I curate my Facebook feed very carefully so that it contains only nice things. It’s possible that my Facebook feed is the only one remaining on planet earth that still regularly gets cute cat videos in it. I prune my content regularly, and in particular I make sure that I hide or defriend people who regularly clog my wall with nastiness, internecine spats, or heavy quantities of political material (of any persuasion). One of my key considerations for whether to hide/defriend is whether the content a friend puts up regularly shocks me or creates a sudden feeling of discomfort when I see it. I guess, if it triggers me. Usually this is things like people putting up political material that features torture or animal cruelty, people who spam my feed with inspirational pictures, and people who regularly say or upload things that heap scorn on others. By ferociously following this principle, I manage to make sure that my Facebook is a world of happiness and light. But sometimes things still slip through that shock me or make me uncomfortable, and one regular occasional event on my Facebook feed is one of my female friends approvingly posting a Celeste Barber picture.

If you aren’t familiar with Celeste Barber’s work you can read about it in this Guardian profile, and you can see some more pictures here. Basically, she’s a frumpy 30-something (?) woman who takes “real-life” versions of models’ PR pictures and posts them alongside the original pictures on Instagram. For example, a model might take a carefully posed shot of herself “falling” out of bed, and Celeste will take an equivalent shot intended to show her “ordinary” equivalent of this posed shot. Some of these are cute, like the one where she mimics a model sitting in her underwear holding grapes, but Celeste is holding a wine bottle – this makes a nice juxtaposition between the perfect and the everyday. Others rightly take the piss out of some of the extremely silly poses that these Instagram models take (the model falling out of bed, for example). But a lot of them just seem to be making fun of these models simply for making a living by being models, or in some way mocking them for being prettier and more posed than real women.

It’s not clear to me what Barber is actually trying to achieve with these pictures. For example, when she takes a picture of herself in a wet t-shirt and juxtaposes it with a picture of a model in a wet t-shirt, what is she trying to say? Sure, her picture looks slightly silly and stupid and reminds us that standing around in wet t-shirts looking sultry is not what women normally do during their day. But the point of a model’s Instagram feed is that it is not normal – that they are presenting an image of perfection and of things outside the everyday, that we admire and look up to. The point of models is that they don’t look like us, and the idea of a model’s Instagram feed is to showcase her beauty and the best photographs depicting it. Most model’s Instagram feeds are feeds of professional shots, that they may have taken a long time setting up and preparing for – this is why they’re models. If the point of Barber’s photos is to show that models take posed photos that aren’t natural, it’s kind of vapid. We all know that.

But I don’t think this is the point of Barber’s project. I think she aims to mock the standards of beauty that these models represent and embody, more than the silly poses they are adopting. This is why actually many of her photos are piss-takes of relatively unposed pictures of models – that is, the model’s picture is obviously from a photoshoot, but she’s not doing anything super weird or super silly, she’s just being pretty in a picture. Some (like the Zayn Malik lover shot or the doorway yoga thing) could be construed as making fun of the extreme lengths that people go to get a good shot on Instagram[1], but many can only be interpreted as mocking the models themselves. They attempt to show that the models are doing something wrong by contrasting them with what an ordinary person looks like in the same position. She herself says

I get a little miffed with fashionista people thinking that they are much better than other people because they are very slim and have architect husbands and get to wear free stuff

But is this all she’s doing, popping the bubbles of these “fashionista people”? I think this statement artificially conflates being beautiful with being better, which models and fashion people don’t necessarily agree with (I’m friends with one or two models who don’t think like this at all, though I’m friends with one who probably does). She also says she’s campaigning against how the media presents images of women. But is this what she’s doing? Because what she appears to actually be campaigning against is how models present images of models. Is she saying that she herself should be considered as beautiful as these women? If so, how come she uses her photos of herself to mock these women?

I think what Celeste Barber is actually trying to say here is that feminine beauty – or the aspiration to feminine beauty – is wrong, and that it is not possible for ordinary people to be feminine and beautiful. I think she is mocking the ideal of femininity itself. This is why her photos only target female models – she doesn’t, for example, take aim at the ludicrous poses male underwear models carefully adopt, or at the over the top presentation of masculinity and machismo in many male sports and film stars. She isn’t alone in this – our society has a strong undercurrent of scorn for femininity and feminine beauty, presenting it as something that can’t be trusted, a mask or veil over who a woman really is. I think Barber is expressing this undercurrent of hatred. She’s saying that real women, in the privacy of their own homes, in their underwear, are not feminine at all, that femininity is just a mask they pull on to impress others, and that it’s not real or valid, and these models’ instagram feeds full of perfect images of femininity need to be torn down in this way because femininity itself is a problem. If she were trying to present a model of accessible feminine beauty she wouldn’t be mocking these feeds, but trying to reinterpret them in some more viable way. But she’s not – she’s laughing at them.

I think this is an example of how some feminists have internalized a deeply misogynistic undercurrent in our society. There is a valid critique to be made of unrealistic representations of and expectations of women and women’s beauty, but this critique doesn’t have to throw femininity and feminine beauty out entirely. But this is what people like Barber do. This is why she doesn’t mock firemen’s nude calendars, or bodybuilder’s poses, which are just as ludicrously set up and unrealistic. These are okay, because masculinity and masculine beauty is considered to be healthy and real in our society. This is why we have a special qualifier for masculinity that has gone off the rails (“toxic masculinity”) but “feminine” is itself the special qualifier for ordinary social practices gone wrong (“feminine wiles”). Femininity is seen as an entirely negative thing, which if it is a deep-seated part of a woman’s character is purely a flaw – weak, diffident, vain and shallow – while if it is surface deep, is deceptive and untrustworthy. There is no model of femininity in mainstream society that is considered to be healthy, acceptable and good for a woman to adopt. We don’t talk about “toxic” femininity, because our society sees all femininity as poisonous. This is why feminists will share Barber’s mocking pictures on Facebook – because they think they’re saying something real about the way the media depicts women, when actually what they’re doing is channeling an age-old hatred of how women present themselves and who women really are.

