Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Overlooking the Obvious Again

One thing I've learned over the years from speaking to classes and from online discussion is that very often a question has an unspoken assumption I don't hear at first.  Discovering such an assumption may drastically change the way I answer the question.

Once, for example, a young woman told us that an older male relative, maybe a policeman, had referred to "gay rape" in her presence.  This upset her a great deal, and the other panelists tried to answer it without succeeding in assuaging her concern.  Finally we figured out that she had concluded that her relative meant that rape was a normal part of the gay male experience.  I explained to her that he must have been talking about the rape of a male by another male, which he called "gay rape" just as many people refer to marriage between two men or two women as "gay marriage."  When she understood that gay men don't usually rape each other, she was visibly relieved.  Years later, I'm still baffled at how anyone could have drawn such a conclusion, but that was a learning experience in itself.

I just finished reading I Am Your Sister, the posthumous collection of Audre Lorde's nonfiction writings I wrote about yesterday, and I came again on the notion that, as one Third World queer writer phrased it, concern about women or non-heterosexuals is a "luxury," a monkey wrench thrown into the struggle for liberation.  Or, as a young African-American man asked Audre Lorde in Germany in the 1980s, "Would you think that the Black women's liberation struggle causes harm to the overall struggle for Black freedom?"  (The notable thing about Lorde's answer, which can be heard in Dagmar Schultz' documentary Audre Lorde -- The Berlin Years 1984-1992, is the way she changes her spoken delivery.  Her voice goes up about an octave, sounding almost girlish.  I presume that she did so in an attempt to make her forthright answer less threatening to her male interlocutor.  I'm not sure it worked.)

Of course, this notion assumes that liberation is for men only.  Lorde tells a chilling anecdote in I Am Your Sister:
In 1985 I had a dialogue with James Baldwin at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, not far from Boston.  One of the most heated discussions was around the issue of the twelve murdered Black women, and sexual violence and assault against Black women in general within our Black communities.  There were present two other Black women, two other Black men, one white man, and a young Black male student.

Jimmy and one of the older Black men were in agreement that under the tremendous pressures of racism, Black men could not be held responsible for their violence against Black women, since it was a response to an unjust system, and Black women were only incidental victims.  One of the Black men went so far as to say:

"The Black male is not attacking the Black female; it would be a sheep if that's what was there ..."  To this I replied, and still reply:

"Yes, but I'm not a sheep, I'm your sister ... who is learning to use a gun.  If we wind up having to kill each other instead of our enemies, what a terrible waste for us all."

And at this point it was the young Black male student in the room who spoke up to the older men, in defense of his mother and sisters and their right to defend themselves in the street [179].
It suddenly occurred to me that people who raise this objection are thinking in terms of struggle against the First World oppressor, and assume that women's and gay concerns are going to be added to the list of demands that the liberation movement makes of the oppressor.  But the real issue is internal to the struggle for liberation: Third World men must stop oppressing Third World women and other Third World men.  It's not surprising that such men should object to this condition: they have generally absorbed First World sexism and and anti-gay bigotry along with First World political theories like Marxism and psychoanalysis, using these principles to reinforce indigenous inequities.  Still, it is easier for Third World men to stop oppressing other members of their own group than to demand that the First World stop doing so. (Do I need to add that this applies just as much to sexism and racism among gay white Americans?)  All they need to do is stop harming their own people; this will add nothing to the burden of their struggle against the West.  As Lorde told a mostly white female German audience in The Berlin Years, "Each one of you sitting here has some power.  I know that makes you uncomfortable enough to laugh, but you are responsible for using that power, whatever it is.  And that is not altruism, that is survival."

Monday, April 22, 2013

Not Much of a Difference Between a Bridge and a Wall

I was out of town all weekend, from Friday morning to late Sunday afternoon, and I had no time to write.  I'm still getting caught up, but I'm also reading I Am Your Sister, a posthumous collection of Audre Lorde's essays and speeches.  Lorde was one of the great teachers, and as I read these pieces I'm inspired all over again.  That's especially valuable now, when I've been wading through acres of sloppy sludge on Facebook -- I did have time to scan my news feed over the weekend -- that is equally offensive intellectually whether it comes from liberal, radical, or reactionary sources.  By contrast, Lorde's voice on the page -- poetic, exact, and often angry without being panicky -- is like a satisfying meal after an exhausting day.  I don't always agree with her, just most of the time.

For example, from "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action":
And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.  That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own.  For instance, "I can't possibly teach Black women's writings -- their experience is so different from mine."  Yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust?  Or another, "She's a white woman and what could she possibly have to say to me?"  Or, "She's a lesbian, and what would my husband say, or my chairman?"  Or again, "This woman writes of her sons and I have no children."  And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other [42].
I think I've always known this, since as a child I sought out the stories of people different from me as well as those like me.  Rather than hoping to find myself in one person, my twin or clone, I learned to treasure the similarities I found piecemeal in many characters: this interest here, that trait there. I like to think Lorde would have been as put off as I was by the gay male filmmaker who talked as if he believed that we can only respond to characters exactly like ourselves.  That belief is kin to the idea that men can get nothing from women's writing, that straights can't identify with gay characters, that whites can't identify with blacks, and so on.  To me, the stories of people unlike myself have always been invitations to come in and visit and learn.  I'm always baffled when other readers see such stories as forbidding, unwelcoming.  I suspect they're projecting: because they don't want to read these stories, they fantasize that the stories don't want to be read by them.

Not that Lorde accepted all differences.  (Nor does anyone else, really.)  She was sharply critical of those who made excuses for denying the humanity of others, whether they were white feminists who didn't want to have to "deal with the harshness of Black women" (Lorde, Sister Outsider, 126) or black men who didn't want to have to deal with the harshness of black women.  In a scathing response to black sociologist Robert Staples' 1979 attack on black feminists, Lorde wrote:
The lack of a reasonable and articulate Black male viewpoint on these questions is not the responsibility of Black women.  We have too often been expected to be all things to all people and speak everyone else's position but our very own.  Black men are not so passive that they must have Black women speak for them.  Even my fourteen-year-old son knows that.  Black men themselves must examine and articulate their own desires and positions and stand by the conclusions thereof.  No point is served by a Black male professional who merely whines at the absence of his viewpoint in Black women's work.  Oppressors always expect the oppressed to extend to them the understanding so lacking in themselves [46].
The last sentence of that paragraph is familiar to me too.

Among her most thrilling insights were those about difference.  As she told students at Hunter College,
It is within our differences that we are both most powerful and most vulnerable, and some of the most difficult tasks of our lives are the claiming of differences and learning to use those differences for bridges rather than as barriers between us [201].
That's not easy to do, of course.  There's a fascinating scene in the documentary Audre Lorde - The Berlin Years 1984 to 1982 in which Lorde tries to talk to a couple of Afro-German men in her audience.  But one of the things she worked at during her too-short life was learning to how to use differences as a bridge rather than a barrier, and this more than anything else is something I need to learn from her.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Cather in the Dock, Critics in the Stocks

A selection of Willa Cather's letters has just been published, as I learned from Band of Thebes.  This is an event, because the lore for many years was that Cather had destroyed her correspondence and / or forbidden her estate to let it be published.  It turns out that while she did burn the letters she'd written to her great love Isabelle McClung after the latter's death, she let most of her private letters elude her grasp.  Still, it's a bit odd for the New York Times reviewer to dismiss as "a persistent urban legend" the notion of Cather as "the fanatically secretive author eager to erase any record of shameful desire."  Cather did, after all, instruct her estate not to let her letters be published, and the ban was enforced until her last executor died and "the copyright passed to a Cather Trust happy to violate her wishes" as BoT puts it.  Whatever knowledge about herself she wanted to suppress, she did try to suppress it.

