Raging Against the Machine

7 Nov

George Orwell’s famed novel 1984 is one of my favorite mandatory reads from high school.  I have always found it difficult to recall specific quotes from classic novels off-hand.  But one quote from this book has never been far from the front of my mind (perhaps for its persistent relevance, perhaps not):  “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”  Rage Against the Machine helped to reveal the relevance these words had in the contemporary state affairs with their song “Testify,” in which one word, “now,” was incorporated after the words “past” and “present,” effectively emphasizing the frightening parallels between a fictional totalitarian state and a functioning “democratic” government. I remember watching RATM in the news when I was in high school (2000).  While filming a music video in Manhattan for their song “Sleep Now In The Fire,” RATM managed to shut down Wall Street for half a day by occupying the area around the NYSE.  I remember my parents rolling their eyes as I tried to suppress my reaction to what I had just witnessed.  While my parents perceived these musicians as uneducated and dangerous, I thought RATM was inspiring and clever, and I found it refreshing to be exposed to American citizens critiquing American capitalism.

Presently, with the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street protests, I am again witnessing a form of political dissent similar to that displayed by RATM more than a decade ago. When I first heard about the Occupy Wall Street movement, I had little faith that the initial demonstration would last more than a few days.  But I did experience a feeling similar to that which I had experienced in high school.  It was refreshing to see people taking an active interest in the state of affairs.  As the movement continues to last, and spread throughout the country (and world), I spend more and more time reading and talking about OWS.   I have found that the most interesting conversations concerning the movement focus on criticisms OWS has received in the media.  When I asked what people thought about the movement, one individual replied, “I think all of those people are idiots.  I mean, seriously.  Take a basic economics class before you go spouting off on how to solve problems with the unequal distribution of wealth.”  This individual was about to receive her MBA, so I wasn’t too shocked by her stringently conveyed objections.  But even people I assume to be supportive of OWS have become increasingly bothered by the lack of clear and concise demands.

Maybe my background in political science and protest politics contributed to my supportive stance on the movement.   I could not help but to hear the phrase “Let them eat cake,” playing in my mind repeatedly as I witnessed more examples of upper-class extravagance in the face of such widespread middle and lower-class suffering.  I saw so many parallels to the French Revolution (the state’s financial crisis, the upper class resistance to taxation and the impotence of the monarch to enforce this, the struggles of the lower class and the failure of the state to effectively assist this class–the largest in the country).  I can understand now more than ever how the political, economic and social unrest of that time came to a boiling point resulting in violence.

I found myself debating with friends and colleagues whether a list of demands was even necessary for OWS.  Isn’t a relatively peaceful demonstration on such a large-scale enough? I guess I viewed OWS as an effective visual representation of the systemic failure of the current political/economic system.

When the opportunity to work on a documentary examining OWS emerged, I jumped at the chance to be involved and to hopefully gain a deeper understanding of the movement in the process.  Since documentary is a medium that allows for some artistic/poetic license, while simultaneously maintaining a position of authority and legitimacy, it seemed a perfect means to address so many of the criticisms and questions concerning OWS.  More specifically, I was excited at the prospect of producing media that could address the issue of “demands.”  Admittedly, I had found it difficult to explain (in words alone) why it was that I felt a list of demands would be superfluous at best (and detrimental at worst), to the ‘success,’ (for lack of a better term) of OWS.

During the production process, my group members and I agreed that addressing the issue of “demands” was a central concern.  As supporters and/or participants of OWS, we wanted to create a piece that would present an internal point of view responding to the mainstream media’s critiques and their persistent demand for demands.  Using raw footage and news clips, and asking questions we had in our own voices, we were able to do so.  What I enjoyed most during the production process was our tactic of utilizing mainstream media footage originally intended to critique or undermine OWS to effectively bolster the legitimacy of our supportive stance on the movement.