Obviously someone like Barber isn’t going to have much effect on the adult feminists who share her pictures on my feed. But I wonder what impact this kind of material has on young women and girls growing up in our increasingly macho and competitive society. They’re told from all sides that being feminine is wrong, and presented with a world where the only valid form of beauty is masculine beauty, preferably achieved as a by-product of some serious activity (like sports, or soldiering, or firefighting), that beauty as an end in itself is wrong and that feminine beauty is bad for them and femininity is bad. But many women and girls want to be feminine and want to express their femininity through the kind of models of beauty that we see in these Instagram feeds (this is why these feeds are so popular – they aren’t getting all those followers from men). Then their feminist role models – the women who tell them it’s okay to want to work, that you can be anything you want to be, that no one can stop a girl chasing her dreams – put up pictures telling them that any aspiration to feminine beauty or any kind of construction of beauty at all (posing, make up, dream images) is wrong, and sexist. I think this must be hard on young women and I think that feminists watching Barber and reading this kind of thing need to consider the impact they’re having on young women and what space of beauty they leave open for young women to explore. I think that feminists should also consider whether their reaction to models of feminine beauty is first and foremost about whether they’re bad for women, or whether it’s a kneejerk, visceral response in a misogynist christian culture to the very concept of femininity itself. And is this a good thing?

I’ve been in Asia for 11 years now and one thing I have noticed since I left the Christian world and moved to a pagan country is that Asians have different expectations and views of both masculinity and femininity. In particular, they have no cultural attachment to the story of the fall, of the deceptive serpent and the woman who lures the man into sexual knowledge. As a result both masculine and feminine appearance and manners are seen as a much more natural and uncomplicated part of who humans are, and in my experience people in Asia have a much more comfortable relationship with women’s beauty and feminine behavior. I think this is something western people could learn from, and I think in particular western feminism could learn that instead of rejecting femininity and feminine beauty and reacting against it as a terrible expression of female repression, it should be seen as a natural part of who women are, and just as valid a form of expression of gender difference as anything else. It’s clear that many women in the west want to be like the models they idealize, but they grow up in a world where they’re told in no uncertain terms that they’re wrong, shallow, or even self-hating to feel this way. But these women’s desires and ideals are not a construction – they’re a real and deep part of who these women are. The kind of mocking that Barber is performing, and the general social acceptance it has in the west, does not help young women to grow up into a stronger model of beauty and better gender relations. It just puts them down. Western feminism needs a better relationship with female beauty if it wants to reform this aspect of gender relations in a way that ordinary women are actually comfortable with, and western feminism needs a more critical understanding of its own assumptions and the role of Christian misogyny in constructing modern feminist attitudes, if it really wants to make a better world for western women. Which could start with not mocking girls who want to be pretty!


fn1: Which, btw, what’s wrong with this and what is up with the constant negative carping about how “fake” Instagram is. Instagram is a site exclusively for sharing photographs. Why would you not go to great lengths to take a good photograph for Instagram?

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The news reports that this month Amnesty International is going to be discussing a proposal to support the decriminalization of sex work. This proposal isn’t necessarily particularly radical, given that decriminalization is not the same as legalization and several countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Turkey and Greece have already instituted decriminalization or legalization. It is important, however, because Amnesty International has a lot of weight in human rights debate, and a decision by Amnesty to support decriminalization would be a serious propaganda set back for the proponents of criminalization of sex work or the purchase of sex.

The weight Amnesty carries can be easily seen in the dismayed reactions of various feminist anti-sex work organizations to its decision to even consider this policy. The alternative to decriminalization preferred by some feminist organizations is to make buying sex illegal but to somehow not criminalize the seller, an impossible proposal that is nonetheless making some progress in northern Europe (it started in Sweden). Amnesty has always been a strong and forthright campaigner for the rights of women and girls, and a decision to support decriminalization of sex work would be a big blow against the so-called “Swedish model” of driving sex work underground by punishing the men who pay for it. The concern of campaigners for the Swedish model is on display in one of the bastions of support for this model, the Guardian, which has published a couple of opinion pieces decrying the move, and an editorial opposing it[1]. To be fair the Guardian has also published supportive articles, so it is actually hosting a debate, but I think it’s clear where its sympathies lie, and furthermore this newspaper offers an excellent overview of both the forces opposing decriminalization from the left, and the paucity of their ideas. The Guardian editorial is a symphony of wrongness, wrong in almost every sentence, and astounding in its disingenuousness, and all the opposing articles are noteworthy for their refusal to listen to the voices of sex workers who have been campaigning for decriminalization for years. Opponents of decriminalization have to ignore these women, denigrate them, or pretend that they represent only a tiny segment of first world sex workers, ignoring all the strong voices from sex workers in low- and middle-income countries, in order to come up with a policy that is essentially supportive of human trafficking, sexual and physical violence against sex workers – all in the interests of stamping out any form of sexual congress that doesn’t match their narrow view of how sex should be conceived and enjoyed. Some of the most vocal opponents of decriminalization, feminists like Julie Bindel, clearly see this as part of a strategy to achieve a very narrow feminist vision of how sexual interaction works, and are on record as opposing all forms of heterosexual activity until complete equality is achieved. For these feminists, as I have written before, sex workers are just convenient sacrifices on the road to a better future.

