There Shouldn’t Be an App for That

Because consent is more slippery than a yes/no before-sex contract.

 

I consider myself a generally well-read, up-to-date person. Often this is to my own detriment, as I usually know the exact reason that the world is on fire, or the newest thing that should make me despair about humanity. It also makes me a total buzzkill. Whether I’m explaining why we should stop using helium balloons if we want to be able to use MRI’s in the future, or pointing out that Santa Claus shares a lot of characteristics with abusive partners, I can be counted on to provide an informed, depressing reality check. Which is why it’s actually a little bit surprising that I find out something new and weird about the world that I didn’t actually know. Especially when it’s something that I really should have known. Case in point: someone having the bright idea to create an app for consent. 

Consent is something that is both incredibly simple and functionally complicated. Far beyond the old, over-simplified “no means no,” we’ve moved on to “yes means yes.” Consent has to be affirmative (silence does not equal a yes, only yesses or other signs of affirmation equal a yes) enthusiastic (not the result of coercion, badgering, or other negative action, but rather something the person genuinely wants) and sober (you legally cannot consent if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol). Admittedly, this can look a little weird in practice, and often requires a lot of communication between partners—a nod can be a yes, as can other body language. Sometimes consent is not a super formal “Is it acceptable if I insert my penis into your vagina right now?” but rather a “Are you ready?” or “Is this okay?” The idea of affirmative consent is new for a lot of people, and many people who haven’t been practicing it can be understandably confused. But that confusion is no excuse for the dumb idea of turning consent into a literal contract.

Reina Gattuso does an admirable job of explaining the many reasons that a consent app is a bad idea, but they really boil down to one point: consent cannot, and should not, be reduced to a contract. Consent is a mobile concept—I can think that I will be okay with something, only to change my minds moments later. I can be okay with something on Tuesday and not okay with it on Wednesday. And while there is nothing wrong with going over lists of activities with a partner and deciding what you do and don’t feel comfortable doing, you should never feel beholden to that list.

I can’t get over the sensation that a consent app serves the same purpose as a non-disclosure agreement—a way to cover the ass of the person doing the bad thing, and not really anything helpful for the person who is likely to be hurt. I can easily see consent apps and consent contracts being used in court to paint a rape survivor as a flip-flopping liar, or used to pressure a survivor to stay silent. Let’s just not, okay?

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image of “terms and conditions” based on: bfishadow, CC BY 2.0

Let’s Talk About “Societal Norms”

Because there are better ways to run a society.

 

I “godwinned” myself this weekend, at a national conference.

It was a conference focusing on scholarly publishing and blockchain technology, and I’d been invited to talk about citation indexing because the combination of the two (blockchain technology and citation indexes) is a personal hobby of mine. Yes, I’m great at parties, why do you ask? Anyway the talk went fine, and I got through the whole thing without, I think, horribly offending anyone.

But there was another talk, by a self-described “blockchain skeptic,” which did not go over quite so well with the crowd.

Now before I go any further, I want to point out that I am absolutely in favour of skepticism when it comes to the usefulness of blockchains. Here’s a handy flowchart to find out if you need one (hint: you probably don’t). The vast majority of things are not sufficiently improved by the added cost and complexity of a blockchain to warrant the use of one.

But that said, this presentation had a number of serious issues. There were some very strange claims. The claim was made that privately-delivered packages are stolen off America’s porches more than USPS-delivered letters because stealing letters is a “federal offense,” which is wrong because packages are simply more likely to contain things of value that can be fenced anonymously. The claim was also made that Bitcoin isn’t a currency because it’s a security, which, well, the SEC disagrees with, anyway. The claim was also made that we don’t need a self-sovereign identity (a government-free secure ID) because we have social security numbers, which was just a terrible argument because have you even looked at the costs of identity theft?

But the chief claim that made me twitch was the assumption that “societal norms” are a simpler, more reliable way to do most things.

And boy did that not sit well with me.

Here’s one example: the presenter said that speed limits are governed by societal norms, and that’s fine. If a speed limit is (say) 30 miles per hour, you can probably go 40 miles per hour. The police generally don’t mind, he said, until you get to 41 or 42, and then they really get you. It’s a societal norm that certain rules can be bent. On the surface this seems like it gels with my experience, except I’m white, and, well.

Have you ever heard of “driving while black”?

See, societal norms are not just. They are not fair. They are privy to racism, sexism, and bigotry of all stripes. Societal norms automatically privilege those in power. There are a lot of places in America where it’s generally agreed that you can break a law with impunity, but only if you’re white. Waiting for a friend at Starbucks before you buy anything? Fine. But if you’re black that’s “loitering.” Having a loud party on your lawn? Fine. But if you’re black that’s “disturbing the peace.” You see where I’m going with this?

Societal norms replicate our worst biases.

So I godwinned myself and pointed out that societal norms are both powerful and often dangerous, in that they also gave us the Holocaust. The societal norms in 1930s Germany gave Jewish, queer, and white people different speed limits—if you replace “speed limits” with “rights to even exist.”

Societal norms are almost always a terrible thing to rely on, because society is made of people, and people can’t be relied upon to be fair and just to one another. It’s not that we don’t ever get it right, but all you have to do is look at the rise in actual Nazis in America, or at the rate of white Evangelical support for the lying, self-aborbed, racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist president of the United States, to see that “norms” are easily made worse with only the slightest of nudges.

Frankly, given with how much ease they privilege the powerful at the expense of the dispossessed, it’s probably a moral imperative to get away from reliance on societal norms.

