“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

Subjective Science

Gather round, everyone, and let’s have a little chat about how seemingly “objective” means are frequently used for subjective ends.

The supremacy of science and phrases like “Facts don’t care about your feelings” are frequently trumpeted on the internet by men who are some combination of fedora owners, neo-Fascists, and lovers of literature about lobsters written by white men. (The funny thing is that you don’t know if I’m talking about Jordan Peterson or David Foster Wallace. The sad thing is that it doesn’t matter.) The idea is that there is a Realm of True Things, and they are always available to us if we just Logic hard enough and set our feelings aside. And to a certain extent, they are right—my feelings do not change the efficacy of vaccines, or the reality of climate change. The Three Laws of Thermodynamics do not give a fuuuuuuck about my feelings regarding entropy. But the same people who say these things aren’t usually talking about how gravity is the one law that anarchists have to believe in. They’re talking about things like gender, and sexuality, and biology, and race, and that is where scientific things get really, really squishy. Because science, you see, is done by people. And people… well people are just monkeys with anxiety and superiority complexes, basically. And we are really good at using supposedly objective things to support subjective goals, even while still loudly bragging about how objective we are.

Language, for example, would seem at first glance to be objective—it’s “just” words, an agreed upon system of sounds and pictures that we use to convey meaning. But did you notice that I started this post off with “Gather round, everyone” instead of the more traditional “Gather round, boys and girls”? I did so deliberately, because “Gather round, boys and girls” implies that there are only two genders, whereas I know that things aren’t that simple. We have nonbinary gender folks, agender folks, transgender folks, etc. And so I deliberately avoided using a seemingly objective opening that would have carried a point of view that I don’t agree with.

But that’s language. Language is already suspected of treason by the Fedora Federation, because it is very close to poetry, which is feminine, and also was probably invented by left-wing academics. So let’s talk about their beloved science.

Science, as we said before, does have some objective foundations. And then it has a looooot of subjective sprinkles on top, depending on who is doing the science and what they believe is true. At various points in our history, we Absolutely Knew Thanks to Bulletproof Science that:

  • Women who grew despondent in the face of the patriarchy were “hysterical” and could be cured by a combination of forced seclusion and forced orgasms.
  • People with mental illness could be cured via an icepick through the orbital socket.
  • People of color, especially Black people, were “inherently” inferior races due to the size and shape of their skulls.
  • Diseases like cholera were spread via “bad air.”

All of these things were scientific “discoveries” or even widely believed scientific “facts” at one point or another. Note that a lot of them seem to specifically disadvantage marginalized people. I wonder why that is… (I don’t actually I was just using one of those sneaky rhetorical flourishes. Language again.) Science, you see, is only objective when it is used by a subjective person as objectively as possible. If the person doing the science is consciously or unconsciously putting their thumb on the scale to change the results… well. Phrenology happens.

All of which is a very long way to say a very short thing: what is happening to Caster Semenya is fucked up. Because quirks of biology, discoverable through scientific means, seem to only be “unfair” when they are happening to a Black woman.

Athletic ability has a lot to do with dedication, and practice, and luck, and privilege… and biology. Like, some folks are just gonna be 7’3”, and that is probably going to give them an advantage in basketball. It doesn’t have to, they could still suck at basketball, but… I mean it probably is going to help them out. And we don’t say, “Hey, tall people have an unfair advantage in basketball! They should only be allowed to play basketball if they walk on their knees!” I admittedly would probably watch more basketball if everyone was walking on their knees, but that is neither here nor there. We just accept that their genetically-imbued factors, namely their tallness and skills, are a natural part of who they are, and their use of their genetic gifts in their sport is seen as normal.

We don’t have to compare Caster Semenya to all other athletes to see how she is being treated unfairly, however. We really only need to compare her to one: Michael Phelps. As Monica Hesse writes, Phelps possesses a slew of genetic oddities that make him perfect for dominating the world of swimming:

Phelps possesses a disproportionately vast wingspan, for example. Double-jointed ankles give his kick unusual range. In a quirk that borders on supernatural, Phelps apparently produces just half the lactic acid of a typical athlete — and since lactic acid causes fatigue, he’s simply better equipped at a biological level to excel in his sport.

