There is no universal interpretation of this

There is no universal interpretation of this

Coming off of a mildly catastrophic discussion of Trump and racism at Crooked Timber, I thought I’d use some of my holiday time to make a first pass at organizing some opinions I have been forming about sexism, misogyny and the pernicious influence of Christianity on western discrimination. I’ll try not to make it too long but I have today off and a long, complex write-up of the weekend’s adventure to procrastinate about, so we’ll see …

First I should say this post is aimed at left wing philosophy. If you’re a right-wing philosopher you might find it entertaining but I doubt there is much to benefit you here, so you might want to save yourself an hour of bad prose and move along …

There is a common debate in western leftism between people who think that various forms of discrimination (most especially sexism and racism) arise out of economic relations, and those who think that economic relations arise out of the inherent structures of some underlying fundamental inequality. For example, some feminists might argue that human development goes through a universal stage of domination of women, and from this arises the various heirarchical structures that give us racism, classism etc. Others might argue that the economic relations always come first, and that for example the economic forces unleashed by the development of agriculture favor the development of specific social forces (e.g forcing women to have more children in order to support population growth made possible by agriculture, or slavery to enable use of more land). Obviously most people see these things as interlinked or happening contemporaneously, and no one is ever silly enough to think that this stuff was all purposive (a group of farming men getting together and deciding to lock up their women, or whatever).

These origin stories don’t have much importance in day-to-day struggle, but they do and have been influential in major political movements in the past. For example, most of the streams of communist or anarchist radicalism believe that the economic forces of capitalism necessitate class and gender divisions and we can’t eliminate gender discrimination without destroying capitalism; but in contrast radical feminists often believe that you can’t reformulate the social organization of any system without first tackling the underlying gender discrimination that sustains all heirarchies. Obviously on a day-to-day basis we fight battles on the basis of the nature of the battles, so if an issue of equal pay is best won by union activism we organize that way, while if it requires a fundamental rethink of the way women and men interact at work we may fight it through education and awareness raising. But sometimes something big comes up in the ordinary day-to-day political hurdy-gurdy, and in order to deal with it we have to think about the underlying structures of society and what really drives our mainstream political ideas. Brexit and Trump are examples of this, and in many ways I think the radical left has failed to understand them by casting them as simple economic responses rather than manifestations of a deep underlying racism in these societies. In the case of Brexit there is a yearning for lost empire underlying the dreams of the little Englanders, and in the case of Trump I think we are seeing the final fight against the civil rights movement and, assuming the left wins, the burial of slavery apologia and confederate dead-ender ideology.

I used to think about the social order primarily in terms of the economic forces argument: that is, I used to think that when racist and sexist undercurrents reared their head in mainstream politics or pushed a surge of hatred through society, that they reflected some kneejerk, incoherent response to underlying economic forces. In this worldview we don’t have to tackle the deeper undercurrents of society’s problems, we just look for the economic pressures and fix them. Fixing economic pressures is easy, whereas tackling things like the social undercurrents of the alt-right’s hideous misogyny is hard. But then I came to Japan, and discovered that actually a functioning capitalist society with all the same economic pressures can have radically different approaches to the interaction between the sexes, and I started to understand that actually in many cases culture trumps economics, and understanding the cultural forces driving our social development is really important to being able to finally end many of the problems we face. I don’t know how a right-wing interpretation of these things would work, but the classical hard left really needs to adapt its analytical strategies to consider the deep undercurrents of social life. Similarly, when I came to Japan I realized that origin stories or analytical frameworks that posit universal underlying structures based on universally observable basic facts are useless, because actually there are huge differences in the way societies practice the same forms of discrimination, and these differences are relevant. In particular, radical feminist ideas about the origins of sexism and how sexism functions and is maintained fail dismally in the face of cultural differences that I think radical feminism, with its primarily American and British origins, doesn’t understand.

In this post I aim to discuss how I changed my mind about this in the light of Japanese gender relations, and how I came to realize the overwhelming importance of christianity’s sexual morals in generating western gender relations. As a result of coming to Japan I realized that if we want to change gender relations for the better in the west we need to – absolutely have to – crush the influence of Christianity on our culture. So first I want to explain the difference between the west and Japan on this issue, and then explain why I think it’s important.

Before I go onto the next section I want to stress that it is not my task here to present Japan as an ideal society or to say it is not sexist or women don’t have a hard time or there is no rape or anything like that. I just want to show how things are different.

How are Japanese gender relations different?

I think the very first thing that foreigners realize when they come to Japan is that it is safe. It’s safe for men, and every day I am so happy about the fact that physical confrontations don’t happen here, but the absolutely overriding difference in safety is noticed by women. There is no street harrassment and no public fear of rape. I live in an area surrounded by parks that are dark at night and it is absolutely normal to see women walking alone through those parks at midnight, with earphones in, alone, with no concern in the world. I know in the country that there are places where women don’t travel alone at night because of flashers and gropers, but in the city at least this absence of the threat of sexual violence is noteworthy. It’s not just a statistical anomaly brought about by underreporting or something, and everyone who lives here seems to feel it very quickly. And when come from a western country with a lot of interpersonal aggression and a lot of violence against women (like Australia) you really – I cannot stress this enough – you really don’t understand what a difference this makes until you experience it. Once you have experienced a world without this kind of behavior you just lose all tolerance for western approaches to it. When I look at the lockout laws being introduced in Australia to stop violence between drunk men in pubs I am just astounded that we ever as a society tolerated this kind of thing, or that we have to use such a ridiculously heavy-handed approach to stopping it – and I notice exactly the kind of problem I alluded to above. The lockout laws are an attempt to use economic and legal tools to stop an underlying socio-cultural problem. Tackling adult male violence is hard, but stopping them from getting drunk in public is easy. But these solutions don’t stop the problem, they just stop it manifesting.

