“Old Town Road” Makes Me Happy, and Country Music is Kinda Racist

If you ask someone what music they listen to, there is a not-insignificant chance that they will answer, “I listen to everything but country and rap.” Which, as this article discusses, is really a lot about class. What people are saying is, “I dislike the two genres of music most associated with lower-caste economic states.”

But ironically, even though country and rap are so closely linked by this common economic distaste, they are separated, currently, by one large thing: race. Country is associated with white people, and rap is associated with Black people. And while the last twenty years or so have seen a large increase of white rappers of both the fairly legit variety (Eminem) and the wtf wangsta variety (What even IS Riff Raff?) country has been slower to allow any variety into its ranks. They have…. Well they have Darius Rucker, honestly. And probably a couple of other artists who I don’t know well enough to name because they haven’t been embraced enough to make it to the popular consciousness. (Also Cowboy Troy was once a thing, but we’re gonna get to him in a minute, too). And this is despite the fact that the most stereotypically country instrument, the banjo, is based on an African instrument and was originally created in the US by Africans.

This racial divide is not an accident. In the 1920s, music marketers were making decisions about how, exactly, to market music. More specifically, they were trying to decide if the blues-influenced music that was becoming popular should all stay in one genre, or if it should be split—on racial lines. So we gained “hillbilly records” and “race records.” Hillbilly music was for white people, and as it slowly morphed into the country music we know today, it pretty much stayed that way.

Along the way, it did a lot of cultural work (along with various forms of fiction and racially-biased historical accounts) to make us think that country music, and the west, were always lily-white. When really, the West probably looked a lot more like the reboot Magnificent Seven than the original (on the set of which, famously, everyone had diarrhea). Even the word “cowboy” is likely a linguistic evolution from a Bad Word for Black people working with cattle. Cowboys of color have existed since the 1500s, when Spanish settlements first started to turn the southern and western United States into “cattle country.” In what we somewhat consider “peak cowboy time,” the late 1800s, as many as a quarter of all cowboys were Black. One of the first famous rodeo stars, Bill Pickett, was a Black man whose parents had been slaves.

But now we’re slowly taking history—and country—back. Enter the “Yeehaw Agenda,” and the true focus of this piece, “Old Town Road.”

Recently country aesthetics have been coming into style in non-country spaces, with Lady Gaga, Kesha, and Beyoncé all delving into the country spectrum. Fashion models also started diving into the look more, until last year the actual “Yeehaw Agenda” celebrating Black fashion and music that incorporates country style really took off. Cardi B wore possibly the greatest cowgirl outfit ever made. And then came “Old Town Road.”

“Old Town Road” and its story are such an amazing amalgamation of different cultural forces. Imagine me trying to say all of this in one breath, just because I love putting the entire thing together: Lil Nas X, whose rap name nods to multiple rappers that came before him, rose to prominence with his country trap single “Old Town Road.” The song is less than two minutes long, and samples the instrumental Nine Inch Nails song “34 Ghosts V.” Its original music video is just footage from Read Dead Redemption 2, and a lot of the lyrics combine the trope in country music of listing country-esque signifiers and the rap/hip-hop trope of bragging about wealth by discussing objects that you own. It grew incredibly popular on the social media app TikTok (I beg you not to make me explain TikTok to you…if you’re really interested, listen to this podcast) and was reaching the early teens on the Billboard country charts before it was removed for “not [embracing] enough elements of today’s country music.” Billy Ray Cyrus (you know, Miley Cyrus’s dad) then swooped in (Lil Nas X tweeted that he would like Cyrus on the song the day after the original was released, and Cyrus had shown support for Lil Nas X after the Billboard removal and said they were fellow outlaws) and released a remix of the song with Lil Nas X. The song charted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, surpassing Billy Ray Cyrus’ career-defining hit, “Achy Breaky Heart,” which had only reached #4 back in 1992. The two released another remix with Diplo, and a music video featuring Chris Rock that subtly jabs at the entire controversy. “Old Town Road” has spent 18 weeks on the Hot 100 chart, 15 of them at number 1, and is still in the number 1 slot, currently beating out chart heavyweights like the Jonas Brothers, Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber, Drake, and Taylor Swift. Then Wrangler announced a partnership with Lil Nas X, which caused a lot of white people to lose their goddamn minds because they are Definitely Not Racist. THEN on the last day of Pride Month Lil Nas X came out as gay and told everyone he “deadass thought I made it obvious” because he put a majestic rainbow skyscraper on his latest EP cover.

You guys. You guys. I love this. I love this so much. If you asked me to come up with the most incredible cultural mashup possible, I don’t think I could come up with this on my own. It is too magical. It is too pure. It is too amazing.

And its journey honestly hits close to home. I grew up in Wyoming, where you have to like country music at least a little bit out of self preservation. I grew up listening to, and liking, country music. I’m still quite fond of stalwarts like Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, and Shania Twain. I loved Toby Keith for a long time before I figured out what a conservative, misogynist shitheel he is. And my familiarity with country music means that I can point to one of the first moments of rap/country crossover (one that didn’t get taken off of the charts, no matter how much I wish it would have): “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.”

The brainchild of Big & Rich, the song got most popular in 2004. While it probably has more rock influences than rap influences, the song is basically “In Da Club” for white people. It has a spoken word section, the phrase “singing and bling blingin’,” and a moment where they go “what, what?” The music video includes a parade, sexy lady dancers who are either cowgirls or business ladies, a college band with a horn and banjo section,  a pretty stellar band leader cameo from their token Black friend Cowboy Troy, and the Big & Rich guys showing off said bling, fur coats, and their… sex doll friend?

I really can’t explain it. But it fucking dominated the radio. It hit 11 on the country charts, was used as the theme for the World Series of Poker, was performed at the CMT awards, and was used for a Chevrolet commercial that aired during the Super Bowl.

Later that same year, Nelly and Tim McGraw released “Over and Over,” a song that I honestly could see either/both on the rap and country charts. Its stars and its musical influences obviously draw from both. The song made the Top 10 on the main Billboard charts, as well as the Top 10 of the rap charts. It… doesn’t seem to have placed on the country charts. At all.

And thus a pattern was formed—country songs created by white men that drew from rap and hip hop would play on the country charts. Country songs that actually featured Black men in addition to those elements… well it was hit or miss. (Note: the following is a non-exhaustive list, just one based on my memory as well as some cursory Google searches. I don’t get paid for this, y’all.) In 2005, Trace Adkins released “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” a song I was genuinely hoping to never have to think of again. It hit number 2 on the country charts, and went top 40 on the main and pop charts. Its video heavily features bling, whatever the white lady version of a video vixen is, a reference to Donkey Kong, and Trace Adkins saying “badonkadonk” until I taste purple. Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” topped the country charts, but while the remix with Ludacris sold well, I can’t find anything about it actually charting. Apparently in 2010 Colt Ford released a song with Run DMC AND I AM JUST NOW FINDING OUT ABOUT IT. And let’s…. let’s not talk about that thing with LL Cool J and Brad Paisley. Let’s just not.

Fortunes seemed to be changing a little bit for the crossover hit. Florida Georgia Line tapped Nelly for their remix of “Cruise,” which I think I heard roughly five million times, and they performed it together at the American Music Awards in 2013. Pop singer Bebe Rexha in turn tapped Florida Georgia Line for her song “Meant to Be” in 2017, and the song was nominated for Best Country Duo/Group Performance at the Grammy’s, and I also heard it so many times. And country radio will play Taylor Swift ad infinitum, no matter how much her sound drifts from her “Teardrops on My Guitar” days.

But in the meantime… Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons,” while certainly counting (in my mind) as a country song, and earning a performance with the Dixie Chicks at the CMAs, was rejected by the Grammy Awards for the country category. So just to confirm, this is Grammy-worthy country music, but this is not.…. K.

Now, my own feelings aside about how “Daddy Lessons” is superior both as a country song, and just as a song in general (Florida Georgia Line is largely responsible for “bro country” and I Cannot Forgive Them), I think it’s a good example of the absolute goddamn arbitrariness of the guidelines by which institutions are deciding what is and isn’t country music. Am I saying that “Daddy Lessons” or “Old Town Road” sound exactly like the country music that I grew up with? Of course not. But almost nothing on the country charts today sounds like the country music that I grew up with. Genres consistently grow and change, and the acceptability of such growth and change is pretty directly tied to how well it serves the interests of power.

The aforementioned “bro country” has been a solid half decade plus of shallow, misogynistic music that glorified hot ladies, drinking tons of alcohol, partying, and the singers’ trucks. (Next time someone complains that “rap is just so misogynistic and objectifies women,” please remember that the song “Body Like a Back Road” exists, in which a woman is literally compared to a road. A road.) Bro country is pretty antithetical to the type of country I grew up with, which certainly had these elements but usually in a slightly less formulaic design and with a slightly more authentic place of origin and emotion. (See Bo Burnham’s “Country Song (Pandering)” for a fantastic takedown of bro country). “Bro country” certainly caused some division in country music circles, and is one of the main reasons I stopped listening to country music as much. But it was still on country music charts, nominated for country music awards, and played on country music stations. So what is so acceptable about bro country being included in the genre that becomes unacceptable when you look at the work of Beyoncé or Lil Nas X? (I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.)

