My Cuterus, My Choice

Important Note: I don’t want to frame reproductive justice as a women’s issue because not everyone with a uterus identifies as a woman, not every woman has a uterus, and not every person with a uterus can carry a child. But I firmly believe that decisions about what goes into and out of a uterus, and when, should only ever be made by the person with the uterus in question. I am now picturing my uterus being cross-examined in a court of law.

One of the coolest parts of working in a Writing Center is having the chance to learn from students with all kinds of opinions and perspectives. A few days ago, I had a great consultation with a Chinese student who was writing a paper about her country’s One Child Policy. She taught me a lot about the late term forced abortions routinely carried out as a result of the governmental policy. Then, she wanted to know how abortion works in the United States. That’s a challenging topic to discuss when a language barrier is involved.

The session was really great, and not only because we spent some time teaching each other how to pronounce “uterus” in English and in Chinese.  The student wrote about abortion factually and calmly. It was so refreshing to discuss reproductive rights without being blinded by a fit of religious and political rage. During our discussion, the student observed that, “In China, some mothers die because they are forced abortion. In the US, some mothers die because they are not allowed abortion. Yet each government says it cares about the health of its people.” Bingo, baby.

I’ve thought about that student a lot lately, because the anti-choice group Justice For All has returned to our campus for their annual shame fest. I’ve been thinking about everyone whose only real exposure to the conversation around abortion in the US is coming through Justice For All’s garish, enormous billboards of bloodied fetuses. I’m not going to link to their webpage, because I really don’t want to support this organization’s efforts to garner more attention, but the motto/slogan/mission statement listed on their homepage reads, “Justice For All trains thousands to make abortion unthinkable for millions, one person at a time.”  Clearly, this group is utterly off base in their approach.

There are a billion reasons a person with a uterus might choose to have an abortion. Those reasons aren’t anyone’s business but the uterus owner’s. Conversations about what’s right for each individual uterus should only include that individual, a licensed health care provider, and maybe but not always the individual’s partner. Organizations like Justice For All should not exist. A group of people shouldn’t be able to make forceful attempts to deny access to health care, to compromise legal rights, or to shame others based on their legitimate and completely shame-free decisions. Here’s a message that needs to be heard much louder than JFA’s: Abortion is not shameful.

An undesired pregnancy is the only health issue I can think of in which treatment is mediated by origin. If you accidentally stab yourself in the stomach while overenthusiastically opening a present and need emergency gut surgery (this actually happened to someone I know) nobody says, “You fool. I don’t care if things didn’t go as planned, it was your CHOICE to open that package, so you can just deal with the consequences!”  But when the health issue is a pregnancy, people feel justified making absurd arguments like, “You had sex so you can deal with the consequences and the consequence is MOTHERHOOD!”

Justice For All is attempting to create a cultural climate in which terminating a pregnancy will result in social ostracization.  By “making abortion unthinkable to millions” this organization is attempting to eliminate choice. A choice that turns you into a social pariah isn’t a choice likely to be made- JFA’s entire goal. This is the difference between being personally pro-life and being publicly anti-choice. Choosing to terminate a pregnancy doesn’t mean the entire nation is going to adopt a One Child Policy and start forcing abortions. Choosing to carry a pregnancy to term doesn’t mean that no one is ever allowed to have an abortion. I have lots of feminist friends who identify as personally pro-life while loudly and proudly supporting reproductive justice. That’s the whole point of choice!

We, and only we uterus-bearing individuals, are allowed to make choices concerning our bodies. JFA’s approach is to present abortion as a morally repugnant act, thereby shaming everyone who has had an abortion, everyone who has considered abortion, and everyone who supports abortion rights and reproductive justice. Public shaming is not an effective rhetorical approach, especially when… there is no shame in abortion!

There's no shame in abortion.

Ty’s tank top speaks the truth!

