Difficult to please

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Yesterday someone told me, in a list of things, that I appeared to be ‘difficult to please’ (or that this was the version of me he had created in his mind). It was all in light conversation, but it made me think about the things I have heard all my life, about all the things I read – about all women – particularly this week when International Women’s Day hit.

“She’s so difficult to please.”
“Really? Do you even know what she wants? Did you ask? Did you, more importantly, listen? Did you even try?”
Somehow, dude, just by existing in the world you didn’t please her. Imagine that.

My Facebook feed and other online outlets were filled with stuff about women’s day, women’s strength and the fight for equality. (We’ve got a long way to go as long as sexist buffoons like Polish politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke exist.)

I had and really still have almost nothing to add to any of it. I wish none of this ever needed to be discussed. International Women’s Day was always one of those things that seemed like such a big deal everywhere except America (where I was educated). I only knew of its existence at all through my Russian studies, when it became clear that women’s day was supposedly such a big deal in Russia. Little did I know it was ‘big’ everywhere. It figures that it doesn’t register with me even now, after almost 20 years away. “What? It’s women’s day? So?” It doesn’t register with me – not because I don’t think it should exist. Not because I don’t believe in feminism or equality. Of course I do. But it’s like with all days set aside to “honor” some group, accomplishment or … even love itself, it sequesters it. Sure, it’s meant to shine a brighter light on something (or sell more greeting cards and flowers), but does it excuse everyone from thinking about women and equality the other 364 days a year?

It’s obvious to say these things – and it is obvious that it is so much more complex than being reduced to memes and 10,000 articles on variations of the same theme, as the women’s-day-dominated internet was. Subtly discriminatory practices and ripples of inequality are insidious – they are everywhere (and this, of course, is applicable to the ‘enlightened’ northern European world I live in – I can’t speak for anywhere else). And they live every single fucking day.

After reading what was meant to be a comical take on women/feminism (a primer for men, I guess), I questioned what is actually wanted/desired versus what people say they want. As long as a woman is called out for “being difficult to please” because she has preferences and reasons for them, we’re still far from total parity.

“Our ultimate aim, when it comes to men, is to find an amusing mate we can have sex with, then sit on the sofa with, watching re-runs of Seinfeld and eating a baked potato. Discount all that Christian Grey/abs of steel/”bad boy” shit. Our priorities are: 1) Kindness; 2) Jokes; 3) High tolerance of carbs.”

If this is true, why is it that women as a huge, whole, general population have this reputation for “being difficult”? (Surely some other part of the article, such as “Periods”, cannot account for all of it.) Could it be that things that are perfectly logical to women, such as having a closet full of clothes yet still have nothing to wear, sound illogical until you take the full picture into consideration (as the article’s author does): “What we mean is, “I don’t have anything to wear for who I need to be today.” Most men will never live with the same kind of scrutiny women do for how they look and what they wear and what it says about them. All these decisions are loaded for women.

I guess what I am trying to say is that these things that seem frivolous and vain are often informed by so much societal and cultural baggage – if you’re not a woman, you are not going to get it. Or at least if you do get it, you’re going to get it intellectually only because you’re probably never going to experience anything in the same way. I’m sure we appreciate that you try to ‘get it’, but there are experiences all of us can never have and lenses through which we can never see.

I read a recent interview with Allison Crutchfield in which she touches on this – men are never going to understand the woman’s reality (any more than we will understand theirs), but there is a certain self-congratulatory strain in some men, which wouldn’t be half so bad if they did not proceed to hijack the discussion:

AVC: You say in the song, “You assume you understand because your voice is the loudest while you borrow our reality.” How often do you see men adopting these ideologies and then using it as a means of asserting dominance?

AC: I think it happens all the time. I can only speak to my experience, but I think that I had a few different relationships with people—platonic or romantic—that inspired this song. I’m happy to say that those relationships have all kind of ended, slightly because of this. But that line is specifically about just actually having a conversation or a discussion about feminism, and about my experience as a woman, and literally being talked over by a man who had not had that same experience. And that was really difficult for me.

I feel a little bad calling him out on this, but I had a really hard time watching that show Master Of None. I like Aziz Ansari, but the feminism episode of that was so hard for me to watch. It didn’t necessarily inspire this song, but that is something I can point to where it’s like, Aziz Ansari just gets feminism all of a sudden and is just yelling about it from the rooftops. I feel like a lot of people, a lot of men, want this pat on the back for correctly identifying how they feel about feminism, how radical they’re being and how much they “get it.” That is just really gross to me. That’s what that line comes from. It’s about feeling like I’m surrounded by these people who really think they’re doing the right thing but they’re completely socialized to scream over women who are trying to talk to them about their actual experiences and also sort of borrowing the reality of a woman’s experience.”

