I am not Trayvon. But I AM the woman in the elevator.

The whole country seems to be unsettled now that the trial is over and George Zimmerman has received zero punishment for the undisputed fact that he provoked a fight with and then shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin. All I keep thinking is imagining myself in his parents’ shoes, my baby killed and getting no justice. But the truth is, despite all the folks saying “We are Trayvon,” I’m not, and my babies *aren’t either. We are *unlikely to be perceived as threats based on our race. We *are unlikely to be held to a higher standard of suspicion. We *likely won’t be required to moderate our clothes or behavior or whereabouts in order to make others feel safe and thus ensure our own safety.

And Questlove has written a great piece about what it feels like to be like Trayvon, to be black and male in this country, to constantly be worrying about how others perceptions of his danger level affect his own safety. And I think we should all read it, and I think we should all think hard about the way racism and segregation affect our own day to day lives, and the fact that a lot of us live in neighborhoods where seeing a black man walk down our street would be so unusual as to be perceived as a threat. My friend Kyran, for example, has been asking some great questions about the intersection of economic and racial injustice in our communities.

But at the same time, the central story Questlove tells, about how hurt he felt by a woman who lived in his building clearly perceiving him as a threat when she was alone with him on an elevator, well, I am that woman, and I can’t say I blame her. If Questlove wants us to all walk in his size 14 shoes, then he needs to know a thing or two about that woman’s high heels, about what it means to be a woman in rape culture.

We are told over and over again that rape is something that happens to girls who aren’t vigilant enough. Who walk down the wrong streets at the wrong time in the wrong company. Who have too much to drink. Who wear the wrong clothes. Who send out mixed signals. You are constantly on your guard or you “get raped,” a phrase that has always bothered me because it’s like “got milk?” As if I went and picked it up at the store or had some say in the matter.

I’m not often alone in public these days, but I chronicled lots of harassment and intimidation from the days when I used to be, which you can find under my Bus Stories tab. It was daily, and the general message I got was: to be female, alone, in public is to be at risk.

When I am alone in an isolated place, my keys are between my fingers in case I need to use them as a weapon, and I have my phone out and ready to dial 911 if I need to. I would certainly be wary to be on an elevator with a strange man of any race, because an elevator is an isolated place. And this vigilance is exhausting and numbing, and there were days I have come home and literally cried because one more man yelled something ugly and intimidating at me as he drove past.

To be a woman in public is ALSO to be told you “aren’t shit,” as Questlove says he’s learned. It’s to be told you are an object for the taking, a message made clear not just by words shouted out of moving cars like “HEY SUGARTITS,” but also in the looks, and in the ways people talk about those unvigilant girls who get themselves raped.

I think, somewhere, there’s a place where Questlove and that woman in the elevator have something in common: patriarchy tells them both they ain’t shit. They both have varying levels of privilege, him as a man, and her as a white woman. It’s only in taking down the patriarchy that they can both feel safe in public.

*Words changed slightly from original post in response to comments and in an effort to make clear that I am attempting to recognize the privilege afforded to women perceived as white in this country. I don’t want to leap to the assumption that we are never seen as threatening by others, simply recognizing the fact that we usually aren’t.

**Traffic and comments keep rolling in on this post, and while I’m really happy with the attention it’s received, I’m also busy chasing 16 month old twins, and don’t have time to reply to every comment. I would also urge you to check out this beautifully-written, painful post that’s another take on the woman in the elevator. The comments and responses to this post have been thought-provoking and inspiring. I’d say a great step toward dismantling the system I believe hurts both the “woman in the elevator” and Questlove is to think about our fears, confront and examine them. I believe there are reasonable steps toward self-preservation, but there are also walls and barriers that separate us from one another. I need to focus more on reaching out.

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Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig? Uh, no.

IMG_1935Wow. What a question. But it’s been a Salon headline, thanks to an excerpt from a new book about Femivores, and as a result, has been re-blogged in several places. And now I’m asking too. Only I’m also going to answer the question.

