Archive for feminism
Like many another person who had read of lynching in the South, I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching; that perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life.
Crusade for Justice—Ida B. Wells
You know, I can see how Kobe Bryant could have done it…how he acts, his personality…I mean, he looks like a rapist.
Conversation with popular Black feminist blogger
The ongoing debate between Ebony.com and the popular feminist blog “What About Our Daughters” over the now removed article entitled “From Notorious to Glorious: Why Genarlow Wilson Is No Child Molester and Never Was,” by Chandra Thomas Whitfield, demonstrates more than a war of ideas—it has come to articulate a central idea between what is popularly considered feminist— and by effect for Black women— and how everything else that is not feminist is by necessity against Black women. Unfortunately, the central idea under contention is not one of degree, measured by the extent to which an action or concept benefits Black women, but categorical, as to whether or not a Black women’s magazine MUST on that basis understand a Black man charged with rape as being culpable, a priori, of rape.
Unfortunately, the discussions by Ebony.com concerning the celebration of Mr. Genarlow Wilson’s matriculation from Morehouse University have been depicted as the magazine and organization “siding with a rapist,” despite the fact that Mr. Wilson was never convicted of rape. Rather than a call for any substantive justice, these conversations demonstrate how deeply rooted the myth of the Black rapist is within the discursive moralism of these recent Black feminist pronouncements, and ask a public, without evidence or factual context, to treat Mr. Wilson as a rapist and sexual predator regardless of policy and legal opinion to the contrary. As the aforementioned quote by Wells cautions, Black men and anti-racist thinkers alike cannot take on faith than any ideology, including Black feminism, has totally separated itself from the historical and sexual vulnerability of the Black male to the rapist myth.
The Genarlow Wilson Case: The Facts and Context of Wilson’s Conviction for Aggravated Sexual Molestation.
It was a New Year’s Eve party at a Day’s Inn in 2003 where Mr. Genarlow and five of his high school friends had sex with a 17 year old classmate and oral sex with a fifteen year old Tiffany Cannon. When 17 year old (Morgan) awoke to find herself naked, she called her mother to pick her up from the hotel, and claimed that she thinks “they raped her.” Morgan’s mother called the police; they raided the hotel room, found a video tape of the sex act, and charged the boys with “rape, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, aggravated sodomy, and aggravated child molestation.” Mr. Genarlow, the only accused of the Douglasville Six to not take a plea deal, was acquitted of the rape charge of the 17 year old Morgan, but convicted for having consensual oral sex with a 15 year old Cannon. Because oral sex was considered “sodomy” under Georgia law, Mr. Genarlow was not protected under Georgia’s “Romeo and Juliet” law (close-in-age exemption) established by Dixon v. State (2004), which according to O.C.G.A. 16.6.3. would have made his “[felony] aggravated child molestation conviction which carries a mandatory 10 year sentence and registry as a sex offender into a [misdemeanor] statutory rape conviction punishable by up to a year in prison.” In fact, the very next year, (April 28, 2006), the Georgia legislature changed the law that imprisoned Wilson for 10 years eliminating the distinction between sodomy and sexual intercourse.
The details of this case, which seemed to be clear cut in the mind of the jurors and legal analysts for the last decade, especially since there was a video tape of the sex acts between the six boys and two girls that night, have recently come under attack by some Black feminists who seem to believe that Mr. Wilson has in fact gotten away with rape. Despite being convicted for consensual oral sex with a 15 year old when he was 17, and sentenced for 10 years by a law that was later deemed “cruel and unusual punishment” by the Georgia Supreme Court, Mr. Wilson is now said to be a “gang-rapist,” who continues to lie and erase the suffering of the female victims in the incident..
To substantiate her claim that Mr. Wilson is a rapist, Ms. McCauley offers a quote from an “attorney who saw the videotape during the trial,” and believes that the tape showed “a gang rape of a semi-conscious, 17-year-old girl, followed by a bizarre display of sexual precociousness by a 15-year-old girl.” What Ms. McCauley fails to disclose to the reader is that this is not the testimony of just any attorney interested in the case, but the unsolicited opinion of William J. Atkins, the longtime friend and employee of Georgia District Attorney David McDade, who published a defense of McDade’s (non-racist) character and integrity.. The irony of this defense, and the narrative advocated by McDade, who has been tried for sexual harassment (Atlanta Journal Constitution, July 16, 1999), is that McDade himself was threatened with criminal charges for the distribution of child pornography, since he believed it was legal to make copies of and distribute the “sex tape” of minors to the public, news outlets, and members of the Georgia legislature. McDade later defended his actions as necessary due to Georgia’s “open records” laws (Atlanta Journal Constitution, 7/16/2007), but the federal prosecutors office of Georgia declared possession and distribution of the tape a violation of child pornography laws (Carlos Campos, Atlanta Journal Constitution, 7/13/2007).
