Tag Archives: feminism

Slutwalk Paris – 1 October 2011

They couldn’t have picked a better day: sunshine, 28 degrees, a gentle breeze. Everyone would be outside on this last weekend of summer, so why not walk through the city and make a statement?

Having missed out on this summer’s Slutwalk in Berlin, which drew a large amount of people and even more media attention, I was excited to find out that Paris would have its own Slutwalk and that I would be able to participate. I was curious to see how it would turn out, what impact it would have in the city where Second Wave feminism originated in Europe.

all photographs taken by clemens porikys

Unfortunately, my first impression was disappointing. Not many people had shown up (sixty to eighty perhaps, not counting the press(wo)men) and the gathering of young women in short skirts wearing heart-shaped balloons resembled more a birthday party than a group of militant activists. It stood very much in contrast to my memory of the protest against the media response to the DSK affair, which had been a lot more energetic, unifying and angry, though not aggressive. The cause had been quite similar: fighting sexism and violence towards women, stop blaming victims and trivializing rape. So what went wrong?

I certainly appreciate and applaud everyone taking on the responsibility of organizing such an event, but in the case of Slutwalk Paris it could have been executed a bit more cleverly. What struck me as particularly odd was that hardly any of the well-known and well-organized feminist associations in Paris seemed to be present. Ni Putes Ni Soumises had sent some delegates; others such as Osez le Feminisme and La Barbe did either not know about it or ignored it deliberately…(?) The inclusion of these as well as other activist groups would certainly have been beneficial, not just regarding the number of participants but also to their diversity. The homogeneity of the protesters (most of them young, white, slim and able-bodied, myself included) does not represent the vast majority of victims of sexual violence, which subtracted from its potential significance.

But there we walked, down Boulevard Montparnasse and Boulevard St. Michel, where we did get some attention from pedestrians, including spontaneous participation. When a middle-aged woman asked about the motive for this demonstration and it was explained to her, she immediately expressed her support. Those were the highlights of a protest, that could have benefited from a couple of inspiring speeches to create the passion and energy needed to really get the movement started here in France.

Overall, the atmosphere was good and everyone seemed to have good time, even though I am not sure that that is the desired effect of a protest. In the end, everyone let go of their balloons in an attempt of symbolism, satisfying both the photographers and curious tourists. In any case, there is room for improvement and I hope that next time I can contribute more than just post-event criticism.


Movie Review: The Whistleblower (2010)

Make no mistake: The Whistleblower is a cookie-cutter Hollywood political drama/thriller with little originality. Sure, the film may be based on a true story, and a very sensational one at that, but unfortunately the director uses all the well-known tools of the trade to tell it. However, something struck me as extraordinary, otherwise I wouldn’t be mentioning it here, considering I watch movies all the time.

It’s the lead character I found the most exciting thing about the entire movie. Not the lead actress, mind you. Rachel Weisz is gorgeous, no doubt about it, and she does a great job, but it takes more than the performance to create a character; it takes a concept. In my opinion, the cinematic representation of Kathryn Bolkovac is one of the best attempts at depicting a truly feminist heroine.

Here are some things I liked about her:

1. She doesn’t go to Bosnia because she is naive or thinks it is a great career move; she goes there for her family. Yet, at the same time, she doesn’t always prioritize her family but remains loyal to what she is passionate about.

2. Early on in the film she starts a casual affair with a man she meets at a bar – not your typical morally flawless Hollywood heroine. She has that in common with Erin Brockovich, and I have to say, I prefer a woman with desires to the picture-perfect super wife or Jodie Foster’s weird asexuality in most of her roles.

3. Most importantly: she is emotional. It’s just so much easier to depict a kick-ass heroine the same way as one would depict a kick-ass hero: cool and detached, always having a witty response to every situation and solving problems with violence, if need be. Kathryn Bolkovac is not like that. She is often close to tears (understandably, considering what she is confronted with), she is aware that she’s just a small cog in the wheel, and while she keeps on fighting, she often is at a loss and doesn’t know what she’s doing. Thus, she makes many mistakes and has to face more than one ethical dilemma. Doesn’t sound so great, does it? But at least it sounds authentic. It makes her a real person, instead of just a flawless fantasy figure. And this is the kind of woman I want to see in a movie: a real person with everything that entails, with emotions, flaws, strengths and weaknesses.