In fact, as a case in point, a lovely former colleague (a man) shared:

“Well, that didn’t take long.

Staff chat about International Women’s Day descended into a group of men mansplaining why any institutional solution to the shortage of women in tech is mathematically bad and undermining the goals or equality.

The actual women in tech who weren’t being listened to mostly dropped out early and got back to work.”

I am no expert on this subject. My own attempts to undertake formal education in gender studies ended in frustration when many of the readings were just slightly less venomous than Andrea Dworkin’s infamous “sex is just rape embellished with meaningful glances” comment. My only claim to being able to talk about this, and it should be enough to have an opinion, is that I am a woman. Rambling on about this is not an edifying experience; it’s just that this stuff is so virulent but often just beneath the surface.

Am I difficult to please? No more than any other woman who wants to be heard and have choices.

Photo (c) 2017 astoller used under Creative Commons license.

Don’t Repeat Ugly History

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A Swedish political video recently went viral. It features the grandson of Nazi Rudolf Höss. The grandson, Rainer Höss, whom I have seen in documentaries about the descendants of Third Reich leadership, has been trying to work through the burden of his own history all his life. He declares in this hard-hitting ad: “My history taught me that democracy and equality and human rights never can be taken for granted.”

“Never forget. To vote.”

Ad Dads: The Wholesome Mix of What’s Good for Business

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How things change – and suddenly. I won’t say they change fast because that they definitely do not. Gay equality – I won’t even call it “gay rights” because it comes down to human rights and equality for all, and the gay community has been one group that suffers most from the lack of equality afforded to them as individuals and as couples/families. I recall being in New York only a handful of years ago with a fantastic woman – and if I remember correctly, we talked then about how unlikely it seemed that she would ever be able to marry a partner. I do not remember if we discussed it as an American situation (as in, never being able to marry in her own country) or a state phenomenon (meaning the state she lived in at the time). But even three or four years ago, the idea that gay couples would finally be granted the legal right to marry in as many US states as they now have seemed like a far-off dream. Change happens, and sometimes when it starts to change, it happens fast. What seems like a formidable wall turns out to be built only of dominos. It looks like one little push sends all the dominos tumbling. This is not to discount the decades and decades of active fighting for these rights – it is only a comment that once change is afoot, it is virtually unstoppable – and it is not long before the mainstream embraces the change.

Inevitably that mainstream charge leads to big business getting on board, too. Some more than others. Some with small nods to the change – others with much bigger, more visible, overt exclamation about the change. A piece in The New Yorker chronicles the recent controversy surrounding a popular Honey Maid graham cracker ad campaign, which features a happy family headed by two men. Naturally the original ad campaign sparked positive and negative feedback, and Honey Maid followed up with a response to both the positive and negative. But let’s say in their overt advertising, they put their money where their mouth is. They went so far as to use a word synonymous with their brand (“wholesome”) to describe all kinds of families and all kinds of love. (“Most striking is the tagline of the ad: “No matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will. Honey Maid. Everyday wholesome snacks for every wholesome family. This is wholesome.” The ad is deeply heartwarming—not simply because it shows diversity (which other companies have done) but because it labels these families with the word “wholesome,” which is exactly the kind of word that tends to get claimed by the evangelical right.”)

What drives this? I understand how the basics change in society that propel more and more people who perhaps do not even support gay marriage themselves to no longer actively oppose it. There is a difference. But what drives the very public shift in how things are shown and presented as just one variation of the norm versus some kind of anomaly?

If the trend in society is breaking one way, the article argues, it boils down to what’s good for business: “Advertising both follows and leads to change. Marketers’ objective is to sell things, and they will seldom be brave enough to jeopardize their own interests, but their own interests appear to be changing. At some quiet moment when “Modern Family” was reaping good ratings, the mentality of corporate America began to change.”

It follows with reference to Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoing anti-gay legislation – not for the sake of equality but for what’s good for business: “Regard for equal human rights did not drive Brewer; the threat of losing the Super Bowl did. (How did the Super Bowl become the nexus of gay rights?) It turns out that tolerating gay people is good for business, even in Arizona. I’d prefer that people such as I get our rights because we command respect and evince dignity, but if we get them because there’s money in it, that’s fine.”