NO.

I’m a feminist, I bake my own bread, and oh hey look, I dealt with all of this stuff in a post back in 2010.

To recap, what I said then is true now: yes, it’s sexist and inaccurate when food writers express nostalgia for a Good Old Days that never existed. As Emily Matchar makes clear in the excerpt of her book that Salon posted, and as is clear to anyone who watches Mad Men, it’s simply not true that our grandmothers ate better, more wholesome food than we did. My grandmother’s most famous recipe involves a jar of Cheese Wiz, for example. You’d have to go back to my great grandmother on the farm to get to something close to “slow food,” and then you’d also have to consider that she was living a life of drudgery during the Great Depression with many many mouths to feed. So yes, it’s absolutely a valid criticism of folks like Michael Pollan to ask that they please lay off the pre-feminist nostalgia.

It’s also one thing to note that feminism led many women out of the kitchen and into the workplace, and another to blame all our current food woes on that fact. Sometimes, it has seemed that Pollan has done this, but in a rather large body of writing I must charitably point out that overall, I do not get the feeling that he’s truly a sexist who thinks cooking is women’s work, as he himself is a man who cooks. Still, we need to consider that the lack of home cooking in this country might be precisely because FEMINISM ISN’T FINISHED YET, and true equality would have as many men getting into cooking as women getting out of it.

This brings me to my frustration with the “Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig” chapter/article heading. It’s like Jay Smooth’s awesome video about racism: you need to keep the conversation about what the person said/did, rather than on who/what they are as a person. Absolutely Michael Pollan has written some sexist things. But calling him, as a person, a sexist pig, even in a semi-joking headline, really goes too far, especially when there are so many actual sexist pigs out there not doing good work and fighting the good fight, save for a few statements.

I guess, as a bread-baking, yogurt-making, pastured-egg eating, feminist, stay at home mom, I wonder what people think is exactly the problem in this movement, one in which people who have other options are choosing something based upon important values and beliefs. I don’t want to fall too far into the choice feminist camp, because I believe even feminists can make problematic choices, and that the personal is political, and the choices we make perpetuate a system larger than ourselves, etc. etc. etc. BUT. There are a lot of us, women and men, for whom food and other seemingly small choices are deeply important, even spiritual. We may find joy in a system of farming, cooking, and eating that is healthier for ourselves, for the workers who make/grow/produce our food, and for the planet.

Matchar writes, “As should be obvious to anyone who’s peeked at a cookbook from the late 1940s or early 1950s that promotes ingredients like sliced hot dogs and canned tomato soup, we’ve been eating processed crap since long before feminism. Yet the idea of the feminist abandoning her children to TV dinners while she rushes off to a consciousness-raising group is unshakable.”

But in a way, Matchar seems to echo this early criticism of feminists, and seems to think we’re choosing these domestic pursuits to the exclusion of other, worthier causes:

“Many smart, educated, progressive-minded people, people who in other eras would have been marching for abortion rights or against apartheid, are now immersed in grassroots food organizing, planting community gardens and turning their own homes into minifarms complete with chicken coops.”

But you know, we’re the people who have time to show up to the pro-choice rally with homemade muffins in tow. It’s like when you show interest in supporting a charity for say, animal welfare, and someone reminds you that there are starving people in the world who matter more. Well, it’s amazing how boundless my interests and passions can be. I can care deeply about the food I feed myself and my family and also about social justice and politics. And I can be part of a slow food movement while still recognizing that it has major problems with privilege, a lot of the time.

And you know, I have a feeling Matchar feels the same way, too. She mentions in her piece that she’s “been learning to can jam, bake bread from scratch in my Dutch oven (though my husband is better at it), and make my own tomato sauce from a bushel of ugly tomatoes I bought at the farmer’s market.” It’s entirely possible her book reflects my tone of largely admiration for the work of slow-foodies while also seeing a few shortcomings. It’s just unfortunate that she (or an editor?) are (even jokingly) calling one of the “good guys” a “sexist pig” in order to sell a few more copies.

on re-reading The Awakening

The graduate student in her native environment.