I’m thinking of those stories, because I’m thinking about the ways Michael Phelps was treated as wondrous marvel. Nobody suggested he should be forced to have corrective surgery on his double-jointed ankles, nobody decided he should take medication to boost his lactic levels.

As Hesse points out, no one is suggesting that Phelps hamper or cripple himself in order to make the sport more “fair” on other contestants. He is taken as-is, and has gone on to win a shitload of gold medals.

Semenya gets no such free passes. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that if Semenya wanted to compete, she would have to take medication to curtail her testosterone, which is naturally higher than it is for the average woman. The CAS was not so much making their own bad ruling as upholding an earlier bad ruling from the International Association of Athletes so… way to pay it forward. And on top of that, they said the quiet part out loud, and admitted, “discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics.” Which… what?

In case anyone is confused, this isn’t about maintaining the integrity of female athletics. This is about maintaining the “integrity” of a popular concept of femininity. Specifically, the integrity of a popular concept of white femininity. They’re not exactly questioning the integrity of the female competitors of sports like discus, even though those women are super swole. (They’re also usually white.) When Michael Phelps literally doesn’t make enough of the thing that tells you that you are tired and should stop, there is no pearl clutching about the integrity of male athletics, or even the integrity of “non-superhuman athletics.” Even though the science on the benefits of a failure to produce lactic acid seems (to my English major-brain at least) a lot more convincing than the science on the benefits of testosterone.

The way that you study data, interpret data, and make decisions about data can turn seemingly objective “facts” into subjective weapons. And the athletic community is making a subjective claim in the battlefield of gender politics under the guise of an objective statement of facts. The more that we learn about the biology of sex, the more that we learn it is as much of a spectrum as the concept of gender. Humans are complicated, y’all. And while I don’t have the answer as to how sports should be divided (or even if it should be divided) I know that it shouldn’t be this—invasive testing and blanket proclamations that tell a woman that she does not have the right “stuff” to be considered a woman, while white male athletes have their biology unquestioned.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is of a phrenology map next to the word “science.”

In Which Elle Talks a Lot About Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers

(So just FYI this one got kinda babble-y. I think it’s still good, just a bit meandering. If I were a better writer, I would edit it down before presenting it to you. But I’m a part-time blogger who does this for cheap therapy and has very little self-respect, so I’m just shoving it out there as-is. I still hope you enjoy.)

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing something that I normally don’t do; thinking a lot about Flat Earthers and Anti-Vaxxers. And not just thinking about them, but actually trying to understand them. (I know, I know. Hear me out.)

When I’m working, I keep a steady background hum of familiar YouTube videos. Because I am the particular mix of nerdiness and eccentricity that I am, for me that means that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend songs, leftist Youtube talking heads, cinema criticism, and a capella songs are on a pretty steady rotation. So Philosophy Tube’s “Flat Earth OR Why Do People Reject Science?” and Hbomberguy’s “Flat Earth: A Measured Response” (both attempts to examine the philosophy and “science” of Flat Earth theorists) were trading spots with “Don’t Be a Lawyer.” I ventured over to Netflix when I finally got tired of nice British men explaining things to me (it took a while, I’ll admit) and found the documentary Behind the Curve, which follows a few of the top figures in the Flat Earth movement and attempts to humanize them (without condoning them). I also happened to be reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and saw online articles about how Facebook moderators start to believe conspiracy theories, and watched testimony of an 18-year-old who defied his Anti-Vax mother. (I promise this all combines and makes sense in a second.) With these media influences tumbling in my head, and a very long road trip where even my audio books could not fully entertain me, my brain started to make connections. In a word—woah.