Some other easily-grasped ways in which gender relations are different in Japan include:

  • There isn’t really any Japanese word for “cunt” that you can use as an insult, and in fact there are no insults based on sexual activity or sexuality. In Japan you don’t tell someone to fuck off, you don’t say they’re a fag, you don’t say that was a dick move – sex is just not a degrading or insulting thing here, and you can’t use it as such, and if you tried people just literally wouldn’t understand what you were saying (though they would think you were being very coarse)
  • As a result of this difference, two chapters of Dworkin’s famous book Intercourse – Dirt and Death – don’t really seem to apply in Japan. A whole section of the radical feminist understanding of the universality of women’s oppression is built on an explicitly christian framework that 120 million people don’t get
  • Japanese women seem to have a much greater ability to negotiate safer sex than western women. Obviously I don’t know what every Japanese woman is saying or doing in the bedroom but the statistics make it clear: the vast majority of Japanese women are not using the pill, but rates of teenage pregnancy are very very low, as are rates of pregnancy generally. The only way this is possible if Japanese women – even teenage girls – are able to negotiate the parameters of sexual activity more effectively than western women
  • Japanese attitudes towards casual sex are completely different to the west. The love hotel is a ubiquitous part of Japanese life and while westerners usually think this concept is disgusting and weird Japanese people in general have no real problem with it at all.
  • Japanese women often work in industries where western women can never be seen. In particular farming, transport, and even construction seem to have a higher prevalence of women workers. It’s not common, but not especially rare, to see female truck drivers, and female farmers are normal.
  • Japanese women’s sporting participation seems to be much higher than western women’s and much more widely respected, across a wider range of fields. In particular Japanese women’s participation in fighting sports – and non-participant women’s deep appreciation of fighting sports – is completely normal, while it remains a very modern phenomenon in the west
  • Attitudes towards sex work and all forms of the sex industry here are much more practical and non-judgmental
  • Small businesses almost universally don’t have men’s toilets. They have a women’s toilet and a shared toilet
  • Opposition to homosexuality appears to be minimal and based primarily on concerns about responsibility to family and society, not on fear and disgust

I think these differences in attitude are strong and they derive from an obvious source: Japan is a pagan society. It has no long-standing or deep-seated religious just-so stories about how everything is women’s fault and women are dirty and bad, and sex is a punishment from God. Attitudes towards sex in Japan are constructed around privacy and shame, whereas in the west they’re structured around guilt and sin. Indeed, if you dig into some of the attitudes towards sex that are similar between Japan and the west – the lack of mixed bathing, for example, or the weird video censorship – you will often find they’re a result of Japan reacting to western values either post-Meiji or after world war 2.

Another result of this difference in attitudes that I have noticed but which I can’t formulate easily into words is the difference in attitudes towards femininity. In the west femininity seems to be seen as this kind of act that women put on in their early 20s, and it is seen as a deceptive and manipulative cloak. To be taken seriously at work or as an adult a woman needs to divest herself of this feminine cloak (or, as it is generally described, these “wiles”) and behave seriously – it is seen as a kind of childlike deceit. In Japan it seems to be viewed as just a natural aspect of being a woman, not a deceptive trick, and women remaining feminine into their 50s and 60s is completely normal. I think this also means that women are not taken less seriously because they dress and act feminine, although this femininity may disadvantage them by drawing attention to their gender (which, as everyone knows, is discriminated against at work and home in Japan as everywhere). I think this difference in attitudes towards femininity explains why Japanese women have maintained a high level of style and attention to personal appearance separate to men even as women in the west have begun to favour jeans and t-shirts – Japanese women don’t need to hide or be ashamed of their femininity, because they don’t have to dress in men’s uniform to be taken seriously. This is also evident in sport, where Japanese athletes who are taken really seriously by the public (the Nadeshiko football team, for example, or the wrestling team) still dress and act feminine because they don’t have to hide this stuff in order to be taken seriously. It’s hard to draw these links because it’s all nebulous cultural stuff, not hard science, but I think the simple reason for this difference is the Genesis story. In Genesis a woman tricked a man into a sin, and as a result women can’t be trusted. Christianity tells us that performative femininity is a deception that leads men into trouble and danger – it’s literally wily. After 2000 years of that story (and all the stupid badly-done renaissance paintings of a wily girl tricking a dude) we get young men who know nothing about Christianity or feminism or indeed women saying that they can’t trust a girl who wears make up, they don’t like make up because it’s deceptive, etc. There’s a 2000 year long history of distrusting women’s wiles and tricks at work there, and I think it has a profound effect on the way women in the west present themselves at work and in politics.

I suspect also that in reaction to this notion of femininity as performative and deceptive, and out of deep-seated fears of homsexuality that are also grounded in biblical hatred, men overperform their masculinity. The result is street violence. I think in fact Japanese men are much more comfortable about their masculinity and feel no special need to display it, not because women have been held back and men thus don’t feel threatened, but because they haven’t been raised in a society where men have to constantly prove themselves as not feminine and not gay.

What does this mean for western views on sexism and racism?

Obviously I’m no cultural theorist and I’m definitely not an expert on Japanese culture and history; this is just my impression of the differences between the west and Japan from 10 years of living here. Obviously also these lines between ancient books and modern practice are mediated by thousands of years of cultural baggage, and there are other cultures at play in western countries that may still have a lingering influence on how sexism and racism develop. But I think the connections are there, and that even though we in the west like to fancy ourselves as enlightened and developed, we’re actually still wallowing in a swamp of barely-understood cultural norms that derive from what is, in essence, a very very bad place. When you step outside the christian world and spend some time looking in, you start to notice that actually a lot of our bad points are not universal, and I think they probably stem from our religious origins. Here I have given the example of gender relations but I think the same thing applies to race relations and probably the way we approach class, economic inequality and other -isms. But I think that the differences in gender relations are clearest because they are most noticable in day-to-day life, and perhaps also reflective of the most poisonous aspect of Christianity.