Like I said, institutions are largely responsible for deciding what is and isn’t country music. And what they decide isn’t country music just happens to usually involve people of color. Even if you have “objective” guidelines about what makes music fit into a specific genre, those guidelines are interpreted by subjective people. And when it comes to country music, the interpreters are usually white.

In a lot of ways we’re still working off of that same 1920s split—“race records” and “hillbilly records”—where white artists are allowed to push at the boundaries of the genre, but Black artists are not. So overall success of Lil Nas X, the multiple types of diversity he brings to the table, and the conversation he is forcing us to have about these artificial boundaries we have made makes me cackle with glee.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is a closeup of the single cover of Old Town Road by Lil Nas X, and depicts the rapper dressed as a cowboy on a horse in an old-timey colour palette, fake-aged to look like an old country album from the 1950s.

Two Surprisingly Good Takes on Sex Work by Guys

I had this big post planned for this week, and then I was like, “Oh yeah, work and sleep are supposed to be things.” So that post didn’t happen. Instead, I had a couple YouTube videos on in the background, and in one of those neat coincidence things, two channels I really like, Some More News and Philosophy Tube, both had some interesting and pretty good videos on sex work this week. So enjoy those, while I try to get my thoughts in order for next week’s post!

Some More News. Direct Link:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y533teuhmL8
Philosophy Tube. Direct Link:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1DZfUzxZ2VU

Also this post wouldn’t be complete without a link to the time we wrote about FOSTA and SESTA here on the blog.

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Featured image is a combination of the two YouTube thumbnails for the two videos. On the left, half a man sitting in a chair with the words “SEX WORK” over top, and on the right, half a man sitting in a news setting with the caption “The Anti-Sex Trafficking Law that Made Sex Trafficking Worse.”

I Only Looked Away For a Second

A few days ago, I clicked on a campaign ad for Elizabeth Warren. The ad was inviting me to vote on what issues I considered important, and would like Warren to address. The categories were far reaching, including reproductive health, income inequality, race-based injustice, LGBTQ+ protections, income discrepancies… I kept scrolling, and kept clicking. Yes, I thought this was important. Yes, I thought that was important. Yes, I’d like a political candidate to address this issue. I scrolled through almost twenty items, clicking as I went, before I reached the end. I’d clicked on everything, and there was a box at the end to allow me to enter even more things that mattered to me. “My God,” I thought, looking back over that list. “I care about all of those things. But how can any one candidate cover all of those things, let alone cover them well? How would they even attempt to prioritize a list like that?”

That sense of being overwhelmed by how many things are going wrong, of not knowing where to focus, of not even knowing what fire to start putting out when everything is on fire, is one that I’ve known well for most of my adult life, but especially since November 2016. To a certain extent, I’ve chosen some of my priorities—this is called “Feminist Friday,” after all. Gender concerns are pretty obviously on the forefront of my mind. But good feminist practice involves incorporating many concerns, because pretty much all social justice issues intersect. Being a generally good person involves caring about many different concerns because, you know… gotta look out for your fellow humans. And animals too. And plants. And the environment in general. And… you see how it goes?

An accidental byproduct of this split attention is that some things end up being de-prioritized. Or not even de-prioritized so much as “set aside and hoping they won’t explode for two seconds.” Like when you have a pot about to boil over but there is another pot boiling over right now, so you have to hope that the first pot will keep its shit together for as long as it takes you to turn down the other burner, take it off the heat, and try to salvage something within it.

 Or even worse, the issue is one that you thought was mostly handled, but then suddenly flared up again while you were focused on something else—a new attack that you weren’t expecting. For me, that supposedly settled issue that has suddenly boiled over is reproductive rights. Namely, abortion rights.

I learned about Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood early on in my feminist arc. And both of them felt fairly far away, even though I realistically knew that the cases had affected my grandparents’ generation, my parents’ generation. Even though people liked to come to campus with large pictures of mangled fetuses. Even though I had to pay out of pocket for my birth control at the school clinic. Things were a bit unfair, sure, and things could certainly get better, but we were making forward progress! We were going to only move forward. We’d already established our rights, and there was nowhere to go but up. After all, it wasn’t like we had our rights to vote curtailed once the 19th Amendment finally passed, was it? (Ah, young!feminist Elle. So idealistic. So naïve.)

The steady rise of TRAP laws, the gradual erosion of reproductive rights, the constant pressure from anti-abortionists, the downright false beliefs that fly in the face of established medical science… they’ve been gnawing at reproductive rights since the beginning, but they have definitely gone into overdrive in the last few years. And I’ve certainly been paying attention for the last few years– a good deal of my posts on this blog and our former blog deal with reproductive rights. But I still thought that things were happening piecemeal. That enough anti-abortion legislation had been overturned that while things were getting dicey, and Handmaid’s Tale-y, public opinion was enough on our side that things would stay at the current level of bad for a little while longer– long enough for me to catch my breath and focus on things like “children being put into cages” and “the 12 year time limit on our planet as a functioning system.” And… that didn’t happen.

And now everyone who was yelling at feminists for being alarmist because we kept comparing the erosion of reproductive rights to The Handmaid’s Tale are now going, “…..yeah, ok. Damn. Kinda Gilead-y over here.” Georgia’s new anti-abortion law is horrific on a level I can’t even really fathom. It could foreseeably treat any miscarriage as a potential homicide (btw, did you know that about 20% of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage? And that even more pregnancies end in miscarriage because they happen before the woman knows she’s pregnant… which under this bill would probably still be after the point at which an abortion is illegal?) It punishes you for leaving the borders of Georgia to try and obtain an abortion. It punishes anyone who helps someone else to get an abortion. This is…. This is some “chain you to the kitchen” kinds of legislation. It clearly and explicitly sees people with wombs as incubators for children, and nothing else. You’ll notice that the law doesn’t require the institution of child support, or other protections that are afforded to children. The law considers a fetus a “child” only for the purpose of punishing women.

In previous years, I’d at least have the cold comfort of knowing that once the inevitable lawsuits over this law made it to the Supreme Court, it would be overturned. But now that we have Neil “Torquemada” Gorsuch and Brett “Devil’s Triangle” Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court… I don’t really have that confidence. In fact I have confidence in the opposite conclusion. And in a lot of ways, the damage will already be done, even if the law is overturned.

 The damage that has already been done is incalculable—clinics that have been forced to close and will never open again, policies passed at various levels that will keep people away from reproductive information at crucial times in their lives, necessary funding has been withheld, research has been set back by decades…. It makes me want to cry.

We are treading in waters that are very reminiscent of the pre-Roe v. Wade era. Because overturning Roe v. Wade is the endgame. This law was put into place in order to be challenged, because anti-life activists (not giving them the pleasure of being either “pro-life” or “anti-abortion,” at this point they are sincerely anti-life) read the signs, and decided that this was the best possible time, with the best possible state government, and the best possible Supreme Court, to get this law to work its way through the system and effectively overturn Roe v. Wade.

There are some things we can do to try and condemn Georgia lawmakers specifically for their actions—namely, encouraging major industries like film and television to stop using the state as a location, or removing tourism dollars in other ways (no Dragon Con for me). But Georgia is not the only state where this is happening. Fun fact, the pending Ohio bill requires a surgery to “save” ectopic pregnancies that doesn’t currently exist. Funner fact, the Alabama bill that is trying to overturn Roe v. Wade calls abortion worse than Hitler, Stalin, China’s “Great Leap Forward,” and the Khmer Rouge! By the time this is all done, the structural damage it leaves in its wake is going to affect the entire country.

Anyone who has the ability to get pregnant needs to decide what they going to do about that. And anyone who has the ability to get anyone else pregnant needs to figure out what they’re going to do about it as well.

On the personal level, I genuinely, strongly encourage anyone who is able to get pregnant and doesn’t want to do so to look into long-term birth control. I personally ran out and got an IUD as soon as Trump was elected, because even though I was pretty distracted from just how bad things were getting on the reproductive rights front, I could still see the writing on the wall. It’s supposed to last for another three years, aka, “hopefully past the end of Trump’s only term.” Emergency contraception like Plan B is not always readily available, and it doesn’t work well for anyone over 160 pounds.

If you’re able to get someone pregnant and don’t want to do so, strongly consider getting a vasectomy. While the process isn’t as foolproof, or as non-problematic, as people like to act it is, it’s still one of the quickest and easiest ways to ensure that unwanted pregnancies don’t happen. It also puts some weight and responsibility on the impregnator which… basically no abortion bill does. Weird. It’s like abortion bills are written by a lot of misogynists under a patriarchy.

