Will the Voice Of Authority puh-leeeeeze change?

June 13, 2009

**Warning: some slight Doctor Who spoilers, up to the end of Season Three.**

It’s only taken about four years, but I’m finally catching up with Doctor Who. In (very) general terms, the newest iteration of the classic sci-fi series is really making me happy: fast-paced, witty dialogue cavorting along, effortlessly charming the viewer into following, especially in the David Tennant years. I’m now at the end of Season 3, and in spite of some minor details, I am actually quite pleased with the treatment of gender in the show. Both Rose and Martha are intelligent individuals with quite different personalities (not just a cookie-cutter “here’s your female companion”); both are a joy to watch, in spite of the occasionally typical infatuation story lines. Riffs on Captain Jack’s ‘pansexuality’ are entertaining, well-timed, and are treated at times with just enough gravity that the humor in it turns on humanity, rather than some caricature of homosexuality.

But seriously, people. Time Lords are supposed to be* the most intelligent beings in the multiverse, with impressive talents and access to advanced technology. So why is it, in all the possibilities in all the possible worlds, that ALL of the Time Lords are white men?

The easy answer is: we live in a society in which white + male is seen as the default. One could go so far as to say they are the only people who are consistently treated as full human beings. But seriously, O Writers of Science Fiction: How is it that in imagining myriad variety to existence, this old trope keeps popping up?

The Doctor is, in many ways, the embodiment of Male Privilege. He walks into situations with absolute confidence in his ability to fix it, even when he does not know how he’ll do it, or even what the situation is. He does not identify himself to the satisfaction of those who question his authority. He completely ignores many challenges to that authority. He speaks; everyone else (eventually) listens. In one episode, The Doctor must make himself human to escape his adversary, including suppressing all consciousness of ever being a Time Lord. His character is still the same embodiment of privilege, if in a slightly more day-dreaming, less self-confident package. His human persona is a professor at a boys’ school, a position of authority over lesser (in this case, younger) beings. His position has not changed much at all, even if his species has. All his behavior is, of course, treated as Right and Good, as though we silly humans should know our betters when we see them, and when we don’t, we’re chuckled at for the buffoons we are.

Members of the Time Lords’ species have the ability to regenerate their bodies when those bodies are damaged, and those bodies are ostensibly have completely different skeletons (“new teeth”) and muscular systems (“new voice”). Everything about each regenerated Time Lord is new, except his gender and skin color. If his entire body changes, why in the world wouldn’t his skin color change too? There is likely some theoretical* reason why biological sex (and, by extension, gender) is immutable in a Time Lord, but if The Doctor is going to be consistently male and functionally heterosexual (as evidenced by the constant line of female companions), then Time Lords are clearly not unilaterally asexual or non-gendered beings. Biological sex exists; gender presentation does too. So why lack the creativity to play around with those very basic human traits? Why insist on every Doctor (and Master, don’t forget!) being Male and White?

The good Doctor has only one regeneration left, if Wikipedia is to be believed. How about something slightly different for a change? The role requires a British actor; Britain isn’t just made up of the native Gauls and Norman French anymore. How about letting the next person to play The Doctor to be of Indian or Pakistani descent, or descended from immigrants from anywhere else in the world? How about letting the Doctor be a woman for once? The Voice of Authority is virtually always the old (white) man in western social reality. Why does some of our most creative fiction have to fixate on that too?

==x-posted at The Geek Side==
*Read: bullshit


The oh-shit-I-forgot-to-blog blogaround!

April 24, 2009

Well, it’s been several days since I’ve written, hasn’t it! Uh… oops?

My classes are rapidly progressing towards their ends, meaning I have lots of projects and impending exams. Since Tuesday I’ve been working on a 10-minute video for my Arabic class, which is due next Tuesday. It’s a group project, and while our script would have been simple as pie to film with a group of dedicated, experienced film students, and at least fairly doable with a group invested in working efficiently, it is, perhaps, over-ambitious for a group unwilling to commit to a production schedule. My time is occupied entirely with, for example, rearranging my entire day to accommodate one group member, whose only area of opportunity is 10:20am on Friday, only to discover at 10:25 that she has to go to class at 10:30. And then there is the group member who told me simply that she was never available at all, except that she did so by saying “well, Thursday is pretty busy, and Friday is iffy, Saturday is right out and so is Sunday, and then Monday I think I have something…”

I also, miraculously, film something on occasion, and even have brief opportunities to edit that footage. So far we have 2 minutes of our required 10, and while much of it is chronological it’s still pretty scattershot.