I’m lucky to be part of a campus that has a vibrant array of social justice student groups who are peacefully and positively protesting JFA’s presence on campus. We’ll be wearing t-shirts with positive messages to show our support of reproductive justice. There will also be a human tunnel to help folks get across the plaza without being harassed, triggered, or shamed by members of JFA.  I’m so glad there are proactive groups filled with such smart, brave, and compassionate students on my campus!

SURJ shirt making

Madelaine and Justin make pro-uterus shirts.

This year, and every year, I find myself wishing anti-abortionists cared as much about the children who are already alive as they do about fetuses.  If all that energy and misguided compassion were directed at living-in-the-world humans, can you imagine how incredible our world would be? There is so much poverty and inequity in our country already. There are kids who don’t have access to basic resources. I wish we could stop fighting about whether or not we’re capable of making informed decisions about our bodies (we are!!!) and start making informed decisions about improving conditions for the people who are already here.

SURJ Shirts

Madelaine, Abigail, Lydia, and cuterus shirts!

We formed a ‘cuterus’ girl gang- why not add some body positivity into the mix? My cuterus ended up looking like a bunny. I’m going with it. Your morals, opinions, and legislations can hop right on out of my uterus!

Education as Activism

There seems to be a trend of really smart and talented young women adamantly denying the importance of feminism and strongly disassociating with the word ‘feminist’. Then, we land ourselves in a Women’s Studies course in college and it seems like our whole world explodes. Suddenly everything makes sense! All our self-hatred, insecurity, fake friendships, and unstable relationships make sense because we finally understand the system we’re operating in. If an Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies course was required in the same way that First Year Composition is required, I really believe our campuses would be much safer, smarter, progressive places. But what about the folks who don’t want to or aren’t able to attend college? What about the folks who don’t ever find themselves in a Women’s Studies course? What if gender justice education could start earlier?

My primary, middle, and high school experiences would have been infinitely improved if someone had explained the basics of gender roles to me. When we don’t understand how our society functions, it’s hard to understand why things like girl hate and slut shaming are wrong. We’re taught that it’s just the way things are. Girls are jealous, competitive, and hate other girls! Anyone having sex is a depraved slut! This toxic environment (especially pitting young women against each other) hurts all of us and contributes to rape culture. Recent media attention around the Steubenville rape trial and the truly tragic suicides of rape victims who are blamed and harassed clearly showcase the need for education. If you can handle it, do a quick Google search for ‘slut shaming suicides’. It happens all the time. We need to teach other about what victim blaming is and why it happens. We need to learn about sex and especially about consent. Lack of education is literally killing us.

This is why young feminism is so important. Adult feminists spend lots of time talking about politics and laws, and that’s incredible! We need that! But our thoughts, ideas, and life philosophies are profoundly shaped in our youth. It’s hard to make decisions about what you believe in and who you want to be when you’re only given one example, one message, and one way to be. We need to change the dominant narratives that shape our society. Young feminists are in a great position to do that. I think about this constantly, so I was incredibly excited to find an article in The Star about a group of five young women who are bringing gender studies courses to high schools in Ontario.

The Miss G Project for Equity in Education is an awesome, totally inspiring example of activism. Too often, we end up talking about problems and injustices without getting anywhere. Activism is difficult, and progress is often snail-speed. But it’s the vital second step to talking about problems. If we keep telling each other things are bad but don’t do anything to make things good, we won’t get anywhere. When we make a plan and stick with it, even if it takes eight years (!), then we’ll see big things start to happen. Talking is an essential first step, and I don’t mean to belie its importance. This whole blog is a lot more talking than doing, because educating ourselves is an important kind of activism. If we don’t know what’s happening or why it’s happening, we can’t do anything to change it. That’s the premise of The Miss G Project!

I’m so excited that teenagers in Ontario will now have the opportunity to learn about the important role of gender in our lives…and they’ll learn about it in public schools! That’s so cool. That is what I desperately needed when I was a teenager, even if I didn’t know it at the time. What kind of education do you wish you’d had access to growing up? And if you were going to launch an activist campaign today, what would it be?

