I was reading a rather yawn-inducing piece on Jezebel describing the concept of a “basic bitch” and my eyes wandered into the comment section, which is typically fine on that site because most readers are feminist, anti-racist, etc. But I saw something really bizarre happen. A commenter who introduced herself as a Native American woman said she was tired of all the anti-white articles and comments popping up all over the internet, and people responded by challenging her Nativeness, even going so far as to demand to know what tribe she belongs to, whose rolls she’s on, what rez she lives on.
They were doing this because they felt like she was complaining about reverse racism (which pretty much only happens at an individual level and not at a systemic level, so it’s not the same thing as actual racism, which is pervasive and affects every aspect of people’s lives), a reaction they thought was kind of racist in and of itself, so they responded with…their own racism.
Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s not really okay to question how Native someone is just because you don’t think they act or look like a Native person should. Because of the problem of blood quantum, people still think it’s perfectly acceptable to single out Native Americans as the one group that must prove their ethnicity. With blood.
Blood quantum is the measure of how much Native blood a person has. It’s like the one-drop rule, but instead of being used to classify as many people as possible as non-white so they could be segregated from white people and treated like second-class citizens, blood quantum was established by the US government (and back in the colonies) to actually limit the number of Native Americans. The smaller the tribe, the less the government had to offer in a treaty. Even now, government benefits to tribes are measly due to blood quantum. Lived all your life on the res, 100% Native, but descended from several different tribes? Too bad, you don’t have enough blood from this one tribe to be a full member, so the US government ignores you. Old tribal census rolls are incomplete because the US government forced your family off their land, sent their kids to boarding schools where their language was beaten out of them, and your grandfather was delivered in a shack with a dirt floor (by a drunk doctor who screwed up his birth certificate) to parents whose records don’t appear to exist? Sorry, friend, you’re out of luck.
Last week I saw this image of a white Cleveland baseball fan in red face haughtily explaining himself to a Native man. In the middle of the city. At a public event. In red face. Like it’s totally cool.
It’s an understatement to say that Native Americans are only visible in our society as mascots. And even then those mascot roles are often played by white people (see Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger and Rooney Mara’s recent casting as Tiger Lily in an upcoming Peter Pan movie). If you want to see Native people represented as real, multi-dimensional human beings, you have to dig around.
To help you get started, here are a few creative projects that challenge the stereotypes that even some “anti-racist” Jezebel readers perpetuate.
- The Cherokee Word for Water: This recently released film about Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, focuses on her big impact on a tribal community without water.
- Reel Injun: Filmmaker Neil Diamond won a Peabody Award for his exploration of Hollywood’s portrayal of North American Natives.
- Project 562: Matika Wilbur has been photographing people from every federally recognized tribe in the US for this Kickstarter-funded project. She includes this anecdote on her Kickstarter page: “I had this incredible experience at the bottom of The Grand Canyon. The elders appointed a teenage boy to help me carry my equipment to photo shoots (since there aren’t cars down there, and I’m clumsy on a horse). He was kind of quiet at first, standoffish even. But after the first interview and photoshoot, he was excited for the next one. He started suggesting ideas. I could see him listening as we spoke to his elders. That evening, he revealed that he had walked a despairing path, having struggled with depression and his own sense of Tribal identity. As I was leaving, he shyly pulled me aside, and told me that this project gave him a new sense of hope. He said that he believed in me. He said that I was the first lady that he’d ever met that had went on to ‘do something’. He thanked me for giving him hope. He said that his experience with Project 562 had meant more to him than he could articulate.”
- The Artifact Piece: Clad in a loincloth, performance artist James Luna lies in a display case to underscore the problem of presenting Native people as artifacts of the past instead of living, evolving people of the present.
- The Round House: Louise Erdrich’s latest novel of an Ojibwe family won the 2012 National Book Award.
- Crazy Brave: Poet Joy Harjo’s new memoir chronicles her search for her voice and herself. What she’s learned about the debris of trauma: “You can use those materials to build a bridge over that which would destroy you.”