So does that mean we should use blockchains to help govern society more? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they’d just help us, as members of society, to replicate the problems of societal norms in more high-tech ways. But what it does mean is that “societal norms work” is a bad argument against looking into whether new technologies might be able to help.

Because god knows we need all the help we can get.

Signed: The Remixologist

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Featured image is of a speed limit sign reading “Speed Limit 25 Miles,” by Eric Fischer, CC BY 2.0 

Okay One More Thing About White Supremacism

If someone calling you a Nazi is enough to make you act like one, I got news for you.

 

I know I talk about a lot of “qwhite interesting” things on here, from how people support white supremacism without ever saying out loud “white people are better” to how supposed “free speech” supporters are nothing of the sort, but I find myself compelled, once again, to write a little bit here about the latest terrible take.

A journalist (who shall remain nameless) has essentially formulated a response to those of us who know a white nationalist when we see one, indicating that it’s us—the ones who call them white nationalists, white supremacists, and Nazis—that are driving them to become white nationalists, white supremacists, and Nazis. The logic seems to be that we—by labelling them something awful—are somehow driving them to be more radical.

I’m here to say, in short, “no.”

If you’re accused of white nationalist sentiment, and your response is “You want to see white nationalism? I’ll really show you white nationalism!” you really didn’t need us to call you one.

You just needed an excuse to show it off.

A normal person, a person who hates white nationalism, who hates white supremacism, and who hates Nazism, when accused of white nationalism, white supremacism, or Nazism, will try to demonstrate the precise opposite. They will not try to be more white nationalist, white supremacist, or Nazi-like. They will try to be less so.

If you find yourself in the unpleasant position of being called a white supremacist, consider:

(a) listening to why the person thinks you’re one

(b) comparing that description of what you’ve done to white supremacists, and

(c) not doing any of the things that make you even remotely like a white supremacist.

And just for the record, when someone’s calling you a “Nazi,” it’s not because they think you’ve already built camps and are marching millions to their murder.

They’re saying you’re the kind of person who wouldn’t care enough to stop it. The kind that joined the Nazi party because, well who else were you going to vote for? Because, you know, that Hitler fellow, he really just says what he means, you know? At least he’s honest.

Those people were Nazis too. They were every single bit as responsible for the murders that took place.

If you double down when someone calls you a white supremacist? You were definitely already one.

Don’t double down; fix yourself.

Signed: The Remixologist.

***

Featured image is of the Wiktionary definition for “double down.”

 

Things That Make Elle Mad (This Week)

Because even in the low-energy weeks, there’s time for lists.

 

Normally when I do a list post, I at least have the energy to add links about what I’m talking about. Today I don’t. Sorry folks. But to make up for it I’m adding extra rantiness to the earlier ones, and trying to make the later ones short, witty bon mots.

Here’s ten eleven things that are making me mad this week, roughly in order of most-described to least-described.

1. Apparently at least one of the women who was abused by Eric Schneiderman was advised by friends and loved ones not to come forward, because Schneiderman was “too important” for the Democrats to lose. Let me make something very clear—no one is so important that we cannot afford to lose them if they abuse women. No one. If Barack Obama was revealed to be an abuser it would hurt my soul, but I would drop him like the heavy end of a couch if it meant his victims felt safe coming forward. (Barack Obama don’t you dare turn out to be an abuser, my poor heart can’t take it.)

2. Gina Haspel is one of the best case studies in both “women aren’t necessarily feminists, a woman in power is not necessarily good for women” and “criticizing someone while they are a woman is different from criticizing someone for being a woman.” It is not sexist to point out that Haspel oversaw torture. It is not sexist to point out that Haspel destroyed evidence. It is not sexist to point out that Haspel gave wishy-washy, disappointing answers and refused to condemn her former actions during her hearing. It is not feminist to have a torture condoning, evidence destroying, human rights violating person as the head of the CIA, even if she is a woman. Breaking the glass ceiling isn’t worth it if the shards fall down on women and other oppressed groups.

3. We treated Monica Lewinsky really terribly and Town and Country is continuing the process. You don’t disinvite Monica Lewinsky from an event when Bill Clinton confirms he’ll be at an event. You disinvite Bill Clinton. Good rule of thumb from Miss Manners: If there’s going to be an awkward confrontation between two people, you disinvite the person who has credibly been accused of rape.

4. Fox cancelling Brooklyn Nine Nine is the saddest thing since they cancelled Firefly. Fox doesn’t know a good thing when it has it.

5. White people really, really, really need to stop calling the police on black people unless an actual felony is happening. And even then (because in some states just having a bag of weed is a felony) we should think super carefully.

6. No one should listen to R. Kelly anymore. Stop it.

7. I don’t want to read any stories about where Donald Trump Jr. is sticking his dick. Stop it.

8. Donald Trump pulling out of the Iran deal is incredibly, indescribably ignorant.

9. Aaron Persky needs to shut up forever.

10. So does Roman Polanski.

Oh, and

11. “Be Best” is a ri-goddamn-diculous name for an initiative.

 

That is “What is Making Elle Mad Right Now.” I hope it was educational.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured Image: A feminist blogger “to do” list. Source: own photo.

Let’s Talk About Robin Hood (2018)

Because I’m a medievalist and I need to understand what’s going on here.

 

This is about a new movie that’s coming out soon. The movie, starring Jamie Foxx and someone named Taron Egerton, is called “Robin Hood.” It’s a new take on a story you might be familiar with, about a lord returning home from the crusades to medieval England only to find that King John has taxed everyone into oblivion and is ruling like a tyrant. Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor ensues.

