A Book Review that is Mostly Questions

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Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
400 pages; literary fiction

Quick Summary: Tess Durbeyfield and her family are poor, so her parents decide to send her to Alec d’Urberville to claim kinship and therefore receive some financial aid. The plan is disastrous; Tess comes home, but finding her home life unbearable, she decides to move and work at a farm. Years pass, and Tess falls in love with another man, Angel Clare. However, she is unable to marry him due to the secret she is keeping.

Discussion (Spoilers ahead):

So I read this book because I am teaching it to my AP classes in October. Otherwise, I probably would have thrown the book across the room halfway through. Alec is terrible person, and ends up raping Tess after drugging her. Because this is England and because it’s the 1800’s, Tess is suddenly not pure and hates herself. When she falls in love with Angel, she doesn’t want to marry him because she is not a virgin and this will reflect bad on her/him for marrying her. Still, they get married and on their first night as husband and wife, he tells her he’s not a virgin, she tells him the exact same thing, and he flips his shit. He goes to Brazil to try farming and basically is a terrible husband who never talks to his wife. The ending is even weirder, but I’ll save that for those who want to read it.

So the first thing I was angry about was that a white man was writing about a woman getting raped. Is he writing to help women gain sympathy? Is it trauma porn? One time in a college class of mine, my professor asked us this: “If you write about an experience, are you automatically aestheticizing it?” Unfortunately, we didn’t get to talk about it in class, but the question lingers.

I think this reminds me the most of slam poetry. I remember Andrea Gibson saying something along the lines of “No girl grows up dreaming about writing poems about sexism,” but she said it had to be done. But the question is still valid: if we write about sexism, if we perform our poetry about it, are we trying to make an ugly thing beautiful? Obviously this applies to other types of art as well, and no clear lines have been drawn. Obvious, too, is the fact that writing can be healing.

I’m going to sidetrack here to a story from a friend.

So a teacher is starting his first year teaching history. He’s super woke, so he plans an entire curriculum talking about racism and sexism and how all these terrible things happened in the past. He thinks it’s going great. Then, one day, a few weeks into the semester, two young black girls approach him after class. “Mr. ______, we appreciate what you’re doing here, but do you always have to be so negative?” Why, they were asking, couldn’t he also focus on the achievements of people of color, and not just the trauma they experienced?

Another side note: the podcast Another Round discusses the idea of coming of age movies. What they found was that the white characters get to have a life-changing event (think Stranger Things where the girl is sacrificed) but come out ultimately okay, whereas the black characters and black girls in particular have stories focused around trauma, stories where they don’t get to be teenagers or adolescents at all, but rather skip from children to adults.

I wonder that about poetry, about stories, about writing. If young women grow up only hearing stories and poems about rape, sexism, and fear, how much will they think is available to them? How does one strike a balance between acknowledging victim-status and also acknowledging autonomy, power, and pride? 

Is it okay for Hardy to write about rape, even though he’s a man? If it’s to inspire empathy? Is it just voyeurism? If we write about an experience, are we automatically aestheticizing it? How do we write stories that are both true to life and uplifting? Or rather, how do we write stories in which all paths are available to all people? Where minorities are not defined by their traumas, but neither are those traumas ignored?

Open Letter to Parents of Honors Students

I teach in the greater Boston area. It’s no surprise to me, or anyone who knows a 16-yr-old, how stressed our kids are in schools. There’s Advanced Placement and Honors classes, SATs, ACTs, MCAS, and ever more test prep. There’s pressure to go to Ivy League schools. There’s sleepless nights. There’s the ever-prevalent question, “Who uses calculus after high school?”

The answer? Not many people. And yet we value it, as communities, as parents, as colleges. And what’s worse, is students are taking these classes over woodshop, or auto mechanics, and over other vocational technology classes. Most kids I teach don’t know how to change a tire, or check their oil. Even in large biking communities, many students don’t know how to install new cables on their bikes, or check the brakes for wear.

So here’s the catch: I was one of those students. In high school, I pursued AP classes, perhaps not as much as my friends, but I wanted to get into a good school. I enjoyed shop class in middle school, but it wasn’t presented as an option in high school. That was the track: you’re going to college, you don’t need to know how to use a lathe.