Condescending Gold Star Award: Love Is All You Need

Last night I watched a short film called “Love Is All You Need?”. That link will take you to the film if you feel like spending 20 minutes acquainting yourself, but this needs to run with a massive trigger warning: the film is full of slurs and shows graphic images of bullying, violence, and suicide. If those might trigger you, I think it’s better to sit this one out than to have a seriously day-ruining experience because of a mediocre movie.

The basic premise of the film is to flip the societal script. Our current world is heteronormative and full of homophobia. The world of the film is homonormative (I guess? Is that a word?) and full of heterophobia. In the film, heterosexual individuals are the targets of hatred and bullying which emerge from society’s systematic othering. The film is attempting to show hetero people how it feels to live with the kind of violence that is inflicted on queer people every day. It’s been received positively and has won lots of awards. Unfortunately, this movie is a problematic disaster hiding under a façade of good intentions. Congratulations, “Love Is All You Need?”, you’ve just been awarded a Condescending Gold Star!

You Tried Gold Star

First and most glaringly, this film features a blatant erasure of identity.  The film gives no space, voice, visibility, or even acknowledgement of anyone other than cisgender gay people and cisgender straight people. The entire community of trans* folks, as well as people who identify as bi, pan, or asexual are completely absent. This erasure of identity is a form of violence, and is extremely problematic in a film that is allegedly advocating for social justice. On top of all of that, there are no people of color in this film. (Help! I’m drowning in a sea of white people!) Oh, wait! There is one person of color… a black man who beats up a white girl. Your star is being amended.

No You Didn't Star

One of Ashley’s moms is aggressive and disinterested while the other is passive and compassionate. These obvious male/female role assignments are clearly a heteronormative representation. I don’t know what the filmmakers were trying to do there but it was disappointing to see queer parenting presented in such a heteronormative manner. Emphasizing our sameness is not equivalent to celebrating our difference. Just like the idea of being colorblind, this approach ignores very real struggles. It results in more identity erasure.

This was further emphasized by another of the film’s galling missteps: the bizarre portrayal of gender role reversal. In the film’s world, acting is for boys and playing football is for girls. Of course I support boys in the arts and girls in sports, but the film showed a reversal not a mingling. That is completely inappropriate in a film about sexual orientation. It seems like these filmmakers don’t understand that sexual orientation and gender identity operate independently of each other. This film effectively reinforced the harmful and idiotic stereotype that all lesbian women are butch and all gay men are femme. The film’s website argues “this film is not about ‘genderizing’ or ‘stereotyping’ but I really can’t see how perpetuating the masculinization of lesbian women and the feminization of gay men is helpful in any way.

In fact, very little in this film is helpful. It speaks to a group of hetero folks who probably already vaguely identify as allies. These hetero ‘allies’ should be learning about microaggressions and legal inequities, and how they can use their privilege to change those things. I have a feeling that were a violent homophobe to watch this film, they would leave feeling more justified in their hatred. Because homophobic individuals are already operating in an illogical framework, they’re going to use the film as a justification for eradicating homosexuality in order to prevent the perceived end result of the gay rights movement- heterophobia. I can already hear the deranged chorus, “If we don’t stop the gays, look at what they’ll do to us!”

The real kicker comes at the very end of the film when a slide appears saying, “This film is dedicated to every child who has ever felt such darkness due to others’ hatred and misunderstanding. Always know that love is meant to be within and you should never feel wrong or alone by being who you are…Unique” which is a seriously minimalizing and hurtful message. They may as well have said, “Oh, you precious gay kids. Sure, you live in a violent world where people literally try to kill you because of who you are, but it doesn’t even matter if you just love yourself!!”

Tried and Failed Star

“Love Is All You Need?” is an unfortunate example of the problematic ally relationship. Too often, allies come into a movement and silence the group they’re allegedly advocating for. I don’t agree with the rhetorical approach of this film; I think it’s a blatant straight appropriation of a queer movement. Straight people should not gain sympathy or decide to become an activist as a result of the issues being made all about them. Everything is already about straight people!