Finally, think really hard about what role you’re willing to play in helping the people affected by this bill, and by bills like it. Are you willing to give money to organizations fighting these bills, to clinics, or to individual people needing assistance affording contraception or an abortion? Are you willing to donate your time? Are you willing to run to office? Are you willing to help smuggle people out of the state to get abortions? Are you willing to let people stay at your house, or drive someone for ten hours, or use your insurance, to try and work around various abortion restrictions? Are you willing to risk imprisonment? Are you willing to risk your medical license by performing illegal abortions? Because pretty much all of these things are going to become necessary if we want to maintain reproductive choice under these conditions.

I’m not trying to scare you—you should already be scared.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is of a group of actresses dressed as Handmaids filming for the Handmaid’s Tale television show. Photo: Victoria Pickering CC BY 2.0

Elle’s Guide to Surviving the Election Season (and Hopefully Electing a Democrat)

As of writing this, 12 Democrats, or Independents-running-as-Democrats, have filed to run for president or at least formed exploratory committees. More are expected to do so *cough* Joe Biden is expected to run *cough*. Bill Weld is exploring the possibility of taking part in a primary against Trump (I will pay money and buy popcorn to see this happen) and that Starbucks guy is… doing whatever that Starbucks guy is doing that will probably manage to hurt the Democratic party.

The election is over a year away. The election is almost two years away. And I am already very, very tired.

My Facebook feed is wild, and Twitter is basically on fire. Posts for and against candidates are everywhere, and pretty much all of my friends have already taken different corners. My two most liberal friends have nearly opposite opinions on Bernie Sanders. Posts for and against a candidate can be next to each other on my feed. Litmus tests are being established. Think pieces are being written.

I am thiiiiis close to trying to use cryogenics, or at least a good snow storm, to freeze myself and wake up in January, 2021. (Depending on what the world looks like when I wake up, I may decide to go back under.)

So for the sake of my sanity, and for (hopefully) an election that avoids some of the pitfalls of the last election, I put together this handy dandy guide/plea for my fellow leftists. Enjoy.

Don’t Do the Republicans’ Work for Them/Focus on Constructive Criticism

I remember a fair few elections, and I don’t remember any Democratic primary as vicious as the last one. This is a situation where there really were good and bad people on both sides, and both sides did their fair share of harm. Hillary and the DNC screwed the pooch by pretending the situation was set up fairly when it clearly wasn’t, Bernie made it clear he was only pretending to be a Democrat for the sake of the election, and neither side did a good job of reining in their followers or their attacks. I’ve never had to unfollow fellow Democrats before, but 2016 was weird. The Republicans barely had to do anything to tear us apart because we were already doing it to ourselves. Some things that the left gets criticism for, and that I think we are guilty of to an extent, are purity tests, call-out culture, and gatekeeping. If a candidate doesn’t check all of our boxes, we hate them. We’re going to decry anyone who doesn’t meet our standards. And woe betide the person who tries to join in that doesn’t fit the bill, because we’ll happily excommunicate anyone who we think has failed.

This isn’t all of us. I don’t even know if it is most of us. But I know it’s enough of us that we have serious trouble with candidate in-fighting, while any opponent with an R next to their name gets the Republican vote. We have the right to be idealistic, but we should also think about being pragmatic, and going for inclusion instead of exclusion.

That isn’t to say that we can’t, or shouldn’t, critique candidates. The purpose of a primary is to try and winnow things down to the best possible candidate, and that means taking a serious look at each candidate. But we need to critique politicians the same way a teacher critiques an essay—with the intention of improvement, rather than destruction. What could this candidate do to improve? What can we do to improve the candidate? What concerns do you have, and how can they be assuaged? What are our absolute lines in the sand, and how realistic are they?

Whenever we critique a candidate, we have to keep in the back of our mind, “This person could wind up being the candidate.” What would happen if we spent all of our time tearing a candidate down, and then they were the candidate going against Trump? How damaged will they already be from the primary? What portion of the electorate will abandon ship instead of voting for them, like that weird cross‑section of Bernie supporters who voted for The Orange One? Or the usually-Democrats who decided they hated Hillary more than they worried about the fact that Gary Johnson couldn’t name any foreign countries? We want the candidate that we wind up with to be the best of the best, not the last, shell-shocked survivor of the Hunger Games.

Try to Support the Candidate We End Up With/Remember the Stakes

Look, I know that it isn’t fair that we repeatedly get asked to pick the lesser of two evils. I’m aware. And there are certainly some lines in the sand that I would probably not be able to cross for a candidate. But life is not fair the vast majority of the time, and I’m doing my best to deal with that. And we have to ask ourselves how much holding tight to every single one of our principles will keep us warm when Hell is actually freezing over.

I still owe my dad a nickel, because after Trump won the primary I thought that we had won, and I bet my dad a nickel that Trump wouldn’t be elected. I was certain that Trump was too awful for anyone to actually elect. I thought that if even Ted Cruz didn’t like him, no one else in the Republican party would. But a lot of the Republicans held their noses (and probably their breath) and voted for someone they hated, because he was the Republican candidate. (And a lot of them were honestly just totally fine with a racist, ableist, misogynist sexual abuser. I mean, it takes all kinds.)

We have been through two years of hell. But now we have at least two sexual abusers on the Supreme Court, and poor RBG can’t hold out forever. Roe v. Wade teeters on the brink of being overturned. LGBTQ protections are being rolled back. Diseases that we thought we had eradicated are coming back. We can’t seem to go a month without a mass shooting. Our education system is under-funded, unbelievably segregated, and not actually really working. A good portion of US citizens couldn’t overcome a sudden emergency that requires a few hundred dollars. Disability rights activists are dying because their insurance won’t pay for certain medicines. We’re facing an opioid crisis that was brought about by the very same pharmaceutical industry that has immense lobbying power and keeps jacking up prices on life-saving medications. We are keeping children in cages, and sexually abusing them when we’re not letting them die of dehydration. We’re building a stupid fucking wall that is going to disrupt crucial animal habitats and drain funding from other parts of the government while simultaneously Not Doing the Thing it is Supposed to Do. We spend a small fortune on military equipment we don’t need. We’re rolling out the red carpet for Russia to overtake us as superpower. We’re alienating basically all of our allies. Wealth is being increasingly amassed by the 1%, and we’re forming super-monopolies. The internet is becoming more and more pay-to-play, and we’re censoring female sexuality and LGBTQ activism instead of, you know, the Nazis. Oh yeah, we have actual fucking Nazis. And that’s all bad enough, without the looming threat of irreversible climate change. We are literally and metaphorically on fire.

I will be honest—I would vote for a turnip before staying home from the polls or voting third party if it means defeating Trump. As it stands now, there are no Democratic candidates who are so violently against my principles that I couldn’t manage to vote for them. There are some I like better than others, and some whose policies I don’t entirely approve of, but all of them have this very fantastic quality of Not Being Goddamn Trump. I don’t expect everyone to be me, so again. I’m not going to tell you to do something that is absolutely against your conscience. But do give some serious thought to the stakes.

Do Your Part/Seriously Did You See the Part Where We’re On Fire?

I know you’re tired. I’m tired. We’re all tired. But you know who aren’t as tired? The Republicans who have been riding the Bigotry Carousel for the last two years. They just can’t wait to take a ride on the Oligarchy Express between 2020 and 2024. Guess how tired we’ll be by 2024? So to the best of our abilities, we have to do what we can to make this happen.

Donate to campaigns. Volunteer for campaigns. Hold fundraisers. Write letters. Make phone calls. Write articles. Harass your friends and loved ones. Knock on doors. Make petitions. Help your neighbors register to vote.

Get engaged in local politics. The presidential race makes everything a lot more intense and gets most of the attention, but your local city council, county commissioner, House, and Senate all need good people in them, too. It’s really important to have a Democrat in the White House, but it’s also really important to have a Democrat on the school board so that we don’t bring abstinence-only education back. Think about running yourself—you can do it! We are the grownups now. I know, right? It’s fucking wild.

So… that’s my guide. Or my begging, whichever way you want to think about it. Most of all, what I’m going to beg you all to do is just this: be good to each other. We are all hanging on by a very fragile thread. We need to stay a community, and we need to keep looking out for each other. Because on top of all the upcoming election craziness, Trump is going to still be president. Think about how bad 2016 was, and then add “Trump actually being president” on top of that. Because he is going to be president during this. We have to stop praying for an impeachment, or a smoking gun, or anything else that is going to save us. We should have stopped doing any of that after the whole “the electoral college may rebel!” thing died a pathetic death. But we’re overly optimistic sometimes. Really, I think if we’ve learned nothing else from the Cohen hearing, we’ve learned that the currently-sitting Republicans are craven cowards who would rather stay in power than actually have a democracy. Diane Feinstein is negging children (and yes I saw the uncut video). Black Representatives are taking time out of hearings to reassure white racist Representatives that the white racists aren’t white racists. We can’t expect that anything resembling “doing the right thing” is going to come from most of the government right now. Not everyone can be AOC or Stacy Abrams. We have to buckle down, and we have to be there for each other. Please.

