KUOW: “‘Is There a Problem?’ That Scary Brown Man and White Privilege”

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Awhile back, I published a response to the #YesAllWomen movement. I just went back and re-read it, and this line jumped out at me:

So what can men do? […] They can interact with women more mindfully, especially in risky situations like at night and in enclosed spaces. […] I’ve heard from other men who used to feel a little hurt when they saw solo women eyeing them suspiciously or crossing the street to avoid them. Now that they’ve caught a glimpse of the degree of caution we’ve been raised to cultivate, they’re more understanding of these actions.

Then I found this article on KUOW: “‘Is There a Problem?’ That Scary Brown Man and White Privilege.” While I’m still all for men interacting mindfully with women, Gyasi Ross’s story is a gutwrenching example of how often authority figures assume that in any tense situation, it’s the man of color who’s at fault: “A huge Native guy in camouflage was arguing with a clean-cut white couple (and a white captain). Three guesses who started that one. That’s privilege.”

In case you don’t have time to read the article, the confrontation was started by the white woman — the type of move that Jessica Valenti addressed in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal: “Yes, all white women — all of us — are taught to fear men of color. We need to own that truth, own that shameful fear. Most importantly, we need to name it for what it is: deeply held and constantly enforced racism.”

I hadn’t really considered either Ross’s or Valenti’s points when I wrote my response, but they’re right — race plays a part in my snap judgments about who I consider “safe” to walk past on a dark street. It isn’t my only consideration, but it is a consideration. And as Gyasi Ross points out, that’s a problem, not least because skinny unarmed girls aren’t the only ones using race as a metric for threat assessment.

By his own admission, Ross got off easy. But what about the people who haven’t? Later in my article, I said this (emphasis added):

Men, again, we love you. We’re not asking you to wear only pastels, or walk around with your hands up, or get a women’s studies degree.

That was published on May 29, 2014. Michael Brown was still alive at that point. So were Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, and Rumain Brisbon, and Akai Gurley, and Kajieme Powell, and Ezell Ford, and Dante Parker, and John Crawford III. Within seven months, all of them would be victims of tragic snap judgments.

Early in his story, Ross said: “I knew the drill — I’ve been trained since I was a kid: ‘You’re a big brown guy — don’t be too scary. Don’t be too big. Don’t be too brown.’ We’re taught these things for our own safety and to get along.”

At this point I wanted to jump on a bus and find him and give him a big hug. Because as I discussed in my post, we women know the drill. We’ve been trained since we were kids: “Don’t show too much skin. Don’t walk provocatively. Don’t travel alone.” Women of color have additional “rules” they’ve been taught. Transgender people have others. Like Ross, we’ve been taught these things for our own safety, and no matter how effective they are at keeping us safe, it still stings that we have to compensate for other people’s assumptions and prejudices.

(And speaking as a straight cis white middle-class able-bodied young person, my knowledge of prejudice is limited to what I experience as quite a sheltered female — in short, not much.)

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My knowledge of oppression: an analogy.

So for my original question (“What can men do?”), my answer hasn’t changed. But to pose a new question to this matter of race and class and tragic snap judgments, “What can we all do?”

I’m still trying to find the answer, myself. But for starters, I recommend Franchesca Ramsey’s video “5 Tips for Being an Ally.”

If you could forget about one of the “rules” you’ve been given for your demographic, what would it be?

What are your must-read/must-watch resources for people who want to be better allies?

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Image credit: Shadow from PublicDomainPictures, flea from WikiImages on Pixabay.

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Moffat Syndrome (or, The Case of the Female Puzzles)

Some disclaimers before we begin:

  1. As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of John Green’s work — on the page, on YouTube, and in the world. I trust him to think critically and empathetically, and I’ll eagerly read whatever he writes next.
  2. I stopped watching Doctor Who after the 50th Anniversary Special. For all I know, that might have been the point at which Steven Moffat started cranking out female characters who did not fit the description below. Please feel free to inform me thusly.
  3. Here be spoilers.

Okay! Let’s get started.

