Archive by Author

Open letter to The Ethicist

11 Jul

by Laura

Calling all ethicists

Dear Ethicist,

I think your advice to the straight cisgendered woman who was aching to out an ex as transgendered was correct; her acquaintance’s right to privacy far outweighs her desire to “save” others from his supposedly shocking gender identity (a transphobic assumption, obviously, that other women will be as unnerved as she was). A recent post on the blog Feministe discusses an aspect of outing trans people that you did not mention: it can be extremely dangerous to the outed person.

Trans people face disproportionate violence and discrimination in the US and elsewhere. The woman who wrote you is clearly concerned about her religious community’s welcoming of a trans man; her outing of him would surely carry more negative consequences for this man than it would for her and may even make him a target of hate crime. The answer to the question posed by your column’s headline (“When to Out a Transgendered Dater?”) is “never.”

Thank you for making the right call in this scenario.



Update: I’ve read some other responses to this column from people who find it very offensive and read Cohen as blaming the trans person for the situation. This is not my interpretation of his column, but I recognize that that might be because I am not sensitive enough to transphobic rhetoric.


Suspending our disbelief

24 Jun

by Laura

I hope the sexual assault allegations against bizarro world president (and real world Nobel winner) Al Gore are untrue. There are two reasons I hope this:

  1. I have long admired Al Gore and would feel terribly sad to find out that he committed sexual assault; it would change my view of him forever.
  2. I hope that the alleged victim was not sexually assaulted.

Look: reason #2 is way, way, way more important than reason #1. #1 is about my personal disillusionment; #2 is about the bodily autonomy of another human being. If that woman is making false accusations, then I am glad for *her* that they are false, because that means she wasn’t assaulted. (Though I’d be worried that she’s suffering in some other way if she decided to make up something so guaranteed to be a media nightmare.) If she is making true accusations, then Gore should be brought to justice, as should all sexual assailants.

Culturally, we have invested a lot of mythology around Gore. We hope that these allegations not true, because we hope that someone with great political integrity would also have great personal integrity. But that’s just a hope, and the kneejerk reactions of many in the media (ahem, Steve Kornacki) are about privileging the word of a famous, powerful, rich white man automatically over the word of an anonymous, relatively powerless, and relatively nonwealthy woman. I don’t know who is telling the truth here, but that means I am withholding judgment — not assuming that my wish to see Gore as a heroic figure gives me some higher truth that can’t be disproved.

However poorly you might be suited for it

16 Jun
by Laura

Show me a man who looks better in a tux than Janelle, I dare you

Jess’s post on the performance of masculinity coincided nicely with another piece of reading on my plate this week, a memoir by SF novelist Samuel R. Delaney called The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village 1960-1965. I started reading Delaney’s book because I am studying his ex-wife, Marilyn Hacker’s, poetry, and she is a major figure in the memoir. What I didn’t expect was that it would be, in addition to a chronicle of what was clearly an exciting and strange time and place to be a young artist, an enthralling read about masculinity and sexuality. Delaney is a gay black man who married a white Jewish woman when they were both teenaged aspiring writers, trying to figure out how to be who they were in a pre-Stonewall, pre-Civil Rights Movement bohemian New York. It’s all pretty fascinating, but the passage that struck me most last night was this, in which Delaney struggles to understand how the incredible personal and social power he finds in then-illicit sex (cruising Central Park, bathhouses, docks, etc.) fits in with his daylight life:

It’s even hard to speak of that world. But looking back on that morning and the mystical ambiguities that seemed so important to it, I saw that such moments were themselves largely social and psychological illusions — unless you realized what they meant was that forces both social and psychological were at work to pull you toward the most conservative position you might inhabit, however poorly you might be suited for it.

The mystic experience was a psychological sign that you’d reached a cul de sac where it was too exhausting to separate the personal from the social on the most conservative level. It was as an exhortation to vigilance against this muddying phenomenon that, I suspect, a few years later, the radical slogan “The Personal is the Political” was formulated. (242-3)
Now, I’m not a person who’s had much in the way of mystic experience. But this is one of the clearest and most concise social critiques I’ve ever read: forces both social and psychological were at work to pull you toward the most conservative position you might inhabit, however poorly you might be suited for it. I think this is true for all of us; the difference in how people experience it lies in the last clause: however poorly you might be suited for it. Some people are well suited to inhabiting a conservative social position; many are not. But we are all under extreme and constant pressure to do it anyway, to move not just to the center but to the far poles of “proper” behavior. This is why there is a difference between performative masculinity and straight-up menaissance feste misogyny: calling it “irony” is too shallow, but that’s part of it. It’s a question of how you inhabit your body and the social role that kind of body is ordered to occupy.

I am a cis queer/bi woman and thus most of my experience of this has to do with femininity. My desires are queer and my femininity is shot through with masculinity. When I was a miserable unpretty teenager, that felt like a failure. As an adult, it feels like a social and psychological victory: a refusal of traditional femininity and its interleaved misogyny, not a fiasco of it. That’s the biggest difference between being an adolescent and being an adult woman, for me — I get to reclaim what felt like failure as a victory instead.