But I promised a blogaround! So here you go! Links! Which I have either tagged as “toblog” on del.icio.us or chosen to “share” on Google Reader! Have at it!

From The Angry Black Woman, we have “A Chocolate Coating to make the Bitter White Pill Go Down Easier,” a great article about how turning all the main characters white in the movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender and then making some of the random background characters a mish-mash of “multicultural” races is still made of fail compared to maintaining the Asian culture of the show without adding white people or black people.


So in the name of diversity, the film’s producers are ignoring the diversity that was in the original cartoon — characters who evoked cultures as wildly disparate as the Inuit, Mayans, Indians, Koreans, Chinese, Pacific Islanders, Arabs, Japanese, Tibetan, Ainu, and probably a dozen more. They’re replacing it with “Diversity: American Style”, in which all those ethnicities get lumped together into “one community” and stripped of agency, a few black and multiracial people get sprinkled on for flavor, and white people get the best parts and the most screentime.

I cannot begin to explain how revolted I am that black people are being used to justify this shit.

Because that’s the thing: there weren’t any white people in the original series, either. And clearly the producers were not OK with this, despite the many, many all-white fantasy worlds that already exist. So all their “diversity” bullshit is really just a cover for their primary goal, which was to shoehorn white people into this world. But the creepiness of this goal would’ve been far too obvious if they’d only inserted white folks, so they tossed in some other races too.


From Junkfood Science, we have “How we’ve come to believe that overeating causes obesity,” a fascinating historical account. 

… [P]eople, regardless of their size, who believe they have “overeating” issues are most often exhibiting completely normal, natural biological responses to starvation, hunger and weight loss — in developed countries, that means voluntary starvation, otherwise called dieting. Healthy people, whether naturally fat or thin, who aren’t dieting or trying to control their weights don’t have problems with “overeating.”

The biological reality of our weights and weight control, and the effects of dieting, were clinically demonstrated more than 50 years ago in what remains the definitive research on the subject. The findings in this famous study, revolutionary at the time, have been replicated in the most precise, complicated metabolic studies of food intake behavior, energy expenditure and the biochemistry of fat conducted by the country’s top obesity researchers.

[a huge portion of the post is omitted here, detailing the study and its implications. Read it in full here.]

The last part of the Minnesota Starvation Study revealed perhaps the most important effects. When the men were allowed to eat ad libitum again, they had insatiable appetites, yet never felt full. …

While it seemed the men were “overeating,” Dr. Keys discovered that their bodies actually needed inordinate amount of calories for their tissues to be rebuilt:

Our experiments have shown that in an adult man no appreciable rehabilitation can take place on a diet of 2,000 calories a day. The proper level is more like 4,000 kcal daily for some months. The character of the rehabilitation diet is important also, but unless calories are abundant, then extra proteins, vitamins and minerals are of little value.

In other words, they weren’t really “overeating,” it was a biological, normal effect of hunger and weight loss. The men regained their original weights plus 10%. The regained weight was disproportionally fat, and their lean body mass recovered much more slowly. With unlimited food and unrestricted eating, their weights plateaued and finally, about 9 months later, most had naturally returned to their initial weights without trying — giving scientists one of the first demonstrations that each body has a natural, genetic set point, whether it be fat or thin. Despite the fear that with unrestrained eating everyone would continue to grow larger, it isn’t true.

From The F-Word, “Why does the world love Susan Boyle?” I’ll skip to the part where she tells us why, because it’s awesome:


The world has responded fervently to Susan Boyle because we are all Susan Boyle. Her choice of songs — “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables — is not to be dismissed. We were once all “young and unafraid” with high hopes and lofty aspirations yet unsullied by a cruel and superficial world.  We’ve all experienced those metaphorical “tigers” that have torn apart our hopes and turned our dreams to shame. For an unfortunate too many of us, life has killed the dreams we dreamed. Yet when we listen to Susan Boyle, for a moment we are Susan Boyle, standing before a jaded, image-obsessed audience in a bad dress and clunky shoes, and yet being embraced anyway with open arms and accolades.  As Susan said of her childhood harassers, “Look at me now – I’ve got the last laugh.”  And as she laughs, we laugh, for Susan Boyle’s vindication is our vindication.

