when they feel it keeps them from being, frankly, rude. For the most part, complainers are white people. They’ve enjoyed a lifetime of respect as the normative national culture–the US revolves around white people and their needs, particularly around white men.
“Political correctness” is a phrase that refers to extending that respect beyond whiteness, beyond maleness; it’s not a pain in the ass unless you see extending respect to others as a pain in the ass. It asks you to not be deliberately exclusive of others; it asks you to be more mindful in your language and actions, that both have meaning. While on occasion this way of being may become cumbersome, at its core, “political correctness” simply extends welcome and respect to people who have been marginalized.
Why is that so hard?
Why do people get snide about extending that kindness, that respect? In my exchanges, people have expressed a desire to not think that their words have meaning beyond those they intended. For example, a friend of mine carefully explained to a woman who just didn’t get it that “gay lifestyle” meant that it was an option to be gay, that it was, say, like embracing a beach lifestyle. It never occurred to her that her language had meaning. Most–including this woman, initially–are quick to say that calling them out is political correctness, running amok. No–it’s just people demanding you treat them with respect. Sometimes doing so means you have to listen and consider how other people feel.
Political correctness is not a matter of always being offended, as the “liberal snowflake” trope implies. No–it’s a matter of reminding all of us that words have meanings, and that those meanings are not just dictated by those in power.
But Don’t Take My Word for It
This article does a great job of delineating the ways a rejection of “political correctness” has become a key element of rightwing discourse throughout the global west. This anti-embrace of political correctness has led to the wild misunderstandings of what the phrase means in the interest of self-serving politicking. The author, Dr. Anna Szilagyi, has a really nice point that I’ve seen play out over and over: the rightwing idea that being PC is being censored.
Some people–particularly on the right, which means particularly white and male in the US–see “political correctness” as censorship because it asks them to consider what they say. As a country with freedom of speech, they find that a problem. But those making that argument should undertake a little introspection: if you feel censored when you use inclusive language and are not verbally abusive towards others (I mean that generally–you’re not sexually harassing someone, you’re not using racial epithets, etc), then why is it that you wish to say such things and feel oppressed when you feel you shouldn’t? In short, what is wrong with you that kindness and respect to others feels burdensome? Are you pining for the days of making sexist jokes in the office? What’s that about? You aren’t somehow braver or more authentically you for being derogatory to others.
Someone I follow on Twitter today had a post thanking “you guys” and “you girls, because we have to be politically correct.” Now I suspect he means to be tongue-in-cheek, but it stuck with me, particularly after weeks of arguing with people who kept insisting they were tired of being politically correct but couldn’t articulate what that meant. It made for slow argument. I do know some women who don’t like the term “you guys” as it is male-gendered; personally, I think it’s been in our lexicon long enough that the gendered meaning is nearly meaningless. But when we talk about being politically correct as some smirky bullshit we are forced to tolerate or acknowledge glibly, we deny the power of language. And we deny that language has been used since it’s inception (I suspect–surely for centuries) to marginalize some and push others to the inner circle.
Methinks You Doth Protest Too Much
That white men tend to be the complainers is mind boggling, given their position at the center is pretty well-cemented. Are they fearful that giving others equal respect and kindness means they lose that position? Do they only feel powerful when others are not? Our current president has only gotten where he is because of a deeply entrenched, centuries-old system of white supremacist patriarchy. For someone like our current president to argue that his position is a vindication of anti-political correctness is a way of reminding the rest of us–women, people of color, and poor people (though there’s lots to unpack with class) that our place is at the margins of power, not the center, and that we are not worthy of that basic respect.
So the next time you or someone you know rails against “political correctness,” ask them what they mean. See if they can’t unpack it. Call them out. Maybe it’s just a semantic change we need–a new phrase–so that we might realize all of us deserve respect and kindness.
Well, folks, today is a much better day than I anticipated, as the ACA remains the law of the land, Medicaid remains intact, and I won’t anticipate my premiums skyrocketing more than usual next year. Let’s talk about health care anyway, and then maybe we’ll get a politics-light weekend.
Health care is a feminist financial issue.