But I have so, so many questions about this take.

Here’s the trailer.

Actually, I have only one question, and the rest of them stem from it:

WHEN DOES THIS MOVIE TAKE PLACE?

Let’s take a look at some stills.

Okay, in this first shot, you see the city in which this all takes place. Look at those beefy as all get-out walls. Look at the truly massive foundations. Are those tile roofs on all the buildings inside? And what’s going on with the footings of the industrial-revolution-style bridge off to the left? Are those concrete footings in the water? Well, okay, none of this is at first glance totally impossible in a medieval setting, but it’s pretty outlandish.

Okay things are getting weird here. Is that an industrial steel sculpture? And look at those textiles. The fashion is of course modern, but look at the leather of that suit jacket, and the fine texture of the vest beneath. I guess it wouldn’t be totally, completely, absolutely impossible to imagine—

—okay stop right there. That bottle. That’s a machine-made bottle. There’s no way around that. It looks like a Heineken bottle for chrissakes. There’s no doubt about it: that’s post-Industrial Revolution materials science.

Which I guess explains the riveted steel construction of this… armored troop carrier? Tank? Out of place premodern submarine? Thing?

Not to mention the huge quantities of steel everywhere and… whatever this lock-and-load crossbow-slash-grenade-launcher thing might be.

Okay, so this is, um. I know, it’s a post-apocalyptic society! Yeah, that’s it!

…except then why are they talking about returning from the crusades? At 1:30 in the trailer, a voiceover (probably Foxx) says:

“You were a crusader. Now you have to be a warrior.”

Okay that’s weird. And not just because crusaders were warriors, in no uncertain terms.

So it takes place after some kind of apocalypse, but not too bad an apocalypse because we still have modern materials science and industrial-scale metal production, but the crusades are still a thing, so… maybe there were other crusades?

Yeah, that’s it. There’s no internet anymore, and the islamophobes won (causing the ruination of society in some kind of war that pushed us back to industrial revolution technology), and now there’s some kind of persistent and/or permanent front in an ongoing war, so if you want to be a dick to Muslims you have to actually get up and go fight them in person. Okay wow, that’s bleak, but it’d explain the whole “crusades” thing except—

Wait. Why is everyone using crossbows? And what’s this?

Are those catapults?!

If you can make perfect glass bottles, and truly vast quantities of riveted steel, and beautifully uniform textiles and leather jackets… where’s the GUNPOWDER?

Where are the guns? Where are the cannons? Where are the bombs? If you’re in a state of constant war, and you’ve got enough wealth and manpower for huge numbers of metal-clad, lock-action crossbow-wielding civil defense soldiers at home, why doesn’t anyone have a gun? Why are you using catapults to throw stones over the walls instead of using gunpowder to blow holes through them?

Is there not enough nitrogen? Did we lose the Haber-Bosch process? Is that what caused the apocalypse? Did half the world starve because we somehow lost all ability to artificially produce nitrate? I AM SO CONFUSED.

Look, I know the answer, the real answer, is because someone thought “hey wouldn’t it be cool if it looked like this?” But it just makes me twitchy when you see such sloppy worldbuilding without the writers even hanging a lantern on it or anything. It’s the kind of thing that turns this:

into this:

and that just makes me feel like this:

Signed: The Remixologist.

***

Featured image is of a dude about to throw a molotof cocktail in the Heineken bottle in a medieval-ish film, from the Robin Hood trailer.

Toxic Masculinity, Elliot Rodger, and What You Can Do

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

A long time ago, my first foray into screaming into the void came in the form of my own blog. It was, by most measures, not terribly successful. As you may have noticed by my often-rambling posts and my loose relationship with the term “Friday,” I’ve got a tendency to focus on over-long deep dives and a hatred of deadlines. These characteristics often make it difficult to actually finish and publish pieces, and these characteristics are not improved when I am my own editor/boss.

The best thing to come out of that early blog, besides Richard going “hey, wanna also write for my blog?” (seriously, imagining Richard looking vaguely disappointed in me does wonders for my completion rate) was one of my very first, and most disturbing, deep dives—a prolonged piece on Elliot Rodger, his 100+ page manifesto, and aspects of sexism in culture.

At the time, many news outlets were focusing on the more sensational aspects of Rodger’s manifesto, like his declaration that women should either be starved to death in concentration camps or selectively bred, like cattle, to declare Rodger somehow less-culpable by means of “insanity.” But at the time, I had the notion that the explanation was both more simple and more dangerous—Rodger’s actions weren’t the result of a mental illness, but of a cultural one. And the laborious, upsetting slog through his manifesto and his videos confirmed that belief for me. Rodger may have been a few different kinds of emotionally disturbed, but he was, at heart, a product of his culture.

He had been taught that women, and specifically sex with beautiful women, was his due in life. He had been taught that virginity was shameful. He was taught that he was special, and that he should be treated as such. He was taught that his narcissistic view of the world was the right one. He was taught that money would solve all of his problems. He was taught that his feelings and thoughts were more valid than those of women. He was taught that any rejection by women is the cause of great distress. (Seriously, he apparently cried for an hour in a bathroom stall after he said “hi” to a hot girl and she didn’t respond. I’m so not even making this up.) He was taught that his actions have no real consequence, and that he could get away with assaulting women. He was taught that women were lesser than him, no better than “beasts.” He was told that he was a “gentleman,” and that he should be rewarded accordingly. He was taught that there is something wrong with women, and something wrong with the asshole “alpha males” they supposedly flock to. He was taught that other men were being given things that he deserved more.