The latest on Pussy Riot: Formerly imprisoned members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are coming to New York to talk about political prisoners for an Amnesty International event. Despite Putin’s attempts to silence them, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina remain unwavering in their commitment to social change. Journalist Masha Gessen’s recently published book Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot is at the top of my must-read list.
More riot grrrls: Dazed has an excellent A-Z guide to the women who stomped through the 90s, from Allison Wolfe to zines. Love it. (That’s an expression of my love and a demand for yours.)
Art I’m into right now: Lindsay Bottos offers a clever, artistic response to gendered online harassment. ONOMOllywood, an exhibition from photographers Antoine Tempé and Omar Victor Diop, features iconic film shots re-imagined in Dakar and Abidjan. (It’s sort of an ad campaign for a hotel chain.) The photographs Ibi Ibrahim will soon be showing in the Art14 London Art Fair are a sex-positive response to conservative Islam.
From 6 minutes to 24 hours: Tired of being expected to play a terrorist, Iranian-American actor Jemilah King made a short displaying Hollywood’s narrow view and her much broader abilities. If you’ve got more time, the Global Lives Project curates a collection of films that “faithfully capture 24 continuous hours in the life of individuals from around the world.” It’s a work in progress devoted to cultivating empathy, and there’s a two-week unit for educators to use.
Creativity in places you aren’t looking for it but should be: Women’s World Summit Foundation is seeking nominations for the 2014 Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life, emphasizing sustainable development, household food security, and peace.
It seems like stories of transgender folks are appearing in the news more and more. Recently, students at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, California, crowned Cassidy Lynn Campbell as their first transgender homecoming queen, which was great news that was inevitably followed by bullying and criticism.
Before that, Army Pvt. Bradley Manning bravely became Chelsea Manning. Many journalists and media outlets respectfully followed AP style guidelines by using Manning’s new name and female pronouns, which made for a good lesson for the general public, but Fox News, to no one’s surprise, refused to make the change and even ridiculed Manning’s gender identity.
In the past few months, Jamaican trans teenager Dwayne Jones was beaten, stabbed, and shot to death by a mob in Montego Bay; 21-year-old Islan Nettles was out with other trans folks in Harlem, New York, when a group of men beat her to death; a trans woman was stripped naked and thrown off a bridge in Mexico City; and Diamond Williams, a transgender woman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was killed and dismembered, her body parts left in a field.
I understand that a lot of people have lived their entire lives thinking of gender as a fixed fact of life instead of a fluid social construct. That doesn’t excuse violence, but it explains some of the ignorance we keep seeing. The presence of out gays and lesbians in pop culture has helped to normalize homosexuality and strengthen equality efforts such as legalized gay marriage, so I’m crossing my fingers that as transgender folks become more visible–through everything from reality shows to Pulitzer Prize-winning novels–the rest of the world will continue to loosen their heternormative restraints.
Even for those who happily identify as their assigned sex, the performance of it can be exhausting. Haven’t you ever wanted, even for a moment, to break free from the confines of your manhood or womanhood?
I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s post to highlighting transgender artists and gender-bending art. If you want to understand why people struggle with their assigned sex and work to create their own gender identities, this list is an excellent start.