For most of my high school career, this didn’t bother me. In college, I was embarrassed that I didn’t have those “handy” skills, like my father, but I was still in the majority. I was a woman, and I was going to be a teacher, and I didn’t need to know this stuff.

After my junior year of college, before my final semester, I was left with a weekend job and a lot of free time. I needed a project. So I decided to teach myself how to fix bikes.

IMG_3239It was an easy choice: I lived in Cambridge, and biking was faster than literally any other form of transportation (sorry, MBTA). It felt good to ride in the city in the summer, freeing, even. So I bought a $20 bike to fool around with. It was small enough for me to be able to test ride it, and good enough to sell afterwards. The first task was probably the weirdest: the previous owner had glued a rack to the bike using insta-foam, and I had to melt it with a hair dryer to remove the ugly thing. But after that, a routine took shape. I would dismantle something, sit on the floor with the parts, and try to figure it out. I might start the day frustrated and covered in grease, but I would keep at it, tinkering with derailleurs and changing cables. I once almost broke a new $30 chain and nearly cried out of frustration, but at the end of the day, it was installed and running. I learned how to wrap handlebars; I figured out how to change brake cables just by taking the bike apart and rewiring it.

All of this, all the sitting on the floor and marveling at how simple bikes seem at first, taught me more about my life than any advanced mathematics class had in high school. It taught me patience, and wonder, and the very real and profound joy at seeing something you created with your hands work, like actually work. I don’t think this payoff can be re-created in the traditional classroom.

Don’t get me wrong: I teach English, and I believe the joys and payoffs of good writing are visceral as well. But they need to be paired with these ‘vocational’ classes. I want my students to know what it feels like to look at something you built with your very own hands. I want them to feel that satisfaction. And I want us to value that feeling, and that skill.

I don’t want to work in a system that doesn’t value this kind of learning. It’s a different yet equally valid–and valuable–set of skills and intelligence. It’s also, oddly, beautiful. I never expected to love bike repair; it was just something that I felt I needed to learn. But I loved it, and I loved the process perhaps more than the product. Sure, I sold the bike after I was done repairing it for 5 times what I paid for it. But it was more important to me that I had learned how to be patient, how cables work, how wonderful the sound of a silent chain is. It made me love learning again. And I think that’s something that we forget, amidst the season of test prep and college essays. We want our students to be smart and to get good grades, but as teachers we also desire that they love the journey. Vocational classes, for all their stigma, and for all the possible frustration they may bring, are important and can be instrumental in reminding our students about that love we hold for learning.

So my advice to parents: encourage your child to take a vo-tech class. Encourage them to learn something about how the world works–physically, mechanically works. Encourage them to be okay with being frustrated, and encourage them to get out of their comfort zone. Even if they don’t love it, I’ll guarantee they’ll learn something about themselves—and maybe how to change a tire, too.

The Dream, Part 2: Mostly Questions

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 2.30.35 PMThis past week, I deleted most of my social media apps from my phone, but kept the accounts so I could log on on my computer. Without going into too much sappy-goey-personal stuff, I found I felt a little bit lighter without them. Saturday I barely touched my phone, and I spent most of the day outside, reading, swimming, and enjoying my company. But it felt beautiful as much as it did temporary, like the weekend would end and I would be back on facebook and twitter soon enough. I wonder if that feeling of being present, of enjoying the moment, is a momentary thing, if it can only be beautiful because we know the other world lurks behind us.

I wonder, too, if we are more trapped in technology than we are freed by it. I might sound like that crochety old person shaking their head and saying “kids these days!” while not knowing how to turn off an Iphone…but I think the question is worth considering. We have all these social media apps, and most of the time when we check them, it’s to check our notifications: How many likes/reblogs/retweets/shares/comments did we get on our accounts? Who is noticing us? 

Michael Harris details this idea in his book, The End of Absence: 

In reality, life outside of orderly institutions like schools, jobs, and prisons is lacking in ‘gold star’ moments; it passes by in a not-so-dignified way, and nobody tells us whether we’re getting it right or wrong. But publish your experience online and an institutional approval system rises to meet it–your photo is liked, your status is gilded with commentary….This furthers our enjoyable sense of an ordered life. We become consistent, we are approved, we are a known and sanctioned quantity.

