How Not to Talk About Title IX; Or, How To Not Talk About Title IX

This is a guest post by Mr. S. Klein.

 

Willful blindness has always presented a key opportunity to interrogate the world of power and the shape it’s taking at a given time in history. The tagline to a recent story on the New Yorker’s website provides just such an opportunity. Jeannie Suk Gersen, in an article about a speech by Betsy DeVos on Title IX and campus sexual violence, informs us in the tagline that: “If these statements were made by a different official in a different Administration, they would seem rational, uncontroversial, and even banal.” I admit it didn’t even occur to me as I started to read the article that this line was something other than the setup for what seems the obvious next sentence: but this is not a different Administration; it’s the Trump Administration. That next sentence never arrived.
The statements made by DeVos—the ones that, per Gersen, have generated an overreaction from the left—concerned the need for a system that balances respect for due process with the need to punish wrongdoing. Indeed this would be banal coming from the previous administration; that’s because officials in that administration’s Department of Education were not, for example, “noncommittal” when it came to “the basic educational rights of L.G.B.T.Q. students and students with disabilities,” like DeVos is. This is not the first time Gersen manages to acknowledge a fact that is fatal to her argument while treating it as marginal. We are asked to see that “what has been portrayed as a rollback of Title IX is really an embrace of a framework of compatibility.” But she also mentions that the new head of the sub-department that will actually implement DeVos’s new rules, Education’s Office of Civil Rights, told the New York Times that “90 percent” of campus accusations are over drunk or breakup sex. Gersen wants us to believe that this is the statement of someone merely seeking “fairness,” justice, and the rejection of “an either/or mentality—one in which the education system is either ‘for’ or ‘against’ victims of sexual violence.” (We are meant to take from this that Obama officials did not reject the either/or mentality, opting instead for bias or prejudice or some such; I suppose those officials’ statements about balancing due process and justice for victims were just lies, but Betsy DeVos is someone we can trust).

What allows a person to know all of this, and more, but to fail so utterly in knowing any of it at the same time? As a tenured professor of law at Harvard, Gersen has access to a vast array of tools for avoiding the terrible, irreducibly complex and uncertain task of legal decision making, tools that have been developed over the past several centuries. Since the 1970s, after the demise of the last theory of justice and society that garnered general elite consensus in law, it has become a venerable tradition among non-leftist legal scholars to partake of many or all of the various avoidance techniques throughout history, without feeling the need to justify them or otherwise adopt their implications—really the a la carte school of negating existential dread.

When Gersen asks us to hear only the literal import of DeVos’s words, one hears echoes of Justice Scalia’s favorite phrase: “When interpreting statutes, courts must give to words their ordinary, plain meaning” (that is, “no need to worry about judicial law-making here! These are just the facts, ma’am, and law-making is totally not a necessary implication of what we do”). When she writes that the “idea that an adjudicatory process should be fair to both sides is about as basic as any facet of American law,” we readers are intended to believe that broad conceptual principles like “fairness” can lead, almost deductively, to adjudicatory processes that are somehow beyond political and value judgments.

(At a certain point, I thought that perhaps Title IX was a new area for Gersen, particularly when she asserted, in a law review article entitled “The Sex Bureaucracy,” that bureaucratic regulation of sexual behavior was something new (it isn’t) and when she suggested that there was something exceptional about an agency providing guidance about how it interprets broad statutory language so that regulated entities are on notice as to what the agency will expect. However, in a letter to the Department of Education written by Gersen and three other Harvard law professors and styled a plea for “Fairness for All Students under Title IX,” she describes herself as someone who has “researched, taught, and written on Title IX, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and feminist legal reform.”)

Gersen ends her article on the DeVos speech by asserting that what “promises to emerge from the new rulemaking process—which will generate mountains of public input—is more, rather than less, regulation and enforcement of schools’ obligations to all parties under Title IX.” This may very well take the cake on astonishing lines from the article, and it embodies the last flight from responsibility that held a truly dominant position in American legal academe. Nothing about increased input should suggest to anybody that the Trump administration is listening and will incorporate it. Further, that public input will come from many different perspectives and embody many different, frequently incompatible visions of how we can be together. Very hard choices will have to be made, and suggesting that more input and the right process will make an inherently political set of choices into something neutral, “principled,” or apolitical—so much so that we should trust Betsy DeVos and her head of OCR to do a bang-up job—is as jaw-droppingly naïve today as it was when it dominated the legal academy in the 1950s.

Gersen did not rest, though; she wrote two articles for the New Yorker on this issue.

Gersen’s second article partakes of one of the two favored avoidance techniques among those in the center-left: the discourse of rights. She sets up herself and scholars like her as defenders of the accused’s first amendment rights, which are being dangerously curtailed by a bureaucracy run amok. The thrust of the article comes across in its title and tagline quite directly: “Laura Kipnis’s Endless Trial by Title IX: Students and educators now live in a world where expressing an opinion about sexual harassment can be sincerely perceived as sexual harassment.”

The short version of Kipnis’s “Endless Trial” runs thus: (1) she published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” in which she suggested a student’s Title IX complaint was absurd and that students are the ones with all the power and professors are all merely potential victims. (2) The article’s publication lead to a Title IX complaint against Kipnis for retaliation against the complainant, hostile environment, and a chilling effect on the willingness of future victims to file complaints. (3) Kipnis wrote another article in the Chronicle, entitled “My Title IX Inquisition,” arguing that misuse of Title IX allowed “intellectual disagreement to be redefined as retaliation.” The same day as the second article’s publication, Kipnis was cleared of all wrongdoing (per the university, viewpoint expression cannot be retaliation and a reasonable person would not suffer from a hostile environment after the first article).
(4) Kipnis wrote a whole book about it, called “Unwanted Advances,” in which she pored over the thousands of documents provided to her by the Northwestern professor whose Title IX case started this whole saga and in which she declares herself on the side of “grown-up feminism.” Her conclusion? Again, the girl made it up; she really wanted it, then regretted it. (Of course she makes the obligatory nod to the belief that real harassers should be fired). (5) The student sued Kipnis and HarperCollins for defamation and invasion of privacy. (6) A new Title IX complaint was filed based on “Unwanted Advances.” Once again, no findings of wrongdoing; Kipnis’s avowed hope that the book would cause a “shit storm” was not enough even to justify a minor sanction for violating the university’s policy of “civility and mutual respect.”

