Tag Archives: rape culture

No

I can’t write about knitting or sewing this week.

I can’t.

Too much has happened to me this week.  There’s too much anger and sadness in me to compose a few blithe paragraphs about handwork right now.

I want to share with you what’s on my mind instead of what’s in my work bag today.

Today is the first day after the heat wave here on the west coast.  I know that the majority of media sources in this country have just started to cover the record-breaking heat, because, as with most things, if it doesn’t happen at least as far east as Chicago, it might as well have happened in another country.

Don’t get me wrong, I love living on the frontier.  I love standing knee-deep in the Pacific, looking west, and feeling the wilderness around me.

But I didn’t hear about the oil train derailment that happened a scant 10 miles from my house for hours after the fact, and even then it was only because I went to a local news website trying to figure out why there was so much traffic stacked up on highway 30.

We were so very lucky in Mosier.  If the train had crashed the day before, the winds would have made the fire worse by orders of magnitude.  If the explosion or fire had been bigger, Mosier would have lost a school, homes, lives.  If it had been raining, which it frequently does in early June, there would have been no way to mitigate the spill of oil into the Columbia.  If the derailment had happened 10 miles further west, it might have taken out a freeway overpass, a number of local businesses, or even my house.

My house.  Where my children live.

I’ve been fighting against the bomb trains for years.  And this one nearly got me.

By contrast, I was quite physically safe from the Stanford rapist.  But as I read the victim’s statement and the letter the rapist’s father wrote to the judge, I wept the angry, familiar tears of someone who has lived her whole life embroiled with rape culture.

I remembered the first time I was sexually harassed– in line at the drinking fountain, in kindergarten, age 5– and I remembered how embarrassed I felt.  How I stood there stupidly and let him keep touching me even though my stomach was knotting up and my legs wanted to run.  How the words he said were permanently etched into my psyche.  How I never told anyone.  How I felt ashamed by the incident, like it was my fault.

The little boy who groped me and made sexual comments about my prepubescent body probably doesn’t even remember that it happened.

I remember him, though.  I remember his name, his face, his hair cut, even though we moved across the state the summer after I finished first grade and I haven’t seen him since.  And when I hear about men who are so assured of their right to touch women, who feel as entitled to their sexual attentions as the Stanford rapist obviously does, I think about that boy and I wonder if he ever learned about consent.  If he became the kind of guy who tells rape jokes and makes his sexual partners feel obligated to engage in acts they don’t enjoy.  If he went on to rape someone at a frat party in college.  If he became one of the relatively few men who are serial rapists– how many victims would he have by now, at nearly 30 years old?

I think it’s that survivor’s sensitivity that made me uncomfortable with Bernie Sanders from the beginning.  I wanted to like him.  I bought into the hype of his being a challenger from Clinton’s left who would force her left during the primary at least.  But then, I watched him debate with her.  I heard the dogwhistles when he accused her of “yelling”, tried to paint her as manipulative and dishonest, insinuated that she could be bought.  I read the things he wrote about women and sexual relations when he was younger.  I watched him treat his wife with incredible disrespect onstage at a public event.  I heard the contempt in his voice when dealing with female reporters.  I heard him insist that people who didn’t support him didn’t know their own best interests.  I watched his campaign double down on the idea that supporting Clinton because she’s a woman is stupid, wrong, even traitorous.

I watched him lie and cheat and steal and take no responsibility.  I watched him blame everyone else for his problems.  I watched him allow his supporters to run wild, threatening women and disrupting events.

I voted for Hillary Clinton.  Because women’s rights are human rights.  Because she listens to people and genuinely cares about them.  Because she plays by the rules.  Because she cares about indigenous people’s issues.  Because she has been a tireless advocate for the rights of children and women for her entire life.  Because she’s always been ahead of the curve on LGBT issues.  Because her staff is diverse and well-trained and highly skilled.  Because she admits it and apologizes when she is wrong.  Because she says the word “abortion”.

Last night Clinton became the presumptive nominee.  The first female major party nominee ever.  EVER.  I watched her speech.  I watched the commemorative video.  I cried.  I was so proud to have been part of getting her this far.  I was so excited for the general election.