I have said before on this blog that I think western radical feminism is itself misogynist and conservative. This is because it’s really hard to escape the origins of your own culture, and the reality is that our culture has its origins in a deeply misogynist, poisonous text that is hateful and judgmental – the old testament of the bible. And while modern Christians try to pretend that they built their ideology on the new testament’s story of love, this new testament story is an evil story of child murder, with a side of nasty misogyny from some of the apostles, and it doesn’t do anything to leaven the nasty hatred of the old testament. Furthermore, while our modern Christian movement tries to pretend that it is all about love and light (and murdering your own son so you can be famous, then fetishizing his dead body), the actual origins of our cultural approach to sex and sexuality are all in the old testament, in the disgusting, judgmental and hateful texts of Genesis and Leviticus. Our fundamental origin story is designed around hating women, and making sex sinful and dirty. Much as we like to pretend that we’re free of religion, we’re not free of its cultural influences, but we need to be if we truly want to liberate women and men from the shackles it has imposed on our relations. But my experience in Japan shows that these ideas are not universal, they’re not fundamental parts of who we are as human beings or who we will become if we try – we can shake off these ancient rusty chains, and become better people. But in order to do that we need to confront the causes of some of our deepest, most secret problems, and for the left that means not assuming we can fix all our problems by fixing economic relations – we need to keep taking the fight to the bible, and to the deep-seated insecurities and social tics it has created in us.

And sometimes that means we need to recognize where our society is failing itself, and fight cultural battles on purely cultural grounds, because when we assume there is some economic force that created Trump or the modern Republican hate machine, we are guaranteed to fail. Sometimes hate is just hate, and sometimes we need to fight it on its own grounds.


About the picture: This is a picture a friend of mine took at a recent festival. It’s Seiko Omori, about whom I know nothing, and I think it’s a good example of the kind of Japanese cultural imagery that is a) really hard for westerners to understand at all and b) almost certain to be misunderstood and misinterpreted if we try to analyze all the imagery in terms of western notions of sex, sexism, women’s roles, pornography, or power.

 

The news reports that this month Amnesty International is going to be discussing a proposal to support the decriminalization of sex work. This proposal isn’t necessarily particularly radical, given that decriminalization is not the same as legalization and several countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Turkey and Greece have already instituted decriminalization or legalization. It is important, however, because Amnesty International has a lot of weight in human rights debate, and a decision by Amnesty to support decriminalization would be a serious propaganda set back for the proponents of criminalization of sex work or the purchase of sex.

The weight Amnesty carries can be easily seen in the dismayed reactions of various feminist anti-sex work organizations to its decision to even consider this policy. The alternative to decriminalization preferred by some feminist organizations is to make buying sex illegal but to somehow not criminalize the seller, an impossible proposal that is nonetheless making some progress in northern Europe (it started in Sweden). Amnesty has always been a strong and forthright campaigner for the rights of women and girls, and a decision to support decriminalization of sex work would be a big blow against the so-called “Swedish model” of driving sex work underground by punishing the men who pay for it. The concern of campaigners for the Swedish model is on display in one of the bastions of support for this model, the Guardian, which has published a couple of opinion pieces decrying the move, and an editorial opposing it[1]. To be fair the Guardian has also published supportive articles, so it is actually hosting a debate, but I think it’s clear where its sympathies lie, and furthermore this newspaper offers an excellent overview of both the forces opposing decriminalization from the left, and the paucity of their ideas. The Guardian editorial is a symphony of wrongness, wrong in almost every sentence, and astounding in its disingenuousness, and all the opposing articles are noteworthy for their refusal to listen to the voices of sex workers who have been campaigning for decriminalization for years. Opponents of decriminalization have to ignore these women, denigrate them, or pretend that they represent only a tiny segment of first world sex workers, ignoring all the strong voices from sex workers in low- and middle-income countries, in order to come up with a policy that is essentially supportive of human trafficking, sexual and physical violence against sex workers – all in the interests of stamping out any form of sexual congress that doesn’t match their narrow view of how sex should be conceived and enjoyed. Some of the most vocal opponents of decriminalization, feminists like Julie Bindel, clearly see this as part of a strategy to achieve a very narrow feminist vision of how sexual interaction works, and are on record as opposing all forms of heterosexual activity until complete equality is achieved. For these feminists, as I have written before, sex workers are just convenient sacrifices on the road to a better future.

To be clear, feminism hasn’t always opposed sex work and the decriminalization or legalization of sex work, along with improved rights for sex workers in countries where it is illegal, are major achievements of the feminist movement over the past 100 years. This strange and obssessive desire to criminalize sex work and police the sexual choices of young, primarily poor women (often living in ex-colonies) is a very modern part of feminism, disconnected from the lives of the women it purports to be helping. My guess is that Amnesty International has been listening to the poorest women in the world, hearing their stories and paying attention to their movements, and is going to make a decision in favour of sexual freedom and the human rights of all women, not just those who choose to follow strict interpretations of sexual morality. This is important, because it isn’t just legal protection that sex workers need: it is the symbolic recognition of their right to control their bodies for their own profit as well as fun, and not just for strict reasons of love and childbirth. By recognizing the value of decriminalizing sex work, Amnesty won’t just be striking a blow in favour of policies that have consistently been shown to reduce sexual violence, protect against sexually transmitted infections and make all women safer: it will also be making a strong statement in favour of the complete sexual autonomy of even the world’s poorest women, recognizing that sexual autonomy should be available to more than just a few rich Swedish women. And sexual autonomy includes the right to rent out your body to strangers if you so choose – a concept that some feminists in the rich west seem to have a great deal of discomfort with. Let’s not make women in poor countries the victim of those feminists’ insecurities: support the decriminalization or legalization of sex work around the globe, because women and men everywhere should have the right to free choice about how to use their sexuality, and legal protection when they do so.

fn1: Note how many of the articles in the Guardian are illustrated with headless shots of “sex workers” in skimpy clothing. How come, even though the Guardian supports the criminalization of buying sex and not selling it, we only see pictures of the women it supports and not the dubious men it criminalizes?[2]

fn2: That was a rhetorical question.