While driving home from school today, I was thinking to myself about all of the stuff I’ve been reading this semester. I’m taking a women’s lit seminar and a “literature of the Americas” seminar (Latin American and Native American) and really enjoying the readings for both, which has stirred up a lot of thoughts. I realized, in a sort of meta way, that I tend to think almost in essay form. I’m not sure if it’s because of all the school I’ve had, or if I like all this school precisely because I’m constantly composing essays in my head, but my musings tend to become thesis statements and paragraphs in my mind. Of course, the problem is, I rarely get a chance to write them down, what with actual assignments to do and something about two babies to take care of….

But, I do have a blog, and I can at least get down these essay embryos and maybe one day return to them and turn them into something if I want.

One of my most striking realizations stems from re-reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin. It’s the story of an 1800s wife and mother experiencing a literal awakening to herself and her place in the world and her realization of her profound unhappiness the more she gets to know herself. When I read this novel for the first time, I believe I was a college freshman. I was 18, and it was a purely academic exercise. Now, I’m reading it nearly 10 years later as a wife and mother, and I’m practically a completely different person reading a completely different book.

Upon first reading, I vaguely remember feeling sad for Edna Pontellier, but I didn’t really understand her in any meaningful way. She wasn’t a very sympathetic character to me, and I found her largely selfish and annoying. She has a live-in nanny, for crying out loud, and she’s supposedly stifled by her role as a mother?! Of course, she’s still a little annoying, with her privileged white girl problems, and I think even Chopin would admit her protagonist is selfish (though how hilarious is it that Edna reads Emerson, perhaps the paragon of selfish male introspection, and he doesn’t get such criticisms). However, now I have a much greater personal window into Edna’s frustrations, even as I realize that maybe it’s precisely because I read The Awakening and other books like it before I became a wife and mother that I largely do not share her pain.

It is precisely because of characters like Edna Pontellier that my greatest fear before becoming a mother was that I would somehow lose myself. Edna argues with the great mother-figure of the book, her friend Adele, about what she would be willing to give up for the sake of her children, baffling Adele with her insistence that while she would give up her life for her children, she would not give up her self. Adele does not understand the difference. And of course, Edna does not understand Adele’s happiness, either, unable to comprehend that a woman who sees almost no distinction between herself and her role as a mother could be truly happy and fulfilled.

The problem for Edna is not that there is something inherently wrong with being a wife and a mother, or that no woman can be fulfilled in those roles, but that not all women are, and for Edna, there were few other options. She is not an Adele Ratignolle, joyfully consumed by her children, but neither is she content to remain a single woman like musician Mademoiselle Reisz. For all her supposed failings as a mother, the Edna we see in the novel is a woman who deeply loves and is very tender with her children. One scene that stands out is her tender rocking of her child to sleep when “the quadroon” is unable to get him to bed. She misses them when they are absent at their grandmother’s house. She would miss them were they not in her life at all.

She is a woman of privilege, even has the much-coveted “room of one’s own” in which to paint, and the childcare to give her time to do so and to think and wander the city as well, and yet she has no meaningful activity outside of her home, and no one in her life who truly understands her. She is a woman who favors the relationship of motherhood but is not well suited to the jobs of motherhood, a distinction made in this very compelling post from Ask Moxie.

Unlike Edna, perhaps because of Edna, I have remained determined to finish my graduate education and continue pursuing my dream of being an English professor. Because of Edna, I know how crucial it is that I get time away from my girls to tend to my other interests, because it makes me a better person and therefore a better mother. Because of Edna, I am grateful for a marriage to a partner who knows me deeply and loves me as a person, not for any prescribed roles I might fill. Unlike Edna, I got to go to college and get to know myself, to become an adult on my own terms before I became a wife and mom, and to discern what it is I want to do with my life and how to define my place in this world. Unlike Edna, I have options.