For basically the first time, I felt like I understood these two movements. Note that I did not believe either of these two theories; Flat Earth seems to be a “gateway drug” to other, more pernicious conspiracies and beliefs, including many beliefs that are racist, misogynist, transphobic, and anti-Semitic, and I don’t know if I have the time or the patience to explain all of the problems I have with the incredibly harmful Anti-Vax movement. The fact that Jenny McCarthy is on a TV show where she tries to guess what celebrity is singing inside of a costume, instead of facing a class-action lawsuit for all the harm she’s done, fills me with a rage so strong that I can only describe it as “fire-hate.”

But I think it’s worth pointing out that emphasizing all of studies in the world proving that vaccinations are safe and…. well… the 2000 years of established science that prove that the Earth is round…. seems to amount to diddly-squared-by-squat when it comes to trying to convince someone who is in the Anti-Vax or Flat Earth movements. I also haven’t managed to solve anything by staring at these people with my eyebrows raised and just muttering “why?” under my breath repeatedly. So to borrow a technique from Contrapoints, I think it’s time for me to try to meet these people where they live, and figure out what led them to this point. The best defense is not offense, it is prevention. And if we can figure out why this happens, then maybe we can prevent it from happening.

Cause 1: A Not-Unreasonable Fear and Distrust of Authority

When I say the words “medical experimentation,” you probably think of Nazis, or science fiction. But you don’t have to go that far in order to find horrific cases of medical experimentation, non-consensual medical procedures, and even just medical mistreatment.

The story of Henrietta Lacks, and of her family, is basically a case study in Doctors Not Giving Two Shits About Patient Consent. Whether it involved the taking of Henrietta’s cells, the failure to inform her family of the theft, the continued sampling of Lacks relatives in order to test them without clearly explaining what was going on, a failure to inform the Lacks family before Henrietta’s identity was revealed to the world, a failure to allow the Lacks family to receive any compensation from the repeated sale of Henrietta’s cells, the mistreatment of Henrietta’s daughter Elsie in a government institution…. It’s just… all bad.

Just… Google the phrase “icepick lobotomy.” Then think about the fact that one of the youngest patients to undergo one was 12. Then try to stop shuddering.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study started in 1932. Penicillin was discovered to be an effective treatment for syphilis in 1947. The study ended in 1972. (That’s about five years before the first Star Wars movie came out.) The men involved in the study were never told they had syphilis, never given penicillin, and actively prevented from accessing treatment elsewhere. The experiment only ended after 40 years because of whistleblowers.

The “father of gynecology,” James Marion Sims, developed most of his techniques by experimenting on slave women without the benefit of anesthesia.

Canadian doctors were performing forced or coerced sterilization procedures on indigenous women up until the far-distant year of… 2017. (writer’s note: Are you effing kidding me?)

And that’s not even taking into account more modern problems with medical science, ranging from the fact that the opioid crisis was driven by an unethical drug company owned by a single, reclusive family, to the fact that the prices of life saving drugs are going up by as much as 4000 percent, to the fact that all women, even famous, wealthy women like Selma Blair and Serena Williams, face years of pain and even near death because medical professionals don’t take their pain or experiences seriously.

Long story short, there are a lot of very good reasons to doubt the healthcare industry’s beliefs and practices, and to lack faith in their good intentions. The history of medical advancement is also a history of victimization, and the close relationship between healthcare and profit means that pretty much every patient has reason to believe that their doctor is not always acting in their best interests. It’s not completely unreasonable for patients, especially women and people of color, to distrust what the medical establishment calls “common practice.”

This story of exploitation, secrecy, and self-interest can be copy-and-pasted onto basically any authority that Flat Earthers believe contributes to the giant scam that is the “conspiracy” of the round earth, from the government, to religions, to scientific institutions, to major corporations. And we do, in fact, live in a world where high-ranking people are out to get us—or at least out to get our money and our allegiance. Those of us who are in the US are living under the official or unofficial rule of oligarchs and autocrats. They may not always be actively malicious, but they also wouldn’t exert themselves to extinguish the flames if we were on fire.