Anita Sarkeesian has summed it up beautifully in one of her Feminist Frequency videos on the lead character of True Grit:

“The feminism I subscribe to and work for involves more than women and their fictional representations simply acting like men. Or unquestioningly replicating archetypal male values, such as being emotionally inexpressive, the need for domination and competition, and using violence as a form of conflict resolution. In my feminist vision, part of what makes a character feminist is watching her struggle with prioritizing values, such as cooperation, empathy, compassion, and non-violent conflict resolution in a world largely hostile to those values. […] I want characters who are subtle, who make mistakes, and who don’t always do everything right.” (Watch it here.)

And here is the trailer for The Whistleblower. As you can see, it doesn’t reveal anything about the main character’s vulnerability. I guess emotional heroines don’t make for good advertising:

Portrait: Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 – 2002)

I was first introduced to Niki de Saint Phalle through my art teacher back in high school, who was a big fan of those “voluptuous feminine qualities” of the artist’s well-known Nana figures. She showed us a documentary about Saint Phalle’s life which, I believe, everyone found rather boring, too esoteric perhaps, or too feminist. I, however, was fascinated, not so much by the brightly coloured, round sculptures my teacher loved so much, but by those wicked collages, the so-called “Shooting Paintings”. Tir à volonté, she called the series from 1960-1963, “Fire at will”.

Niki in action

These works consisted of assembled things, seemingly random artifacts, that hid pockets filled with different-color pigments. The artist then would position them, so that they could be shot at with a rifle. The bullet would explode the pockets, causing the paint to splatter and run all over the collage. Saint Phalle would later describe her motivation as follows:

“In 1961 I shot at daddy, all men, small men, large men, important men, fat men, men, my brother, society, the Church, the convent, the school, my family, my mother, all men, daddy, myself, men. I shot because it was fun and gave me a great feeling. I shot because I was fascinated to see the painting bleed and die. I shot for the sake of this magical moment. It was a moment of scorpion-like truth. White purity. Victim. Ready! Take aim! Fire! Red, yellow, blue, the painting weeps, the painting is dead. I have killed the painting. It has been reborn. War without victims.” (Kempel, Ulrich: The Political Universe in the Art of Niki de Saint Phalle)

Not only is this the statement of a visionary artist, it is also the testimony of a woman, a woman who had to deal with and overcome immense restrictions and suffering at the hands of the men in her life, as well as her health, her faith…

Nike de Saint Phalle was born in 1930 close to Paris and grew up in New York. She got married at the tender age of eighteen and had two children. The marriage was a happy one as long as it lasted, according to her former husband Harry Mathews, but recurring illnesses turned her into an invalid for long periods of time. She suffered a nervous breakdown and underwent electroshock therapy, and she was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism in the late 1950’s, all of which affected her marriage as well as her artistic development. She and Mathews separated in the early 1960’s, around the same time as she started firing at canvases.

Harry Mathews in an interview from 2008:

“During all that period of illness I had to take over everything. I thus developed a habit of trying to run her life for her – something that, when she was healthy again, she didn’t need or like. The subsequent hostility towards men, and me, began expressing itself at this point, and it manifested itself in her work […].”

While Mathews can tell only his side of the story, I see a certain truth at the core of his statement: the artist’s frustration about her lack of agency, which was certainly heightened by her state of illness. At the same time, however, one needs to take into account the constraints placed on her by the society of the 1950s, her conservative family and her catholic upbringing and education, followed by the difficulties of being a female artist at a time that was not at all welcoming towards women’s endeavors outside the home, artistic or otherwise. Later in her life, Saint Phalle also came out about the sexual abuse she was subjected to by her own father.

Niki as an icon of female empowerment

In order to attain her empowerment, she seized a powerful tool: a weapon with the ability to kill all of what was holding her down. However, she did not resort to brute violence, appropriating “the militaristic tools of the patriarchy”; instead she “shot” a painting which only came alive after being shot. The aim of the shootings thus became not only a symbol of her oppression, but also a stand-in for the artist herself who, in the liberating act of shooting, killed herself only to be revived in the process: the (re-)birth of an artist. Her majestic, larger-than-life Nanas can be seen as the result of a successful healing process, generated by the power of creation and destruction, the assertive act of reclaiming agency.