To be clear, feminism hasn’t always opposed sex work and the decriminalization or legalization of sex work, along with improved rights for sex workers in countries where it is illegal, are major achievements of the feminist movement over the past 100 years. This strange and obssessive desire to criminalize sex work and police the sexual choices of young, primarily poor women (often living in ex-colonies) is a very modern part of feminism, disconnected from the lives of the women it purports to be helping. My guess is that Amnesty International has been listening to the poorest women in the world, hearing their stories and paying attention to their movements, and is going to make a decision in favour of sexual freedom and the human rights of all women, not just those who choose to follow strict interpretations of sexual morality. This is important, because it isn’t just legal protection that sex workers need: it is the symbolic recognition of their right to control their bodies for their own profit as well as fun, and not just for strict reasons of love and childbirth. By recognizing the value of decriminalizing sex work, Amnesty won’t just be striking a blow in favour of policies that have consistently been shown to reduce sexual violence, protect against sexually transmitted infections and make all women safer: it will also be making a strong statement in favour of the complete sexual autonomy of even the world’s poorest women, recognizing that sexual autonomy should be available to more than just a few rich Swedish women. And sexual autonomy includes the right to rent out your body to strangers if you so choose – a concept that some feminists in the rich west seem to have a great deal of discomfort with. Let’s not make women in poor countries the victim of those feminists’ insecurities: support the decriminalization or legalization of sex work around the globe, because women and men everywhere should have the right to free choice about how to use their sexuality, and legal protection when they do so.

fn1: Note how many of the articles in the Guardian are illustrated with headless shots of “sex workers” in skimpy clothing. How come, even though the Guardian supports the criminalization of buying sex and not selling it, we only see pictures of the women it supports and not the dubious men it criminalizes?[2]

fn2: That was a rhetorical question.

Getting out of that fridge is hard

Getting out of that fridge is hard

Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece of Australian cinema, that makes the rare achievement of building on its predecessors in the series to bring post-apocalyptic film-making to what must, surely, be its apotheosis. Visually stunning, with a brilliant sound-track, incredible pace, and a simple joy in hedonistic old-school road wars violence that is deeply infectious, this movie immerses you in its insane world from the very beginning and doesn’t let you escape until the credits roll. It is thorough in its vision of a grim, wartorn post-apocalyptic wasteland, unrelenting in pursuit of heady, dizzying action and absolutely frantic. But beneath its simple patina of gorgeous landscapes, sweeping chases and exciting stunts, it is also a movie of many layers, combining an uproarious vision of a freakshow post-apocalyptic death cult with a powerful homage to Australia’s alternative and bush culture, and a subtle nod to an eco-feminist critique of the societies that are driving to their own destruction. This is one of those movies that you can appreciate for its visual splendour and action sequences, but also that you can enjoy for its crazed Aussie clowncar humour, and contemplate afterwards in the light of its ecological and feminist politics. This, in my opinion, is the perfect balance of themes for a post-apocalyptic movie. It doesn’t make the mistake of unrelenting hopelessness that characterizes some movies like The Road; it doesn’t dull you to sleep with the empty spaces and silences of an empty world, like The Last Man on Earth or Legend; and it offers something more uplifting than the empty survivalism or post-human cynicism of much of the zombie survival genre. Through the post-apocalyptic setting it offers both excitement, gore and social critique, all couched in such a spirit of over-the-top, raucous and invigorating fun that surely only a zombie couldn’t help but at least slide into the scene and get that rev-head spirit going.

The introductory scenes of the movie leave us with a bewildering array of visions of craziness and freakish people that are confusing and overwhelming, as the scenes of Max’s capture are played through the tunnels and byways of what looks like a massive underground punk/skinhead garage. It will be some time before we figure out what’s happening to him or why, but before we do we’re given a sumptuous feast of the sick, the freakish and the mad as we watch the elite of the citadel lording it over their filthy crazed masses. This 10 minutes is like Peter Greenaway on speed, without purpose or sense, but then we hit the open road and get a few minutes to start putting it all in place – oh, that‘s why the women are being milked, that‘s why the freaks are running the circus, those women are running away from him! Then the trouble starts again and we’re back into chaos, but with a few sentences of expository dialogue (finally!) and the dawning realization of the trouble Max is in, and all of it set against a backdrop of classic 1990s Aussie sub-cultural monuments: the punk styling, the rev-heads worshipping V8 with their elaborate steering wheels, the skinhead warboys who’re whiter than Aryan and go all chrome and shiny to die on the Fury Road … In a couple of minutes of frantic action we’re shown an ecosystem, the skeleton of an apocalyptic death cult, and an entire aesthetic to go with it. Then the chase starts and we’re still absorbing it as Mad Max is roaring (or, more accurately, being roared) onto the Fury Road, which in this world is basically anywhere wheels can turn. But the freakshow doesn’t subside – just when you think you’ve seen it all, come to terms finally with the internally consistent madness of it all, new craziness pops into the scene, and tears up the desert with more chaos, and then makes sense again. What you see on the trailer – some dude in a harness with a flame-throwing guitar, a gigantic dude with oxygen tanks, that scary dude with the mask – that seems so over the top and stupid, it all makes its own brand of crazy sense before you’re even twenty minutes in, and you haven’t even met the object of all this craziness, or even the worst of it all yet. Then when it’s all said and done and you’re reading the credits and seeing who these people were – the Doof Warrior, Rictus Erectus, the Organic Mechanic, Nuks the Warboy – you realize you still didn’t get all of it because nobody told you their full name but every detail of their names is a homage to Aussie subcultures, especially the doof scene but also punk, hardcore and all the tattered, dreadlocked, bullet-studded chaos of the 1980s and 1990s underground. Here it is, flying out of your cinema screen in one last glorious death rattle of insanity, road-rage and revhead joy.