I do think this film could work. But it needs to be made by queer folks. If we’re really going to be allies, we need to stop taking control of movements that are not ours. We need to have more public discussions, and I appreciate this film’s attempt to do that. I think the filmmakers’ hearts were in the right place… but there reaches a point when love is not all you need. As allies, what we need to do is to shut up and stop trying to take control of movements that do not belong to us.

Pierre Bourdieu: Social Theory and Cultural Change

I’ve always been a theory nerd. I think about the panopticon every single day. Today, I’m going to attempt to explain social theory as an activist tool. And I’m going to do my best to make it accessible! I love theory, but if we can’t talk about it in a way that makes sense to our daily realities, it loses relevance.

Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociological practitioner and theorist who lived from 1930-2001. I’m telling you that to give you an idea of the historical moment from which his work emerged, and to acknowledge that (like most of my education) these ideas are coming from a dead white dude. I’m going to discuss four of his concepts.

First, let’s talk about capital. Society runs on various forms of capital. There’s economic capital (money and assets), social capital (relationships, group membership), and cultural capital (knowledge and experience). How much money we have, who we know, and how well we can navigate cultural worlds guide our social experience.

We use our capital in fields. Fields are basically any group or cohort. Society is a collection of many diverse fields: religious, academic, athletic. Even the broad social structure of the United States can be considered a field. Agents in a field use capital to gain power and influence. This obviously creates conflict and competition as we vie to gain and trade capital resources. For example, social capital might be traded in for economic capital, like if my friend can get me a job at her high paying firm. Economic capital may be traded for cultural capital, like when I buy books, music, and movies. Capital is what we use to negotiate our position in any given field.

Fields are malleable and have a tendency to evolve. If we were to change the distribution of capital within a field, we would actually change the field itself. This is great news for us, because it means we can change the fields we’re agents in! Bourdieu calls this organic change the habitus. Habitus is the internalized knowledge of a lifetime’s worth of external messages and instruction. We produce our thoughts and actions through the habitus, which results in the continued creation of the external world. I like to think of this as a feedback loop: while the habitus structures society, society is also structuring the habitus. Every image of a woman I received growing up showed, for instance, hairless legs. Now, my habitus defaults to the idea that women should have hairless legs. This thought results in the action of me shaving my own legs. This action results in more societal images of bald-legged women!

Bourdieu’s definition of habitus differs from other theorists; the habitus may guide, shape, and constrain our thoughts and actions but it doesn’t determine our thoughts and actions. I’m in favor of this view, because it positions us as thoughtful, emotional, free-willed beings instead of as pre-programmed automatons.

When our habitus and field are aligned, we react instantaneously and with ease. If I’m writing an academic essay, I know where to put my thesis statement (end of the first paragraph!) without even thinking about it. I don’t have to think about it because my habitus is in line with my specific field: Rhetoric and Composition nested in general academics nested in the broad US society. This is what Bourdieu calls “cohesion without concept”. I’m so ingrained in this community and its value systems, that it’s become invisible to me. (Kind of like how we don’t notice we’re breathing until we have a cold.)

If habitus and field aren’t in alignment, we have to navigate an unfamiliar field that abides by rules we were never taught. When I’m working with students who are unfamiliar with the conventions of academic writing in the United States, I sometimes have to spend a lot of time explaining what a thesis statement is, why it’s valued here, and where to situate it within a paper. Not all fields produce a habitus that normalizes thesis statements!

Capital, field, and habitus all contribute to the fourth concept of Bourdieu’s: symbolic violence. Habitus is a reflection of the dominant narratives of society. Because these narratives are a normalized part of society, the inequality and injustice they perpetuate is often invisible- even to the groups who are being marginalized! This results in marginalized groups sometimes contributing to their marginalization. (I meet smart, talented women who don’t believe in feminism, because they don’t believe they’re subjugated, all the time.) Symbolic violence is the unconscious exertion of cultural domination. It’s ‘symbolic’ because while it’s not physical violence, it’s detrimentally and harmfully shaping society.

