Archive | April, 2011

The Duchess of Cambridge

29 Apr

This morning,  April 29th,  Prince William married his long-term sweetheart Kate Middleton.

Why do I pose the happy event in such a way? Why not Prince William and his long-term sweetheart Kate Middleton got married. Why would I (who am obviously a manifesto-toting feminist considering my blog posts) position the woman as direct object to the male/active noun?

Well, I will tell you the first thing I heard when I turned on the BBC News (and no, it was not at 5 a.m. monarchy time), the words of the officiary proclaiming “I now pronounce you man and wife.”

He remains a man and she becomes a wife. What happens to her womanhood? And, what of his husbandry? The term “man and wife” is a relic of earlier matrimonial rituals, which have generally been transformed to suit more modern standards: hence, “husband and wife.”

To be the wife to the man is to serve as the man’s subordinate, the secretary to his husbandry, if you will. To be the wife to the man is to now be taken, to no longer be a woman, i.e. available.

The overwhelming anachronisticness of the monarchy in general is further emphasized by the enormous event of the royal wedding. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with being happy about a massive church, a common girl, a flowing white dress, and the idea that two people are in love and will be married for the rest of their lives. Happy ever after.

To scoff at this is to expose oneself as a cynic, a hater. But that confuses me because of the simple facts of the state of marriage in 2011; hell, the state of marriage in the British monarchy.

As I watch a montage of Kate and William, Barry White plays over the shots. The desperation to modernize this event, which is essentially a hodge-podge of extraordinarily different rituals, ceremonies, ideologies, evocations, and generations, is not helped by the tagline: “man and wife.”


The right to cover oneself completely

18 Apr

When I was an undergraduate women’s studies student, the issue of women’s emancipation was often considered through the prisms of  other cultures, countries, religions, and mores. It was not enough that one believed in the rights of all people, it was important to strain this belief through a colander of cultural and religious relativism. By this I mean that one must always remain mindful of one’s position when attempting a critique of an altogether different position.

I used to get in rather large arguments with a French friend of mine. For her, it was absolutely justifiable that the French government pass and uphold laws whose statutes were dependent on the foundational French constitutional values: liberty, equality, fraternity.

This did not mean that a government must pass laws that seek to rectify historical inequalities however, that form of law-making is more akin with American ideology. For France, the constitution states the values, and that is how the laws must be passed and the ideology upheld: all are equal under the law.

Whether this is accurate on the ground is not at issue. So, because of this essential equality, citizens are held to the abstract standards; the freedom of church and state prohibits girls in schools wearing the Islamic veil, this law has been in place for several years.

The law passed in the past 2 weeks prohibiting women from wearing a face and head covering in public is the natural continuance of the previous law ( by natural I mean according to the above logic). The law has provoked international discussion concerning the rights of women to dress themselves according to their own standards, and ultimately concerning the form that Western governments are beginning to take in response to growing Muslim populations.

There are approximately 6 million Muslims in France, and though estimates vary, around 2000 Muslim women wear niqab.

What is niqab? Well, it can signify several different types of covering; however the photographs displayed most often tend to be similar to the one above.

Below is a more accurate and concise cartoon illustrating the varying forms of head scarf possibilities found amongst women of Muslim faith and culture.

As evident, these forms reveal extremely divergent possibilities, the hijab resembling a scarf a stylish French coquette might wear, or a camel herder in the deserts of North Africa. The burqa and niqab remain the most severe of the forms, and they are also likely to be the least glimpsed in Western countries.

Why has the niqab provoked such a firm and absolutist response in France? Particularly if its usage is so rare?

Why is the right to wear hardly any clothing at all unquestionable? While the right to cover oneself completely must be forbidden?

Photographs such as this are easily found on the Internet, and are often the illustrations provided for news articles detailing the legislation. Undoubtedly, this kind of picture is extremely provocative: it begs for a response. But why must the response be outrage? The juxtaposition is so stark between the two women, that the differences appear absolute. The figure on the right remains completely unknowable, while the figure on the left appears more easily understood. Wherein lies the fear? That the woman underneath the niqab remains completely unseen, rendering any interpretation of her as woman unknowable? Is this removal from interpretation a sign of her difference, her otherness, her dangerousness, her non-Westernness? And, would legally preventing her from donning the niqab render her safe for interpretation after all? Where do her needs and desires fit into the Western framework of femaleness and citizenry?

p.s. as of May 11: I recently received a comment from a reader stating that Western countries have become “too tolerant” in their allowance of religious practices such as those represented in this posting. I couldn’t disagree more. You cannot proclaim the wonders of your democracy in one voice, and with another voice dictate just what forms of religious and cultural plurality you will or will not allow.  This does not make sense–democratically, logically, demographically, politically, or philosophically.

Further, the notion that various forms of  undress are completely allowed and encouraged, while the form of absolute covering must be completely prohibited is contradictory and hypocritical: a feminist and democratic red herring.

