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Archive for November, 2008

Some Things Just Don’t Translate

I think I’ve been a touch too serious lately. At any rate, I needed to lighten up, and maybe my blog does, too. I nearly pulled a belly muscle browsing the “adult” section of Engrish.com. It’s all in pretty terrible taste. That’s the point.

Anyway, here’s a little sample. This one might make a splash in the classroom when I teach about the beauty ideal, dontcha think?

(From Engrish.com)

And this sounds like a delightful contrast to all that heavy Thanksgiving fare … yum!

(Also from Engrish.com)

I’ve admittedly got a weakness for this sort of thing** after living in Germany, where similarly tasteless slogans popped up on the occasional T-shirt, along with just plain goofy logos like the “San Francisco Fifty-Niners.” I think people get their ideas of socially acceptable English partly from R-rated movies (oops!). The translator in me is smugly gleeful, knowing that the world will always need translators who are adept in both language and culture.

(** Language bloopers, I mean – what did you think? Oh, the tofu. Right.)

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I know that we’re all still supposed to be jubilant over the election. This is supposedly our honeymoon, these days between Obama’s victory and his inauguration, before he’s had a chance to start disappointing us in earnest. But elation hasn’t been my mood; not at all. Maybe I’m just too tired from the endless campaign, but I’ve felt cautious, depleted, reflective, even a little melancholy. The November days are short and bleak, and the thing with feathers threatens to fly south for the winter.

Photo by Flickr user tanakawho, used under a Creative Commons license. No birds were harmed in its making.

And so I find myself mulling over this business of “hope” and what it’s good for – what the “thing with feathers” might animate, beyond the sloganeering.

For one thing, I think hope is an effective antidote to fear. As such, it’s crucial to real democracy. Of all the laws and policies born of fear during the past eight years – the Patriot Act, the Abu Ghraib interrogations, the Guantanamo Bay internments, the rampant wiretapping – I can’t think of one that was wise (and many were plain unconstitutional). Fear turns off people’s critical faculties and turns citizens into subjects.

Uncritical hope can be exploited by demagogues, too, but not so easily. Hope is not self-sustaining: Reality has a way of intruding on hope while tending to reinforce people’s fears. Historically, dictatorships have rested far more on fear than on hope, and idealistic revolutions-gone-bad have always shifted from hope toward fear before spawning such atrocities as Stalinism or the Terror. Hope can move people to take to the streets, but fear is a far more potent motivator if you’re out for blood.

But even in times of threat and crisis – especially then – hope can lead us back to our core values. Hope can guide us toward a foreign policy aimed at strength through alliances rather than intimidation and militarism. Hope can inspire an economic rescue plan aimed at restructuring our economy – moving our automotive industry away from gas guzzlers and our energy infrastructure toward renewables – instead of just panicking and giving AIG and Citibank whatever they want.

Hope itself is a renewable energy source. We’re going to need that in the months and years ahead.

Hope is also a gift to our children. It’s an example of how to live, a precondition for making the world better for them, a source of joy. It can help them cope with their nascent awareness of injustice and violence; it can nurture their empathy and protect them against cynicism. It’s part of the very air I want them to imbibe. I just loved how Tim Wise captured this in a recent essay on Alternet:

[M]aybe it’s just that being a father, I have to temper my contempt for this system and its managers with hope. After all, as a dad (for me at least), it’s hard to look at my children every day and think, “Gee, it sucks that the world is so screwed up, and will probably end in a few years from resource exploitation…Oh well, I sure hope my daughters have a great day at school!”

Fatherhood hasn’t made me any less radical in my analysis or desire to see change. In fact, if anything, it has made me more so. I am as angry now as I’ve ever been about injustice, because I can see how it affects these children I helped to create, and for whom I am now responsible. But anger and cynicism do not make good dance partners. Anger without hope, without a certain faith in the capacity of we the people to change our world is a sickness unto death.

(Read the whole essay, “Enough of ‘Barbiturate’ Left Cynicism,” here.)

Paired with a sense of responsibility, hope is also a lot of work. (Maybe that, too, is why I feel so darn tired?) That’s where Emily Dickinson got it wrong. She wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

I actually think hope demands our all. It’s voracious. It will swallow us whole. And so technically, I guess, it won’t “ask a crumb of me” since it doesn’t settle for crumbs.