Despite the concerns of community leaders, federal prosecutors, and even juvenile and family experts like Karen Baynes who warned that the release of that tape victimizes all the juveniles involved and “re-victimizes the girls involved,” there has been no serious journalistic or academic conversation as to how the criminalization of teen sex and the puritanical adjudication of this common and normal activity victimizes Black children ignorant of the law and its use.
What I find most troubling and dangerous about the position that the author of “What About Our Daughters” takes is the hypocrisy of how a public audience is supposed to evaluate the character and culpability of Mr. Wilson. On the one hand, Ms. McCauley urges the readers, and Ebony to label Mr. Wilson based on his conviction as a “child molester.” As Ms. McCauley says about Ebony.com’s article “From Notorious to Glorious: Genarlow Wilson is No Child Molester and Never Was,” “Yes, this article title is a lie—he is in fact a convicted child molester.” Ms. McCauley is correct; he was convicted by a jury of aggravated child molestation, but also acquitted by that very same jury of rape. So why does Ms. McCauley insist on believing Mr. Wilson is a rapist despite the findings of the jury and courts she tells us as readers we should trust?
The tape was shown on CNN on February 17, 2007, and seems to suggest quite strongly that rape was not a justifiable conviction. When Georgia Senator Eric Johnson tells viewers that we are witnessing a rape of an unconscious 17 year old, and the molestation of a 15 year old drugged and intoxicated by the 6 boys, CNN anchor Rick Sanchez steps in correcting his interpretation of the events pointing out that the 17 year old was not unconscious and was not physically forced to have sex with the young men, the 15 year old did not drink at all that night, and points out that Johnson maintains an interpretation of events the jurors said was not present on the tape. Journalist Maureen Downey (Atlanta Journal Constitution, 10/10/2006) reported that one of the boys was concerned for the health of the 17 year old and asked if “she needs to go to the hospital.” Even the 15 year old’s mother, Veda Cannon, came to the defense of Genarlow Wilson and stated that her daughter told her that the sex between her and Wilson as well as the other four boys was consensual (Jeremy Redmon, Atlanta Journal Constitution, 6/14/2007), though McDade was adamant in censoring and even threatening Veda Cannon when this hit the airways (Maureen Downey, Atlanta Journal Constitution, 7/9/2007).
The O.J. Defense?: Just Because It’s Black and Feminist Doesn’t Make it Right!
The conversations surrounding Mr. Wilson’s path to matriculation from Morehouse by popular Black feminist blogs perpetuate a dangerous complacency towards institutional racism, white supremacy, sexual predator myths, and ideology that Black intellectuals cannot afford. The trope of “centering Black men,” judging situations by the “genitalia involved and not the circumstance” strives to deem the moralization of Black men as rapists as the categorical imperative of gender advocacy. I find it morally deplorable that readers are being told to support a sodomy law that not only is deployed against Black men disproportionately, but homosexual teens as well. Remember even the author of the Child Protection Act of 1995, Sen. Matt Towery was clear that his bill was never meant to police teen sex, or convict Genarlow Wilson as a felon child molester.
Should we ignore the historical milieu of these charges, and ignore the tribulations of Marcus Dixon, the reality that oral sex between married (hetero) couples was illegal until 1998, the fact that until 1996 sex with a 14 year old was legal, or that Kari McCarley, a 27 year old white woman who had sex with a 16 year old male student got 3 months in jail and probation in Georgia? Identity politics should not trump facts; if anything they should make us better aware of the complexities and dynamics of white supremacy. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the aim of this recent attack against Mr. Wilson. We want to avoid the logic of a recent feminist reply to the disclosure of these facts I recently received on Facebook: “People are acquitted of crimes they commit all the time! Need I say OJ? Come on Tommy, we all know he did it!”
Today is the celebration of the 100th International Women’s Day. While it’s meant to be an event that celebrates the diversity of women’s accomplishments, often times the focus of such celebrations is overly young, white, straight and normatively gendered. To counter this trend, I thought I would highlight three women leaders who don’t fit this model.