But the world doesn’t love Susan Boyle because she represents the common Everyman. The world loves Susan Boyle because she stepped onto that stage in front of a cynical public and the white-hot crucible of reality TV and she did it with the kind of unwavering dignity and extraordinary confidence in her self-worth and awesome talent that so many of us only wish we had.

And, finally, from Language Log we have “Debasing the coinage of rational inquiry: a case study.


A little more than a week ago, our mass media warned us about a serious peril. “Scientists warn of Twitter dangers“, said CNN on 4/14/2009:

Rapid-fire TV news bulletins or getting updates via social-networking tools such as Twitter could numb our sense of morality and make us indifferent to human suffering, scientists say.

New findings show that the streams of information provided by social networking sites are too fast for the brain’s “moral compass” to process and could harm young people’s emotional development.

As usual when stuff that people like is shown to be bad for them, the public apparently discounted these dire warnings. According to a poll reported at the Marketing Shift blog, when asked “Do social networks and rapid updates desensitize you to sad news?”, 74% said “no”, 13% said “maybe”, and only 13% said “yes”.

In this case, the public skepticism was a good thing, because the news reports were a load of hooey.

The timing of streams of information did indeed cause some public immorality in this case — but the guilty party was not Twitter or Facebook or TV News, but rather the National Academy of Sciences, in whose Proceedings the cited reseach was published. In accord with its usual practice, PNAS released the embargo for journalists a full week before the paper was available for other scientists and the general public to read. As a result, the news media could spread nonsense-pretending-to-be-science (almost) unchallenged for seven of those famous 24-hour news cycles.

And “nonsense” is far too mild a word for the way these stories described the research of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Andrea McColl, Hanna Damasio and Antonio Damasio, “Neural correlates of admiration and compassion“, PNAS, published online April 20, 2009.  I haven’t seen such a spectacular divergence between evidence and science journalism since the infamous “email and texting lower the IQ twice as much as smoking pot” case of 2005.

So, there you go. Four meaty posts that probably deserve in-depth responses, but, well, better something than nothing, eh? Look for more fascinating links in the coming days as I continue to be ridiculously busy! And leave your own in the comments!

Quick Hit: Matthew Perry on Letterman

April 18, 2009

Or: Let’s see how many people we can Other with “humor” in under five minutes.

A lovely instance of White Librul Dood values — at least, what they’re willing to participate in on national television. For those of you who want to save your stomachs and not watch*, in the first four and a half minutes of the interview, Perry makes jokes** with a trifecta of punchlines: misogyny! racism! and homophobia! (Oh, my side, it hurts from laughing. Har, har.)

He starts out with this gem. It’s nearly the first thing he says.

Perry: She [Kudrow] doesn’t return my calls anymore, but there’s a certain section of road right by her house that if you park your car at the right time, you can see right into her window.

[audience laughs]

Letterman: Can you give the coordinates on that a little later?

Perry: Absolutely—during the break!

[uproarious laughter from audience]

Followed by this, a bit later in the interview:

Perry: I started to think, okay, [M. Night Shyamalan] really likes me… no no no not…

[laughter from audience]

Perry: … I actually didn’t mean it that way.


Perry: I realize, the whole time—it’s not M. Night Shyamalan. It’s just an Indian guy.

[uproarious laughter]

Letterman: [laughing a bit uncomfortably] Wow. I don’t know what to say about that.

I simply ADORE the fact that Letterman plays into the stalking schtick with good humor, chuckles at the homophobic comment, but looks “uncomfortable” at the racism. Oh my, we can’t be seen being politically incorrect, can we? Getting caught at racism, or being complicit with racism***, that’s a no-no. But don’t forget, it’s not a good Librul White Dood setup without some misogyny thrown in, because stalking is always good fun, and we have to assure folks that we are Not Teh Gay!!!1eleventy!