According to Bourdieu, the real conflicts aren’t happening between the people in positions of power and subordination but between our habitus and our field. Positioning conversations as a dichotomous struggle between men/women, straight/gay, white people/people of color, won’t result in change. If we want to change the culture, we have to change our habitus, which will then change our field. Essentially, we have to change the way we think and act if we’re going to change our culture and society.

Of course, that’s a gross over-simplification. I can choose to change my habitus by rejecting the external knowledge I’ve been given, but if my material reality doesn’t also change, the whole experiment is ineffective. But material reality can’t change without capital and marginalized groups generally don’t have the capital that’s necessary to change collective habitus. Reducing these issues down to a nice catchphrase, “Change your thoughts to change your world!” doesn’t do anything.

Why, then, did I even bother spending all this time explaining Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas? Because I think there is real value in them! The first step in organizing any social movement is getting people to understand the systems we’re all operating in. Like I mentioned before, I still meet smart women who don’t think feminism matters. Most white people have no idea what white privilege is. Straight people don’t understand why a civil union isn’t the same as a marriage. Our collective habitus has formed around dominant narratives so completely that most of us aren’t even recognizing the culture we’re constantly creating and recreating. We’re breathing without being aware of air. If we’re going to change anything, we need to start by deconstructing these narratives.

Once folks (hopefully those with privilege) recognize the system we are part of, we can use our capital to change our habitus, which will change our field. We really can use our thoughts and actions to change our world. It’s going to be more complicated than that cute little line implies, but it can be done!

House Rules

Last week, after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, that quote from Mr. Rogers about looking for helpers amidst tragedy saw a lot of circulation. During tragedies we are inspired and comforted by the willingness of others to be kind and generous. I lost track of how many articles were popping up, celebrating common decency.  I absolutely support this kind of media attention- we should celebrate good people way more than we do! But I was surprised by how surprising we all seemed to find our own humanity. There was an amazement that played out in my mind like a nature documentary on public access television narrated by an enthusiastic man with a British accent, “Look there! Shh, now, don’t startle them. We’ve just found something quite rare: a tribe of humans being NICE to each other!”

I’m going to make a bit of leap here and argue that the reason we’re surprised by displays of kindness is… the internet. The internet has made us mean; it’s exposed and enabled our nastier sides.  The internet is culturally pervasive which has resulted in a normalizing of anonymity, cruelty, and the absurd schoolyard idea that name calling is an effective form of argumentation.  Maybe all of that is too much of a leap, but I really feel that if Blanche Dubois were around now, she certainly wouldn’t be inclined to rely on the kindness of strangers.

I launched this site a few hours ago. I’ve provided several pages worth of discussion around my own positionality and the scope, limitations, and hopes for this project. I think I made my desire for productive discussion and willingness to hear opposing opinions clear. I have one gentle introductory post in which I barely touch on Serious Feminist Issues, focusing on basic social and gender injustice issues instead. And, wouldn’t you know? I’ve already received some aggressive (though largely nonsensical) messages. My feelings aren’t hurt by the stereotypical names that get thrown at people who identify as feminists. Yes, I am a bitch! Bitches get stuff done! But attacking me personally isn’t productive for any of us.