Estela Maris Álvarez is a member of the Enxet people, an indigenous group in Paraguay´s Chaco region, an area of semi-arid grasslands and thorny forests. She lives in La Herencia, a community in the western part of the country, located 340 km from Asunción.
Álvarez, who is 40 and raising two kids on her own, practices natural medicine as a nursing assistant and treats people in her community. From her traditional position as mother and healer, Álvarez has become a more non-traditional leader, taking on sexism and discrimination within her community and from outside it, such as in the governmental National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INDI) which only recognises men as leaders. “If a group of indigenous women turns to INDI to protest about a specific problem that affects us or to demand respect for our rights, they tell us that we’re not tribal chiefs, and just ignore us,” she said. Dismissing women’s voices exists within the Enxet community as well. According to Álvarez, the reality in the indigenous communities is that they’re governed by tribal chiefs with authoritarian and even violent attitudes. “They think that just because they’re chiefs they have the right to decide over the life of the community,” she said. Violence against women is a chronic problem in the patriarchal culture that prevails in indigenous communities, where it is considered acceptable. As a community leader, her position is clear. “The rights of indigenous women must be defended even over the interests of the communities,” because, moreover, it’s not true that you have to choose one or the other, she said.
“I am becoming more radical with age. I have noticed that writers, when they are old, become milder. But for me it is the opposite. Age makes me more angry.” This is the observation of Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian advocate for women’s rights.
El Saadawi trained as a doctor, then worked as a psychiatrist and university lecturer, and has published almost 50 novels, plays and collections of short stories. Her work, which tackles the problems women face in Egypt and across the world, provokes outrage in many ways because she takes on religion, but she doesn’t back down. She continues to address controversial issues such as female circumcision, domestic violence and religious fundamentalism in her writing and speaking. Here is a short video clip of her talking about some of these issues (warning: strong content, annoying ad at the beginning).
Sojourner Truth famously asked, “Ain’t I a Woman?” in her speech at the 1851 Women’s Convention. Her speech was meant to challenge the race and class privilege of the white women who organized that convention and did not imagine Sojourner’s struggles in their conceptualization of “women’s rights.” More than a 100 years later, women who are outside of privilege have continued to challenge what is meant by “women’s rights,” and who gets included and excluded from the category “woman.” Someone who is widely regarded as a pioneer in this struggle is Sylvia Rivera.
Rivera, a veteran of the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, continued throughout her life to fight for the rights of the disenfranchised, particularly homeless LGBT kids and trans people everywhere, as she pointed out the often privileged myopia of the white, middle-class LGBT movement. Part of Sylvia Rivera’s legacy is a more inclusive definition of who is considered a woman and understanding that fighing for “women’s rights” includes transgendered women’s rights.
January’s GQ Magazine features singer Rihanna on the cover, with a story about her recent experiences and upcoming CD. As has been widely reported in the press, earlier this year Rihanna was badly eaten by her ex boyfriend, singer Chris Brown. Claire Renzetti wrote about social class, race and intimate partner violence here last March.
Since then, Chris Brown has pled guilty to charges of felony assault, is attending domestic violence classes, and is currently on probation. He has apologized for beating Rihanna and has appeared on several news outlets to discuss the events.
Rihanna’s GQ cover is one of a few cases where she’s talked publicly about the events of “that night.” (She spoke to news correspondent Diane Sawyer prior to sitting down with GQ.) In GQ, she says that she welcomes the opportunity to speak to young women and to give them insights, that she finds discussing her situation liberating, and that doing so helps her to “move on” and to avoid being defined by this one event. This is an admirable goal, but in the article, there are precious few examples of the insights that she wishes to share with young women. When asked specifically, she says that the biggest insight she learned is
“really really really that love is blind. It took a lot of strength to pull out of that relationship. To finally just officially cut it off. It was like night and day. It was two different worlds. It was the world I lived for two years, and then having the strength to say, ‘I’m gonna step into my own world. Start over.’”
She also states,
“I didn’t realize how much of an effect it had on young girls’ lives, and that’s part of the insight that I wanna give. Stop blaming yourself for that outcome. There’s nothing you can do, ever, to excuse a man’s behavior like that.”
The reporter goes on to ask Rihanna if she ever blamed herself, to which she replies that
“I never blamed myself, but I wondered, what, what did I do to provoke it?” (italics in original.)