Somewhere between reading The Awakening for the first time and reading it for the second, I have had many, many awakenings that have made this experience of Edna’s story completely different from my experience the first time around. And in that difference, and in the difference between her life and mine, there is much much gratitude.

“women are here to stay” or, we ain’t neva left

I spend a lot of time hanging out in my university library between classes. Usually I’m busy looking over materials for class, or checking in with my internet world, but sometimes I let my eyes wander over the shelves wherever I’ve settled, just to see what catches my eye. Recently, a tall book caught my eye, its title visible over the tops of all the other books: Women are Here to Stay. “Of course we are!” I said to myself, “Where else could we go? Who could manage without us?” I pulled the book off the shelf and read the subtitle: “The Durable Sex in its Infinite Variety Through Half a Century of American Life.”

Intrigued by this strange title, I opened the book, and realized it was a book of pictures. Often, hilarious pictures.

This lovely lady wore this cat hat as a costume at the Vanderbilt Ball.

clearly badasses.

But it turns out, published in the 1940s, this book had a feminist mission. One which is sadly still necessary today. Check out the introduction and see if you can relate:

The American woman today must be an expert housekeeper…She must be a wise, conscientious, and loving mother, always there when her children need her, but standing aside when her presence might threaten the full development of their individuality. She must be a delightful, helpful, thrifty wife, ready to administer comfort or to share in gay adventure. She must be a useful member of the community, informed on broad political trends as well as possible danger spots in the local school boards. She is also a citizen of the world and should be able to name the current President of France, have constructive ideas on what to do with the atom bomb, and say what’s wrong with our foreign policy.

That isn’t all. She is expected to read, look at, listen to the important new books, pictures, music, for women are the traditional guardians of culture. If she’s young, she should be cultivating some interest against the time when the children don’t need her. If she’s old, she should be happily occupied in some moderately useful, unspectacular fashion, keeping herself decently to herself, and not interfering with her juniors and betters.

And at all times, and at all ages, she should be, if not actually beautiful, as good-looking as perfect grooming, a disciplined figure, and good clothes can make her. (This part is very easy. The advertisements tell you how.)

It would not be surprising if women gave up entirely, crushed by the barrage of abuse and advice, and paralyzed by the impossible goals set for them. They don’t though. They keep on living–longer than men, as a matter of fact. It is indeed a durable sex.

Now, in nearly all books about women, the authors assume that women think and act first of all as women, not as individuals, and this assumption leads into the habit of thinking that they’re all pretty much alike. It is my intention to demonstrate that there are a great many different kinds of women (just as there are a great many different kinds of men) and that it is impossible to generalize about them– tempting though this may be, and very good fun as a pastime. (1)

On the one hand, this is laughable– of COURSE women are all special snowflakes, individuals, whose allegiance is first to ourselves and then to our sex. But is this not still our struggle? To be our individual selves, despite the monolithic mold that seems determined to bend us into some sort of ideal woman?

This gorgeous lady would be at home on a red carpet today.

Weiner’s weiner and “porn for women”

So, by now you’ve probably heard the story of Weiner-gate, and if not, by all means, Google is your friend. Basically, a US Representative (edited because I previously called him a Senator) who happens to be named Weiner (it could only be this funny if it had happened to him or John Boehner), may or may not have* tweeted a picture of his boxer-brief-clad crotch. And, much like the time Brett Farve texted some pics of his crotch, the event has sparked a conversation around the very concept of sexting, particularly the sending of pictures of crotches to women.

The Washington Post has the audacity to declare “Naked man parts? Not so sexy.” In a headline.