The “Health Care Freedom Act” drafted at lunch yesterday but GOP senators and voted on around midnight last night permitted states in most cases to strip away the essential benefits the ACA determined. Many of those benefits apply to women. Free annual gynecology visits and maternity care (I’m not sure of the cost there–still copays? no copays?) and just two examples. The big one, hard fought, was accessible, free birth control. You still needed an insurance plan for these benefits (another issue–access and affordability are still not what they might be, or are in other countries) but still: that the ACA mandated coverage of basic women’s health needs was a tremendous jump forward. One of the reasons Mr Tenacious and I have the plan we have (work-sponsored) was because it became super affordable once, for example, my annual gyn visit was without copay, since it’s the only regular appointment I make.
When women’s health care is affordable and guaranteed, women are able to do much more in their lives. When we control our own fertility, we can make sound choices about our futures. We can plan our careers; run for office; and create families with children when and if we want them, not just when it happens to happen. While there has been a lot of rhetoric about why the ACA is bad and needs repeal, this point hasn’t been explored so much: that repeal is directly oppressive to women and their advancement. Perhaps that isn’t so much an accident, though I feel like a conspiracy theorist suggesting so.
During the second world war, the government sprung for day care all over the nation to facilitate women’s work in factories. When the war was over, rather than have a debate over the merits of better sex parity in the workplace and ignoring that many war-working women wanted to stay working, the government shut those free daycare centers down, lickety-split. The consequence was that women stopped working. The lack of women’s health provision (among so many others) in the various repeal-and-replace bills feels similar. While the ACA promises more social, political and work advancement for women when they don’t have to worry about unintended pregnancies and undetected cancers, the r-and-r bills shut those paths down.
A small coincidence that women who left the GOP’s position on health care faced threatsfrom their party (those are three separate examples: two involving violence).
While you may be healthy and able-bodied now, that doesn’t guarantee you will be forever. In the same way singles like me pay for schools for kids I don’t need (I have cat–she rejects education), we pay into health care so as to cover those of us who need it. If we learned nothing from this week’s health care roller coaster, it’s that we all need more women in the senate and the house. We need good, accessible, affordable health care for them to do so. All we need is the political will for both.
In 1852, escaped slave and extraordinary orator Frederick Douglass gave his speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” in Rochester, NY, in those days a hotbed of radical activism. In his speech, Douglass reminded his audience of the achievements of 1776, praising the men who achieved liberty from England and parsing, to some extent, their philosophy for doing so. Then he launched into the meat of his argument: that liberty did not extend to the enslaved, that they could not partake in the joy of the holiday for it did not apply to them. At one point, he calls out his audience for their bullshit in a way reminiscent of some current argumentative frameworks, to wit:
“But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed. But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man?”
And then he gets really rolling:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
Knowing that this will make his audience–an audience far more receptive to his message than most would be in the 1850s–deeply uncomfortable, he lays his case at their feet. We have been too quiet, he says. We have made patient arguments to no avail, he says. Our nation is one of brutality, and your rhetoric as white people about liberty while others remain in bondage is at best vapid.
Why am I bringing this up today?
I have heard a number of people saying they won’t celebrate the 4th of July this year given our lamentable political mess and its implications for the very fabric of our society. I hear them, but I want to give them a little encouragement:
We have been through far worse as a nation–we have encouraged and enacted far worse–and over time, we moved past the worst of ourselves to become, in slow degrees, better.
Even Douglass, with his justifiable rage, noted, “I do not despair of this country…No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable…No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”
Let us embrace the spirit of Frederick Douglass this 4th of July.
Let us take his advice and never let this administration normalize. We must put our feet where our mouths are, by marching along with speaking, by calling out this threat to our nation beyond our retweets and facebook shares. Douglass wrote, “We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed.” Let us not forget that we are part of a global world which has in many corners begun to turn away from neo-fascists like 45. Let us also not forget that we have done far worse to ourselves as a nation, and that we can–as we have before–become far better.
Hi all. I was going to write a standard Finance Friday post for today, either about Ibotta or a mid-year “how’s that budget?” check-in. But I am not feeling it. I’m not feeling like much. Current events have me beyond frustration.
I suspect to a large part I’m preaching to the choir here. If you’re interested in feminism, you probably care about people, and you probably care that the state not work in ways that deliberately hurt people. So you’re probably just as frustrated as I am with the senate bill (I don’t think we can call it a health care bill).