In the words of Spike Lee: let’s do the right thing.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is an 80s “laser text” meme reading “2020”.

A Girl Like You Doesn’t Have Time for this Nonsense

Because self-parody is a thing, y’all.

A comedy musician (musical comedian? I don’t know how people identify sometimes) changed the way I listen to love songs. Seriously. Bo Burnham’s song “Repeat Stuff”  points out how vague love songs are, so that multiple girls can see themselves in the song:


Oh, girl, I hope you don’t think that I’m rude
When I tell you that I love you, boo
I also hope that you don’t see through
This cleverly constructed ruse
Designed by a marketing team
Cashing in on puberty and low self-esteem
And girls’ desperate need to feel loved…

I love my baby and you know I couldn’t live without her
But now I need to make every girl think this song’s about her
Just to make sure that they spread it like the plague
So, I describe my dream girl as really really vague,
Like…


I love your hands ’cause your fingerprints are like no other.
I love your eyes and their blueish brownish greenish color.
I love it when you smile, that you smile wide.
And I love how your torso has an arm on either side
.

After I first heard this song, I started paying way more attention to other love songs. What do the songs actually say about their loved one or ideal partner? And I found that Burnham was right—almost every song keeps it very vague. But this was just a “huh, interesting” type of thing until I found Maroon 5’s “Girl Like You.”

“Girl Like You” is “Repeat Stuff,” only it is taking itself seriously. And doing so many more things wrong besides that.

“Girl Like You” is the vaguest, most half-assed song I have heard in my whole life. And I’m counting the really bad songs that I wrote in my teen years. This is worse than 15-year-old Moody Elle. (and I’m just counting the Maroon 5 parts. The version with Cardi B is technically a remix, and since Cardi B is talking about herself, it’s actually quite specific. Also, Cardi. What are you doing? Do not help out these sad little white boys. Stop.)

So here is what I know about the girl that Maroon 5 is singing about by the end of the song:

She maybe smokes a cigar/marijuana combo called a Backwood, she may or may not be sick of Adam Levine’s shit, she “loves fun,” and she may or may not be a better DD than Adam Levine. That is it. The song is called “Girl Like You” and the listener learns next to nothing about what the said girl is like.

Here are the lyrics that get repeated over and over:

Cause girls like you

Run around with guys like me

‘Til sundown, when I come through

I need a girl like you, yeah yeah

Girls like you

Love fun, yeah me too

What I want when I come through

I need a girl like you, yeah yeah

Yeah yeah yeah

Yeah yeah yeah

I need a girl like you, yeah yeah

Yeah yeah yeah

Yeah yeah yeah

I need a girl like you, yeah yeah

The word “yeah” is more common than information about the supposed main subject of the song. Somehow a song called “Girl Like You” still manages to be all about Adam Levine and his own self-hatred. And probably his dick. I’m suspecting at least part of this song is about his dick. This song is basically everything that Bo Burnham is talking about—everything is carefully selected so that any “girl” listening can imagine herself in the title role, and can imagine herself being the one to somewhat “save” the self-effacing Adam Levine from his shitty life choices. He’s a lot more specific about himself and his own type of character (“guys like me”) so that the person that this unknown girl wants is a lot more clearly delineated.

Also, most of these lyrics repeat about 15 times, and by the time the song ends, you never want to hear the word “yeah” again in your life.

And if Maroon 5 had been willing to leave things at the level of just having a vague, crappy song, I probably wouldn’t have cared enough to write this post. But then they did the Video.

I’ve talked before about what Doree Shafrir calls “fempowerment,” the lip service that companies pay to feminism and feminist ideals because it is trendy and commercially profitable. Peter Coffin and his wife, Ashley, also have a few videos in their “Adversaries” series that also address it quite well.  (They call it “empowertizing” but I like “femmpowerment” better). As I’ve said before, I’m begrudgingly accepting of “fempowerment,” because it at least means that feminism has gotten enough public acceptance that it is now more profitable to support feminism than to condemn it.

And this music video is “Fempowerment: The Music Video.”

It features multiple actresses, activists, and athletes, many of whom are having a particular cultural moment right now (Gal Gadot, Aly Raisman, Ilhan Omar, Millie Bobby Brown, etc.). At first they are standing behind Levine, one at a time, while the camera rotates and they dance and mouth the words to the song. They rarely interact with Levine himself, except for when Raisman briefly takes his hand. Then it starts focusing mostly on the women—the camera rotation starts showing us woman after woman in turn, before the “spoken breakdown” moment happens and it’s just Levine again, before Cardi B comes in for her verse and gets all the camera’s attention. Then we’re back to the one-by-one women and the turning stuff, ending with his own partner and their child, whom Levine hugs, before all of the band members disappear and all of the women are featured in two circles.

When the song came out, it made the media rounds as “OMG sooooo empowering, Love This!” fodder. And to its credit, the people that are featured in the video are a pretty wide array of backgrounds, ages, and races. In their own lives a lot of them are doing a lot of work for feminist causes and other activist causes. But this is not really empowerment. This, my friends, is Peak Fempowerment. The women who are shown in this song are all amazing, awesome, and deserving of attention. And with the exception of Cardi B, they are also all basically just set dressing for a dude, which they spend most of the video literally standing behind.

Now, it can be really hard, not to mention hypocritical, to criticize women for the ways that they decide to engage with culture, attention, fame, etc. I’m sure that each of these women received a boost to their public profile, and in at least a couple of cases, their causes. (Mostly when their causes were literally displayed on their t-shirts.) And it is hard to criticize any of these women for the choice to participate in this video when it gave them an opportunity to bring more awareness to their personal brands or causes. But as I’ve said before, choices don’t happen in a vacuum. And it is fair to ask what these women are accomplishing, or not accomplishing, by their participation in this video, and in particular, the way they are participating.  

Again, the women are frequently literally behind Adam Levine. They’re mouthing Levine’s words, dancing, and not even really interacting with the singer or other members of the band. (Name one member of Maroon 5 that isn’t Adam Levine. I dare you.) They aren’t getting to use their own voice, or even take a really active role in the action of the video. This isn’t a “story” type of video, where these individuals could be playing a role—it’s obvious that they are meant to be themselves. Which would suggest that they are supposed to be related to the song itself, and that their role in it is to fit in with some theme of female empowerment.

But the song isn’t really about female empowerment. And with the exception of Levine’s own partner (and Cardi’s verse about herself), the women aren’t thematically connected to the song itself, either. I really doubt that Adam Levine is calling Ilhan Omar at 6:45 to whine about himself (or maybe he does, that sounds like something he would do) or that Olympic-tier athlete Aly Raisman is rolling Backwoods. I sincerely doubt that Ellen Degeneres would “spend the weekend” making things right with Adam Levine. And since Millie Bobby Brown isn’t old enough for her learner’s permit, I doubt that it would be a better idea for her to drive.

So the women in this video aren’t there to take part in the story. They aren’t there to link to the song. They aren’t even there to interact with the band. Which means that they are mostly there to lend their own social cachet to Maroon 5, and prove how “woke” they are. They may be getting something out of this, whether it’s awareness for their campaign, a namedrop during discussions of the song, or hell, even just appearing in a music video. (That seems like a cool thing on its own. I’ve never been part of a music video.) But it is pretty clear, to me at least, that they are giving more than they are getting, and that is not particularly empowering.

The danger of “fempowerment” is similar to the danger of a vague love song—something that seems appealing on the surface is revealed to be at the best, hollow, and at the worst, harmful to its supposed subject.

Signed: Feminist Fury

***

Featured image is a digitally-altered photograph of Adam Levine with his arm around a white cut-out with the words “Your Face Here” written on it.

I Sometimes Hate When I’m Right

With friends like these… [incoherent screaming]

So remember last week, when I said that I wasn’t going to critique Marie Kondo in particular, because critiques of her have a lot of weird sexist and racist undertones? So…. Yeah. I was right about that. And now I have to be sad about the world again. (This post is going to involve a lot of GIFs, because the way I am dealing with my depression and anger at the world is by using a lot of GIFs.)

Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, and Elaine Showalter are all writers who I’ve respected for a long time. When I was teaching, I used pieces from both Ehrenreich and Pollitt. I’ve cited Showalter in my own work, because I apparently can’t stop talking about the concept of hysteria. All of them have, at one time or another, (and to one degree or another) written really insightfully about gender, culture, and class. And when I first saw these comments, I was just gobsmacked. Because these three women that I respected had just done the intellectual equivalent of shouting “PSYCH!” in my face while lighting The Feminine Mystique on fire and tearing pages out of Orientalism.