I’m so glad a few randomly polled women quoted in a national publication are enough to declare, once and for all, that certain parts of men’s bodies, the parts most associated with sex, are universally not sexy. How problematic is this? Let me count the ways:

1. Women. We are many and varied like so many special snowflakes. Just because 5 ladies in the Washington Post say something isn’t sexy TO THEM doesn’t mean that it isn’t sexy to many many other women. While I am very sure that there are some ladies who would find a photo of a man cleaning their gutters sexier than a picture of a penis, I’m sure there are also some ladies who would find a picture of a man in high heels or wearing a dog collar sexier than a picture of a man cleaning gutters. If there is anything the internet has to teach us, it’s that for any given thing, there are lots of people who find that thing sexy. And lots of people who don’t. So perhaps the number one takeaway could be: know what your partner thinks is sexy. Maybe ask him or her and talk about it. Send him or her pictures of things that person thinks is sexy. Because you know what IS pretty much universally sexy? When someone gets to know you and wants to make you happy in ways that actually make you happy. Personally? I would not be happy to receive photos of any body part on my cell phone. But that’s just me. It might be right up your alley.

2. “Porn for Women” when defined only as photos of men doing household chores like making beds, folding laundry, or organizing a refrigerator, is a very damaging idea. The fact that women are supposed to find photos of men doing housework hot suggests that housework is women’s job, and if men do it, it is a super special favor that should be rewarded with sex. It also suggests that sex isn’t something women actively desire, pursue, and enjoy, but rather something they begrudgingly consent to in order to please and/or reward men. This is what leads to damaging ideas like grey rape– the idea that sex is, at best, something women must be convinced or coerced into having, and that a “no” is negotiable. I know it might seem like a leap to go from “sexy” photos of men folding clothes to the idea of rape, but it’s part of a larger problem of seeing women as sex objects who reluctantly give up sex, instead of active participants in the wanting and having of sex. Fold laundry because you live here, not because you want a sexual reward. Have sex because you want to, not because you feel you owe it to someone or that you have to be talked into it.

3. Bodies are sexy. I’m always quick to point out how uncool it is to shame women about their bodies. Telling men that part of their body is universally unsexy is also uncool. Sure, as I actually said when the whole Brett Farve thing went down, a picture of a penis outside of any context, certainly when unsolicited, can be jarring and confusing and even violating. But bodies and their parts can also be very very sexy, even if said bodies aren’t involved in mopping floors or whatever. One stereotype I think is particularly damaging is the idea that men are visual creatures but women aren’t. Different people are aroused in different ways, but for many many women, visuals are indeed arousing. Even visuals of naked men. Just as I believe women deserve to be with men who think ALL of them is sexy, men deserve the same.

4. The thing that makes the Brett Farve and Anthony Weiner pics unsexy is that they were also unsolicited. This goes back to my earlier post about enthusiastic consent. Don’t foist pictures or activities or anything on someone unless someone has enthusiastically consented to that picture or activity. Because it turns out rape/assault is decidedly NOT SEXY. **The Weiner pics would be increasingly unsexy if they prove to have been taken and/or posted without Weiner’s consent, making him a victim as well.

My pithy final words? Don’t send penis pictures to people who don’t want them or don’t find them sexy. Don’t assume that women do not like sex, that they do not like men’s bodies, or that housework is their job. Don’t assume that the four people you interview for your piece are representative of all people of that gender (or race, or socioeconomic group, or, or, or).

*Late breaking update: he did it, he confessed, he’s not resigning.

**added after the fact because a commenter felt I was unclear about Weiner’s alleged involvement in the picture and its posting.

asking for it and enthusiastic consent

Rebecca St. James is clearly asking for it in that turtleneck.

I barely remember her from the bad Christian pop of the 90s, but apparently Rebecca St. James is still some sort of authority on modesty and whether or not someone deserves to be sexually assaulted because of what they are wearing. I say apparently, because Fox News had her on to discuss a recent spate of “Slut Walks,” which I would describe as a sort of updated “Take Back the Night” rally, in which women march wearing whatever they want, in order to make the point that being perceived as a slut, whether because of one’s clothes or other reasons, is not justification for sexual assault. It’s largely based on lampooning the very concept of the word “slut,” since it can’t be an insult or a justification if those to whom it is applied refuse to be shamed by it.