Feminism’s Flaws: We don’t want you to be a 50’s housewife

“Why is feminism still so afraid to focus on its flaws?”, I read on The Guardian’s website this week and my immediate reaction was: It is? Feminism isn’t flawless, just like any movement and ideological system isn’t, but it surprises me that it would get called out for being uncritical regarding these flaws. Moreover, the word “still” in the headline suggests that this has been an ongoing issue for quite a long time. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.

Among the social movements that I can think of right now, I believe feminism has been among the most self-reflexive, self-critical of them all, to the extent where it has almost eliminated itself. (Remember the postmodern debate regarding the validity of women as a category in the 80’s and 90’s?) Feminists have always tried to integrate new concepts within academia, such as postcolonialism, queer studies, men’s studies, intersectionality. It has been a struggle, and it has been divisive to a movement that had been split into separate camps from the beginning. That’s why it is hard to speak about one kind of feminism in the first place. Radical, liberal, socialist feminism and others; these strands still exist today, and they differ from generation to generation. This heterogeneity hurts feminism, as much as it would hurt any movement, any political idea, but it has also benefited from it, the most obvious advantage being that feminism is still alive and active today, because it has managed to remain or become relevant in all sorts of societies. Don’t believe me? Feminism has become superfluous in our societies of affluence and equality of opportunity? Just a glance further South at the aftermath of the Arab spring suggests that feminism is more relevant than ever. Reducing feminist influence to improving the comfortable lives of well-to-do European and American women doesn’t cut it anymore. Feminism has not been bypassed by globalization; in fact it has embraced transnational connections from the beginning. It now matters to all of us whether or not a woman is allowed to drive a car in Saudi Arabia or love a woman in Uganda. If you are unaware of feminism’s involvement in global affairs, it’s not the flaw of the movement but your own information shortcomings.

But I’m getting carried away. Deborah Orr, the author of the above mentioned article doesn’t criticize any of the things I have mentioned, even though I would have guessed these were the more legitimate concerns: feminism’s global relevance, its often contradictory and hard-to-reconcile stance between academia and political activism…

But Deborah Orr is on to something else. First of all she mentions feminism’s branding problem. There’s probably a lot of truth to that but then again, I believe this is a problem of the Left in general, not just feminism. The movement is divided, just like the Left is, so branding has to be a problem, if you cannot even adequately label yourself without offending someone. But what Orr really wants to point out is this:

“The fundamental and rather serious problem is the blunt and somewhat stubborn emphasis on “equality”, difficult enough in a society deeply divided by economic inequality generally, even without the added complication that it’s the people with care of children, whatever their sex, whose economic freedom is most compromised the world over.” [All quotes are taken from this article.]

Orr goes on to say that feminism has long seized to focus mainly on the rights of middle-class white Western women, and she certainly speaks the truth. Slutwalks and quotas are important issues right next to reproductive rights, migrant women’s rights, and female labor in the developing world, and all of them are heatedly debated within feminist circles as well. So while (in)equality, social or otherwise, certainly is an issue in our society, feminism cannot be blamed for inadequately addressing it. On the contrary, the Sex-and-the-City version of postmodern feminism has been surpassed; class and race issues are more relevant to feminism than ever. But once again, this is not what the author actually tries to criticize. She is only obsessing over one thing in particular:

“But equal opportunity in the workplace has not resulted in equal achievement, and not all of this is the fault of continuing chauvinism. Women bear the children and, far more often than not, they wish to be the primary carer for those children. At its most strident, feminism can be mistaken for an ideology designed to make women feel they are wrong to want that. Worse, feminism has accidentally promoted the idea that it’s pretty easy to work and have children, with the right support in place.”