Orientalism is actually something that I somehow haven’t talked about very much, which means I probably lost a game of SJW bingo somewhere. Orientalism, as discussed by Edward Said in his excellent book by the same name, refers to the stereotypical attitudes people in the “West” have about people from the “East” (most notably the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia). These attitudes are typically both patronizing and sexualized, depicting Eastern cultures as exotic, erotic, and uncivilized. One aspect of Orientalism that is highly relevant to these godawful tweets is the concept of the sexualized, submissive Asian woman. Asian women are often depicted as diminutive, modest, and secretly sexual. She’s often either/all an “exotic” version of the manic pixie dream girl, a submissive wife, and a sexual object. It’s the kind of thing I expect from certain anime and porn, not three well-respected female authors.

Let’s look at the different aspects of Orientalism, often also imbued with sexism, that these three women present. Most of these tweets have this idea of a strict difference between the “East” and the “West,” with the explicit idea that the United States as part of the West is supposed to be superior, but something about the influence of the East has diminished us. (Also, most of these authors use the terminology of “America,” but I’m making a concerted effort to use the phrase “United States” because it is pretty damn presumptive for us to steal a moniker that is applied to two different continents, so I’m going to accurately quote the authors but then use the term “United States” in my discussion of their tweets.) And then there’s all kinds of objectification, but I don’t want to give too many spoilers.

First we have Ehrenreich’s first tweet:

Which… wow.

First of all, the United States is definitely in a decline. I could go outside and point, and I will probably land on evidence that the United States is in decline. But one thing that is definitely not a sign of our decline is that Marie Kondo does not speak English. Does Ehrenreich think that all people who visit the United States should speak English? Because United States citizens definitely don’t follow that logic when we visit other places. Does she think that we should only be influenced by people who should speak English? Because that’s not a really great standpoint, either. There are all kinds of amazing, thoughtful people in the world whose ideas should influence us. And not all of them are going to learn English because we are too lazy to be multi-lingual.

It’s worth noting that Ehrenreich deleted this tweet, and then replaced it with the tweet that I’m about to discuss, because it shows that she’s self-aware enough to know that the way she phrased this was Not Good, but not self-aware enough to know that she just shouldn’t be letting this idea into the wild in any form.

In her second tweet she writes, “I confess: I hate Marie Kondo because, aesthetically speaking, I’m on the side of clutter. As for her language: It’s OK with me that she doesn’t speak English to her huge American audience but it does suggest that America is in decline as a superpower.”

…Ok. So. First of all—as I pointed out in my own post (seriously I do this for funsies and cheap therapy, how am I better at articulating this than a woman with actual publishing deals) the issue is not with Kondo herself, it is with minimalism. Kondo is not breaking into your house and burning all of your clutter. She is saying that you should take a look at your clutter and see how much happiness it is giving you. If the aesthetics of clutter give you joy? Great! Clutter sparked joy. Watch Brooklyn 99 instead of her show.

Second. It is obviously not ok with you that she doesn’t speak English. If it was ok with you, you wouldn’t be fucking saying these things. You are implying that the size of her United States audience should have some influence over the language that Kondo speaks. You know… you know that’s why interpreters and translators exist, right? Like no one made JK Rowling learn Mandarin just because Harry Potter got translated into 60 different languages and there are a ton of Harry Potter fans in China. They have translators for that. (Yes, I did a Google search to make my point. That’s how pissed I am.) It is not incumbent upon Kondo to learn an entirely new language just because a bunch of people in the United States like her work. Second, and I cannot repeat this enough, it is in no way a sign that the United States is declining as a superpower. And honestly, the implications of that thought are suuuuper imperialist and scary. What Ehrenreich is basically saying is that Kondo should have felt pressured to learn English in order to appease the powerful and judgmental people in the United States, who are at the top of the global food chain and thus have no need to do something as petty as “read subtitles” or “listen to an interpreter” or “acknowledge that other languages exist.”

Then Ehrenreich tried to “fix” things in the worst way possible: saying that she was just joking.

…it is the reaction of basically every racist/sexist/etc. to say “I was just kidding!” when they say something upsetting. (Also, they don’t actually decide that they are joking until they determine if their audience is reacting positively or negatively. Then if it’s negative, they were definitely joking.) It’s the reaction of every racist/sexist who is also an asshole for separate reasons to imply within this defense that the audience just “didn’t get the joke.” According to Ehrenreich, she was trying for “subtle humor.” What about her tweet could even generously be described as either subtle or humorous? She is owning exactly none of her own behavior in this tweet.

Moving on to Katha Pollitt’s reply, where we get to move further into the personal Orientalism:

“I think her speaking Japanese adds to her fairy-like delicacy and charm. It exaggerates the diff between herself and her lumpish, clueless American clients. She’s the decluttering equivalent of Queer Eye. Outsider helps insider who’s doing it all wrong.”

Pollitt basically manages to be dreadful to everyone in this sentence. She is dreadful to Kondo, who she turns from a person into a mythical creature while trying to basically say, “Kondo speaking her own language is a feature, not a bug!” Like…. What? Calling Kondo “fairy-like,” “delica[te]” and “charm[ing]” aren’t the compliments that she thinks they are. She is forcefully Othering Kondo, especially when she compares her to her audience. Pollitt is dreadful to people in the United States, who become “lumpish” and “clueless.” I know I was just badmouthing the US a little while ago, but… lumpish and clueless? According to imdb, some of the people that Kondo helps are: a widow, a couple expecting their first child, a retired couple, and some pet owners. They sound like… people? Pretty normal people. She’s also dreadful to the guys from Queer Eye by basically paring down their appeal to an “insider/outsider” dichotomy. I am just so, so done.

Pollitt, unlike Ehrenreich, seems to make at least a half-hearted attempt at actually accepting criticism.


So she starts off kinda bad, basically saying “I wasn’t trying to be racist to allll Japanese women. I was only trying to be racist to this specific Japanese woman,” and then describes Kondo’s experience and demeanor as if this is going to make things better. But she at least acknowledges that she made people angry, and promises to consider the criticism she’s gotten.

And then…. Showalter.

“She is certainly a pretty little pixie, & I am keen on decluttering but I am immune to Tinkerbell teaching me how to fold my socks.”

I just… I mean… how do you get things this wrong? First of all, if you actually don’t mind decluttering, then why the hell are you wading in on this? Just happily continue being ok with decluttering, and don’t say anything about this. Second…. “pretty little pixie?” “Tinkerbell?”

Tinkerbell does not approve of your shit, Elaine Showalter. Showalter is best known as a feminist theorist. She, of all people, should understand the harm in objectifying women based on their appearance, using dehumanizing language, and essentially scolding women for taking part in domestic-sphere type activities. I just….

Even worse, as far as I can tell Showalter is the only one to not even attempt to apologize for her words. I gues she’s just hoping we all… forget? Move on to the next crisis?

Marie Kondo is a person. Not a pixie, not a fairy godmother, not a sign of the decline of the United States. A person. A person who is enjoying a cultural moment right now, and a person who deserves to be critiqued if there are things to be critiqued about her, but these “things” do not include her appearance, her demeanor, or her language skills.

I really can’t fully express how disappointed I am in these three women. It is hard enough right now with all of the alt-right or just generally conservative assholes doing their best to drag women down, suppress our voice, and take us out of the public sphere. When self-professed feminists and leftists (instead of apologizing for being an asshat, Showalter has spent most of the last few days retweeting criticism of Trump and his administration) take part in those activities, it is deeply disappointing. We can’t fight the enemy in front of us when we’re worried about getting stabbed in the back. We are living in dangerous times, and we do not have time for this shit. Everyone who is left-leaning needs to get with the goddamn program, because we are moving forward, with or without them.

Signed: Feminist Fury (with extra fury today)

***

Featured image is of one of the tweets in question with a bunch of “no” written all over it by the generally horrified editor of this post.

Millenials, Minimalism, and Stuff

Why the current fad for minimalism does not “bring me joy.”

NOTE: Before I get started, I want to be upfront with the fact that I have not watched Marie Kondo’s show, or read her book. And I think a lot of the criticism that is directed her way has some weird racist and sexist overtones, and I really don’t want to add to that. And from what I understand, she’s not really a minimalist, minimalists just really dig her. My beef is not with Kondo, who I think seems to genuinely want to help people, but with the entire dialogue around minimalism. Also I’m gonna make some pretty sweeping generalizations in the following work, and I am aware of that. So please don’t @ me with “Not all of the 80s!” and “Not all millennials.” I’m aware. Chill.

Let’s tell a story together. Let’s say that we’re millennials (which at this point is an infantilizing term that means that we were born in the early 80s to the mid-90s, which means that we’re in our early 20s to late 30s at this point.) We were born into… interesting… times. The 80s weaponized conspicuous consumption, and valorized greed. A loosening of broadcast legislation meant that television for children could basically be a 25-minute ad, interspersed with smaller, 30-second ads. We were encouraged to identify with glorified commercials, because that would mean we wanted more Stuff. The watchword was “more.” More TV stations, more stores in the mall, more Stuff.  He Who Had the Most Stuff was the Best Person. Trickle down economics was totally going to work, and didn’t we want to take regulations off so that “job creators” could fix things? That was (after all) the best way to get us more Stuff.

