Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Oh, Femen...

Femen declared last Thursday, 4 April 2013, "Topless Jihad Day," a response,
in support of Amina Tyler, a young Tunisian woman who has been targeted by Islamists after she put a bare-breasted picture of herself on her Facebook page in March with the words "Fuck Your Morals" and "My Body Belongs To Me, And Is Not The Source Of Anyone's Honour" painted across her chest.
Tyler does need support; she has received death threats and is in fear for her life.

But, oh, Femen, the way you're going about this...

Look, I must admit that I am not a big fan of their topless protests, anyway. I understand something of their sentiment--in a world in which so many women are (a)shamed about our bodies, told what to do with them, how they should look, what is (in)decent, and held to a moral double standard, unflinchingly baring those bodies can be read as a resistive gesture.

But, for women like me, who are a product of that world, yes, but a product of a history in which women who looked like me were commonly put on display as novelties, as scientific oddities, as evidence of the sexual grotesque, as a precursor to being sold into a life of forced sexual and manual labor, topless protests have no appeal.

They also have no appeal for many Muslimahs who "joined forces to protest against the work of Femen" via a Facebook page called "Muslim Women against Femen." And in response to their protest, Femen slipped into the old tried-and-true colonialist, racist, condescending methods of some white feminists.

There is, of course, backstory here. There is a history of white feminists assuming they know what's best for non-white or non-Western women, a history of their exceptionalizing the oppression of non-white, non-Western women in effort to position the Western world as "better"/"more advanced," to construct non-white and/or non-Western men as more-of-all-those-negative-stereotypes that characterize them in the Western world, and to render non-white and/or non-Western women as perpetual victims in need of liberation. Whatever the progressive strengths of white women's feminism, it has not escaped a legacy of ethnocentrism and privilege. There is also, with regards to perceptions of "the Islamic world," a fascination with and disdain for the practice of veiling. There is a narrative that insists that every woman who covers herself is forced to do so and lives a life of misery under an oppressive religion and domineering, murderous men.

And so we come to Femen, members of which looked at the Muslim Women against Femen page, looked at the declarations of Muslimah pride, the statements that some Muslimahs found liberation in covering themselves, did not perceive of themselves as oppressed, were not in need of rescue, and did not see baring of the body as liberating, and responded in the most appalling ways. For example, Femen leader Inna Shevchenko said, "They write on their posters that they don't need liberation but in their eyes it's written 'help me'. "

When I read that, my first thought, quite honestly, was that she sounded like a rapist: "Your mouth tells me one thing, but your eyes/your body/your actions say another." Shevchenko went on to say, "You know, through all history of humanity, all slaves deny that they are slaves."

I wish that were made up, I really do. Shevchenko's remarks are symbolic of the disconnect between many white feminists and other women. There is no actual engagement, no discussion, no validity placed on actual lived experiences, no consideration of cultural differences. Instead, there is a one-size-fits-all, we-know-what's-best-for-you-poor-dears approach that is infuriating, exclusionary, and, sadly, persistent. As Muslim Women Against Femen spokesperson Ayesha Latif mused, "We wonder how many Muslim women they have actually spoken to?"

Latif's comments highlight many of the issues non-white and/or non-Western have with organizations like Femen:
"The assumption they promote is that we are subjugated creatures controlled by men, who need to be liberated by a group of perfectly groomed white women posing nude and using shock tactics.

"For them, the more you strip the more of a feminist you are - that’s Western feminist ideology. That’s not liberation for us, but that doesn’t make us anti-feminist.
But in their narrow-mindedness, Femen cannot accept Latif's argument. Shevchenko generously explains that, "We are proud to share progressive ideas for all over the world." But that "sharing" too often takes on a veneer of coercion--"Trust us; you need liberating and we are going to do it no matter what you say!"

Shevchenko blithely asks, "Why do they have to cover their bodies?" but when Muslimahs give answers that indicate that they choose to do so, Femen ignores the answer.

That answer doesn't fit the script white feminists too often write for the "poor, oppressed, victimized WoC" character.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Here Comes (My Musing On) Honey Boo Boo!

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo airs on TLC and is in its second season.

For the ridiculous sum I pay for cable, I watch approximately 5 channels: Food Network, Cooking Channel, Investigation Discovery, the Oprah Winfrey Network, and any random channel that might have a show that lets me get my crime TV/forensic fix. When these channels simultaneously broadcast shows that I have seen or that I don’t like, my life is thrown into an uproar. I typically throw down the remote and pick up a book. Occasionally, I go channel-surfing. During one such surfing-in-desperation episode, I stumbled upon the premiere of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” I saw people on Facebook writing about it and got the gist of the background of the Shannon/Thompson family (if you’re not familiar, the show is about the now-seven-year-old Alana Thompson, who competes in children’s beauty pageants and her family, including her mom and dad, three older sisters, and new born niece). I expected to be critical of the beauty pageant element, in particular, and what I thought would be the drudgery of it (I don’t like reality TV), in general. I do have a lot to say about the children’s pageant element, but I found that, overall, I liked the family. One of the main reasons is that, as rural southerners, they are familiar to me. I found the mother, June Shannon, funny, confident, and patient with her girls. I watched more than one episode, a true sign of my interest.

