Fancy Ladies on Bikes! Thought You Knew

How can I not discuss bicycling on a blog where most of us are in Portland, and ladies? Thought You Knew is a group whose mission is to debunk the stereotype that women can’t cycle. Or we can, but not without sacrificing some sex appeal, or being ignored entirely.
TyK’s awesome pin-up calendar features ladies with bikes. Proceeds go to the Chicago Women’s Health Center, and can be purchased here. It’s a myth you can’t bike in a skirt–though I will admit doing so in a pencil skirt ended up with bad news and a lost shoe for me.


Feminism and Education

This blog isn’t dead!  Even if it means me writing what feels like a response paper!
Unfortunately we’ve all been pretty busy with typical twenty-something lifestyles. This does not mean we don’t talk about feminism in other places, or run into new perspectives we hadn’t considered before. Since a major theme of this blog is “twenty-somethings talk feminism,” today I’m going to indulge in a navel-gazing written exercise about my thoughts on feminism, and how they are constantly changing.
I recently shared with Emily an essay by Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, which I in turn found via a comment on Feministe. The essay is thought-provoking, and gave me some revelations about myself and what many of my feminist peers wish to accomplish.

First, Lorde describes her experience at an academic conference where her voice, as well as that of many other women, are outnumbered or excluded when it comes to panel discussions about topics other than feminist-specific theory. She has an excellent point here–much mainstream theory about the liberal arts is in the ivory towers run by privileged people.

While much of Lorde’s article focuses on the exclusion of voices and the problems of ignoring differences between women, it also touched on something Emily and I have spent countless hours brainstorming and discussing. Emily and I talk about inclusiveness and how to make feminism have more of a mainstream, popular vision. We’ve bounced ideas such as using PR (public relations) tools to make feminism less of an f-word. Making “feminist” an okay and embraceable identity is important to us. I’ve certainly scowled at some notable 2nd generation feminists whose “radical” stances alienated feminism for so many people. As firm believers of being in the system to beat the system, Lorde’s essay left us a bit… struck, to say the least. In particular when she points out the problem of being too much a participant in the “system,” or “house”:

What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of
that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of
change are possible and allowable” […] For the master’s tools will
never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat
him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine
change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define
the master’s house as their only source of support.

Like an arrow right into the heart. I don’t think about my own privileges enough. In an abstract sense I do, but it’s something that is difficult to grip, because it is indeed invisible as Peggy McIntosh asserted in her amazing essay. Thinking about feminism with Lorde’s and McIntosh’s essays in mind revealed to me my own privileges that I never stopped to consider. It is from a privileged position that I think of social media or writing as modes of expressing feminist ideas and a desire for change. That I think of “the system” as a way to fix the system itself illustrates my own reliance on the privileges this system gave me. While I am still trying to figure out what to make of these problems, I do think her essay will continue to inform what I do choose to write about, and devise ways to mitigate my privilege. I never made the connection between feminism, activism, and privilege until now. The earlier part of Lorde’s essay made me especially rethink education–as a “master’s tool,” or something that can be of use for feminists and others who desire a better society.

A lot of well-educated people never learn feminist theory. Part of this could be because their discipline never quite had the need for it (e.g., a natural or physical science), but a huge part of it is because the bulk of our compulsory education is taught from the perspective of white, heterosexual men. A particularly embarrassing memory comes to mind when my high school English teacher assigned Heart of Darkness. Though my teacher tried to discuss the sexism and racism of the novel, it was rather short-lived. “Well sure it is racist and sexist, but so was everything from back then, what else is there to say?” was the comment that got the most nods, and it upsets me that the class reached this conclusion because we had no other tools to argue or challenge that position. I appreciate that my teacher brought it up, but that discussion could not have ended any other way. The tools to talk about sexism and racism are simply untaught, and feminism becomes a “fringe” discipline. Part of this may be why Lorde and other women like her only get places on certain type of panels, that is, because popular opinion categorizes Women’s Studies and the like as “out there” and irrelevant to other subjects. This brings up another debate–but that is for a different blog post.

What can be done about the lack of feminist theory taught in schools? Or hell, even an alternative perspective to the one we’re taught? I have little connection to a school now, but I’m willing to do the research. But maybe this is one way to start talking about making it more okay to talk about feminist theory–to start at school and focus less on gimmicky campaigns to get attention to the cause.