Um, no. As one commentator has rightly pointed out, that is a capitalist idea. Feminism may promote that the right support will make it easier, not easy. But working, as the author correctly points out, has never been a choice but a means to survive for most women, and continues to be just that. And here is where it would actually make sense to interrupt with a good ol’ “But what about the menz?” Having both a family and a demanding job is never going to be easy for a woman, but I don’t see why it should be any different for a man? I’m sure we can all agree that sharing the responsibilities helps, and since most families develop out of heterosexual relationships, these or other partnerships are needed in order to sustain a happy family life. Women cannot do it all alone, so if they want that, then yes, I believe they’re wrong in thinking it will work out. A family doesn’t just consist of children and a mother. There can be fathers, life partners, grandparents, friends, a commune. Sadly, in our individualist society people often don’t even consider the necessity and power of communities and solidarity, and neither does Orr. She continues:

“On even an average income, it’s never easy, […]. Your priorities change. Work is no longer the most important thing, for a while anyway. Ambition can dissipate. For many women, that’s a self-evident truth.”

So it is a self-evident truth for women that their children become more important in their lives than work, but it isn’t for men? I wonder how Orr would substantiate that statement without getting into some fuzzy gender essentialism. Rejecting this kind of stereotyping is not a flaw of feminism, it is what modern feminism is all about. So, Ms. Orr, if you believe that women should always be the primary care-takers of children and should postpone or give up their careers in order to take care of the home and family, while for men in the same situation nothing ever changes, then yes, you’re right not to call yourself a feminist, but don’t worry, we’re not gonna make you.

"Your priorities change. Work is no longer the most important thing, for a while anyway. Ambition can dissipate."

The DSK Affair – An Angry Rant

I haven’t actually had time to write a full-blown article, but I can’t help but point to the disgusting media frenzy surrounding the rape accusations regarding the IMF boss and candidate for the French Socialist party Dominique Strauss-Kahn. What actually happened? No one knows, but everyone thinks it necessary to take sides and become the judge of the hour. The way this case is being talked about resembles a lot the Assange affair in Sweden and Great Britain and the Kachelmann trial in Germany. That is not a coincidence, it seems to me…
Why is it easier for us to believe in elaborate conspiracies than in the likelihood of a women being sexually assaulted by a man, a rich man, an powerful man, by any man? What does that say about our culture? Does it mean we don’t believe in rape anymore (because it rarely happens, right…)? Surely not. It means that we have become grown so accustomed to seeing cases like this in the news; something fishy must be in the air…
I tell you what it is: it is living, breathing proof of rape culture. And it has become so prevalent; it has made everyone hysterical. Everyone?
The alleged victims? Hardly. It takes a lot to make these accusations and for every woman who lies about it, there are hundreds who are not being taken seriously and thousands who never even dare to go to the police.
The feminists who are fighting it? Some of them, sure. That’s because rape has become such a loaded issue in the media, it often triggers misogyny and traumatizes victims, doing more damage than good. Another feature of rape culture.
But most of all these rape apologists who see just another unfortunate man captured by the misandrist system established by greedy lobbying feminists. That’s right. It’s feminism’s fault. Because we love rape culture so much, we secretly rejoice every time a woman is sexually assaulted, because at least it means we’re right…
Guess what? The only reason why we keep on talking, arguing and screaming about rape culture, is because we want people to know it exists. It’s not a figment of our perverse imagination, it’s not a means for us to dwell upon our victimization. It’s real and it’s happening and when things like this scandal surface, it’s all out in the open only because it happened to someone famous.
Dear public, rape is not a creation by powerful leaders in order to eliminate their enemies. Rape is real and it happens all the time.
UPDATE: On Wednesday, Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned as chief of the IMF.
More links:
What the French press had to say. I can’t be bothered translating, but I assure you it’s disgusting. (via Feministe)

