Monthly Archives: October 2013

While Wearing Their Pretty Dresses, They Ruined Lives: 12 Years A Slave & the Role of White Women in Slavery

Image

I saw 12 Years A Slave this weekend. Aside from crying uncontrollably for about 80% of the film—not an exaggeration: please take a box of tissue to the theater if you see it—I was struck by many things the film did in its portrayal of the institution of slavery and the people that upheld it. For starters, I think a spectacularly effective job was done in imparting the terrifying helplessness and profound unfairness of the system: long moments of silence juxtaposed with instances of extreme violence emphasized the normalcy of brutality; the environment that black children were raised in and alongside, an environment in which their parents and elders were subject to torture, degradation, and murder. That was life, 12 Years informs us. A life in which a child can play tag alongside a man hanging from his neck by a tree…because there was nothing that could be done. There is much more, but what I want to talk about is something that 12 Years A Slave illustrates that is often glossed over in other depictions of American slavery: the complicity and cruelty of white women in upholding the institution.

Mistress Ford is the first white woman we encounter, the wife of the first slave master Solomon comes into contact with. When Solomon and Eliza, a black woman who, like Solomon, was kidnapped and brought to the South, are brought to the Ford plantation, Eliza is weeping in the back of a wagon. Mistress Ford appears and asks why and is told that Eliza has been separated from her two young children. Mistress Ford looks something like sympathetic, and for a moment I thought we were going to see the traditional representation of white women: the sensitive counter to her emotionless husband, the empathetic Eve in the midst of a savage system in which she lacks control and finds herself as much a prisoner as the black humans being treated as chattel. But 12 Years had other plans, something more along the lines of reality. Mistress Ford’s regard for the humanity of black people is made explicit in her next line: “Some food and some rest,” she says. “Your children will soon be forgotten.” The idea of a black woman as a mother—a human mother and not merely a baby machine whose uterus is a factory more slave labor—is completely foreign to Mistress Ford. Her countenance is emotionless as Eliza is led away sobbing. She eventually has Eliza sold because she “cannot tolerate that sort of depression.”

Later, when he ends up on the wrong side of the insidious overseer Tibeats, Solomon is nearly lynched, saved only by another white man under the employ of Mr. Ford who was concerned about the debt that Solomon’s death would incur. Solomon is left hanging by his neck, his toes barely touching the ground to keep him alive, for an entire day. For a short time, Mistress Ford watches from the porch, doing nothing. Her coldness is tangible. All the supposedly feminine qualities of tenderness and regard for other people is absent.

The coldness of Mistress Ford is minor, however, when we meet Mistress Epps, the wife of Solomon’s next slave owner.

Mr. Epps, her husband, is a brutal—and insane—man known to be a “slave breaker.” He is notorious for his cruelty, which Solomon and the other slaves on the Epps plantation witness firsthand, and often. He is also obsessed with one of the slaves, a woman named Patsy. Mistress Epps is aware of this, and her cruelty toward Patsy knows no bounds. She strikes her in the face with a heavy bottle, scars Patsy’s cheek with her fingernails, denies her soap, and more. She delivers one or two monologues about the animal nature of black people, how they are prone to violence and should be beaten and ground down. She demands that Mr. Epps sell Patsy, but he refuses, partially because Patsy picks more cotton than any other slave on the plantation and partially to let his wife know that he is in control. Patsy endures rape and harassment at the hands of Mr. Epps, and brutality and cruelty at the hands of Mistress Epps. Her life is so tortured, she begs Solomon to kill her as an act of mercy, an act he cannot commit. There is a brutal scene in which Patsy is whipped, and Mistress Epps is there in the midst of it, demanding that Patsy be whipped harder. Mistress Epps cries that she wants to see blood.

By documenting the extreme suffering of black women during slavery—the explicitness and unapologeticness of which I have only previously seen from Toni Morrison—12 Years A Slave shines a light on the experience of millions during American slavery: the lives of black women, the double-edged sword of black femaleness; victim to violence from all sides. And by shining this light on black femaleness, 12 Years also shines a light on white femaleness, which, in my opinion, has previously gone without serious examination in mainstream film, and even in the way that we talk about slavery. I have distinct memories from middle school and high school history classes in which we discussed the role white women played in slavery…lessons in which that role was described as a non-role. White women’s economic inequality translated in my education as a complete lack of power (and responsibility) not only in the plantation household, but in slavery as a whole. When I heard about white women in the teaching of American slavery, it was as abolitionists, friends on the Underground Railroad, spotless conveyors of goodwill and empathy. 12 Years A Slave calls this representation of white women a lie, and I applaud it.