To take a page from Descartes, is the new philosophy, “I tweet, therefore I am”?

Another line of questioning: Do women benefit more or less from technology? Certainly we benefit less monetarily, as Silicon Valley is still primarily men. Are social justice blogs, posts, facebook accounts, a way for marginalized groups to speak out? Or is it just because, with many things, they are given a platform that can easily oppress them (hello, trolls) and they want to turn it into something helpful? I don’t want to downplay the importance of social justice writers who have changed my mind and the minds of my friends. But I think it’s worth examining: Does technology/specific platforms help dismantle or recreate white, cis, heteropatriarchal standards? For example, a facebook page “Black Love,” featuring black couples, got reported and shut down. Facebook also deleted Korryn Gaines’s profile. 

I guess my hesitation comes from the comments section of my recently published article. Did I change anyone’s mind? I don’t know. Did I give words to people who already agreed with me? Sure. And I worry that we place too much emphasis on the power of social media–and not enough power on day to day interactions with people. Just yesterday I was behind a pickup truck parked in the middle of the road. I was annoyed at first, being 3 blocks from home, but my friend pointed out to me the sticker on the truck: it was a blue lives matter bumper sticker, and he was talking to a group of young black men. We watched, unable to hear the interaction, but at the end, the men shook hands and everyone was on their way. I think that interaction in itself is devalued–and I would argue it’s the type of interaction we need to have more. [As I mentioned in my previous blog post/alluded to in my article, people aren’t going to become less racist unless woke people interact with them. Is it the oppressed people’s job to explain things? No, absolutely not. Should we anyways? I don’t know.]

What is the way forward here?

We Need to Stop Using Cishet as an Insult

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 4.19.36 PMSomewhat frequently on my twitter or tumblr, I’ll see someone call out “cishet dudes” or complain about “cishets” and the problematic things they say. There are a few issues I have with this.

A. Not everyone we think is cis is actually cis
This should be self-explanatory, but it’s important to note that just because someone is saying something problematic, does not mean they are cis. Assuming that people who look masculine are men and those who look feminine are women reinforces the gender binary and erases genderqueer identities. Unless you know someone identifies as cis, don’t assume they are.

B. Not everyone we think is het is actually heterosexual
This especially annoys me because I “pass” as straight all the time. Not many people automatically assume I’m bisexual–a side effect of heteronormativity. Again, calling someone “cishet” in a derogatory way assumes heterosexuality, and we should never assume that. Just because someone says something problematic, doesn’t mean they are automatically heterosexual.

C. We should listen to where people’s ideas are coming from
If someone says something problematic, we should examine perhaps the experiences of the person that led them to believe this. Again, if someone is saying something rude or outright misogynistic, by all means don’t respond to them. But also don’t automatically resort to calling them a cishet dude. If they are genuinely confused, calling them a cishet dude and ignoring them will not help open conversation.

D. Don’t assume everyone has access to educational resources
I think this is something I, for one, have taken for granted in the past. I went to a four-year liberal arts college. I had access to professors who were liberal and able to address a variety of cross-cultural issues. I learned to find resources written by and for queer people. I have educational privilege. Yes, I agree, sometimes educating people who have more power than you is reinforcing those power dynamics. But we need to take into account this educational privilege.

Here’s an example: I was sitting with my cis, heterosexual friend and they were looking at my blog. They asked me what genderqueer was. I shouldn’t and didn’t just say, “you’re a cishet dude, go research it yourself” because I’m not sure if he would be able to find the appropriate resource. We all know that google can lead you to some problematic websites, for all we know, and our peers may not scrutinize the sources they find as much as more woke people would.

In sum: Yes, maybe ignore the trolls. But if someone is genuinely confused, don’t just call them a cisdude and tell them to go educate themselves. If you have any interest in a relationship, platonic, workplace, etc, provide them with a resource. And don’t resort to calling people cishet dudes because that is a cissexist, heteronormative insult that reinforces what we are trying to avoid.