For some reason Band of Thebes also quotes a new article by Joan Acocella, the New Yorker writer who in 1995 attacked academic literary critics for accusing (that's how she saw it) Cather of being a lesbian.  BoT reports that Acocella is "particularly glad to have the ban lifted now", but in the new article she basically repeats the same allegations she made before: suggesting that Cather was lesbian is still an accusation, though
Most of the Cather scholars I have talked to about this have told me that, long before O’Brien produced her putative proof in 1984, they had figured that Cather was homosexual. Furthermore, at that time, the gay rights movement had been going on for over a decade. To say that a person who lived in the early part of the century was an undeclared homosexual was not a big deal.
If that were true, then why is it an "accusation" to say so?   Notice the familiar closeting strategy: Oh, come on, why bring it up, everybody already knew she was a dyke!  But Acocella lies: saying that someone who lived a century ago was "an undeclared homosexual" is still a big deal, and still fought about in the media and even in scholarship.  BoT knows this, if Acocella doesn't: he often complains about "degaying."

Acocella attacked Cather biographer Sharon O'Brien for speculating about Cather's life by interpreting her works, but Acocella proceeds to do the same thing: "She may have died a virgin," Acocella writes hopefully, based on "not just on her life but also on her fiction, which very rarely represents a heterosexual relationship that has any romantic or sexual glow to it."  Joanna Russ read Cather's unhappy heterosexual couples as a reflection of Cather's own experience with women, but that infuriated Acocella.  (She half-forgave Russ, though, for calling Cather "innocent," which she took to mean "asexual.")  Only she was allowed to root around in Cather's knickers.
No, the problem was that once she was tagged as a closet lesbian, it was assumed that she lived her life in fear and unhappiness. At that time, proponents of the new modes of literary analysis already believed that the very center of art—its motor, almost—was conflict, but that the conflict was hidden. You had to ferret it out, and for years critics had been doing so, with artist after artist. But Cather was a special treat, because she was an intimidating, conservative woman. To have her in the dock was like getting to interrogate J. Edgar Hoover. The critics went to work, with joy.
Again Acocella posits that critics who said Cather was lesbian were hostile to her, but most of her targets are feminists and lesbians, who certainly didn't think being lesbian was a bad thing.  Acocella attacked the lesbian novelist Jane Rule simply for being, she thought, the first critic to say in print what everyone supposedly knew.  Nor was feminist academia as eager to "accuse" Cather of lesbianism as Acocella thinks.  In a preface to the book republication of her essay on Cather, Joanna Russ recalled that
The first (feminist) journal I sent this essay to gave it -- with my name on it -- to six readers. two of whom liked it and four of whom objected to it in the strongest terms, all denying that Cather was a lesbian, all insisting that I hadn't conclusive evidence of her gayness, and one calling my description of her an "accusation" ... The essay finally came out in 1986 in The Journal of Homosexuality.*
Acocella is still riding the homophobic hobbyhorse I discussed at length in a 2007 post; she hasn't learned a thing since her 2000 book on Cather criticism.  I say "homophobic" not as a clinical term, but to indicate that her denial evidently comes from a strong emotional reaction against the idea that Cather could have had sex with a woman; she can allow her to be queer, as long as she died a virgin.  The same goes for her kneejerk assumption that for anyone else to recognize Cather's lesbianism is an "accusation" and puts "her in the dock".  Her armchair psychoanalysis of others who write about Cather is ironic, given her hatred of psychoanalytic criticism.  Still, in 2013, homophobia can find a platform in elite print media.

The Times article quotes another revealing pronouncement of Acocella's:
In a 1995 article in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella blasted new-style Cather scholars for their obsession with psychosexual subtext, declaring it was time “for the professional critics to give up and leave her books to those who care about them — her readers.” 
As anyone who reads this blog knows, I find plenty of fault with academic critics, but I don't see how they keep "readers" from the books.  I doubt that one ordinary reader in a hundred reads academic literary criticism anyway.  Some of the ideas filter down through journalism and popular biographies, but the ordinary reader is more likely to dismiss any idea he or she dislikes with complacent (if not philistine) common sense.  For better or worse, academics and lay readers live in different worlds, with different interests and approaches.  Cather's books have always been there for anyone who wants to read them, and there's something paranoid and conspiracy-theory-ish in Acocella's implication that academics are hogging Cather's writings like dogs in the manger, growling at any prole who tries to glance at their pages.  And what is Acocella herself but a "professional critic"?

* "To Write 'Like a Woman: Transformations of Identity in the Work of Willa Cather," in Joanna Russ, To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction (Indiana, 1995), p. 149.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Captain Rainbow Decoder Ring

I've run into a rough spot in Jaime Harker's Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America.  In her discussion of Isherwood's novel A Single Man, she talks about his "careful encoding of Los Angeles gay life" (126).  She refers to coding often, and I don't think it means what she thinks it means -- or rather, I'm not sure what she thinks it means.  My understanding is that "coding" means using signs to refer to subjects that can't, for whatever reason, be named directly.  (Or "explicitly," another term that seems to confuse not only Harker but many writers.  Is "explicitly" becoming the new "literally"?)

Harker claims, for example, that the description of George's gym is coded, because "Bodybuilding culture in Los Angeles was, of course, notoriously queer" (127).  But it's not clear that the gym is particularly gay, though like any homosocial space it draws some gay men.  I suspect Harker believes that only gay men indulge in "outrageous posing in front of the mirrors" or rub their faces with skin cream because "I can't afford to get old."

Immediately after, Harker describes George's reflections on young male "hustlers (recognizable at once to experienced eyes like George's) who stand scowling on the street corners or staring into shops with the maximum of peripheral vision" as another of Isherwood's "secret messages" (127).  But by pointing the hustlers out to the reader, Isherwood is acting less like a spy than like a colorful native tour guide, drawing the tourist's attention to local fauna.  There's no secret message here: on the next page of the novel George reflects that he could easily hire one of these boys, but doesn't want their "bought unwilling bodies" (A Single Man,104).  While Isherwood was aware of his gay readership, A Single Man is still written with an eye to the clueless straight reader.  Far from coding, Isherwood explains the codes.

Harker also takes George's visit to the bar where he met his late lover as "another encoded reference to Los Angeles gay culture.  He provides a detailed genealogy of the bar that isn't exclusively gay but nevertheless embraces a transgressive ethos of gay bars" (Harker, 129).  I'm not sure what that last clause is supposed to mean, and it's true that in this case Isherwood is less explicit about the Starboard Side than in the other cases I've discussed: he avoids specifying the sex of the clientele, though bars, like gyms, are traditionally homosocial spaces, so even a heterosexual reader might assume that most of the patrons were male -- except for the "Huge diesel-dikes slugging it out, grimmer far than the men" (130). But Isherwood is explicit that George went there expecting to find sexual partners, that George is only interested sexually in other males, and that he found his male lover there.  Perhaps this episode teeters on the edge of coding, but only a straight reader who was determined not to recognize that George is queer and lives in what used to be called the homosexual "underworld" could suppose that the Starboard Side was just another neighborhood tavern.