Anyway, back to Rebecca St. James, she of 90s CCM fame. This is what she said on Fox News (video here):

“I think there has to be responsibility though for what a woman is wearing,” St. James told Hannity Monday. “When a woman is dressing in an immodest way, in a proactive way, she’s got to think about what is she saying by her dress.”

“They’re asking for sex,” she continued. “They’re asking for sex if they’re dressed immodestly.”

Here’s the thing. ONLY ACTUALLY ASKING FOR SEX CAN BE CONSIDERED ASKING FOR SEX.

What someone is wearing, whether or not they are drinking, what kind of neighborhood they are walking down the street it: these are not ways of consenting to sex. I’ll put it a bit more clearly:

ONLY ACTUALLY CONSENTING TO SEX CAN BE CONSIDERED CONSENT TO SEX.

St. James seems to believe that rape is an appropriate punishment for women who dare to dress in a way that does not meet her cultural standards of modesty. She also seems to take the very negative and insulting view of men that suggests they are sexbeasts who cannot control themselves in the presence of female flesh. And, possibly, she seems to hold the beliefs that women don’t really want sex, and are unlikely to enthusiastically, verbally, clearly consent to engage in it, and that sex is something men must convince or coerce women into having, either by raping them, or exchanging gifts and time (it’s called dating, romance, or maybe even marriage– since an engagement ring is the ultimate gift) in exchange for sex.

Here’s what I think. Sex is natural, sex is fun, sex is best (and should only happen) with someone who wants to be having it with you. Both men and women enjoy and desire sex. Sex should only be had with someone who very clearly, obviously, verbally has expressed that he or she wants to be having sex with you. It’s called a standard of enthusiastic consent, and it handily does away with slut shaming, and “gray rape” and other points of confusion about consensual vs. nonconsensual sex. You don’t have to wonder if someone is sending you signals by their clothing, or by where they happen to be walking, or by what they happen to be drinking. You’ll know.

wearing ugliness

ugly doll. Image via Flickr user walknboston under a Creative Commons license.

I have to confess: until The Bluest Eye was assigned for one of my classes this term, I had never read any Toni Morrison. And WOW. She’s amazing. Her prose is amazing. I can’t get over it. I’m so glad Beloved is also on my comps reading list.

I just finished The Bluest Eye and one of the things that stuck out to me is the theme of beauty vs. ugliness. Now, of course, I have to preface this by saying that race and socioeconomic status play huge roles in this theme throughout the book. I am a person of racial and socioeconomic privilege, and I do understand that I cannot fully relate to the characters in the book, but, who really can fully relate to the experience of another, ever?

Anyway, one passage just so aptly described what I KNOW to be true that I have to share it. It’s describing a family that everyone perceives as ugly:

You looked closely at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each of them a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, “You are ugly people.” They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. “Yes,” they had said. “You are right.” And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.

I feel like society hands women ugliness every day. It’s the message leering at us from the billboards and movies and magazines full of women who literally do not exist. They have been created in Photoshop and through lighting and makeup and editing and styling to become fictional representations of all that we are not. And these mirages reach out to us and hand us ugliness. They tell us we can be them, if we use the right skin cream, have the proper surgical procedures, wear the right clothes, follow the right diet, but they can’t even be them. They don’t even exist.

Another passage describes a character who comes to believe she is ugly in comparison to the women she sees in movies, women like Jean Harlow. Worse than judging herself, she judges her own daughter by that standard of beauty. She hands her own daughter ugliness:

She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed from the silver screen.

I know so many beautiful women who are utterly convinced that they are ugly. That they are less-than. That they are not worthy. But the truth is, their ugliness doesn’t really exist, not on their faces. It’s just a garment they’ve been handed and they choose to wear it. Eventually it maybe even becomes a part of them, but they weren’t born that way.

Are you wearing ugliness where you should be acknowledging beauty? You don’t have to take it from them when it’s offered, you know.