There’s far more here than can be succinctly unpacked, but a few parts stick out as they relate to Gersen’s apologetics. Gersen provides us with a helpful quotation from, once again, Betsy DeVos: individuals “have faced investigation and punishment simply for speaking their minds or teaching their classes.” “If Kipnis did engage in retaliation or violate confidentiality,” Gersen writes, “those infractions would be impossible to untangle from her book’s performance of her protest.” Too often rights discourse becomes another way of saying “But what about the powerful? Who will protect them?” How can we hold Kipnis accountable for a mere “performance”?

Kipnis wanted to say these things, and she didn’t want to consider the consequences to anyone else in saying them; now the Man wants to come down and tell her no? (Well, actually the Man came down to meekly ask and then make several findings of categorically no wrongdoing). It would be petty tyranny to tell her no in any manner; what about her rights? And what would happen to the sanctity of debate—the great marketplace of ideas—if we were to tell her not to retaliate? Gersen writes that “debate on these topics is crucial to the pursuit of sex equality” and that “it will be important to be more explicit about how [DeVos’s new Education Department] may better protect the core educational activity of a campus: the production of knowledge and the expression of ideas.”

But what does it mean to be a producer of knowledge and expresser of ideas when you are a woman and any fellow student could be one who likes “to get girls drunk and fuck the shit out of them,” in the words of the aggressor whose case is famous in legal circles for the proposition that rape is really a local matter, a species of “family law” unfit for federal court, as Chief Justice Rehnquist held? Is that rapist and are those federal courts the ones women should expect to reasonably and rationally debate? What good does the marketplace of ideas do you when you know that attempts to hold professors accountable will lead to Laura Kipnis profiting off your plight and calling you a fool (literally replaying the conservative reaction to the very first case seeking liability for workplace sexual harassment)? When your university won’t give Kipnis even a slap on the wrist for so deeply repudiating the idea of mutual respect?

All of this conjures David Graeber’s description of the very real force that underlies the concept of “structural violence”: “If, say, there are certain spaces women are excluded from for fear of physical or sexual assault, one cannot make a distinction between that fear, the assumptions that motivate men to carry out such assaults or police to feel the victim ‘had it coming,’ or the resultant feeling on the part of most women that these are not the kind of spaces women really ought to be in. Nor can one distinguish these factors, in turn, from the ‘economic’ consequences of women who cannot be hired for certain jobs as a result. All of this constitutes a single structure of violence.”

It’s clear that Gersen and the many members of the academy and of society who agree with her do not want a debate on this subject; they want a “debate,” one in which the role of structures of violence—even when the topic literally is violence against women—is abstracted, marginalized, and irrelevant. Graeber, discussing ideas from feminist writers like Catia Confortini, emphasizes the importance of keeping an eye always on the physical, real violence that makes structural violence what it is. The structure is a set of “material processes, in which violence, and the threat of violence, play a crucial, constitutive, role. In fact one could argue it’s this very tendency towards abstraction that makes it possible for everyone involved to imagine that the violence upholding the system is somehow not responsible for its violent effects.”

For Kipnis, taking what I’m saying into account will merely undermine the development of critical thinking and resilience, producing a “pacified, cowering citizenry.” As Gersen tells us, “Title IX is too often conscripted to serve purposes antithetical to the education of citizens in a democracy, in which disagreement, dissent, or disapproval should lead to argument, not to an infinite loop of institutional investigation.” Somehow, whenever conservatives and centrists discuss these sorts of issues, their proposed solutions are reasonable only if you assume there is no power imbalance to begin with; but rectifying the power imbalance is the whole damn point.

All of this cannot help but smack of the American propensity for overnight backlash: whether it’s black civil rights in 1968 or women in the tech workforce in Silicon Valley or men being held to account for sexual violence on campus—somehow the moment anything gets a little better, a mass chorus of the elite arrive to say “Well, this has really gone far enough, don’t you think? Surely this is plenty? You don’t want to be ungrateful for all the nice things we’re allowing you to have, do you?”

In the end, mainstream rights discourse has always been grounded in a classical liberal vision of largely autonomous, equal subjects; thus, something like the history of sexual violence that many see as an essential aspect of the experience of gender or race are cast as irrelevant. In law and policy, all must be assumed to be the same. Therefore, women who perceive any of Kipnis’s activities might very well be “sincerely perceiv[ing]” them “as sexual harassment,” but, to quote the Supreme Court, these women are as the “colored race” who experienced segregation as a badge of slavery simply because they “chose to put that construction upon” it. Gersen quotes DeVos with approval on the fact that sometimes men are the accusers and women the accused; from this she implies that fewer Title IX cases means everyone wins because everybody is presumed to be equally affected by due process or free speech rights.