While I am content with whatever expands tolerance, I do have to wonder of course about the fickle nature of American acceptance – perhaps much of America has accepted gay marriage more or less, but at the same time as the article tackles the economic impetus driving some of this, it also addresses briefly a Cheerios ad campaign featuring an interracial family. General Mills, maker of Cheerios, received an unbelievable amount of hateful, racist commentary that came in via their YouTube channel, to the degree that comments were disabled. Bringing the discussion back to general human rights and equality, has American society (and business more generally – at least for now) decided that gay rights are something to get behind/support while racial tension and hatred is fine (or simmering under the surface) for large swathes of the country?

I wonder seriously how that can be – at a point where for the first time in American history the majority of babies born in America are not white (according to 2010 US Census data), and interracial families are growing in number (the 2008 census counted new marriages between interracial couples at 15 percent of the US population; 2010 census data show that among opposite-sex married couples, one in 10 is interracial, a 28% jump since 2000. In 2010, 18% of heterosexual unmarried couples were of different races and 21% of same-sex couples were mixed). A crowdsourced website was even started in response to the Cheerios ad. Similarly, a 2013 Gallup poll indicated that 87 percent of those polled approved of black-white marriage (versus an almost non-existent four percent in 1958). If virtually the entire population (at least those polled – granted, not a huge number — 4,373 Americans, including 1,010 non-Hispanic blacks) feels favorably about this (or is at least indifferent), are we just looking at a handful of racist idiots posting comments on YouTube, hiding behind the semi-anonymity of the internet?

The mixing is happening, the mixing is real. The mixing is growing more and more common. So why and how could a Cheerios ad celebrating the reality of this be so controversial? And really – why does anyone care? I mean, yes, I care in that I believe firmly in live and let live. Even if you don’t support or agree with something, you can tolerate it because it has nothing to do with you.

Ultimately it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But at least some of the positive changes are real and make material differences in the rights and equality afforded to some of the population.

“Get a grip; this is the world we live in”

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History is written to say/it wasn’t our fault” -Sam Phillips – “Love & Kisses”

Which side of the fence are you on?

I am going to start this post by writing that I am well-aware of the gross oversimplification of everything I am writing. It is a train of thought I am following without delving into any specific issues in a meaningful way. I just had a lot of thoughts following Nelson Mandela’s passing on the nature of justice, race and humanity that I wanted to express, however disjointed and surface-level they are.

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, and even during his life, he had achieved a kind of sainthood status, untouchable… which is fine except that he was human. A great human, yes. But, as some media outlets have reported, he had a lot of “non-mainstream” things to say that exposed the hypocrisies he saw in all kinds of things, such as, and perhaps most notably, American power/hegemony. Most of these key statements are left out of the soft version of his obituaries, and the powers-that-be who might be less than comfortable with that part of Mandela can easily ignore those things.

His death brings forth the question, for example, “Who is a terrorist?” It depends on who asks the question. Who defines what a terrorist is – and how does that change? When Nelson Mandela went to prison, he was seen as a terrorist. Many South Africans of all races went to jail and fought for his  cause and the cause of racial equality (making it something of a “badge of honor” – at least according to the South Africans I have known who had criminal records for political agitation and protesting) to have a criminal record within the apartheid system. What better evidence is there of the commitment to social justice or to any cause of conscience? The whole concept of a criminal record automatically carrying a negative connotation is flawed because the offense makes a difference.

Nelson Mandela was branded a terrorist. But then, the United States labels all kinds of countries, people/individuals and organizations as terrorist or as official sponsors of terrorism. The other day, out-of-touch old man US Senator John McCain threw a fit because President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro at Mandela’s memorial services. SO WHAT? McCain shook hands with Qaddafi at some point. These labels assigned conveniently to people who are enemies of the state one day and the next are not are arbitrary and self-serving.

Many would cite Palestinian organizations and individuals as terrorists, and Israel certainly treats them like they all are. But who is the real terrorist in that scenario? How can a country occupied by people whose forebears went through something as ghastly as the Holocaust ever treat another people in the ways the Israelis treat the Palestinians? Isn’t that kind of treatment another form of terrorism? What is the difference between armed resistance and terrorism? Or even just resistance versus terrorism? We have seen history filled with people who resisted, armed or not, who seem to be called terrorists for their way of thinking, for their ideas. What about, for example, the Kosovo Liberation Army that sought independence from the Yugoslav union in the 1990s. Compared to the military apparatus of Serbia, from which it aimed to secede, you could hardly call the KLA a well-armed adversary. Serbs will tell stories about all the “terror” perpetrated by the KLA, but in the end it was the Serbs who were found guilty of violence and terror by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.