But… within a few episodes, I realized, to the producers of this show, my feelings about June and her family must seem an anomaly. In my opinion, whoever is staging this show goes out of hir way to make this family a subject of mockery, ridicule, and disgust. From the opening montage, the audience gets a clue of what to expect—the family is first gathered, all smiling, as if they are posing for a portrait. And then, someone passes gas and they dissolve into arguing amongst themselves. Why, you may wonder, are they repeatedly cast in such an unflattering light? I believe we are meant to be repulsed by them because of a number of social characteristics of the family members: they are southern, working class, and some of them are fat.
I cannot list all the tropes trotted out to play on stereotypes of people who fall in the aforementioned category, but let me try. We see June, the heaviest member of the family, eating. No shame in that right? But we see her eating in ways that we can look down upon. We see her eating with her hands. We see the show edited (for example, the Thanksgiving show) to make it seem that she eats non-stop. We see her eating large portions (as on her date with her partner, Sugar Bear). And we are encouraged to make judgments on how she cooks for and feeds her children, some of whom (including Alana) are heavy. She sprinkles sugar on their already sweetened cranberry sauce and says it’s how they get their servings of fruit. She makes a dish called “sketti” that includes spaghetti, ketchup, and butter. She tells us about feeding them venison culled from deer killed in car accidents. As if that does not drive the point home enough, Alana laments the fact that they haven’t had venison in a while, noting that, “It’s been a while since I had road kill in my belly.” Largely ignored is June’s comment that she is trying to feed a family of six on $80 a week, leaving little room for gourmet fare, and that she cooks almost everyday to control food costs.

And, oh, these uncouth southerners! The children curse. The parents curse. They argue and laugh loudly. The camera makes sure to document each time they pass gas or burp or pick their noses. They play in mud on several episodes (I mean, you know how we southerners love our dirt—food, toy, flooring—it’s multi-purpose!). They go to “Redneck Games.” The editing of one episode emphasizes that gnats fly around them. When Alana meets the current Ms. Georgia, Ms. Georgia notes that she is unsure of how far the little girl will go in the pageant world because of her lack of refinement. And attempts to teach Alana “proper” etiquette seem exasperating for the child and the instructor, as if the little girl is hopeless!

The presented image of Sugar Bear, too, is often unflattering. He is always shown with a pinch of chewing tobacco in his mouth, leading to comments about his breath. He speaks softly and seems shy and, quite often, scenes are edited to emphasize that June is the “boss” and the girls pay him little attention. This further contributes to the appearance of the family as disordered, given our culture’s creation and castigation of “matriarch” figure and common lamentations about men losing their status in various ways. But I don’t see Sugar Bear as weak because he is quiet. In fact, in Sugar Bear, I see my own dad and my favorite uncle. My dad was a quiet man who loved pickup trucks and hunting and fishing and dealt with my sister and me gently. My uncle is much the same way and, like Sugar Bear and many southern men, he’s usually chewing a pinch of tobacco and clamoring for a “spit cup.” I do not find him disgusting. I have never been repulsed by his breath or his tobacco habit. A quiet disposition does not indicate a lack of engagement or importance in a family circle. Sugar Bear’s love for June and those girls is obvious. He works hard for his family. And when June’s oldest daughter, his step-daughter, has a baby, his sweet words about how she reminded him of Alana and seeing him cuddling the newborn reinforced the comparison I made between him and my dad.

The Shannon/Thompson family has a strong sense of themselves as working class southerners and are even untroubled by the term “redneck”—and why should they be, given “redneck’s” origin as a term to describe hard-working farmers whose necks were burned red by exposure to the sun? But given all the negative connotations that label has, it seems outside the realm of possibility to the producers of the show that one can be comfortable and even proud of a rural southern identity. In comments of posts or articles that talk about the show, you will commonly see them called “white trash,” as well. Now, I have to say, first, that while I understand the sentiments of poor white people and scholars who have tried to “reclaim” the term “white trash,” it is a very problematic term, particularly in its implication that “white trash” is such an anomaly that we must include a racial marker. Most white people are not perceived to be trash, thus the label; but what does this say we think about people of color? The racialized terms by which we are referred have been constructed in ways that imply an innate subordination, impoverishment, “less-ness” in a way that the term “white” has not been constructed. In fact, so anomalous is “white trash,” that scholar Matt Wray explored the idea that people given this label are often perceived as “not quite white.”