Coding in gay and lesbian writing has usually taken certain forms: casting erotic same-sex relationships as "platonic" friendships (usually called "homosocial" these days); addressing the beloved as "you" in poetry or love songs while leaving out any explicit signs of the beloved's sex; or Proust's Albertine strategy, where same-sex lovers in autobiographical material are recast as the other sex.  (For example, the faithless female character Albertine in Remembrance of Things Past is widely assumed to have been based on one of the author's boyfriends.)  In his earlier fiction Isherwood himself simply treated his stand-in character as a sexless observer ("I am a camera") of the queer goings-on around him.  None of these codes seems to be in use in A Single Man.  Even where Isherwood is not totally explicit in every detail, a novel told from the viewpoint of a gay protagonist is not likely to employ much coding.  I may be retrojecting my post-Stonewall assumptions here, but I read A Single Man as a forerunner of later works which don't intentionally exclude straight readers but don't cater to them either.

Jaime Harker does a good job excavating some of the historical context of Isherwood's American writing.  She's spent time in the archives, reading his rough drafts and correspondence, and that's very helpful.  Unfortunately she's not a very good critic.  But Middlebrow Queer was still worth reading.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Highbrow Drag

Here's a funny tidbit that echoes what I hear about the supposed destructive cultural effects of TV and the Internet.  I'm reading Jaime Harker's Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America (Minnesota, 2013), which at one point describes the effects of cheap paperbacks on American literacy and literature.  Like the Internet, they were cheap, gaudy, ubiquitous (sold in drugstores and supermarkets), and indiscriminate -- one might even say promiscuous.  Certainly they fed my own promiscuous reading tendencies, back in the day.  Publishers put sleazy covers on everything, whether it was pulp genre fiction ground out under a pseudonym for a flat fee of a few hundred dollars -- Gore Vidal wrote three murder mysteries under the name Edgar Box when he needed some quick money in the 1950s -- or reprints of the Kinsey reports (Harker seems to think The Kinsey Report was the actual title of those volumes), Jean-Paul Sartre's novels, or recent literary fiction.

The 1950s, when this trend took off, were a period of anxiety about cultural values, and would-be highbrows were displeased about this.  Literature was supposed to be serious, dull, and ideally difficult to read.  It wasn't supposed to have covers with "the shoulder straps of women's dresses and brassieres ... always loose, slipping, or undone" (Harker, 36).  The flood of paperbacks included a lot of gay and lesbian fiction of varying degrees of quality, and since quantity mattered more than quality, the usual publishing censorship often slipped, like the bra straps of the women on their covers.
Cold War gay print culture was visible, lucrative, and influential, even if it wasn't celebratory.  It also contributed to a larger breakdown of cultural hierarchies in its leveling of literary reprints and paperback originals.  It was the threat this lack of distinction posted to Cold War cultural hierarchies that worried Cold Warriors like Malcolm Cowley, much more so than deviant sex.  Cowley's description of a paperback bookstore highlights his concern about discrimination in brow level: "It was rich, random, gaudy, vital, corrupt, and at the same time innocent: it put culture at the disposal of the plain man, even the poorest, for less than the price of a bar whiskey; it was impersonal, friendly, egalitarian, and it proclaimed as dogmas its lack of discrimination.  'Here we are,' the books in the big racks seemed to be saying, 'the mud and sapphires of our time, and for one or two pieces of silver you can take your pick of us."  Cowley's concern about cultural hierarchy echoes those of Cold War intellectuals: democratic access equals an utter "lack of discrimination," one that cultural critics saw as the biggest threat to American life.  As David Earle astutely notes, "What Cowley is doing in these pages is policing the cultural borders between elite literature and popular literature.  He is, as it were, protecting his own intellectual and professional stake in American culture and letters."

... A remarkable number of writers being canonized during the Cold War appeared in paperback reprints, including James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway [47].
There's a lot going on here, but for now I want to point out what I see as the parallel to concerns about the Internet today: there's this flood of material being thrown out there where just anybody can get at it, and there's no proper supervision to teach the lower orders what they should choose and what they should avoid.  It's not just about children: a lot of the worry is about adults who lack the moral fiber to discern good from bad.  This is nothing new, of course.  It goes back to the explosion of print in previous centuries, but even before the invention of printing books were burned -- probably in every country that had them -- to try to keep the unruly written word in bounds.

As always, who watches the watchers?  Literature was still an unquestioned boys' club during the Cold War, so Cowley's "plain man" should be read literally, even though women have always been big readers, and writers as well.  But the Woman Writer was as suspicious to the boys in this period who sought to be Truly Serious as the Homosexual Writer, the Jewish Writer, the Negro Writer.  I'll return to this later on.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Social Construction of Social Construction

Alexis Madrigal has posted at the Atlantic about his project to "reassemble an RSS feed filled with a very specific kind of blog.  I'm looking for researchers, scholars, and academics who don't post more than once per day."  Sounds like a good idea to me, and I'll watch to see where it goes.

I decided to click through to Mind Hacks, a blog Madrigal considers "exemplary."  It looks good, all right, and something in the most recent post caught my eye.  The blogger (actually one of the co-bloggers, I guess), Vaughan Bell, links to his own article at the Observer on developments in the diagnosis of mental illness: "some of the best evidence against the idea that psychiatric diagnoses like ‘schizophrenia’ describe discrete ‘diseases’ comes not from the critics of psychiatry, but from medical genetics.  I found this a fascinating outcome because it puts both sides of the polarised 'psychiatry divide' in quite an uncomfortable position."
The “mental illness is a genetic brain disease” folks find that their evidence of choice – molecular genetics – has undermined the validity of individual diagnoses, while the “mental illness is socially constructed” folks find that the best evidence for their claims comes from neurobiology studies.
I wonder about this, because I've learned to be suspicious when people from within the sciences start throwing around the term "social construction."  Generally they have no idea what social construction means (though in fairness nobody really does), and I'm afraid Bell seems to fit the generalization.  In the first place, I think he's confusing social constructionists with the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  No doubt there's some overlap there, and it may be that some social constructionists are indeed "uncomfortable" when they "find that the best evidence for their claims come from neurobiology studies."  But while I've found plenty to criticize in much social-constructionist work, it is generally misread and/or misrepresented by outsiders.

I'll own to being a social constructionist, though I'm not terribly invested in the label.  I'm not an academic, though, and I'm not representative of anybody.  But I'm not at all uncomfortable about citing evidence from the sciences against scientists who take positions I dislike.  It's not the only way to debate them, but I don't see how being a social constructionist excludes the use of science, as Bell seems to believe.  (There's also a popular tendency to assume that any scientist who criticizes biological-determinist dogma -- Stephen Jay Gould, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Richard Lewontin, et al. -- must necessarily be a social constructionist.)

In the case of race, for example, there's no significant doubt that skin color and certain other traits associated with people of sub-Saharan African descent are determined by the genes.  (Which genes, we don't know.)  But those are the traits out of which race is socially constructed.  The constructions can be very different, so that a person who is classified as "black" in the United States would be classified as "white" in Haiti or other countries.  In the US, racial classifications have polarized in the past century: we used to have "white," "black," and "colored," with a number of discrete gradations in between.  "Mulatto" used to be a category in the US census, but it's gone now: you're either black or you're white, and though mixed-race people challenge this, the US officially operates on an uncomfortable racial binary.  Other races fit into the picture rather uneasily, because "race" (like "civil rights') has come to mean black/white first of all.  At the same time, while many people insist with liberal goodwill that skin color is just skin-deep, most people seem to think that language, customs, styles of dress, art forms, and other cultural traits are in some way tied to race, or at least ethnicity -- whatever, they're innate, tied obscurely to skin color and hair texture.