Hope is much like bell hooks’ notion of love as she describes it in her essay, “Romance: Sweet Love.” Unlike romance (which she equates with infatuation and putting up a false front), love requires a choice, hooks writes. Love demands that we commit to it over and over and over again, every day, for as long as we want it to endure. I think hope is like that too; anything easier isn’t hope, it’s mere romance and self-delusion.

In other words, hope is a whole lot like a longstanding marriage. It’s not always easy to sustain. It requires a body-and-soul commitment. It demands our energy.

But like love and marriage, hope can give energy, too. And when that alchemy of hope occurs, that’s when the thing with feathers takes wing. That’s when its chirps meld into full-fledged song. That’s when it keeps us warm.

Photo of a lovely befeathered kitty named Lynksys by Flickr user SuziJane, used under a Creative Commons license.

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A little while back, Henry of Henry’s Travels tagged me (or was that just a whisker rub?) for a “six random things about me” meme. I don’t know if I can match the feline brain for sheer randomness, but here goes anyway:

1. I once played organ for a Christian Science congregation, though I’m neither an organist nor a Christian scientist. The congregation consisted of about a dozen people, average age 67, and only two who sang loudly. Unfortunately the two lusty singers tended to be about a half-beat behind the organ. It was a strictly mercenary gig; they were willing to pay $10 per Wednesday evening service and $15 for a Sunday morning. I was only 17 and those were 1981 dollars, so I felt rich indeed. It was the most I’ve ever earned making music.

2. I have a master’s degree in engineering, which I’m guessing is true for less than one percent of women’s studies professors. My field was industrial engineering – aka “imaginary” engineering, which fit me just fine. I’ve never worked as a “real” engineer, yet I’ve used that part of my education in a whole slew of ways. It taught me to pick apart statistical studies. It demystified science for me. It gave me basic knowledge that was super useful in translating technical material from German to English.

3. I was on the field at the 15-yard line for arguably the most famous and definitely the strangest play in the history of college football:

And yes, I do know the trombone player who got tackled in the end zone. He’s a friend of mine. His trombone survived the tackle pretty much unscathed.

4. I’m an incorrigible slacker and underachiever. College classmates of mine (one degree of separation from me) include a Nobel Laureate in physics, a journalist who was kidnapped and executed by Al Qaida, and a cable news anchor who once dated Rush Limbaugh. All things considered, I think I’ll stick with underachieving.

5. Although I’m not a very girly girl, my favorite color is purple. This started in third grade, when I had a purple dress with a pink and purple striped turtleneck collar and matching long sleeves. I also convinced my parents to paint my room lavender that year. As a result it took me a long time to understand the point of the Jenny Joseph’s poem “Warning,” which begins, “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple …”

6. I never learned to swim. Growing up landlocked and snowbound in North Dakota, I lived 30 miles from the nearest pool. One summer we were bussed there, to the little town of Gackle, and plunged into the icy water – to no avail. I only learned to dog paddle a few years later while visiting my cousins in California. I’ve gone white water rafting, water skiing, and snorkeling anyway. Life vests are a fabulous invention.

Contrary to the rules of this meme, I’m not gonna tag anyone else. I was always a total loser when I played tag as a kid; the only thing worse was Red Rover. (Hmm, I guess that amounts to a seventh random thing …) If anyone decides to play along anyway, leave a comment and I’ll gladly link to you in an update.

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Y’all know that I teach women’s and gender studies. You know I’d take to the streets for the right of all human beings to express themselves in whatever genderqueer manner they like – and to be safe and respected while doing so. That’s a basic principle for me.

And yet … the allure of some things just mystifies me. Exhibit A: Holly of Self-Portrait As recently linked to this feature on bras being marketed to men in Japan. (There’s video but I couldn’t see a way to embed it, so you gotta click and go there.)

As Holly said: “I don’t know what to say.” I’m not so sure I do, either, but I’ll try anyway.

First, this strikes me as the latest example of the viral nature of capitalism, especially where bodies are concerned. The beauty-and-body market for women is so swamped, it’s hard to find a new niche. Compared to women, men’s bodies haven’t been nearly so thoroughly shaped and fashioned, at least not in commodified ways. Enter the metrosexual, who spends a larger chunk of his budget on fashions, hair products, and the like than does the typical dude.

And it’s not just masculinity that’s in flux. Bras, too, have evolved tremendously since their invention just about a century ago. The bra emerged as the corset was on the wane, but it took decades to really catch on. For the flapper styles of the 1920s, the goal was to flatten, not support. In the 1930s, cup sizes became standardized and bras began to be sold as a ready-made garment, but they still weren’t universal. Only in the postwar era, with its buxom icons like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, did bras become a staple in American women’s wardrobe. By the 1970s, bras were in decline; though feminists didn’t actually burn them, some women stopped wearing them. The bra made a comeback again in the buttoned-down 1980s. By the 1990s you saw bras being worn as outerwear – and the Wonderbra was born.

As Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes in The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, the history of the bra is primarily the history of its commercialization. Once the postwar market had been saturated, bra manufacturers cast about for a new market. They found one in young girls who hadn’t yet begun to develop. Allying with physicians, they convinced mothers and their preteen daughters that for the sake of health and beauty, girls needed to start wearing bras even before they had breasts.

So I’m inclined to see Japan’s new man-bra the intersection of the metrosexual with a saturated but always ravenous body-shaping industry. Engrish.com (an irreverent and not always PC blog on Japanese culture) notes that these bras are most likely targeting metrosexuals with transgender tendencies, since the bras are really too petite to be targeting full-fledged transsexual or transgendered persons. That seems pretty plausible to me: a man who’s truly trying to pass as a woman won’t settle for a AAA cup.

There may be something specifically Japanese about this product, too. Take a look at an ad for it (swiped from Engrish.com, which has more along these lines):


I totally don’t understand Japanese culture beyond what I learned from the movie Lost in Translation, but I’m fascinated by how the ads for this product harness conspicuously Western models. I know that this is a common trick in Japan (and the whole premise for Engrish.com, which chronicles this tactic gone hilariously wrong). This makes me wonder if – within Japanese culture – transnational masculine beauty standards might somehow grant greater license for transgendered behavior. Or if Caucasian models just give the product a certain metropolitan cachet. I’d love to know more.

However you slice it, the advertising for this man-bra engages in some major gender-bending. Engrish.com provides a translation:

Times like these call for a Men’s Bra:
  • Even us guys want to know how a woman feels!
  • We want to reel in our emotions! (lit. “strain/tighten our emotions”)
  • I have the body of a man, but I’m a guy who feels like a little girl!
  • I want to remember a gentle feeling.
  • I need support for my chest!
  • There are sure to be many reasons, but the most important thing is to feel gentle/tender.

So far, there seems to be a modest market for wanting to “know how a woman feels.” About 300 of these had been sold at the point when this hit the media a couple of weeks ago. That’s not a huge number, of course, but it’s definitely more than zero. I’m hoping that most of the buyers are hoping to “feel gentle/tender” rather than “like a little girl”; that diminutive sort of creeps me out, to be honest.

I guess my feelings about this are similar to my reaction to makeup for men: cool for those who really are into it. But at the same time, I’m glad my own mate won’t hope to find a man-bra under the Christmas tree – and not just because airmail won’t get it there on time. I may teach gender studies, but I guess I’m just kind of limited that way. Then again, one of the main things I’ve learned from feminism is to honor desires – my own and others – as long as they do no harm.

But the cat-bra? Now that’s where I, personally, draw the line.

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

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Heck no! I’m not the least thankful for the first batch of appointments to the Obama administration. Honestly, they strike me as a bunch of turkeys so far.

Photo by Flickr user Hey Paul, used under a Creative Commons license.

Hillary Clinton for secretary of state? Umm … I’m all for mending fences, but the only area of substantive policy differences between her and Obama was foreign policy. As I explained at the start of the primaries, Obama’s early opposition to the Iraq War convinced me that he would be more judicious in foreign affairs than Clinton, given her vote to authorize military action and her saber-rattling on Iran. If Clinton is kept on a short leash, her appointment would be hollow and meaningless. If not … well, as I said back in February, peace is the basis for advancing any of the other goals I care about, whether combatting poverty or achieving a sustainable energy policy or securing health care for every American.

Larry Summers as Obama’s top economic advisor? Never mind how he infamously speculated on women’s biological shortcomings in science and math; that only cost him the Harvard presidency. I’m much more put off by his role as co-architect of late Clinton-era deregulation, which cost all of us a stable economy. Our next Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, also shares culpability for our current morass. On the flip side, none of those economists who’ve given us trenchant analyses of the mess – Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, Robert Reich, even George Soros for goodness sake – appears to have any formal role in the new administration.