Elliot Rodger was a product of toxic masculinity.

It was in reading his manifesto that I first began truly understanding and appreciating the multitude of meanings behind that phrase. The way that it implies both danger and disease. The way that it implies harm both to the infected and the people around the infected. Toxic masculinity is like nuclear waste—dangerous in small doses, deadly in larger ones, and capable of harming both the first person to come into contact with it and all of the people that come into contact with that person. In my mind I start seeing the world as if I’m Roddy Piper in They Live—when I have my sunglasses on, I can see the neon green taint of toxic masculinity on teenagers joking about “no homo,” on message boards, on the survivors of domestic or sexual abuse. I can see men glowing a sickly chartreuse, eating themselves up from the inside at the same time that they infect the world around them.

When I first wrote about Elliot Rodger, I assumed that I was already as outraged, and as burned out, as I could get. Now I look back on that time with a sad smile, because 2018 Elle can’t help but think that 2014 Elle was still sweetly idealistic and naïve. I ended my original post on Rodger thusly:

I wish I had some nice, neat way to wrap this all up, but I really don’t. My outrage is too strong for that. Seeing the ways that seemingly innocuous “nice guy” rhetoric can snowball into murder, seeing the ways that the indignant and apologetic “not all men” battle cry can be used to cover up the obvious and self-professed motives of a killer, and even briefly scrolling through the stories on “When Women Refuse” is enough to make me despair about the world. All I can do is hope that the things that I write, and the things that others who are much more eloquent than myself have written, can spark a thought, a conversation, or a movement. The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable. If we can create a culture where sex is neither an assumed privilege nor a badge of honor, where a woman’s right to decide her own desires and sexual partners is respected, where women are allowed to voice their grievances without being interrupted, and where women are seen as equals, not as transactions, then there may be some hope for us yet.

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

That line jumps out to me again and again. Because I was so right, and so wrong, at the same time. The actions of future Elliot Rodgers were preventable. We just didn’t fucking do it.

The pickup artist forums of Rodger’s time have turned into the “incel” forums of today. (“Incel” is an absurd made up word that means “involuntary celibate.” It’s used by misogynists who think that women literally owe them sex, and that the fact that they aren’t getting their dicks wet is the highest treason possible. I will never use that term again after this point in the article, because I think of it the same way I think of the term “alt-right”; I refuse to use the terms that bigots came up with to keep themselves from sounding like bigots. So they’ll be “misogynists” and “Nazis” respectively from here on out.) A brief perusal of these forums shows virulent misogyny, bewildering levels of entitlement, and a frightening commitment to violence and violent language. Rape is frequently advocated. Women are frequently denigrated. The “Stacys” of the world, aka women, are purposely going out with the “Chads” of the world, aka “normie” guys who are alpha males and not this particular brand of misogynist, and that is just super unfair. It’s so unfair, in fact, that people should probably die because of it.

That seems to be the thought process behind Alek Minassian, who praised Elliot Rodger as the “supreme gentleman” and promised a misogynist rebellion shortly before using a van to kill and injure people.

Alek Minassian is the future Elliot Rodger that four years ago I was hoping we could stop. We obviously didn’t. If anything, things have gotten worse. Even our president is a sexual predator. There’s not a lot of difference between “grab ‘em by the pussy” and the vitriol spewed on these misogynist sites. #MeToo is happening, but there also already a slate of fawning articles wondering when the men who were temporarily deposed by #MeToo can make their “comeback,” as if they were caught doing coke at a party and not, you know, sexually harassing and assaulting women. If I had a nickel for every time a respected news outlet wondered if feminism has gone “too far,” I wouldn’t have student loans anymore. Gamergate has permanently changed the landscape of gaming, game journalism, and even the goddamn sci-fi awards, all for the worse. I thank my lucky stars because I have been a woman blogging about feminism on the internet for four years, and I have yet to receive my first rape threat for doing so. I’m basically the only female blogger I know who can say that, and I know it is a matter of time and google algorithms until it happens to me as well.

The only positive difference between today and four years ago is that this time, news outlets are actually acknowledging Minassian’s misogyny and toxic masculinity, instead of just wondering if he’s mentally ill (which, for the record, is not a significant contributor to violence, so stop blaming mentally ill people every time someone goes on a shooting spree).

That difference is the only reason I can end this post on a somewhat hopeful note. Because unlike issues like gun control or SESTA, toxic masculinity is something that literally every one of us can help fight against. This is not in the hands of an inept Congress. While the patriarchy is strong, MRA’s don’t have quite the political reach of the NRA. This is our culture, and we can take it back. This is especially important for parents. We’ve already fucked up our existing generations, and we’re gonna have to do a lot of work to fix them. It’s easier if we can start when they’re young and haven’t learned toxic masculinity yet. So to that end, I’m going to leave you with ten things you (yes you!) can do. Start today.