Don’t Ignore Video Games

The anxieties of technology and representation date back to the 18th century. Since the event of novels in the modern Western tradition, there has been concern about narrative and art’s abilities to persuade the mind away from morality and goodness. Right now, video games are in the spotlight–and they have been for a while. Unlike novels, movies, and other narratives, video games are different because they tell a story through the player’s choices and strategies. Moreover, video games are often all lumped together, and no “classics” exist in the mainstream consciousness, with the exceptions of Pong and the Mario series.

Kotaku’s post on the first video game case going to the Supreme court is a run-down of what’s going on and who’s involved with the case. I gather that what is at stake here is the criminalization of selling violent video games–the big questions here are what constitutes “violence” and who gets to decide that. I bring up hate crimes because the Kotaku post points to a scene from the game Postal 2, which I then looked up on Wikipedia. The wiki article contains this passage:

Homophobia in the shape of an arcade game prop called Fag Hunter. The AWP mod (included in the Fudge Pack release) expands Fag Hunter into a mini-level where the player has to kill 20 stereotyped gay NPCs (depicted as bald, unshaven men wearing pink dresses). link

I can’t think of the appropriate expletive to express my shock and disgust. This passage does, however, highlight an interesting feature of video games that aren’t so vehemently talked about: hate crimes. Banning violent content in video games is too broad to address what I consider to be the most damaging aspect of video game tropes.

Art is mostly interpretation. I accept (to a point) interpretations of Postal 2 that understand the game as an extreme satire. Because of it is over-saturated with violence and ridiculousness, it is possible to see that Postal 2 embodies the worst bits of video games. Furthermore, Postal 2 seems to have some evidence of self-awareness. Mobs that attack the player include book-burners and opponents of video games. Considering its self-consciousness, how does the “fag hunter” mini level fit in? If Postal 2 is in fact commenting on video game violence, why this a part of gameplay? Is it just boasting its own irreverence? What really outrages me is that this is not getting enough press or attention. Video games and their content are too often skimmed over with the general notion that video games are too unimportant or minor to be worth seriously critiquing.

While an overtly homophobic movie or book would be quickly lambasted, it seems that video games get far less attention from the big media. Perhaps it is just that I am reading the wrong group of blogs, but while Jonathan Franzen and The Social Network will make headlines in the more widely-read news blogs, video game coverage and its related social issues come up rarely. When they do, it’s usually within niche circles or about all the blood and gore rather than the message or context. Part of this, I think, is because video games are, by many, not considered real art or narrative.

So what is all this doing on a blog concerning the thoughts of twenty-something feminists, most of whom are not gamers? Firstly, I’m going to say, I don’t think banning violence is the answer here, and honestly, won’t do much. Rather, I think video games have to be accepted as a legitimate art form and treated as such. Before criticizing their content, we need to look at the universe it presents and how we interact with it. Instead of outlawing video game violence, video games deserve the criticisms we give to shows such as Mad Men and movies like The Social Network. Video game content needs discussion and is deserving of critical insight–and this will do far more to understand and attenuate the potentially harmful aspects of video games. Is there homophobia or rampant sexism in a game? We could discuss what game does in addressing that and point out its specific message. Let’s stop giving video games a free pass on real social issues when we say, “well video games are violent and stupid.” Feminist discourse does not have to be opposed to video games. Rather, I think it has the potential to create a demand for video games with more depth and good stories, which is far more effective and does more to challenge its sexism, racism, and other conventions.

Pride & Practicality

I, quiet, bookish, sensible, with a B.A. and curmudgeonly disposition, seemed to unite the blessings of feminism, but found for twenty years that such had vexed me.  Feminism, despite its presence since my adolescence, escaped my acknowledgment until three years ago. For a long time I refused the term and disdained it, believing in the myths of bra-burning and hairy legs.
In middle school I became aware that others judged me based on my outfits through the lesson of social rejection. Of course, most people’s middle school experiences were at least a bit awkward and maybe worth suppressing–but what I learned through teasing was that my appearance mattered, and many people made sure to keep me informed of such.

Absorption into my book on the bus rides home did not protect me; neither did burying my body in shrouds of hoodies and sweatshirts. The glasses, black eyeshadow1, and chain of braces across my face did the exact opposite of shielding me from ridicule. During PE I received a fashion citation2, in which a girl came up to me with a piece of paper torn from a notebook with the words, “fashion police violation.” Finally, after being harassed by boys with prematurely lewd suggestions about my absence of “titties,” and being called “the ugly one” on the bus, I decided I would make plain, safely trendy clothes into my passive armor. I went with my mother and later with friends to stores like Limited Too and begged for a training bra. Every night I’d police my eyebrows for a stray hair. My philosophy was to be girly enough to be unremarkable yet sufficiently bland to remain beneath notice; only the people whom I thought were worth my time would know that my overt dullness masked someone who, quite honestly, looks forward everyday to wearing pajama pants. I cultivated my own anxieties of appearance.
The impression of feminism that I had at this point, was that it was impractical. Media outlets and my peers characterized feminism as a rejection of high heels, makeup, and other “girly” things. Not knowing better, I dismissed this feminist perspective because I believed it to be an assault on my method of self-preservation.