Cause 2: They Were Taught to Question Everything…. And Not Really How to Stop

One of the most telling moments in the Behind the Curve documentary is when one of the filmmakers asks a Flat Earther what authority or evidence she is willing to believe. Her immediate answer is “Myself.” And that is it. (Though it’s also kind-of a lie, since about five minutes earlier in the film she was showing off her collection of Flat Earth theory books. See my dedication to truthiness? I let you know things even when it kinda spoils my point.) Basically every generation since the baby boomers has been told with increasing frequency that we should distrust the world around us, constantly question the motives of people giving us information, and “do our own research” to figure out what is what.

Oliver Thorn of Philosophy Tube explains that many Flat Earthers are practicing something similar to what’s known as Direct Realism—we perceive the world, and what we perceive is the best evidence of what the world is. Obviously this runs into problems, when our perceptions have limitations, are subject to illusions, or are even warped by our biases. But only trusting ourselves also doesn’t seem like the worst option in the current media climate. We have fake news and “fake news,” foreign countries interfering, memes and jokes turning into viral scares (if one of you shares that fucking Momo thing one more time, I swear to God…) one of our most trusted sources of information is a website that literally anyone can edit, the best news and information is hidden behind paywalls, pay-to-play journals will publish pretty much any nonsense, and Google makes it possible to find something that backs up your opinion, no matter what your opinion is. How, exactly, are we meant to find “objective” truth? Obviously I believe there is such a thing—climate change is real, herd immunity is important, the Earth IS in fact round—but I can see how someone would quickly become overwhelmed, and decide that only their own beliefs can be trusted. When you’re taught to doubt everything…. when exactly are you supposed to stop doubting?

Cause 3: Anti-Intellectualism Plus Anti-Authoritarianism Equals Ugh

Raise your hand if you’ve heard any of the following: Ivory tower. Drain the Swamp. Those who can’t, teach. You can’t teach common sense.

For some good reasons and some very not good reasons, we’ve kinda grown to hate smart people. They’re elitist, they’re out of touch, etc. etc. Yeah, Hillary Clinton has tons of foreign policy experience, but is she likeable? Yeah, that astrophysicist is really smart, but will they crack jokes with John Oliver? Probably the only person we hate more than an authority figure is an authority figure who is an egghead. So when the people who are best suited to disabuse you of your theories have “MD” or “PhD” after their name AND are part of “The Establishment,” most people don’t have very strong instincts to trust them, let alone get warm fuzzies to hear them talk.

Cause 4: We Lack Media Literacy and Science Literacy

Any teacher who has ever had to explain to a student why they can’t cite a random blog in a paper will tell you that we have a serious problem in the US with media literacy, partly as an extension of the problem described above. We don’t do a great job of teaching people to separate fact from fiction, and our media itself is not really helping matters. If Fox News is proclaiming itself “Fair and Balanced,” “native advertising” means that advertisements can resemble news, and news agencies themselves often can’t be bothered to fact check, then proponents of media literacy face an uphill battle.

The same is true for science literacy. Our education system is…. not great. We can’t even decide if we should be teaching evolution and sex ed, let alone talking about neurodiversity and explaining the physics of the Earth. Hell, a lot of people still think that Columbus “discovered” that the Earth was round, even though people had known for hundreds of years (or longer) that the Earth was round, and even Columbus knew the Earth wasn’t flat. (He had a lot of other weird ideas about the Earth, but flatness wasn’t one of them.) Arthur C. Clarke said that an advanced enough level of science would resemble magic, and between AIs and gene editing, we’re basically at that point. People are taught to think that science is “scary” and above them. And as humans, we’re pretty good at hating what we fear, and going “oh yeah? Well uh, fuck you!” to anything that is seen as above us. So if people are sifting through likely-incorrect information about stuff they don’t understand anyway, then the chances that they are going to come away with a false conclusion is pretty high.