Throughout the article, Gersen identifies entirely with the experience of Kipnis, going so far as to confess confusion as to why the student targeted by Kipnis’s book would object in her lawsuit to being portrayed as a “serial Title IX filer.” After all, hadn’t the girl filed multiple Title IX complaints? What further meaning could such a characterization take on? (Again one hears the desperate need to pretend that (1) words have an ordinary, plain meaning that can be discovered without controversy and (2) nothing in the judicial tendency to strip words of nuance should be considered as requiring justification or further discussion). Moreover, Gersen had just sentences before been willing to contextualize Kipnis’s unwillingness to answer questions from opposing lawyers as “following the standard advice of counsel.” So one group gets the benefit of some nuance and context from Gersen, and one doesn’t.
Two further professors get similarly sympathetic treatment in which Gersen invites us again and again to think that they crossed no lines at all and so to agree that the entire Title IX apparatus has gone haywire. One professor who admitted to being “openly contemptuous” of his colleagues was investigated under Title IX for “being aggressive, rude, or dismissive of female faculty members” and “making unwelcome/unwanted sexual jokes or comments.” It should surprise no one that there was no finding of wrongdoing. But Gersen notes darkly that lack of civility, under a general university policy, can be a fallback accusation, implying that this is a false or otherwise illegitimate attack in order to stifle faculty dissent. Indeed, this first professor was reprimanded and suspended for profanity, a constant stream of insults, and a general practice of berating and belittling his colleagues. Is there anything troubling about that? Every day, thousands of professors manage not to do these things. Whole droves of professors teach thousands of students constitutional law—covering almost every controversial issue there is—year after year, yet almost all somehow manage not to unleash strings of insults, demean entire groups of people, or lash out at people who pursue complaints for sexual harassment.
The only possibly probative case Gersen gives us involves a professor who criticized aspects of the financial condition of the school he taught at, leading to a Title IX investigation that had no complainant. If Gersen’s point in her articles had been that some schools use various processes to stifle teachers who are asking too many questions, I certainly wouldn’t object. But I don’t think Gersen would ever write such an article because it wouldn’t allow her to lament the erosion of the “core educational activity of a campus” under over-reaching Obama bureaucrats who just want to regulate us to death with a “Sex Bureaucracy.” She can see only the poor teachers who are “refraining from teaching and writing” on certain topics for fear of a liberal PC gestapo, their first amendment rights under siege, the students who are deprived of learning “resilience” and debate, and the accused who lack due process entirely.

Gersen’s utter unwillingness to engage with any of the hard questions at the heart of Title IX policy tells us everything we need to know about the persuasiveness of her work in this area. Here are just a handful of such questions: Does Gersen think that Kipnis did nothing wrong? Why? Does Gersen think that a “reasonable person” would not be deterred from filing a complaint against a Northwestern professor after Kipnis’s two articles and a book stemming from just one such incident? Is there something preferable about the old Title IX regime, in which, between 1998 and 2008, the Office of Civil Rights resolved only twenty-four investigations, with findings of violations in just five and zero instances of punishment even when investigators concluded that campus officials retaliated against students who reported assault? If all the legal scholars who think like this had to abandon the false image of a bureaucracy “intervening” to paternalistically protect the “weak” party and instead faced the fact that every decision (including not deciding) will affect the balance of power in a world where there is no natural distribution of power to be deduced or defended—if all of these scholars hadn’t been expensively trained in how not to think, what would they do and why?
Nothing about the terror of being forced to decide justifies a policy of leaning heavily in favor of the status quo power dynamic. Suggesting a policy of “non-intervention” (hint: every decision is an intervention) draws on the grandfather of all avoidance techniques, the act/omission fallacy, which the legal academy had managed mostly to jettison until about the time of the rise of the New Right. We need to move into what feminist legal scholar Frances Olsen calls “the risky territory of real concerns that are political rather than neutral or impartial.” If we want to get “beyond liberal-legalism, we should stop trying to fit our goals into abstract rights arguments and instead call for what we really want. The conditions that make ‘rights’ seem necessary must be changed, and these conditions cannot be changed as long as women are oppressed.”

From Renee Smith to Sita Devi: Retrieving the Forgotten Enchantress of Silent Era

sd4

Indian cinema had birthed a fair share of visionaries even before the beginning of what later came to be termed as the Golden era. Under the reigns of the British Raj, certain Indian artists thrived upon the offerings that colonial engagements with art had to offer and used the political situation of the period to engage cinema in a dialogue of cultures. The dialogical development of cinema, with silent movies relying heavily on scenic photography and camera angles, what unraveled on the big screen involved not only the oppressed lot making a statement but also the privileged lot participating in the process. The emancipating nature of art drew many budding filmmakers to garner the global recognition of not only Indian art but also Indian culture in general by using films as language. In this democratising activity of filmmaking, one of the most celebrated manufacturers was Himanshu Rai who dared to look beyond the logistical restrictions of his space to harness a global outlook. However, this post is not about him but about an unsung actor, who despite not being biologically involved in the cultural milieu of the subject matter of her work, adorned many characters in a number of such experimental films. Though, she was born as Renee Smith in an Anglo-Indian family, the cinematic history would remember her as Sita Devi.

The silent movie era of Indian cinema had a brief but eventful affair with German collaboration. Though much has not been written about her, Sita Devi’s momentary presence in Indian films can be seen in these very collaborative projects. When Himanshu Rai joined hands with a Bavarian film company Emelka, a film named Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) was released in 1925 which was generously budgeted and was directed and produced by Himanshu Rai himself who also appeared as one of the actors. This very film had the young Renee Smith (Sita Devi) playing the character of Princess Gopa, who is decorated quite intricately with the cultural symbols of Buddhist ritualism. This was her debut film, and thanks to her blossoming presence on screen, she became an overnight star. She later went on to work under the banner of Madan productions but could never repeat the success she garnered in her very first film.

sd1

Renee went on to do two other films with this Indo-German collaborative project, which seemed more like a trinity now, that were also classified as period dramas showcasing the grandeur of Indian culture. Interestingly, these three films spanned three different religions (Buddhism, Islam and Christianity) rightly spanning the diverse cultural fabric of the country.