Aged and Long-Haired

11 Apr

Last fall, the Style section of the NYTimes published a nicely personal essay entitled: “Why Can’t Middle-Aged Women Have Long Hair?”

The article immediately became enormously popular and provocative, generating over 1200 readers’ comments.

I thought of the article this morning, as I was thinking about a woman I’d seen yesterday working  at a shop I frequent. She was wearing a sleeveless black knee-length dress, was barefooted, possessed a very sinewy body and had long wavy hair. The hair was grayish, and the woman was most likely in her early 50’s. She was beautiful, in a stunning, unique way, and it was difficult not to stare at her. (She also chewed her gum like a cowpoke chews a toothpick, but this did not detract from her charms.)

One of the reasons this woman stood out to me is because she looked different from anyone else in the shop: no shoes, long hair, and older. The first 2 things are generally not accompanied by the latter, at least not in mainstream circles or environments. But why is that? I remembered the NYTimes essay, rereading it today. For the author Dominique Browning, there are a couple concise reasons she believes are generally proffered to the rapunzeled rebel: “you’re acting out;” “you’re still living in the 70’s.” I think she omits an important one however–“you are not acting your age.” But how, in any way, does aging have anything to do with hair length?

Possessing long hair, wearing it in inventive braids and buns, draws attention to oneself. Waving behind her head like a flag, the long-haired woman is definitely not fading into the background.
Herein lies the problem: it is because of her refusal to hide herself, that the long-haired aging woman is somehow serving as a kind of affront to cultural presumptions and pigeonholes. Refusing to recede into the woodwork, and persisting in celebrating herself and her choices, the long-haired aging woman demands that she be seen according to her own standards of beauty. And that is a beautiful thing.

Samantha Power of the flowing red hair

9 Apr

Since the Obama administration moved to work with the United Nations, the Arab League and France (among other European countries) to engage in military force against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, much has been made of the fact that several women internal to the administration allegedly convinced Obama to act.

Samantha Power, member of the National Security Council, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Secretary of State, in particular campaigned strenuously to  convince President Obama that letting things take their course in Libya without external intervention would lead to mass deaths and country-wide chaos. Because of their determinations, Clinton and Power have been branded as “furies,” “Valkyries,” and “Amazons.” In her Op-Ed piece on March 23rd, the NYTimes columnist Maureen Dowd relished the series of mythic names, even as she concurrently critiqued the cultural reaction towards assumptions of castration when women are seen to be those in charge:

Furies are members of the Greek mythic canon, and are those females who served as chtonic deities of vengeance. Valkyries reside in Old Norse mythology, and are those women who decided who went to battle (the assumption here that the “who” in question is male).

What the names might be for those men in the Obama administration (and others) who engage daily in matters of international affairs and war  remain unknown. And yet, there is no reason to provide catchy, mythic names for them, for the simple reason that each man’s ideologies and administrative duties are observed according to the individual: there is no need to position each unnecessarily according to stereotypes, gut reactions, and gendered assumptions. When Robert Gates takes a position, it has absolutely nothing to do with women and their anatomy. When Hillary Rodham Clinton, and now Samantha Power, take a position, suddenly the male member is everywhere–if only because it is apparently about to be cut off.

Samantha Power’s current position towards the Libyan crisis stems from her in-depth research of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. This knowledge has worked to convince her that inaction leads directly to death.

Whether or not she has “flowing red hair” (as quoted in the above article) or bears ideological resemblance to misunderstood mythologies remains far from the point. Becoming bogged down in her sex, her hair, her femaleness allows her to be judged according to extraneous cultural conceptions that have zero to do with the administration’s decision to engage the U.S. military in the affairs of another country without Congressional debate or approval.

OK Cupid–worthwhile or worthless?

5 Apr

(Warning: this posting is a tad more personal)

A few months ago a friend mentioned that she was going try internet dating; the experiment would be painless, however, because she planned on using a site that was completely free. OKCupid. I had never heard of it. But then, as tends to happen sometimes when you’re alerted to something, I started to hear it spoken of by many different people (all women).

Though I don’t consider myself in need or in search of a mate of any kind, I thought I’d give OKCupid a try. I had recently moved to a new city, knew few people, and thought that the effects of such an experiment could only prove to be beneficial…or, at the very least, interesting.

So I started an account, not realizing until an hour had passed that OKCupid’s whole matching system relies on providing the answers to as many multiple-choice questions as can be handled. (I looked over a man’s profile who had answered over 700). I became fatigued after about 30. Perhaps it was the type of questions: What is your relationship to God? Would you have a relationship with someone who was married? How important is sex to you? Do you feel that honesty is of the utmost importance? Questions that, while arguably valid, ultimately do not truly provide any real insight into an individual. The fact that any user can insert a question into the formula is not as reassuring or appropriately democratic as it may seem. (I added one, it asked “Do you truly believe that providing answers to multiple-choice questions can really ever allow insight into your personality?”
Maybe I was too skeptical, and this skepticism was hindering my chances?