This lack of science literacy also doubles as a lack of medical literacy. We have serious stigmas about people on the autism spectrum, to the point that in the hypothetical (and false) dichotomy between “autism” and “measles,” a lot of parents are leaning towards “measles.” And that’s partly because we don’t understand measles. Most of us haven’t seen them in person. Or tetanus, or meningitis, or any of the things that we have vaccines for. Name one person besides FDR that you know of who had polio. And if, as we discussed above, “my own personal experience and knowledge” is the only source that people trust, then vaccine-preventable diseases seem far away and unimportant.

Cause 5: On the Other Hand, They’re Not Actually Totally Ignoring Evidence

This one seems a little counter-intuitive. But one weird connection between Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers is that they are actually both heavily invested in the concept of science. They’re just not using it in ways that are entirely correct, or that we would approve of. Anti-Vaxxers tend to rely on anecdotal evidence—“true” stories of children that were hurt or killed by vaccines. Flat Earthers turn to YouTube videos and self-designed experiments that “prove” the Earth is flat.

You will meet few people who are more dedicated to “research” than an Anti-Vaxxer who is determined to prove that vaccines are dangerous. They’ll join multiple message boards, start Facebook groups, look up the chemicals inside of vaccines (true story, I know the amount of mercury in vaccines is not dangerous, but I also didn’t even know that some vaccines had mercury in them until Anti-Vaxxers became a thing). They collect reams of “evidence” that vaccines are harmful, and can spit arguments at you on command.

The most endearing-yet-sad figures from the Behind the Curve documentary are two men who do multiple experiments in an attempt to prove the Earth is flat. Their experiments are actually interesting and fairly well-reasoned. But since they’re performing a twisted form of the Scientific Method (starting with an answer and then looking for proof via experiments, rather than starting with a question and using experiments to find an answer) the experiments are also doomed to fail, for these men’s definition of fail. At least two of the experiments that they design do, in fact, show that the Earth is round. They then have to scramble to find ways to dismiss their own results, or to “prove” that their original experiments were actually performed incorrectly.

Cause 6: They’ve Found a Community, and Are Terrified to Leave It

So what could cause two grown men to become so nervous that they would rather argue that they are idiots than to argue that their experiments were correct? Why, the fear of social ostracization, of course!

By the time someone reaches the point that they are a hardcore Flat Earther or an Anti-Vaxxer, they have done a lot to alienate their pre-existing family and friends (or never really had a strong social safety net to start with). Behind the Curve emphasizes how most of the people in the Flat Earth community find companionship and acceptance in one another, and how little connection they still have to the outside world. Most of them have been rejected by family and friends, some of them have even had spouses leave them over their beliefs. And… well you can see why. I’m a pretty patient person (I’ve repeatedly stood at parties and nodded while repeating “uh huh” in a perky voice while a guy with worse grades than me tried to explain my major to me) but I’m pretty sure that if I had a close friend who was a Flat Earther, there would be a point that I could no longer bear to hang out with them because the conversation kept turning to a mysterious “they” who wanted us to think the Earth was flat for… reasons. And I just genuinely don’t think that I could hang out with an Anti-Vaxxer—I would be afraid of carrying an illness either to or from their unvaccinated child, and I would probably be constantly tempted to deliver lectures that heavily featured the words “immuno-compromised” and “fuck.”

So the Flat Earthers and Anti-Vaxxers, somewhat naturally, pull even closer to their own in-group. Their fellow conspiracy theorists are the only ones that “get” them. And the internet makes it possible to form close connections with people even if you never get to see them in person—you could be the only Flat‑Earther in Wyoming (I promise you there is more than one Flat-Earther in Wyoming) but as long as you had the internet, you could still reject your real-life social interactions in favor of the warm, weird embrace of online conspiracy theorists.

But if your entire social circle is made up of people whose major connecting thread is belief in the same fringe theory, it suddenly becomes very, very difficult to stop believing in the theory. It’s a lower-stakes version of what happens to people who leave the white nationalist movement. All of your white nationalist friends no longer want to associate with you, because you no longer believe that white people are The Best. But none of your pre-white nationalism friends want to spend time with you any more either because… well… you were a fucking Nazi for a while. And as anyone over the age of 20 who has moved to a new city can tell you, making new friends as an adult is HARD. The longer someone spends time embedded in these movements, the harder it becomes to leave them.