  1. Stop buying into bullshit gender binaries, especially ones that claim men can’t be emotional, weak, or have associations with traditional feminine qualities.
  2. Encourage men and boys to consume more “girl-focused” media.
  3. Don’t segregate children by gender for every damn thing. Encourage non-gendered friendships and play.
  4. Abandon terms like “real men.” Even if it is being used in supposedly helpful ways, like “real men respect women.” There is no such thing as a “fake man.” At least not until the robots take over, and that’s an entirely different conversation. Let’s just give up on that whole concept of policing what it means to be a man, shall we?
  5. If you’re a man, do your best to unlearn gender norms that hurt you, even if, again, they are supposedly positive. You don’t have to be the bread winner. You aren’t “babysitting” your kid, you are raising your damn kid. You don’t have to pay for dinner (unless your partner is making 60% of what you do because of the pay gap. In that case, yeah, keep paying for dinner.)
  6. Work to dismantle the value system around virginity. The fact that guys who are virgins are failures and that girls who are no longer virgins is sluts means that guys and girls are constantly in a sexually-based conflict in which the rise of male value implicitly comes with the diminishing of female value. Stop it. Encourage healthy, consensual sexuality for everyone. Virginity is great if people want to be virgins. Not-virginity is great if people want to be not-virgins. The end.
  7. Please, for the love of God, abandon language like “don’t be a pussy.” Anyone who has seen a childbirth video knows that the vagina is basically the strongest thing in the world. I’m not telling you to “reclaim” the word pussy, because I’m a little skeptical about the idea of “reclaiming” words, but at the very least it shouldn’t be a phrase that means the very opposite of what it should. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of phrases like “that takes balls” and “ball busters.” Let’s just get rid of cisgender-normative genitalia phrases in general, shall we?
  8. Stop assuming the worst about men, even when it’s a convenient excuse. I’ve known plenty of boys and men in my life. Weirdly, none of them have been sex-obsessed maniacs who can’t control themselves around a woman’s bare shoulders. They’ve also all been passable at doing laundry, keeping track of appointments, talking about their emotions, and communicating clearly. It’s like men aren’t all latent rapists lying in wait, or totally inept at household tasks and emotional labor. Weird.
  9. Call people out on their shit. Is someone around you buying into outdated stereotypes? Is someone telling a rape joke? Is someone complaining about “blue balls” because they haven’t been graced with sex yet? Is someone complaining about being in the “friend zone”? Tell them to knock it off.
  10. Encourage male friendships and male affection/diminish the association of weakness with homosexuality. I can hug any of my girlfriends pretty much any time I want. I can hug any of my guy friends almost any time I want. It’s a fantastic world of hugs. But for a lot of guys, simple affectionate contact is seen as suspect, especially with other men. They live in fear of being called too sensitive, or being called homosexual. They have to hedge acknowledgements of platonic love with “no homo, bro.” Men, I have to conclude, are often really fucking lonely. Let them be friends. Let them hug.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is of a warning sign reading “TOXIC” and showing a human figure in distress after consuming something presumably toxic. Michael Smith, CC BY 2.0

Let The Students Sleep

Shift the school day later.

 

Eight for work, eight for rest, eight for what we will. That’s the slogan that best represents the fight for a reasonable work-life balance, the one that led to the 40-hour work week. The venerable nine-to-five.

In my life I’ve seen the gradual erosion of the nine-to-five. I’ve seen commutes as long as two or even three hours each way. I’ve seen people working seventy or even eighty-hour work weeks, which where I come from (Canada) is literally not even legal. And I sure as hell haven’t seen wages go up to account for it.

But what I want to talk about for a moment is more than the labour movement. It’s about kids and the nine-to-five. And about how we aren’t even giving them that.

My local high school starts at 7:30am. It ends at 2:25pm.

Why?

This absolutely isn’t a post about teachers not working enough, by the way. If school starts at 7:30 and goes until 2:30, you know damn well they’re there from seven to five, doing coaching and club mentoring and music and theater, not to mention the lesson planning and the grading they take home with them every night. That’s its own injustice.

But what I fail to understand is why any school should start classes at 7:30 in the morning.

I can hear you saying right now that it’s to let parents drop their kids off and then get to work. Bull. If they were concerned about that, they wouldn’t close up shop until well after 6:30, if an hour and a half is the buffer you want to give working parents around the nine-to-five. It’s not out of consideration for parents, I promise.

Literally the only thing I can find in my scouring of the internet is vague references to agricultural life, cheaper busing, and an ingrained idea that if students are tired it’s because they’re morally lacking.

But year after year we get study after study demonstrating that school start times should be later.

It improves sleep time, which improves overall health.

It decreases lateness and improves attendance.

It improves student behaviour, which honestly makes everybody’s lives easier.

There are Many Many Studies On This.

Hell, even the CDC agrees.

So why are we doing this?

Recently, Boston had a fight over school start times, and the discussion was telling: everyone seems to favour starting school between 7:45 and 8:45, and according to the city, the buses would be too expensive if they did that for everyone, so some schools are starting as early as 7:15am. They were trying to follow the studies, they say, that show that teens need later start times. So they pushed younger kids earlier.

And apparently nobody thought of just pushing the whole schedule later.

I say: what about 9:30am for high school? What about 10am? Instead of keeping the vaunted “7:45-8:45” window for high school students and pushing the younger kids earlier, why not just push everything later? It’s not like the teachers are going to work any more or less (unfortunately—sorry teachers): they’ll just have to do their class prep, grading, and so on before rather than after the day.

One school in Australia tried 10:45am, though they admit they did have to scale it back to 10am to squeeze everything in by 4:30pm. It seemed to go over rather well, especially with the grounds opening at 9am.

And I know it’d throw a kink in the American cult of teenager sports. A day that ends at 3:30pm or 4:30pm means pushing sports into the evening. But maybe sports aren’t a good reason to hurt student attendance, health, and even completion rates.