The artistic outlook of Renee Smith and her respect for the art of cinema can be traced from the diversity of roles she played in this trinity and also the distinct nature of each of those characters. Despite sprouting as a star in her very first film, she did not hesitate to play the ‘other woman’ in Shiraz (1928) and a villain in Prapancha Pash (Throw of Dice, 1929). Despite the social perception of that period for such roles and the impact it had on the careers of the actors who played them, Renee chose to explore the shades of her artistic capabilities rather than fearing social stigmatization.

sd2.jpg

The short filmography of this illustrious actor involves many socially unconventional roles in movies such as Bharat Ramani (Enchantress of India, 1929), Bhrantri (Mistake, 1928) and Kal Parinaya (Fatal Marriage, 1930). Despite not being culturally relatable to the majority of the population, the success of Renee Smith established itself upon her ability to immerse herself in the complexities of her character, reaching the finest degrees of method acting. She came across as an exotic representation to many of her contemporary directors, but that only worked towards constructing a strong narrative around the creative credentials of this effervescent actress.

With her films being showcased in German and English to the elite cinematic audience of Europe, including the royal family, a couple of Renee’s films were also immortalized for global audiences with German translations (Das Grabmal einer großen Liebe and Die Leuchte Asiens). It is hard not to mention the famous rumour of the period which said that Renee’s sister Patty was often used as her double in some of the sequences. Renee Smith has been unfortunately forgotten by the repositories of Indian cinema. In her short yet colossal montage of work, Renee aka Sita Devi has displayed the full dimension of her artistic prowess and the lengths of her creativity. I hope the reading of this post will only generate more discussion on this wonderful actor, getting her the rightful place in pop culture, something she so unequivocally deserves.

sd3.jpg

Picture Credits: British Film Institute

Found in Escapes

What if I seek light in
This night.
Flicker lights falling upon my
Cheek, glistening a part of it, a part
Still left hidden.
What if I seek journey here
Sitting at a deserted bus stand, who
Uses them anyway? Maybe,
Some adventures are good untravelled
What if I seek dance in
The still trees and fully
Blossomed but burdened petals
Of this red red flower, Maybe
Some emotions are best unspoken
Nothing has
Broken down in this part of
The world. The passers by
Still passing, the pretentious
Still talking
What if I seek forgiveness in
This waning crescent moon,
This stillness, this halt
This long drawn silence is not
Here to stay forever,
But it’s still mine
So I don’t see anything moving
But my memories, Maybe
Some notes are better unplayed
Some songs,
Better unsung.

 

Picture: It’s me trying to discover Fort Kochi

Did the CIA Use Gloria Steinem to Subvert the Feminist Movement?

I’ve always known that Gloria Steinem had been involved with the National Student Association, a CIA front group, as an undergraduate. But I never quite realized just how important her connection to the CIA had been to her career. I suppose her recent insinuation that younger female supporters of Bernie Sanders have become socialists just to meet guys — as if that’s a problem for women who aren’t socialists — demonstrates she’s still an establishment shill posing as a radical.

The Most Revolutionary Act

Co-opting Radical Feminism for Corporate Interests

While preeminent American feminist Gloria Steinem’s CIA background receives wide attention on the Internet, it’s a totally taboo topic in either the corporate or the so-called “alternative” media. Steinem’s work for the CIA front group Independent Research Service first entered the public domain  in 1967 when Ramparts magazine exposed both the Independent Research Service and the National Student Association as CIA front organizations.

Fearing unflattering publicity, Steinem gave interviews to both the New York Times and the Washington Post defending her CIA work (see video below). In both articles, she claims to have taken the initiative in contacting Cord Meyers, who headed the CIA’s International Organization Division and their top secret Operation Mockingbird.* Her goal, allegedly, was to seek CIA financing to encourage American participation in the seventh postwar (Soviet-sponsored) World Youth Festival in Vienna in 1959.

The article quotes her: “Far from being…

View original post 1,066 more words

The Germaine Greer Controversy: A Drive-By Man-On-Mansplaining for Our Reading Dudebros

In high school my Social Studies teacher, who also happened to coach the football team, showed us a TV documentary on the 1980 USSR vs. US Olympic hockey championship game. This was the only event that got across “how the Cold War actually felt” he claimed. I don’t remember much of the documentary now, but I do remember the gist of history he got across over that year even if I can’t remember specifically which year of high school it was. He claimed the major racial breakthrough of the 1980s as a decade and the decisive marker that the civil rights movement had triumphed was The Cosby Show‘s extremely high Nielsen numbers.

Even being something like 15 years old, I felt something fishy in these assertions. By then I had figured out the primary function of school was as a series of “scared straight” encounters with the less appetizing dysfunctions of middle aged people who’d decided to become high school teachers. Rooms filled with the many ghosts of innumerable Christmas’ futures.

At the same time, this stands out in my memory as one of my first encounters with the “culture war” notion, the lens through which history is viewed as a long procession of symbolic cultural artifacts clawing each other for prominence, where the battles and famines and tensions and rudiments of existence past are merely the raw material for eventual movies or television programs. Like most ideology, an adherent’s depth of immersion is best measured by the extent to which they’re sure they’re not immersed in it. The bizarre circular justifications and inchoate arguments signal an unspoken (unspeakable?) thing believed in more definitely than the speaker believes in their own words. This has been the defining tone of internet discourse for most of the time I’ve been writing these essays; the proportion and saturation of online outrage seems inversely proportionate to the actual importance of the event being discussed. Much the same as many of the most ludicrous fictional narratives in recent times have made aggressive claims to “realism”, the “real” situates itself as the ultimate vehicle toward the suspension of disbelief.