While we don’t have the CBO score yet, it’s pretty clear that the ramifications of the bill will be to limit people’s access to and ability to afford health care. As a nation, that’s pretty much saying that residents don’t have a right to be healthy, an idea most western democracies did away with decades ago. This bill will disproportionately harm those who are not wealthy. It will likely disproportionately harm women, since Maternity Care need not be included as mandatory provision of insurance policies. And god help you if you’re just a middle class male–one bout with cancer or other serious illness, as proposed “lifetime limit” caps mean that you’ll be SOL when the insurance you buy won’t pay for rudimentary stuff after you’re better, because they’ve already spent what they’re going to on you.
Imagine what that would mean for a child with cancer: a whole uninsured life.
Now this whole shebang is supposed to make health care cheaper, but it won’t. It won’t for most people, and it won’t for all of us when emergency rooms become the choice for care again–something we all pay for eventually.
This is a bill, in the guise of a libertarian passion for what government should and should not do, that will lead to harm for many, many Americans, and really only benefit the most wealthy among us. That it was negotiated in secret and a full version not released tells you that even those who are writing it know it will be hated. So then you have to ask: why do it? Is it just a racist response to the last administration? Do they think Americans are dumb enough to say, well, we wanted it repealed, and now we have even less than prior to the ACA, yay!
The ACA has its problems, absolutely. But this is not a solution. It’s nowhere close. It’s a bill written out of spite and designed to grease the palms of people and companies who donate huge sums to campaigns for guys like these, so that they might benefit (there are some nice charts circulating to that end). It’s the work of greedy, horrible people akin to 19th century assholes who saw anyone as less robustly wealthy as themselves as some kind of moral inferior who deserved penury.
I don’t even have the words for the despair this makes me feel. And I don’t know what kind of financial thinking any of us can even do with this. Can one, even with a 99% savings rate, ever be financially independent if they’re one disease away from uninsurability in a country that evidently sees illness as a moral failure?
America was once better. Only eight months ago, really. “MAGA” should become our slogan for the pre-45 era.
Morning, all. There’s an awful lot going down this week and it’s only Tuesday morning. I’m going to give you all a quick roundup of current political fires and their implications. Pardon the swears.
Today’s the runoff election in Georgia between Jon Ossoff (D) and Karen Handel (R). Now we’re all for supporting other women, but we’re not about supporting women who would oppress other women. Handel is a nightmare for civil rights, who sees her Christianity as a reason to oppress gay people (see video here where she condescendingly avoids a question about Georgia protections for LGBTQ people, and here’s a Slate piece on her opposition to gay adoptions). Ossoff, on the other hand, has spoken about his support for LGBTQ issues. It’s a major stakes election with serious implications for the national arena. Godspeed, Jon Ossoff.
The supreme court decided yesterday to take up a case regarding gerrymandering, the heinous practice of reorganizing voting districts to benefit one particular political party. Gerrymandering has been used to dilute, for example, the voting strength of certain areas. A neighborhood whose demographics and voting history might suggest leaning Dem can be split, its parts then added to larger areas that lean Republican, drowning the Dem voice. Gerrymandering, regardless of who it benefits, is just wrong and linked to oppression of women and minoritized voters. To quote the Washington Post, “The court accepted a case from Wisconsin, where a divided panel of three federal judges last year ruled that the state’s Republican leadership in 2011 pushed through a redistricting plan so partisan that it violated the Constitution’s First Amendment and equal rights protections.” Here’s hoping.
Islamaphobia in Virginia
A young woman in Virginia, Nabra Hassanen, was kidnapped and murdered on her way to her mosque after getting some middle-of-the-night snacks with a group of friends. Virginia is currently not going to prosecute the case as a hate crime but as an incident of road rage. The murderer came upon Hassanen and a bunch of her friends in the street, got into an argument with them. As the kids dispersed, he caught Hassanen and beat her with a bat. Her body was found in a pond.
Let’s not kid ourselves: even if Hassanen’s murderer did not intend his “road rage” to be a hate crime, his victim was a Muslim woman. She wore a headscarf, so both her gender and relgious identities were visibly performed. The crime belies the US’s (and the west’s more generally) growing problem with Islamaphobia and its ongoing problems with violent misogyny. Few consider yet where the two intersect.