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So I just finished John Green’s novel Paper Towns, and I have to say it was excellent. The opening prank series was so riveting it sustained me through the comparatively low-key middle, all the way to the profoundly hilarious road trip at the end. John Green will never cease to amaze me with the way he develops his characters deeply and with great sympathy. I can see why he’s so popular with young adults — he takes their problems seriously. He knows it’s no joke being a teenager. He remembers how frustrating it was to be in a place where everyone is telling you to take more responsibility, but they won’t take you seriously when you try.

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Also, between Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska, I’m beginning to take him seriously as a prankster. You can’t be that inventive without having some major practical experience.

But there was something in Paper Towns that made me stop and say, “Huh … interesting.” It came to me when I started thinking about how Paper Towns would be adapted as a movie (which it is, due out on June 15, 2015, and starring Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne). I’m sure it’s going to be great. The road trip sequence alone will be worth the wait.

(Have I mentioned I’m a fan of the road trip sequence? It’s true.)

However, let’s stop and think: Throughout the book, Quentin’s focus is on Margo. She’s the reason he’s doing all this research. Is she an antagonist? an antihero? a catalyst? That’s up for debate, but she’s certainly central.

But how much does she actually show up? If the movie were filmed in strict chronological sequence, where would the parts with Margo be?

There’d be a big chunk at the beginning, with the eleven-part prank.

Then there’d be a little bit at the end, in the barn.

And that’s it. Margo is gone for most of the story. Her absence is what makes the story tick.

A map and a watch together? To discuss Paper Towns? Thank you very much. I'll be here all week.

Literal ticking + a map that might contain paper towns = thank you, Nebraska, you’ve been a wonderful audience.

This piqued my interest because it reminded me of another John Green book — his first, Looking for Alaska. It too has a central female character (Alaska). It too has a male narrator who is entranced by the central female and spends the book trying to figure out something about her. Perhaps most relevantly, it too revolves not around the female character’s presence, but around her absence.

Now, to an extent, we’re lucky: John Green’s female characters are still characters in their own right. They have personalities and preferences and quirks. We know them like we know our friends.

But even within this personhood, Margo and Alaska still function partly as puzzles to be figured out, questions to be answered, anomalies to be understood. In their respective stories, this function makes sense — the girls embody the protagonists’ doubts and misunderstandings. They’re the yogis sitting on the mountaintop, waiting for the protagonists to figure out how to reach them so they can reveal something crucial to the protagonists’ growth.

"Sunscreen. That was that last item."

“I just know I forgot something … oh right, sunscreen.”

I won’t say I love this use of any character, female or otherwise. (EDIT: I should add that at the end of Paper Towns, Margo confronts Quentin about using her as this character. He’s relied too much on his idea of what she is, rather than trying to understand her true nature. “People love the idea of a paper girl,” she says. “They always have. […] It’s kind of great, being an idea that everyone likes. But I could never be the idea to myself, not all the way.”)

At least Margo and Alaska only have secrets. They aren’t wholly required to be secrets.

To see what I mean, let’s look at some of Steven Moffat’s major female characters.

There’s Amy Pond. Who is she? Well, she was seven years old a minute ago, and now she’s all grown up. Why is that? Oh, now she appears to be made of plastic — why? Where did her human body go? Let’s spend a few episodes chasing down those answers. No, don’t worry about how she’s coping after waking up alone and in labor in an alien prison, only to be forcibly sterilized after her baby is stolen — lots to do, Hitler to kill, come on, get with the program.

There’s River Song. Who is she personally? Well, she appears to know the Doctor very well, even though he’s never met her. Why is that? Let’s develop that plot point for a season or two.

And how about Clara Oswald? What is she like as a person? Well, she keeps showing up in the Doctor’s travels. That’s an interesting attribute. We should find out why.

All of these characters are exhaustingly backstoried, while still managing to be personally bland. Even the most nuanced of Moffat’s female creations, Mary Watson, still comes with a heck of a lot of mysterious baggage. The takeaway point for these characters seems to be that women are never what they appear to be — they’re always the figurehead of some kind of plot, and they should be researched and sorted out accordingly.

And listen, I get that women can be enigmatic. I understand that we can be weirdly mercurial. I myself had this thought just the other day: “Ugh, humans can be so stupid sometimes. Ooh, he’s cute. Is that cake?”

OH MY GOSH. CAKE.

Humans might have had some stupid ideas over the years. Cake was definitely not one of them.