- Heather Cassils: focuses on busting gender binaries through images of the body and performance art, sees transgender as a “continual becoming,” recent work: Becoming an Image
- Zackary Drucker: uses photography, videography, and performance art to explore the complexity of bodily identity and seeing; check out She Gone Rogue
- Greer Lankton (deceased): created posable dolls representing people considered as “freaks” until her death in 1996, inspired by Candy Darling, final work: It’s All About ME, Not You
- Del LaGrace Volcano: considers the performance of gender and intersex experience through installations, performance, film, and photography; recent work: Sex Works
- Antony Hegarty: performs with collaborators under Antony and the Johnsons, winner of UK’s Mercury Prize for I Am a Bird Now, lush and otherworldly vocals, also a visual artist, recent work: Cut the World (live album) and Turning (acclaimed documentary of a European tour)
- Vaginal Davis: started The Afro Sisters, Black Fag, and Pedro, Muriel and Esther; performed with Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin; performance artist exploring spectacle and racial and gender confusion through counter-cultural personas; recent work: “Lesbi Tropicalia – Tea & Sympathy” (performative intervention as part of Helio Oiticica)
- Rocco Katastrophe: rapper, singer, and producer uniting queer and hip-hop cultures; featured on The L Word soundtrack; started the first trans men’s magazine (Original Plumbing) with photographer Amos Mac
Filmmakers and Theatre Artists
- Iizuka Kashou: writer/director of Our Future, a Japanese coming-of-age film centered on an 18-year-old girl who explores her masculinity after her parents separate
- Andrea James and Calpernia Addams of Deep Stealth Productions: produced comedic shorts Transproofed and Casting Pearls as well as the first all-transgender Vagina Monologues, prepped Felicity Huffman for her role in Transamerica
- D’Lo: analyzes South Asian and immigrant experiences of non-traditional gender identity and sexuality through comedy, leads community workshops, recent work: D’FunQT (one-person show)
- Ma Vie En Rose (Belgium, 1997): Seven-year-old Ludovic prefers dresses, which his family initially finds endearing until they discover there’s more to it than fashion and others don’t respond as kindly in this comedy drama.
- Beautiful Boxer (Thailand, 2003): This drama tells the true story of Nong Thoom, a successful Muay Thai fighter and trans woman.
- Tomboy (France, 2011): A little girl is mistakenly identified as a boy, and she goes along with it, feeling perhaps that it’s not a mistake after all.
- Breakfast on Pluto (Ireland, 2005): Based on the novel by Patrick McCabe, this film follows a trans woman’s youth in 1940s Ireland, right next to the border of Northern Ireland and the busy and violent IRA.
- Sacred Country: Rose Tremain’s prize-winning novel is set in rural England, where we find Mary Ward, the child of poor farmers, who discovers at six that she doesn’t want to be a girl.
- Middlesex: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the struggles of Cal, an intersex child raised as a girl in a fairly traditional Greek American family, who finally manages to define his own identity as an adult.
- Cereus Blooms at Night: Shani Mootoo’s acclaimed debut explores gender identity in a fictional Carribean country through Tyler, a nurse who cares for Mala, an older woman suspected of killing her father.
- Annabel: Kathleen Winter’s debut novel reminds us of the limitations of gender through an intersex child raised as Wayne, who loves hunting in the desolate Labrador countryside with his father but has a shadow self he calls “Annabel.”
It’s summer, which means we can’t go two minutes without seeing an article on how to get the perfect “bikini bod” or a photo lauding some celebrity’s “post-baby body.” It’s our culturally approved method of body shaming. The media helpfully directs us to examples we should follow–women who have the money, time, and imperative to trim all the fat (or anything else they don’t like) from their bodies, or models who actually starve themselves on a regular basis.
But it’s not just images of “perfect” bodies. They like to insult us directly too. Even when women achieve phenomenal things, there’s still someone with a platform who reduces them to their physicality. This week’s example is John Inverdale, a presenter on the UK’s Radio 5 Live, who said of Wimbledon Champion Marion Bartoli: “I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, ‘listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker. You are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5ft 11, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.’”
His statement serves to make women who don’t fit whatever cultural norm feel ugly and unworthy and to insist that women who achieve, particularly in traditionally male arenas, only do so because they are pleasing to look at. Inverdale is certainly not the only person to body shame Bartoli, as all kinds of assholes proved on Twitter. The Tumblr “Public Shaming” flipped body shaming on its head by preserving images of Tweets devoted to debasing Bartoli, thereby shaming the shamers. (Reading it will make you feel terribly sad about the world, but it’s useful if you know someone who thinks sexism doesn’t exist.)
Bartoli’s smart response implies that she didn’t let the insults ruin her win: “I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.”
My response to body shamers–be they Inverdale, ignorant Tweeters, women’s magazines, or even “serious” news outlets–is a little Hot Fruit.