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A Visual Feminism

6 Oct

Examining the question, “Why Women’s Studies?” led to me provide a visual answer to the question that was behind it, the real question that other students have been asking me: Why Am I  A Feminist? I initially felt put-off at having to explain myself.  But then I realized that I was looking at the world through a specific lens.  So, I decided my visual answer to the question could involve, to some extent, a look through my lens (at what I see, how I see connections between isolated incidents, and why I see any of it as relevant).  I found that the research process served to further legitimize my focus on gender (in academics and in my personal life).

Nothing in my video is more than 3 years old.  Most of the news images and clips are from the past month.  The audio clips were just over one year old.  This video only contains a small fraction of what I found scanning the news over the past month.  That process, of editing and leaving out so much information, was perhaps more meaningful than the final product because I was forced to look at something, to see it all lined up, together.  In other words, this video contains 5 minutes of what could have been an hour.

I also utilized some very specific audio to create an ironic/uncomfortable feel during certain clips.  There are images of portions of women’s bodies, with music suggesting you see them as sexy, confronted with text that simultaneously suggests women should not be seen only as sexualized objects. Then we see images of men known to be involved in sex scandals, and we see their faces, their suits and ties amid headlines detailing their sexual exploits with younger women.  The music, at this point, creates a different level of discomfort that shifts to dark comedic irony (intended to evoke a feeling of disgust at the thought of perceiving these men to be sexy).

Finally, while I advocate for strong reactions to create change, I provide no evidence highlighting the reactive social movements, or the organized efforts to combat gender biases, that have emerged in response to such blatant examples of sexism.  While there are ongoing efforts, I maintained a focus on the problem–since the problem (and its visibility) is my best attempt at  providing an answer to the question I examined. More specifically, my intent was to create a lingering level of discomfort that would mirror my feeling upon being asked, “Why are you a feminist?” (suggesting my retort to be along the lines of “Why wouldn’t I be?”).

SlutWalk

17 Sep

When the survivor of sexual assault is forced to share in the responsibility of that assault (along with the perpetrator), the perception of sexual assault as a serious and violent crime is minimized.  When authority figures charged with the responsibility of responding to the victims of such crimes accept, to any extent, the idea that style of dress contributes to the assault, a clear message is being sent: to some extent, men just can’t help themselves, so women should try to avoid tempting them by exposing too much.  I’m not sure which is more insulting, the reinforcement of the perception of women primarily as sexual objects or the underlying acceptance of men as sexual predators incapable of controlling impulses.

A now infamous Toronto police officer has, however unintentionally, made a recent public contribution to the idea that women invite such violent reactions from men when they choose to dress in less than conservative ensembles.  While there is much to be said in reaction to this officer’s comment that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized,” (see source: http://www.thestar.com/news/article/955682–police-officer-s-remarks-at-york-inspire-slutwalk), especially considering the context in which it was said, I would like to focus on the international SlutWalk protests that have emerged in response to this instance.

SlutWalks have gone through a rather rapid transformation since the first march.  One of the co-founders of both the SlutWalk organization (the webpage, and the Facebook and Twitter accounts) and the first protest march sharing the same name , Heather Jarvis, explained that the name of the march was not intended to send the message that women participating in the march should “dress like sluts” (again, see source: http://www.thestar.com/news/article/955682–police-officer-s-remarks-at-york-inspire-slutwalk).  The point was to make a statement, a noticeable and visible one, about people in solidarity against the notion that clothing, or lack thereof, can be construed as a form of consent.  In other words, there is no legitimacy to the argument that “in a way, she was asking for it.”

The marches have become a global phenomenon, and increasing numbers of participating women are opting to dress provocatively.  This has created quite a stir.  I have heard colleagues, identifying as feminists, take both supportive and critical stances regarding the marches.  Most of the criticisms stem from the the use of the word “slut,” and what it means to have this word coincide with visual demonstrations of provocatively dressed women.  The main fears seem to be that the intended message will be lost, that women will not be taken seriously, and that nothing will ultimately be accomplished other than fostering a false sense of security in showing a little more skin.

Those in support of the demonstrations have suggested that such fears ignore the link between the message and the visual demonstration.  What does it mean to have scantily-clad women walking about in public, marching in a sea of signs suggesting that nothing they can wear is an overt invitation for anyone to touch, grope, or otherwise sexually assault them?  I’d say we’ve got a powerful image, something actively creating a dissonance between provocative apparel and an understood invitation for, and unspoken consent to, sex.  We’ve seen the same scenes in movies, television, advertisements, etc., for years: a woman dressed provocatively, displayed as alluring, as the temptress, presents herself to a man and awaits his seemingly inevitable physical reaction to her appearance in silence.

With SlutWalk protest marches, we are presented with a very different display.  Provocatively dressed women are visible, alongside signs and banners warning us that this visual image is not to be equated with consent.  This is where the dissonance comes into play.  We used to see such garments in ads selling us perfumes, clothing labels, jewelry, hair products.  We were sold the idea that these items were intended to achieve the outcomes their ads depicted.  And since “sex sells,” for the most part these advertisements have been successful, and therefore popular as well.  The messages more subtly suggest that in mimicking the stylistic behaviors of these ads, we are pursuing similar outcomes.  There is less room for the idea that a woman just felt like wearing something provocative without the intention of enticing men.  There is still even less room for the idea that a woman dressed provocatively did so in order to entice the gaze of all around her without expecting to be harassed.  What does our acceptance of these social norms suggest?  Perhaps SlutWalk has forced us all to look at the extent to which we each have internalized some degree of the Toronto officer’s sentiment.

But SlutWalk is selling us something different: the idea that society is beyond the point where anything other than consent matters. There is a visual representation of what we would usually understand as ‘sexy’ juxtaposed with the equally powerful visual representations of female solidarity and anti-sexism. While not all women participating in the march choose to dress this way, those that do are providing a valuable service to those of us who believe in the message of the march: they are putting theory into practice.  We can say over and over again, as we have for years now, that nothing the survivors of sexual assault do makes them in any way responsible for that assault.  We can say that clothing is no invitation.  But SlutWalk supporters and participants are putting such statements to the test.  It is obvious that these marches are about more than making the world safe for showing a little more skin. Anyone buying into that as the main point should look at the SlutWalk phenomenon again.

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As for those stuck on the issue regarding the creation of a false sense of security among young and impressionable women, I think they’ve missed the point.  The marches were organized because there was no sense of support for survivors of sexual assault, and the point is to foster one.  The marches and protests are not advocating that women start to dress like underwear models on a regular basis.  If that is a concern for some, those individuals should think about how they view women in general.  Women are not as naive as these critics think they are. We are not so easily misled, especially concerning issues of particular importance to us. The marches are a safe space, with women supporting each other.  We know what dangers lurk about, and have been aware of them for a very long time, from very young ages.  Take Back the Night protests and marches have been attempting to battle against the dangers that women face on a daily basis (simply for being women) for years.  But the visible demonstrations offered by SlutWalk protests have had a greater immediate impact as a result of their very controversial nature.  For those women contributing to the controversy, we should not be so quick to judge.

I tend to agree with much of what Katha Pollitt of The Nation had to say regarding the SlutWalk protests (see source: http://www.thenation.com/article/161728/talk-talk-walk-slutwalk).  While there is much support for the movement among feminists of all generations, what I believe to be even more valuable than this is the discussion that has taken place as a result of the marches.  SlutWalks have been discussed in the classroom, in global and local media, and at dinner tables.  The fact that the controversial word “slut” creates such a buzz only helps to increase attention for the marches, and therefore, the larger discussion.  If people are talking about it, then there is a greater chance that the message is reaching more than just those individuals who have witnessed the marches.  It’s interesting to think that so much discussion and conversation has resulted from a visible demonstration against one comment spoken by one man.  The actions of these SlutWalk women have certainly spoken louder than this man’s words.

Protected: When the Personal is Political in Academic Settings

11 Sep

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