This morning I read the news and learned that at his event last night, Bernie Sanders, who has repeatedly claimed that he’s an advocate for women, allowed 15 seconds of booing and hissing directed towards Hillary Clinton, the nominee of his party and the first woman EVER to be a major party nominee for president.  He didn’t even recognize the glass ceiling she shattered this week.

I realized that he doesn’t see her.  He doesn’t see women.  He doesn’t see ME.

And I’ve had about enough of being trivialized and ignored.  I’m done being relegated to the sidelines.

I have no more patience for those who marginalize me, be they east-coast-centered mainstream news sources, legislators who insist that shipping oil by rail is safe, teary-eyed rapists who think they’ve done nothing wrong, or political candidates who think it’s irrelevant whether they actually have a good record on women’s issues or just say they do in interviews.

My life is too wild and precious to spend it legitimizing all this bullshit.

So I am renewing my declaration of war against the patriarchy this summer.

gracedchin / Via etsy.com

And that is the work I have in progress this week.

 

 

Seriously, Though

Can we talk for a minute about RBF?

http://www.buzzfeed.com/kelleydunlap/kacey-musgraves-resting-bitch-face#.tdk9A2eeQw

RBF, or Resting Bitch Face (also known as Bitchy Resting Face), is a term for the common neutral noncommittal facial expressions of some women.  Not ALL women, mind you, but some women.  Certain women, you might say.

Certain women with a reputation for being too serious.  Or thoughtful.  Or introverted.  Or intellectual.

Certain women who are well-known Feminist Killjoys.

Certain women who are “attractive” enough to merit street harassment.

Certain women, in short, whose default facial expression is somehow out of alignment with the harshly-enforced cultural mandate that, in order to occupy the space marked “feminine,” people must fulfill a decorative function at all times.

Let me be VERY clear: this is about objectification.  This is about women LOOKING a certain way, regardless of how they feel or what they desire.  This is about the society dictating what is acceptable in terms of the impression given to random passers-by on the street by a woman’s facial muscle positions and activities.

Obviously this is bullshit.

I’ve had this post in my drafts folder for months waiting for inspiration to finish it, because I could get as far as “bullshit” but no further.  I wish I could convey dismay, shock, or outrage, but those are hot-burning emotions and I don’t really feel them about this subject anymore.

Not because it’s unimportant, or because it’s not worthy of passionate criticism, or because I’m not upset about it, but because, as someone who has met the appearance parameters for a sexually mature woman for 15 years, I have burned through all my hot and passionate feelings on the subject of street harassment and society telling me that the impression my appearance gives to strangers is my responsibility to manage.  I am left with impotent frustration, and a kind of righteous indignation, which are much less motivating to write about.

But I think that the very fact that I’ve become inured to this kind of policing, at the relatively young age of 27, makes it worth talking about.

So, let’s break it down.

As social animals, humans create a social order, which is constantly adapted and maintained by displays of threat and submission behavior.  In apes, the most salient submissive behavior display is the baring of teeth, also called the fear grin.  Some extremely hierarchical groups of macaques use teeth baring almost reflexively upon the approach of the dominant animal, and the most common result of the interaction is that the dominant animal allows the submissive to retreat, which removes the submissive animal from the risk of physical abuse.  Apes in more egalitarian societies, such as chimpanzees, use teeth baring as an appeasement gesture that seems to invite social interaction within the group by reassuring the other animals that the bared-teeth individual does not intend to cause them harm.

The analogous smile, in humans, serves many of the same functions: it reassures others that the smiling person does not pose a threat, it is an invitation to social interaction, and it often accompanies courtesy phrases (such as “excuse me” or “my mistake”) used to signal a known violation of social norms.  There is evidence, however, that smiling is also perceived by humans to be more feminine than other facial expressions.

In one study, babies dressed in green and yellow were paraded before a group of onlookers. When the infants cooed, gurgled and smiled, the observers tagged them as girls; fretters and criers were assumed to be boys. The effect persisted when a different group of participants was presented with images of cheerful or angry adult faces. People readily identified smiling women as female and wrathful men as male, but they took longer and stumbled more often when confronted with furious female countenances or beaming male ones.

— Katy Waldman, Slate

The Slate article goes on to rather weakly associate women acting as smilers with social affiliation management– positing that girls and women are trained to smile more in order to do “emotion labor” (i.e., smooth over social situations and bridge differences between groups of friends and extended family)– before lamely concluding that everyone should smile a bit more because it would make the (female) journalist herself smile.

The truth is that humans have a range of emotions– and related expressions– almost unique in the animal kingdom, even among social animals (only orcas are believed to experience more emotional states, and it’s not entirely clear yet how they communicate them without the mobile face of the ape).  So for most people, most smiling is the companion of genuine positive feeling, whether they are remembering a funny joke or glorying in the sun on their face for the first time after a long winter.  But there is another kind of smile that isn’t related to emotion.

The Duchenne smile– named after a 19th-century French neurologist– is the genuine kind.  Its display is correlated with positive emotion, and it involves both the muscle groups around the mouth (zygomatic major) and the eyes (obicularis oculi).  It’s fairly rare, and occurs with similar frequency between men and women.  The smile that humans use purely for its ability to diffuse tense social situations, often called the botox or Pan Am smile, uses only the zygomatic major, and women report using it much more.  (The open-mouthed play smile, by contrast, is not related to the bared-teeth display, and is instead itself  present in lower primates in the “play face”, and eventually develops into laughing in humans.)

Neonatal gorilla showing the social, or “Pan Am”, smile. http://mentalfloss.com/article/32134/gorilla-expressions-could-point-origins-human-laughter

The early smiles of human infants are a mix of Duchenne and Pan Am smiles, and while their cause is not well understood, it is likely that the Duchenne smiles are a response to pleasure and contentment (joy is a more mature emotion, and develops at around 9 months of age), while the Pan Am smiles are socially-driven or even reflexive.  Even near-term premature infants learn to mimic the facial expressions of their caregivers (it only takes about 10 days to train human infants from about 34 weeks’ gestation onward to stick out their tongues in mimicry), and the relatively immature human infant relies on social affiliation to live, so it is no stretch of the imagination to believe that babies are trained to smile in reflex to adult smiles, even in the neonatal period.

But when does gender enter the equation?  For many American parents, gender policing starts long before birth, and many studies show that parents have different expectations of infants as young as four months old based on their physical sex.  By the age of five years, female children are adapted to performing more emotion labor than their male peers, and are more likely to exhibit a smile (a Pan Am smile, of course) in response to receiving a disappointing gift.

The false smile can take a real toll on your health.  Flight attendants, from whom the Pan Am smile got its colorful name, report feeling robotic, artificial, or even distant from their own emotional realities after a long shift with the zygomatic major engaged.  While it is true that deliberately smiling can trigger more positive emotional cues in the brain, smiling because you are told to– when you’d rather not– can be damaging.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/erinlarosa/problems-all-people-with-resting-bitchface-will-understand#.fldw6rkkz8

What does all this mean about Resting Bitch Face?

  • Smiling is gendered work, and women are expected to do it.  Even little girls are tasked with a disproportionate amount of emotion labor.
  • Social smiling is based on a primal, non-verbal language, and women are under a greater societal expectation to communicate that they are non-threatening and open to interaction or afraid and subordinate.
  • Women who appear in public without their smile are perceived as hostile and aggressive partially because of mammal-level animal reasoning, but there is no way to ignore the gendered nature of smiling, especially when street harassers so often publicly shame and threaten women for their neutral or negative expressions.

At its core, the tyranny of the smile is about gender policing.  At its core, the gendered nature of emotion labor is about allowing men to have full rights and freedoms at the expense of women.  At its core, the social smile is about fear and submission.  At its core, RBF is about women being objects.

TODAY wants to reassure you that you can get plastic surgery to fix your RBF (apparently that’s a thing), or you know, you can at least work on smiling a bit more so people will be less worried that you might be doing something dangerous, like thinking:

Ann-Marie Stillion, a communication strategist and artist from Seattle, says she’s recently made an effort to wear a smile when in public after having her resting face repeatedly misinterpreted by strangers, friends, and colleagues.

“I look mad when I am thinking which has gotten me in a whole lot of trouble,” she says. “So, I smile a lot now, not because I’m so happy but because I know it makes people more comfortable.”

