People-watching at the VAG

December 20, 2008

Crowfoot: I also really liked seeing a lot of people in there too

eloriane: it was busy

eloriane: a lot of people seemed to be not sure what to make of it, though.

Crowfoot: hah yeah

eloriane: especially the hetero couples who seemed to be there on a date

eloriane: the men in particular would look really uncomfortable

eloriane: like, they’d keep looking from the art to their girlfriends

eloriane: like, “I don’t get this, but she does?”

Crowfoot: haha ooooh. maybe not the best choice. BUT a good choice for her! she’ll get an idea of how awake he is

Crowfoot: *snort*

eloriane: yeah, a great way to vet a boyfriend!

Crowfoot: indeed!

eloriane: but it was interesting to see them (maybe) learning that their loved ones live lives that are very different from their own, in real and important ways

eloriane: that their experience is not the default

Crowfoot: I admit I didn’t really look at the other people too much, mostly I was trying to soak up every last bit. I will look more next time

Crowfoot: right. that’s extremely important, in my view.

eloriane: oh, I couldn’t quite help people-watching

Crowfoot: our culture is not only dominated by the male point of view, I think men and boys are really discouraged from looking at the female point of view, or empathizing too much with women’s stories. Hence the “chick flick” designation when the story centers around a woman for a change

eloriane: yes, as if women weren’t ROUTINELY expected to accept very male stories as “universal”

eloriane: and identifying with people of the opposite gender

Crowfoot: exactly. that’s expected, a girl/woman to relate to a man

eloriane: because men are the default and women are Other

Crowfoot: and one of the things that donning our gender goggles does is really illustrate how much that is true, everyday, everywhere we look. Again and again and again we are told we are Other. We are shown we are Other.

I wanted to write about this bit of conversation seperate from the rest of our discussion of the VAG feminist art exhibit, partially to keep the other from being TOO long (ha!) but also because I felt like I had more to say about the people-watching aspect. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out WHAT I wanted to say.

If I lived in Vancouver, I would definitely take every potential friend or girlfriend to see it with me, to spark a conversation (and so I could have the chance to see it again and again). If it went well, we’d have fascinating discussions late into the night on my favourite topic, and I’d know this was a person I wanted to see more of. If it went poorly, and they weren’t interested in getting it, I would have learned it early and relatively painlessly, so I could discreetly move to a more distant relationship with them. While I was there, I wondered how many of the couples were there for exactly that reason. I also wondered if any of the men had invited their girlfriends, rather than the other way around, and if they’d done so because they were allies or because they thought it would look “sensitive.”

I also wondered who the exhibit was aimed at– feminists, or people who are not feminists yet? It was definitely a great experience for me, as a feminist– the art expressed a lot of ideas that I’ve struggled with in some very powerful ways. I could just feel the wheels grinding as I was soaking everything in and trying to process it. But would it be as powerful to someone who didn’t have a feminist background? Would they be able to get it? There were a lot of things that I know I wasn’t really getting, but I could at least scratch the surface. I was worried, watching those hipster boyfriends moving mutely through the museum, that it was going to fly right past them and they’d dismiss feminism as something obscure that women made up to seem smarter.

But I think that’s my cynical side talking. It could just as easily foster a feminist awakening in any number of people who may have noticed things, but never had anyone else point them out before. I barely skimmed the informational passages on the walls– just read enough to say, “oh, okay, this room is about body image”– but they could help people figure out what they’re looking at. And some of the pieces were not ambiguous at all. One of my favourites was a small dark room with crocheted webs and tubes hanging from the walls and ceiling, looking like the nest of some kind of terrible monster. (The tubes reminded me eerily of intestines, draped across the wall.) It was very evocative of the idea of domesticity as a trap, the idea that “women’s work” keeps women too busy to explore their own lives. Could someone step inside of it, and be inspired to explore feminism? I think so.

Yeah, when I let myself have even a little hope for the future, I believe that this exhibit could inspire quite a lot of people to explore feminism for the first time. And increasingly, I think that was the goal. It also happened to be a fantastic experience for those of us who are already feminists, but I think the primary goal must have been to put feminism in a public place and invite people in to hear the feminists’ side of the story. And I think it worked quite well. It made feminism into something any intelligent person might be interested in learning about (by putting it in a mainstream museum) while still keeping it uncompromisingly feminist (by never shying away from the name).

Which is why I just couldn’t help people-watching, and trying to read people’s faces– new feminists were being born all around me, and I couldn’t resist the chance to see it happen.

Women and females

December 18, 2008

One of the only things I didn’t like about the Vancouver Art Gallery was its tendency to use the phrase “women artists” in the informational text. It’s something I see a lot, and it just drives me crazy.