As I've argued before, the current (though older than most people realize) scientific construction of homosexuality is of the invert, the soul of a woman trapped in the body of a man and vice versa.  The science is confused, to put it gently.  This leads to confusion as to whether a man who puts his penis into another man's body is a homosexual, because the theory would dictate otherwise: only the partner who plays the "woman's role" is the real homosexual.  Yet scientists are unclear about this problem, partly because most of them seem not to have thought about it.  As with race, it comes down to a matter of definition, not science.

So as far as I can tell, science is perfectly compatible with social constructionism where mental illness is concerned.  This also ties to homosexuality, since science used to tell us authoritatively that homosexuality was a mental illness -- until suddenly it wasn't anymore.  That the categories and diagnoses of mental illness keep changing needn't be an embarrassment to science.  It only means that scientists and clinicians need to adopt a becoming modesty about their categories: they aren't final, they aren't set in stone, and they may change -- they almost certainly will, in fact.  But in order to maintain their authority, scientists are "attracted by the durability of stone", as Sartre put it.

Oddly (or maybe not), I've had the same trouble getting scientists to grasp this as I've had getting religionists to grasp it about their own magisterium: it makes them very uncomfortable to recognize or admit just how much doctrine has changed over the centuries, and that their own firmly-held beliefs are historically situated and shaped.  That's one of the paradoxes of being a thinking human being.  As the psychologist Sheldon Kopp wrote in his "Eschatological Laundry List":
We must live within the ambiguity of partial freedom, partial power, and partial knowledge.
All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data.
Yet we are responsible for everything we do. 
Some people find it very hard to live with this, not because they don't act or decide, but because they hate to acknowledge that their acts and decisions are constrained by incomplete information.  One way to evade acknowledging it is to deploy false binaries and straw men, as Bell did in his post and his article: the only alternative to Science is blank-slate "social constructionism," a total rejection of science and rationality.  Which means ignoring the fact that their critics often are scientists.  When this becomes impossible to ignore, you just affect bemusement that your science-hating critics are using science to argue against you: how embarrassing for them!  But it's not embarrassing for them, not at all.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Stage Frights

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I'm rereading Emma Donoghue's excellent book Passions Between Women (Harper, 1993), and finding lots of good things in it.  For one thing, I located this delicious tidbit I keep thinking of but wasn't able to quote accurately before:
One librarian, Mrs Lord, was accused by certain Dublin men of lending obscene novels to their daughters; she responded by assuring them that she underlined all the dirty bits so the girls would know what to skip [15].
We should all have such librarians.

But what I like about Passions Between Women is Donoghue's ability to remember that people differ from each other, have different reasons for what they do, and probably have more than one reason for what they do.  In the chapter on Female Husbands, for example, she acknowledges that women who adopted male dress and identities, and pursued romances with other women may have had numerous reasons for doing it that way.  (It wasn't necessary to pass for male to find a girlfriend.)  She also shows that the "deceived" wives of the female husbands may not have been deceived after all, or may not have minded the deception.  When their husbands were caught, the wives often came to their defense.  The memory of Donoghue's discussion had a lot to do with why Stewart Van Cleve's account of a passing woman in 19th-century America annoyed me so much: like several scholars Donoghue criticizes, Van Cleve made unwarranted assumptions about women's motives for taking on male identities.

After the female husbands, Donoghue moves on to "breeches parts":
Female crossdressing was central to British culture in this period [1668-1801], but it was a site of contradiction and double standards.  While female husbands such as Mary Hamilton were being whipped and jailed for male impersonation, women were playing "breeches parts" in roughly a quarter of all plays.  Individual attitudes too were inconsistent and unpredictable; as Terry Castle has pointed out, Henry Fielding could denounce female transvestites in his translation of Juvenal's Sixth Satire, yet as a theatre manager hire the crossdressing actress Charlotte Charke to play male roles.  Hostility to female crossdressing does not seem to have borne any relation to the completeness of the disguise: some female soldiers who successfully passed as men were lauded for it, while other women were attacked for riding unfeminine riding habits.  The figure of the crossdresser was read in many different ways, depending on the circumstances, what her motives were thought to be, and how much she seemed to threaten the powers of men over women [87].
Donoghue says that historians, including queer ones, tend assume that the spectacle of women playing men on stage was intended to titillate male audiences, but this wasn't always the case:
Richard Steele's The Tender Husband [1705], which includes a scene of a female transvestite wooing another woman, was so popular with women that it played on Ladies' Nights (dates on which women could request the performance of a particular play) on average every two years during the first half of the eighteenth century.
And:
The most uncomfortable moment in one such play is when Sylvia, the crossdressed heroine of George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer (1706) flirts and eventually spends a night with her nurse's daughter, Rose, who emerges next day in bewilderment, complaining "I don't know whether I had a Bedfellow or not."  Neither do we.  The obvious joke is that, though Rose doesn't know it, she has not had a "Bedfellow" in the sense of a male heterosexual partner.  But the audience cannot be sure what is being implied; what has happened to Rose in the night to make her so unsure about the nature of sex, about what being "Bedfellows" means?  [89]
This isn't a particularly subtle reading, but it seems to me that many scholars, whether historians or literary critics, have trouble recognizing or analyzing such ambiguities.  Donoghue stands out for her sensitivity to these realities and ambiguities.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Taboo or Not Taboo

There are a lot of things I don't get about the segment of movie fans who love ultraviolence, or who rate movies by the number of bare breasts or penises they show.  As I wrote yesterday, it seems that many gay men aren't interested at all in the stories being told or the characters' journeys, just in the sex scenes -- which are simulated anyway.  The same thing goes for the geysers of blood and severed heads: they're fake, yet the fans react as though they were real and totally cool.  Sometimes, it's true, they talk or write as though they're praising the special-effects technicians who constructed those awesome illusions -- and why not, since so many DVDs have making-of features that show how the illusions were done -- but at the same time, it was so great when the dude's head exploded!

I can get it to some extent, of course.  At the end of Neil Jordan's 1986 film Mona Lisa, the fugitive prostitute Simone (Cathy Tyson) is tracked down by her pimp and by Mortwell, the gang boss (played by Michael Caine) he works for.  "Don't worry, love, I'm not going to hurt you," Mortwell tells Simone just before he begins to hit her.  But he doesn't know she has a loaded gun in her purse.  "Don't hit me!" she bellows, and fires, hitting him in the foot.  He bounces around, yelling in pain, while Simone yells "It hurts, doesn't it?  It really fucking hurts!" and shoots him through the heart.  Her pimp, bravado gone, is already running away down the hotel hallway; she shoots him too.

I loved this scene, and when the film came out on video I sometimes played it over and over.  There's not much gore, just a little blood when Simone kills Mortwell.  Yet it was tremendously effective, partly because it was relatively realistic: a geyser of CGI blood would have made it ridiculous.  But it was mainly effective because the viewer knows what Simone has endured at Mortwell's hands.  I first saw Mona Lisa soon after its original release, and just a few days after I saw David Lynch's Blue Velvet, a film I hated on first viewing and have never watched again.  One reason I hated Blue Velvet was that it fetishized sexual violence, making it comic and even cool, and worse yet, confused consensual sadomasochism with real violence.  I noticed that many reviewers blamed the victim, not her batterer.  And it was worse than I thought, as I learned when I read a newspaper interview with Lynch in which he explained one of these scenes as "Some women just seem to want you to hit them."  The ending of Mona Lisa was an antidote for Blue Velvet: though the films were made at about the same time, it was as if Neil Jordan were answering David Lynch: Being beaten up isn't funny or sexy or cool, it really fucking hurts.