Beneath this infectious ecstasy of the open road the main characters are laying out an ecofeminist thesis. The basis of the story is a group of women – called the Wives – who are apparently genetically perfect (and very beautiful!) fleeing from their tyrannical husband Imortan Joe, with the help  of his best road warrior, a one-armed woman called Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron). Joe hopes to have healthy babies by these women, and keeps them locked up for his use until he can get a male heir to rule after he is gone. But they don’t want to be things, so they leave, and his warboys have to chase them. This is a pretty basic feminist plot, made stronger by a couple of narrative devices. First of all, the alleged hero of the show gets fridged at the very beginning – as in literally, nearly – and only gets drawn into the story by accident. He manages to fight his way to Furiosa’s side but his role in the story is just luck, he was meant to be just another thing back at the citadel and it’s pretty clear first, at least, that Furiosa isn’t particularly comfortable with the idea of bringing him along. He’s the passenger for much of the first quarter of this movie, and the chicks are driving the car. Then, these women are not helpless – they are agents of their own destiny, and act with all the tools, strengths and wiles at their disposal to make their getaway. They don’t know how to fight and they aren’t strong (and one is about to give birth) but they don’t let any of that stop them doing all they can to take charge of their situation. These women are also the expositors of the film’s ecofeminist thesis, using their few moments of dialogue (no one in this movie wastes breath speaking!) to drop a few choice eco-feminist koans. The crux of it all comes when one of the Wives is trying to push Warboy Nuks out of the truck, and they are arguing about whether she is one of the citadel’s folk or not. Nuks says that he is not to blame, but she demurs, and yells “Then who killed the world!?” before tossing him overboard. At another point one of the women is credited with calling bullets “anti-seeds”: you plant one and watch something die. These are classic tropes of eco-feminist thought, being delivered by strong women whose presence on the screen is inextricably tied to their femininity and their fertility, and a war being fought to control their powers of birth, that are so precious on this planet that (the implication is) was blighted by men like Imortan Joe. They don’t stand up to expound on a manifesto or to make demands or philosophical claims but every time these girls speak they say something linked to an eco-feminist creed. Even the first time we meet them, one of them is cutting off a chastity belt with teeth built into it, freeing herself of patriarchal sexual shackles, and the perverse vagina dentata fears that the patriarchy brings with them.

I must confess I love it when a good movie works an ideology into its very bones, but does it so well that even though you know it’s there you just get sucked along with it anyway. I have no care for Mal’s simplistic libertarianism in Serenity but I did love watching him righteously defend it; I can’t stand the authoritarian violent message underlying 300, or the way it elided Spartan slave-holding and paedophilia, but I loved watching those men fighting for their worthless cause. When a movie saturates itself with an ideology but does it so well that you either don’t notice or don’t care, or – best of all – everything makes sense in the context of that ideology, that is when you know a movie is well crafted. And Mad Max: Fury Road has carried this off brilliantly, with the rollicking plot and the rollercoaster of stunts and enemies and explosions and madness carrying you all the way to the eco-feminist oasis – and back again.

With this movie I think George Miller has drawn together a few ideas he was playing with in the first three Mad Max movies, but wasn’t quite able to pull off. We see hints of a feminist agenda in Beyond Thunderdome, with the powerful Aunty Entity running the town and trying to use Max as a pawn in her schemes. We see here too the role of oases and lost places as signs of hope, but in Fury Road Miller has been able to better combine them with the narrative of judgment on those who brought the world down that he played with in Mad Max 2. The whole thing is also carried off with a remarkable creative continuity: the names, the punk styles, the language of speech have a certain similarity to them, as do the baroque car designs and the hard scrabble economics of theft and hyper-violent rent-seeking. Even the actors are in some cases the same: Imortan Joe is Toecutter from Mad Max 1. This is a full campaign world Miller has created over the past 30 years, leavening it over time with better production values and now a much stronger environmental message, and maturing some other themes (like the role of power-mongers), but that campaign world has been remarkably consistent across all that time.

For all of these reasons, Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie well worth waiting 30 years for. Later this year Star Wars 7 will come out, and we have to hope that there, too, we will finally see continuity with the original legend after 30 years of lost chances. I am not holding my breath on that, but I can assure you, dear reader(s), that Mad Max: Fury Road is something special, and will redeem this year of cinema – and possibly this decade – no matter what happens at christmas. Watch it, and ride eternal, shiny and chrome!

 

I have previously written about the difficulty of accurately understanding the issue of sex trafficking, and attempted to point out the conflicted political goals and deceptive tactics of some of the key activists and organizations in the movement against sex trafficking. I wrote these posts in connection with my argument that radical feminist critiques of sex work are fundamentally anti-woman, and observed that they often employ the power of a fundamentally patriarchal state apparatus to enforce their “radical” goals. Recently, a scandal has exploded around one of the US poster-boys for the anti-trafficking movement, Nic Kristoff, author of the anti-sex work screed Half the Sky and pro-sweatshop campaigner.

