The eye in the sky and “low-status” domestic workers

Not long ago, I watched a PBS Frontline video called “Rape on the Night Shift,” an expose delving into the abuse of and violence, often by their own supervisors, against female immigrants who work as janitors for poor wages in buildings that I would wager the majority of Americans have frequented for one reason or another. One of the reasons for the lack of oversight and protection of these women is due to the fact that they are invisible, so to speak, in terms of labor rights, or else cannot pursue recourse. Many of them are undocumented and/or lack the literacies and language use needed to advocate for themselves, things which most of us born as citizens and into English-speaking worlds have more access to.

How is it possible that we can allow such things to take place? It’s hard to fathom that we don’t feel compunction when we hear of such events, and I imagine that since Frontline added this to the queue, it has an audience. Still, there is a seemingly long distance between one’s couch and the ballot box or the street, where political action takes place…but where does this distance come from? I connect this to two points: the first, one of geopolitically-/economically-derived guilt, which inadvertently commits the middle-class White American to an uneasy avoidance, and the second, the straight-up social (and even geographic) distance we have from such lived experiences.

In my sociology class this semester entitled Immigration in an Era of Globalization, our class read a book called Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence, which charted the experiences of Mexican and Central American women who work as nannies and housecleaners for wealthy White and Latino families in Los Angeles. These workers are not referred to as such, according to the text, by many employers, who prefer to call them “the babysitter” or “the help” because class guilt makes more direct (and perhaps honest) references distasteful. This doesn’t just happen in LA; I know people who use such indirect ways of speaking about physical laborers who come to their houses, almost as an aside when talking about what’s happening with their day. “We need to be out of the house when the cleaners come,” they say, “because we don’t want to be here when they’re here.”

The Eye in the Sky allusion in the title of this post brings in my second thought, which is one more of the lack of global consciousness (if such a thing exists) of those of us in positions of wealth and power in the world relative to those who have less. I saw a movie tonight with the same title, which brought much of this home to me. Eye in the Sky deals with the complex philosophical terrain underneath the decision-making in questions of war, especially as it relates to questions of contingency and the value of human life held in the hand as an abstraction or a real proposition. I strongly recommend the film, especially as it brings to bear the same struggle I mention above, asking the following question: Does our ability to disarticulate ourselves from others, especially those who are dark, who are poor, who are foreign-tongued and strange-ritualed, who live far away from us geographically and/or culturally, make it easier to ignore their suffering? Clearly put: do we employ an “eye in the sky” when we train our sights on those whose lives are convenient to us only insofar as we do not see a better reason to extinguish them? Does this metaphysical distance cloak these people with an invisibility that is only vaguely and temporarily lifted (if at all, when the other risk of course is commodification, a topic which merits its own post) by Frontline or a well-crafted movie?

ca. 1910 - 1930 --- Hindu servant serving tea to a European colonial woman. Undated photograph. BPA#2 4362 --- Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

ca. 1910 – 1930 — Hindu servant serving tea to a European colonial woman. Undated photograph. BPA#2 4362 — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

PS – Such questions are clearly philosophical but require deeper exploration using various lenses, including postcolonial and critical race theory as well as feminist theory, among many. Another good step is to avoid luxuriating in white guilt and other Western catharses.

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Capturing, captivated by the feminine mystique

  • Spoiler alert: I will not reference Betty Friedan’s book in this post (click here for free PDF) though it’s on my short list for the week.
  • I am listening to Satellite by Guster while I write this as well. More on this…

I was walking on Newbury Street in Boston, MA last week, a good spot for window shopping and not much else if you’re on, say a grad student’s budget. No complaints here, though — it hasn’t snowed yet and all of Beantown is praying, global warming or not, that the white stuff will stay away for a bit yet.

On my walk, I saw this picture tucked into one of the myriad entrances to little boutiques on my way to the Boston Common:

Dec 2015.JPG

Apologies for the quality. But I think the image has a lot to say, and I’ll bring in Guster (who I just learned is from Boston, in fact) song lyrics to frame the conversation:

Shining like a work of art
Hanging on a wall of stars
Are you what I think you are?

Now, luscious, elusive associations with night-driving aside, I for one am disappointed and yet unsurprised by a song written from a straight male perspective to capture how a love interest is seen. I chose the word “capture” intentionally here. What is it about the male-singer-female-hearer dynamic that so resonates with what we consider “true” in hetero relations?  Being captivated seems the role of the female fan, screaming her head off and losing control, all the while sweaty and gorgeously tilted forward, waiting to be plucked for the deserving flower she is.