I tried to be open; I looked at profiles; I read multiple-choice answers; I read the required personal essays.

One man caught my eye. His face was covered in his profile pic, his personal essay was full of provocations concerning his desire to achieve world domination, his intellectual superiority, and his overall perfection. He seemed funny.

His bio stated that he preferred the age group 23-33, and though I overshot that by a few years I’d thought I’ve give it a try. I sent him an email, told him he was funny and that I’d like to chat, I mentioned that I was 40, and would that be a problem? He wrote back immediately: No, my age wasn’t a problem, but my weight was. He didn’t want to feed the fat chick, and he had wasted too many dates in his life buying dinner for fatties and adding to the problem.

Considering that I’m a size 7, I was a little surprised. I wrote back that his facts were wrong, but the fact that he was an asshole was indisputable. He retorted that I may not be fat, but I was still too old.

Wow, rejection and complete ridicule from someone I had never even met. Is this a standard situation from dallying in the internet dating world? I do not know. Its significance is probably more related to the type of man that I am wrongly attracted to. Anyway, why is this important? Too often, social and cultural assumptions are made concerning the belief that the average woman is just too picky for her own good, setting standards that no real human man can meet. However, the ways most female bodies–in magazines, films, and television– are made to look are incredibly distorted and diminished, and it seems that such distortions have successfully saturated expectations, permeating the status quo to the degree that “curvy” reads as fat, 40 as old.

The virtual internet dating world, though the participants engage (at least initially) blindly with others, does not differ from the dating rituals that occur in the real. The expectation is that one parlays his or her ideals onto the void/website; the distortion that occurs is not fun, imaginative, or even really creative, but is instead reliant on real world biases, categories, and stereotypes. Avatars exist only insofar as they suggest simulation of real world dreamgirls.

Marine Le Pen: France’s Sarah Palin?

1 Apr

In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder and leader of the far-right political party National Front (FN), received 18% of the vote during the French Presidential election. This 18 %, while a seemingly meager number, was enough to place Le Pen in second place (prior to a latter run-off, in which he was easily trounced), and as such, served as an alarming wake-up call for the French left–and the rest of the world.

Since then Jean-Marie has retired, and a newer, prettier, more palatable member of the Le Pen family has gained in ascendancy to the National Front ranks. Marine Le Pen, daughter to Jean-Marie, and a political initiate beginning in her early twenties, is now–at 42–the leader of the National Front. Marine’s politics adhere closely to those of the FN orthodoxy: a fierce opposition to the European Union, vociferous criticism of “multiculturalism” and its requisite bleeding of French “values” and cultural heritage, a skeptical position towards immigration that culminates in the belief of expatriation when French citizenship is seen to be “rejected.”

There are sides of Marine Le Pen’s politics, however, which reflect a more liberal thinking than the ideas her father represented. Marine favors abortion rights, is strongly supportive of the strictest separation between church and state, and has favored ideas and policies that bear a strong resemblance to those found in the “locavore” movement. Her assertions that food production occur within particular radii to the communities served reflects a sympathy with environmental and agricultural policies found in the organic and slow-food movements.

Marine’s ideological proximity to her father was emphasized when, during a much-publicized December 2010 speech, she  likened the overtaking of public squares and street by Muslims during the daily call-to-prayer as “illegal occupation.” An accusation such as this, with its seemingly protectionist foundation, attempts to convince that the concern is with the community in question and the rights of all citizens. This position, though apparently in opposition to more leftist concerns with farming and the environment, actually hews quite close to them. The sense of “patrimonie” is arguably foundational to both views; the belief in a French history and culture, in its uniqueness and autonomy that must be protected and respected. An extreme sense of “patrimonie” reserves no place for those ideas and people seen as “outside of” its boundaries–be they GMO’s, women wearing the veil, Muslim men praying in the street, etc.

If seen as the pretty defender of old French farmers and cheesemakers in the north of France, Marine Le Pen’s vitriol becomes transformed as a defensive (read: “necessary) act to protect the French from those that seek to destroy, or at the very least transfigure, “patrimonie” itself. This returns me to the initial provocation: is Marine a French Sarah Palin? Palin’s insistent chorus of “my country ’tis-of-thee”s can be seen as homespun, less sophisticated refrains of Le Pen’s “patrimonie,” the purpose being to manipulate people’s sense of pride in their communities and its commingled fear of displacement and loss during times of economic hardship. Further, Palin’s near-constant criticism of those she views as outliers, liberals, non-Alaskans, feminists, are echos of Le Pen and FN’s hateful anti-immigration positions.

It remains to be seen how far either woman will travel politically….perhaps Le Pen will ultimately end up as a commentator on a lame French conservative network? or maybe the star of reality show “Marine Le Pen’s Calais”? I can just see her now–conducting her nationwide book tour via a bio-diesel bus, stopping to enlighten only those towns where no streets are blocked for prayers to Mohammed.

(See the May 1st NYTimes Magazine profile of Le Pen: