Reflections on Orange is the New Black Season 3

Like many who have a complicated relationship to Orange is the New Black, I was eager to see what Season 3 would have in store for us. As a queer gal who likes a good 48 minutes of a trying-to-be-socially-aware dramedy that is full of lesbians and a decent soundtrack, I am a fan of the show. As a feminist critical media studies scholar and prison abolitionist activist, I haven taken issue with several elements of the show, both in terms of representation and also with the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan. Season 3 wasn’t perfect, but it did a lot of things right, and overall I thought it was strong. Here are some random and general reflections about some themes that caught my attention most.

(Obvi, major spoiler alert.)

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On Starting with a Mother’s Day-themed Episode

The first episode of the season took place on Mother’s Day and provided us backstory on several of the inmates relationships to their mothers and/or children. It was impossible not to feel moved by these stories, and this theme also allowed the show to highlight the devastating reality of incarcerated mothers. According to a recent article published in the Columbia Social Work Review, nearly 75% of all incarcerated women were the primary, and sometimes sole, caretakers of children prior to their arrest. The impact of this is detrimental to both the mothers and the children, who most often end up in the foster system. There is also a heavy psychological toll that this separation creates on mothers and children; the same study states that children of incarcerated mothers are at high risk for long-term mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, isolation, and anger. This episode of Orange also provides us a moving depiction of the psychological and emotional turmoil experienced by the powerless mothers on the inside. In one of the final scenes, the father of Ruiz’s child tells her it’s the last time he’ll be bringing her daughter to visit because she’s getting old enough “to understand” that her mother is in prison. Ruiz breaks down, screaming in protest. Her daughter is carried away and she can do nothing about it. The plight of the incarcerated mother illustrates the dehumanization and denial of human rights experienced by all incarcerated people.

While the mother’s in the prison struggle, Pennsatucky decides to have a symbolic funeral for the three fetuses she aborted prior to her time at Litchfield. Boo approaches her to try to help ease her guilt and proceeds to give a speech in which she uses neoliberal wetdream Freakonomics as a defense of abortion. Boo explains: “They have this chapter in it, ‘Where have all the criminals gone?’ In the 1990s, crime fell spectacularly and this book attributes that to the passing of Roe V. Wade….The abortions that occurred after Roe v. Wade, these were children that weren’t wanted. Children who if their mothers had been forced to have them, would have grown up poor, neglected and abused — the three most important ingredients when one is making a felon. But they were never born. So 20 years later, when they would have been of prime crime age, they weren’t there.”

Boo concludes: “You were a meth-head white trash piece of shit and your children, if they had been born, would have been meth-head white trash pieces of shit. So by terminating those pregnancies you spared society the scourge of your offspring. I mean, when you think about it, it’s a…blessing.”

White Lady Feminist (WLF) social media exploded in response, lauding the speech as “powerful and eye opening” and what Vulture writer Brian Moylan deems as “politically profound.” I, (technically a white lady feminist, but not a WLF), was not so excited about the use of white dude pop economist Steven Levitt’s defense of abortion, as it is wildly similar to the defense of eugenics. Yeah, eugenics, you know, that thing where they wipe out the undesirables of society so the Aryan race can flourish without their resources being wasted away by poor people and people of color? Yeah, that’s what Boo is arguing for visa vi Levitt’s Moynihan-esque account of crime and African American births.

Pro-choice activists, we can and should do better than get excited about pop culture moments of abortion defense that rely on racism and classism, kay?

Anyway, since not all the inmates at Litchfield were mothers, we had people like Nicki keeping it real for us about kids:

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On Ruby Snooze, I mean Rose

This season introduces the character of Stella, an Australian with a short-term prison sentence for a crime that is not revealed to viewers. According to a billion straight girls, Stella/Ruby Rose (the actress that portrays her) is HOT. Like #makesyougayHOT. There are some solid think pieces that describe my feelings on this phenomenon, but what I really want to say about Stella’s character is that she is BORING. Ruby Rose’s acting skills are not good enough to convince us of any remote chemistry between her and Piper, so the whole storyline falls flat.

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(I mean, yeah, she’s a babe, but I’m still #teampoussey.)

 

On Prison Guard “Romance” (& a major TW for Episode 3)

There are several storylines on Orange that reveal the reality of the sexual, emotional, and physical abuse of inmates by prison guards. According to a report released Thursday by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Nearly half of all sexual assault accusations reported in U.S. correctional facilities in 2011 were aimed at prison guards or staff.” It’s also key to note that these are reported cases, and that the likelihood is high that more abuse occurs and goes unreported. Unlike pervasive narratives about prison being a dangerous place because of inmate-on-inmate violence, this study reveals that it is more common for inmates to be in danger from the staff.

I start out with those statistics to emphasize the reality of the power dynamics between inmates and guards. It is not an equal relationship; the staff members and administrators are in positions of institutional power over the prisoners. Consent is always already compromised when one person is in a position of power.

This season we were witness to four instances of egregious relationships between prisoner and staff: Daya and Bennett, Red and Healey, Pennsatucky and Coates, and Nicky and Lusheck. For the most part, the show used the storylines as an opportunity to reveal the exploitative and detrimental nature of these relationships. It couldn’t get more explicit than when Pennsatucky is brutally raped by Coates (after we learn, through a flashback, that this is not her first time being raped). (Also, side note: it should go without saying that I would give a major TW for this, Episode 3). Nicky and Luschek’s non-sexual, but still somewhat intimate business partner relationship leads to Nicky getting sent away to Maximum Security Prison. Healy begins to develop feelings for Red and makes clear that he would provide her favors, but only if she was sincere about her feelings for him (which she pretended to have, but appears ultimately to not).

And then there’s Daya and Bennett. This storyline has been challenging for me because I catch myself feeling really moved by their love. Consent may be compromised, but emotions don’t always fall neatly in line with analyses of power, and I think it would be misguided to deny that there are real feelings between these characters. And yet; there is no way that I could bring myself to root for their relationship, given how utterly fucked it is for a prison guard to engage in a relationship like that at all. After being moved to tears when Bennett proposes, I felt both like Orange manipulated my emotions and also just like a bad anti-prison feminist. Ultimately, Bennett decides to abandon Daya and the baby, while Daya is left powerless to do anything about it. This conclusion reveals the inevitable imbalance of power between the two of them, but also left me with a lump in my throat (my relationship to the Martha Wainwright song they play in the background when he drives away didn’t help).

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I’m still struggling with how I feel about the representation of romantic and/or otherwise emotionally intimate relationships between staff and inmates. Is it important to shed light on the nuance of emotions, or is it dangerous to evoke sympathetic feelings for such unacceptable relationships?

On the Prison Industrial Complex

They actually said the words “Prison Industrial Complex” (PIC) this season, and spent the whole season demonstrating the impact of the process by which prisons are expanding rapidly due to the influence of privatization and other profit-driven entities. Put another way, the PIC creates a business out of prisons that functions best with more workers (inmates); as a result, prisons are bought by private corporations, utilized for cheap (slave) labor, and directly influence the rise of mass incarceration. Private companies now have an interest in getting more people in jail, and so they put their hand in lobbying for “tough on crime” bills that criminalize as many things as possible. Prior to this season, Orange never used that term on a show, but when Piper explains to Alex that she’s back in prison because of “the system,” Alex concedes, “I’m just a fly in the web of the prison industrial complex.”

Naming this is not insignificant. Like most media representations of social issues, Orange has fallen into the trap of representing a structural phenomenon as something that is a result of individual choices. For example, in Season 1, Piper states to her mother during a visit: “I am in here because I am no different from anybody else in here. I made bad choices.” I know Orange is trying to make clear how white people commit crimes too, but this idea—that Piper has just a big a shot of ending up in jail as working-class people and/or people of color—is inaccurate. People end up in prison, primarily, because of disproportionate policing, and because the prison industry wants more money. Fortunately, Orange is has come a long way from it being about “bad choices.”

When Caputo finds out the prison is going to close, he takes matters into his own hands (via a homophobic blackmail exchange with Fig) and gets a private company, MCC, to buy the prison. He saves his job, ensures the women don’t have to be relocated, and protects the jobs of the staff. In exchange, we witness the horrors of privatization: corporate leadership that has absolutely no understanding of the prison, a refusal to engage in sufficient training of the newly hired guards, and a commitment to cost-cutting and profit-increase above anything else. This results in the introduction of a new job available to the prisoners: making panties for $1 that MCC will then sell and profit (wildly) from. In addition to exploitative prison labor, the buy out leads to standardizing of of pre-made and nearly inedible cafeteria food, the placement of Sofia in the SHU, and, as we see in the final scene of the finale, a huge increase in the prison population. Bunk beds and double the inmates, but the same level of resources and infrastructure. This is the reality of the PIC and Orange is doing a pretty solid job explaining how it’s completely fucked.

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On Sophia (& another TW for transgender emotional and physical violence)

Laverne Cox’s presence on our screens has been incredibly important. Her fame has allowed the voice of a trans woman of color progressive activist to take up space in public consciousness. For the most part, Orange has worked to use Cox’s character, Sophia, to draw attention to the violence and oppression experienced by trans women of color in the US.

Up until this season, stories of Sophia’s struggle have been largely relegated to flashbacks, in which we see the discrimination and challenges she experienced before being incarcerated. This season, we bear witness to the transphobic violence she experiences inside the prison. After Sophia and Gloria’s sons become friends, each mother blames the other for their respective sons recent bout of reckless behavior. As Gloria’s personal struggle with her relationship to her son deepens, her anger toward Sophia grows, and vice versa.

Aleida encourages Gloria to use Sophia as a scapegoat, and does so using every possible transgender slur in the book; (in my opinion, the use of the word “tranny” became gratuitous). Tension begins to build when Gloria picks a fight with Sophia in the bathroom and ends up getting pushed into a wall in the scuffle. From there, Sophia is viewed as dangerous and aggressive by most of the other inmates, leaving her feeling isolated and under attack. In a horribly violent scene, Sophia is attacked and left bloodied, bruised, and stripped of her wig. In response? She’s sent to SHU.

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This is not a unique case, either inside or outside of prison. Trans people often bear the burden of being punished for surviving. In addition to overwhelming statistics of the number of transgender inmates who end up in solitary, consider also the recent case of CeCe McDonald, the transgender woman who ended up in prison for defended herself from a violent transphobic and racist attack.

I appreciate what Orange does to draw attention to these realities, especially when it took it a step further to connect Sophia’s stint in the SHU as connected to the profit-desires of the corporate bosses of MMR.

On the Union, Les Mis, and Complicated Feelings

After MCC takes over Litichfield, the guards begin to talk about unionization. As a labor-centric (re: union-obsessed) Leftist, it was hard for me not to be excited by this storyline. AND THEN, when Caputo steps up (temporarily) to lead the charge, the guards erupt in, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from FUCKING LES MISERABLES. I mean, way to tug at a pinko’s heartstrings, Orange.

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But here’s the thing about prison guard unions. They are not like other unions. As I argue elsewhere, prison and police unions are negotiating to further entrench capitalist white supremacy, not fight against (like the labor movement ought to be doing). In The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California, Joshua Page (2011) argues that the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the prison guard union of California, contributes to the societal stigma against prisoners by framing all convicts as “animals” and guards as victims. He explains:

the union contributes to popular prejudices about prisoners and promotes warehousing as the primary, if not sole, purpose of imprisonment. The ‘toughest beat’ would not be so tough (and the union’s insistence that officers are victims would not ring true) if prisons were filled [with] people who, in general, just want to ‘do their time’ and move on with their lives—rather than animalistic individuals programmed to cheat and harm others. The CCPOA’s strategy to enhance its officers’ professional image, status, and compensation depends on the public, press, and politicians believing that California prisoners are the ‘worst of the worst.’ (p. 72)

We can see similar things going on at Litchfield. Let’s look again, for example, at Luscheck’s easy ability to send Nicky to Max just by saying she was more likely to have drugs than he was; (“It’s her, she’s a fucking junky!” he yells, and almost immediately after, Nicky is hand-cuffed). The guard’s word was taken over the inmate’s word and it resulted in another inhumane displacement.

Point being: Communist musical anthems will never fail to bring a tear to my eye, but I don’t know if I’m on board with collectively empowering a workforce that bolsters the PIC.

On Spirituality

An ongoing theme throughout the entire season was the inmates’ yearnings for a spiritual practice. We witness a culty religion form around Norma; we get to see Black Cindy discover Judaism first as a ticket to better food, and then as a path to liberation; and we watch Pennsatucky and Boo rework Christianity. But we also saw stories of faith— success of and failures in—manifest more subtly.

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I was really drawn to this storyline for a couple reasons, but maybe most prominently is because of my experience engaging in a spiritual practice with convicted criminals. I taught yoga (which is, when done holistically, a spiritual practice) to incarcerated young men in a jail in Minneapolis for a year. When I first started, I felt like an out-of-touch bougie white lady who was appropriating an Eastern practice and shoving it onto boys of color who would have no interest in it. That thought changed immediately when I saw how much the boys loved practicing. How breathing and stretching and engaging in moving meditation offered them refuge and healing.

I think it’s really easy for some on the anti-prison Left be dismissive of spiritual practices as a fundamental part of transformative justice. Although I respect entirely secular Leftists decision to understand “the struggle” as their higher power (or whatever), for me, I don’t think we can have the kind of queer feminist transformative justice revolution we want without acknowledging a very spiritual sentiment: that the core of all sentient beings is love and humanity. That little aside is to say that not only does it make perfect sense to me that inmates are hungry to find God/gods/g-d/etc., but that this desire is a really important thing for us to consider when organizing to improve the lives of prisoners.

We learned some valuable lessons about faith and spirituality this seasons: Faith will fail us in the face of the systems of oppression. But it will also find us again and again and again, in smaller ways, so that we can keep surviving those systems. Arthur Chu from The Daily Beast said it better than me, so I’ll close this section with his words:

“Orange Is the New Black is a show about how Big Faith…is a trap—the kind of faith that believes in ultimate justice and in final answers, the kind that says you can be confident in how the story ends. It’s the kind of faith that’s brittle, fragile, that sets you up for a brutal fall. Orange Is the New Black is…a show that’s deeply skeptical that everything happens for a reason and everything works out in the end—as anyone who’s spent any time studying the real-life prison system would be.

But the other kind of faith? Little Faith? Faith as tiny as a mustard seed? The kind that won’t throw away the armor of cynicism but will take it off long enough for a swim, that says that there’s no clear path by which everyday kindness and love will fix this broken world and bring a happy ending to our story? That’s the kind of faith that, by not asking for too much, isn’t too easily broken. It’s the kind that can survive betrayal, suffering, hypocrisy—even prison.

 It’s the kind that, behind bars or outside, you can’t live without.”

On that Beautiful Scene in the Lake

Speaking of faith….This gave me so much of it. It was a magic scene. My heart was full.

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Bests and Worsts

*Best sex scene: Boo having sex with a former girlfriend; finally a lesbian sex scene with a strap-on! #beyondscissoring

Worst Sex Scene: Piper and Alex’s hate-fuck garbage bag romp. Also the worst, when the two characters identify empathy as a “boner killer” and suggest that having BDSM-style sex can only be a result of actual hatred toward another person. #smh

*Best one-liner: “Put ‘em inside her.” –Morello, with a shrug, after Suzanne asks what she should do with her hands during a hook-up with an admirer.

Worst one-liner: Piper’s diatribe about the vag sweat revolution. #eyeroll

(….that’s all I got right now, but please keep the list going in the comments :))

Additional reading

*Read this great piece for some important thoughts on the representation of the show’s only two Asian characters.

*Read this piece for thoughts on harmful portrayals of disability and benefits.

*Read this powerful interview with Laverne Cox about the themes addressed in Season 3 and how she coped with doing her job while performing something very triggering.

*Read this piece about what Orange gets right about depression.

***

What did you think of this season? 

PRESERVE-ing Whiteness: Racism and Nostalgia on Blake Lively’s Lifestyle Website

Blake doing her thing.

Blake doing her thing.

Following in the footsteps of Gwenyth Paltrow’s GOOP, actress Blake Lively just launched a lifestyle website called PRESERVE. In her Letter from the Editor, Lively explains that the site “honors the future, while having a love affair with the past.” In the “About” section, readers learn that PRESERVE has a goal to “support the America we’ve always known, and the one we haven’t yet met.” Unrelated as they may seem, PRESERVE’s commitment to the past is emblematic of the persistence of reactionary politics that pervade the American Right. 

The website is divided into categories: Taste (“We aim to preserve the enduring traditions of meals, memories and merriment.”); Style (“We want to preserve the custom of telling one’s own story through style and craftsmanship.”); Projects (“We believe in preserving the messy worktables of the handmade life.”); Wellness (“We do our best to preserve a holistic approach to living a full and healthy life.”); Intimacy (“The smoky scent of sandalwood burning on a wick, the “ahh” of a warm bath; the precious exposure of your husband’s cheeks after a clean shave; the warmth of chocolate melting on your palate; the glow of reminiscing with your grandmother; the feeling of building not only a table, but also memories, with your dad—these are the quiet moments that make life most precious.”); Culture (“The heart of PRESERVE culture is about discovering old and new: music, travels, books, films and more.”); and Celebration (“PRESERVE celebration is about tradition, savoring, finding more excuses to celebrate and better ways to do it.”). Scrolling through the recipes, articles, videos, and photographs, readers encounter sepia-filtered images of rustic farm tables, rugged men with beards and tattoos, the ”well-worked hands of aging craftspeople and…the eager words of young artisans.”  The emphasis on preserving the old coupled with the aesthetic imagery that one might find on the exposed-brick walls of gentrifying coffee shops in Brooklyn, is a perfect metaphor for the current state of politics. Progress from the Left (e.g., Obama) or the Right (e.g., The Tea Party), doesn’t get us any farther than where we were before. 

Scholars and activists have long been theorizing that the wave of social progress that occurred in the 60s and 70s has since inspired a resurgence of nostalgia for days gone by, and PRESERVE is one example of the cultural manifestation of this longing for and romanticization of the past. Cornel West explains that after 1973, “the United States entered a period of waning self-confidence…and a nearly contracted economy.”[1] As a result, pervasive neoliberal policies (from the liberals and conservatives alike) took a stronghold in the US, and continue to lay a foundation that encourages cultural and political clingings to the restoration of the past. Take the struggle for women’s autonomy over their own bodies—when advancements were made, the backlash doubled, leaving our nation with fifty-four fewer abortion clinics than it had in 2010. [2]  Although the founders of PRESERVE are surely not intentionally invested in encouraging a pre-Civil Rights nation, even the name of the blog suggests that it has not escaped the pervasive cultural hegemony of nostalgia. 

Perhaps more insidiously, however, is that nostalgic throwbacks for “relics from bygone eras” suggest a firm divide between past and present. In reality, the aforementioned racist, sexist and unjust past is still alive and well. Cultural depictions of what was suggest that where we’re at now is somehow vastly different from our past; but for members of marginalized groups, there are no such markers of progress. The poor are still exploited, women are still denied autonomy over their bodies, and people of color still experience daily battles of interpersonal and structural racism. For many, the future is just a variation on a past injustice’s theme. PRESERVE proffers both a glorification of the past as well as contributing to the myth that it is different exists in the first place.

In the midst of this, PRESERVE reifies a construction of “Whiteness” that substantiates its invisibility. Thomas Nakayama and Robert Krizek explain the rhetorical construction of Whiteness as something that “makes itself visible and invisible, eluding analysis yet exerting influence over everyday life.” In other words, when race isn’t mentioned, Whiteness is assumed. Whiteness’ ability to go unnoticed is a privilege and is then also “taken as the norm from which Others are marked.” [3] 

PRESERVE’s contribution to the construction of Whiteness is align with contemporary culture’s commitment to multicultural colorblindness. There is a scant smattering of diversity in the pages of PRESERVE. For example, a vignette about New Orleans features a photograph of a Black poet, and a short story by Amber Tamblyn is followed by a photo spread of a racially ambiguous male model. A bizarre post that compares summer barbecues to medieval gatherings features an outdoor summer party full of overexposed photos of white women running through sunlit trees, lightly charred corn on the cob, and a picture of hands reaching across the farm table—all White hands, save one Black hand. The lack of explicit attention to race—while simultaneously throwing a person of color in the mix here and there—is illustrative of the kind of empty tokenizing diversity that continues to persist in American culture. 

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This is made especially clear in the story about New Orleans. Although the article points to the “government’s neglect” during Hurricane Katrina, it never once mentions race (or class) as a factor that inspired that neglect. The decontextualization of such a racially charged moment in history eludes the event of politics and becomes, what Tim Wise calls, “the rhetoric of racial transcendence” (which, conversely, allows the rhetorical construction of Whiteness to thrive).[4]  By not mentioning, or, “transcending” race, the site adds to discourse that suggests that “race doesn’t matter,” when, in fact, we see that it does matter—in unemployment rates, studies of housing discrimination, police targeting and profiling, and disproportionate levels of poverty.

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Of course, I am not trying to suggest that Blake Lively is caught up in some kind of plot to strengthen neoliberal capitalism and white supremacy. What I am saying is that neoliberalism and white supremacy have found ways to creep into the ostensibly innocuous spaces of lifestyle blogs. But, to paraphrase Stuart Hall, culture is a site of struggle. And maybe talking about reactionary politics on PRESERVE can help us be more attune to the moments when those same politics manifest in policies that impact our lives.

[1] See Cornel West, (1990). “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” The Humanities as Social Technology, (53). 

[2] See Jay Michaelson’s “Ten Reasons Women Are Losing While Gays Keep Winning.” 

[3] Thomas K. Nakayama & Robert L. Krizek, “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, (81), 1995, pp. 291-309.

[4] From Tim Wise (2010) Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equality

Historic Labor-led Campaign for Transgender Healthcare Launches in March

This month marks the launch of the first-ever National Month of Action for Transgender Healthcare, a campaign organized by Pride at Work, the Center for American Progress, the Service Employees International Union Lavender Caucus, Basic Rights Oregon, the Transgender Law Center, and the National Center for Transgender Equality. The goal of the campaign is to mobilize union members, students, non-union workers, and allies in an effort to make transgender-inclusive healthcare more common, accessible, and affordable. In addition, organizers of the campaign hope to educate the public about what it means to be transgender and the ways in which healthcare industries continue to exclude trans and gender variant communities.

In many workplaces, transgender individuals are denied access to many kinds of health-care and coverage that their non-transgender (cisgender) co-workers have without question. Whether through exclusions in health insurance policies or lack of access to competent healthcare providers, transgender individuals face extensive barriers to accessing appropriate, affordable healthcare.

A 2011 national study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 19% of transgender and gender non-conforming people are denied healthcare, and 28% of transgender and gender non-conforming people postpone medical care for fear of discrimination. Key findings also reveal that respondents experienced double the rate of unemployment as the general population; near universal harassment on the job; significant losses of jobs and careers; and higher rates of poverty. Not surprisingly, the economic inequality experienced by so many transgender people often leads to a lack of quality healthcare options.

The fact that economic instability contributes to the marginalization of transgender people makes clear why the labor movement is an ideal place from which to struggle for transgender justice. Like historic LGBT-labor alliances of the past—including labor’s support of LGB teachers who fought against the Briggs Initiative, the LGBT-labor sponsored boycott against Coors, and, more recently, major union’s support of marriage equality—this campaign illustrates that injustice is intersectional and connected. The system that oppresses the working-class is the same system that oppresses LGBT people, people of color, differently-abled people, and immigrants (etc.). In order to fight against that system, all oppressed peoples must work together and recognize that, to echo labor leader Joe Hill, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Trans Month of Action will move the conversation on transgender healthcare discrimination forward by also discussing the critical need for insurance providers to include transition-related care in their policies.

The events taking place this month in conjunction with the month of action all aim to highlight these connections. So far, actions are taking place across ten cities, including Portland, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Washington DC, New York, Miami, Atlanta, and Sacremento. And, for you Chicago locals, check out the Open Forum on Transgender Health, Healthcare, and the Transgender Community at UIC on March 18th.

Although the campaign is a month of action, the struggle for transgender healthcare and other demands for transgender justice need to be ongoing. In their important novel about the challenges faced by trans and gender non-conforming people, Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg writes, “Surrenderin’ is unimaginably more dangerous than struggling for survival!”

That’s a lesson the labor movement knows all too well, and the transgender and allied organizers behind this campaign are committed to the struggle. If you want to be a part of this historic effort, consider organizing a local event, or, if you have personal experience dealing with transgender healthcare issues, consider sharing your story.  Visit www.transmonthofaction.org to learn more.

This piece was originally published at In Our Words.

Critically Acclaimed Imperlialism: The rise of pop cultural representations of the CIA

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“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” –Hannah Arendt

There is a notable theme that has emerged salient in the winners of Hollywood’s award show season. Showtime’s Homeland just won six Emmy’s, and Argo and Zero Dark Thirty have been collecting statues at the SAG Awards, Golden Globes, and will likely take home some Oscars. What do all these media have in common? They are all stories about the CIA, full of characters and scripts that are the champions of American imperialism.

As Rachel Shabi has eloquently argued, what is most compelling about these popular representations of the responses to terrorism is that producers and audiences alike insist that these are nuanced renderings.  Argo begins with a voice over that, when describing the events that led up to the Iranian Revolution, acknowledges the US government’s early support of the Shah. In Zero Dark Thirty, the graphic and horrific scenes of CIA agents practicing “enhanced interrogation” have been touted as evidence that the film is not blindly condoning torture. And in Homeland, our protagonist, Brody, is, at times, an al-Qeida operative.

It is the belief that these things could be considered valuable complexities that is most troubling. Or, more specifically, that these complexities are somehow exceptional. That is, for the depiction of torture to be taken up in public discourse as something that is controversial is to grant the US government of an always-already non-torturous disposition. This is perhaps why Argo gets left out of these conversations—Argo wasn’t about torture, just a CIA agent! This discourse assumes that there can be a separation. That there are good CIA agents and bad ones. An assumption that predicates a belief that the US is fundamentally “good” and just resorts to “bad” things in extenuating circumstances.

This is illustrated to an absurd extent on Homeland. Sure we get a sympathetic view of the desire to avenge a drone strike: we even see footage of dead children, murdered by a drone sent from the Vice President. But we also see episodes in which CIA agents are shown wrestling with the ethics of drone strikes, and even feeling remorseful for their actions. And in those moments, the Showtime drama feels more like a prime-time comedy.

Similarly, the closing scene of Zero Dark Thirty shows us an emotionally broken-down Jessica Chastain, seemingly distraught now that she has successfully completed her mission to kill and capture bin Laden. There are different ways we can interpret that scene; either it is showing her doing some moral self-reflection on the loss of another’s life, or it is showing her mourning the loss of her own life. The only life she’s known for a decade has been one that involved hunting a terrorist. Now what is she supposed to do? Both interpretations do the same work, though: both suggest that these political moments are somehow matters of unique individuals’ choices, rather than stories about an agency of the government that is designed to produce these exact kinds of outcomes.

There is nothing exceptional about torture, violence, and conquest on behalf of the US government. Whether or not individual members of the CIA are “good” people or “bad” people is of little significance, as it certainly wouldn’t impact their complicity in structural violence. They are part of a system that is currently running on the blood, oil, and land of Third World nations. Any discussion of ethics that might take form in those spaces does so with an always-already US-centric, skewed definition of the “ethical.” One that is constructed by and through a white supremacist, capitalist nation.

Admittedly, as pieces of entertainment, I loved Argo, and am hooked on Homeland (even though: WTF, the last half of Season 2?). I didn’t like Zero Dark Thirty, but that was due in large part to the inability of Kathryn Bigelow’s direction to make me forget about all my aforementioned critiques. So perhaps, politically, Zero Dark Thirty is the “best.” At least it didn’t trick me into rooting for US domination.

This piece was originally published at In Our Words.

On Paul Ryan, Class Warfare, and “The Moral Case for Capitalism”

This piece was originally published on In Our Words:

Last year—(probably right around the same time of the now widely-distributed Time magazine workout photo shoot)—Vice Presidential Republican candidate Paul Ryan told an interviewer for the conservative news site Human Events that, “we should not shy away from class warfare.”

During their discussion, the interviewer stated that the Democrat’s agenda is to “shake down the rich,” and asked Ryan if Republicans “are doing a successful job making the moral case for capitalism.”  “Not enough,” Ryan responded, then continued:

“We should not shy away from class warfare. We should take this head on, which is, the president is preying on the emotions of fear, envy and resentment, and he’s speaking to people in America as if they’re fixed in some class. That’s the European model. That’s the model our ancestors left to come create an opportunity society, equality of opportunity, equal protection of the law — not equality of outcome. Government’s role is not to equalize the results of our lives. And we should take that on in a moral way and defend the system of upward mobility.”

Of course, this is not a shocking quote to hear from a Republican. During the past few years, accusations of “class warfare” have been filling the media. Those on the Right tried to bring this concept into the lexicon as a way to scare the nation about the inevitable horrors of having a Democrat in the White House. The term caught fire not only in response to Obamacare, but also during the public worker labor dispute in Madison, WI (Ryan’s home state), and as a label for the efforts of Occupy Wall Street. For many conservatives, “class warfare” has become code for anything that remotely threatens the wealth of the super-rich.

My problem with this phenomenon is not about a distaste for the term “class warfare,” but rather that it’s far too generous a label to place upon any of the aforementioned examples. And, unfortunately, it’s a concept that would never be a goal of the Democratic Party. Class war implies some actual challenge to the status-quo, and Ryan misleadingly suggests that Obama is doing just that by fomenting the revolutionary spirit of the non-rich. (If only!)

No, class warfare is not alive and well in the Democratic Party because, Mr. Ryan, Barack Obama would go to the same lengths as you to make “the moral case for capitalism.” That Democrats are being painted as anti-capitalists is laughable—raising taxes and funding PBS does not a radical overhaul of the system make. And for Ryan to suggest that Obama is “speaking to people in America as if they’re fixed in some class,” couldn’t be farther from the truth. I spent a good chunk of my time in graduate school analyzing the use of the terms “working-class” vs. “middle-class” in the media and in political rhetoric, and let me assure you that the only time class is evoked by politicians is to say they want to make things better for the middle-class. This alone illustrates the exact opposite of Ryan’s claim, since inherent in “bettering the lives of middle-class people” is the implication of upward mobility and “The American Dream.” Democrats love that shit as much as you do, Paul Ryan, I promise. Don’t forget that Obama is the best real-life example of Horatio Alger we’ve ever had.

Historian Alan Berube discusses the danger in privileging the term “middle class” over “working class,” writing:

“‘middleclass’ is used as a code word for ordinary Americans…Middleclass is the neutral ground where there is no class warfare, no class division, no class struggle, no class consciousness….It instills within us both the desire and the language with which we can erase ourselves as anything other than middleclass.”

“The middle-class” is the target audience for both parties because this allows the very real class system to seem simultaneously both natural and innocuous. Everyone from fast food workers to doctors consider themselves part of the middle class, and in the current political climate, the middle class should be feeling pretty good because everyone in the government seems to have their back.

Out of curiosity, I did a word find for the word “class” in the transcript from the VP debate. Every hit I found referred to “middle class” Americans, and both Biden and Ryan were espousing their faith in and commitment to this apparently ubiquitous group of people.

Neither side talks about the working-class, and the term “poverty” is rarely uttered. If Paul Ryan’s accusation that Obama was fueling a class war was correct, I believe we’d be hearing a lot more of those terms propagated by the Dems. Instead, the myth of the classless society is perpetuated through “middle-class” oversaturation, a term that now feels almost void of meaning.

Now, I don’t want to end this with on a totally cynical note. I don’t think the mainstream Right and Left are exactly the same, and I do plan to vote for Obama, whose administration I believe will make better choices than Romney’s. But I think it’s important for us to remember that “the moral case for capitalism” is presented by both the Democrats and Republicans on a daily basis. The immoral case for capitalism is lived by people across the globe on the daily basis. And if Ryan wants to champion “upward mobility,” he need look no further for support than his friends across the isle.

Pedagogy of a Trigger?

Last year in the Media Literacy class I was teaching, I got a lesson from a student about triggers. As a feminist, I thought I had my bases covered when it came to warning my students about content that had the potential to be harmful by way of conjuring up memories of personal trauma. More specifically, sexual trauma. As a woman, I know from both my personal experiences and the statistics [1], to be mindful of showing media clips or introducing readings that may trigger memories of sexual abuse or assault.

So when a a student approached me after class one day, noticeably distressed, and asked me to please provide a trigger warning next time I use the clip from “Glee” that was shown, I honestly wasn’t sure she was talking about. That particular day in class was led by a student. In many of my classes, I require that each student lead a day of discussion, and in my Media Literacy class, they are asked to show a media clip that corresponds with the articles we read. Having just read two provocative articles about heterosexist hate speech, my student decided to show a clip from Glee that showed how a closeted character tried to kill himself after being outed at school.

My student continued, “Seeing stuff about suicide….is hard for me.”

Suicide. The idea that I should monitor media portrayals of suicide never crossed my mind.

I apologized profusely. It was one of the lowest moments I have had as an educator. Students put a lot of trust in a teacher when they walk in a classroom, and I have often given lip-service to my intention to create a “safe space.” Of course, “safe spaces” are inherently flawed because no matter how hard we say it (or bold-font it on our syllabi) we cannot guarantee safety, because our classroom does not exist in a vacuum.

Roxanne Gay makes a similar argument in her intense essay, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion.” In it, she writes:

There are things that rip my skin open and reveal what lies beneath but I don’t believe in trigger warnings. I don’t believe people can be protected from their histories. I don’t believe it is at all possible to anticipate the histories of others in ways that would be satisfying for anyone.

There is no standard for trigger warnings, no universal guidelines. Once you start, where do you stop? Does the mention of the word rape require a trigger warning or is the threshold an account of a rape? How graphic does an account of abuse need to be before meriting a warning? Are trigger warnings required anytime matters of difference are broached? What is graphic? Who makes these determinations?

It all seems so futile, so impotent and, at times, belittling. When I see trigger warnings, I think, “How dare you presume what I need to be protected from?”

Gay is addressing a debate that has been on the mind of feminist zinesters, bloggers, and other media-makers for a long time. But I have not seen as much discussion about the role of triggers for educators.

Immediately following my experience with that student, I became vigilant about monitoring the content I showed, and I required that all student presentations be emailed to me before class so I could review the clips they picked. But I felt overwhelmed, as Gay suggests, about what may or may not be triggering. And I also started to feel problematically protective. When do we cross the line from a “feminist ethic of care” to paternalism?

I believe in a zero tolerance policy when it comes to racist, sexist, heterosexist, (etc.) speech in the classroom, but there have been times that students have said things, innocently, in those categories, and had no idea what they were saying could be considered harmful. As educators, we can use those times as “teaching moments,” but they illustrate that our professed “safe space” is an empty promise.

Some teachers try to work around this by giving the same kind of trigger warning you often see on the top of articles on Feministing or Jezebel, but verbally, right before the clip is shown. I have always found this to be a pretty terrible approach, because if there is a student who might feel triggered, any hope for anonymity is lost. Imagine: “There are images of sexual violence in the clip I’m about to show, so if you feel like you might be triggered, you’re welcome to leave.” Student gets up and leaves, and perhaps experiences humiliation on top of the already inevitable reminder of past sexual trauma. Not awesome.

I’m genuinely curious to know how other educators handle the idea of triggers. Do you refuse to show content that may be triggering? How do you determine what is and isn’t triggering? Do you give verbal trigger warnings? Is there value in the “teaching moments” that triggering material may provide?

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[1] There are a variety of studies that show the tremendously high numbers of women who are victims of sexual violence. A relevant one to college educators: 1 in 4 college women report surviving rape. It is likely that in every class you teach, there is a rape survivor.

Skinny Gossip’s Attack on Kate Upton is About More than Fat

Like many feminists with internet access, I was appalled to learn about the attack on model Kate Upton by the seemingly pro-ana (pro-anorexia) site, Skinny Gossip. Jezebel was quick to inform me of all the ugly details: the gossip site—(which, in addition to fat-shaming some celebrities and skinny-glorifying some others, provides “Starving Tips” for readers who just can’t seem to quit that nasty habit of nourishing themselves[1])—featured pictures of Upton catwalking in a bikini at a recent runway show.

Accompanying these photos were cries of disgust over Kate’s “cow-like” appearance. The blogger wrote:

“Huge thighs, NO waist, big fat floppy boobs, terribly body definition–she looks like a squishy brick. Is this what American women are “striving” for now? The lazy, lardy look? Have we really gotten so fat in this country that Kate is the best we can aim for? Sorry, but: eww!”

In response, the article in Jezebel—and a slew of other feminist-ish blogs that covered the incident—condemned Skinny Gossip for perpetuating a culture that drives young girls to eating disorders and shames women with curves.

I was happy to join in their anger. But then I actually clicked on the Skinny Gossip website and found something to be even more outraged over, something that wasn’t mentioned in any of the responses I read on the web. This post on Skinny Gossip isn’t only fat-phobic—it’s also deeply classist and implicitly racist.

In addition to describing the physical shape of Kate’s body, Skinny Gossip also trashes Upton for looking like a model for “people who shop at Wal-Mart,” and “like she would work in the back of a motorcycle shop in Nashville and give (bad) blow jobs for $25,” and, most blatantly:

“Yes, yes, I know that every tobacco-chewing, beer-drinking, shotgun-toting, NASCAR-watching man south of the Mason-Dixon line would love to get into her pants (or, as they say down South, “into her tent,” which in her case is the same thing)–but most of those guys wouldn’t know a beautiful woman if she jumped out in front of his pickup truck.”

Hold the phone.

Truth be told, I’m actually not really surprised that this kind of language is being used on a pro-ana, er, “pro-skinny” website. Making connections between “fat” bodies and cultural stereotypes of the poor can be traced back to the historical conjuncture in which “the Welfare Queen” was born. This Reagan-era discourse aided in the cutting of federal assistance programs during the 1980s. In order to make this decision popular with the public, one of Reagan’s presidential speeches relayed an image of a welfare-leech from the Southside of Chicago. Pop culture and other cultural phenomena reified this symbol more concisely: the Welfare Queen was black, a mother of too many children, drove a Cadillac, and was also fat. This myth benefitted Reagan’s plans for a trickle-down economy, and the image continues to operate in our contemporary neoliberal climate, as it demonizes bodies that appear to be failing at individual responsibility.

You see, according to cultural logic, if you are poor or if you are fat, it’s your fault.  It’s not surprising that race would be conveniently intertwined in this hypothesis, since the same ideology that promotes individual responsibility also argues that racism is over. So if you’re a person of color without a job, guess what? Still your fault.

Of course, Skinny Gossip doesn’t say anything about people of color, but she is naming Whiteness, and, in general, Whiteness is only named when it is also classed (e.g.: “red neck,” “white trash,” etc). A proper, upstanding neoliberal citizen is invisibly White, upper-middle class, and in control of their body. But those working-class, NASCAR-driving Southerners? They get set apart from hegemonic Whiteness for their similarities to the stereotypes of people of color. In a word, it’s about excess. Fat-bodied and/or attracted to fat bodies, Wal-Mart shopping, and sexual.

This is the other component to the out-of-control, unfit member of society: sexual excessiveness. This is a handy identifier, as it can discipline a whole slew of people in one fell swoop: queers, bodies of color, poor bodies, fat bodies, and sex workers. In addition to suggesting that Upton gave blowjobs in motorcycle shops, Skinny Gossip also condemns her for being just “a notch above Playboy,” and says bluntly that she looks “pornographic” (emphasis in original).

In her fascinating analysis on Hustler magazine, Laura Kipnis[2] (1999) reminds us that “what we consider gross and disgusting is hardly some permanent facet of the human psyche: it’s historically specific and relatively recent” (135). She suggests that the reason that Hustler was considered “dirtier” than magazines like Penthouse and Playboy was all about its resistance to disciplining bodies:

 Symbolically deploying the improper body as a mode of social sedition also follows logically from the fact that the body is the very thing those forms of power under attack—government, religion, bourgeois manners and mores—devote themselves to keeping “in its place.” Control over the body has long been considered essential to producing an orderly work force, a docile populace, a passive law-abiding citizenry. Just consider how many actual laws are on the books regulating how bodies may be seen and parts may not, what you may do you with your body in public and in private, and it begins to make more sense that the out-of-control, unmannerly body is precisely what threatens the orderly operation of the status quo. (134)

 Blogs like Skinny Gossip only mirror what the government establishes through policies, what our economic system establishes through its mere existence, and what pop culture establishes every time poor bodies, fat bodies, and bodies of color are represented as “too much.”

One of the many pictures of Upton on the Skinny Gossip post shows her eating a large, meaty sandwich. The blogger responds with disgust—(and, to be fair, as a vegan, I do too, but not for the same reasons)—and exclaims, “Choices, people!”

How perfectly obvious of you, Skinny Gossip! You explain the fiction of neoliberalism’s promises so clearly for us! Choices? We don’t all have choices. We live in a system that confines and oppresses marginalized members of society in very real, material ways. Individual decisions won’t change this hard truth. Collective resistance will. And so I hope that outrage about Skinny Gossip can turn into something more productive: outrage about a system that enables a blog like this to exist in the first place.


[1] After the Upton post went viral, the blog hostess removed the “Starving Tips” section, a decision she explains here.

[2] Kipnis, L. (1999). Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America. Durham: Duke University Press.