I got a slight insight into the fanboy mindset, however, when I read Film Out of Bounds: Essays and Interviews on Non-Mainstream Cinema Worldwide, edited by Matthew Edwards (who actually wrote most of the book, with contributions by a few other writers) and published by McFarland in 2007.  Edwards is a British fanboy, now (or at any rate, in 2007) resident in Japan.  By "non-mainstream cinema", Edwards means mainly low-budget horror, splatter, and sexploitation movies of the kind that used to play in drive-ins and now often go straight to video.  That's okay, but my definition of non-mainstream cinema is a lot broader than that, so I was a bit disappointed to find how narrow the book's focus was.

After a chapter on Japanese "pink" films, Edwards moves on to what he calls the Golden Age of Porn, from the early 1970s to the rise of home video a decade later.  He focuses on Curt McDowell's 1975 Thundercrack!, which he calls "the perfect example of seventies porno -- a time of unpredictability, when filmmakers were willing to break taboos and show us gratuitous sex.  At the same time filmmakers aimed to deliver films with a fun or interesting storyline, and made them with impressive production values" (65).

As it happens, I've seen Thundercrack!, though it was more than twenty years ago, and I saw it partly because I was curious to see how it integrated a male-male sex scene into an otherwise heterosexual movie.  As I recall, the scene was played straight, if you'll pardon the figure of speech: serious, consensual, and pretty sexy.  This was in contrast to most of the movie, which was a parody of a certain kind of horror film: a group of (relative) innocents seek shelter in a decrepit mansion with crazy inhabitants and have a lot of weird adventures there. Other examples range from James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932) to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and probably beyond; I'm not a student of the genre.  The other sex scenes, as I recall, are played more broadly, and Edwards's account reminds me of a major plot point: one of the characters is a female gorilla (played by someone in a gorilla suit), who has a thing for human males, and in the end, love wins out.

So, how does Edwards, fan of taboo-breaking cinema, handle the gay scene in Thundercrack?  With tongs.  He refers to it thusly:
This leads to the film's infamous gay sex scene.  Once that is over with ... [64]
He describes the rest of the film, including the sex scenes, in detail, but draws a veil over the gay stuff.  The succeeding chapter is an interview by Edwards of Melinda McDowell, the filmmaker's sister and one of the film's leads.  The gay scene is delicately brought up:
One of the most talked-about aspects of Thundercrack! is the inclusion of a gay sex scene.  How did this go down with audiences of the time?

Audiences entered the theater never dreaming they would be subjected to close-up man on (or, in) man scenes.  A thrill for many, a reason to make a mad dash from the theater for others.
That having been addressed, Edwards moves thankfully on to ask about the scene where Medusa the gorilla gives the former circus worker Bing a handjob.  He calls it "a funny scene" but speculates that "maybe a double was used."  As long as they weren't both males -- but McDowell coyly refuses to tell who was in the gorilla suit for that scene.  It sounds to me like audiences of this time are still uncomfortable with guy on/in guy action in a porn film, even if they came to see taboos broken.  (Which reminds me, even one naked guy is enough to start "a mad dash from the theater" for many people, most of them male.)  Some taboos are clearly more taboo than others.  And by now, "extreme" cinema, even if it's not mainstream, can hardly be called "taboo-breaking."  For the audiences who love this stuff, it's the absence of blood geysers and lopped-off limbs that is taboo.

It seems to me like an impoverished approach to life and art, but whatever floats your boat.  And I don't mean that I can never appreciate such movies; I just wonder about people for whom splatter and glimpses of nipples are the measure by which they judge entertainment or art.  It strikes me as depersonalized: I loved the climax of Mona Lisa because I identified with Simone.  The fanboy mentality doesn't appear to seek identification with characters: even a personal motive like vengeance is built less on people than on the recurring tropes of extreme, unrealistic violence.  Ditto for the focus on sex scenes and exposure of naked bodies: whatever it means to the fans, it doesn't seem to be about people, either the actors or the characters.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Young in One Another's Arms

Last night I watched Jon Garcia's 2012 film The Falls, about two Mormon men who fall in love with each other while on their missionary service.  It's a lovely, low-key piece of work, with good production values and fine performances by the leads.  And though I feel a bit weird for saying so (as if that ever stops me), I appreciated the film's relative reticence about sex: there are no attempts at hot guy 2 guy action scenes, not even any frontal nudity -- just one brief shot of one character's naked backside.  In keeping with this approach, a fight that occurs midway through the film also takes place offscreen.  This evidently confused some viewers, who couldn't figure out what happened, though it was explained clearly enough in the dialogue. 

But there were several scenes where the boys lie in bed in each other's arms, talking to each other.  There's an old saw to the effect that boys give girls love in order to get sex, while girls give boys sex in order to get love.  My attitude is analogous: I like to see boys (or men) getting naked together so they can hug and kiss and hold hands and cuddle, while many other gay men seem to like to see boys hug and kiss and hold hands in hopes that they'll see some skin, hopefully a penis or two, and some hot guy 2 guy action, even if it's simulated.  (There may be excited dispute whether a scene was simulated or real, though like most people, gay men are often irritatingly naive about the fact that movies involve acting, and aren't necessarily reality.)  Several customer reviews of The Falls at Amazon complained that it wasn't sexy enough, like the guy who ambivalently observed that there was "no bedroom Olympics" in the film, though another exulted that "towards the end of the movie we get to see a male butt!"  On the other hand, some did praise it for its restraint.  But judging from many reviews of gay male films I've seen, a lot of my brethren watch them only for the sex scenes.

Maybe I'm just getting old, but I find myself increasingly bored by such simulations, and sympathetic with the actors for having to fake it.  The simulations generally seem to have no function within the film, yet they're almost obligatory. After all, there's plenty of porn around, even more accessible these days than charming low-key romances like The Falls, so why expect hot hardcore action in films that aren't about it?

And yet I often do enjoy sex scenes -- the one between Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung that opens Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together, for example. which I wish was a bit longer.  But I'm much more moved by the scene later in the film, where Leung and Cheung slow-dance fully-clothed in the kitchen of their Buenos Aires rooming house.  From narrative films I expect stories of developing (or unraveling) relationships between characters; I've begun to wonder if that is even compatible with hardcore sex scenes.  Paradoxically, I expect actors in fiction features to depict characters who are rendered emotionally naked, as they come to know themselves and each other.  I once had an online exchange with someone who was bothered by the way male characters in many Asian films are more emotionally expressive than their American counterparts, often weeping with abandon.  American actors rarely seem to be expected to do that.  My interlocutor admitted that maybe he was just embarrassed by seeing men cry and generally express emotion.  He was straight, but I've come to suspect that many gay men are also embarrassed when male characters get all emotional.  But that's a lot of what I look for in film.  The Falls isn't perfect by any means, but it went places that many American films, including gay films, don't.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Gender or the Sex?