Cause 7. The World Is Scary, And We Want to Think We Can Explain It

The Laws of Thermodynamics dictate that the universe trends towards entropy. And that is a really, really difficult thing for our “chimpanzees on Four Loko” brains to handle. Our minds demand patterns, even when none exist. If the roulette wheel has stopped on red five times in a row, we’ll bet it all on black because it “has” to finally stop there, even though it still only has a 50/50 chance. We’re dismayed when our earphones are tangled as we pull them out of our pockets, even though there is only a 1 in (insert very high number that Elle did not look up because she is not getting paid for this stuff) chance that our headphones would emerge not tangled. We crave control. And in a weird way, conspiracy theories are all about control. Just not necessarily our control.

It’s helpful (for me at least) to compare most conspiracy theories to 9/11 conspiracy theories. I became an adult in the post-9/11 era, and a lot of people around me from my teenage years on would dabble in the occasional 9/11 theory, mostly revolving around the idea of a “false flag” attack where Bush and Cheney attacked their own people in order to pad the pockets of their corporate friends and bloat the military budget.

Under this theory of 9/11, the government is competent, cunning, ruthless, and coordinated, like an Ocean’s 35682 heist team. They’re capable of planting explosives in a building, hiring fake terrorists, hijacking planes, coordinating the response, framing foreign nationals, keeping a gigantic secret, etc. etc. And even though this version of our government is horrific, implying that they are capable of actively murdering planes and buildings-full of their own people (as opposed to the way that they normally passively kill their people by passing bills that deprive people of rights and resources) it’s also kinda…. comforting. Because it means that someone was in charge. Someone was pulling all the strings. Someone was keeping this from being random.

For a lot of people, the actually-horrifying option is the truth: that we were victims of a terrorist attack that we were woefully unprepared for. That our foreign policy has gained us enemies, that our attempts to mix liberty and security leave gigantic holes, that our leaders were a half-assed cowboy with Daddy Issues and a nasty troll man that my state is STILL apologizing for, and they were opportunists and capitalists and took advantage of the situation after tragedy had already occurred. The truth is that this happened because the world is chaotic and uncontrolled, and something on that scale can honestly probably happen again. Whenever. Wherever. Because seven point five billion people = chaos.

Flat Earthers have a hard time explaining WHY a shadow group of intellectuals and officials, an undisclosed “they,” would bother creating this elaborate myth that the Earth is round when it is really not. The best they usually manage is that this delusional belief is part of a vast web of conspiracies, and in its own way serves as a gateway drug to the sheeple—after all, what better way to test the gullibility of a populace than to mislead them about the shape of their home, the construction of their literal universe? But for many Flat Earthers, WHY someone would do this is not as important as the fact THAT someone is doing this. There is a shadow organization that is so powerful, it can mislead billions of people. It can dictate science, and education, and the space program, and our concepts of time and direction. It can mislead people about airline flights, photography, even gravity. Though they might have nefarious intentions, someone is behind the wheel of all of our major institutions.

You see the same thing with Anti-Vaxxers, who also have a hard time explaining why, exactly, anyone would be purposefully poisoning children with vaccines. (As opposed to purposefully poisoning children with lead-contaminated water…. Goddamnit we live in a pretty terrible society.) They usually point to a conspiracy involving Big Pharma and government control—Big Pharma actually wants us to get sick, so that we have to buy their medicine. The government wants children to “develop” neurodiversity because… something something, sheeple. And again, Anti-Vaxxers want this to happen because to them, the alternative is scarier: things can happen to their children that are outside of their control, and outside of their understanding. They see the commercials about the rates of autism going up, and think it is because autism itself is increasing, and not just our ability to correctly diagnose it. They would rather think that it is a new development than just something that has always been there but that we’ve been shitty about noticing. They see a timing link between vaccinations and the appearance of autism characteristics, and think that the vaccines cause autism, because they’d rather think doctors are purposefully altering children than to realize that their child is not necessarily going to grow into the type of child they always pictured (a neurotypical child) even though they’ve been keeping pace with their peers in their development to this point. They feel (wrongly) that they’ve been a victim of a bait-and-switch, that some evil entity pulled a “changeling” situation on them and left them with a child that is different from the one they had originally. They have a hard time accepting that no… this is just their kid, and their kid always had autism, and they shouldn’t love them any less. And also, maybe they should campaign to end stigmas against neurodiversity, instead of campaigns that let their kids get exposed to measles. You know. Just a thought.