Look, I get it. School is very important. It’s the foundation for the well-educated society we need to ensure our collective prosperity as a society. But it isn’t an emergency. It shouldn’t require students to be dragged out of their beds before the sun comes up just so they can meet an unreasonable and punitive schedule that objectively hurts learning outcomes and student health.

Let the students sleep. Shift the school day later.

Signed: The Remixologist

***

The Featured Image is a woodblock print from the early days of the labour movement reading “8 Hours for Work, 8 Hours for Rest, 8 Hours for What We Will.”

When Character Descriptions Should Exit, Stage Left

Screenwriters. Dialogue yes. Characters not so much.

 

Hey loyal readers (yes, both of you, I see you!), sorry for my prolonged absence. Life refuses to cease happening, even when I’m really, really busy. Totally unfair. To make up for it, I’m going to babble about female characters in movies! (Which I was going to do anyways, but now it sounds like a treat. That’s called “salesmanship.”)

In my last roundup post I mentioned the “describe yourself as a male author would” trend, and my adoration for it. This week, Vulture is helping me up my game by providing 50 actual descriptions of female characters from (primarily male-written) screenplays. And…. wow. We have got ourselves some sexism folks. And some weird obsessions. But first, I want to take you back a bit, to the Long Long Ago, when Richard and I were on This Week in Tomorrow. You may remember my insanely long posts on Joss Whedon, and how I started by taking umbrage with his script for Wonder Woman. The script started off on literally the wrong foot, focusing on Steve Trevor as he crashed into an island, before revealing a character known as “The Girl,” followed by a sexualized, primitive-esque description of said Girl. (Who, remember, is Wonder Woman. Like, our main character.):

To say she is beautiful is almost to miss the point. She is elemental, as natural and wild as the luminous flora surrounding. Her dark hair waterfalls to her shoulders in soft arcs and curls. Her body is curvaceous, but taut as a drawn bow. She wears burnished metal bracelets on both wrists, wide and intricately detailed. Her shift is of another era; we’d call it Greek. She is barefoot.

I made a lot of fun of this description, and all of the descriptions after it, (did you know that absolutely every character in that movie is beautiful? I mean all the female characters, obvi.) but little did I know how… average… they really are in the film industry. Because hot damn, do male writers like their semi-pornographic character descriptions.

James Cameron made me very, very uncomfortable, both because his description of Neytiri made me realize how young she was supposed to be (18? Are you freaking kidding me? Were you trying to go full Pocahontas and make her 13 but just couldn’t do it?) and because of how clearly it seems that James Cameron has been thinking about sex with blue catgirl teenagers:

Draped on the limb like a leopard, is a striking NA’VI GIRL. She watches, only her eyes moving. She is lithe as a cat, with a long neck, muscular shoulders, and nubile breasts. And she is devastatingly beautiful — for a girl with a tail. In human age she would be 18. Her name is NEYTIRI (nay-Tee-ree).

Yep, beautiful except for that tail. The tail is definitely a turnoff, and not clearly a turn-on. Also, the description of her breasts doesn’t even make sense. You’re either saying she has sexually mature breasts, or sexually attractive breasts. Which, yeah. They’re breasts. That’s kind of their gig. You could have gone with like, actually describing them (which is still icky but at least makes sense) or just say what you’re obviously trying to say, which is “SHE’S LEGAL I PROMISE.”

Or we have the description for Margot Robbie’s character in Wolf of Wall Street:

We see NAOMI, 24, blonde and gorgeous, a living wet dream in LaPerla lingerie. Naomi licks her lips; she’s incredibly, painfully hot.

The only thing that should be “painfully hot” is touching a working stove. But the “winner,” both for creepiness and for bringing back a racist word I thought for sure died during Reconstruction, is Quentin Tarantino in his description of “Jungle Julia” from Death Proof:

A tall (maybe 6ft) Amazonian Mulatto goddess walks down her hallway, dressed in a baby tee, and panties that her big ass (a good thing) spill out of, and her long legs grow out of. Her big bare feet slap on the hard wood floor. She moves to the cool rockabilly beat as she paces like a tiger putting on her clothes. Outside her apartment she hears a “Honk Honk.” She sticks her long mane of silky black curly hair, her giraffish neck and her broad shoulders, out of the window and yells to a car below. This sexy chick is Austin, Texas, local celebrity JUNGLE JULIA LUCAI, the most popular disc jockey of the coolest rock radio station in a music town.

Of course he mentioned her feet. Of course. And of course he compared her to multiple animals, and brought back the “M” word, and called her “Amazonian” for being tall. Of course he had to mention her ass, and even enter a parenthetical about it. Of course he called her a “chick.” What does a “giraffish” neck even mean? Shouldn’t that mean its abnormally long? Is that also supposed to be sexy? I need about a million showers, and to never read these words again.

The one saving grace of these descriptions, and of the Whedon descriptions, is that they at least don’t try to underplay the beauty of the character, or act as if the woman is unaware of it.

The “Obliviously Beautiful” trope is common enough it gets its own TV Tropes page, as well as about a million songs.  With this trope, the character is somehow unaware of her beauty, or could be more beautiful if she tried, or something. There’s some weird moralizing attached to this trope– it is as if we are supposed to like the character better, or think she is a better person, because she is either unaware of her beauty or doesn’t try to be beautiful. Or even as if her beauty is enhanced by not being aware of it. As opposed to all of those self-aware skanks ruining their good looks by thinking about them, or something? A bizarre number of the scripts follow this theme.