But the real world is made up of us real women, who are so much more than puzzles. Yes, we should present legitimate questions and mysteries to be solved. Yes, we should serve as catalysts in some situations. Yes, we’re sometimes at the forefront of conspiracies.* But in all cases, we definitely still have personalities and needs of our own.

I’m all for the embodiment of problems and doubts in whatever characters the writer sees fit. I’m certainly not campaigning for every protagonist to be female. But if we’re expected to trust or like or invest our time in any of these major characters, they need — like Margo and Alaska — to be more than mysteries. Whatever their gender, whatever their role in the story, at the end of the day, they all need to be human beings.**

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*For example, I’m currently re-engineering the world’s lawn sprinklers to shoot out rainbow sprinkles instead of water. Don’t tell anyone.

**Unless they’re Silurian, Sontaran, Solonian, Saturnynian, or otherwise non-human. Then they’re free to be that.

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Sources: The “women-as-puzzle” term comes from this article. This article describes the biggest reason why I gave up on the Eleventh Doctor. And for the Moffat fans, here’s a defense that gave me some good things to munch on.

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Photo credits: Puzzle from libni, flamingo prank from tpsdave, map and watch from schaeffler, yoga pose from cheifyc, and cake from la-fontaine on Pixabay.

Book Chatter: Airhead

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We’re usually all about the serious adult things here on IWtSLtY.

It’s true. Let’s review some of the serious adult topics we’ve covered so far.

Ketiraka the Warrior Queen, Destroyer of Krill, is a grown-up thing.

Hitler and sex? Definitely a mature topic.

So today, to break up this blog’s usual gravitas, we’re going to talk about models and brain-swapping and OMG I am surrounded by hot guys and they all love me OMG OMG OMG what do I do they’re sooooo hot.

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NSFW.

Yes, I am talking about YA fiction, where literally anything is possible. I love that, by the way. I love that YA fiction centers on these people who are teetering on the rift between childhood dreams and adult resources, childhood helplessness and adult responsibilities. They’re at an age where they can shape their futures in any way they deem best — and yet they’re fighting against an increasing number of forces that are trying to do the shaping themselves. They’re struggling to be true to their ideals while fighting poverty, addiction, peer pressure, parents’ expectations, cultural expectations, broken systems, abuse, and a world that doesn’t take them seriously.

And sometimes zombies and werewolves. Okay.

If we view the paranormal elements as objectifications of teens' real enemies, we might be able to salvage an academic argument here.

If we view the paranormal elements as teens’ coping mechanisms for their real enemies, we might be able to salvage an academic argument here.

In Meg Cabot’s Airhead, the premise seems straightforward enough: There’s a normal girl, Emerson Watts, who likes her best guy friend, who doesn’t seem to notice her. Her little sister, Frida, is obsessed with a teenage pop star and model, Nikki Howard. When Frida insists on going to see Nikki perform live one afternoon, Emerson gets roped into chaperone duty. In a shocking twist (or perhaps not so shocking to those of us who read the book jacket), a freak incident kills Nikki and crushes Emerson. Nikki’s corporate sponsors, not wanting to lose Nikki’s multi-million–dollar body, convince Emerson’s parents to sign over Emerson’s functional brain, which is then transplanted into Nikki’s body.

With me so far? We’ve got a normal girl’s brain in a supermodel’s body, which is controlled by a company doing all sorts of dodgy things, including slapping a strict secrecy clause on all parties involved, so nobody can know that the real Nikki is dead and the real Emerson is still alive.

Or is she? Is someone’s life centered in their brain, or in their body? Were Emerson’s parents right to make that decision? Is Emerson less of a feminist now that she spends her days promoting fashion and following someone else’s plan for her life? Only a few chapters in, I had to set the book down and drink a slow cup of tea while processing it all. “Dear Ms. Cabot,” I imagined myself writing, “this was supposed to be a feel-good easy read about a teenage girl discovering herself amidst luxury surroundings. I didn’t mean to get entangled in all sorts of ethical debates about personhood and autonomy and identity and the true nature of feminism. Seriously, ma’am, cut out the critical thinking requirement.”