Out of Olympia, Washington, Hot Fruit describe themselves as “an all Diva 3 piece electronic band.” After they posted the above video for “Falling off the Grid,” YouTube and Reddit exploded in misogynist rage. As you can imagine, there was a lot of body shaming because that’s the first resort of sexist morons. But Hot Fruit don’t care!
Member Grace Ellis says, “Hot Fruit is a place where I began to work through my own acceptance of my power, my sexuality, my ability to be a happy person who doesn’t need to apologize for my failures. And this isn’t all about me: It’s about how I was socialized, and open acceptance of what is not ‘perfect,’ ‘immaculate,’ ‘virgin[al]’ to other people through showing my own personal work.”
Let’s not give a shit about bikini bodies anymore. Think of all the energy we could be putting toward something awesome instead, like our own Hot Fruit. You in?
In The Guardian, actor Romola Garai writes about Maria Alyokhina’s hunger strike in a Ural Mountains prison and Pussy Riot‘s continued defiance–from behind bars and through supporters–against Russia’s corrupt regime.
Alyokhina is a 24-year-old poet, mother, and student. After Pussy Riot, feminist performance artists, performed “Punk Prayer” in a Russian Orthodox cathedral to protest the church’s increasingly close relationship with Putin’s government, she became the de facto spokesperson of the three arrestees with zingers like: “I thought the church loved all its children, but it seems the church loves only those children who believe in Putin.”
Her fervent arguments didn’t stop the court from sentencing the women to two years in a rural prison camp, but Pussy Riot won’t stop fighting. In a recent interview, fellow Pussy Riot member and prisoner Nadezhda Tolokonnikova vowed to continue her political art once she is released, and now Alyokhina has endured an eleven-day hunger strike after authorities prevented her from attending her parole hearing.
Hunger strikes always make me think of Alice Paul and remind me to be grateful. In her fight for US women’s suffrage, Paul endured taunts, violence, imprisonment, and psychiatric evaluations in a sanitarium. In response to Paul’s hunger strike in Occuquan Workhouse, authorities strapped her down and force-fed her raw eggs by shoving a tube down her throat until she vomited blood.
It’s easy to forget that much of what we have comes from the struggles of other people.
Interestingly, the suffragist motto was “deeds, not words.” But sometimes words are deeds, no? Isn’t that what Pussy Riot’s trial was about?
Alyokhina’s strike may have just ended, but Guantánamo Bay detainees are more than 100 days into a hunger strike and force-feeding has reared its ugly head. Many detainees have been confined for more than a decade without charges, and they are protesting President Obama’s failure to close the prison as he promised in his campaign.
In 2007, detainee Adnan Lanif participated in a six-month hunger strike. Originally from Yemen, he had suffered a brain injury as a result of a car accident and traveled to Afghanistan to obtain medical treatment from a charity, but the US believed that he was headed for a training camp. He was held in Guantánamo for ten years, seven months, and 25 days until he died.
They are artists of torture,
They are artists of pain and fatigue,
They are artists of insults and humiliation.
Where is the world to save us from torture?
Where is the world to save us from the fire and sadness?
Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?
But I circle back to Russia, thinking of how writing and revolution have always gone hand in hand in that vast landscape. I’m reminded of Anna Akhmatova, the censored Russian poet who once wrote of her “tortured mouth, / through which a hundred million people shout.” When Akhmatova had the chance to leave her country for a refuge, she refused and spent the rest of her life under surveillance, losing loved ones to gulags. Yet in her lonely, restricted existence under Stalin, she managed to chronicle the Terror through verse.
Like Stalin, Putin seems to think he can silence anyone by making them suffer. And so does the US–not just with Guantánamo, but with our entire prison industrial complex, which spreads far and wide. Alyokhina’s loud voice has already made her a political prisoner. What will she sound like when she is freed? A tortured mouth? Thunder and rain?
By the time Akhmatova wrote “You Will Hear Thunder,” sorrow surrounded her, staining cobblestones and crowding empty rooms, but her pen still ran across the page:
You will hear thunder and remember me,
And think: she wanted storms. The rim
Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson,
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.