But what do I know about funny? I’m just a humorless feminist.

h/t (and a couple transcript sections stolen from) Shakesville

* Or, you know, when the video goes away from YouTube.
** They must be jokes. People were laughing. One must assume they were funny.
*** This is not the Oppression Olympics. I think it’s telling that, of all the bad things to do, racism is the only thing that Letterman looks (or sounds, when he’s off-camera) uncertain about. It’s more the reaction of a kid who doesn’t mind doing something naughty; he just doesn’t want to get caught.

Of “bint” and “madrasa”

April 15, 2009

I’m currently in my second year of Arabic, which has been an entirely fascinating and enjoyable endeavor, but which has made certain kinds of racism absolutely jump out at me in ways I’d never experienced before. There was my awkward experience getting my hair cut, for one, but most of it has to do with words.

For example, one of the very first words I learned in Arabic was “bint.” It just means daughter, or, by extension, girl. It’s a wholly unremarkable word. However, I hear it used as an insult, and whereas before I’m not sure I would even have noticed, I find it almost painful now.

The origin of the word as an English derogatory term apparently comes from the British occupation of Egypt. That is to say, English-speakers interacting with Arabic-speakers. Who took an Arabic word unchanged and applied it as an insult, despite the fact that there’s nothing derogatory about being a “bint,” except that it probably means one speaks Arabic. Because of this, I posit that “bint” as a derogatory is an inherently racist usage.

I have also heard it suggested that the word is really a portmanteu of “bitch” and “cunt.” I’m not totally convinced that’s a lot better, but regardless, I think it’s a sort of “folk etymology,” which often happens when a word is in use but no one remembers the original origin; people make up a new one, and pass that along. (A little like a backronym.) The historical usage of the word, according to my research, points much more strongly to an Arabic origin.

So, this is actually a pretty simple example, for me: when I see someone using “bint” in a derogatory manner, I alert them to its origin and racist connotations and ask they they refrain from using it. But it’s not the only use of Arabic that I find problematic.

My big question right now surrounds the word “madrasa.” It means a place for things that are studied, just like “maktaba” means a place for things that are written. All words in Arabic are created by putting three root letters into patterns to create words. The root K-T-B has to do with writing, so kitab means “book” (thing that is written), katabtu means “I wrote” and maktaba means “library” or “bookstore” (place for things that are written). The root D-R-S refers to studying and learning, so that dirasa means “studies” (thing that is studied, like “women’s studies”), darastu means “I studied,” and madrasa means, well, “place for things that are studied.” My translations are loose and my transliterations looser, but the point should be clear: “madrasa” really just means “school.”

So why does, for example, this story still say madrasa instead of translating it to school?

They gathered in front of the School of the Last Prophet, a madrasa run by Ayatollah Asif Mohsini, the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric.

I really don’t know. They translate it when they say the name, “School of the Last Prophet,” but not elsewhere in the story. News stories do this all the time. It stands out to me as weirdly inconsistent. It seems especially unnecessary in this particular sentence. Even if the reporter was unaware that madrasa has no religious connotations in Arabic (which is quite possible!), and therefore chose the word in an attempt to convey that this school did have religious ties (the way we might refer to a “parochial school” in the U.S.), the rest of the sentence already tells us the school’s religious affiliations.

The charitable interpretation is that the reporter believed (erroneously, but in good faith) that a madrasa was, somehow, a kind of school, and was simply trying to be as accurate as possible.

The less charitable interpretation chalks it up to good ol’ racism, conscious or (more likely) subconscious. I think that in English, “madrasa” carries connotations not just of “school” but specifically of “schools where those scary extremist Arabs learn their scary extremist Islam.” A reporter choosing “madrasa” over “school” emphasizes that aspect of the story. It’s an Othering technique, and, I think, almost something of a dog whistle.

But how racist is it? Should I be calling people out on it, explaining that the word really doesn’t mean anything but “school”? For example, in this post at Shakesville, Liss calls the school a madrasa (probably taking her cue from the article.) I’m pretty sure in her case it stems entirely from unawareness that the word doesn’t mean anything special, but I still hesitate to say anything. I’m not Muslim or an Arab; I haven’t even been studying Arabic for so long. Who am I to go on a crusade here? Is the offense really large enough that it needs calling out at every appearance?