At this point, Rihanna’s manager tells the reporter to move on to a different subject.
I found this interview rather troubling on a number of levels. For one thing, there can be no question that Rihanna’s choice to speak out now about her abuse does not just happen to coincide with the release of her new album. GQ speculates as much when they assert that “in the record business, domestic violence isn’t just a tragedy; it’s an image crisis. So now Team Rihanna had to decide how to ‘handle it.’ Their plan was this: She’d talk about it for the release of the album. She’d do Diane and Glamour and announce that she wanted to help young women who’d been in her position. Even if that meant addressing what really happened that ugly night last February” (pp. 56). This isn’t hard to believe, given that Rihanna didn’t immediately discuss her abuse at Chris Brown’s hands, and the more obvious likelihood that she’d be reluctant to offer such a painful, traumatic incident up for public consumption. However, by talking about her experiences with various media outlets around the time that her album is released, she is doing just that.
What I find problematic is that by encouraging Rihanna to do interviews based on the expectation that she’ll discuss her abuse—but then cutting off interviewers who attempt to discern her insights about it—her experience becomes trivialized and commodified in the worst way. What insights are young women supposed to gain from Rihanna if handlers only allow her to repeat platitudes about domestic violence (e.g., it’s never your fault, it’s hard to leave)? Essentially, these interviews lure people to buy the magazines or watch her interviews with the expectation that they’ll hear Rihanna share the salacious details of what was probably one of the worst nights of her life. They get a teaser that fortunately spares us the worst, but also doesn’t provide much in the way of actual insights or inspiration. What does emerge is a carefully calculated, if transparent, effort to use Rihanna’s tragedy to encourage people to buy her CD.
The tragedy of this is multifaceted. It’s horribly unfortunate that a young woman’s trauma is seen as something to be “handled” and “managed” as a way to boost record sales. What’s equally significant is that Rihanna’s abuse touched on many racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes that go unaddressed when her discussion of it becomes cynically packaged and sold as currency. Following the initial stories that Chris Brown had beaten Rihanna, many blogs, discussion circles, and conversations resonated with the predictable discussions over whether she “brought it on herself,” but also evoked comments that “island women are crazy” and that black men’s shortcomings and mistakes receive more attention and criticism than those of their white peers. All of these points warrant greater analysis and/or debunking, but using Rihanna’s experience so callously precludes her from actively being part of this. Perhaps most tragically, some of these statements about Rihanna’s culpability in her assault came from young women of color, who are disproportionately likely to experience domestic assault from boyfriends, lovers, and husbands. They are also the women who are usually overlooked if and when the media does decide to focus on issues of domestic abuse and violence. Ironically, then, some of the very women who maligned Rihanna are perhaps those who might benefit the most if she were to make the informed, autonomous decision to offer whatever insights she’s gained.
This is not to say that Rihanna should now be obligated to take on this role. I think if she wants to maintain her privacy about this, she should be entitled to do so. But it does a disservice to Rihanna and to all women to commodify abuse in an effort to climb the charts, and it obscures rather than drawing attention to the depth and extent of domestic violence and abuse among women of color.
As we watch the hearings in the US Senate on Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination, we can reflect on some images generated about her in most parts of the conservative sector and in the mass media that often plays lapdog for conservatives’ views. One conservative view accents her previous talks and speeches (but not, interestingly, her decisions in this regard) that indicate her important experiential understandings as a woman of color (“wise Latina”) and attacks her for thinking and operating necessarily out of her own racialized and gendered experience, as if that is possible for white men to do.
Indeed, when Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) questioned now Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito about these matters in his hearing a few years back, Coburn and other conservatives did not challenge this candid answer that Alito gave indicating that he operated very much out of his own experience (H/T Glenn Greenwald and Dailykos video ) in his own thinking about cases as a judge:
Because when a case comes before me involving, let’s say, someone who is an immigrant — and we get an awful lot of immigration cases and naturalization cases — I can’t help but think of my own ancestors, because it wasn’t that long ago when they were in that positionAnd so it’s my job to apply the law. It’s not my job to change the law or to bend the law to achieve any result. But when I look at those cases, I have to say to myself, and I do say to myself, “You know, this could be your grandfather, this could be your grandmother. They were not citizens at one time, and they were people who came to this country.”