Who’s Afraid Of Steven Pinker? – A Brief Analysis Of A Debate

A lot of people who have issues with some of the basic understandings of feminism are strong advocates of evolutionary psychology, because it aims to explain behavior patterns among men and women that they believe to be typical and innate. For those implicit or explicit anti-feminists, Stephen Pinker is somewhat of a hero who is referenced so often, he even made it onto the Evolutionary Psychology Bingo card, which feminists enjoy very much. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Pinker is for fans of evo psych what Judith Butler is for the LGBTQ community. Naturally, I’m intrigued, so I googled around for a bit and came across an interesting debate from 2005 between Pinker and his fellow psychologist Elizabeth Spelke regarding the “science of gender and science”. You can watch the video and read the transcript here.
Full disclosure: I am no fan of evolutionary psychology, especially not the kind that focusses on sex differences. Which is not to say that I am anti-science or a denier of Darwinian evolution. However, it is not uncommon that different studies on the same subject produce different results, and that these results are often related to the convictions of the persons conducting the study and/or to the current ideology. Scientific evidence is not free from interpretation; therefore it does not hold the key to ultimate truths. It it wasn’t so, there wouldn’t be any scientific debates to begin with. Science can be skewed, too, so a little scepticism is always in order.
The debate from 2005 that I am commenting on is not so much about whether or not there is scientific evidence for differences between men and women, but why there are so few women who are making careers in the sciences.
So what does Pinker actually say in this debate? First of all, he distinguishes between the extreme “nature” and the extreme “nurture” positions. He positions himself somewhere in between and his colleague Elizabeth Spelke as part of the extreme “nurture” team (which, as it turns out, is the first incorrect statement he makes during the debate). He then goes on to claim to be a feminist, briefly accrediting 1st and 2nd wave feminism and the “effort to increase the representation of women in the sciences”. So far, so acceptable.
His next step is to prove his point, namely that there are innate differences between men and women that influence the abilities and behavior of the sexes in such a way, that men are naturally more likely to succeed in the sciences than women. However, some of the differences he points out, such as priorities in life, career choices and the likelihood to take risks, can easily be explained by nurture. In fact, Pinker doesn’t even find it necessary to give biological evidence for these claims, only statistics that say nothing about the nature-nurture debate.
The other factors – differences in three-dimensional mental transformation, mathematical reasoning, relation towards objects vs. people – may well be justified, at least according to the scientific evidence that Pinker provides. However, as Elizabeth Spelke will show during her speech, all of this “evidence” can just as well be reinterpreted and debunked. Cordelia Fine has done so as well more recently. I am also confused by Pinker’s refusal to acknowledge any sort of bias from parents and teachers. If he doesn’t even recognize the basic assumptions of the nurture position, why bother with this debate?

nature or nurture? photos by jeong mee yoon

Needless to say, I find his part of the debate very unconvincing and was quite relieved but also a bit disappointed by Spelke’s comeback. She concentrates on the actual issue, the under-representation of women in science, saying: “Notice that I am not saying the genders are indistinguishable, that men and women are alike in every way, or even that men and women have identical cognitive profiles. I’m saying that when you add up all the things that men are good at, and all the things that women are good at, there is no overall advantage for men that would put them at the top of the fields of math and science.
Differences, yes. Advantages, no. Or, to quote Diane Halpern, as Spelke does: “Differences are not deficiencies.”
So let’s try and answer the initial question: Why are there so few women making careers in science? Answer: We don’t know. Neither do Pinker and Spelke, apparently. They both have their suspicions, based on their respective findings, but neither of them can give surefire proof. Based on my own views, I am siding more with Spelke’s theory, which blames socialization and discrimination over biological factors, but here is where I disagree with her: “Scientists find things out. The much more difficult questions of how to use that information, live our lives, and structure our societies are not questions that science can answer. Those are questions that everybody must consider.”
The problem I have with this statement is that it seems to absolve scientists from any responsibility. Of course, we have to ask ourselves what conclusions we want to draw from new findings, but scientists have to ask themselves not only what they are trying to find out but also why.
When Pinker states that there is scientific evidence for the assumption that women are biologically slightly less inclined or capable to be math professors, what does this mean politically? The implication would be that girls should be even less encouraged to get into sciences, because overall they’re less likely to succeed. I do not mean to say that this is Pinker’s intention, but that these are the consequences that can easily be drawn from such claims. Which is why I find studies like The Bell Curve morally reprehensible. By no means do I endorse the censorship of scientists; I’d just like to encourage the questioning of motivations. And I have to point out that Pinker is either negligent or incredibly naive when he states that  “none of this provides grounds for ignoring the biases and barriers that do keep women out of science”, because – unfortunately – for many it does.