If you were a kid in the 90s, you grew up in a world that seemed to be endlessly expanding, endlessly consuming, and endlessly competing. We got “participation trophies,” not because we wanted them (we knew that they were “thanks for entering, but you sucked” prizes. We weren’t oblivious.) but because our parents couldn’t stand to think that their progeny wasn’t special. That their own parenting wasn’t reflected in an object that could be held and taken home, that could be placed on a mantel and shown to others. How could our parents know that we were good children if we didn’t have Stuff to show for it?

We lived through, and participated in, multiple crazes that focused around two things: gathering lots of Stuff and keeping it forever. We were told that Beanie Babies, Furbies, Pokémon cards, and variant comic book covers were things that We Had to Have. We had to be the person with the most, and the best. And we should hold onto these things for years and years, because they would only grow in value over time.

We were pushed in carts around giant shrines to Stuff—bulk-buying stores were trumpeted as the smartest choice in shopping. Why buy a jar of mayonnaise when you could buy a quart? Why buy a pack of toilet paper when you could buy a crate of it? It would be cheaper, overall, to buy more of the Stuff at once, and again, keep it for a long time.

Behind the scenes, economic changes were happening that we were unaware of. Globalization and trade meant that the market was flooded with more and cheaper Stuff. Sure, a lot of that Stuff was really shitty, but it was cheap, which meant we could get more of it. The economy forcibly moved away from ideas like “repair” and “reuse.” Why repair your vacuum, when it is cheaper to get a new one? And why build a vacuum that will work for many years, when you know that your customer is just going to buy a new one? Planned obsolescence was much better than quality for all of those “job creators.” People wouldn’t complain (too much) about their jeans wearing out after just a year when it was fairly cheap to buy new jeans.

The increased monopolization of various industries meant that what appeared to be different products really, really weren’t, and price was no longer a good indication of value. Those $200 boots were made in the same factory as those $20 boots, and fall apart about as fast. There was no good way to determine how much “bang” you were actually getting for your buck.

We were told that we absolutely had to go to college if we wanted to succeed at life. Coincidentally, Sallie Mae was privatized in the 1990s, encouraging students to take loans that they couldn’t afford, all in the name of profit. Kids who weren’t old enough to buy cigarettes or drink were encouraged to take on loans they couldn’t possibly pay off, and subsequent decades of lobbying ensured that these loans couldn’t be erased like other types of loan, or even dissolved in bankruptcy.

The minimum wage stayed stagnant, even as inflation ballooned. Gas prices rose. 9/11 happened, and the War on Terror seemed to hurt rather than help the economy. But we should still keep buying Stuff, we were told. Buying Stuff would help.

And we did what we were told. We took out loans, we bought Stuff, we went to college, and we waited for the Success to happen to us. The Success that happened to everyone before us. And then the economy tanked. And most millennials still haven’t recovered, and never will recover.

We were raised in a culture that idealized Stuff, and related consumption to success. We have been encouraged our entire lives to purchase and keep things. Our minimum wage is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it’s a better option for us to buy multiple cheap things than try to buy one more expensive thing, because we have no guarantee that the expensive thing will be better. We can’t repair things when they break, either because either it’s too expensive, there’s no one able to repair it, or some multi-billion corporation will void our warranty if we try to fix our own objects. We’re struggling to find jobs, crushed under loans, and doing our best to get by.

We have closets full of cheap clothing, because we know that it is going to wear out but we can’t afford to do laundry at the laundromat too often, and we don’t want to take the chance of spending a day’s paycheck on a single shirt that is still going to fall apart. We hold on to old shoes, computers, and furniture, because we don’t know if the current stuff we have is going to break worse than the old stuff we’re keeping around, and we might need the old thing to replace the new thing at any point. We have shelves full of college books because we weren’t going to get anything near what we paid for them if we tried to sell them back. We buy in bulk whenever we can, because we were taught to, and because it will hopefully ultimately be cheaper for us.

And into this enters minimalism. Getting rid of as much as you can, living “simply,” and de-cluttering your life.

Let me make something clear: there are two ways that you can live “minimally.” You can either (a) be too poor to buy enough things to have clutter (in which case your minimalism is probably not an active choice) or (b) you are rich enough that you don’t have to worry. You don’t have to worry about things like buying replacements when something breaks or wears out, or buying in bulk to save money. It means you have the time, energy, and money to find fewer objects of obvious quality instead of many cheap objects.

Minimalism is either a punishment or a privilege.

And it wouldn’t upset me so much, if it weren’t for the fact that minimalism is going the way of veganism, Paleo diets, natural birth, organic food, breastfeeding, and yoga—in that a lot of people are totally capable of doing the thing without making it a moral judgment about everyone around them, and a different lot of people Are Seriously Not Able to Do The Thing Without Being an Asshole. Minimalism is becoming a purity cult, where enacting minimalism is associated with personal goodness and moral virtue. Which is bullshit.

We were raised to worship Stuff. We entered an economy where we had no choice but to cling to Stuff. And then a lot of the same people who raised us that way, who messed up the economy that way, are now telling us that we’re not good people unless we can live in a minimalist lifestyle. Which is a lot like a bully telling their victim to stop hitting themselves.

This does not bring me joy.

Signed: Feminist Fury.

***

Featured image is of the aisle of a Dollar Store and is released under a CC-BY 2.0 license by Random Retail.

Serving Misogyny

To find out that menstruation is apparently the one aspect of femininity that is “too far” is disappointing on both a personal and an artistic level, because it shows the multiple ways in which Drag Race is not willing to expand boundaries as far as we thought.

 

I’m a big Drag Race fan, though I’ve missed a few seasons due to my lack of cable. (Damn my millennial spirit.) But I try to somewhat keep up with things via blogs and fansites, so I was pleased to hear that one of my all-time faves, Manila Luzon, was going to be on the All Stars series. And then my love grew so large that it nearly actually strangled me when I learned that she had planned to wear this outfit on the show:

 

 

Look at this. Look at it. This is goddamn fantastic. It acknowledges and normalizes periods at the same time it looks amazing. I freaking adore this look.

But you may have noticed that I wrote “planned to.” Manila Luzon did not actually get to wear this outfit on national television, because, as she explained in an Instagram post, RuPaul and the producers thought the look was in “bad taste.”

Now, for completely unrelated reasons, I’m going to show you a few of the looks that have been allowed on Drag Race over the years:

 

For those of you playing WTF bingo, that is, in order: nearly-naked Ziggy Stardust, naked with cardboard censoring bars, gagged BDSM, a “Carrie getting covered in pig’s blood” costume, some kind of nose-job and lip-job costume (?), an outfit with an accessorized oxygen tank (??), a “tribute” to the “Indian” from the Village People (???), pregnancy as a costume (?!), and a horror show I can only assume was meant to be a rotting corpse costume (?!!).

So to be clear, RuPaul and the producers are okay with nudity or near nudity (to the point that pixelation has to be involved,) allusions to BDSM, cultural appropriation, pregnancy and unhealthy beauty standards. They’re even really okay with fake blood in other contexts. And I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with those things (except for the unhealthy beauty standards and cultural appropriation. Please do not waist train, everyone. It is bad for you. Cultural appropriation is also bad for you and should not happen.) So it’s pretty clear that the show has a fairly high bar for “bad taste,” and in other contexts is totally okay with both blood and cisgender female bodily functions, like pregnancy. But a really gorgeous look that normalizes menstruation while still being amazing is too far?

I’ve talked before on the old blog about the stigma against menstruation. (I actually talked about it a lot).

Long story short, as a society we seem to be almost completely incapable of discussing menstruation in a healthy way, avoid punishing girls or women for having periods, or even show blood or say the word “period” in a commercial for menstrual products. (If your menstrual blood is ever blue, please double check that your uterus has not been filled with antifreeze or windshield fluid.) At the same time that young women are sexualized and seen as breeding objects, we stigmatize this biological corollary to puberty and fertility.

Manila also mentions this stigma in her post about the look. In her post she explains, “I was really looking forward to wearing this gown that I think celebrates a perfectly normal human experience! Many of my fans are young women who may feel pressured by society to be embarrassed by periods. It’s empowering to teach young women about their bodies, encourage them to celebrate them AND to question people who tell them not to. My goal with this look was to normalize menstruation by looking sick’ning even if I was on my period!”

 

 

Fellow Drag Race alum Willam showed support for Manila and also advocated for the normalization of menstruation, while at the same time calling herself out for doing things on the show in worse taste than a menstruation dress. Willam might be my id.