It turns out that one of the main anti-trafficking activists upon whom Kristoff’s campaign depended, Somaly Mam, turns out to be a fraud: Newsweek has a long and detailed expose of her false claims to have been abused, along with tales about how she trained the children in her care to lie about their experiences for western media, in order to secure funds and political support. Salon has an article suggesting Kristoff knew about these lies, and played a key role in boosting the tall stories being told in order to support the fund-raising efforts of various NGOs (and of course, to boost his own credentials as a rescuer of poor women from developing nations). This article points out that many women “rescued” by NGOs like Mam’s end up working in the garment industry, and are not allowed to talk about their pay and conditions with visiting journalists. Sounds like trafficking, no? The Newsweek article quotes researching pointing out that the number of children trafficked into sex work in Cambodia is likely tiny, and that most adult women working in the industry also are there voluntarily. Of course, these women are “choosing” sex work in the context of a poor nation with few employment alternatives for uneducated women – and one of the main alternatives is the hard, exhausting and sometimes dangerous option of working in the garment industry – an industry, we should remember, that Kristoff writes articles in support of, and that “rescue” NGOs supply “rescued” sex workers to.

Kristoff is, of course, famous for this sick and disturbing tale of having “bought” two sex workers from their “owner” in Cambodia. Consider the final paragraph of this tale, which shows both a callous disregard for the actual economic and social prospects of women from developing nations, and a cynical contempt for their personal choices:

So now I have purchased the freedom of two human beings so I can return them to their villages. But will emancipation help them? Will their families and villages accept them? Or will they, like some other girls rescued from sexual servitude, find freedom so unsettling that they slink back to slavery in the brothels? We’ll see.

 Do you think that many slaves would “slink back to slavery” after they were freed by the underground railway in pre-civil war America? No, probably not. What kind of language is being deployed here, that a commentator would honestly think people liberated from slavery would “slink” back to it? This is disgusting language, and it shows the way in which Kristoff instrumentalizes women and girls in his quest to prove himself morally superior – even as he defends an industry that is renowned for its labour abuses.
Following up on these revelations, the New York Times (Kristoff’s employer) has an excellent article about the difficulties of activism in this field. This article quotes one activist from Cambodia criticizing journalistic endeavours in these nations:
You show the face of the mother, who is so poor that she has to sell her daughter for money? How does this help the daughter or mother? It doesn’t. It helps the NGO to make money.
This is what people like Somaly Mam were doing. It’s worth also reading the comments of the Salon and NY Times articles, which contain detailed and thoughtful comments by activists working in the field who have been waiting for Kristoff’s bubble to burst. They are highly critical of efforts to outlaw sex work, and of the role of the US State Department in encouraging violent crackdowns on “traffickers” that inevitably end up harming sex workers, and these activists instead encourage the development of labour unions and sex worker organizations similar to those operating in Thailand. Of course, a campaigner for sweatshops has zero interest in supporting unionization, which history shows us is the only way workers in the garment industry have ever been able to protect themselves from terrible abuse. A person who supports sweatshops and campaigns against sex work must have seen enough of both industries to know that one pays considerably more than the other – is it any wonder that his response to the industry that pays more is to try and break it up on moral grounds, and to oppose any political response based on labour organization, which is the historical enemy of the industry he supports? No, it is not.
This is what lies behind the anti-trafficking movement, and all too often those who work to criminalize the broader sex industry use the “sex trafficking problem” as their entry-level argument against the entire industry. As these articles show, the effects of this activism on ordinary women voluntarily involved in sex work can be ferocious, not to mention the damage done to women “rescued” from trafficking by these unscrupulous organizations. When contemplating what “should be done” about sex work, the best option is first and foremost to ask the women who work in the industry – not rich white journalists or NGOs who claim to have a simple solution to a moral problem. Because where sex work is concerned, those people will turn out to be liars, and they do not have the interests of poor women and girls at heart.
Industrial Workers of the World, Unite!!

Industrial Workers of the World, Unite!!

Cheerleaders from two US football teams – the Jets and the Bills – are suing their former bosses for unpaid wages, and as part of the case we get to see some fascinating insights into how the football teams tried to control the lives of their cheerleaders. These women paid incredibly poorly – something like  $150 for a game that lasts 4 hours and requires at least 9 hours’ practice a week, and they have to pay all their beauty and transport expenses themselves. They also didn’t get any healthcare as far as anyone is able to tell, which of course in America is a big issue since they would be receiving no public support – and they were working in a very dangerous job (which Dick Cheney famously used to minimize the evils of Abu Ghraib prison). But on top of this, they were subjected to intrusive and patronizing efforts to control their personal behavior, all outlined in a detailed manual for cheerleaders. For example, they were given detailed instructions on how their hair should look, and how they should behave in public. For example:

Do not be overly opinionated about anything. Do not complain about anything- ever hang out with a whiner? It’s exhausting and boring.

and

Keep toe nails tightly trimmed and clean. PEDICURES!

A lot of the advice in the manual is for behavior at public events, but a lot of it also impinges on personal life – the whole section on hygiene, while it contains good advice, is not your employer’s business, and the idea that your boss can tell you how you should look after your tea towels is just ridiculous. This level of control, though, seems to be something that the contractor feels they have a right to force on these women even though they are essentially unpaid volunteers. These women are allowed to be married or engaged but they will be sacked instantly if they fraternize with football players.