I have been in Oita on a ferocious business trip, one day of which was meant to be spent watching fireworks in Beppu, only to have them rescheduled due to a typhoon that failed to deliver either any rain or any wind. Nothing interesting happened in Beppu, although I am proud of having survived a 7-hour meeting (yes, Japanese people work hard) without a break, spent entirely speaking Japanese, including teaching Markov Modeling and the basics of Relational Database Management Systems without any warning or preparation.

However, something interesting did happen on the way to Oita: I flew by Solarseed Air, and in their cute little in-flight magazine I found the following advert for a live-action Hello Kitty Role-playing experience:

What manner of bastard would imprison kitty chan?

What manner of bastard would imprison kitty chan?

Isn’t that adorable? Apparently Hello Kitty and Dear Daniel(?) have been kidnapped by Kuromi, who is some kind of evil anti-kitty that the official website describes as “cheeky but charming,” and you have to enter the “Black Wonder Tower” to rescue them. There is a password hidden in there somewhere, and you have to find it and get them out. It costs 600 yen each and children under 3 are free! The picture of the two girls with lanterns has writing next to it that says “Let’s pick up our lanterns and go in pairs to help!” The writing at the very top of the advert describes it as an “RPG-style Attraction.”

I don’t think there is better evidence than this of how much more comfortable Japanese nerd culture is with women than is western nerd culture. Or of how much more mainstreamed it is capable of being than it is in the west. In Japan there is a traveling roadshow of Hello Kitty RPGs that visits remote rural areas like Miyazaki (where this is being held), targets girls, and is advertised in aircraft magazines.

Shall we go?!

Getting out of that fridge is hard

Getting out of that fridge is hard

Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece of Australian cinema, that makes the rare achievement of building on its predecessors in the series to bring post-apocalyptic film-making to what must, surely, be its apotheosis. Visually stunning, with a brilliant sound-track, incredible pace, and a simple joy in hedonistic old-school road wars violence that is deeply infectious, this movie immerses you in its insane world from the very beginning and doesn’t let you escape until the credits roll. It is thorough in its vision of a grim, wartorn post-apocalyptic wasteland, unrelenting in pursuit of heady, dizzying action and absolutely frantic. But beneath its simple patina of gorgeous landscapes, sweeping chases and exciting stunts, it is also a movie of many layers, combining an uproarious vision of a freakshow post-apocalyptic death cult with a powerful homage to Australia’s alternative and bush culture, and a subtle nod to an eco-feminist critique of the societies that are driving to their own destruction. This is one of those movies that you can appreciate for its visual splendour and action sequences, but also that you can enjoy for its crazed Aussie clowncar humour, and contemplate afterwards in the light of its ecological and feminist politics. This, in my opinion, is the perfect balance of themes for a post-apocalyptic movie. It doesn’t make the mistake of unrelenting hopelessness that characterizes some movies like The Road; it doesn’t dull you to sleep with the empty spaces and silences of an empty world, like The Last Man on Earth or Legend; and it offers something more uplifting than the empty survivalism or post-human cynicism of much of the zombie survival genre. Through the post-apocalyptic setting it offers both excitement, gore and social critique, all couched in such a spirit of over-the-top, raucous and invigorating fun that surely only a zombie couldn’t help but at least slide into the scene and get that rev-head spirit going.

The introductory scenes of the movie leave us with a bewildering array of visions of craziness and freakish people that are confusing and overwhelming, as the scenes of Max’s capture are played through the tunnels and byways of what looks like a massive underground punk/skinhead garage. It will be some time before we figure out what’s happening to him or why, but before we do we’re given a sumptuous feast of the sick, the freakish and the mad as we watch the elite of the citadel lording it over their filthy crazed masses. This 10 minutes is like Peter Greenaway on speed, without purpose or sense, but then we hit the open road and get a few minutes to start putting it all in place – oh, that‘s why the women are being milked, that‘s why the freaks are running the circus, those women are running away from him! Then the trouble starts again and we’re back into chaos, but with a few sentences of expository dialogue (finally!) and the dawning realization of the trouble Max is in, and all of it set against a backdrop of classic 1990s Aussie sub-cultural monuments: the punk styling, the rev-heads worshipping V8 with their elaborate steering wheels, the skinhead warboys who’re whiter than Aryan and go all chrome and shiny to die on the Fury Road … In a couple of minutes of frantic action we’re shown an ecosystem, the skeleton of an apocalyptic death cult, and an entire aesthetic to go with it. Then the chase starts and we’re still absorbing it as Mad Max is roaring (or, more accurately, being roared) onto the Fury Road, which in this world is basically anywhere wheels can turn. But the freakshow doesn’t subside – just when you think you’ve seen it all, come to terms finally with the internally consistent madness of it all, new craziness pops into the scene, and tears up the desert with more chaos, and then makes sense again. What you see on the trailer – some dude in a harness with a flame-throwing guitar, a gigantic dude with oxygen tanks, that scary dude with the mask – that seems so over the top and stupid, it all makes its own brand of crazy sense before you’re even twenty minutes in, and you haven’t even met the object of all this craziness, or even the worst of it all yet. Then when it’s all said and done and you’re reading the credits and seeing who these people were – the Doof Warrior, Rictus Erectus, the Organic Mechanic, Nuks the Warboy – you realize you still didn’t get all of it because nobody told you their full name but every detail of their names is a homage to Aussie subcultures, especially the doof scene but also punk, hardcore and all the tattered, dreadlocked, bullet-studded chaos of the 1980s and 1990s underground. Here it is, flying out of your cinema screen in one last glorious death rattle of insanity, road-rage and revhead joy.