Although lacking in significant legal and economic power, white women generally controlled the household, existing in the domestic sphere as society dictated. The way we talk about white women in this context paints them—indeed, us—as the gentle, docile, humane creatures that a woman is “supposed to be.” White women upheld notions of feminine morality, history tells us; they didn’t uphold the institution of slavery. The Mrs. Epps and the Mrs. Fords are absent in this characterization. The Delphine LaLauries are absent. The cruel, racist women who called for the blood of women like Patsy—out of hatred for their black bodies and also out of jealousy as white husbands raped the black women they owned—aren’t mentioned when we talk about the people who upheld slavery. We talk about men, both rich and poor, but rarely of their wives; women who were as participative in the perpetuation of white supremacy and human bondage as their male counterparts, as eager to dehumanize, debase and brutalize black bodies as their men.

It’s true, white women lacked the agency of their husbands, fathers and brothers, so their hand in slavery did not extend to the buying and selling of human chattel, the laws being made that called black people only a fraction of a human being. But white women whipped black bodies. They burned them. They posed next to the murdered bodies of black people who were lynched. They called people n*ggers. They scratched faces. They separated families. While wearing their pretty dresses, they ruined lives. If we’re going to talk about slavery and the people that upheld it, we should talk about everyone, as 12 Years A Slave does. If we are going to continue to heal this nation that remains torn and disfigured by its brutal past, then we must take accountability and not hide behind the gentle stereotypes that present day feminists struggle against: women are fully capable of committing acts of savagery, fully able to dehumanize other human beings, truths exhibited by the many Mrs. Epps and Mrs. Fords we know existed in the history of this country. The privileges white supremacy afforded were not handed only to men: women accepted (and accept) those benefits that provide them status and wealth. If we’re going to talk about white supremacy and its role in the foundations of American slavery, no one is exempt. No one. Not even me.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Let’s Get It On: Trains vs. Threesomes

Image

In an earlier blog I stated that occasionally I see something repeated enough times that I feel inclined to write about it here. This is one of those topics. Strong sexual themes below: you’ve been warned. (Who am I kidding. I know you’re only going to read further now, you horndogs.)

Three people are having sex. Most people would call this a threesome. It makes sense, right? Three people. Having sex. It’s a threesome. Now, from my perspective, threesomes look like this:

One man + two women = a threesome

One woman + two men = a threesome

Three women = a threesome

Three men = a threesome

Because….three. Threesome. But there are certain parties who insist that what we call a threesome depends on the genitalia those three parties possess. From their perspective, it looks like this:

One man and two women = a threesome

One woman and two men = a train

Before you ask, I don’t know what happened to the three men and three women scenarios. Lost in the Land of Heteronormativity, perhaps. The people that hold this latter understanding of group sex don’t ever discuss what same-sex sex looks like. But that’s another discussion. For now let’s focus on threesomes vs. trains.

For context, a train has always been defined as one woman and a large group of men. The imagery of the term is crass, of course: a long “train” of men lines up and has sex with the woman one after the other. Historically, a woman who participates in a train is viewed, discussed, and treated as an object of the highest contempt. A woman who participates in a train, according to men and women who subscribe to misogynistic standards of sexuality, is not a woman but a whore, deserving of any and every abuse, both verbal and physical. The men who participate in trains, of course, are invisible in this interaction. No shame falls on their shoulders. The word “train” is heavy with a history of sexist, shaming connotation.

So there’s that. Now we get to the real root of this discussion: why those (both men and women) who insist that a sexual encounter consisting of one man and two women is a threesome, yet a sexual encounter consisting of one woman and two men is a train, are deeply immersed in misogyny.

Basic Sexism

In its simplest form of analysis, the abovementioned understanding of threesomes puts on display its basic sexism. A man engaging in sex with two women at the same time has traditionally been given a badge of honor, a societal backslap, an historical high-five. He is perceived as sexually potent, a master of seduction with an endless supply of stamina. It is commonplace in Hollywood films for the macho male star to rise from his bed while the camera catches sight of not one, but two women in his bed (see Star Trek: Into Darkness and Troy for two immediate examples).

Women, however, are given no such congratulations. Female sexuality remains a force worthy of fear in our society—why else was American Pie, a story about teenage boys on a quest to lose their virginities, given an R rating by the MPAA but, Coming Soon, a similar story but with female stars, originally slapped with an NC-17 rating? The idea of a woman having the appetite not only to enjoy sex, but to enjoy sex with two simultaneous partners is not worthy of awe and admiration, but rather humiliation and degradation.

It is misogynistic to imply that a man enjoying a threesome with two women is a mark of status, but the reverse is a mark of shame. Behavior (whether sexual or merely social) being rewarded when committed by a man and disgraced when committed by a woman (and vice versa) is one of the most basic structures of sexism in our society. Changing the vocabulary we use to describe a threesome when it involves two men and a woman, subbing in “train,” with all its “slutty” implications and layers of shame to describe an act regularly applauded when committed by men, is sexist. And that’s that.