All these rules and controlling behavior remind me of a phenomenon in Japan that is almost universally viewed with scorn by westerners: AKB 48. I have discussed the onerous restrictions on the women of AKB48 before, and particularly the rule that they cannot have boyfriends, and it appears that they have a lot of similar petty-fogging rules placed on them. However, there are two big difference between the cheerleaders in the linked lawsuit, and AKB48: 1) AKB48 are paid for their work; and 2) Westerners generally view the phenomenon of AKB48 as a completely illegitimate piece of constructed culture, an indictment of a plastic entertainment industry. Exploited cheerleaders being micro-managed so as to form a constructed culture are seen as a labour issue (see the comments on the linked blog for examples of this); AKB48 are a manufactured culture that cannot be taken seriously.

In reality these two groups have a lot in common, beyond the fact that they’re both all-girl units. They are both tools in the construction of a culture, though the cultures they construct are very different. AKB48 are the pinnacle of J-Pop, though they’re often misrepresented in the west as paragons of “kawaii culture,” a phenomenon I think exists only in the minds of western commentators. They serve to perpetuate the image of replacability in Japanese female performance artists, and they also serve to reinforce the connection between cosplay and nerd culture. But on a deeper level, they are a machine devoted to replicating the imagery of the cultural pattern of hard study, careful adherence to group rules, and graduation into adulthood: they serve to construct and reinforce the idealized culture of Japanese high-school/university/jobhunting, and I don’t think that on a cultural level this is a coincidence. Japanese people have begun to question the ludicrous complexity and challenge of this cultural transition from high-school to work, and oh look! Suddenly a huge cultural phenomenon has appeared that is devoted to preserving its fundamental strictures. Of course, when westerners view AKB48 they don’t see them in terms of this deeper cultural reification, viewing them instead as a shallow constructed cultural artifact built on the trivilization of Japanese women. This is an incredibly shallow interpretation, which arises from the classic mix of racism and sexism with which westerners (and western cultural commentators) always approach any issue connected with Japanese women. When you peel back the layers of cute and the cosplay, AKB48 is a signifier of a very powerful cultural force in Japan, and serves to reinforce and reconstruct the process of maturation through adherence to group practice and strict patterns of advancement. Contrary to westerners’ interpretations of it as a cheap and exploitative manifestation of “kawaii culture,” it plays an important role in preserving and reinforcing certain aspects of traditional Japanese culture.

So what culture do the cheerleaders construct and reify? Many of the commenters on the linked websites viewed the cheerleaders as an irrelevant aspect of the football business model, something that could be done away with at no cost to the teams. While on a strictly financial level this might be true, it completely misses the importance of cheerleaders as signifiers of heirarchies in sport. They serve to show where football stands in the social hierarchy, who the cultural phenomenon of football serves and represents, who is welcome and who is not. This is why they have strict image requirements that reinforce the image of the available but chaste Southern Belle, and all signifiers of working class origins or alternative lifestyle are to be expunged. But they also serve to show where women stand in the heirarchy of football: women serve to watch and cheer, and only certain kinds of women are welcome. They signify the role of women as adornment for football and footballers, rather than active participants in a culture. In this sense they serve the same purpose as chainmail-bikini-warrior-women in role-playing: they tell women that they are not welcome here except as adornment, and set the terms on which women are allowed to engage in the hobby. But they play a further role than this in football, because these cheerleaders are required to attend fund-raising and social events on behalf of the team (including annual golf days!) and to entertain potential donors. The social guidelines linked to above primarily concern their behavior at these events. By selecting cheerleaders from a certain race and class background, training them to behave in a certain way and tightly controlling their behavior, the football team shows potential donors what type of organization they’re dealing with, and makes them feel comfortable that they are engaging with a certain type of culture. It projects an image of a sport where women know their place and take certain restricted service roles, and where a certain social order is maintained. These women serve as symbols of the expungement of any form of radicalism or uneasy ideas from the culture of football. This isn’t just a small point of etiquette: there are serious problems of bullying and hazing in football culture, and efforts to prevent and eliminate this culture of bullying will almost certainly have ramifications throughout the coaching and training system, and will require changes to the hierarchies of the whole system. The most obvious manifestation of this would be wholesale changes to the way the game is played: it currently has huge rates of brain injury by design, and the whole game will need to be changed to eliminate this risk. Positioning cheerleaders as the teams do reassures funders and supporters that change isn’t going to happen, through the public presentation of a cultural model that everyone secretly knows is frozen in a different time.

I think this is also why the teams don’t want to pay their cheerleaders even so much as minimum wage. A culture that pays women to perform is fundamentally different to a culture that not only expects them to do as they’re told, but to be ready to perform for free on demand. Cheerleaders, unpaid and carefully groomed for public consumption, are the mechanism by which a highly macho and bullying sports culture tells the world how it views women and what it expects women to do, as well as how it expects women to contribute to the sport. Far from being useless adornments, they play a key role in reproducing the macho and closed culture of the modern sport.

When viewed as creators and reinforcers of cultural norms, both AKB48 and these cheerleaders show the difficulties that women face when they want to work in a field where their beauty, femininity and social talents are recognized and appreciated. On the one hand they are underpaid, micromanaged and exploited; on the other hand they are enlisted in the service of reproducing or constructing important cultural norms, a service of huge value to both their employers, the culture they represent and society more broadly. But at the same time they are attempting to gain appreciation and respect through the performance of femininity, which is generally derided in the west as a trivial thing, and so cultural commentators do not take them seriously either as people or as a social force in their own right. This is why AKB48 are not taken seriously by westerners inside or outside of Japan, and why western commentators cannot understand their huge popularity or why they have taken Japan by storm; and this is why cheerleaders somehow managed to spend years slaving away for a misogynist sports culture, helping to reproduce its bullying and hierarchical cultural structures, without ever coming to the attention of a union organizer or labour rights lawyer.