Beneath this infectious ecstasy of the open road the main characters are laying out an ecofeminist thesis. The basis of the story is a group of women – called the Wives – who are apparently genetically perfect (and very beautiful!) fleeing from their tyrannical husband Imortan Joe, with the help  of his best road warrior, a one-armed woman called Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron). Joe hopes to have healthy babies by these women, and keeps them locked up for his use until he can get a male heir to rule after he is gone. But they don’t want to be things, so they leave, and his warboys have to chase them. This is a pretty basic feminist plot, made stronger by a couple of narrative devices. First of all, the alleged hero of the show gets fridged at the very beginning – as in literally, nearly – and only gets drawn into the story by accident. He manages to fight his way to Furiosa’s side but his role in the story is just luck, he was meant to be just another thing back at the citadel and it’s pretty clear first, at least, that Furiosa isn’t particularly comfortable with the idea of bringing him along. He’s the passenger for much of the first quarter of this movie, and the chicks are driving the car. Then, these women are not helpless – they are agents of their own destiny, and act with all the tools, strengths and wiles at their disposal to make their getaway. They don’t know how to fight and they aren’t strong (and one is about to give birth) but they don’t let any of that stop them doing all they can to take charge of their situation. These women are also the expositors of the film’s ecofeminist thesis, using their few moments of dialogue (no one in this movie wastes breath speaking!) to drop a few choice eco-feminist koans. The crux of it all comes when one of the Wives is trying to push Warboy Nuks out of the truck, and they are arguing about whether she is one of the citadel’s folk or not. Nuks says that he is not to blame, but she demurs, and yells “Then who killed the world!?” before tossing him overboard. At another point one of the women is credited with calling bullets “anti-seeds”: you plant one and watch something die. These are classic tropes of eco-feminist thought, being delivered by strong women whose presence on the screen is inextricably tied to their femininity and their fertility, and a war being fought to control their powers of birth, that are so precious on this planet that (the implication is) was blighted by men like Imortan Joe. They don’t stand up to expound on a manifesto or to make demands or philosophical claims but every time these girls speak they say something linked to an eco-feminist creed. Even the first time we meet them, one of them is cutting off a chastity belt with teeth built into it, freeing herself of patriarchal sexual shackles, and the perverse vagina dentata fears that the patriarchy brings with them.

I must confess I love it when a good movie works an ideology into its very bones, but does it so well that even though you know it’s there you just get sucked along with it anyway. I have no care for Mal’s simplistic libertarianism in Serenity but I did love watching him righteously defend it; I can’t stand the authoritarian violent message underlying 300, or the way it elided Spartan slave-holding and paedophilia, but I loved watching those men fighting for their worthless cause. When a movie saturates itself with an ideology but does it so well that you either don’t notice or don’t care, or – best of all – everything makes sense in the context of that ideology, that is when you know a movie is well crafted. And Mad Max: Fury Road has carried this off brilliantly, with the rollicking plot and the rollercoaster of stunts and enemies and explosions and madness carrying you all the way to the eco-feminist oasis – and back again.

With this movie I think George Miller has drawn together a few ideas he was playing with in the first three Mad Max movies, but wasn’t quite able to pull off. We see hints of a feminist agenda in Beyond Thunderdome, with the powerful Aunty Entity running the town and trying to use Max as a pawn in her schemes. We see here too the role of oases and lost places as signs of hope, but in Fury Road Miller has been able to better combine them with the narrative of judgment on those who brought the world down that he played with in Mad Max 2. The whole thing is also carried off with a remarkable creative continuity: the names, the punk styles, the language of speech have a certain similarity to them, as do the baroque car designs and the hard scrabble economics of theft and hyper-violent rent-seeking. Even the actors are in some cases the same: Imortan Joe is Toecutter from Mad Max 1. This is a full campaign world Miller has created over the past 30 years, leavening it over time with better production values and now a much stronger environmental message, and maturing some other themes (like the role of power-mongers), but that campaign world has been remarkably consistent across all that time.

For all of these reasons, Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie well worth waiting 30 years for. Later this year Star Wars 7 will come out, and we have to hope that there, too, we will finally see continuity with the original legend after 30 years of lost chances. I am not holding my breath on that, but I can assure you, dear reader(s), that Mad Max: Fury Road is something special, and will redeem this year of cinema – and possibly this decade – no matter what happens at christmas. Watch it, and ride eternal, shiny and chrome!

 

Norman Tebbit Seeks Another Minority Voter

Norman Tebbit Seeks Another Minority Voter

Today’s Guardian has an article on the UK Conservative Party’s “minority problem”: it’s inability to get a decent vote share from non-white British citizens. The article seems to be quite neutral on the issue of the Tory’s appeal and electoral strategies, at times even appearing to be pasting text from a Conservative pollster (at times the voice changes, and it seems to have a slightly different perspective to the main thrust of the article, as if text had been copied from an email).  The key problem for the Tories is that they just don’t seem to be able to muster a decent representation amongst minorities, which in the UK primarily means British of black or South Asian descent, and are being outpolled by Labour at a cracking rate (16% vs. 68% according to a quoted survey). Now that they’re in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats the Tories are starting to realize that even a small improvement in minority vote could have saved them a world of trouble, and as is often the case that huge gap seems like it should be easy pickings. So what is going wrong? The article describes a series of problems which bear more on the party’s image and past representation of its identity, rather than on anything about its current policy content, and I think the problems they face – and the solutions they have begun to recognize as important – are in many ways analagous to the problem of getting more women to participate in role-playing. The ultimate end point for the Tories if they fail to up this vote is also similar to that facing gaming if it doesn’t diversify its appeal: obscurity and insularity.