9 Simple Ways to Use Your Male Privilege

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I’ve been discussing masculinity a lot lately, and how male privilege can be used for good. This article is intended for male-identifying people who are already feminists, and looking for ways to be a better ally. So, without further ado, here’s 9 ways you can use your male privilege!

1. Give Women Physical Space
I’ve heard of women experimenting in large cities: when about to walk into a man, they stop where they are, and the guy walks into them. Men always expect women to move. Don’t expect that, that’s dumb. Also, when walking at night, be aware of your surroundings! If there’s a woman alone, chances are she’s afraid. DO NOT rush up to her to tell her how much of a feminist you are. Sit down, stop walking, pull out your phone, whatever. Just give her enough space so she is confident you are not following her. That’s enough.

2. Stop Talking About Dicks
There’s a great video, “If Women Talked About Vaginas Like Men Talked About Dicks.” Watching it, it’s clear how uncomfortable men would be. So, don’t do the same to women. This applies to: discussing length, discussing balls, DICK JOKES (seriously, there’s other ways to make people laugh). It also, by way of that, applies to male-centric sex jokes and comments. “Oh, he’s gonna do her so hard!!” Not appropriate. Stop that. No one “does” anyone in consensual sex, because both people are “doing” things. Let’s move on from that.

3. Stop Being Friends With Shitty People
Honestly, I think this one is completely overlooked or ignored most of the time. If I told a guy friend, “Hey, your friend ______ was really shitty to me because he __________,” the chances are, my friend will still be friends with that shitty person. STOP THAT. If I tell you a guy has been inappropriate, has made racist comments, is a rapist, has made rape jokes, etc etc, either CONFRONT the friend, or STOP TALKING TO THEM. It’s a powerful thing to say to another person, “Your behavior is problematic, and I no longer want to interact with you.” It means SO MUCH to us women when you do that. You’re standing up for us and you’re condemning bad, anti-feminist behavior. I think if all feminists stopped being friends with sexist people, feminism would be a lot easier to spread.

4. Re-direct Attention if Women Aren’t Talking in a Group
As a woman, it’s often difficult to insert ourselves into conversations (see above). When you see women in male-centric spaces not participating, chances are we’re not having fun, and we may or may not already feel uncomfortable based on the situation. So, invite us in. Honestly, this is just part of being a good friend, but it applies here too. Let us talk. “But about what?” Okay, great question. Here’s a good starting list:
“Hey Lisa, watched any good TV lately?”
“Lauren, have any good plans this weekend/week/summer/winter?”

Or, more generally,
“What do you think about that? What’s your opinion on this, Holly? Do you agree with that? Have you been in a similar situation?”

The other way this comes up is, I’ve noticed, at bars. Men will be with their girlfriends/wives/whatever, and they’ll talk to other men, and ignore the women completely. So, moving on to our next item…

5. Don’t Let Us Be Cut Off/Ignored
Oftentimes, men will interrupt us, knowingly or unknowingly. When you notice this happen, cut the guy off. “Oh, hold on, I think Maya was saying something!” or “Wait, sorry, Maya, what were you going to say?” Got it? Wonderful.

The other place this applies is in introductions! If you see a man introduce himself to only the men in the room, call him out. Doesn’t have to be rude. Just “Hey George you forgot to introduce yourself to Maya, Lisa, Lauren…” Actually, the longer the list the funnier it will be. Anyways, men who ignore women in introductions are sexist whether they see it or not and it’s annoying as shit.

6. Create Safe Spaces for Women
This includes not letting rape jokes happen, and letting us join the conversation. It also means that if we hang out with you, we know that friend #12 that assaulted us won’t be there. It means that if we go to your party, friend #8 who made a pass and then yelled when we said no, won’t be there.

7. Call out your friends
Now, this doesn’t have to be public, but say I tell you that friend #4 makes dick jokes a lot, and it makes me uncomfortable. “Okay, I’ll talk to him about that,” is a great response. Really, I shouldn’t even have to point it out. If you notice your friends being sexist, and you’re not ready to stop being friends with them, call them out. Explain things to them. And if they get defensive, or pissy, or start yelling or blaming the woman that you’re friends with for “turning you into a pushover or a pansy,” leave. Leave the room, leave the friendship.