The Doer and the Done

The other regularly-spouted bit of nonsense I hear that defends “train” being used to describe a one-woman-with-two-men threesome is this (and I’ll try to make it comprehensible, as it rarely is when spouted by the people this blog criticizes): “A threesome is when all three people are interacting. Two women and a man are all touching/pleasuring each other. With two men and a woman, only the men are touching the woman. They’re not touching each other. So it’s a train. They’re doing her.”

This is my face right now.

1)   Your assumption that two men are not touching each other during a threesome with a woman is heteronormative. In short, how the fuck do you know?

2)   Wait…are you saying it’s bad for two men involved in a threesome with a woman to touch each other? Goodbye.

3)   If two men and a woman are engaging in a threesome, what do you think is happening exactly? One man might be having sex with her vaginally/anally while the other is kissing her, receiving oral sex from her, etc. ….I’m still not understanding how this is not a threesome?

In short, the people who subscribe to these kinds of notions reveal themselves for what they are: fragile minds bogged down in misogynist thinking who literally cannot imagine an encounter in which a woman has sexual agency free from shame. In the minds of these people, a woman does not DO during sex, but is done. Men are DOING her, and she is being DONE. Even when she is performing oral sex, she is not doing, but having something done to her. This line of reasoning is a little rapey, if you think about it.

If sex is consensual, and it damn well better be, then a woman is fully capable of DOING. Two men is her prerogative. So is three. So is four. Know why? Because she can do what the hell she wants with her vagina to as many people as she wants. A threesome does not become a train merely because only one of the three is female.

Your sexist notion of female sexual behavior does not get to rename an act simply because of a woman’s participation in it. That’s like calling women’s basketball pussyball. It’s basketball. Its name doesn’t change simply because the people on the court are people who you believe should be shamed for their bodies and actions. Basketball. Threesomes. Call it what it is and keep your sexist little semantics to yourself.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Robin Thicke Thinks He’s a Victim of Miley Cyrus

Image

Let me begin by saying I am not a fan of Miley Cyrus. She is an appropriative, entitled little twit who sees black women’s bodies as mere cogs in her privileged fame machine. But everyone knows that if we’re going to talk about the shit show that was her infamous VMA performance, then we’re not just talking about one party. If we’re going to talk about twerking and raunchy attempts at notoriety, we’re talking about two parties: one the near-naked and tongue-wagging Miley Cyrus, and the other is the pinstriped and pompadoured Robin Thicke. Which is what this blog is about, because yesterday in his interview with Oprah, Robin Thicke laid all responsibility of the backlash after their twerking fiasco firmly on the shoulders of 20-year old Miley Cyrus.

Let’s talk about why this is bullshit.

The simple explanation is, “Hey, you slick little bastard, it takes two to tango.” Cyrus wasn’t on stage alone. If she had been, we could point all available fingers in her direction. But we can’t. Because she wasn’t alone. Her ass was against somebody’s crotch and that crotch belonged to Robin Thicke.

Thicke has an answer for this.

“Listen,” he told Oprah. “I’m the twerkee. I don’t twerk. I’m just twerked upon.” Oh. What does this remind us of? A sixteen-year old girl winds up pregnant and is the talk of the town. “Little Betty got herself pregnant,” they gossip. “What a trollop.” The male in question—without whose sperm there would be no scandalous pregnancy—becomes invisible. In the face of a patriarchal framework of female behavior, the unwed girl somehow was alone in her baby-making. The stigma falls to her. The shame falls to her. Thicke throwing Cyrus under the bus—a bus he’s driving—is eerily reminiscent of this scenario in which women are viewed as lone actors in a two-man show.

Thicke goes on to further absolve himself of all responsibility. “I was onstage, so I didn’t see it.” He adds, “I’m not thinking sex, I’m thinking fun. I’m singing my butt off. I’m singing and I’m looking at the sky and I’m singing and I’m not really paying attention to all that.” His final damning quote? “That’s on her.”

Robin, no one’s demanding child support payments. They’re just saying, you know, maybe you could share some of the controversy here.

“I spent my whole career playing it safe, being a gentleman, never doing anything controversial,” he told the November issue of Vanity Fair. “They told me [beforehand] that Miley’s going to take her clothes off and dance around and she might bend over…I just said, ‘I don’t care, let’s entertain the people.'”

Is it just me, or is Thicke describing Cyrus’s potential bending over the way one might describe a loaded gun? As if he’s a victim in this whole thing, and Miley Cyrus’s body/sexuality is the true danger here? If that ass was so dangerous, Robin, why did you place yourself firmly in the way of it?