I've begun reading Daniel Humphrey's new book Queer Bergman: Sexuality, Gender, and the European art Cinema (Texas, 2013).  I knew there were gay and bisexual characters in some of Ingmar Bergman's films; already from reading Humphrey's introduction I've learned that there were more than I knew about, and the prospect of a queer-oriented reading of Bergman's work has promise.  I was also aware of the connection between European art films and sexual frankness in 1950s America, and that some "art houses" which specialized in showing such films later became porn houses, some of which harbored male-on-male cruising and on-site sexual activity.  But the mainstream movie palaces were also proverbial cruising places.  One thing I've begun to notice is that Humphrey seems unaware of this connection, of the overlap of the cultural uses to which film and its temples were put.

So, for example, Humphrey cites work on film narrative by the critic David Bordwell, who wrote that "in the art film, 'personal psychology may be indeterminate'" and that in many art films "'scenes are built around chance encounters, and the entire film may consist of nothing more than a series of them, linked by a trip ... or aimless wandering."  Humphrey then suggests "for the post-World War II queer spectator, a historically specific sense of queer relationality -- the habits of disaffected homosexuals searching for their lost reflections, the closeted queers' search for their equally guarded kindred spirits, the drawn-out experience of cruising urban landscapes for fellow travelers" (45).  Bordwell, according to Humphrey, prefers this "connotation-based" approach to cinematic narrative and exalts it for its "ambiguity" (46).

There may be something to this, but I have some objections.  First, although cruising has the episodic quality Humphrey assigns to it, it is also goal-directed, seeking a particular kind of connection.  It may also lead to finding community, among those queers who stick around in the cruising places to socialize.  Second, I think Humphrey is conflating the post-Stonewall closet with its predecessor: the former means not telling straight acquaintances that one is gay, the latter means cutting oneself off from the fellowship of other queers.  "Coming out" (though not "out of the closet") in the pre-Stonewall period meant making one's debut in gay society, and having one's first homosexual copulation.  The "search" Humphrey mentions was the quest for the secret society, though in large cities it wasn't all that secretive or "guarded."

Most important, even the supposedly unambiguous Hollywood mode of narrative had its ambiguities, which gay fans made the most of, looking for in-jokes, double meanings, and the like.  Other gay critics have pointed out that there were plenty of gay people working in Hollywood, most of them in crew and technical areas, but also writing, acting and sometimes directing, and their sensibilities would have been reflected in their work, sometimes deliberately.  There's a large literature, starting with Parker Tyler and Vito Russo, on queer readings of Hollywood film.  Perhaps the style of European art film would have signified homosexuality in different ways, but gay moviegoers didn't have to go to art houses to find plenty of material for speculation, gossip, and wishful thinking.  I'm wondering if Humphrey isn't, to some extent, constructing a false dichotomy here.

Another area where I quibble is in his discussion of lighting and close-up styles for actors.  Humphrey writes that some European art films' "sexual allure also results from the ways in which the male actors are lit and photographed, reinforcing a sense of passivity, at least to an American spectator, which is in strong contradistinction to the ways men were typically lit and photographed in the classical Hollywood cinema ... Beginning with American motion pictures of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the image of women was concretized by using the rich, eroticizing chiaroscuro patterns that the artists Rembrandt and Caravaggio had conceived for their subjects centuries before, while male protagonists increasingly became more functionally illuminated through what cinematographers refer to as 'flat', or high-key, lighting" (42).  European art films continued to light male characters with those "rich, eroticizing chiaroscuro patterns" at least some of the time; Humphrey discusses Andrei Tarkovky's Ivan's Childhood (1962) at some length for its lighting of the male leads.

Again, there is something to this, but I still wonder.  Flat lighting of male stars in American films doesn't seem to have inhibited gay male (or straight female) fans from eroticizing them, even when they were not pretty boys in the mold of Rudolf Valentino, Ramon Navarro, or Ivor Novello.  Humphrey seems to assume that physical beauty means femininity, and that if men aren't lit and photographed in the same way Hollywood treats its women, they won't be attractive.  This is a weird kind of essentialism to my mind: far from being queer, it's built on the third-sex, quasi-heterosexual model so dear to 19th century and 20th century sexologists, and to not a few gay people.  But as I've pointed out before, this model is incoherent.  It assumes that erotic desire is male, and that eroticism always consists of an active subject (assumed to be male) and a passive (assumed to be female) object.  This assumption underlies a lot of cinematic "gaze" theory, pioneered by Laura Mulvey, which essentializes the camera as male, and the actor of either sex as female.  (As I recall, Mulvey was much more tentative in her 1975 "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" than her disciples have been.)  But if a woman, let alone a sissy boy, gazes longingly at Clark Gable (whose advent, Humphrey declares, "portended the end of that era in mainstream Ameridan cinema, one that has never really been repeated" [44]), the woman/sissy becomes the man and the man becomes the sissy/woman.  The essentialist-despite-himself Gore Vidal claimed that this was why Hollywood actors became alcoholics: being subject to the objectifying gaze of the camera was emasculating, because men aren't supposed to be looked at.  (Actresses, he claimed, took up knitting, though I guess nobody told Judy Garland.)  Maybe this is true, but to me it suggests that gender needs to be decoupled from the Gaze and other related concepts.  Gender is accidental, not essential, in such analysis.

Like just about everybody these days, Humphrey seems to be of at least two minds about "gender."   He straddles the line between using the word in its 1970s feminist/sociological sense (where gender as behavior or personality traits is distinguished from biological, bodily sex) and its present confused and confusing sense, where it means both body and behavior.  So, for example, he opposes "male" and "feminine" several times.  "Male" is a sex, so its opposite should be "female."  But on page 109 he writes:
In many of his writings, Freud seems beholden to the conventional thought of his day, which suggests that it can only be a person’s “feminine” sensibility that desires to have sex with a “masculine” partner, and vice versa. In other words, masculinity requires femininity in its sexual object, and femininity requires masculinity in its sexual object. While Freud would later develop a theory of homosexuality in ways that seem more in line with contemporary understandings, only with the development of queer theory would scholars fully conceptualize homosexual and heterosexual object choices as distinct from – although not completely unrelated to – female and male gender positions. Meanwhile, the notion of bisexuality remained problematic in psychoanalysis; while it stood for a mere masculine-feminine mixture in the person, it was often discussed by Freud as part of a heterosexual-homosexual dynamic in the psyche. Put simply, Freud made the mistake of confusing gendered identity with sexual object choice. 
This problem is hardly confined to Freud or "the conventional thought of his day."  The tendency to assume that erotic desire for females is innately male, and vice versa, is older than Freud and persists in the present, where it's the unspoken assumption that structures scientific study of "sexual orientation."

Having just finished reading Queer Bergman, I've begun to reread Emma Donoghue's Passions Between Women (Harper, 1993), which shows how women who loved other women were assumed from antiquity until the 19th century to be physical hermaphrodites, with oversized clitorises or possibly even genuine penises that came bursting out of their bodies like a Ridley Scott alien (only lower down).  The savants who postulated this couldn't decide whether the penis produced or merely enabled desire for women.  Nowadays, however, gender itself has been reified into a discrete matrix of traits and behavior, somehow radically separate from the body yet still obscurely tied to maleness or femaleness.

I can't blame Humphrey for succumbing to the conventional thought of his day, but this passage indicates that he can see the way out.  Queer Bergman was well worth reading, and I'll probably check out some of the early Bergman films Humphrey discusses, as well as look again at some of the later ones.

Friday, April 5, 2013

What Is the Sound of One American Flip-flopping?

Of course I've been watching the situation on the Korean peninsula, though not all that carefully.  I'm worried about my friends there, but it's hard to take most of the US coverage seriously.  It's the usual mixture of hysteria and posturing, but I know I should take it more seriously because the US is a threat to peace in Korea, as well as in Asia -- well, in the world -- generally.

When people I know have posted stuff on Facebook about this, I've mostly made fun of it.  On the one hand, the corporate media have been telling us (and my friends dutifully swallow it), North Korea is a clown show as well as a failed state.  Kim Jong Un is a fat nut, a joke, and so on.  But North Korea is also an imminent threat -- to the United States.  Most American journalists, and most Americans, don't care about South Korea.  They're worried that the North Korean army will flood across the Korean/US border, and conquer us without firing a shot.  Kim has threatened to fire missiles at us!  With nuclear warheads!  Never mind that as part of the clown-show coverage, most Americans probably are well aware that North Korea doesn't have missiles that can get very far off the launching pad, never mind fly the thousands of miles to get to us.  They could reach South Korea, but most Americans are vague about where that is, don't know much about it ("Gangnam Style" is about the limit) or world geography in general (as we're often told), and don't much care what happens to people in other countries.  I've seen the same pattern often over the years: US propaganda about Vietnam took much the same form, and more recently the US propaganda about Iraq.

I said as much in comments under a posting by a former Bloomington acquaintance who's been teaching English in South Korea for several years now.  (On occasion he's expressed contempt for his Korean students, which doesn't endear him to me.)  He replied peevishly that as a resident of Seoul, he had reason to be worried about the North.  But, I pointed out, he hadn't posted about the threat to Seoul, he'd posted about North Korea as an immanent threat to the United States -- and never mind that he'd been posting lots of clown-show material about Kim Jong Un.  (Making fun of Kim's weight, for example, which my acquaintance is in no position to cast the first stone about.)  He justified that as dark humor, given the circumstances, which I suppose was fair enough.

But his embrace of US and right-wing South Korean propaganda is not fair enough.  This acquaintance has never, to my knowledge, taken any notice of the ways the US has tried to destabilize the Korean peninsula.  I said most of this, and was intrigued by some of his friends' responses to me.  One assumed that I didn't know anything about Korea, had never been there, and didn't care what happened to Koreans.  I set him straight on that, mentioning my numerous friends there and my desire to live there someday.  In fairness, he doesn't know me personally, and couldn't have known of it; but he showed what happens when you assume.  He also took issue with my pointing out the flipping between treating North Korea as a laughable failed state on one hand, and a powerful, menacing threat on the other: he claimed that I'd made this up out of my "miserable imagination", though my English-teaching acquaintance's postings were a perfect example of this pattern.  It reminded me of the time a gay American soldier stationed in Korea demanded angrily where I'd heard the "propaganda" that South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship for over twenty years; from Korean history, I told him, and from Korean friends.

Hell, on my last visit to Korea I had a conversation on this very subject with a Korean, a middle-aged salaryman who approached me in the COEX mall in Seoul.  This was right after a South Korean ship, the Cheonan, was sunk with some loss of life under circumstances that remain murky: the South Korean and American governments claimed the cause was a North Korean mine, but that has been questioned by sensible people.
After asking me the usual biographical questions -- where was I from, what brought me to Korea, what did I do back home in America -- he asked what I thought about the sinking of the Cheonan. Didn't I think that America would help Korea, as Mrs. Clinton had promised? I made a face, and told him I wouldn't rely too much on American promises. What, he asked, is she a liar? She is, I told him, and so is Obama: think of what they have said about Iran and numerous other countries. Besides, didn't he remember that in the Korean Civil War, the US had promised to help the South if the North attacked -- yet when that attack happened, there was no help until the South was almost entirely conquered?

He conceded that unhappily, but then he brightened and declared that there was nothing to worry about, because the North is very weak. There is no danger that they could do much damage to the South. I thought about that for a moment, then asked him why, if the North is so harmless, President Lee and the Americans are saying that the North is a deadly threat? That took him aback too. We chatted for a few moments more, and then we shook hands and he went on his way.
No, I wasn't making this up out of my miserable imagination.  I encountered similar confusion among other South Koreans, especially those who came from political and/or military families.  And within a day after my exchange on Facebook I found some useful links confirming my reading of American corporate media coverage of North Korea.   I've mentioned before the naval base the US has been building, against intense local resistance, on Jeju Island.  Its primary purpose is to "contain" China, but it will be even closer to North Korea.

FAIR, as usual, had a couple of excellent articles, demolishing the US stance of innocence.   This one describes joint US/ROK military "exercises," an ongoing form of entertainment ever since the Korean Civil War ended by truce in 1953.
So there are "exercises" right next door, conducted by the world's most powerful military, which possesses thousands of nuclear weapons; and then there's menacing saber-rattling.

While North Korea's apparent threats are obviously troubling, one doesn't have to be paranoid to take offense at those military drills. As Christine Hong and Hyun Lee wrote (Foreign Policy in Focus, 2/15/13):
The drama unfolding on the other side of the 38th parallel attests to an underreported escalation of military force on the part of the United States and South Korea. In fact, on the very day that Kim visited Mu Island, 80,000 U.S. and South Korean troops were gearing up for the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian. For the first time in its history, this war exercise included a simulation of a pre-emptive attack by South Korean artillery units in an all-out war scenario against North Korea. Ostensibly a defensive exercise in preparation for an attack by the north, the joint U.S./South Korea war games have taken on a decidedly offensive characteristic since Kim Jong Il's death. What’s more, a South Korean military official discussing the exercise raised red flags by mentioning the possibility of responding to potential North Korean provocation with asymmetric retaliation, a direct violation of UN rules of engagement in warfare.
In other words, there are some real world events that might bother North Korea's leadership–no matter what one might think about the level of North Korean paranoia. On much of the U.S. television coverage, the threats are virtually all coming from one side, without any explanation, and the United States is merely on the scene to bring down the level of tension. 
[P.S.  FAIR also did a segment on North Korea for their weekly broadcast Counterspin, which aired on Friday.  You can listen or download the podcast here.  Their guest was Tim Shorrock, whose excellent article on the background of the conflict went up at Salon on the same day.]

Imagine, as someone else suggested, that China was conducting military exercises in Mexico.  Remember, for that matter, how graciously the US welcomed Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, which were very plausibly there as a deterrent against US aggression against Cuba.  (This was right after the US had tried unsuccessfully to overturn the new Cuban regime by an invasion.)  As another source quoted by FAIR put it, both North and South Korean leaders are fulminating about what they say they'll do in retaliation if they're attacked.  The North, then, doesn't seem to be threatening to make the first move, though in the current overwrought situation, something could happen anyway.

Another FAIR post today reports how CNN brought in a retired American general to sketch out, at some length, what could happen if hostilities break out between the Koreas.
Well, this is all starting to sound pretty alarming. Until they get to the end of the discussion:
FOREMAN: But you don't think this will happen?
MARKS: Not at all.
Oh. Sorry to waste everybody's time, then.
This is CNN, mind you, not Fox.  Which is why you really have to bypass the corporate media almost entirely to get sane coverage of Korea.  Or of anything, really, but Korea's my subject today.

According to Democracy Now! yesterday, the Obama administration is "reconsidering" its bellicose stance toward North Korea.  A good idea, for the sake of all Koreans.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say Yes

In order to procrastinate I'm reading this new book from the library, Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom by Leslie C. Bell.  I just now looked to see who published it -- University of California Press -- and that surprised me, because Hard to Get reads like something an ordinary commercial publisher would issue.  Bell describes herself as a feminist psychotherapist as well as a sociologist.  The main concession she makes to what I'd consider academic standards is that she provides some details on her research approach, such as how she constructed her sample, the kinds of interview questions she asked, and so on. That's good, but it's not enough.

Hard to Get raises some valuable questions, but Bell seems to be stuck in some basic binaries.  For example:
So what’s a good girl to do? The one form of assertion open to a good girl in relation to men is to say no. But what happens when she starts wanting to say yes? And what if she wants to say yes some of the time and no some of the time? [99].
That last question is scary.  I don't believe there is any "girl," good or bad, who says yes all the time.  Even the baddest girl will turn down some potential partners.  Has anyone tried to count the number of people we reject compared to the number we accept, whether we're talking about one-night stands or potential committed relationships?  And that leaves aside the people we don't pursue from lack of interest in the first place, plus people to whom we might have said yes but who said no to us.  Samuel R. Delany wrote a little about this in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (NYU Press, 1999), noting that in the Times Square porn theaters where he used to cruise, he observed far more rejections than acceptances, and the rejections were almost always made with a minimum of fuss.  Though he wasn't doing a systematic study, a place where men cruise for transient, on-site sex makes the transactions more visible than in a heterosexual dating situation.

It probably is true, alas, that many people don't consider it obvious that someone who says yes at times will say no at other times.  This generalizes, as among anti-abortion propagandists who talk as though a woman who has an abortion will never want to bear a child to term, even though most women who seek abortions in the US are already mothers.  And it's enforced by the socio-legal assumption, common not just in the US but in many societies, that a woman who isn't a virgin can't be raped: having once said yes (even to her husband) she can never again say no to anyone.  But Bell writes as though the concept is new to her as well.  Her rhetorical question shook me up, because it reminds me of the assumptions that underlie a lot of discourse about women's sexuality.

By contrast, it's hard to imagine anyone asking the same question about men who say yes, perhaps because men are still assumed to do the asking, and because men are assumed to be such horndogs that they'll never pass up an opportunity.  From what Bell writes, it is pretty clear that despite all the changes in American sexual mores in the past fifty years, women are still expected to be the gatekeepers of male sexual aggressiveness, and a woman who takes the initiative with males is still suspect.

One thing I do like about Bell is that she recognizes that "good girls" -- young women who postpone sexual activity until their twenties, and who avoid casual involvements in favor of committed relationships -- don't necessarily have it better, or easier, than "bad" ones.  For example, one of her "good girls," who delayed first intercourse until after college, and then only in committed relationships, contracted gonorrhea from one and genital warts from another. But she doesn't like to take that recognition too far.  The "bad" girls she interviews tend to have more experience of committed relationships than she gives them credit for, and her avowed feminism seems poorly informed.  She was born in 1970, so it's not surprising that her impression of Second Wave feminism is based more on mass-media stereotypes than on historical research, let alone personal experience.

Consider "Claudia" (a pseudonym), one of the young women Bell classifies as "bad."  Claudia is "a twenty-eight-year old postdoctoral researcher" (1), a Latina from a poor family who did well in school and decided not to live her mother's life of early marriage and childbearing.  She has had numerous one-night stands as well as several serious relationships, and she first had intercourse in high school with a "long-term boyfriend" (72); as Bell concedes, Claudia "remained a good girl in that she was having sex according to her boyfriend's desires, in the context of a long-term relationship" (73).  After she broke up with that boyfriend, she alternated between serious relationships and more casual (though often ongoing) ones.  Bell concludes that Claudia "did not understand these to be strategies that she was pursuing.  She perceived men as rejecting her, when it was often she who imposed limits on her relationships" (81).  This, I'd say, is a half-truth.  True, Claudia did impose limits on her relationships, but Bell is positing a false equivalence between Claudia's limits and the demands of her boyfriends.

Her first boyfriend, for example, "had had many sexual partners while Claudia remained a virginal good girl.  For several years of the relationship, they did not have intercourse because "he thought I was too young at the time, but [he] also cared about me a lot and liked me, so I think he was saving me for later.  But he also didn't want to coerce me into something I didn't want" (73).  It was later, in high school, that she "gave in" to him, though she didn't really want sex at the time; he continued dating other women, while she stayed faithful to him, and it seems she didn't really enjoy the sex she had with him.  Once she went away to college, "he became increasingly jealous and possessive, so she broke up with him in her senior year of college" (ibid.).

In graduate school she had "a relationship with a man she really loved and with whom sex was great" (74), but after two years he not only wanted to marry her and start a family, he wanted her to transfer to his graduate school.  She wanted to have children with him, but not while she was still in graduate school, so she chose to stay at her "more prestigious and competitive" graduate school, and they broke up; he "quickly dated and married someone else and had kids with her, which indicated to Claudia that she was not the one for him" (ibid.).

Later she got involved with a man she liked.  After about a month, before he left town on business for six weeks, they discussed what was going on between them.  Claudia preferred to leave it open until he returned, and while he was in Europe he met "somebody there who he's still dating" (75.)

It's true, judging from these stories, that Claudia set limits on her relationships, but look at what those limits were.  Her first boyfriend's "traditional" mindset indicates to me that he didn't really support her academic endeavors; he probably wanted a "traditional" wife who'd stay home and raise his babies, while he screwed around.  Claudia could have gone from "good girl" to "good wife" in traditional terms, but it would surely have meant the end of her career.  Ditto for her graduate student: he wanted her to follow him, regardless of the impact on her academic life -- to say nothing of the effects of starting a family while still in school.  He could, after all, have transferred to her school.  Bell doesn't say whether they discussed how they'd run a household, how they'd handle housekeeping and childcare; I suspect his expectations were also "traditional."   Like many women who marry as students, Claudia would have been pressured to abandon her intellectual ambitions for her husband's demands.  The third guy is more ambiguous, but would things have turned out differently had they made some kind of commitment before he went to Europe?  Or would he have become distracted by a new squeeze anyway, and dumped her?  A month of sleeping together on weekends seems to me not enough time to get too serious, or to suppose that they were destined to be soulmates; the actual outcome indicates to me that they weren't.

So Bell seems to believe that Claudia should have subordinated herself to her various boyfriends' demands regardless of the cost to her, which is not what I consider feminism; it sounds like good old-fashioned male chauvinism.  The legal structure of marriage has been changed to make it less of a bad deal for women, but the social expectations are still largely in place.  It's true that Claudia rejected her boyfriends' demands, but I think her rejection was entirely reasonable.  Bell's thesis is that women don't have to choose between a fulfilling career and fulfilling "intimacy" -- "having it all", a stance she derisively attributes to older feminists -- but on her own evidence that assumption is open to serious question.  I know there are young women who find men (or women) who have more egalitarian expectations, but from reading Hard to Get I think it's obvious that young women who fear losing their autonomy in marriage are not being unrealistic.  Certainly Claudia seems to have had good instincts.  Bell's, however, are suspect.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Well, Now We Know!


Vaccines Produce Homosexuality, Says Italian Scientist Gian Paolo Vanoli.

It's a hoot, really, and not all that much more absurd than the standard scientific explanations we hear.

P.S. Another winner: Scientist Says Men Will Be Extinct in 5 Million Years.  Which hardly matters, since another scientist has said that human beings are getting progressively less intelligent.  It's going to be a race between plant-level IQs and the end of the Y chromosome.