Okay, grammar 101, people: “women” is a noun. So is “woman”! That means it needs to be the subject (or the object) of a verb. It can’t modify a noun. You can’t call someone a “woman artist” any more than you can call me a person tutor. This is the kind of grammar that lolcats use! It has no place in print.

Similarly, female is an adjective. That means it describes something. Adjectives modify nouns, they can’t be the subjects (or objects!) of verbs. So you can’t say talk about “females” any  more than you can talk about “shinies.” It will invoke the question, female whats? Shiny whats?

Here, I can even give you some practice sentences.

“Females are flighty and irrational beings.” WRONG.

“It is about time for us to have a female president.” RIGHT!

“A woman politician would endanger us all with her moods.” WRONG.

“Feminism seeks to promote equality for women.” RIGHT!

You may have noticed a bit of, shall we say, snark in my example sentences.  That’s because this isn’t about the grammar, not really. Rules can be broken for effect, and we talk about car seats and yummies all the time. What’s really important, here, is the dehumanization inherent in these word choices. It happens in two ways.

First, and more subtly, the non-traditional syntax highlights the aberration, that is, the woman (or should I say the female?). Perhaps less grammatically-minded people don’t feel it the same way, but I have a grammar-dar which makes any common mistakes stick out in my mind almost painfully. (Don’t get me started on the pluperfect subjunctive!) I often choose to be ungrammatical, like when I pointed out a cute “airplane fish” to a friend, but I do so to emphasize the word I’m using incorrectly. So, to me, to call some a “woman doctor” is really all about calling her a “WOMAN doctor (can you believe they let those become doctors now?!).” I should just be doctor, or, if her gender is somehow relevant, perhaps “female doctor,” which conveys the information without printing big red arrows to the fact that it’s a WOMAN doctor OMG!

Second and more importantly, this is the kind of vocabulary we use to discuss animals and plants. It’s literally dehumanizing to talk about “females” as if to say, “the females of the species display long plumage and have a fondness for shiny objects.” It lumps “females” and “women scientists” together as some sort of strange creatures which are incomprehensible to humans and totally uniform as a species. As if anything can be said to be true of all women. You’ll note that in my example sentences, the WRONG statements try to generalize about all women whereas the RIGHT statements re about other topics which just relate to women. It’s because I literally couldn’t think of a single sentence that began with “women” or “female ___s” as the subject, and yet wasn’t somehow sexist, and exclusionary. Women don’t all have breasts, or uteri. Women aren’t even always born with two X chromosomes. We’re certainly not all interested in having children, or fans of shopping, or anything else that might be said about women. The only thing we have in common is that we are all raised in a patriarchy– but so is everyone, and depending on our intersecting oppressions we won’t experience it the same way.

So to say that “women artists at the time were interested in exploring the relationship between the body and the male gaze” is a sexist way to frame things, starting with the first two words. It should have been phrased more like, “these works explore…” or something similar. The art itself was amazing, and the intention of the informational plaques was entirely correct, but even that is not enough to earn them a free pass. “Women” is a noun. “Female” is an adjective. And nothing is ever true of all of us at once.

More Thoughts on Yoko Ono’s Cut Pieces

December 17, 2008

I’ve been thinking about the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibit, Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution, and about the IM discussion that eloriane and I shared with you earlier. One of the pieces that stood out for us was Yoko Ono’s Cut Pieces. If you like, you can find it on youtube, but take a note of the comments – so many people really just don’t get it. We got it. And yet we were still having such a hard time articulating it. I would be interested in knowing what Ono was hoping to illustrate with that piece. The only thing I’ve read so far was that it was her “angry phase.” No doubt. What that piece exhibited makes me angry as well.

I had been talking about this video with my coworkers and one of them articulated a part of what we had been struggling with. The last man to cut at her clothing, you’ll recall, went above and beyond what anyone else had done (and with a grin) and cut away nearly all of the upper half of her clothing. My coworker had suggested that beyond wanting to participate in some kind of modern performance piece, he had wanted to subjugate her, and did, by cutting and cutting and cutting. Overall, the video was a powerful statement about female vulnerability and violence, and its partner subjugation, as well as the objectification of women. Well, really, all of that is about subjugation. It was also a comment on how far some people are willing to go when given permission. So many levels!