And in the UK
Similarly, a British man drove his car into a group of Muslims, killing one and injuring several, in the UK. The UK, for all of its many problems, is at least wise enough to consider this attack a form of terrorism, unlike the US where ‘terrorism’ is a term that only applies to people of color.
Last week’s shooting at a baseball practice in Virginia by a man who had volunteered for Bernie Sanders has led in totally expected directions. The right claims the left supports such action (they seem to forget they’ve labeled the left as gun-taking, so, uh) and leaves out altogether that this jackass had a record of…wait for it…violent misogyny! We know that domestic violence often portends still further violence, but the way the right has dropped that bit of information suggests that they don’t consider domestic violence a problem or a harbinger of anything.
But of course, these are the same people who encourage curtailing the Violence Against Women Act (45 has big plans to gut related budgets and his minion, Sessions, is no fan of it). I think you could make a pretty good case that America’s lack of f**ks given about women has dramatically increased at the federal level since January, not that it was ever spectacular to begin with. This country pretty much accepts violence against women as a given. Such violence can be both blatant, as in the case of husbands hitting wives, and subtle, as in the fallout from medicine-related decisions.
The Senate “Health Care” Act
Which gets us to point 6, the nefarious plotting of the “health care” act by the Senate. In case you haven’t followed that story, there are 13 people planning a replacement act for the ACA behind closed doors in the Senate with the intention of ramming the bill through with only a few moments of debate or time for senators to read it. The plotters are all white. They’re all men. They’re all conservative.
Such actions, besides being in violation of basic precepts of American democratic functioning, yet again speak to the ways in which the system gives no f**ks about women and people of color, nevermind when these pieces intersect. This is a bill that’s going to be awful for most Americans. Its construction and framing suggest a particular “f**k you” for anyone outside white maleness. And white maleness is a political identity–it’s only normative because we have accepted it as so. When we fight against “normativity,” resistance follows from more than just the white men themselves.
Call It What It Is.
To that end, the WaPo had a pictorial essay last week that got on my nerves. “New poll of rural Americans shows deep cultural divide with urban residents” offered more fodder for the “it was economic anxiety” explanation of the last election while leaving largely unexplored the implications within the piece about race. More rural people see limited opportunities, it essentially says at one point; more rural people blame immigrants, it says at another. Most rural people are white, it goes on. Further, it claims, “the largest fissures between Americans living in large cities and those in less-dense areas are rooted in misgivings about the country’s changing demographics and resentment about perceived biases in federal assistance.”
Connect the dots, people. What the WaPo outlines is indeed economic anxiety, but we can’t untether that anxiety from racial animosity. People often deeply internalize such sentiment regardless of no validation via experience or evidence. This sh*t is getting so old. (full disclaimer: I grew up in a rural area, albeit in a wealthy, northern state.)
And that’s your political roundup, folks. While a lot of progressive change is happening, the regression is fierce. We’re going to have to resist over the very long haul and do what we can to be educators for change. I find this a challenge, myself, but it’s the responsibility of all of us who believe in equity, freedom from violence, and civil rights to keep going.
According to some technology news sources, the day of sex robots is upon us. I for one, do not welcome our silicon soulmates.
I consider myself an ardent futurist, the rare modern-day believer in the power of technology and the potential of progress. I am not the sort who fears artificial intelligence and robotics. I look forward to a utopian future full of human/machine interaction. However, there is one way that I feel that humans should not be interacting with robots, and that is as a replacement sexual partner. Rather than humanizing machines, this technological development will mechanize and degrade humans in the eyes of users. The interest of heterosexual males in sex robots is a symptom of a patriarchal society and rape culture and is a serious concern for women and modern feminism.
Born Sexy Yesterday
The trope ‘Born Sexy Yesterday’ is a theme, prevalent especially in fantasy and science fiction, in which a female protagonist enters a story in an adult, sexualized physical form, but with the brain of a child. The ignorant woman drops into some manner of conflict in a confusing, chaotic setting, and the male protagonist of the story rescues the naif, educates her, and brings her up to speed. Of course, in the process, the young woman and the heroic father(ish) figure fall in love (and have sex, onscreen or off). Leeloo, the orange-haired female lead of The Fifth Element, and Quorra from TRON: Legacy are just two of many examples.