With “bint,” the answer is easily yes. With “madrasa,” I’m not so sure. It’s more of a dogwhistle than an actual racial epithet. But it still has unfortunate connotations.

Any readers more qualified than myself have an opinion? I’d love some insight from someone whom this affects more directly.

Thinking by analogy

March 13, 2009

I want to direct everybody towards “A Person Paper on Purity in Language,” by Douglas Hofstadter, which I’ve read several times now, and never ceases to impress me with its relevance, even though it was written in 1985. It begins thus:

It’s high time someone blew the whistle on all the silly prattle about revamping our language to suit the purposes of certain political fanatics. You know what I’m talking about-those who accuse speakers of English of what they call “racism.” This awkward neologism, constructed by analogy with the well-established term “sexism,” does not sit well in the ears, if I may mix my metaphors. But let us grant that in our society there may be injustices here and there in the treatment of either race from time to time, and let us even grant these people their terms “racism” and “racist.” How valid, however, are the claims of the self-proclaimed “black libbers,” or “negrists”-those who would radically change our language in order to “liberate” us poor dupes from its supposed racist bias?

Most of the clamor,as you certainly know by now, revolves around the age-old usage of the noun “white” and words built from it, such as chairwhite, mailwhite, repairwhite, clergywhite, middlewhite, Frenchwhite, forewhite, whitepower, whiteslaughter, oneupuwhiteship, straw white, whitehandle, and so on. The negrists claim that using the word “white,” either on its own or as a component, to talk about all the members of the human species is somehow degrading to blacks and reinforces racism. Therefore the libbers propose that we substitute “person” everywhere where “white” now occurs. Sensitive speakers of our secretary tongue of course find this preposterous. There is great beauty to a phrase such as “All whites are created equal.” Our forebosses who framed the Declaration of Independence well understood the poetry of our language. Think how ugly it would be to say “All persons are created equal,” or “All whites and blacks are created equal.” Besides, as any schoolwhitey can tell you, such phrases are redundant. In most contexts, it is self-evident when “white” is being used in an inclusive sense, in which case it subsumes members of the darker race just as much as fairskins.

It’s a bit long, but I strongly recommend reading the whole thing. The metaphor only grows more powerful, covering the use of gendered pronouns, and “Mrs” and “Miss” for women but only “Mr” for men, and changing one’s name upon marriage, and the tendency to refer to adult women as “girls,” and more! Here, have a second link to it!

Now I’m linking this not only because I think it’s well-written (and especially useful as an eye-opener for those who don’t think sexist language is important), but also because I’ve been thinking a lot about the uses of analogies to highlight systematic problems. When I posted about environmentalism earlier, for example, I frequently used analogies to the feminist movement to articulate my thoughts about the environmental movement. To quote myself:

I don’t want to fall into the “WHAT ABOUT WOMEN IN SAUDI ARABIA” sort of argument that feminists face when they try to talk about comic books– I get that talking about the little things does not preclude talking about the big things, and that it’s important to pay attention on both.  But this seems somehow… not even one of the little things. As if a feminist was trying to complain about women no longer being put on a pedestal. It’s missing the point, somehow, aiming for a goal other than the one that out society needs.

I was trying to articulate that I didn’t object to the innovations in question merely because they were small, but because I thought they were missing the point entirely; any sustainable action, no matter how small, would be worthwhile, but something selling itself as “green!” that didn’t work towards sustainability would be problematic. I was having trouble expressing that idea, though, since I am not as well-versed in environmental issues, so I went back to something I did understand, and which I thought my readers would be more likely to understand, and tried to reason from there. I wasn’t totally successful (the comments were a hoot!) but that was my goal, and my reasoning behind using the feminist movement as an analogy.

I find that I also try to work from my feminist framework to understand other “isms” which I do not directly experience. But this is where I start checking myself. I truly do think that thinking by analogy can be enlightening and not appropriation, and the article I began with is an example of a usage I find acceptable. But I could be totally, totally off base. There are definitely example of “analogies” being drawn between oppressions (especially using the black civil rights movement!) that are not acceptable. For example: Gay is the new Black!