If you are perhaps more open than me to the idea of having your world expanded, then Airhead and its sequels, Being Nikki and Runaway, will assist you in just that. If you have a teenage girl in your house who hasn’t spent so much time pondering these questions, consider giving her these books. In any case, Meg Cabot will take your  worst expectations for YA fiction and turn them on their heads, dealing out a surprisingly meaty tale. Well done, Ms. Cabot. With Airhead, you’ve held up a mirror and forced us to examine our ideas about airheadedness, and heaven only knows we all need knocking down a little sometimes.

 

Photo credit: Hot men by WikiImages and zombie from harry22 on Pixabay; other image attributions found in their home posts.

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Postscript: I couldn’t resist posting this image result for “vampire”. What the heck, Pixabay?

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“Ve vill control all your planes. Yes. This is good plan.”

 

#YesAllWomen: What can men do?

Last night, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I noticed this post from a friend, paraphrased below:

“In the spirit of #YesAllWomen, here’s a list of things I have been advised to do to avoid being raped.”

She listed a dozen items that most young women will recognize, like “Never put your drink down at a party.” At the end, she invited readers to share their own lists of anti-rape advice they’d been giving.

Rape has been on my radar since age 10, when there was a big community meeting about preventing it. It was a rainy Saturday night in November, and all the moms in my church went, leaving the kids and husbands to construct gingerbread houses together. Naturally, we younger kids wanted to know where our moms were, so our dads and older siblings explained it carefully. It was shocking to learn about a whole new type of crime. Theft I knew about, from a few small occurrences at school. Murder and kidnapping I knew about, from the episodes of Inspector Morse my parents sometimes let me watch. Rape was something new — something that, for the first time, I had to keep in mind specifically because I was a girl.

From that point forward, I was slowly given a whole body of anti-rape and anti-harassment advice. Men, as you look over the advice below, I’d like to challenge you to try something: Go for one week with these rules guiding your life.

  • Don’t go running alone.
  • Don’t wear loose clothing that’s easy to grab or cut off …
  • … but don’t wear tight clothing that might invite attention.
  • Also, don’t wear shirts with logos across the front. Those might attract attention to your chest.
  • Always wear shoes you can run in.
  • Always park under a street light or close to the store.
  • Always approach your car with caution. Check in the back seat, and underneath your car and the car next to your driver’s side.
  • If there’s a van parked next to your driver’s side, go back to the store or party and request an escort back to your car.
  • Don’t linger in a parked car.
  • When you leave your car, travel light, keep your hands free, and move fast.
  • Try not to travel at night, especially by foot.
  • If you see a group of people of the opposite sex loitering on the sidewalk ahead, cross the street.
  • When riding public transportation at night, always sit up front where the driver can see you. Don’t wear headphones — stay alert. Stay engrossed in a book or your phone to discourage attention (though this has failed horribly on occasion).
  • If you go hiking or camping, take at least one member of the opposite sex with you.
  • If a stranger asks for your name, lie.
  • If a stranger approaches you belligerently, pretend you don’t speak English.
  • Wear your hair up or cut it short to keep people from grabbing it.
  • In elevators, stay close to the control panel.
  • If a policeman tries to pull you over at night, put on your hazard lights and don’t pull over until you’re in a well-populated area. There’s also a number you can call to verify whether it’s a real policeman, though that won’t always ensure your safety.
  • Keep a dog with you while gardening alone.
  • If you have to visit a doctor, cleric, professor, or other professional of the opposite gender, take a friend with you.
  • When you’re walking alone, put your keys between your fingers for a weapon.
  • If you work in a public space, wear a wedding ring.
  • If you get a flat tire on the road, tell anyone who stops to help that you’ll be OK — your significant other is due any minute. Say this even if your significant other is halfway across the world or nonexistent, and Triple-A is forty-five minutes away.
"No, no, my boyfriend's bring extra wheels --- two in each fist. And I left the trunk open for aesthetic purposes."

“No, no, my bodybuilder boyfriend is bring extra tires — two in each fist, actually. And I left the trunk open for aesthetic purposes.”

Did you stop reading before the end? I wouldn’t blame you if you did. Those are just the rules I’ve been given — I’m sure there are plenty more I’ve never heard. As I thought over them last night, I suddenly felt so frustrated. I had always accepted this kind of advice without a whimper, judging automatically that these were smart things to do in a cruel world. The world can be very cruel, it’s true, and much of this advice is sound. But why has women’s safety become a deep, dark maze in which they can make all the “right” turns and still get lost? Why aren’t we working harder to cut away the maze and establish a solid ground where everyone can feel respected and safe? What can men, as the largest demographic responsible for violence against women, do to help demolish this culture of fear?