And so this week we get yet another controversy revolving around a person whose cultural capital has been waning to the point the only time anyone pays attention to her is when there’s a controversy. I’m talking about Germaine Greer and her comments on Caitlyn Jenner and transgender women.

Germaine Greer has been in the cultural eye for some time now but not with any special prominence since the 1970s. That she’d suddenly come to be noteworthy in the news cycle for saying offensive things about transsexuals that she’s been saying for 10 years now says more about the internal logic of the news cycle than Germaine Greer, the place of transsexuals in the world at present, or the schism between second-wave feminism and the queer studies that have come to replace it.

Still, I should probably engage in some man-on-mansplaining for the benefit of our readers on the cishet-dudebro spectrum as to what this whole second-wave vs. queer theory controversy is.

Boiled down, it’s an issue concerning the intersection of theory and praxis. Greer is a second-wave feminist. The broad group of writers and activists who have been labeled as a tendency to be the “second-wave” feminists emerge in the years after WWII and probably peaked in cultural influence during the 1960s and 1970s. Like any umbrella term, it covers a lot of texts and figures who don’t necessarily agree with each other on anything besides the broadest of notions; any club that would include both Gloria Steinem and Monique Wittig is going to be more of a convenience for theory writers/historians than anything concrete. But I’m a theory writer and it seems convenient. I’ll take the bait.

The schism between “second wave” and “queer theory” is the problem of structuralism. Structuralism was a popular tendency that attempted to attach the systemization and assertions of super-structural truth that had proven so powerful in the natural sciences and apply them to the social sciences and literary criticism. Structuralism was huge between ~1870-1959 or so but has persisted in pockets up through the present. Structuralist thinking that still has currency now can be seen in dribbled down cliches like “There are really only 10 basic stories” or the Joseph Campbell style analyses of Star Wars and The Matrix you run into so often at college parties. Second-wave feminism was by and large structuralist. The main structuralist assumption running through the literature being: there are men and women, these two categories exist to the exclusion of any other sexes/genders, they are immutable facts.

This seems like a fairly harmless presumption to make. It informed the construction of the historical narratives of oppression that inform how forward action toward the project of liberation should be undertaken in women’s liberation for a long time. Cracks start to show in the literature with the relatively benign domestic orientalism toward “foreign” or “primitive” cultures, a hangover of romanticism (think all those “find your inner (pagan) goddess” type self-help books), but more dangerously toward the divorce of the issues of women from the related issues of race and class. While not all second-wave feminism or even the larger portion of the documentation it’s left behind necessarily marginalizes these issues, the pieces that did were given outsized cultural capital for a time because they were the least threatening; if women’s liberation was a matter of hiring a maid and self-actualizing, then it could sell things and basically recreate the then current hierarchy of power that existed in the world outside the feminist movement within the feminist movement. The current careerist “lean-in” feminism draw its roots from this tendency.

More determinedly anti-capitalist flavors of feminism, of which there were and still are many, are of course not going to be welcomed quite so warmly by a system self-satisfied with its own capitalism. Even these though, in their second-wave incarnation, are still largely unwittingly walking toward the then as-yet unlabeled trapdoor of the thing that came after structuralism, conveniently referred to in most quarters as post-structuralism.

Post-structuralism, in this context, attempts to correct for the sins of structuralist feminism by focusing more on those who had been marginalized by the prior incarnation of feminism, namely those not positioned comfortably within the gender binary. It does this by knocking down the gender binary. “Man” and “woman” become performative roles first as opposed to their prior positioning as “biological realities”. This is not to deny that there are penises and vaginas, but to say that they have no inherent connection to what we’re referring to culturally as being “manly” or “feminine”. This line of thought had overstepped its bounds by making absurd metaphysical claims of essential tendencies in academic literature all the way down to folk sayings that imply an essential gender character like “You pitch like a girl.”

Post-structuralism becomes extremely problematic for the prior theoretical work because it knocks down that structuralist presumption I mentioned earlier, the “there are definitely and only men and women” thing. For our brocialists, this might be easiest explained as being analogous to the issues within Marxist organizing after it became obvious that whole “organize the people in the factories as collective concentrated single class” wasn’t going to bring about political revolution after the class structure splintered away from centralized industrial activity. If there isn’t a category of “woman” or “man” that can be claimed as natural and immutable, if both are in fact performance identities, then that raises a lot of problems for theoretical works that come to their analysis from a starting point of an essential “male” or “female” identity, and does collateral damage to both the Norman Mailers and the Germaine Greers of the world.

Which brings us back, finally, to Germaine Greer and Caitlyn Jenner. In the immortal words of dudebro-laureate Lil Wayne: “Everybody got beef and I just came to eat.”

Put less cryptically, the epoch in which Greer’s theoretical contributions had contemporary relevance has passed her by and for at least the last ten years she’s been making trans-baiting statements. I can’t say what her motivation is. I can speculate that it has to do with a sliding sense of relevance. She may actually be offended by the idea of gender flexibility. She may think of sex/gender as a burden placed upon us all at birth that creates a solidarity that leads to eventual liberation and that the loss of this solidarity by means of externally imposed definition is damaging to feminism. It could be sheer opportunism. Either way it would seem pretty clear by now that she’s on the wrong side of history in this regard. That in and of itself isn’t that interesting.