Defying norms feels like work because it is, because of those forces trying to pull you toward the most conservative position you  might inhabit. That is why refusing to perform femininity seems like more work to so many women than the actual work of femininity, which is more labor-intensive but also hidden. That is why accepting your body is so much harder, at first, than fighting to “better” your body — because, like horrible magnets, those forces pull you backwards. We all must keep “vigilance against this muddying phenomenon” if we want to feel that our performance of gender matches our desires. If that’s not a priority for you, so be it. But if it is, well, strap in: we have a lot of work to do.

Ironic sexism is so passe

27 May

by Laura

The blogosphere

Okay, look, if all we do here on BBH is support the continued writerly existence of Tavi, I will feel we have done good in the world. Because seriously, just look at how this girl writes. She makes me proud of all girls, in a Willow-slayerizes-all-the-potentials* way.

Also, Terry Richardson: total dickbag. He is The Biggest Loser of fashion: pretending to be ironically commenting on cultural norms when he is in fact simply perpetuating them in the clearest way possible.

As Tavi notes:

I’m not writing all this because I want to embarrass him in an immature, spiteful, gym locker room prank kind of way. I’m writing it because it has to be written about and I want other people to write about it because he has to know that next time he tries anything along those lines, people will write about it. Then maybe he will stop doing it.

Who needs Slayers when we’ve got Tavi?


Burdens of proof

21 May

by Laura

For concern trolls only

So this thing happened on the sometimes informative, sometimes super-annoying community site Metafilter, in which a user asked for help keeping two friends away from a situation that sounded suspiciously like a human trafficking setup. (Two young Russian women with questionable English skills come to DC on an “exchange” program, only to find that instead of normal jobs they’re asked to hoof it to NYC for a midnight meeting with a stranger at a sometimes strip club.) The hivemind responded admirably and quickly, sending the OP information about charities, government agencies, and individuals who could help his Russian friends, offering places for them (and the OP) to stay in various cities, donating money to make sure they could buy meals. A user who claims to work in the anti-trafficking world helped get the wheels turning, and in the end, these young women ended up doing the tourists’ version of NYC with friendly people instead of going to middle of the night meetings with sketchy “cultural exchange” agents. Huzzah, internet!

Of course, there’s not really a way for any of us who read the thread ex post facto to verify what happened. Metafilter seems to be a tight community, but a huge one; I’m sure some of the people on there know each other’s real names and phone numbers and trust each other implicitly. I don’t. It’s possible that this is a grand exercise in collaborative fiction, and that none of the events described happened in the offline world. It’s hard for me to imagine what kind of person would orchestrate such a thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. I’d rather believe that it’s not a hoax that people helped each other, but then, I’d *more* rather believe that two young women weren’t in danger of being abducted by sex traffickers. Whatever the truth is, I am relieved that the scenario is described as having ended as it did, rather than with two (real or fictional) women harmed.

On the relevant MetaTalk page, where community users can go to debrief and chat about the original post, a few dissidents are crashingly insistent that this may be a big fake lie, guys. One user in particular, who goes by the name bingo, is really really concerned that people might spread the “Internet thwarts sex traffickers!!!!!” story all over the tubes. Here’s one particularly delightful instance of his or her concern:

The resolution, it seems to me, also relies mostly on this collectively imagined narrative. There’s a lot of “everything turned out okay” going on here, but the truth is that we don’t know whether that’s true at all. We don’t know whether there was even a problem to begin with, we don’t know if the Lux Lounge deserves all this smearing, and we don’t even know whether the girls will be allowed to remain in the US.

I don’t claim to have magical powers of perception that allow me to be sure that a story I’m hearing doesn’t reflect the whole truth, or that a specific business isn’t a front for a human trafficking ring. But to suppose that this means anything of substance is to buy into a witch hunt mentality. The burden of proof should not fall on the person who is merely suggesting that the conspiracy may not exist.

An elaborate tale has been woven between these two threads, with very little to support it beyond fear, speculation, anger, and hope. These are valid things to feel, but they do not in themselves prove anything. I think that when some time has passed and the air has cleared, at least some of you will read back over this discussion and realize that it sounds an awful lot like Congress’ deliberations over whether to invade Iraq in the wake of 9/11.