Isn’t Alito here speaking about having some human empathy for immigrants because of his own family’s immigrant experience? Yet, Coburn and other numerous conservatives (and some others) lately have tied some of what Sotomayor has said about her similar experiences to President Obama’s stated concern for judges to have empathy across important lines in society—apparently a bad thing to have, especially for many white conservatives, including many Republicans in Congress. Indeed, Sotomayor has been forced the last day or two to disagree with President Obama’s earlier statement on empathy in judging, and to assert what Alito does in this comment–that she does not make or bend the law to her personal views (etc.).
Is this conservative attack on the concept of empathy as it is raised by people of color like Obama and Sotomayor because they are afraid that real empathy across color lines is indeed corrosive of the oppressive structure of society, from which they greatly benefit? Hernan Vera and I have argued that individual racism and systemic racism generally require a lack of real inter-human empathy, what we call “social alexithymia”? Doesn’t US racism, past and present, require a breakdown of real empathy in the dominant racial group? Is real empathy corrosive of racist framing and much racist action?
Dailykos has an interesting June 2009 poll on how the public sees this judge/empathy issue. People we asked, "Do you think empathy is an important characteristic for a Supreme Court Justice to possess or not?" This was the breakdown for key demographic groups:
18-29 63 17
30-44 47 34
45-59 55 26
60+ ...46 35
All age groups have a majority or plurality that said yes, but those under 30 are more oriented this way than older groups.
White ..41 39
Black ..81 4
Latino .79 4
Other ..79 5
Whites barely have a plurality for judges having empathy, but you can see that folks of color, who experience the harsh end of everyday racism, are far more likely to see human empathy as important, even though it is not defined in this survey. Majorities there seem to be coming from the same place as Judge Sotomayor in her comments. It would be interesting to do in-depth interviews to see what people understand the word “empathy” to mean. The survey also had an interesting gender breakdown:
Men ......48 34
Women .56 24
Both men and women were more yes than no, but the women were more strongly in the yes column. A majority of the whole sample comes down on the side of empathy for judges, white male Senators notwithstanding!
Let us explore some more aspects of this gender and leadership issue in another major survey of 2,250 adults done last year by the Pew Center. It is revealing in regard to various gendered matters that clearly relate to societal debates on Judge Sotomayor, and on other women recently nominated or appointed to key positions. The survey asked about the leadership traits and assets of men and women. The public, interestingly, seems more enlightened than some US senators.
On most leadership traits women did better than men. Half of the survey respondents viewed
women are more honest than men, while just one-in-five say men are more honest (the rest say they don’t know or volunteer the opinion that there’s no difference between the sexes on this trait). And honesty, according to respondents, is the most important to leadership of any of the traits measured in the survey.
Then there is the old saw that men are more intelligent, which was not accepted by the sample:
Here again, women outperform men: 38% of respondents say women are smarter than men, while just 14% say men are smarter, and the remainder say there’s no difference between the sexes.
On the qualities of hard work and ambition, there was a tie, with equal percentages citing women and men on each as better. Men did best on only one of the traits, decisiveness
with 44% of respondents saying that men are more decisive and 33% saying women are.
Most strikingly, perhaps, women had huge
leads over men on the last three traits on the public’s rankings of the eight items measured: being compassionate (80% say women; 5% say men); being outgoing (47% say women; 28% say men) and being creative (62% say women; 11% say men).
Significantly, the African American women were the most pro-female (womanist) in their views:
Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) black women (compared with 51% of white women and 50% of all adults) say women are more honest than men. About two-thirds (65%) of black women (compared with 37% of white women and 38% of all adults) say women are smarter than men. And about half (49%) of black women (compared with 33% of white women and 28% of all adults) say women are more hardworking than men.
I could not find a breakdown for Latinas or other women of color in the sample, but one might expect them to be closer to black women than white women? Most of the respondents also thought women made as good leaders as men, about 69 percent said so. If so, then, why are there so few women leaders in many sectors of society? The survey respondents agreed that it was substantially because of gender discrimination and the old boy’s club, with smaller percentages accenting women’s family responsibilities and lack of experience. However, Even with high marks for these virtues, women (the 51 percent population majority in the US) do not do well at the top of the society, as these statistics indicate:
2 percent the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies
17 percent of U.S. House members
16 percent of U.S. senators and governors
24 percent of state legislators
11 percent of the U.S. Supreme Court justices
And the statistics are even worse for women (and men of color), especially for Latinos/as like Sotomayor. It is odd that no one in the hearings has analyzed well the point that out of 110 Supreme Ct. justices so far in our history, 106 have been white men, virtually all elite white men. And this is supposed to be some sort of democracy? It is more like a male-ocracy?
