“Zines as creative resistance”: authoring the world, authoring ourselves

The Graduate Center library and first-floor hallways have spaces for exhibitions of art by artists with a variety of commitments and visions, some of which are beautiful, raw, terrifying, playful, and sometimes – in my favorite cases – all of the above. Below I’ve collected a group of images of zines which explore topics of race, queer ways of being, misogyny and women’s rights to self-determination, and other topics. Their images and stories are inventive, joyful, colorful, and saturated with the real commitments of their makers. An inspiration for all of us to author ourselves in authoring our worlds!


 

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Feminist Friday: fairy tales

A few months ago, I saw this poster on the New York subway, part of an art initiative which I generally embrace:

The poem “A Name” was written by Ada Limón, a Californian poet whose work is featured in feminist collections and conferences. This is the text:

A Name

When Eve walked among
the animals and named them—
nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,
fiddler crab, fallow deer—
I wonder if she ever wanted
them to speak back, looked into
their wide wonderful eyes and
whispered, Name me, name me.

When I saw this poem, I chewed on it in my mind for a few minutes…and found myself annoyed. The imagery is beautiful, antediluvian and resonant, to be sure, the natural landscape and the delicate articulation of action of a first woman in the new world, naming animals. But at the end of the poem, Eve longs to be named by the animals…Why? Why does she need to be named? Her name was Eve.

Would Adam have walked with the same uncertainty about himself and his identity? Highly doubtful. And were he to have asked for a name, he would not have whispered.

I find myself increasingly resistant to the creation and perpetuation of spaces in which women maintain a position of mystery, a membership in the natural world that exoticizes them. We cannot recognize ourselves; we are meant to be recognized by those (people or animals) around us in such romanticized thinking.

I much prefer the stories I’ve been reading lately in a book called “Tatterhood: Feminist Folktales from Around the World” by Ethel Johnston Phelps:

I got the book at a radical leftist bookstore called Bluestockings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a volunteer-run spot with free talks and great spontaneous conversation that pops up over new and revisited ideas in a world desperately in need of face-to-face dialogue. “Tatterhood” is wonderful, including old and new fairy tales from Japan, Scotland, South Africa, Scandinavia, and Native America. I’m a big fan of fairy tales in general, but one of my struggles is always the classical depiction of women as “awaiting their prince,” “passive,” “beautiful,” “feminine” (whatever this term really means), and other features which all of us have heard as a critique of these great old stories.

I will always love fairy tales, and I’m glad to add “Tatterhood” to the list. The female characters are adventurers, sometime-wives and family members, or sometimes lone, joyful explorers of the world. Theirs are full(er) characters, who are not simply upending the patriarchy but rather living on different terms. Consequently, they embody more of a science fiction voice in response to gender norms, but because of their age (some are from the 19th century or earlier), questions emerge as to why they were not made more popular.

My only complaint: the title. It should — and hopefully will, one day — just be “Tatterhood: Folktales from Around the World.” One day.

Is a conversation action?: bell hooks and theory for healing and liberation

A politically conscious and active friend of mine teaches in an early college program in Queens, where teenagers learn from him about U.S. history and great literature. This weekend, we chatted a bit about his work, how wonderful and inspiring it can be, as well as how uncertain in terms of greater consequences. My friend is not cynical about education, but he did lament the fact that his conversations with his students might have little real-world impact. “It’s not the same thing as getting out there and marching,” he said. “Not the same thing as action.”

Or is it? bell hooks, public scholar who writes and speaks about race, feminism, capitalism, and many other topics (I attended a panel which included her at The New School about Beyonce and “the booty” a couple of years ago), wrote in a 1991 essay entitled “Theory as Liberatory Practice” about the power of creative engagement, of theorizing in responding to our pain, a response takes place in the mind and heart and yes, in the community as well. Yet the proposition that thinking and talking, the generative imaginative tilling of soil, is “action” in and of itself is one that continues to meet resistance.


bell hooks. Image from the bell hooks institute.

hooks cites a meeting she has with Black female thinkers, in which she hears the frustration some women had with with dominant feminist theory, with “all this talk” which appears to oppose real responses, authentic, embodied ideas that address the lived struggles of the Black community. She responds that speaking can itself be subversive, when it disrupts elite claims on knowledge and the ability to produce it:

…I dared to speak, saying in response to the suggestion that we were just wasting our time talking, that I saw our words as an action, that our collective struggle to discuss issues of gender and blackness without censorship was as subversive a practice…Just as some elite academics who construct theories of “blackness” in ways that make it a critical terrain which only the chosen few can enter, using theoretical work on race to assert their authority over black experience, denying democratic access to the process of theory making, threaten collective black liberation struggle, so do those among us who react to this by promoting anti-intellectualism by declaring all theory as worthless. By reinforcing the idea that there is a split between theory and practice or by creating such a split, both groups deny the power of liberatory education for critical consciousness thereby perpetuating conditions that reinforce our collective exploitation and repression.

hooks reminds us that academics, of all colors and backgrounds, have perpetually been regarded as singular creators of theory, an activity which is seen simultaneously as elite and without relevance to our worlds. Her words call for praxis – a reflective, dynamic, unfinished cycle of theory and practice – toward critical education evoked the work of Paulo Freire in the late 20th century as he advocated for the disruption of hegemonic, oppressive forces through emancipatory pedagogy. Importantly, hooks’s notion of democratic access to this ever-emergent praxis is a feminist, collective one, inviting contestation and imagination for changing times.

In responding to my friend, I mentioned this, and added that I had a socioculturalist take on the process of education. “How do you know what you and your students talk about won’t have impact outside the classroom?” I asked. “What if one of them comes home, tells her dad about What We Talked About In Class Today, and then her dad speaks to someone at work tomorrow, and then this creates some influences, and then, and then…?” I trailed off but I hoped it made sense. We can’t always anticipate or control the outcomes of our teaching, nor should we. We can’t tell our students what to do with the learning that they experience with us, but what we can do is have faith that building theory and creating new knowledge together can have influence far beyond the 45 minutes we’re with them.

This is where social movements start: with an idea, with a theory, with a question. How can you really say where talking stops…and action begins?

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.

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.