What’s interesting is the fact that this is being blown up. Not every beef grows legs. This one has grown legs. Lil’ stumpy ones, but legs nonetheless. The reasons I suppose this has taken off are two: 1) internet commentators are not really that much different than my high school social studies teacher and look for symbolic interactions to stand-in for and replace the reality of a situation-this may in fact even be their primary social function, 2) this can be a way of summing up in allegorical (ironically) binary terms the larger more complicated series of disputes that have been taking place since roughly when Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was published in 1990.

Like most beefs amplified by the internet; it’s the made for TV movie summarizing/replacing the event as it happens; that it’s compiled from things that actually happened allows for the suspension of disbelief the actual TV movie can no longer provide. A well timed beef can narrow the number of characters in the narrative construction of an event in the way that a fictionalization used to; the troll initiating the beef, in this case Greer, provides a valued public service by willingly being the symbolic “wrong” position actualized; the parameters of the melodrama can be trod once again and all the news sites can line up to the trough to imbibe the clicks and controversy.

That the choice of events to be fetishized in a news cycle biases the actual event most given to the symbolic, to the allegorical; that they constitute bed-time stories that sneak by undetected as such because we read them in the morning is hardly a new observation. McLuhan’s first paragraph in The Mechanical Bride, commenting on a reproduced NY Times front page reproduced on the opposite page, draws this analogy quite explicitly:

“…any paper today is a collective work of art, a daily ‘book’ of industrial man, an Arabian Nights’ entertainment in which a thousand and one astonishing tales are being told by an anonymous narrator to an equally anonymous audience.”

We read the chaotic mass of texts looking for themes and meaning in the morass; we “make” history. History is no more “what happened” than this is a pipe.

It’s a troll’s market right now. Insofar as gender is a performative creation, so is the news. The principles of performative reification as a theory open up many more cans of worms than just the gender thing, and we’re going to be confronting the implications for a long time to come.

Mad Max and the Bechdel Test: Gender Equality’s 65th Percentile

One matter regarding Mad Max: Fury Road has irritated me since the “Men’s Rights Advocates” first complained about it, all the way back when the trailer was first released. Stanley alluded to it in his second take on the movie. The shallowness of the Bechdel Test is clearly not lost on Stan, but the political ramifications of what, in my mind, is a “the only way to win is not to play” proposition, unnerve me. I’m a few months removed from having seen the film a couple of weeks after it came out, but fortunately for me the matter in question and its relationship with the movie is not particularly nuanced.

From its promotion and unrelentingly after its release, the aforementioned men’s rights advocates have railed against the purported politics of a two hour-long movie which, by my estimations, has between one and one-half minutes of combined dialogue. This started when the first trailer came out, because low-hanging fruit is low-hanging.

Discussion of the film’s feminism belie just how asymmetrical the debate of gender equality has become. For decades, the female audience has been increasingly sought by purveyors of action and carnage, and merely passing the Bechdel Test isn’t an indication, even remotely, of a film’s “feminism,” let alone even a semblance of equality. That literally every film that doesn’t have a contrivance for excluding women from the cast entirely (i.e., military and prison movies, movies about the U.S. legislative branch) or an inordinately small number of speaking parts (for instance, Cube, although that decisively passes the Bechdel Test) can’t pass the Bechdel Test is a reflection of the disastrous discussion in the United States about gender equality, which is as continuously muddled with non-factors and red herrings as similar discussions on racial and LBGT equality.

Feminism can be read into Fury Road. Someone might think: “Oh, hey, the women in this plot aren’t chattel, maybe the director is a feminist.” The women Max encounters have escaped their harem enslavement under the leader of the film’s city, the only real civilization that’s shown in the film. Not only did they escape, they decided to and succeeded all by themselves! Max is more reliant on what they have to offer than vice versa. But this seems less like feminism and more a harem ex machina: a way for the hero to survive an impossible situation and a way for the audience to look at underwear models who are suggestively dousing themselves in water when Max first awakens in their midst.

Charlize Theron’s character, Imperator Furiosa, is the leader of this group, not a member of the harem but the most decorated… I don’t know, war-driver or something of city’s forces. I bet they have a cool automotive-derived name for whatever she is. She liberates the harem, who are relatively feeble compared to her. She is the classic liberator in film, taking others to safety who cannot take themselves. While they prove capable when the noose is tightening in the film’s climactic sequence, this doesn’t read as anything more than an easy way of putting more action into an action film.

This role could have been Max’s, but Max is the wanderer. Only the first Mad Max was about his breakdown as an individual in a world gone mad. In every movie since, Fury Road included, he’s served largely as a more-capable-than-thou apocalypse-dweller. That oil refinery had gas. He just kind of wanted to get the fuck away from Tina Turner and her Thunderdome. This is not a complex character. The first movie shows you why his life is ruined, the other movies are him going through the instinctive motions in response to the threat of dying. Furiosa’s role as the liberator of the harem means her character must convey some authority and power. None of this reads like the setup for a feminist exploitation car movie. Death Proof, this ain’t. But then, Death Proof wasn’t even anything like what it set out to be.

The women scrawl “WE ARE NOT THINGS” on their cells before escaping, which… what? Is this supposed to convey anything beyond the feeling of anyone locked into any fashion of bondage or its derivative abuse, let alone women referred to in this role as “breeders?” Neither they nor Imperator spend the movie spouting anything about the treatment of women where they were, nor about male/female relations, but simply how they were treated and why they escaped.

Is Fury Road a poignant warning about the dark future that awaits women should society crumble? You could choose to view the movie as this huge, overarching framing device for analyzing gender roles, but you could also call Star Wars a deconstruction of the transference of propaganda themes into popular media, which overlooks that the tropes from propaganda films were in Star Wars because the propaganda in question was meant to look intimidating and that fit the tone Lucas was going for in those shots.