Sarah Connor, in the first Terminator film:

SARAH CONNOR is 19, small and delicate-featured. Pretty in a flawed, accessible way. She doesn’t stop the party when she walks in, but you’d like to get to know her. Her vulnerable quality masks a strength even she doesn’t know exists.

Lisa Cohen in Margaret:

On LISA COHEN, just 17. Not the best-looking girl in her class but definitely in the top five.

(Insert obligatory Flight of the Conchords reference here)

Helen Tasker from True Lies:

To call her plain would be inaccurate. She could be attractive if she put any effort into it, which doesn’t occur to her.

… Right. I’m sure that any woman, in the beauty-obsessed US, simply didn’t have it “occur” to her that she could be attractive. That’s definitely the issue.

Summer, from 500 Days of Summer:

SUMMER FINN files folders and answers phones in a plain white office. She has cropped brown hair almost like a boy’s but her face is feminine and pretty enough to get away with it.

(Who knew you had to be pretty in order to “get away” with short hair? All this time I was assuming that you could just do what you wanted with your hair, but apparently there are standards. Next time I get a pixie cut I’ll make sure to stamp “not a boy” on my forehead, since I don’t know for certain if my features are feminine enough to support that haircut.)

They even have to downplay Princess Buttercup from The Princess Bride before building her back up:

Buttercup is in her late teens; doesn’t care much about clothes and she hates brushing her long hair, so she isn’t as attractive as she might be, but she’s still probably the most beautiful woman in the world.

Damn, if she’s already the most beautiful woman in the world, I’d hate to see what she looks like if she is as attractive as she “might be.” She might turn out “painfully hot,” like Margot Robbie.

All of this seems to be done to make the character seem more “realistic” to the audience (as if they are not still being played by amazingly beautiful movie stars.) As Kyle Buchanan and Jordan Crucchiola put it in the same Vulture article,

Many screenplays try to hedge their female character’s beauty, lest she seem so gorgeous as to be unattainable. Perhaps the woman doesn’t know how pretty she is, or there’s a slight imperfection added to make her relatable. The exact calibration of these female characters’ beauty begs a reference to Goldilocks: They’re hot, but not too hot.

Why, you may ask, am I harping so much on these character descriptions? I’ll tell you.

The way we write about women shapes and is shaped by the way we think about women. Some of the most iconic women in movies are introduced, not via their personality or their attitude or their bearing, but by their beauty. Beauty that is either nearly pornographic, or is undercut and underplayed in some vain attempt at “relatability.” It’s important to remember, that these descriptions aren’t just the first appearance of the character in the film; they are the basis on which the director, actors, stagehands, everyone who works on the film, start to  get their idea of the character. What is she like? How does she carry herself? What are her concerns? And I don’t know about you, but I’d have a hard time trying to get to the “heart” of my character if most of what I knew about her was “she’s pretty, but not like, too pretty, you know?”

And to me, the ones that try the “Obliviously beautiful” route are almost worse. The porny ones are at least aware of the objectification they are taking part in. The oblivious descriptions are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. Oh, she’s beautiful, but she doesn’t know it. Or she’s not as beautiful as she could be. It adds even further restrictions on how women are supposed to look and act; we’re supposed to be beautiful, yet so humble or so stupid that we don’t realize it. We are only relatable when we are unselfconscious about our appearance (yeah, good luck with that) but we are not actually allowed to be ugly or even unalterably plain. 

In almost every case I listed here, the actress who was given the role imbued their character with energy, tension, and dare I say, pizzazz. But that likely has much more to do with the skills of the actresses than the quality of the character descriptions they were given. I would love to see these skilled actresses get handed scripts where their character is introduced with complexity and not just sex appeal.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is a close-up of the description of Wonder Woman from the script.

Art Bell (1945-2018)

Art Bell died this week.

If you don’t know who he was, well, he was probably best known as the former host of Coast to Coast, a paranormal-themed radio show broadcast back in the 1990s. There’s probably no real reason you should know who he was, and if I’m being honest, I don’t even know who he turned into. I don’t know if he was a good person in his personal life, or what he did after the 90s. As far as his Wikipedia article says, he didn’t get up to anything more controversial than a quick remarriage after the death of his wife.

But here’s what I remember of Art Bell.

I’ve always had insomnia. Like, imagine an autistic kid who didn’t know there was a name for it, who literally banged his head on his pillow to fall asleep on a regular basis (much to the concern of his parents and the annoyance of his older sister). Imagine a kid who couldn’t make his mind shut up for love or money, and whose legs have ached since forever, especially in the small hours of the morning. Sleep and this kid have never been much better than acquaintances, and that’s in the good times.

Now imagine that kid’s parents give him a small, AM radio, powered by a couple of batteries (double A’s, I think), so he can stick it under his pillow and at least not die of boredom while he’s lying in bed, awake.

The kid, you obviously know, is me.

There wasn’t a hell of a lot to listen to at night, not on AM radio in the Toronto suburbs in the 1990s. There was baseball and hockey, sure, but aside from the 92 and 93 seasons—when the Jays even attracted fans from the less-masculine among us—that didn’t mean much to me. There was a show called “Lovers and Other Strangers” that still cracks me up to this day when I remember it, mostly for the love letters they read in sultry voices and for the sheer, unironic abundance of Kenny G. Soprano saxophone that was the siren song of late-night AM radio.

And then, later at night, so late it was really more like morning, there was Coast to Coast AM.

God it was weird. They covered everything, from Bigfoot and other “cryptid” sightings, to ghosts and psychics, to alien abductions and government conspiracies. It didn’t matter if it was real. It was fantastic, in the most literal sense of the world.