It is significant that there seems to be some recognition of the gender discrimination faced by women in the survey too:
A majority of adults (57%) say the nation needs to continue to make changes to give women equal rights with men. A similar majority (54%) says discrimination against women is either a serious or somewhat serious problem in society
Now, the greatest political difficulty is getting some real societal change in the gendered, and gendered racist, structure of this society.
I recently saw the “Sex and the City” movie, which continues where the television show left off (photo credit: drp). If you’re unfamiliar with this phenomenon of popular culture, “Sex and the City” was an HBO series about the deep friendship between four single women in New York City and their romantic and sexual relationships with men. The show has been alternately described as the series that made it “cool to be single,” and has also received attention for its depictions (often graphic) of women as sexual subjects rather than simply as objects. Carrie Bradshaw, Samantha Jones, Charlotte York (later York MacDougall and then York Goldenblatt), and Miranda Hobbes alternately questioned and reinforced commonsense assumptions about gender, sex, friendship, relationships, and love.
I can openly acknowledge that I enjoyed “Sex and the City” (the show and the movie) for its depictions of women’s friendships and the central role these ties play in contemporary women’s lives. However, watching the “Sex and the City” movie confirmed for me something unpleasant that I’ve long suspected about the show. Despite being sometimes shocking, often hilariously funny, and always provocative, “Sex and the City” has a real racial problem.
The show was frequently and heavily criticized for its racial homogenization of New York City. During the first and second seasons of the show, minorities were rarely depicted in any scenes. The four protagonists of the show are white women, and while this is technically sociologically accurate (in the sense that friendships, like most aspects of American life, are unfortunately quite segregated), the deletion of any people of color from background scenes, street scenes, and everyday life is a gross misrepresentation of the demographic realities of New York City.
In the third season, the show attempted to correct this by introducing an interracial “relationship.” However, in this episode, “No Ifs, Ands, or Butts,” Samantha—the member of the quartet known for her voracious sexual appetite and appreciation for anonymous sex—has a sexual relationship with a black man that is eventually undermined by his disapproving sister. The sister is depicted as an “angry black woman” who irrationally opposes their relationship because Samantha is white. The black man is referred to on the show as a “big black pussy” who can’t stand up to his domineering sister to continue his sexual relationship with Samantha. This type of pandering to racial stereotypes—a controlling black woman who emasculates a black man—does not represent progress from the preceding season’s virtual omission of other racial groups. Racist stereotypes are not, in my view, better than nothing at all.
Miranda’s relationship with Robert, a black man, in season six, was in many ways an improvement over Samantha’s sexual/racial excursion in season three and perhaps represents some evolution on the writers’ and producers’ behalf. Unfortunately, any progress came to a crashing halt with the racial representations in the “Sex and the City” movie. In the film, we meet Lily, Charlotte’s ever-present but curiously silent adopted Chinese daughter. This depiction is uncomfortably evocative of other stereotypes of voiceless Asian American women, which reinforce the image of their passivity and controllability and further justify their labor market exploitation. There are also the Mexican workers at the resort who are only there to serve the four main characters. Lest I forget, there’s also Miranda’s charge to follow the “white guy with a baby” as a way to locate an available apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood. Hooray for revitalization.
Then there is perhaps the most problematically-rendered minority character in this film. In what some reviewers have described as an attempt to “pass the torch,” the movie features Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson in a supporting role (photo credit: Sharyn Jackson). Some have argued that Hudson’s character Louise is supposed to be a younger, newer version of what Carrie Bradshaw initially was—idealistic, romantic, and looking for love in the big city. However, if this is the case, then why is Louise cast in such an obviously subservient role as Carrie’s personal assistant?
This is a disappointing throwback to the Mammy image of earlier films—the darker skinned, full figured black woman who was content to tend to her white family at the neglect of her own, and who typically was responsible for providing emotional support and nurturance to a white woman who couldn’t take care of herself? This image is present in “Gone with the Wind,” “Imitation of Life,” and as noted sociologist Patricia Hill Collins brilliantly describes, is updated in several contemporary media depictions. I recognize that aspects of Louise’s personal life are shown, and this is a minor improvement from the prototypical Mammy who had no life outside of caring for her white family. However, it’s still problematic that an Academy Award winning, brilliantly talented young black actress is not cast in a role that is on equal footing with the central character. If the sole intention was for Carrie to pass the torch to Louise, then why couldn’t she have been cast as a young, up and coming writer that Carrie meets and mentors? Is it necessary for Louise to clean up Carrie’s apartment—and her life—as well?