Since When Did It Become “en vogue” To Be Politically Incorrect?

The titles of the increasing amount of blogs, online communities and forums that call themselves “politically incorrect”, or “heretic”, or “against the mainstream” seem to suggest that they are somehow more bad-ass and controversial than what else can generally be found in the media. A closer look, however, usually reveals that they are just trying really hard to denounce everything left-wing progressive thought has been fighting for for the last forty years.

Political correctness were the buzzwords of the New Left rhetoric during the 1970’s. Politically correct language meant talking about topics in a way that took into consideration the sensibilities of particular groups of people that were often ignored, marginalized, belittled or degraded in the political discourse. Examples of politically correct speech include gender neutral speech, not using the N-word, not referring to people as retarded, and all other means necessary to minimize people taking offense.

Feminism in particular has taken a special interest in political correctness since the theories of Derrida and Lacan revealed the importance and all-encompassing relevance of language as a crucial determinant of all of our lives. Post-structuralist feminists found that language cannot be thought outside of the power structures that generate it, and thus it is inherently a male construct that determines which things we consider male or female, normal or deviant, and which in turn we connote positively or negatively. Gender-neutral speech was a way of lessening the problem, as well as increasing the visibility of minorities that were previously ignored or subsumed under the default person: a white, heterosexual, able-bodied man.

Naturally, political correctness is not without its discontents. To use it appropriately can be complicated and long-winded. In fact, there are no distinct rules for the perfect use of politically correct speech. These are guidelines that are in constant flux and dispute, making it an easy target for anyone who is traditional-minded and reactionary.

Needless to say, the backlash was quick to follow. In the 1990’s the political right used political correctness as an insult for all ideas that they rejected. It was decried as censorship and cultural Marxism, two concepts that they equalized with intolerance when, in fact, political correctness was supposed to achieve the opposite. The Angry Black Woman writes:

It seems to me (and I could be wrong) that people who rail against Politically Correct speech are those who do not want to have to be polite or civil to folks different from them. They see nothing wrong with using the language they grew up with or that they’ve come to use. They do not care if the language they use is hurtful to others because, after all, the most important thing is that they get to do what they want when they want. This is the prevailing attitude of people with privilege.

Political correctness and what it stands for are often misunderstood, not just as being in line with the leading ideology, but as being in line with the ideology that one doesn’t like. That’s why Sarah Palin finds nothing contradictory with getting upset about the “lamestream media” trying to “shut her up”, while at the same time complaining at length about a politician’s use of the word “retarded”.

Europe, too, has its own heroes of political incorrectness: Nicolas Sarkozy thinks women’s rights are not that important (except when it’s about protecting women from the burqa, of course), David Willetts blames feminism for widening the poverty gap, and Marine Le Pen, Thilo Sarrazin and the likes blame Muslim immigrants for, well, pretty much everything. These individuals pose as provocateurs and are being praised for their seemingly controversial statements by their sizeable following, online and off. Finally someone says it how it really is! Finally a slap in the face of the establishment! Or is it? Alfie Kohn writes in the Huffington Post:

To classify something as PC isn’t just to say that one would prefer not to deal with it. It implies that what might be called a liberal sensibility represents the conventional wisdom (of which the challenger is attempting to remind us). I’d argue that exactly the opposite is true: Our political system and the norms of our culture are largely built on an edifice of conservative beliefs regarding power, tradition, religion, and nationalism, many of them invisible to us precisely because they’re so widely and uncritically unaccepted.

Being politically incorrect is nothing but a way to ensure self-confirmation, to feel special and extraordinarily brave, when really all they do is repeat the same polemic bullshit that’s already well-established in mainstream opinion. I wish the “lamestream media” would shut them up already, but sadly their voices are being heard loud and clear. And any attempt at criticism is being denounced as limiting our freedom of speech.

No one is trying to take away your freedom of speech! Political correctness is not censorship. There are hardly any laws that prevent you from saying whatever is on your mind. I just don’t see the positive effect of getting into everyone’s faces just because you can. But when you think you have to call out “p.c. lies” and claim to call things what they really are, be sure to apply this to yourself as well. When you state that Muslims are stupid, you’re not being politically incorrect. You’re being a racist.