At first this seemed to me a corollary to the fairy tale princess, or even the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ trope, penchant for oddly colored hair included, but upon further examination, it is something more sinister. The dream girl in this case is a COMPLETELY blank slate. Everything this woman knows, or at least the important stuff, is provided by the male hero. Every step in the education of our sexy newborn is a series of unlockable achievements that culminate in her ultimate status as a sex partner. It is a video game in which the ‘win screen’ is male sexual fulfillment.
Enter the Sex Robots
Sex robots are the exact sort of ‘gamification’ of the quest for sex illustrated in the ‘Born Sexy Yesterday’ theme. Rather than a fully passive object, the ‘bot requires a series of interactions or steps for ‘activation’ but not truly for the purposes of teaching it, or actually interacting with it in a meaningful way. Instead, it is rather for the purpose of ‘unlocking’ intercourse. These are simple devices, more machines than robots, so the ‘game’ is rather easy to ‘win’
“Samantha” will allow sexual activity only after a kiss and a few other physical interactions registered by pressure sensors. “Harmony” can hold a superficial ‘conversation’ before sex and can simulate orgasm “on command”. This is not even treated like a Non-Player Character goal in a well-designed video game, where the ‘needs’ of others factor into the gameplay. The user need not complete any task other than “command” simulated female sexual response. There is no alternate goal, all paths lead to sex with a semi-animate humanoid for the satisfaction of a user.
It is a Nintendo with Benefits
If this particular type of human/machine interaction continued indefinitely in an isolated ‘couple’, it would likely be harmless to the society at large. One could argue that a sex bot may even be helpful for people who don’t interact well with others. However, no human exists in such complete isolation. The person who has sex with a robot/thing will eventually interact with another person. Being habituated to the program of the type described, in which the interaction with a sex robot by definition always resulted in the end game of sex, bodes ill for the relationships of the user with actual women, whom he may see similarly as objects for sexual consumption. Young users would be particularly susceptible. Youth access to sex robots is not unimaginable in a world where the average age of first exposure to pornography is 11. ‘Sex-gamers’ may have difficulty realizing that the real world and the world they inhabit are not a game.
A Step Closer to Black Mirror Territory
We already live in a world where some men view women as little more than sex objects. Such objectification runs rampant in the male-dominated online communities of gamers and trolls. What then of a future in which an actual ‘sex object’ designed to look like a woman exists? It seems entirely possible that, consciously, unconsciously, or in some combination of the two, the sex-robot user, would come to see women in a similar way, as a game in which the objective is to ‘unlock’ sex by going through superficial motions. It is troubling that someone would view another person in this way. It is also troubling that the sex-robot user would likely be in for a rather rude awakening. What then would be the result? What would be the outcome of being confronted with the truth that women are not simply programmed to be the recipients of hetero-male sexual attention?
Men whose primary social interaction is of the digital variety have committed violent acts, claiming lack of sexual attention as their motive. In an online video, Santa Barbara mass-shooter Elliot Roger’s claimed he wanted to punish women for rejecting him and as part of his spree, opened fire on a sorority. He was a member of a misogynistic online group for the purposes of picking up women, and other members of his virtual community mirrored his violent ideas. Other mass shooters in recent memory have blamed their violent deeds on not having a girlfriend or even “the growing power of women”. They invariably post their misogynist manifestos to sympathetic online onlookers.
Men who believe they deserve access to sex often perpetuate sexual abuse of women. The seamier areas of the net abound with this type of thinking. Misogyny abounds in the online ‘troll’ community: trolls threaten women who have ideas they dislike, or who have ideas at all, with violence and sexual assault. The crowd-sourced, voyeuristic dating service created by Jon Hamm’s character in the “White Christmas” episode of Black Mirror is not too far from today’s dark internet underbelly. It is not unbelievable to think that further acts could be committed by frustrated men with an oversimplistic, oversexualized view of women, further amplified by the availability of always-‘willing’ sex toys.
Building a Better Geek-Trap
Further adding to the potential creepy Black Mirror-ness of all sex robots is that they can be designed to user specifications. Appearances are exaggerated to the point of fetish. Impossibly large breasts, anime eyes, MPDG hair colors, and other options can be customized and ordered. Once again, this warped view of female perfection based on an immature, fantasy-based hetero-male ‘ideal’ is unrealistic and contributes to a view of women as sex objects that must conform, in this case physically, to the desires of others. These unrealistic female proportions abound in anime, video games, and science fiction/fantasy entertainment. This is not to say these genres and misogyny are inexorably linked. In fact, the best of this genre is in fact highly progressive and even empowering of women, but there is a trend towards viewing women unrealistically in these media outlets.