This is the price women pay for enjoying and attempting to be appreciated for their own femininity, a concept that in the west carries huge importance for cultural representation and as a site of contestation and representation of power, but which is universally derided and dismissed as trivial and unimportant, or as some kind of silly and youthful fancy. When western cultural analysis wakes up to the power and importance of femininity within our own cultures, then perhaps the Lady Gagas and cheerleaders of this world will be taken seriously by those who should be defending their rights – and maybe after that, by those who are restricting their rights.

The New York Times has an interesting and thoughtful article asking why so few women do science, a topic somewhat related to questions sometimes asked on this blog about women and role-playing, and dear to my heart since I graduated in physics and now live in Asia, where science is cool. Why do the English-speaking countries have a problem with women doing science?

The article has attracted 671 comments, which shows that the topic is of interest to a lot of people, and the author herself gives a strong example of why any form of barriers to participation in science are wrong. She studied physics, so in preparing the article she returns to her old notebooks, and she writes

The deeper I now tunnel into my four-inch-thick freshman physics textbook, the more equations I find festooned with comet-like exclamation points and theorems whose beauty I noted with exploding novas of hot-pink asterisks. The markings in the book return me to a time when, sitting in my cramped dorm room, I suddenly grasped some principle that governs the way objects interact, whether here on earth or light years distant, and I marveled that such vastness and complexity could be reducible to the equation I had highlighted in my book. Could anything have been more thrilling than comprehending an entirely new way of seeing, a reality more real than the real itself?

As someone who didn’t have what it takes to continue in physics, but really enjoyed my third year of study and really loved the topic, I can only say that it’s wrong! wrong! wrong! to construct any barriers that would prevent someone capable of exploring that world from so doing. And the article identifies a huge range of barriers that still exist to women trying to enter science. Despite these barriers, the statistics that the author quotes are reassuring for those of us who graduated from physics in the ’90s:

Only one-fifth of physics Ph.D.’s in this country are awarded to women, and only about half of those women are American; of all the physics professors in the United States, only 14 percent are women. The numbers of black and Hispanic scientists are even lower; in a typical year, 13 African-Americans and 20 Latinos of either sex receive Ph.D.’s in physics.

I think I also read somewhere once that there is a Native American professor of physics (I could be wrong, this is a very vague memory). In comparison: when I was studying physics there were no women in my year, and none had preceded me. In the year after me was a single woman, and we young idiot men as we were had already decided to interpret her tiger-skin mini-skirts and low-cut blouses as proof that she was “taking the easy way” and trying to impress the profs with her body[1]. How much has the field improved in the intervening 20 years!

The author also points out that there is a basic problem in the interpretation of femininity and its acceptance in English-speaking academia. She cites a scientist who worked in Europe, who states that women from France and Italy

dress very well, what Americans would call revealing. You’ll see a Frenchwoman in a short skirt and fishnets; that’s normal for them. The men in those countries seem able to keep someone’s sexual identity separate from her scientific identity. American men can’t seem to appreciate a woman as a woman and as a scientist; it’s one or the other.

This is also my experience in Japan. In Japan it is acceptable for women to be professional or experienced and feminine; it is not a case of either/or, and people are simply impressed that a woman is feminine and skilled – or even they take it for granted that a woman with technical skills will also be well dressed, elegant, womanly, etc. There isn’t the same sense that being feminine is a sign that one is unserious. While in the west femininity is seen as a kind of performance that young women do to pull a mate, and therefore somehow false or deceptive (though expected), in Japan it is just seen as a part of being a woman, not an accoutrement of femininity so much as a part of its essence. There is no expectation that women will walk away from their femininity in order to be taken seriously as scientists. And women’s place in Japan is judged on the basis of their position more than their sex. The way I have come to think of this does not reflect positively on the west: Japan has sexism, but the west has misogyny. There is a deep-seated fear and hatred of women in western culture, while in the east there is a strict set of roles. And in amongst those roles, women are allowed to be scientists. Or at least, that is my impression. This western fear and hatred of women is declining, of course, as we grow up and reject a fundamentally misogynist religious history, but it is still there. The article describes a much more subtle and weaker form of sexism though, that pervades the sciences and makes the task of women just that little bit harder than that of men; and making science just a bit harder means making it inaccessible to mortals, because doing science is difficult at the best of times. You don’t need people denying you lab space, salary and funding, especially on top of the inevitable requirement that young scientists move through several countries as part of the process of building their career. But that is what happens: straight out old-fashioned discrimination.

There are also subtler cultural factors at work: lack of encouragement, and the continual claim that women are not as smart or as talented as men. The writer of the article experienced both of these directly and speaks to other women who had the same problems. It’s a fascinating insight into how a million tiny cuts can drive a person away from a goal, and how those million tiny cuts can be strongly gendered. You may think you’re the first person in history to make an unsavoury joke about women in your engineering course; but to the woman you are talking to, it’s just another day on the frontlines. This kind of stuff adds up, and then women get to the decision point where they are looking at years of hard work, low pay and really, really difficult problems, and with that background of discrimination and discouragement they just think, “fuck it!”