That said, many people believe in causes, to the degree that they would die for them. At what point are those causes deemed morally just by the mainstream? That is not to say “majority” – but by a loud and vocal enough mainstream that whatever the cause is becomes bigger and favour for one side or the other of a cause tips in one direction or another. Apartheid is an easy one for the liberal, equality-minded person.  On the whole, it is wrong, and there are no two ways about it. On the surface, of course, the United States ended slavery and race becomes less divisive all the time. After all, the first African-American, truly multicultural president was elected to the highest political office in the nation. I personally did not think that would happen in my lifetime. But these strides do not mean that race is not still an issue. For some people, for reasons I cannot begin to understand, it is. Whether or not people in American society face a lack of opportunity or are more likely to experience poverty, etc. Is tied to race or is a multifaceted problem that is more socioeconomic in nature, with race playing one part in the bigger picture, I cannot say with any degree of expertise. It is always much more complicated than just one thing. But to say that there is equality would be complete and total bullshit.

The point, though, was to say that some issues carry a certain moral certitude (even if this is only in hindsight and the passage of much time). Slavery and apartheid are two such issues.

But then, something like gay marriage has been, at least in the United States and some of the more conservative parts of Europe, illegal without much to push the issue either way until recently. In 25 or 50 years (??) it may be that we can look back on the fight to love and marry whomever you want to and shake our heads at how it was ever a question. In 25 years, maybe this “moral certitude” will creep in. The tide in much of America has shifted away from trying to legislate gay marriage into non-existence and has been replaced in many cases by total indifference and in even more cases outright support. I am well aware that there are large swaths of the population who will never support it, never accept it and will fight until the day they die for a Constitutional amendment to try to ensure that marriage is a man-woman thing. But assuming that the current trend continues to move forward on the path it is currently on, at some point perhaps gay marriage will become passé. Wouldn’t that be something? It’s so common no one bothers to comment on it or think about it. (It’s a little bit like that in Scandinavia already – it just does not matter who you are paired up with. It’s your life.)

But many people believe in causes and take them to extremes. Some of those causes are questionable but clearly meant something to the people involved in them. As an example, I watched the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex, based on the true story of the Red Army Faction (or Baader-Meinhof Gang), which conducted its own acts of “protest”, mostly in the 1970s, in militant and violent opposition to the then-West German government (which they considered fascist). It was considered a terrorist organization, and most of its activities were indeed violent. But they did indeed believe in their cause. But cult leaders and their followers also believe in a cause. (Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and suicide-by-KoolAid in Guyana; David Koresh and the Branch Davidians who were killed by US federal agents at their compound in Waco, Texas, etc. The list could go on.) Did a cause like the Red Army Faction start off with such terrible intentions? Or is it just the tactics that eventually make the cause insupportable?

Anyway, back to race and the general state of affairs in the world we live in. Most alarming is that while we want to believe in the triumph of “racelessness” – Mandela “united” and reconciled a nation left in tatters thanks to apartheid; Obama became president in a fairly racist country… some of the (somehow) more unexpected racism comes from places that seem, at the same time, both improbable and common – beauty pageants. Not to start down the road of “what is beauty” (which is also a minefield) – but when an Indian-American woman won the Miss America title a few months ago, there was an uproar in social media channels that re-exposed the raw reality of American racism and the tendency toward discrimination. And why? Today I see that the newly crowned Miss France, who is mixed-race (white French and Beninese), is experiencing the very same hatred from all these anonymous sources who insist that she is “not French”.

But – short of exploring the complex questions of national identity (what makes someone a citizen and what makes them essentially that nationality or what makes them feel at home in that country?) – how is she any less French than any other? And in America, the “melting pot of the world” as is so often falsely cited, how is a woman of Indian origin any less American than someone of Irish origin or of Japanese origin or any other origin?

Basic questions because they demand basic answers. This kind of discrimination is so patently stupid and hateful that I cannot bring myself to analyze it further. All I want to do is slap the people who are most vocally hateful and say, “Get a grip – this is the world you live in.” I long for a day when all people are so obviously mixed in terms of race and nation that things are never obviously cut and dry.

Calling candidates out on their nonsense, failures and condescension

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Romney’s condescending comments on letting women go home and have flexible hours (as if that is what is going to help women achieve economic parity with men!?) and lying about his endlessly shifting positions on reproductive rights and women’s health care (and ultimately family issues) and his euphemistic and slimy answer about immigration (“self deportation” to where there are “better opportunities” for you once you cannot get the benefits you want in the US?!) make me want to vomit.

I am still not pleased with Obama’s not calling Romney out on some things – quite a few things, he has been on the attack more notably. But what about Romney prattling on about how he would give a bunch of “tax relief” on things like… interest on your savings, capital gains and dividends? How the bloody hell is that going to help most of the middle class (who are often living without any savings and don’t even know what dividends are)? It just proves how out of touch he is.