The problem the Tories have identified is a really frustrating one: a large proportion of minority voters identify with their policy but just won’t vote for the party. They like the content, but are put off by what’s on the box, and by the people they historically associate with the scene. The article sites studies that found

while better-off white people were significantly more likely to vote Conservative than their less wealthy counterparts, the same was not true for non-whites. That is despite the fact that minority groups were more right wing than the majority on the key issue of tax and spend.

and also identified non-white British as naturally inclined to Tory policy:

high-income people, politically on the right, who want a smaller government (and a tough stance on crime and immigration according to other studies) are still much less likely to vote Tory if they are non-white. Whatever the offer, they simply think this is not a party for people like them [emphasis mine].

Basically the problem is not the policies of the party, or some lack of alignment on fundamental shared goals: it is that the party itself turns them off. There’s something wrong, to the extent that one study even found

even when people support an idea (many minorities take a tough stance on immigration for example), finding out it is a Tory policy puts them off

This is a sign that the problem is the way they perceive the party, both presently and as a party with a political past. It’s not difficult to find examples of why minorities might be uncomfortable with the Tories, such as this election slogan from 1964:

If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour

I guess the person who coined that slogan didn’t think about the effect it would have 30 years or 50 years later, but a slogan like that kind of echoes down the ages, doesn’t it? The studies cited found other problems too: the “go home” anti-immigrant buses, historic support for apartheid, and the author cites her own discomfort at the claim that “multiculturalism has failed.” The posturing on Europe probably also looks different to groups of people who are more suspicious of the xenophobic direction of politics than are mainstream voters – these dog whistles aren’t heard just by the dogs, but also by their prey, and there’s a lot of bad faith that the Tories have to ask potential minority voters to overlook. They were, after all, going to be the blood on the streets in 1964 …

These challenges facing the Tory party are an interesting mirror of one of the main strands of debate about how to engage women in role-playing, and particularly whether the behavior of men in gaming spaces, and the representation of women in gaming, might be part of the problem. I have argued before that the reason that care in representation of women is important is not that they care about seeing tits-and-arse for its own sake, but that images of lingerie-clad sex dolls with chain mail panties mark out the hobby as a male-only space. They serve the role of girly calendars in a workshop, to make women feel like they are intruding in a male space. These tits-and-arse pictures are the “nigger for a neighbour” campaign slogan of gaming. Alongside them comes the behavior of gamer men – the BO problems, the staring, the rampant mansplaining (fuck, gaming must be the only hobby where socially maladjusted dudes mansplain to other men, like alphasplaining or something), and all of this wrapped up in a nice package in which the men in the hobby are aging as a cohort. And on top of that the rape humour, rape games, and barely-suppressed sexual violence of some products. It’s not that women don’t mind a bit of sexual violence in entertainment (hey, GoT is very popular with chicks!) or tits-n-arse (women like to perve on men just as much as men do on women), and everyone who is an adult has learnt to suffer through BO problems (except the sufferers, apparently); it’s the combination of these things as representative face of the hobby that makes women back away smiling. For a long time the hobby (and the world of nerd-dom generally) has made it uncool and uncomfortable for women to be gamers. Even though they might like the content of the games, and be perfectly comfortable with (or even into) the idea of scantily-clad heroes hacking away at orcs, they simply think this is not a party for people like them.

We’re like the conservative party of hobby-space.

The solution has not come rapidly to the gaming community – certainly in past posts on the topic here, and threads I read elsewhere, I get the sense that male gamers often don’t care about women joining their groups, are actively opposed to it, think that changing the way women are represented and written about is “political correctness” or “suppression of artistic freedom,” or think that these aspects of the hobby are a fixed thing like descending armour class, and that the only people who we care to let into the hobby are people who accept these things. This misses the representational issues and the issue of boys’ club mentality, and it means acting as if the preferences of the boys in the group are not actually malleable preferences, but god-given fixed parts of the environment. Just as the Tories have taken the assumption that the only minorities they want in their club are black men and women who are somehow comfortable with a party that until recently publicly called them “niggers.” Because you know, that’s just how it was back then. Now that the Tories have worked out that they’re heading into very difficult times if they don’t start to reach out to a group that constitutes 14% of the population, they’re working first and foremost on those representational issues, and then on trying to show they’re honest about opening up policy to minorities, to try and overcome that sticky sense of bad history that keeps the party glued to the spot.

But hey, the Tories did well: they only ignored 14% of the population. For most of its history the RPG industry has overlooked 50% of the population …

Some people I know think it doesn’t matter – we’re just a hobby after all and there are lots of other things women can do. But I think that the problem is bigger than that. We are aging as a cohort, with only a small number of people joining us, and the kinds of representational issues that keep women from joining us also make non-nerdy men suspicious of us. If we continue to age with only small numbers of (male) newcomers, as a market we will get smaller, with an associated decline in diversity and quality of products available to us. We will stagnate. This is the fate facing the Republicans in the USA, who also have a minority problem but face structural problems in coming to terms with it, and can’t find a way out of this bind of shrinking into obscurity[1]. We don’t need to be like that, and I think some of the more modern game companies have realized that. I read on YDIS that D&D 5th Edition has a wider range of non-white figures in art, and less sexploitation art; games like Malifaux and World of Darkness, while often rooted in an overly gothic and sub-cultural aesthetic, have at least tried to diversify the way they represent women in both art and game terms. I think Ars Magica was the first game I ever read that regularly had female characters as examples, female players as examples, and switched between male and female pronouns in text. These are small things but it’s these representational issues which first and foremost, I think, signify to women that they aren’t welcome. It’s small steps, but if the UK conservative party can do it, surely we can too?

 

fn1: Spit-flecked obscurity, so there is that …

Industrial Workers of the World, Unite!!

Industrial Workers of the World, Unite!!