One of the things eloriane and I had discussed was this subtext of threat that men embody, consciously or no, willingly or no. I think a small part of it is the sexual dimorphism of humans in general; men are, most of the time, larger than most women. In the post-revolution society this might be irrelevant. However, currently coupling with this (made possible because of this?) is the power differential between men and women in society. Men dominate every social, legal, political, religious and artistic institution. But it is also how much violent crime is gendered. Statistically, men account for 97% of all sexual assault perpetrators (FBI) and 89% of all murderers (Bureau of Justice). Now, I don’t believe for one second that this is biologically based. In fact, I get really annoyed at these biological/evolutionary excuses that people come with to explain these facts. I mean really, if males are just that biologically more prone to rape and other forms of violence then we really should be giving them mellowing drugs or hindering their movement in some form. But no one would agree with that. And if you point out how men, if they are intrinsically more dangerous then they should be more controlled, then the excuses about men-as-a-class’s violent behaviour becomes about individuals rather than men as a group.

To recap: men are mostly larger than women. Men are responsible for 89 and 97% of all murders and sexual crimes. Here’s another statistic: 73% of women who are raped are attacked by men they know (Dept of Justice). In Canada, in the 80’s, approximately 80% of women who were murdered were killed by their former or current male sexual partner. Intimate partner violence in Thailand is the leading cause of death for females between the ages of 15 and 24 ( Murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in America ( Worldwide, violence is a major cause of death and disability in European women between the ages of 15 and 44, occurring more frequently than that caused by war, malaria or car accidents(UN Development Fund for Women). More than 80% of the 3/4 of a million people enslaved in the sex trafficking trade are women and men are overwhelmingly the “consumers” ( Again, I do not believe that the reasons for this are biological in nature. I suspect a host of complicated and interweaving reasons, but the primary ones being masculinity as perceived in society being about being domineering and pimp-like towards women, and male supremacy in general.

There’s also this feeling that men can do to women what they want and women really have no means of stopping it, either individually when it’s happening, or culturally as a whole. Looking at the above statistics this isn’t just a feeling. We are constantly told, not always in so many words, that we need a man to protect us from other men. But who is going to protect us from the man we’re with? A number of years ago there was a mass outbreak of sexual assault and harassment in New York one summer day. Women went up to the police to ask for help and they did nothing. Gangs of men were hanging out in the park and sexually assaulting women as they walked by. Who stopped them? The men the women were with? Were they afraid also? The police didn’t stop them. Men took pictures of the events. For the police? Or to watch later?

We know as women – we know how little we are protected. How little we are believed. We know who has the power in society. And so do men, consciously or no (the unconscious awareness would be your male privilege). Many men might be appalled by the behaviour of all these other men in New York that day. Many men are pro-feminist, or at least try to be. I know many of those men. Many men will protest that they don’t hate women and don’t think of women as inferior. But did they laugh when that character in XXX called to the women saying “bitches, come!”? Do they laugh when sexist jokes are made about Sarah Palin? Do they watch porn? Do they tell you you’re being oversensitive when you try to talk to them about sexism? You might argue that there is a world of difference between laughing at a sexist joke and committing mass sexual assault in Central Park, and while this is obviously true it’s also all of a piece. They are on the same continuum of subjugation of women.

Feminists are often accused of hating men, and some might accuse me of being mysandrist in what I’m saying. But calling a group of people to account for their actions is not exhibiting hatred of them. Describing what so many members of a class of people do to another class of people is not “reverse sexism.” Telling the truth about what life is like for women is not hating on men. I’ve had people say to me, after I’ve talked about what men as a class do, how society is structured, that I “must really hate men.” It’s always confused me. It seems like such a non sequitur. “buuh. What?” I sputter back. I’ve just described what’s going on and I haven’t said anything about how I feel about it. It’s as if they think I’m making it up because I hate men, the way bigots will make shit up about people of colour, or immigrants.

But I’m not making this up. These are verifiable, well researched statistics. The statistics of the gender make-up of sexual abusers comes from the FBI. Hardly a bastion of radical feminism. So much sociological research has gone on in the last 30 years from all sorts of people that it’s a given, now, that we live in a male supremist society. Even my Sociology 101 textbook recognized the ground-breaking work done by feminists and feminism. In fact, it broke sociology down into two basic types: functionalism and critical perspectives. Their examples of critical perspectives were feminism and marxism. Ha! We’re mainstream, yo. And yet so often, that fact is ignored.

Yes! Yes! YES!

December 8, 2008

The title is so exuberant because when Crowfoot and I finally started trying to talk about the feminist art exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery (also known as the VAG 😉 ) we just kept saying to each other, “Yes! Yes!”

It’s an excellent exhibit, and if you live anywhere near it you should go. It’s also so thought-provoking that we knew it would be a million years before we could write some proper posts about it. To at least get started, we decided to IM each other and record the conversation. And so, I present to you: the highlights!

Well, sort of. It’s a bit long, but I figure you guys don’t mind that.

Read the rest of this entry »