8. Believe your friends
When I say friend #2 is sexist, don’t question it. If I say ______ assaulted my friend in college, believe me. If I say your coworker got drunk and yelled at me, believe me. We live in a world where women have to prove themselves, prove their stories, whilst everything men say is taken for truth. Let’s change this. Just believe your girlfriends. We don’t want this shit to be true, but it is.

9. And Finally, Convince your friends to be feminists
Simple. Create a more feminist world.

Genderqueerness and Demographics

or, How Little We Know

A little while ago I was looking at the comments of a Youtube video when I saw a (presumably older) man comment: “The amount of people who are gender fluid and under the age of 18 kinda says something.” When asked to elaborate on what he meant, he replied “well at that age many people are confused and not sure who they are. A lack of identity and purpose. It seems like an identity crisis.”

Identity Crisis? Doubtful. Crisis? For the patriarchy? I hope so.

I’ve noticed, too, that I see more young people (anywhere from 14-29) identify as genderfluid, genderqueer, agender, etc. Moreover, I see more people who are assigned female at birth (afab) identify as genderqueer than I do people assigned male at birth (amab). 

Now, I know my observations are not scientific, researched facts. So I tried to see if my observations were indicative of the big picture. Here’s what a found: an astounding lack of research and statistics about genderqueer, genderfluid, and agender people.

Now, that’s not to say that there’s not a lot of information and resources out there. There are, and it’s pretty easily accessible through blogging sites, articles, news items, etc. But the information regarding how many people identify as neither male nor female…just doesn’t exist. The closest I got was on Quora.com, and even the author admits that her estimate could be “off by +/- the population of Topeka Kansas. We just don’t know.”

I am, not, however, the only person who has noticed that more and more genderqueer people are youths. In 2011, Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve made a few predictions on the next generation, mainly that it would not be “male or female, just human.” The examples they use to make these predictions, however, are misguided, at best, and sexist at worst. The first way they predict this is by a “merging of artistry and technology,” meaning that there were no longer be “male” products (such as iPhones) and “female” products. Clearly our sex is determined by what gendered products we buy!

Secondly, they state that “The electric vehicle is an En-Gen car because it combines the more female values of environmentalism and concern for the world, with male love of technology and innovation.  For that reason, its 2011 sales will surprise even the most optimistic forecasters.”

This is so heavily and disgustingly based off stereotypes I can’t begin to fathom why this company thought this point was a good one.

Anyways, enough of that. So I found that not a lot of numbers exist on genderqueer people, and I’ve noticed that a lot of genderqueer people are afab and part of the millennial generation. Here’s what I think this actually means:

  1. People are fed up with gender binaries and the sexism that comes with them.

I once wondered if people afab identified as genderqueer to escape the blatant sexism they face.* While this notion was misguided, I do think that women are more likely to notice sexism, and also notice that they do not have to fit into the binary categories of man/woman. On the flip side, toxic masculinity might deter amab people from exploring their gender or identifying as genderqueer.

  1. The next generation is woke, and I’m excited.

Going back to the youtube comments, I don’t see this as an identity crisis for the younger generation: I see it as them having the freedom to explore things that the previous generation could not. 

Seeing more youth freely expressing their identities gives me hope. It means that if we blur the lines and expose the patriarchy, people will be freer to determine what femininity and masculinity looks like, and what they want it to look like. It also means that people will be more free to decide if and when they want to break free of those categories.

 

*This is based on an observation/misguided representation of genderqueer people as “androgynous” and as possessing both feminine and masculine traits. It’s also based on the fact that many genderqueer people who are afab (not ALL) take on masculine traits (short hair, “masculine” clothes, etc) to appear more genderfluid. Again, this is problematic because it is gendering things that have no gender (clothes, hair), but this is how it often appears to the hegemonic, cissexist majority.

Ways to Fight Biphobia and Bierasure

“Many of the items on this list are things I’ve been guilty of. Fighting biphobia means fighting our own internalized prejudices, and then making sure to use our knowledge to call out other people’s biphobia. You never know who’s in the closet; by calling out these remarks, you could easily be creating a safe space for queer friends. Even if no one around you is queer, these call-outs reverberate. Use your voice.”