Cheerleaders from two US football teams – the Jets and the Bills – are suing their former bosses for unpaid wages, and as part of the case we get to see some fascinating insights into how the football teams tried to control the lives of their cheerleaders. These women paid incredibly poorly – something like  $150 for a game that lasts 4 hours and requires at least 9 hours’ practice a week, and they have to pay all their beauty and transport expenses themselves. They also didn’t get any healthcare as far as anyone is able to tell, which of course in America is a big issue since they would be receiving no public support – and they were working in a very dangerous job (which Dick Cheney famously used to minimize the evils of Abu Ghraib prison). But on top of this, they were subjected to intrusive and patronizing efforts to control their personal behavior, all outlined in a detailed manual for cheerleaders. For example, they were given detailed instructions on how their hair should look, and how they should behave in public. For example:

Do not be overly opinionated about anything. Do not complain about anything- ever hang out with a whiner? It’s exhausting and boring.

and

Keep toe nails tightly trimmed and clean. PEDICURES!

A lot of the advice in the manual is for behavior at public events, but a lot of it also impinges on personal life – the whole section on hygiene, while it contains good advice, is not your employer’s business, and the idea that your boss can tell you how you should look after your tea towels is just ridiculous. This level of control, though, seems to be something that the contractor feels they have a right to force on these women even though they are essentially unpaid volunteers. These women are allowed to be married or engaged but they will be sacked instantly if they fraternize with football players.

All these rules and controlling behavior remind me of a phenomenon in Japan that is almost universally viewed with scorn by westerners: AKB 48. I have discussed the onerous restrictions on the women of AKB48 before, and particularly the rule that they cannot have boyfriends, and it appears that they have a lot of similar petty-fogging rules placed on them. However, there are two big difference between the cheerleaders in the linked lawsuit, and AKB48: 1) AKB48 are paid for their work; and 2) Westerners generally view the phenomenon of AKB48 as a completely illegitimate piece of constructed culture, an indictment of a plastic entertainment industry. Exploited cheerleaders being micro-managed so as to form a constructed culture are seen as a labour issue (see the comments on the linked blog for examples of this); AKB48 are a manufactured culture that cannot be taken seriously.

In reality these two groups have a lot in common, beyond the fact that they’re both all-girl units. They are both tools in the construction of a culture, though the cultures they construct are very different. AKB48 are the pinnacle of J-Pop, though they’re often misrepresented in the west as paragons of “kawaii culture,” a phenomenon I think exists only in the minds of western commentators. They serve to perpetuate the image of replacability in Japanese female performance artists, and they also serve to reinforce the connection between cosplay and nerd culture. But on a deeper level, they are a machine devoted to replicating the imagery of the cultural pattern of hard study, careful adherence to group rules, and graduation into adulthood: they serve to construct and reinforce the idealized culture of Japanese high-school/university/jobhunting, and I don’t think that on a cultural level this is a coincidence. Japanese people have begun to question the ludicrous complexity and challenge of this cultural transition from high-school to work, and oh look! Suddenly a huge cultural phenomenon has appeared that is devoted to preserving its fundamental strictures. Of course, when westerners view AKB48 they don’t see them in terms of this deeper cultural reification, viewing them instead as a shallow constructed cultural artifact built on the trivilization of Japanese women. This is an incredibly shallow interpretation, which arises from the classic mix of racism and sexism with which westerners (and western cultural commentators) always approach any issue connected with Japanese women. When you peel back the layers of cute and the cosplay, AKB48 is a signifier of a very powerful cultural force in Japan, and serves to reinforce and reconstruct the process of maturation through adherence to group practice and strict patterns of advancement. Contrary to westerners’ interpretations of it as a cheap and exploitative manifestation of “kawaii culture,” it plays an important role in preserving and reinforcing certain aspects of traditional Japanese culture.

So what culture do the cheerleaders construct and reify? Many of the commenters on the linked websites viewed the cheerleaders as an irrelevant aspect of the football business model, something that could be done away with at no cost to the teams. While on a strictly financial level this might be true, it completely misses the importance of cheerleaders as signifiers of heirarchies in sport. They serve to show where football stands in the social hierarchy, who the cultural phenomenon of football serves and represents, who is welcome and who is not. This is why they have strict image requirements that reinforce the image of the available but chaste Southern Belle, and all signifiers of working class origins or alternative lifestyle are to be expunged. But they also serve to show where women stand in the heirarchy of football: women serve to watch and cheer, and only certain kinds of women are welcome. They signify the role of women as adornment for football and footballers, rather than active participants in a culture. In this sense they serve the same purpose as chainmail-bikini-warrior-women in role-playing: they tell women that they are not welcome here except as adornment, and set the terms on which women are allowed to engage in the hobby. But they play a further role than this in football, because these cheerleaders are required to attend fund-raising and social events on behalf of the team (including annual golf days!) and to entertain potential donors. The social guidelines linked to above primarily concern their behavior at these events. By selecting cheerleaders from a certain race and class background, training them to behave in a certain way and tightly controlling their behavior, the football team shows potential donors what type of organization they’re dealing with, and makes them feel comfortable that they are engaging with a certain type of culture. It projects an image of a sport where women know their place and take certain restricted service roles, and where a certain social order is maintained. These women serve as symbols of the expungement of any form of radicalism or uneasy ideas from the culture of football. This isn’t just a small point of etiquette: there are serious problems of bullying and hazing in football culture, and efforts to prevent and eliminate this culture of bullying will almost certainly have ramifications throughout the coaching and training system, and will require changes to the hierarchies of the whole system. The most obvious manifestation of this would be wholesale changes to the way the game is played: it currently has huge rates of brain injury by design, and the whole game will need to be changed to eliminate this risk. Positioning cheerleaders as the teams do reassures funders and supporters that change isn’t going to happen, through the public presentation of a cultural model that everyone secretly knows is frozen in a different time.

I think this is also why the teams don’t want to pay their cheerleaders even so much as minimum wage. A culture that pays women to perform is fundamentally different to a culture that not only expects them to do as they’re told, but to be ready to perform for free on demand. Cheerleaders, unpaid and carefully groomed for public consumption, are the mechanism by which a highly macho and bullying sports culture tells the world how it views women and what it expects women to do, as well as how it expects women to contribute to the sport. Far from being useless adornments, they play a key role in reproducing the macho and closed culture of the modern sport.