I am so glad you asked.

Why has women’s safety become a deep, dark maze in which they can make all the “right” turns and still get lost?

To begin with, let’s address the #NotAllMen movement. Yes, I know that very few men are rapists and killers. Yes, I know that many men love the women in their lives deeply. But the point of #YesAllWomen is not to demonize men or dismiss the good they’ve done in the world. The point is to show how deeply fear and frustration are engrained in many women’s lives. It’s about women who are tired of carrying their keys between their fingers on the street, who want to go to the beach in a cute swimsuit and not get catcalled, who want to walk outside alone and look at the stars.

We love you men, we really do. Our wonderful fathers, grandfathers, brothers, boyfriends, husbands, cousins, sons, and friends are among you. But we have seen and read about and experienced too much violence from a handful of men to trust you all at first sight. In the words of the brilliant Twitter user jennonthego, “Imagine a bowl of M&Ms. 10% of them are poisoned. Go ahead. Eat a handful.”

As I wrote my reply to my friend’s Facebook post, I thought about what my #YesAllWomen post would be if I had Twitter.

“#YesAllWomen because I thought clothes caused harassment until the day I was catcalled while wearing a long full skirt and a bulky sweater.”

“#YesAllWomen because when I’m waiting for the bus at night, I have two choices: stand under a streetlight where anyone can see me, or hide in the shadows and hope nobody sees me.”

“#YesAllWomen because my middle-school PE teacher wouldn’t changing our daily running route even after multiple girls reported being harassed by the guys at the skate park we ran by.”

"He's just being friendly. It's a compliment."

“He’s just being friendly. It’s a compliment.”

So what can men do?

They can listen. One of the upsides of the #YesAllWomen movement has been the beautiful responses from so many men who “get it” now. Neil Gaiman’s tweet, for example, nearly made me cry:

“The #yesallwomen hashtag is filled with so many hard, true, sad and angry things. I can empathise & try to understand & know I never entirely will.”

Patton Oswalt’s contribution:

“To the guys angry at #YesAllWomen: good. You’re angry cuz you’re getting shaken up. I’m shaken up. It leads to understanding.”

Secondly, men can ask questions. Shortly after I posted my list of anti-rape advice on my friend’s thread, another friend messaged me asking for clarification. What was the impact of staying close to the elevator control panel, he wanted to know? I told him it was to maintain greater control over the open/close door function, and to exit early if necessary. “Oh,” he replied. “I’d never really thought about that before.”

They can encourage their sons and friends to treat women more respectfully. This encouragement can reside in the tiniest actions — not laughing at misogynistic jokes, questioning why a friend catcalled a women — but as Mother Teresa said, those small deeds’ echoes can be truly endless.

Finally, they can interact with women more mindfully, especially in risky situations like at night and in enclosed spaces. I have a friend who is 6’4″ and has three sisters. He grew up being very aware of his height and learning to control his movements more purposely to avoid seeming threatening. This doesn’t make him a wimp. It makes him considerate. I’ve heard from other men who used to feel a little hurt when they saw solo women eyeing them suspiciously or crossing the street to avoid them. Now that they’ve caught a glimpse the degree of caution we’ve been raised to cultivate, they’re more understanding of these actions.

Men, again, we love you. We’re not asking you to wear only pastels, or walk around with your hands up, or get a women’s studies degree. We just want you understand that even though women’s rights have come a long way just in 50 years, we still don’t have the same freedom from fear that you have. We want that freedom. We want it desperately. But it will be a whole lot easier to attain if we have your help.

Last night, I hit “enter” on my Facebook reply, read a few of the newest responses, returned to my scrolling … and immediately saw this post from a friend:

“Had to cut my run short today because of a creeper. Time to find a new route.”

#YesAllWomen. Because women are human beings.

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What are your #YesAllWomen messages? What questions and concerns do you have about the movement? Comments are welcome, but be aware that I will replace unnecessarily harsh or off-topic comments with the text, “I can’t wait for the new season of Sherlock.”

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Photo credit: Car and dog from Pixabay.