I went to Fury Road intent on shutting off my brain. It’s rare an action movie allows me to do this, but Fury Road did even as I spent the better part of it looking for evidence of its “feminism.” What justification are they giving that I’m not seeing here? Is this all not enough? Isn’t it possible George Miller thought “Hey, this is an action movie, you know what would be better than one person punching people? Two people punching people!” and with Imperator already established in this hypothetical nascent plot outline as a strong character, decided she would be his other people-puncher?

Feminist? Mad Max is barely about anything. Which is not to say it doesn’t have an engrossing and well-groomed world: indeed, the continuity and self-assured authenticity of it is why two hours of almost-constant car chases works. It might actually constitute an art piece comprised of car crashes, but culture is a fickle thing, and at best maybe the children of those fortunate enough to have seen Fury Road will see a time where, during driver’s ed, in full costume, ala Rocky Horror screenings, they get to the documentary that’s all gory car crashes and their aftermaths.


ISSUES WITH THE BECHDEL TEST

A few days ago, the Atlantic ran “How the Standard for Gender Equality in Culture Became Known as the ‘Bechdel Test.'” The article serves mainly as a setup for a pedestrian “ask a smart person about a trivial element of this topic”-type interview, instead of highlighting the idea that gender equality is “achieved” in media by passing the Bechdel Test. As a social imposition of politics upon art, this is nothing short of a disastrous failure of the societal brain’s cognitive functions. Failing the Bechdel Test, save for the aforementioned contrivances, is not an indication that a movie could “use some work” in the female character department: it’s an indication, a very strong one, that the movie is a fucking disaster, featuring female characters with only one setting: vapid.

Fury Road is also an explicitly feminist movie, with Furiosa and Max joining forces to take down a literal patriarchy.” – VICE, “The New Mad Max Movie is Both Badass and Totally Feminist” (But does anyone in the movie actually say the word “patriarchy?” Or any word that even suggests they know what patriarchy is?)

In the title of this essay I call the Bechdel Test the sixty-fifth percentile of gender equality, but really it’s like the twentieth, or the eighth. Failing the Bechdel Test for most movies is a reflection that they’re attempting to engage women so little they’ve basically resorted to negging. It is hard to say if this reflects individual writers or actors, but as I’ve heard it told, Hollywood filmmaking is about pain-in-the-ass compromise and personal politics even more than actual governmental politics is, and compromise reveals nothing better than the will and the enthusiasm of the culture. Art is the energy of the culture that feeds it, and Hollywood is a lot closer to being the best of the best than it is to being the worst of the worst. The zeitgeist is the zeitgeist because it’s the cumulative present, not an arbitrary collection of modernity always somehow derived from the lowest common denominator because, Oh my god, certainly not, have we really gotten that fat? There must be something wrong with this mirror…

The reality is that the lowly Bechdel Test has become our cultural standard of gender equality in creative media because the culture, one of male privilege in just the same manner as the culture of white privilege to which our society has given much discussion of late, wants it that way. Jackasses are much happier trying to argue you away from a standard so low it may as well have been meant as a joke (oh, wait…) than actually having a pointed debate on specific reasons why a film is “feminist.” Feeding into this Bechdel Test crap is starting healthcare negotiations by revealing you don’t want universal healthcare. It’s a compromise position that frames the context of the real debate in a radically uneven way.

The critique of a film as “feminist” for suggesting, essentially, that women may in fact be people too, is already a victory for misogynists of the world: it frames feminism through the cultural stereotype of equal-rights activists as sex-averse second-wave feminists, the sorts that were either always on the fringe or moved further and further to the fringe before the so-called “sex wars” decisively removed them from general conversation amongst the feminist. They represent feminists as a concept no more than South Park‘s Big Gay Al represents gays and often stake claims to feminism the way people using descriptors like “big R Republican” or “big L Libertarian” stake their claims: increasingly contrived No True Scotsman designations that rely on the grade of their contrivance to disguise just how contrived it is. When opponents of gender equality continuously transmit this trope into the cultural perception, this idea that self-appointed “big F” feminists–largely relics of the past at this point–are the only feminists or have ever represented feminism, it degrades the conversation as a whole. When this presumption is the basis of the debate, you’re already losing.

 

How do we come to cultivate our standards into these shapes and forms? Haven’t we been complaining about Common Core non-stop since the alliterative, media-friendly moniker was first unleashed on us? There’s something about glass houses and stone-throwing in here, but that’s trying to have an even broader conversation than this one which, as said, is tenuous even in its existence. When you’re arguing with a misogynist and the argument revolves around “feminism” in film, application of the Bechdel Test is a quality of either ignorance or outright dialectic malice on the part of at least one of the conversants. For this, I propose a Second Bechdel Test, three simple rules that can be followed in order to make sure you’ve walked into a rational conversation about feminism and its role in a given work.


A BETTER BECHDEL TEST

1) Be familiar with the Bechdel Test in the first place. Since you’ve gotten this far and I haven’t actually bothered to describe it in the text anywhere above, I’ll assume you’re good on this.

2) If you even have to think about if a movie passes the Bechdel Test, it almost certainly can’t possibly be “feminist.” A movie that has an interest and role for the women of its universe will not come remotely close to straddling the line.

3) Remember that the beauty of arguing for equality is the sheer simplicity of the argument you need to make: everything should be the same for everybody, “everybody” depending on the sort of specific equality you’re going after. As such: if a male character in the place of a female character did the thing that caused the female character to be labeled “feminist,” would he be labeled feminist? Characters voting in movies that take place before suffrage do not count.

There is, of course, an important zeroth rule meant to serve as an indicator that a film is feminist: it knows that feminism is an equality movement, not a supremacy movement, and talks about it in a positive light and/or advocates for feminism.