When viewed as creators and reinforcers of cultural norms, both AKB48 and these cheerleaders show the difficulties that women face when they want to work in a field where their beauty, femininity and social talents are recognized and appreciated. On the one hand they are underpaid, micromanaged and exploited; on the other hand they are enlisted in the service of reproducing or constructing important cultural norms, a service of huge value to both their employers, the culture they represent and society more broadly. But at the same time they are attempting to gain appreciation and respect through the performance of femininity, which is generally derided in the west as a trivial thing, and so cultural commentators do not take them seriously either as people or as a social force in their own right. This is why AKB48 are not taken seriously by westerners inside or outside of Japan, and why western commentators cannot understand their huge popularity or why they have taken Japan by storm; and this is why cheerleaders somehow managed to spend years slaving away for a misogynist sports culture, helping to reproduce its bullying and hierarchical cultural structures, without ever coming to the attention of a union organizer or labour rights lawyer.

This is the price women pay for enjoying and attempting to be appreciated for their own femininity, a concept that in the west carries huge importance for cultural representation and as a site of contestation and representation of power, but which is universally derided and dismissed as trivial and unimportant, or as some kind of silly and youthful fancy. When western cultural analysis wakes up to the power and importance of femininity within our own cultures, then perhaps the Lady Gagas and cheerleaders of this world will be taken seriously by those who should be defending their rights – and maybe after that, by those who are restricting their rights.

I finally got to see the Avengers today, and a fine romp it was too. I’m still chuckling now about the encounter between Loki and the Hulk, and the movie has much to recommend it. It has good characters, excellent explodiness, very snappy dialogue, and some very smooth cultural references. I know nothing about the Marvel universe, but I really like the Incredible Hulk and I think he’s done very well in this movie, as is the Stark guy. Thor was a bit bland, and Hawk Eye both incongruous (a bow? really?) and a little weak, but Black Widow was excellent, and even Captain America had charm despite his obvious inherent blandness. So that’s four good characters, an excellent script, some genuinely awesome action scenes, and a plot that mostly made sense. I’m willing to forgive Joss Whedon the flying aircraft carrier madness because a) it’s pretty cool and b) it was probably some Marvel stupidity anyway, so whatever. Though FYI to super-spy agencies planning on building a massive flying double-decker invisible aircraft carrier: more than four rotors is a good idea. Try eight. Also, maybe there’s a new truism of movie-making here: plots that occur on a massive flying invisible aircraft carrier will be a bit silly, because I thought the whole shenanigan in that part of the movie was a little unbelievable. I don’t in general like it when the bad guy’s scheme is so devious that it relies on 88 layers of mistakes by his otherwise intelligent opponents (“I know! If I get myself captured and trick them into taking away my weapon and placing it in the dungeon right next to an unstable ammunition supply, and then they simultaneously build a hoverbike in the same room – which I know they’ll do – and the hoverbike relies on beta-particle generating fusion power for its locomotion – which I know it must – then surely the resulting chemical reaction will kill them all and free me from the indestructible prison I know they will put me in!”)

But otherwise it was excellent. Though I must point out that the wiggly monster-thingy from the preview that appears in the final battle, though 78 spiny shades of awesome, does appear to be a bit of a copy of a certain monster from a Final Fantasy movie I watched. But as Chumbawumba said, there’s nothing new under the sun, and provided it explodes in sufficiently technicolor glory I don’t care. And anything that gets punched by the Hulk does, so all’s well that ends well (unless you’re the spiny beast from beyond space and time – it doesn’t end well for them).

I was reminded while watching, however, that a while back I put up a post about Game of Thrones passing the Bechdel test, and that this post was inspired by the observation that the Avengers fails the Bechdel test, so having finally had a chance to see the movie, I’m in a position to make a judgment about this burning cultural issue. As a reminder, the Bechdel test requires that two female characters must have a conversation about something other than a man.

In this simple sense the movie fails the Bechdel test, but this is for a very simple reason: there are only three female characters in the movie, only one of them is a significant lead, and they basically don’t meet. Most assuredly, it fails the “where have all the chicks gone?” test, but there’s a very simple reason for this: it’s set in the Marvel Universe, a comic book world designed for teenage American boys, and so there are very few lead characters who are female. The only chance for any woman to interact with any other woman in this movie is in the first half of the movie when Black Widow is on the bridge of the USS Stupid Flying Invisible Aircraft Carrier, and there is one other female agent who might be able to engage with her – but that agent’s role is so tiny that she gets maybe three speaking parts and is largely irrelevant through most of the movie.

I think a more relevant question is whether Joss Whedon should have considered putting women in more secondary roles – e.g. Agent whatisface who gets killed, or the physicist guy who does something. Alternatively, and more radically, Whedon could have considered making one of the five core cast members a different gender. I’m not sure how Black Widow could be made a boy given her name, but Captain America and Hulk are both gender neutral names. Come to think of it, a female Hulk would be fascinating on so many levels of feminist inquiry, it would make the average teenage nerd’s head explode. It would probably also lead to the movie being shit-canned as “too politically correct” before it even got to the funding stage. And Marvel would no doubt not have supported it.

I guess the moral of this is that the Bechdel test really only applies to movies set in genres which allow women to have meaningful roles.  That pretty much rules out much of the super-hero genre and a lot of sci-fi too. Bechdel tests are an irrelevant second order concern when women can’t even be portrayed in strong roles in a genre, and in fact the female characters that Whedon did put in this movie really shone: Black Widow was awesome, and the nameless female agent on the bridge was very competent and cool. Sadly, everyone else was a bloke. So, more important than giving Black Widow the chance to workshop her mass-murder issues with a couple of her girlfriends, is actually giving her female colleagues. Once the American comic universe has risen to that level of sophistication, we can upbraid Joss Whedon for not having the all-female murder crew talk about something other than the men they’re going to kill…