The decision to put Hudson in this role has so many implications. Let’s not forget that we are in the midst of a presidential campaign season where many white women have accused black women of failing to follow a feminist mandate to vote for and support the (white) woman candidate. I have to wonder if the ways in which black women are packaged into recognizable media caricatures plays a role in shaping white women’s perceptions of us. Do these types of representations contribute to some white women’s ideas that they should lead and black women should follow? It’s images like these, though, that undermine the myth of sisterhood and some white feminists’ desire to believe that gender is the “most restricting force in American life.” When your fictionalized “sisters” seem to believe that your primary job is to clean up their emotional and personal messes—not to mention their expensive Manhattan apartments—it’s hard to think that it’s only gender holding you back. When your real-life “sisters” astutely decry how sexism undermined Hillary Clinton’s campaign but are silent about the racist and sexist descriptions of Michelle Obama as Barack Obama’s “baby mama,” it doesn’t do much to promote the gender-based unity these white feminists want to see deployed to Hillary Clinton’s benefit. It does suggest to me that the longstanding idea of black women as best suited for servitude and denied their full humanity is still pervasive and dangerously in full force.
In an article at Salon.com, Joe Conason suggests that Hilary Clinton’s latest remarks about the role of race in the campaign was a case of “channeling George Wallace.” (photo credit: Kevin Lamarque, Reuters via Salon.com) In case you missed it, here’s what she said:
“… Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me. There’s a pattern emerging here.”
Conason bends over backwards to give her the benefit of the doubt here, writing:
While I still cannot believe she actually intended any such nefarious meaning, she seemed to be equating “hard-working Americans” with “white Americans.” Which is precisely what Wallace and his cohort used to do with their drawling refrain about welfare and affirmative action.
I think that Conason is too forgiving of Hilary and should, by all rights, call out her racism. And, while the reference to George Wallace here sort of fits, it’s not the best or most appropriate historical referrent. Indeed, there’s a long history of white feminists who have deployed similar strategies when the terms of the political game are set up as “gender” versus “race” with white women standing in as the gendered subjects while black men signify race. A more apt comparison would be to Susan B. Anthony. Early in her activism Anthony was committed to the abolition of slavery, in favor of equal rights for blacks and was an ally with Frederick Douglass through the Equal Rights Association. But Anthony abandoned the fight for racial justice after the passage of the 15th Amendment granted voting rights to black men, but not to women – neither black nor white. Faced with the sexism of a constitutional amendment that specifically granted voting rights to some men and not to women, she retaliated by arguing that educated white women would make better voters than “ignorant” black or immigrant men.
Hilary Clinton is faced with a dilemma similar to the one Susan B. Anthony faced. Clinton faces a deeply sexist political system that not only doesn’t take women seriously and demeans their accomplishments. At the same time that the mainstream media has been swept up in a (new) discussion of race and racism in the current election, yet there has been relatively less recognition of gender and sexism in the election. And, the mainstream media has guilty of perpetuating some pretty heinous misogyny, as Besty Reed points out:
she has been likened to Lorena Bobbitt (by Tucker Carlson); a “hellish housewife” (Leon Wieseltier); and described as “witchy,” a “she-devil,” “anti-male” and “a stripteaser” (Chris Matthews). Her loud and hearty laugh has been labeled “the cackle,” her voice compared to “fingernails on a blackboard” and her posture said to look “like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court.” As one Fox News commentator put it, “When Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, take out the garbage.” Rush Limbaugh, who has no qualms about subjecting audiences to the spectacle of his own bloated physique, asked his listeners, “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?” Perhaps most damaging of all to her electoral prospects, very early on Clinton was deemed “unlikable.” Although other factors also account for that dislike, much of the venom she elicits (“Iron my shirt,” “How do we beat the bitch?”) is clearly gender-specific.
Unfortunately, in the face of such bold misogyny Clinton has responded much like Susan B. Anthony. Rather than reaching out and trying to recognize commonalities of racism and sexism, Clinton has time and again used Obama’s race — and the racism of white voters — to her advantage. It’s not quite the same as saying that a white woman “deserves” the vote (or in this case, the presidency) more than a black man, but it comes from the same tradition of white feminist racism.