This incident is really upsetting and saddening, partly because one of the things I like best about Drag Race is the ways that it discusses and expands concepts of “femininity.” A lot of the cultural advances that we’ve made in dance, fashion, and makeup come from the world of drag. (The Kardashians can thank drag queens for their contouring. Is it kontouring if a Kardashian does it? These are the questions that keep me up at night.) Drag can be a reflection of many cisgender women’s experiences, or a funhouse mirror that exaggerates these experiences. And for many women, menstruation is one of those experiences. To find out that menstruation is apparently the one aspect of femininity that is “too far” is disappointing on both a personal and an artistic level, because it shows the multiple ways in which Drag Race is not willing to expand boundaries as far as we thought.

Signed: Feminist Fury.

***

Featured image is of Manila Luzon in a dress featuring a stylized used menstrual pad on the front.

Baby, It’s a Changing (Cultural) Climate Outside

Because we *do* need to talk about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” every now and then.

 

Based on the current status of my Facebook feed, it is time to have a conversation that I have somehow managed to not have in my four years as a feminist blogger: the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” conversation. We get to address the backlash to the backlash to the song, and along the way, talk about authorial intent, reception theory, and other stuff that I went to school to learn. (Wooo, take that student loans, I’m doing something useful with my degree.)

So there are two figures/groups that can be held as the most important when it comes to determining the meaning of a work—the author, and the audience. People who adhere closely to authorial intention say that the most important way of interpreting what a work means is by following what the author says that the work means or says that they intended it to mean. Someone who adheres closely to reception theory says that it is the audience that actually determines the meaning of the work—that how the work is received (aka its reception) is more important than what the author meant.

JK Rowling presents a really good case study as a microcosm of the “authorial intention” vs. “reception theory” argument, and how both sides can be correct at the same time. Rowling is able to state that she wrote the character of Dumbledore with the understanding that he was gay. It’s totally fair for her to say that when she was writing the work, this intention affected how she wrote Dumbledore, and for readers to decide that this means Dumbledore is canonically gay. But it’s also totally fair for the audience to say, “Pics or it didn’t happen.” Few readers automatically understood Dumbledore to be a queer character, and they are justified in saying that however Rowling intended the character, he doesn’t come across with that intention clearly actualized.

Personally, I do find authorial intention to be important, and I’m always interested to hear what an author says about their own work. But I’m more closely aligned to reception theory, partly as a matter of pragmatism. It is very easy for an author’s intentions to be overwhelmed, and very easy for an audience to take a creation and do something new with it, for good or for ill. At this stage it is nearly pointless to huffily declare “Frankenstein isn’t the name of the monster, it is the name of the Doctor!” because in the cultural zeitgeist, Frankenstein is interchangeably used for both figures. No matter what Mary Shelley originally intended, her work has been reinterpreted and re-understood by people to the point that when you hear the name “Frankenstein,” your thoughts are more likely to flash to Boris Karloff than Colin Clive.  In a much more depressing example, the creator of Pepe the Frog killed off his character and had a “funeral” for him after the character was co-opted by the Alt-Right movement. Matt Furie certainly never intended for his creation to be adopted as the mascot for neo-Nazis, but his desires (his intentions) are also nowhere near enough for the character to be reclaimed. Unfortunately, the character will now probably be permanently associated with this movement. And to return to Rowling, announcing post-series that Dumbledore was gay the whole time is a really convenient way to get brownie points for being progressive whilst not losing any of that sweet, sweet homophobe cash when the books were in their heyday.

I give this introduction because I think it’s an important primer for understanding the various levels of the argument over “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”  So now, some facts:

  • The song was first written in 1944, and became very popular after it was featured in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughterit even won the Academy Award that year.
  • The original writer conceived of it as a husband-and-wife duet, meant to be performed at parties—the composer, Frank Loesser, performed it with his wife, Lynn Garland.
  • On the score of the song, the traditionally-female character is referred to as “Mouse,” and the traditionally-male character is referred to as “Wolf.” (We are presumably supposed to not make any judgment of the relationship between the characters based on this description… None.)
  • In Neptune’s Daughter, the song is first sung with Ricardo Montalbán as the Wolf figure and Esther Williams as the Mouse figure, and then by Betty Garrett as the Wolf figure and Red Skelton as the Mouse figure.
  • The song has been covered by basically everyone ever.
  • There are two main camps in the argument—one which I associate strongly with authorial intent, and one that I associate very strongly with reception theory.

So the side that frequently defends the song usually puts forward something along the following argument (fairly well articulated in this blog post):

The song has to be understood as a product of its time. The phrase “Hey what’s in this drink?” was a common saying that was basically someone implying that they were doing or saying something that they normally wouldn’t, and joking that it was the effect of an overly-strong drink. It also stands as a good cover for a woman who wants to do something outside of the cultural norm. “I’m an alcoholic” is way more socially acceptable in some circles than “I’m a loose woman.” In this reading, the Mouse figure in the song actually does want to stay (and you know, have sex) but is thinking about the social acceptability of the action—all of her objections refer to what others might think of her. The Wolf figure understands that she wants to stay, and is essentially giving her excuses/helping her build a story that gives an innocent explanation as to why she stayed.

The side that is opposed to the song usually puts forward something along the lines of the following argument:

The song is pretty rapey. Or if not rapey, at least a great example of someone not understanding boundaries and consent. The Wolf figure is the poster child for not being able to take no for an answer. The Mouse figure is trying to make her position clear without hurting the Wolf figure or making him angry at the Mouse by stating her intentions and then basically name dropping all of the people that are looking out for her/would be upset if something happened to her/stand in as excuses for why she needs to leave that won’t injure his pride or masculinity. And at this point the whole “What’s in this drink” line is just creepy as hell.

My take: I really do understand the “pro-song” side (and to be honest, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” used to be one of my favorite Christmas songs). It was certainly written with no ill-will, and I think it is a perfectly justified reading of the song lyrics, within the context of the era in which they were written, to see it as a coy back-and-forth between lovers who have a clear understanding of the social mores of their time and the double-speak they have to engage in if they want to have a good time but not leave her with a ruined reputation.

However.

I think that at this point, it takes an (almost overly) generous reading of the song, and understanding of reactions to it, to hold fast to that understanding of the song. Even in the film that made it famous, it’s already kinda iffy. While the characters who are playing the Mouse figure in the song are definitely sending some mixed signals, and both eventually seem happy to stay out of the cold, they also both undergo some pretty troubling things. The characters played by Esther Williams and Red Skelton are both repeatedly, physically prevented from leaving by their Wolf figure counterparts. And even with the mixed signals, just look at that side eye and glaring from Esther Williams. That is a woman who is not super happy to be continually manhandled and redirected.

And at this point, regardless of how it was intended, it sounds a whole lot like a guy pressuring a girl, refusing to take no for an answer, and belittling her concerns. It’s the “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” of Christmas songs. It doesn’t take an easily-triggered “cuck” or an overly-sensitive feminist to see that there’s something pretty messed up about repeatedly telling someone that you want to leave and having them respond by telling you how “delicious” your lips look. This song becomes another entry in a long, long line of media that tells guys that if a woman says no, all you have to do is keep harassing her until she changes her mind just to get you to shut up. There are already a lot of entries in that line, and I don’t know if yet another one also needs to moonlight as a popular Christmas carol that unfortunate retail workers will have to hear roughly two billion times in December. And let’s be real: in the wake of the Cosby trial, I don’t know when, if ever, “hey what’s in this drink” will be taken as an “innocent” joke again.

In my own, humble opinion, I think that the reception theory interpretation is (at least for now) the winner. I just genuinely don’t think that in the current era, we can ignore the implications of a song in which a man repeatedly insists that a woman stay the night and bulldozes over all of her objections. Women already face an uphill battle to have their autonomy and decisions taken seriously, since pretty much all media is against them. Phrases and ideas like “Her lips say no but her eyes say yes,” “She’s playing hard to get,” “Methinks the lady protests too much,” etc. run rampant in popular media. We’re told that if a woman rejects you, you just have to TRY HARDER because eventually you will wear her down, because she secretly always wanted to be worn down. Even when it’s played for laughs or is part of a light-hearted Christmas standard, it sends a dangerous message about ignoring it when a woman tells you no. And that message, the “If at first she won’t fuck you, try, try again” message, is a much more dominant narrative than any potential “It’s secretly empowering to engage in word play with your lover so that you can have sex while still being respectable” message.

Now, despite being an overly sensitive feminist (I don’t think I’m easily-triggered cuck…), I want to make it clear that this is not to say that I fully support a ban on the song, or think that no one should like it, or am secretly judging everyone who hums it, or anything like that. But I do think that it is worth having a conversation, or multiple conversations, about the unintentional messages in the media we consume as well as the intentional ones. And I do think that the situation is more complicated than just rolling your eyes at supposed “snowflakes” who don’t like the song. (Also, in the context of a Christmas song, shouldn’t being a “snowflake” be a good thing? I may be overthinking this.)