Did Scar-Jo Ok This?
Finally, what are the likeness or intellectual property rights related to sex robots? An episode of the animated program Futurama lightheartedly tackled the issue of illegal downloading when the main character Fry downloaded the likeness and personality of actress Lucy Liu into a generic robot body, much to the chagrin of the real Lucy Liu, or at least her head.
An experimenter recently created an interactive automaton of actress Scarlett Johansson, allegedly to ‘fulfill a childhood dream’. What then, are the rights of the real Johansson? What say does she have regarding the robot’s likeness? It is an extension of stalking, and one that is entirely without legal protection for the victim. It is also telling that Johansson has roles in many recent films popular with that may in fact be the prime sex-robot audience. She plays Black Widow in Marvel superhero films, which have been criticized for their marginalization and objectification of female characters. Black Widow is excluded from the toy line and the tee-shirts, but gets a bootleg sex robot? Go figure. Geek culture does not have to be antifeminist, but often is so, and recently seems to be taken a sharp turn in that direction. It is also linked with the online community and its less-than-progressive elements.
No Ghost in the Machine
In addition to all of the above concerns, what of the actual emotional needs and psychological growth of the gamer? The argument that this interaction is harmless and merely a different type of relationship is incorrect. Any relationship with a sex robot is merely an echo chamber, worse than the most insular online communities. It is a singular voice, mirrored and parroted back. The interaction is narcissistic to the extreme, and will merely reinforce ideas of the user, even dangerous or counterproductive ones such as I earlier noted.
In a real relationship between humans, both parties synthesize new ideas which enter the conversation. The parties can dissolve the relationship if new ideas prove too difficult to accept or incorporate. With sex robots, there is no introduction of new ideas. What can be provided by a subhuman intelligence programmed to fulfill orders, and which cannot even leave the bedroom under its own power? There is no ‘relationship’ with a sex robot. There is a static interaction, from which one party is incapable of leaving. The worst elements of a socially marginalized male with unrealistic, fantasy-based views of women and a fragile sense of his own masculinity could be frighteningly amplified in this situation.
Feminism, Humanism, and Sex Robots
The ramifications of a world in which sex robots exist is a feminist issue, and as such it is inherently a humanist issue. Objectification and oversexualization of women is an issue in today’s world which has the potential to be exacerbated by use and misuse of technology. We cannot afford to be push it off until the late stages of development, as early adopters and adapters are already on the scene. The future is now, and the future, like it or not, will involve human interaction with robots. It may begin by having some rather strange conversations. Not having these conversations would be a mistake. We must lay down guidelines for the future development of human/machine interaction, not only for the development of devices, but for the retention of our humanity. We are on the verge of a great technological change for our species, but we will have to pay serious attention to the best of what makes us human.
Today’s guest contributor prefers to remain anonymous. His professional work is firmly grounded in science and he has a decades-long love for the possibilities of science fiction as science reality. Except for sex robots.
What makes a show feminist? Is it the perspective it takes? The way in which women interact with each other, as well as with male characters? The dialogue? The “female gaze”? Today I’m going to sing the praises of a show you’ve quite possibly never heard of—Wynonna Earp—a fabulous feminist show on SyFy that has all of these things, plus some.
“Well, sure, that makes sense”: Worldbuilding and Mythology
The premise of the show is this: Wynonna (Melanie Scrofano) is the latest in a line of heirs of Wyatt Earp. It is her job to defeat the Revenants, demonic reincarnations of the people Wyatt killed as a nineteenth-century lawman. They resurrect every time a new heir comes of age. She lives—of course—in a town called Purgatory, and she’s a hard-drinking mess who takes to her new task reluctantly. Recruited as a deputy by the ultra-classified Black Badge branch of the U.S. Marshalls (think Mulder and Scully, Western-style), she is the only one who can put the Revenants down, using Wyatt’s original gun, Peacemaker.
By now I’m sure you’ve got an eyebrow raised. After all, you note, Wyatt Earp didn’t even have children! He had no heirs! Ssh! Stop thinking so hard!