The biggest flaw that I can identify in usages like this is the way that they pretend the black civil rights movement is over, which is a bit of a lol/sob situation. Barack Obama did not end racism! Seriously! I may still have some embarrassingly obvious moments where my privilege is showing (like, possibly, this post!), but at least I don’t try to pretend I don’t have privilege. Any attempts to draw parallels between the black civil rights movement and any subsequent civil rights movement is going to be fatally flawed (and probably worthless) if it doesn’t accommodate the fact that we’re not done yet.

But even more importantly, even though all oppression is connected, all oppression is not the same. The analogies break down when you get into the details. Using analogies like the ones I’ve mentioned earlier might be useful as an introduction to one’s privilege, but they have to be replaced with an actual understanding of the topic at hand for the conversation to go farther. Trying to only think via analogy can be seriously harmful.

Does the essay I started with fall into that category? I’m not sure. It’s definitely working from the assumption that “we all know that Racism Is Bad,” but I’m not sure that it’s positing that racism is gone. I’m not sure that saying “we all know Racism Is Bad” is the same as saying “racism is fixed now”– in fact, my impression is that one of the problems with eradicating racism is that We All Know Racism Is Bad, and therefore any attempt to say “that was pretty racist” gets translated to “you are A Racist, and therefore Evil!” and shuts down the conversation. So my first response is that the essay is OK on that level, but what about the fact that some of the instances it uses– especially gendered pronouns– were not oppressions that (male) people of color faced? Is that minimizing the ways they they were (and are!) oppressed, making it look like sexism is somehow worse or more widespread? Are we getting into an Oppression Olympics here? (The first half of the link is more relevant, though the whole thing is good.) But the whole point is revealing that they are oppressive acts, by applying them along race lines instead of sex lines, to trigger our Racism Is Bad response. This particular essay isn’t trying to say anything about racial oppression; it’s assuming we already know how it happens. Maybe. Is it only my privilege that makes an essay that relies so much on race-related language seem to somehow be “not about race” to me?

I guess my big question is, when is thinking via analogy helpful, and when is it hurtful? Is it ever all one or the other?

My gut response is that of course you have to engage directly with the voices in question to get to the actual paradigm shift, the real understanding. But, however easy it is for an analogy to be misguided and hurtful, there are exceptions, and it can be a good way to start things, by forcing people to realize that their paradigm isn’t quite right.

But, of course, I could be way off base. What do you think?

My mother is an immigrant!!

March 3, 2009

Okay, so this post at Shakesville has prompted the weirdest epiphany ever: my mother is an immigrant.

My mum was born and raised in Canada, and she moved to the U.S. in the 80s to study Computer Science. She has acquired U.S. citizenship, but her original citizenship is Canadian. Which makes her an immigrant, obviously.

So why have I never heard her, or anyone else like her, called an immigrant?

I already know the answer to that question. It’s because she’s a Canadian immigrant, meaning she’s a white lady with a pleasant English accent, and it’s because she’s not doing immigrant work, and is instead a professor (and now Department Head), meaning she already had money when she got here. So, you know, she’s not one those immigrants.

Good thing Barack Obama has eliminated all racism! (And classism, I guess, since that’s at play here, too!) Isn’t our post-racial, economically-equal society wonderful?

The oh-god-I-hate-the-flu blogaround!

February 26, 2009

Here are some things that have been sitting in my RSS feed reader unread because my I am so ill even my brain aches! I have skimmed them, and declare them to be time-worthy! Read them, and be enlightened! Apparently, a little-known symptom of the flu is over-use of exclamation marks!


Anyway, here you go!

From Shakesville, That’s Entertainment! I saw this a while ago and was going to blog it, but somehow life kept getting in the way.

From Sociologial Images, Racism in Identity Theft Advertising.

Two quick hits from reaching the shore: Tell it WOC Speak: Hear Us Roar and A Day in the Life od Abbey Road.

From Bitch, Ph.D., Cover your ears, boys.

From The Hathor Legacy, Worst Commercials of the Week and Asian Women Blog Carnival. Also from Hathor: this review of Coraline, which I refuse to read until I see the movie. Any day now! I’ll have the time! I will!

From Women & Hollywood, Glenn Close on Women & Power.

Also, if you know of more blogs that I ought to be following, my goal is to subscribe to 75 blogs via RSS… I’ll never go hungry (for blogs) again!