Source: “One Direction – From The Beatles to One Direction: 50 years of frenzied fans,” The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10252245/From-The-Beatles-to-One-Direction-50-years-of-frenzied-fans.html?frame=2648003

Guster sings to the beloved:

You’re my satellite
You’re riding with me tonight
Passenger side, lighting the sky
Always the first star that I find
You’re my satellite

Ornamental, beautiful, obscure, ready at hand and yet mysterious is she (are we, the women). (Oh, and ps I do really like this song.)

Bringing the conversation back to the picture I sneered at–er, saw. The image shows a woman captured, bound by a metal collar (likely gold or platinum, from the indulgent shimmer on it) that leashes itself to a pin of a poodle covering her left breast.

I am not a feminist scholar (yet), nor a critical race scholar (likely, ditto), but between the racialization of the Lisa Bonet look-alike model with light skin and dreads, the bondage chic, and the sexualization/dehumanization of this young woman to fit under the social lens of White male gaze we all walk around using…well, I’m happy I felt something. I think this is precisely the problem: that the mystification of women is just plain regular.

I’m ranging around on this post with a flush of creativity perhaps in part because I’m getting back to the page after months-long silence and it’s a long overdue stream of speak. However, emotions can drive potent expressions of the real. Part of me is compelled to connect an indignant moment in an out-of-reach shopping district I had in downtown Boston with theory. We are interpellated in society, according to Althusser, positioned as subjects by our simultaneous response to and participation in the reinforcement of ideology, in this case, a patriarchal one, i.e., that men are the watchers, the truth-sayers, and women are the observed and the attendant, the ornaments, the ones waited to be captured/captivated.

Yet I have to be honest. Emotionally speaking, I resent, as foolish as it is, the fact that in the romantic marketplace, I am already too old to be objectified as a fainting-away fan or a target of cash-spending, upwardly-mobile eyes. And I am angry that I am drawn into the dialectic of my own femaleness and society’s way of boiling it down to variations on a theme, a conversation I have been raised to be fluent in.

Maybe you will always be
Just a little out of reach

Guster’s last verse (sorry guys) leaves us with deceptively simple. What is out of reach, to whom? Who is “you,” to whom? Is my story out of my own hands, as soon as I open to the first page?

“Research” and the Lammily doll  

I am digging this new Lammily doll. Created not by Mattel but by an individual named Nickolay Lamm, the doll has the dimensions of an “average” 19-year-old and comes with “cellulite, acne, and scar stickers.” A now-famous video shows 2nd graders (mostly girls, though there’s also a boy in there) in Pittsburg responding to the doll in comparison to the traditional Barbie doll. The kids seem to really like the doll, saying that she seemed “unique” and “real,” more like a “regular girl,” and they talked about how they could see her doing gymnastics or working as a teacher.

It’s thrilling, for sure, to see that kids can perceive the differences between the Barbie and the Lammily doll, that they seem to like her (most of the children were shown to choose her over the Barbie). Yet a comment from a friend of mine on Facebook (“anything to make a buck…”) reminds me that there’s certainly another reason why the creator would have wanted to design a doll like this: she’s new and different. And that means that there’s a potential market out there. In fact, when asked which of the two dolls they would want to get as a present, every child said “the Lammily doll” – but more than one gave the reason that she already had Barbie and so the Lammily would be a new addition.

395px-Dressed_dutch_doll_Gröden
Not the new Lammily doll.

In fact, if you look at the video critically, there may be different reasons why the kids featured prefer the Lammily doll in the first place. Some make sense in a very healthy way; one of the girls says the doll looks a lot like her sister, and another comments on the fact that her toes are separated rather than together (so she seems more human). I looked for psychological phenomena that might account for this and first encountered counter-evidence to my point: the mere-exposure effect, also known as the familiarity principle, which simply states that we tend to prefer things that we are familiar with. Okay, so that would mean that Barbie should have won out there.

Maybe that’s less the point than the fact that Nickolay Lamm himself made the video, which has gone viral, and perhaps he also made the choices about how this “research” was conducted (what questions the adults showing the children the dolls asked, and how the dolls were presented, for example). Even the order of questions – e.g., asking the child what activities they saw the Lammily doll doing first, and then asking what the Barbie would do – can create a certain set of responses that may indicate a preference for the Lammily doll that the child didn’t actually have. This activation of researchers’ assumptions is called confirmation bias and can be problematic in experiments in which researchers don’t fully examine their own preferences (or worse, are covert about their goals to find one product superior to another) before designing the project.

But back to the point my friend was making. The video was made by the doll’s creator, with a clear purpose in mind: to market the doll. Getting kids to say they prefer one toy over another may not be as complicated as we think, which unfortunately defeats what we feminists hope would be a much more revolutionary response to the preeminence of unreal images of women in the form of hourglass-shaped dolls in the hands of little girls. But it certainly fooled me for a while.