In fact, there’s not yet been a key appointment that I’ve cheered. I wallow in worry when I read analyses like William Greider’s at The Nation. Greider sees Obama’s appointments as capitulating to center-right policies. In terms of temperament and ability, he notes, these appointees are managers and technocrats who can make the wheels of government turn but don’t have the stomach for radical change:

Alas, Obama is coming to power at a critical moment when incrementalism is irrelevant. The system is in collapse. Financial chaos won’t wait for patient deliberations. … Wasting more public money on insolvent mastodons is the least of it. The real scandal is it doesn’t work. It can’t work because the black hole is too large even for Washington to fill. Government should take over the failing institutions or force them into bankruptcy, break them up and sell them off or mercifully relieve everyone, including the taxpayers.

Part of me thinks that Obama is smart enough to embrace a paradigm shift. Also at The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel argues that while Obama is a pragmatist at heart, times are tough enough that pragmatism itself will force him to take bold action. Digby leans toward a similar assessment, though she’s reluctant to prognosticate:

I suspect that on the economy, it’s going to have to be a hell of a lot more progressive than anybody dreamed it would be even three months ago. There are no conservative solutions to economic meltdown except just letting it happen — and I don’t think anyone expects Obama to do that.

I don’t have a crystal ball, either, and as a historian I do much better at looking backward, anyway. Historically, we’re at a great hinge – like the Great Depression, like the Civil War – that could swing either way. With visionary leadership, Obama could exploit the current crisis, much as FDR did, to institute universal health care, launch a sustainable energy and environmental policy along the lines of the Apollo Alliance, and reintroduce regulation that will create a framework for healthy markets. At the HuffPost, Robert Creamer argues Obama is likely to pursue progressive policies because the center of American politics has shifted dramatically to the left and because Obama recognizes historical necessity:

Change doesn’t happen incrementally. I think of it as the “Drain-O” theory of history. At key points in history the pressure for democratizing, progressive change overwhelms the forces of the status quo. Then, as the pipes are suddenly cleaned out, massive numbers of progressive changes can finally flow. America is about to experience one of those periods. How much we can accomplish, and how long this period lasts will depend on many factors that we don’t yet know — and one that we do. It will depend heavily on our success in continuing to mobilize the millions of Americans who elected Barack Obama into a movement to enact his program.

Like Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln all installed people in their cabinets who they believed to be effective managers who could deliver. They all had their share of outsiders and progressives, but many were old Washington hands. Yet all of these Presidents faced historic challenges that demanded and enabled them to make fundamental change. And all of them were guided by progressive values that were sharply different from those of Bush, Cheney, and Delay. Obama shares and articulates those values more than any political leader since Robert Kennedy died forty years ago.

Obama himself seems to have finally realized that we progressives are growing nervous. He’s insisting that he will set the tone, and not his advisors:

[U]nderstand where the vision for change comes from first and foremost: it comes from me. That’s my job, to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure that my team is implementing it.

(Obama as quoted by Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly, via Alternet)

I’m enough of an optimist – and the historical pressures are inexorable enough – that I’m willing to hope that’s this is true, and that his vision is basically a progressive one.

I’m enough of a cynic – and worried enough about the $2 trillion in hush-hush loans that the Federal Reserve has granted to banks – to think that we’d had better hold him to it. If we fail, there won’t be much cause for gratitude, come next Thanksgiving Day.

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One of My Many Blessings: Maple Pecan Pie

I’ve been sluggish about posting the past few days; apologies to anyone who was kind enough to drop by anyway. I’ve been under the weather, and pies needed to be baked – both pumpkin and pecan – along with all the other trappings of Thanksgiving dinner.

When I lived in Germany, I came up with my own version of pecan pie that didn’t require corn syrup. Since I couldn’t find it there, I substituted maple syrup instead. (This was before nutritionists started to pillory corn syrup as the devil’s own nectar.) My maple pecan pie is still plenty sweet but I think it’s way yummier than the conventional version.

Maple Pecan Pie

1/2 cup butter (one stick), melted
1 1/2 cups pecans
3 eggs
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 tsp. vanilla
9-inch pie crust

Melt the butter and let it cool. Toast the pecans for about 5 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, which will keep them from getting soggy; then chop them very coarsely. Beat the eggs until frothy. Add the brown sugar, maple syrup, vanilla, and butter; beat until mixed. Sprinkle the pecans over the bottom of a prepared pie crust (I cheat and use Marie Callendar’s frozen crusts, which are quite good and vegetarian-friendly to boot). Pour everything else over the nuts. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then at 350 for about 40 more.

This is what mine looked like. It wasn’t my biggest blessing, this Thanksgiving, but it was still pretty darn good.

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From I Can Has Cheezburger? captioned by me, Sungold.