It’s all so absurd. Cyrus discussed the double standard shortly after the VMAs and as much as I dislike her, I was inclined to agree. But this is even worse. What else does this remind us of? This shunning of responsibility in the face of young female sexuality? Thicke is a 36-year old married man, Cyrus a 20-year old child-star. How many times have we heard about the grown ass pedophile saying that the 14-year old school girl “seduced” him? Remember this case in Montana? The judge gave a 54-year old teacher who repeatedly raped his 14-year old student a 30-day sentence because he believed the girl was “older than her chronological age,” implying that the girl was a willing agent in her rape by a man 40 years her senior.

Before all the rape apologists start whipping out their Sharpies and making cardboard signs decrying my comparison of Thicke/Cyrus to rape, let me be clear. What happened onstage at the VMAs was not rape, and Cyrus was and is perfectly able to make her own ridiculous, appropriative, tiresome decisions. But Thicke’s behavior after the fact, especially now with this most recent interview with Oprah, requires criticism.

Thicke’s ability to saddle Cyrus with the blame indicates a problem in our culture, a culture in which men are rewarded for their sexuality and women are punished; a culture in which a man has the agency to engage in sexual acts and then withdraw from them untainted, leaving the woman to deal with the shitstorm as if they acted alone.

All this aside, the show was rehearsed. Every second of the VMAs was choreographed, planned, done over and over. For Thicke to throw up his angelic little hands and claim ignorance not only illustrates him as the spineless coward that he is, but exposes his willingness to let misogynistic public opinion to run its dirty course, knowing full well that in this culture, if a man says “It wasn’t me, it was all her! Female sexuality is scary and gross!”…the whole world won’t think twice before shoving her under the bus that’s always rolling.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Chris Brown and A Nation of Raped Boys

chris brown rape

Yesterday I read an article in which Chris Brown discussed the age at which he lost his virginity. He was 8, he says, and the girl was 14 or 15. He mentions that in “the country” he and his cousins watched a lot of porn, so by age 8 he was “hot to trot.” Maybe so. Children can have sexual feelings at 8, but whether they can consent to sex at age 8 is an entirely different subject. Sex at age 8 is rape, especially given the fact that the girl involved was significantly older, a teenager. Chris Brown was raped, but to hear him tell it, that experience was positive, healthy. Something to brag about. “At eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it.”

And the worst part? This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this from a man.

I’ve personally dated two men who described these early sexual experiences, and have heard these stories from friends as well. In terms of my former boyfriends, one was seven when he lost his virginity, the other nine. Both saw this as a notch in their tiny, child-like belts. The girls in their experiences were teenagers also, so the men seemed to think that this was a testament to their own irresistibility: at eight years old, their sex appeal was so overwhelming, so potent, that teenage girls were compelled to have sex with them. The idea that this was rape—and it was—never crossed their minds. Why? Because the same poisonous system that tells women they are rape-able tells men that they are not.

We know some of the behavioral signals that occur when girls have been raped. Depression, promiscuity, unexplained anger, anxiety. These are words we use when we describe the ways victims behave. It’s interesting that I have seen these same symptoms in young boys—alongside me in class when I was a child, in boyfriends as I got older, in men beside me on the bus in Chicago—yet no one looks at male anger and male promiscuity as symptoms of anything. These are just classic male behaviors. “Boys will be boys,” and boys sleep around. Boys have bad tempers. Right?

Wrong.

What if we have been normalizing male rape victims’ symptoms for centuries? This is not to say that every man has been the victim of sexual abuse, but I know more than a few who have been, and their cries for help—the ones that get such attention when our “ladylike” daughters act out sexually and/or aggressively—went unnoticed, chalked up to a male standard of behavior that not only turns a blind eye to promiscuity but rewards it. Can you imagine? Can you imagine being sexually abused and then growing up being told that this is a good thing? That your sexual potency has been enhanced? That rape was a “head-start” into the wonderful world of sex? The damaging system that tells girls they are worthless after rape has a disgusting flip side for boys: you have worth now. This violence has made you a god.

And we wonder why our boys grow up sex-obsessed, equating violence with pleasure (“be a beast at it”), and imagining that rape is only something that happens to women. We wonder why they grow up hating women; women who might look like their abuser, or women who were raped and actually had their violence addressed by a society that believes men are immune from that kind of crime, a crime that when committed against a male goes woefully under-reported.

Boys will be boys. And boys can be hurt. We must stop viewing patriarchy as a weapon that wounds only women. To do so silences generations of victims…and often creates more.

Update 10/08/2013: I just came across this post by Colorlines on this same subject and I encourage you to read it as well.

Update 10/09/2013: I’ve been told numerous times that I am misinterpreting the phrase “be a beast at it.” I am aware of this and it was done deliberately, as I believe it’s important to acknowledge and understand the role of semantics in patriarchy and rape culture.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,