Eye Candy Everywhere
Wynonna’s circle is small. Her main ally is her sister, Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley), who may be my favorite character, as she uses her historical knowledge to fight demons. Wynonna’s other allies are her Black Badge boss, Dolls (Shamier Anderson), and Doc Holliday (Tim Rozon), granted “eternal longevity” by a heinous witch. Both of the men are eye candy in different ways (you might not dig Doc unless you’re into that Tim Olyphant in a cowboy hat kind of look).
In contrast to so many shows with female eye candy, however, these characters are also well-developed. Imagine. This kind of setup plays with the idea of the female gaze; instead of the male gaze (in which most people and things are set up in a way to convey and create male pleasure), women are clearly in control.
And while I haven’t read the comic book on which the series is based, a quick eyeballing of one of the original renditions of Wynonna will suggest some serious differences.
Wynonna herself is shamelessly sexy, and she self-consciously wields her sex appeal as a tool on at least one occasion—when that doesn’t work, she sends in Doc to do the same. It’s that kind of playing with expectations which makes the show charming and resonant. It’s willing to take risks in departing from the usual women-and-men playbook, risks they pay off in spades.
“When I See Something I Like, I Don’t Want to Wait”
The sexual tension on Wynonna Earp contributes further to its feminist perspective. You might be expecting Wynonna and either of her male sidekicks to be oozing the stuff, but in fact the thickest sexual tension on the show is between two women: Waverly and a new cop—Nicole Haught (Katherine Barrell). That’s right—the cop is Haught (pronounced hot). My husband calls
them HaughtWave. (You’re welcome.) It’s a refreshing change from the usual pace of these kinds of shows, and the dialogue between Waverly and her boyfriend, Champ, compared to her dialogue with everyone else gets to the point quickly: women are more than just pretty things.
“I was just thinking I needed another man to tell me what to do today, and here you are. Awesome.”
Which gets to the next point: some of the writing on this show is fantastic. Wynonna is no damsel—we’ve watched ten episodes and she’s only been in active distress once, but because she’s the only one who can use Peacemaker, she always has to save herself, a refreshing change. Doc once remarks, “She ain’t anybody’s but her own,” which pretty much sums up Wynonna’s self-reliance at the end of the day. The female characters are legitimately strong and complex, rather than just one trope (strong) or the other (vacant/undeveloped/always in distress).
In addition to the above, check out this delightful snippet:
Champ: How can somebody so pretty be so smart, huh?
Waverly: Because they’re not mutually exclusive.
It’s that kind of feminist writing that might remind viewers of early Buffy the Vampire Slayer and keep them coming back. If you’re into campy feminist demon westerns, this is the show for you.
We haven’t yet spent much time talking about basic feminist principles that undergird the philosophy and movement here in the US, but today I want us to launch a bit ahead and talk about its relationship to colonial and post-colonial feminism. 45’s trip to Saudi Arabia, Ivanka Trump in tow to talk about female “empowerment,” and a Salon article on The Handmaid’s Tale moved this topic to the front of my list. They’ve all introduced problems we can label as colonial feminism, and here I’ll talk about what that means, particularly in the context of feminist movements over time and that Salon piece.
Second- and Third-Wave Feminism, Highly Abridged
American feminism, particularly in the 1970s’ second wave, suffered from a narrow vision that limited its impact. Chiefly, it was white women’s feminism and middle-class feminism which got the most traction, leaving the needs of women of color, working-class women, and so on out of the conversation. We’ll delve into all of this further later, but in a nutshell, what the movement was missing was intersectionality. Interesectionality is the idea that people have multiple variables to their identities beyond just “woman” and that such elements shape their needs and goals as women. Missing that, second-wave feminism did not represent many issues beyond those women of the white middle-class.
Third-wave feminism is generally much better at intersectionality than second-wave was, but still struggles with using that lens to see the rest of the world. Such a problem often gets bound up with a “savior complex” that centers, intended or no, on implicitly white goals.
So what’s Colonial Feminism?
Here’s how the problem usually goes: we know what we want here at home in terms of feminist goals. To summarize, without intersectional contours or details, the umbrella generally includes political, social, economic equality, as well as reproductive health access. (Again, these are just the big elements—we’re not getting into, say, the problem of rape culture, what it means when people can’t recognize pay disparities based on gender and race, or even the basic constructs of power here in the US. All are topics we’ll talk about later, but not here.)