Lying there in my bed, head pressed to the pillow that muffled the sounds of talk radio for everyone else in the house, I heard stories. Calling different numbers from east and west of the Rockies, I heard a parade of long-time listeners (first-time callers) sharing their personal experiences, opening the door to a whole world that existed beyond the one I knew. For a couple of exhausted hours in the time of the night that even the monsters under my bed were too tired to come out, I had a front-row seat to strange, bizarre, and sometimes dark fantasies made real.

The truth value of the things covered was essentially nil, but the truth claims held something deeper. In retrospect it’s a little bit sad. So many of the callers were people who were genuinely scared of things they didn’t understand, or who were sublimating the terrible stresses of their daily lives into a kind of performance art without even knowing it. I think many of them genuinely thought they’d been abducted, or were the target of a conspiracy, or that they’d really seen Bigfoot out of the corner of their eye while they were out in the deep forest in their early twenties, some decades ago. Many more probably knew they hadn’t seen the things they were saying, but just desperately needed someone, anyone, to take them seriously for a moment’s time. Just for thirty seconds on the end of an echoey, staticky phone line.

Art Bell did that for them.

Of course the genre isn’t what it used to be. The successors to the late-night tin-foil-hat conspiracy theory talk shows have gone from the realm of harmless cranks endlessly rewatching the Zapruder film, arguing whether it was one bullet or two, to people openly subverting the country’s faith in democracy and screaming at fever pitch that the first black president—not, of course, because he was black, never that—wasn’t a legitimate president because he was “born in Kenya.” It’s gone from people calling in at 3 in the morning to talk about that time they saw the chupacabra on their ranch to a red-faced Alex Jones wannabe ranting that the woman who would’ve been the first woman to be president—not, of course, because she was a woman, never that—was a literal tool of the Devil who had to be stopped at any cost.

And maybe Art Bell had a part to play in that history. Maybe in entertaining the minor conspiracies, the outlandish ones that never gained any real traction, he carved out a space that could be exploited later by his more malicious successors. Maybe the world would be a better place today if he hadn’t been who he was and done what he did.

But for that kid with his head to the pillow in the hours of the night that even god wasn’t awake to see, Bell’s absurd little show was a lifeline into a realm of possibility. For a couple of hours when nobody else was around, the impossible was possible, for better or worse, and every dark thing that ever haunted your dreams was out there, somewhere, waiting to be seen—or caught on camera.

Art Bell died this week. He was 72.

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Featured image is of Art Bell in his recording studio, and is taken from various unattributed twitter feeds. If you know whose photo this is, let me know, as my google-fu is clearly lacking.

When Silence Is Supportive

Greetings, fellow male and male-adjacent (i.e. living with a greater or lesser amount of male privilege) westerners. This post is addressed to us, not to anyone else. Everyone is, of course, free to read it, but this is more about keeping our own house in order than anything else. It’s a post about a piece of advice.

This is not a revolutionary piece of advice. This is not “woke.” This is very explicitly old advice that I keep seeing us not taking, and often see myself not taking, which is why I’m bringing it up. Here’s the advice:

Give underprivileged voices space.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is shut up and listen.

Here’s what I mean.

***

CUE SCENE

Woman 1, tweeting about her day: Ugh men are such trash.

Woman 2, sympathizing: God, I know, what now?

Woman 1: Dick pic. Again.

Woman 2: Don’t they know that it’s repulsive?

Man: [says literally anything]

Woman 1 and 2, simultaneously: *hit block button*

END SCENE

***

In this scene, there were two women having a conversation about a shared negative experience at the hands of a demographic (in this case, men) that you, a man, belong to. There is very little you can say in this instance that is helpful. You could #NotAllMen them, which is highly inadvisable for reasons that ought to be pretty clear to anyone who can use google at this point. You could also try to be supportive, something like “I’m so sorry that you had an awful experience (Again. At the hands of people like me.),” instead. This isn’t the worst response, but does insert yourself into a conversation where your presence isn’t required.

Instead, sometimes the best thing you can do is stay out of the way. That’s what I’d advise.

Is it hard when you want to be helpful and reassuring to sit on your hands and say nothing? Sure. It’s so tempting to insert yourself into a conversation with even the best of intentions. I screw up a lot, too, because I was raised to think that everyone wanted and/or needed to hear my opinion, and I’m still trying to undo the way that arises out of my own privilege. Also, Twitter flattens social hierarchies and makes you feel close to people who you’re not, and that’s a challenge, too.

And I get the irony, I do. I’m saying this in a blog post that I want people to read. I’ll probably tweet about it, too. On the other hand I made this space and set it out from the beginning of this post to not be up in someone else’s mentions about it.

What can you do, then? Well, you can listen and learn. You can make a separate conversation with other people about how you can change the cultural norms that have led to these women’s shared negative experience. You can boost their voices, too (with their permission), seeking out and sharing pieces written by those like them who have put their thoughts into words.

But all of this relies on, first, you backing away a little and asking yourself “is my input really required here?” and “will my input replace the voice of someone else?” and “would my silence be more beneficial than my speech in this instance?”

Because while sometimes silence is complicity—not speaking out against oppression, for instance—at other times it’s actively supportive.

Sometimes giving people the space to have a conversation without you is the best thing you can do. So think about it, I guess. And try to be good.

Signed: The Remixologist.

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Featured image of a cosplayer making the finger to lips “shh” gesture: Jennie Park, CC BY 2.0