If briefly ascertaining that the gender dichotomy our society embraces is problematic incites such cranky reactions, I can only imagine what will emerge as we progress. With that in mind, I’m going to establish some house rules. I’d like to note that I’m incredibly annoyed that I have to publish these obvious statements at all. We can do better than this, folks. These rules may change as necessary over time. I reserve the complete right to remove any content from this site, at any time, without explanation or justification. Of course that shouldn’t ever be necessary if we can all agree to observe the following rules:

  1. We will observe tenants of basic human decency. The Golden Rule, y’all: treat others as you would have them treat you!
  2. We will not take advantage of the anonymity the internet affords us. We are not cowards. We will conduct ourselves in a manner that reflects our best selves.
  3. We will question the ideology, not the individual. “Feminism makes me uncomfortable because…” instead of “I hope you BURN you cunty bitch whore hairy legged lesbian man hater!!!111!!!”
  4. We will call out the action, not the individual. “That is racist because…” instead of “You’re a racist!”
  5. We will not respond to opposing viewpoints until we have a) taken several deep breaths b) reread for clarity and c) formulated a response to the ideology/action, not the individual.
  6. We will address issues at the local level first, avoiding sweeping generalizations. “Religious extremism is…” instead of “Everyone from that religion is a terrorist!!!!!”
  7. We will educate each other gently, remembering that we are all doing the best we can with what we have. “Have you considered…” instead of “You’re an incompetent, ignorant, ingrate who is not worth a moment of my time.”
  8. We will all do the best we can with what we have. “From my perspective and experiences…” instead of “I don’t know anything about this but I will shout my opinion loudly!”
  9. We will do our best to act as humans worthy of participating in the miracle of conscious existence.
  10. As participants, readers, and casual observers of this blog, we all agree to follow the above rules to the best of our ability.

Why would you call yourself an angry feminist killjoy?

Is it too polarizing to introduce myself as an angry feminist killjoy?

I was incredibly lucky to be born a United States citizen. There are lots of problems in the US, and this country’s history is cringe-worthy at best. But from what I’ve been taught, it is undeniably one of the most privileged places you can be. This culture (they keep telling me) is at the top: a fully developed, first-world, wealthy nation. The veracity of those statements is debatable, but I know that I’m lucky to be here. I’m lucky to be a citizen. I am in a position to speak and critique without fear. I have a lot of thoughts and a lot of critiques.

We live in a racist, sexist place. Young women are taught to hate themselves and to hate other young women. Maybe no one ever said as much explicitly, but we’re all taught to be rivals, competitors, back-stabbing, jealous maniacs. In our society if you’re not white and emaciated, you’re not doing it right. We live in a place where we don’t talk about our bodies, are ashamed of the totally normal things our bodies do (like bleed and grow hair), and definitely don’t have agency over our own bodies. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make healthy and informed decisions about our bodies? Good luck even getting that education into a public school! Okay, so you found some information and now you’re ready to claim your body and your rights. Awesome! Except you’ll also have to wade through a sea of social stigmas, the kind that say, “If you’re raped or sexually assaulted, it was probably your fault.”

If you’re like me, all of this has been piling up for your entire life. It’s overwhelming. It’s aggravating. It seems like nothing we do changes anything and suddenly you’re yelling, “Don’t you tell me what to do! I am not your puppet!” at a guy in a bar. That’s a thing I have done more than once. I think I startled myself more than the dude the first time it happened. Because we’re also taught to be quiet, to brush off harassment- it’s just the way guys are, right? (Eye-rolling so hard y’all.) Talking back can absolutely incite violence, and we should always make our safety the #1 priority, but there’s something incredibly satisfying about speaking out. The first time I let someone know I didn’t appreciate their unsolicited demands, I realized I wasn’t just annoyed by boys being boys, I was completely livid about our entire flawed society. I’m mad about our slut shaming, victim blaming rape culture. I’m mad that we only recognize a gender binary and punish anyone who doesn’t fit into our impossible boxes. I’m mad about white privilege. I’m mad about all kinds of inequity. I’m really mad.

And that’s awesome! We can do a lot with anger. Anger is a great motivator. So while my natural inclinations and general disposition might encompass that ‘sugar, spice, and everything nice’ line a bit more fully than I like to admit, pleasantries and complacency won’t solve anything. If we’re going to change the culture, we might need to start with a good bit of righteous indignation.

Let’s get angry! Let’s get feminist! If the joy is sprouting from sexism, let’s kill it!