Then, we look overseas and we see other women, many of whom live in situations less feminist than our own. Saudi Arabia is usually a good place to look as its misogyny is so blatant, but other countries—other women—often get the same gaze from Americans. And then we assume they must want our values as their values, and when we seek to “help” them, we often do so with that lens firmly in place. In doing so we don’t ask those women what their feminism might look like, what their values are, what their goals might be. Thus the feminist lens we use is a colonial one. We assume they a) want our help and b) want it on our terms and thus we embody a colonial ethos, reminiscent of political colonialism in which people (white men, chiefly) told people in other countries (usually POC) what they wanted, and that it was good for them, through their white, colonial lens. Yes, there’s a huge difference between actual colonialism and a colonial feminism, absolutely—but the comparison makes sense for our purposes here.
Salon published an essay on Saturday titled, “Stop Making ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ about Your Liberal Anxiety” that got me thinking about all this. It’s written by Deirdre Corley, who’s got some editorial experience at publications like the Hairpin; this essay appears to be her first out there on its own. I feel kind of bad pulling it apart, but here we go. The gist of what she’s saying is that we shouldn’t spend time writing think pieces on the ways in which we see the Handmaid’s Tale in our current US or speculating on its possibilities when women live in Gilead-ish societies now. Those societies should be our focus.
“For a title that has received a more thorough exploration of its meaning and place in society than most, rarely are the lines drawn to other modern societies outside the U.S. where people, and women in particular, are suffering Gilead-level oppression (or worse) at this very moment. It seems that Americans now only have one lens to view things through, and it’s tinted orange.”
Now if she were encouraging women in or from those societies to pen their own think pieces, she’d have a nice point. But the problem is that what she says next about Saudi Arabia can be taken to be more broadly applied, and that’s where the trouble begins:
“Clad in robes, blinkered by headpieces, unable to travel without an escort, and barred from controlling money or property, the women of Gilead look quite a bit more like the women living under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system than your modern American woman does or likely ever will.
While women in Saudi Arabia gained the right to vote in 2015, the mix of state and socially sanctioned rules they live under mean they still require the permission of their male guardians to travel or use most social services. They’re even banned from driving cars (though not bikes any longer). When thinking of the kingdom’s dress code for women — which includes the form-covering abaya and head-covering hijab, often paired with a full-face veil — it’s difficult not to draw a parallel to the Handmaids’ robes and face-obscuring hats. This, from a functioning, recognized state that recently received a seat on the U.N. Women’s Rights Council.”
Many Saudi women have worked for change in that nation to weak results (in contrast to Ivanka Trump’s claim that the country is great about women’s rights, a comment she made after they gave her foundation $100M). And while you and I would firmly reject a state-mandated dress code, the way in which Corley talks about that dress code implies that the dress is the problem, rather than the existence of the code itself. After all, plenty of women wear conservative dress by choice and don’t feel “blinkered” by those choices. Further, because of the nature of this essay, she’s implying (however unintentionally) that conservative Muslim dress is the real problem, Again, this approach disregards that many women choose hijabs, and some even choose burkas, as a reflection of their faith, and still fight a feminist mission. Linda Sarsour is a stellar example here, as is this 2015 HuffPo piece.
When Corley makes her argument, even as she takes pains to say it’s about Saudi Arabia, she is, however unwittingly, indulging in a colonial feminism in which the (white, non-Muslim) American way is implied as superior to a Muslim way. If we’re not to express our “liberal anxiety” through analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s because our life is still far superior to others. There’s a condescension here that ignores the extremely difficult lives plenty of American women lead, some in rigid religious circumstances, others hamstrung by the ways in which the systems of power we have limit certain women’s access to power, control and opportunity.
Lastly, Corley implies that we can’t care about both the erosion of our democracy AND the status of our sisters in other countries. We can worry about both, but let those women lead the way in determining what solutions to their oppression might look like.
(Incidentally, I feel like there’s an essay in here on the intersections of colonial feminism and conservatives who insist 45 isn’t the problem because some countries have Sharia law. Maybe someday.)
(Also, look at Iran pre-1979: they, too, didn’t think a fundamentalist revolution could happen in their cosmopolitan country—a little “liberal anxiety” guarding our values is rarely a bad thing.)