So Uh…. Why Have You Babbled About All of This, Elle?

So. Wow. Okay, so if you’ve stayed with me thus far… well first of all you have far too much patience, but I appreciate you. Second of all, I promise this is all coming to a point. And the point is: I think we can fix this. Maybe not immediately (definitely not immediately) but we can address most of these causes with corresponding solutions.

Solution 1: Make Institutions… Suck Less?

So we’re starting out with one of the bigger and less-possible solutions right out of the gate. But one of the most obvious solutions is to make major organizations, especially the medical industry and the government, just… suck less. Make them less imposing, and less scary. Increase their transparency and their accountability. If we lived in a world where the medical community had a vested interest in us not being sick, as opposed to the current situation where “the longer we are sick the more money we will give them,” that would go a long way in disputing notions that pharmaceutical companies are getting us sick on purpose. If every branch of the medical community treated the Hippocratic Oath as if it were a law, instead of a wishy-washy guideline, more people would be able to believe in their good intentions.

If the scientific community was better at communicating and explaining things, instead of just dismissing anyone who can’t keep up with them, it would also help rehab their image. The same with the government—increased transparency about intentions, spending, etc. would dismiss a lot of fears that all of this was happening for murky reasons that involve fooling us.

Solution 2: While We’re at it, Increase Media Transparency

There should be consequences for knowingly spreading misinformation. There should be a strict division between “news” and “advertising.” There should be a sense of community responsibility to fund ethical, as-objective-as-possible journalism. Organizations and people that knowingly spread harmful misinformation should be de-platformed from social media and sites like YouTube. If we’re going to ask people to trust sources outside of themselves, we have to make sources outside of themselves trustworthy.

Solution 3: Make it Cool to be Smart, and Make Smart People Act Better

Why do we televise sports drafts, but we don’t televise university hires or research lab head hunting? Why aren’t there journalists breathlessly covering the action at the Modern Language Association conferences? Why do we act as if intelligence is purely inherent, instead of a developable skill like talent at painting or writing? Why do we make so many intelligent characters into alien-like assholes or chip-on-their-shoulder jerks? Why do we perpetuate the idea that academia is an ivory tower by making it an ivory tower. (True facts, I once saw Salman Rushdie get accused of living in an ivory tower and his pearl-clutching “Well I never!” response is what I think about whenever I hear some top-tier academic try to unconvincingly insist that that they are not disconnected from the common people.) We need to make intelligence accessible, interesting, and cool.

“The smartest guy in the room” trope is seen as negative because in most of our experiences, the smartest guy in the room will let you know, in excruciating detail, that he is the smartest guy in the room. We need to admire intelligence, but not idolize it. We need to share our knowledge, but not be paternalistic or condescending. Intelligence needs to be a tool, not a weapon. Anyone who has learned a cool fact and then excitedly shared it with a friend knows how good it feels to share knowledge in a helpful, enthusiastic way. Even when that knowledge is about bad stuff, sharing it with the intention to improve instead of destroy makes the act feel a lot less ill-intentioned. It may have made for a more boring show, but if Dr. House spent more time saying “You know that’s an interesting theory, let’s see how it compares against the data” instead of “You’re a moron,” then we probably would have gotten a better picture of the medical establishment.

Solution 4: Can We Please Fix Education for Goodness Sake?