And people are welcome to take those routes because Underpants Rule.

But as for me, I will be proudly taking my RBF to the streets, because I am not an object.

Not a decoration.  Not a sex toy.  Not a social lubricant.  Not a service tool.

And I won’t have the only unapologetic RBF out there.

 


 

Additional Science Facts Sources:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2555422/

http://www.andhranews.net/Technology/2010/May/13-Bared-teeth-motif-expresses-smile-17185.asp

http://www.psy.miami.edu/faculty/dmessinger/c_c/rsrcs/rdgs/emot/Messinger_Smiling_elsevier.pdf

The Boxtrolls is on the Problematic list

I was extremely displeased today to discover that yet ANOTHER kids’ movie has to go on the list of Movies Too Problematic for Small Children.

I had seen previews for The Boxtrolls, and it looked cute, and like perhaps it would have some good messages about identity and performance/presentation, or family and belonging.  I was excited to maybe see it for myself later in the year depending on what our drive-in theater chooses to show.  But apparently the movie has been manipulated into essentially one long reinforcement of harmful cultural narratives about gender nonconformity/trans*ism.

So…we won’t be seeing that movie.

The Problematic list is a long one.  I’m not overly choosy, but I have this thing about media sources teaching my children that excitement, adventure, and fun are the handmaidens of hate.  We are the parents who LOUDLY criticized the preview of Earth to Echo for the joke about femininity degrading a masculine character.  We are the people won’t stop talking about the sexual hyper-dimorphism in Brave and Frozen.  We are the family who refused to see Planes: Search and Rescue because the preview was sexually objectifying, racist, and hyper-masculine.

Now, my standards are far from exacting– our beloved local film The Goonies doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, and neither does the oh-so-fun Monsters, Inc.  We adore Brave and Frozen.  The Emperor’s New Groove doesn’t make the Problematic list for a few unnecessary jokes about sexual objectification.  There are some questionable colonial elements and some consent problems in Lilo and Stitch, but it’s still allowed.  We loved Maleficient, despite the innocuous portrayal of a sex crime.

The question is, are there are few iffy spots that I can make sure to talk to my kids about, or would I need to debrief the entire message of the movie or the way a whole character is portrayed?

One of the reasons we go to the drive-in rather than a conventional theater is so that I have my own mostly-soundproof viewing box in which I can debrief and discuss with (and for the benefit of) my children.  Frequently, the preview seems okay, but the actual film has big issues, so I feel that it’s essential for me and Robert to have the freedom to call things bad, unfunny, hurtful, damaging, dangerous, stupid, bigoted, and unacceptable when they are so.  This way, while our children are exposed to the film, they are simultaneously exposed to our criticisms of it and are less likely to model their behavior after the bad examples on the screen.

I wish there were content ratings that actually addressed this stuff.  I don’t care if there are nipples visible, if the story deals with death, or if someone says “fuck”, but I care deeply about whether people are casually or “hilariously” exploited, othered, and shamed based on their identities.  I am glad to have had a heads-up about The Boxtrolls, because evidently it is very transmisogynist.  I have the opportunity to choose not to see it based on its message being damaging.

When entire characters have no relevance to the plot besides a joke about othering them, when characters are functionally more like props due to an inappropriate lack of agency, when hate is consistently portrayed as funny or meritorious or (perhaps worst of all) unremarkable, those works go on the Too Problematic for Small Children list.

And I am upset about the length of the list.

Feminist Hero of the Week

Emma Sulkowicz, a student at Columbia University, is using her senior thesis to bring attention to campus rape, decry the failure of university officials to prosecute her rapist, and combat rape victim stigma.

She has announced her intention to carry her mattress with her around campus until her rapist is brought to justice.

From the TIME article on her piece:

Sulkowicz started the performance-art project on Tuesday, and she said she is determined to continue carrying the mattress wherever she goes — to class, the library, the gym — as long as her alleged rapist is still on campus. That means her project could last until graduation day in May 2015 — unless her alleged assailant is either expelled or chooses to leave the school. Last year, Sulkowicz and two other women reported the same person to the university. All three cases were dismissed.

Amazing.

Strength and solidarity to you, Emma, and rape victims everywhere.