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image depicts a snowflake up close. It is by maf04 and is used under a create commons, attribution share-alike 2.0 license.

If You Have To Do “Black Friday,” We’ve Got A Better Way

A “Buy This, Not That” article.

 

Some words and phrases lose their meaning over time. Sometimes that’s through actual physical repetition—try saying the word “surreptitiously” 20 times and see if it still sounds like English at the end. Other times it is because the word themselves become less precise, or stop meaning what they used to mean. Words like “metrosexual” or “mansplain” lost their meaning over time because they were being used to describe things that didn’t fit, or because people misused them, or just because people are weird. I feel like “Black Friday” has joined that category.

Black Friday used to mean three things:

  1. Getting up at 4 AM the day after Thanksgiving to shop for cheap things that you really want.
  2. A singular day of sales.
  3. Newscasters showing footage of seething masses of frantic humans losing their goddamn minds in a Target.

And now it means… not those things. Well, it still means the last thing. I don’t know what newscasters would do without footage of Black Friday “riots.” They might have to actually report the news. Heaven forbid.

But the meaning of Black Friday has started to change dramatically.

The onset of e-commerce meant that we spread into Cyber Monday. Then the fear of big businesses encouraged Small Business Saturday. And then nonprofits were like “we want in on this action” and started Giving Tuesday. Then the day itself started to stretch. First it was starting at midnight on Thanksgiving. Then…. six PM on Thanksgiving? Then pretty much all of Thanksgiving. And now the sales are just basically all of November. Just this evening, I got an ad for a “pre-Black Friday” sale at Office Depot. Office Depot.

And the “cheap things that you really want” thing changed as well. Black Friday sales are often “sales” in the way that garage sales are “sales”: they are opportunities to get rid of shit that the owners don’t want and hope you are stupid enough to take. It’s a way to empty out stock before the heart of Christmas shopping.  And the “cheap” thing is a lie these days, too. Oftentimes the “sale” is the same price that the object already is, but with a new label on it. Last time I partook in Black Friday, I was very pleased to get a copy of Apples to Apples for $15. The next week I saw it in the store for… $10. The hell.

So all of that adds up to one thing: Black Friday is bullshit. It is extra bullshit now, because of that aforementioned time creep. Because capitalism is always gonna capitalism, low-wage workers are being forced to leave their Thanksgiving celebrations early, or miss their Thanksgiving celebrations entirely, so that people who don’t realize that the internet exists can get $5 off of a flat-screen TV. It is bullshit.

So don’t do it. Don’t go out on Black Friday. Don’t give more money to Bezos or the Waltons. Instead, if you want to spend money, buy things from smaller artisans and creators. Like the ones I’m about to show you!

Each of these artists has either made something that is hanging up in my house at this very moment, or was recommended to me by a friend. So they all are beloved by people with excellent taste. Also, all images are the copyrighted property of their creators — I’m just borrowing them temporarily to show you all how cool they are.

And heads up: their sites or shops are hyperlinked in their names.

 

Meghan Rowswell

I’m not 100% sure that there is an art style that Meghan Rowswell doesn’t do. She makes gorgeous ikebana arrangements, crazy cool egg decoration things, textile sculptures, and collages. She honestly does more than that, but if I keep listing her accomplishments, I’m going to start feeling lame about my lack thereof. So instead I’ll just show you one of my favorite pieces, a collage she did. Her site doesn’t have anything currently on sale, but I have it on good authority that if you e-mail her you can totally work out a commission. (This “good authority” comes from having, you know, done that.)

 

The Latest Kate

The Latest Kate is an artist who makes really adorable posters of animals with encouraging sayings on them. LOOK AT THIS MAJESTIC SPACE DEER. The space deer is reminding you that you’re a badass. Thank you, space deer. I am, in fact, a badass.

 

 

CarnivalSix

I need to have about sixteen more children in my life than I do, because I need to buy all of them these adorable fairytale prints from CarnivalSix. They’re all really cute interpretations of classic stories, with key quotes from the story featured as part of the story. The genius behind CarnivalSix, Laurel Shelley-Reuss, is also the co-creator of a fantastic RPG-based comic called The Handbook of Heroes. It also has a Patreon. (Hint, hint.)

 

Emily McDowell

Emily McDowell creates a variety of products, including cards, mugs, and stationary. My favorites are her cards, which are quite outside your average Hallmark, in that they admit that sympathy cards are a fruitless attempt to make people feel better when they can’t be made to feel better. Or give genuine congratulations for a new baby.

 

 

Tea and Absinthe

Tea and Absinthe makes tea, teaware, and other drinkware. It’s all pretty fantastic, but my favorite is this dapper octopus mixer. He has a hat.

 

Kevin Eslinger

Kevin Eslinger makes original art as well as fanart. Because I’m a geek, I’m especially fond of the fanart, especially his splatter-style of fanart. Like this amazing splatter Venom, which seems to really capture all of the messy “WTF-ness” of Venom.

 

Karen Hallion

Hi, my name is Elle, and I’m an addict. It’s been… well like one month since I bought a Karen Hallion piece. I have a problem. Karen Hallion is at the perfect intersection for me of fanart, feminism, art nouveau, and general fun. I have So Many Karen Hallion prints. Like, All. All the Prints. It’s a problem. I’m running out of wall. But one that I definitely have is this one, because it is AMAZING. It is art noveau Spider-Gwen. ART NOVEAU SPIDER-GWEN.

 

Flying Frog Illustration

Flying Frog Illustration does really gorgeous watercolors, both originals and fanart. I have a few of their pieces, but my absolute favorite has to be this piece of the Endless from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I’m already a sucker for these characters, especially all together like this, but what I’m blown away by is the color and complexity. Most fanart I’ve seen of the Endless tends towards the minimalist, and this is anything but. This is the Endless as seen by Delirium, and I love it.

 

Megan Lara

So the art nouveau thing… it’s happening again. Megan Lara has great original art and fanart, but the pieces that I collect the most are her art nouveau depictions of badass female characters. It is really hard to choose a favorite—Peggy Carter, Princess Leia, and Wonder Woman all hang in their art nouveau glory on my wall. But the centerpiece of my collection has to be this amazing depiction of Shuri. The colors and the details are just so epic, and Shuri herself is so fantastic.

 

C Wilson Art

C Wilson Art specializes in fanart combined with classic styles, like amazing military portraits of Star Wars characters. My absolute favorite, however, has to be this “Creation of Adam” parody starring Cthulhu and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I love it so, so much. So much.

 

 

Leanne Huynh

Leanne Huynh does a lot of amazing original art as well as fanart, and it’s really hard to pick a favorite. But I will probably have to go with this piece of a baby Eeyore, because it is basically the only thing in the world that can make my ovaries clench like I want a child. I don’t actually want a child, I just want to give a child this adorable picture of baby Eeyore. It is that cute.

 

 

MJ Erickson

MJ Erickson does fanart, original art, and also makes pins. Most of the pieces that I actually own aren’t currently up on her site, but I dug through the interwebs to find my favorite, this print of Valkyrie raining down holy hell. Look at this piece. Look closelier. Look more closelier. It’s freaking amazing. And even cooler, Valkyrie herself, Tessa Thompson, saw the pic and gave it her seal of approval.

 

Atomic Pixies

I mentioned that I like art nouveau, right? Well guess what, here is more! Atomic Pixies does really cute art nouveau pop culture pieces. They have an entire series of RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants in art nouveau style and with one of their famous catchphrases. I wanna collect them all, like Pokémon cards.

 

Chrissie Zullo

Chrissie Zullo also does both original art and fanart (sensing another trend?) She has lots of way cool pieces, but the one that I have hanging up in my kitchen is the best, in my opinion—a coffin-shaped pic of a vampire bobby soxer at a death-themed soda fountain. Like, how do you even come up with that? And look at how adorable she is, drinking that refreshing bottle of blood! She has the bat equivalent of a poodle skirt! What’s not to love?

 

Twilight Garden Shop

Twilight Garden Shop makes artisan bath products that look very scrumptious. Literally. Like I would totally be tempted to eat this soap. It’s like what happens when a geode and taffy have a baby.

 

Sweet Pickles’ Designs

Sweet Pickles’ Designs makes pet accessories that are just too adorable. Like this adorable spooky pet bow tie.

 

That’s just a sampling of my very favorites. I encourage you all to show them love (and by love, I mean both praise them and give them money). But there are also literally thousands and millions more artists out there who could use your support and admiration. And you can give it to them without even fully waking from your turkey coma, without making some poor person making $8.00 an hour venture into the cold to get screamed at by someone who has officially spent way too much time with their family and has to take it out on someone, and without making any mega billionaires any more ridiculously wealthy. So win-win, right?

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image shows a storefront from the inside with two naked mannequins looking out. The glass has “50% off” posters stuck to it. It was taken by Kecko and is released under a CC-BY-2.0 license.