No two ways about it, we need to do better with education. That means better funding (and not just redline-influenced property tax funding that ensures that white wealthy children get white wealthy schools, and children of color get textbooks that still say we have 48 states and call the Civil War “The War of Northern Aggression.”) We need to have better, less-partisan control over what makes it into textbooks. We need to start teaching children how to research and parse data from an even earlier age. We need smaller class sizes, more teachers with less burnout, better funding, and better resources. We need to stop stigmatizing neurodiversity, stop making science seem scary, and stop relying on simplistic, incorrect understandings of the world and of history.

Solution 5: We Need to Stop Writing Off Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers as if They Are Lost Causes, and Convince Them to Use Their Powers for Good

Be honest—if someone tells you that you are wrong, even when you are wrong, how likely are you to take that in good faith and adjust your behavior? How long does it take you to unruffle your feathers? How likely are you to double down on your wrong beliefs, because fuck you that’s why? Why do we act as if Anti-Vaxxers or Flat Earthers are some magical other species that will respond differently?

None of us like to be made to feel ignorant, even if we are being ignorant. And none of us like to be dismissed. So even though it is painful, and unfair, we have to be open to the idea of taking these people seriously. Not taking their ideas seriously—we don’t need an Anti-Vaxxer on a panel with a doctor, or a Flat Earther on a panel with an astrophysicist the way that we have panels with climate scientists and total randos who think that climate change isn’t real because they can make a snowball—but taking them seriously, as people who are capable of growth and change. Talk to them about their fears and concerns. What led them to feel this way? What types of evidence would they need to change their minds? Find a point of common scientific belief (the sky is blue, cars burn fuel, whatever) and work backwards from there to show how the same process that can prove that belief can disprove their own beliefs. Tell them that you admire their dedication to discovering truth and that you acknowledge that there are problems in this world, but that you’d like to see their skills put to better use.

Solution 6: …..Um…..

I’ll admit, this one is hard for me. I think that being asked to stay friends with someone who is psychologically or physically harmful is asking someone to participate in abuse. On a purely herd-immunity level, I think that Anti-Vaxxers and their unvaccinated children shouldn’t really be around… well, anyone. But I can also see how leaving these groups of people in total isolation is not actually helping the situation, unless we are actively hoping that Ant-Vaxxers and their unvaccinated-but-innocent children actually die out, which is just too gruesome to bear thinking about.

I don’t really know what to do. I think that one option is to try, in the safest way possible, to let people in these groups know that you will be there for them if they manage to walk away from these beliefs. I don’t have any Anti-Vaxxer friends (I don’t think…) but if I did, and if they saw the error of their ways and wanted to be friends again, I like to think that I would easily, if a bit warily, accept them back into the fold.

Solution 7: Solve the Things We Can Actually Solve, Otherwise, Embrace the Suck

Hbomberguy points out that Flat Earthers are not wrong when they believe that things in the world are wrong. We’re in what’s commonly referred to as “late stage” capitalism, and the world is literally and metaphorically on fire. As I suggest in Solution 1, there are some things we can do to make this be less the case. But… well we can’t fix all of it. And to a certain point, we have to try to get to a point where we are okay with uncertainty. We can control a certain number of things to try and make things safer and more secure, but then we have to just keep existing in this world. Earphones are going to get tangled. The roulette wheel is going to land on red for a sixth time, and it’s going to seem really wrong. We have to find a way to accept that some things will be forever outside of our personal control, and even outside of our collective control. Not to say that we should stop fighting to make things better, but to say that sometimes we just have to acknowledge that entropy exists.

In Conclusion…

So…. This is what has been haunting my brain for the last couple of weeks. I guess now it can haunt yours. In a weird way, it has made me hopeful—up until this point, I admittedly thought that “reaching” Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers was a pipe dream. As two of the groups who seem to most vehemently reject reality and science, I was afraid they were a lost cause. And now I know they are not.

That, at least, gives us a chance.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is six views of the Earth from space, taken from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Flickr account. They’re in the public domain because our tax dollars paid for them.

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

***

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.

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