For the purposes of this essay, I want to focus on another adverse meaning of the labeling of the Shannon/Thompson family as “white trash”: in the words of Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, “white trash” is often the “white Other,” “the difference,” indeed, the “threat” within the bounds of the privileged status of whiteness. There is no clearer evidence in “Honey Boo Boo” that the South and, in this case, white southerners are being othered, portrayed as foreign, unknown, and unknowable, than the fact that the family’s speech is captioned, as if our English is any more accented than that of people from other regions of the United States! But those other accents are normative, unnoticeable, default, and, in the end, not an accent at all, but the way “real” USians talk!

I think the whole family is portrayed in a way to make each member an object of ridicule, but I believe our greatest disgust is supposed to be reserved for June. June seems, to me, to have a great attitude. She finds the humor in many situations and she is affectionate with her girls. She is confident about her relationship with Sugar Bear and her attractiveness to him. She is a bit adventurous and she likes to have fun. June is also money savvy; she endeavors to be an “extreme couponer”: “You save money for your family — that’s what it’s all about,” she said [on Jimmy Kimmel Live]. “I could be a multi-millionare and still want to get the best deal for my family.” Additionally, “she’s putting the show’s earnings into trust funds for her children,” noting that, “I want my kids to look back and say, ‘Mama played it smart.’”

Funny, confident, beautiful, smart… apparently, those are all things forbidden to fat southern women. When June decides to have fun on a water slide, the camera focuses on the fact that she struggles to climb it (even then, she laughs amiably at herself and is clearly having a good time, but the joke is supposed to be on her—HaHa! She’s too fat for this!). She notes that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that she and Sugar Bear both appreciate her beauty (a fact that he confirms). Yet, she is shown as the opposite of all those things that are constructed as beautiful in our society, from her disdain for makeup to her refusal to obsess over her weight. And, true to common characterization of southerners, there are plenty of “duh” moments when we are given the impression that the family members are not intelligent. I cannot, in one post, catalogue all the ways this woman is mocked and cast as the butt of some joke that everyone else is in on.

But, what really endears June, and indeed, all her family, to me, is the fact that, in the face of a country that derides most things about them, they STAY proud and true to who they are, something that I understand as (and I deeply, deeply hope is) a refusal to accept the mandate that they apologize for being themselves, for being working-class and southern. When I see June, I am reminded of Liss’s post about having the audacity to be fat and happy and I can’t help smiling myself. For me, the othering of the South and southerners, the positioning of us as inferior to northerners, the constant stream of jokes about our stupidity and “in-breeding,” our “strange” food (and even deadly, until soul food and southern food are properly gentrified by northern chefs—but that’s another post!) and weird customs, means that I proclaim my southern-ness often and loudly, from the language I use on social media to referring to myself as a southern (b)elle to making a conscious effort to use my “real” voice in my classes and other settings so that my accent, which I find lovely and luscious, shines through. And while part of that has come from the process of being comfortable in my own skin, part of it is DEFINITELY a “Ha! I am progressive, smart, funny AND southern”-thumbing-of-my-nose at those who would believe such a person cannot exist. I read June’s actions and attitude in the same light.

I have a delightful feeling that I am right.

Friday, April 05, 2013


Sometimes, I hate reading the news. Between President Obama's willingness to cut Social Security and Medicare, cuts "which would affect veterans, the poor and the older Americans," and the state of Tennessee's foolishness:

"A Tennessee bill that would cut welfare benefits of parents with children performing poorly in school cleared committees of both the House and Senate last week."


Twice a year, Tennessee holds a “health care lottery” that gives some hope to the uninsured residents in the state who can’t afford health coverage. Tennesseans who meet certain requirements — in addition to falling below a certain income threshold, they must be elderly, blind, disabled, or a caretaker of a child who qualifies for Medicaid — may call to request an application for the state’s public health insurance program, known as TennCare.


State residents who have high medical bills but would not normally qualify for Medicaid, the government health care program for the poor, can call a state phone line and request an application. But the window is tight — the line shuts down after 2,500 calls, typically within an hour — and the demand is so high that it is difficult to get through. [...]


If Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslan (R) opted to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, more than 180,000 people would be able to be added to the TennCare rolls by 2019... Haslan has not yet decided whether Tennessee will accept Obamacare’s optional expansion of the Medicaid program, although he has indicated that he may make his decision sometime this week [week of 25 March 2013].
I despair of our ever having a truly effective safety net.

Also, it must be nice to have the luxury of time to decide if 180,000 people who need healthcare can get it. Uh-oh, Governor, your privilege is showing!

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...