The November 19 issue of Time magazine has an article on “Plastic Surgery below the Belt.” If you’re thinking it’s not a man’s belt, you would be correct. The article is on cosmetic surgery for your girl parts.

It goes without saying that we here at Kittywampus are friend and ally to all pussies. Not to be a simpleton about it, but we pretty much endorse the old nursery rhyme – for felines and human alike:

I love little pussy, her coat is so warm,
And if I don’t hurt her she’ll do me no harm.
So I’ll not pull her tail, nor drive her away,
But pussy and I very gently will play.

To my mind, that motto rules out anything involving a knife. I’m not referring here to pelvic reconstructive surgery intended to repair falling organs or incontinence. The surgeries in question are done solely for cosmetic purposes. The best known of these is labiaplasty, which involves surgically trimming a woman’s inner lips to look symmetrical, tidy, and small. While I think women’s motivations for plastic surgery are much more complex and interesting than feminists sometimes assume, I also think that mutilating one’s potential for sexual pleasure – just to meet some totally artificial beauty ideal – is plain stupid and wrong.

The Time article reports that about 1000 such procedures are performed in the United States each year. If so, that’s not exactly a trend.

What’s more significant: the fact that labiaplasty and similar procedures are now being publicized in a major American newsmagazine, thus introducing a whole new cohort of women to the world of genital insecurity. (Arguably, I’m fueling this fire, too, but let’s be realistic about our relative readerships; Time has a few more subscribers than I do.)

Time definitely skewed the article in favor of the critics of such surgeries, and I’m grateful for that. They quote Leonore Tiefer, a feminist psychologist who is fighting the medicalization of female sexuality on several fronts, including the quest for a “pink Viagra.” They also gave the final word to sexologist Laura Berman, who suggested

the best way to start enjoying your body could be far simpler than surgery: “You may need a new boyfriend.”

That last line points to the article’s major blind spot. Time fails to ask: whence the pressure for a tidy pussy?

Clearly, the usual culprits – Cosmo et al. – are not providing the visuals. Time notes that before-and-after photos can be found on the web; I won’t link to any but if you’re inclined to track some down, you can find key phrases (though mercifully also no links) at The Daily Bedpost.

But why would a gal start googling for photos of a pretty pussy if she weren’t worried about it in the first place? Cosmo might be stirring up insecurities. I only ever read it at the hairdresser’s but in every recent issue I’ve seen, it seems to harp on the new “necessity” of waxing one’s kitty. Which, in turn, leaves every fold exposed. This is why I’m not in favor of Sphinx cats, even though I can warm up to just about every other breed. The feline form looks divine, regardless – but it’s far more fetching when it’s furry and pettable.

Then there are a few guys who regale their female friends and/or girlfriends with their narrow notions of pudendal beauty. I don’t personally know any men in this category but Em and Lo at the Daily Bedpost report on this real gem of a guy, as described by one of their readers:

He said that some vaginas resemble “kebabs” and that a lot of guys are really put off sex when they get a hot girl naked and find that her vagina isn’t as “neat” as they imagined it would be. It made me feel really self-conscious about my own, even though I never have been before.

If any man had ever said that to me, back when I was single, every last friend of mine – and every friend of theirs – would have heard about his sublime douchiness.

But maybe that was back in the day. Maybe young men today have raised their standards. Maybe it’s not just younger men. I live in a pretty sheltered bubble that way, surrounded by men who are progressive, who genuinely like women, and who would never dream up that kebab comparison – and not just because we women would never let them live it down.

So what’s changed? Porn has got to be at the root of this. Where else is there a plethora of images that allow women’s labia to be scrutinized, judged, and found wanting? How else could a young woman feel so worried about her perfectly “normal” adult anatomy that she writes to sex columnists to inquire about surgery? (Em and Lo gave her a very sensible answer that’s worth the read.)

Why are oodles of teenage girls (!) writing to Scarleteen (as Time reports) and expressing a similar self-loathing? By the way, that’s another quibble about the Time article: It’s great that it led off with a reference to Scarleteen, but dispiriting that it didn’t mention the great work Heather Corinna and her associates are doing. Scarleteen has devoted a whole page – currently the first link on their homepage – to debunking the myth of the perfect pussy and advising these girls that they are really and truly lovely and sexy just as they are. Maybe Time was too prissy to link to a page with anatomical line drawings.

Anyway, I blame industrial porn. And frankly, I wonder – of the 1000 or so annual labiaplasties and similar surgeries – how many of them are performed on aspiring porn stars?

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