That’s why there aren’t many women in science. It’s a fascinating article, and well worth reading for people outside science too. It really describes openly the subtle ways in which gender bias works to alienate women from a field. And this is obviously relevant to role-playing – a hobby where in the west there are very few women, but in the east there are many more, and for many of the same underlying reasons.

And obviously, excluding women from role-playing is a vastly more important issue than exclusion from science. Read the whole thing!

1: incidentally, I dropped out of physics ’cause I didn’t have what it takes[2], but she stuck around for a PhD. Probably now she’s working in the City, snorting cocaine off the bottoms of Abercrombie & Fitch models, and here I am living in a 2-room apartment in Tokyo on a completely moderate wage. Who was the loser in that story?

2: My friend got a PhD in Canberra. He dropped out for IT. He told me: “I realized I don’t have what it takes to be a physicist when this Russian physicist visited to do a 3 month placement. He had no funding. He had no money. He slept on the floor in his office and ate rice for 3 months. I can’t do that for any reason. I will never compete with people like that. I’m outta here!”

What cute little blue feet this boob has!

This week sees the simultaneous release of pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge’s breasts, and the release of a Counterpunch article on how a feminist Assistant Professor should be allowed  to breastfeed in class. I think everyone is roughly aware of how the debate is proceeding vis a vis the Duchess’s breasts – they’re a private and sensitive part of her body and should not be revealed in public. A nice debate on the Assistant Professor’s breastfeeding can be found at Crooked Timber, and in my opinion shows the lengths people will go to defend people in their in-group, and I commented there a few times to make note of the nature of the Prof’s bullying of a younger woman, and how strange it is for a self-described “militant feminist” to be using the full powers of authority against a young woman.

There’s an interesting and entertaining element to the feminist response to these two topics, though, which I would like to explore here. The palace’s (and, presumably, Kate’s) uproar over the publication of the pictures is only partly based on the fact that she didn’t give permission for a photo to be taken (this happens to royals all the time); it’s specifically about her breasts. I presume there is a feminist response to this based in women’s control of their own bodies, which would observe that breasts are sexual and private parts of the body and to publish pictures of them without permission damages a woman’s agency; but at the same time quite a few commentators on the Crooked Timber thread are arguing that breasts should not be seen as anything special and no one should distinguish between breast-feeding and bottle-feeding in public. Quite a few of the commenters there, presumably feminists, criticize the student journalist and others for suggesting that there might be anything inappropriate about whipping a breast out in a lecture, and suggest that the students who might have been discomfited need to grow up.

But here’s the thing: if Kate Middleton is made uncomfortable by the thought that her breasts can be viewed publicly by strangers, presumably it is also reasonable for her to be discomfited by the sight of a stranger’s breast in public? She might not, but given she sees her own breasts as a private and sexual area of her body she must have some generally applicable boundaries as to when and how they can be displayed, and presumably at least on a personal level these boundaries would be generalizable to the behavior of others. So how do we reconcile her (and many other women’s) feeling that their breasts are special, with a feminist position on breast-feeding that says they aren’t?

I don’t think we can. Because breasts aren’t just bottles, and everyone – male and female – has feelings about them that are not the same as feelings about bottles. This is why feminists will be outraged by the publication of pictures of Kate’s breasts in a way they would not be by pictures of her elbows. So, if you’re going to argue for the right to breast-feed in public places, I don’t think an argument on the basis that “we all need to get over how special breasts are” is going to work unless we are willing to logically extend that to “there’s nothing wrong with publishing unauthorized pictures of the breasts of public figures.” Julia Gillard, Margaret Thatcher, Kate Middleton, Paris Hilton: it’s all the same, we can publish their breasts with the same ease with which we publish their elbows and knees.

Of course, you can paper over the issue by objecting to the publication of any unauthorized photos of public figures, but that horse has bolted. The issue now is strictly over what is acceptable. Upskirts? No, those parts are sexual. Breasts? No, those parts are private. Breast-feeding by a professor in class? Yes, because there’s nothing special about breasts. Doesn’t work does it? Similarly sneering at someone for being made uncomfortable by a strange woman’s breasts in a breast-feeding role in class, but lauding them for being made uncomfortable by a strange woman’s breasts on a newspaper … doesn’t work. And this latter contradiction applies even if the person in question is well capable of understanding the non-sexual context of breastfeeding.

I think there are lots of other ways to justify the Professor’s decision to breastfeed in class, and lots of other arguments for public breastfeeding. But I don’t think they should be leavened with “they’re just breasts.” It’s a lactivist meme that I think contains a lack of respect for the importance of sexuality, contains an unhealthy natalist view of what women become when they are mothers (i.e. non-sexual) and reduces an important part of human culture (the aesthetics of the body) to a mere triviality.

For the record: I am entirely in favour of women being allowed to breastfeed publicly, but I also think it’s good for women to consider whether they can find alternatives, and society should (as happens in Japan) provide proper rooms for this activity, so that women can breastfeed comfortably without worrying about being in public, and those members of the public who are uncomfortable with public breastation are not required to see it. Worse still, a society where it is expected that women can, should and will breastfeed in public is going to be hell for women who feel uncomfortable so doing: they will be unable to find spaces to do so, and will be made to feel like bad mothers for not behaving in accordance with accepted fashion. So more breast-feeding rooms are always good. Incidnetally, my view used to be more militantly lactivist, but the reserved nature of life in Japan has mellowed it slightly.