Feminism surfaced into my vocabulary once I was in high school, but only as an outdated term. With some like-minded friends who also enjoyed “weird”3 activities like keeping up with current events and reading the newspaper, I learned to express and refine my opinions. Despite being called “the Pinko,” I was enamored with feeling like I belonged and connected to these mostly self-identified libertarian boys.

This new social group also hindered my understanding of feminism, as I easily bought the idea that women were already “liberated”; that feminists were just looking for things to be offended at, and that men had it difficult, too, oftentimes because of women. I felt exceptionally clever for agreeing with boys over these simplistic and ill-thought-out arguments. The truth was that my acceptance into this group depended on this faux-enlightenment. I realized such as my eye-rolls and scoffs at comments about girls’ chests and pubic hair were very clearly making them uncomfortable, if not offended. My frustration with the obvious inequalities these “smart” kids ignored or actively argued into nonexistence had to be tempered, yet I kept dry-swallowing their patriarchal swill.

Though I altered my opinions for the sake of social acceptance, I began to understand beauty and style as a personal mode of expression at the same time. While boys linked me to “sexy pictures” asking me for my opinion (“um yeah, sure she’s hot”), I noticed that beauty was varied; that style could be a choice.  When I heard a friend comment that he thought dark makeup made ladies look ugly, I defended their style. Clothing and makeup did not necessarily exist to titillate and excite men. With my mom’s help, I learned how to sew, which advanced my appreciation for runway fashion. My style choices changed from unquestioningly trendy to personal. I paid attention to colors, cuts, and my own preferences. What was once something I used defensively, I used with confidence. That I felt comfortable and at ease with my own presence and standing out allowed me later to incorporate feminism with myself. I also started to understand that such feminized interests did not necessarily require me to please others.

In college, I met a population of people interested in the news and politics. It was not rare to meet people who were well-read and willing to carry on long conversations about current events. My friendship with one young woman in particular, radically changed my attitude towards feminism. We shopped for clothes together, talked about makeup, and enjoyed the same television shows–we easily became best friends. One night after swapping class complaints, she casually mentioned feminism: “I hate when people say you can’t be a feminist and love fashion. How narrow-minded.” At that moment, it all came to the surface for me, and we spent an evening sharing our grievances. Inspired, I researched feminism online, warming myself to the term “feminist.” Through online feminist communities and my friend, I learned that feminism was not a monolithic, didactic code. In classes, I learned more about feminist influence on literary criticism and how we read and characterize books and authors. More satisfying than the practicality of social acceptance, the feminist communities helped me understand what the term means and how real that tenet, “the personal is political,” is when facing the difficulty in maintaining my sexual health or having lewd, rude comments directed to me due to my ethnicity or gender. Feminism, I found, is incredibly practical in making sense of these events in my life.

I realize much of this awakening has depended on the people around me–I admit peer acceptance is something I still rely on and has shaped a significant portion of this narrative. As I spend more time reading about feminism and its application, drawing out its flaws and limitations, I can forgive myself for having sacrificed my convictions. Feminism is a learning and maturation process for me, but one I plan to remain loyal towards. What makes me a feminist now, as opposed to before is a question that I still cannot answer very articulately or coherently. On a personal level, I recognize feminism is a way for me to question my own biases as well as external ones, but also a movement that is capable of maturing and taking shape alongside of me. From a wider perspective, claiming feminism is easy and nearly mainstream now–Sarah Palin has no issue in claiming it for her questionable politics. One-size-fits-most feminism doesn’t function, especially when discussing minorities’ experiences and injustices; making a generalization about feminism can be short-sighted and exclusive. But, in spite of these deficiencies, the hope of maturity, the recognition of feminism’s fluidity, and the growth of confidence, will perhaps in part be answered in its union with me.

1. It took me a few years to realize that what looked good on comic book characters did not translate so well to my 13-year old, school-going self.
2. I can’t believe this happened.
3. So I was told in high school.
* I thank Jane Austen’s <em>Emma</em> and <em>Pride and Prejudice</em> for making this feminist awakening piece and reclamation of her work for feminism possible.