Now, weary travelers: Ride to Valhalla, shiny and chrome!

The Sound of (No) One (Not) Listening

A common complaint is that not enough people listen to serious programs. Is there a method for studying non-listening?
-Paul Lazarsfeld, “Introduction”, Radio Research 1942-1943

The abiding rule of thumb when it comes to the gross people of the world is to just ignore them. It’s not like they’re capable of rational, respectful dialogue. It’s not like pointing out that they’re gross is going to make them be not gross…the Calgary police add, “It violates section 175(1)(A) of the Criminal Code: ‘a disturbance in or near a public place, (1) by fighting, screaming, shouting, swearing, singing or using insulting or obscene language.’” Normally, I am a firm supporter of the right to drop F-bombs whenever and wherever, but if the only thing these clowns understand is the fear of real consequences, then I’m down for it.

A scotsman who can’t watch a movie without shouting…
-Youtube clip title

According to Baudrillard, the territory of reality no longer precedes the map of representation…In the past, a “real” moment occurred when a person experienced another person’s presence and speech, or observed something that was happening in the neighborhood or across the street. Today what we experience more and more are spectacles…

It is with severe difficulty that we measure the strangeness of the present; it might in fact be said that the only means of defining the present is in its strangeness. With this strangeness we differentiate it from the past. By riding this feeling of the present’s strangeness we make our claims to the future, a forever uninhabited wilderness where theorists of all sorts set up claims and some strike gold. Sometimes this gold is found around their less than fresh corpse. The gold is fought over, the speculator at that point is dead, not much can be done for them. The gold may not even be gold. But then, like Schroedinger’s cat, gold only becomes “gold” insofar as we observe it as being such. Tooth fillings work similarly.

When Schroedinger opened his speculative box, had the cat died in a position to suggest it was chasing its tail?


What exactly is the sound of nothing being not-listened to? Traditionally: a tree falling in the forrest, a pin dropping, crickets, sneezing, the audience talking over the performer, “talk to the hand”, the audience heckling in an attempt to break down the imagined wall between audience and performer.

The inertia of a set of relations that in their proper placement create the performer and audience, that create the magical fourth wall, are multi-tiered, their allegiances scattered, flexible and frequently redrawn. The audience recreate their communicative end of the relationship in different forms that have a surprising level of complexity given the limit to their variety; the clap comes to be the sign of polite impatience, an “other” category for that which can’t comfortably be fit in the space of the laugh shout or boo, the acknowledgment of appreciation, and the impetus for an extension of performance. To invert the snow clone, if the eskimos have 50 words for snow, the audience has one clap correspond to 50 responses.

The theatergoers’ etiquette, always a tenuous treaty between two parties in conflict, reproduces itself in the relation passersby take to the production of moving images. While traveling around the country making a film about the US, I found that when I would take urban landscape shots hoping for people to walk through them, I would need to usher them, Moses-like, parting the sea of the image before they felt comfortable walking through. Successful long-running TV shows have worked on usually disingenuous flirtations of a new sort of relation between the audience and the performers; the Today Show’s famous police-style barricade surrounding crowds of eager TV viewers, the constant casting call on late night and daytime talk shows to “Be in our audience!”, the voting structure of talent competition shows, and in journalism the necessarily misleading “man on the street” interview.

The promise of performance is two-sided. The performer seeks a variable relation to the audience, the audience seeks the temporary feeling of community in their shared identity as the spectator. The uneasy elements of performance art and stand-up comedy are that they blur this line; the comic will attack a hostile audience, the performance artist will designate unusual and unrehearsed performance from the audience. The television on the other hand, despite the broad range of response it can elicit, safely contains both the space of the performer and that of the audience through what I guess could be called a two-state solution. Yet the hostilities on both sides remain, and the borders keep getting redrawn.

Yesterday’s shooting of two reporters on the air by a colleague who had been demoted (in his own mind, which is the primary space from which to analyze the spectator, who exists in communal interiority) from the space of performer to that of audience member has elicited two days of front page coverage in several international papers because, while the news usually is meant to be understood as allegory by the reader, this incident has extreme allegorical implications for the journalists themselves. The racial and gender components provide a means through which to explore unconsciously the incident’s dimension as a breach of trust between the set social relations in the production of news.

These relations and their once seemingly set qualities of course have been repeatedly questioned in the last several months. When activists claiming to be with Black Lives Matter took over the stage at a Bernie Sanders rally, decentralized discourse on the internet immediately began grappling with the question of what interpretation to use as a frame. Were the activists attempting to create a news story themselves, were they in the employ of the Clinton campaign, could they even be properly considered to be emissaries of Black Lives Matter at all, could Sanders’ followers in fact be racists? This swamp of confusion showed its spirit in the interchangeability of descriptions of Black Lives Matter as being a “movement” or a “hashtag”.

The reporting on the presidential campaign that reaches a broad saturation point is similarly defined by performative ruptures of identities-any Donald Trump “gaff” and the coverage following could suffice to prove my point here. In these spaces the viewer and journalist can explore the only partially conscious realization that the boundaries have shifted or possibly even collapsed between consumer and producer. With a TV or a radio, I can’t produce TV and consume unless I’m within the industry (outside small strongholds like public access and college stations, which still regiment the production of images in time and space in a manner the internet and its two-way delivery systems such as the computer, phone, or tablet, don’t.) CNN will often do stories on viral videos, in part to sustain the illusion they’re still monolithic curators of the image, in part a peacemaking concession to the rupture of TV communications, the way human interest stories worked for years and years.

New etiquettes are being created and smashed several times a day; the seemingly all encompassing space of the norm has enough cracks where the chaotic forces lurking behind it in shadows for all this time can be seen more clearly than the normatives.