Y’all, there were no WMD in the strip club! You have all fallen victim of mass hysteria in your terrible desire to not watch two women be harmed! Bingo and his or her fans is really concerned about a “witch hunt mentality” in this situation — far more concerned for the potential traffickers, in fact, than the potential traffickees.*

This incredibly deeply wrought concern for imagined men is a common trope when it comes to discussing violence against women. When Shapely Prose ran the celebrated/infamous post on Schrodinger’s Rapist, about how men can respect women who have learned to be suspicious of their motives, self-identified male commenters came out of the woodworks to express their great concern that some woman, somewhere, might have the wrong idea about a perfectly innocent, well-intentioned man who just thinks she’s pretty. When I read bingo’s deep worry about the Bush-invading-Iraq nature of the “let’s save these Russian women” thread, I was reminded of the point that escaped many of the defensive Schrodinger commenters: you can never prove that you’re not a rapist. You can only prove that you are one, by raping someone. Bingo and his or her fellow travelers are skeptical and seem to enjoy raining on a parade; that’s fine. But the “proof” that the women in question are a) real and b) really in danger would be the proof that two young women are in terrible danger. To prove definitively that they were being abducted by sex traffickers, they would have to be abducted by sex traffickers. And then skeptics could sit back and sigh and congratulate themselves on their wonderfully sharp and perceptive minds as two young women lose their passports, their freedom, and their bodily integrity.

I’m a fan of logic, skepticism, and rationality. But I’m also a fan of women not being exploited. If this Metafilter story is a big hoax, the worst that happens is that some internet users get to feel like heroes for a day and some people give some hard-earned money to fake emergency funds (while some give money to real anti-trafficking charities). If this Metafilter story is not a hoax, the worst that happens is two young women who thought they would be tasting the American dream barely escaped ending up as sex slaves and never seeing their loved ones again.

Personally, I’m more concerned about the safety of maybe imaginary women than about the gullibility of actual internet users, at least in this case — just as I’m a lot more concerned about the woman who wants to ride the subway without fear of harassment than I am about the man who just wants to tell her she’s pretty. And that, to me, is a logically and emotionally grounded stance. The two are not mutually exclusive.

*I made that word up, yes I did

The eye of the beholder

17 May

by Laura

This woman is not beautiful. I mean, obviously.

Clearly a loser in the game of beauty

That’s what Fox News says! Rima Fakih (aka Miss USA 2010) is the beneficiary of “the whole PC society” that has promoted a Muslim American in a bikini at the expense of nice white ladies in bikinis. Apparently the crowning of a Muslim Miss USA is a sign of the end times to some conservatives; our all-American beauty pageants are promoting a pernicious form of affirmative action that says that women of color can be just as pretty as white women. What nonsense, am I right?

Even queer women who vote in polls on the internet know that very thin white women with long hair and slightly open mouths are the sine qua non of beauty. Especially if they are wearing no pants.

Obviously, this post has so far been a petty exercise in sarcasm. There’s something profoundly absurd in complaining that your meaningless contest to rank women according to extremely strict patriarchal beauty standards failed because it didn’t pick your idea of the prettiest woman. Clearly. But the idea that a woman who looks like Rima Fakih needs any extra help winning a beauty contest is even more astonishing. It reveals, to quote the brilliant Silvana, that

we were all the victims of a sick joke. A despicable charade where so much is demanded of women, so much compliance and poking and prodding, so much effort to make ourselves beautiful and radiant and perfect, so much forcing of square pegs into round holes, just so we could meet it all, do it all, get close to the apex of perfection and still be worth nothing.

Apparently Rima Fakih is also suspect because she once won a faux stripping contest in which she wore substantially more clothing than she does in the above photo, which is officially commissioned by the pageant. In other words, here is a woman who has devoted herself to the male gaze so effectively that she is both a prize fake stripper and Miss USA — but in so doing, she has revealed too much of her own effort, since the only way you win at the beauty game is to hide all the effort you put into it. As a woman of color, Fakih’s effort is always visible, because current beauty ideals are racialized. Thus we get notable minds such as Fox’s Gretchen Carlson (herself a former beauty queen) complaining that the Miss USA contest is rigged. Rigged, I tell you!

Look: there are no contests that are not rigged for somebody or other. And most of them are rigged in favor of people who are already winning. The world of official beauty is so damnably narrow that Rima Fakih is seen as an obvious outlier by some people, who either don’t realize or don’t care that they are revealing themselves as stone cold racists. And it’s so damnably narrow that I’m tempted to celebrate Fakih’s win as a thumb in the eye of the beauty standards, even though she looks like she stepped right out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog.

You might have heard of the current MoMA exhibit of performance artist Marina Abramovic — and if you haven’t, bear with me for a sec. I haven’t seen this exhibit in person (though Jess has!), but it has resulted in a photo gallery of many, many people gazing enraptured at Abramovic’s face. When I first saw some of these photos online, I was mesmerized, too, because I had forgotten that faces could be so different. Of course I see people in my everyday life who look very different from movie stars and models, but I’ve been trained — and you have too — not to look at them too long, not to spend time gazing at their not so beautiful faces. Abramovic’s work, by contrast, features a concentrated gaze that is available to anyone who wants it (and for some, that is apparently an intensely emotional experience). And it turns out that people are really wonderfully diverse in their beauty, not because of some affirmative action of sentiment but because that’s what people look like.

Holding contests to rank women on an absolute scale of beauty is an absurd exercise, the sole purpose of which is to enforce a certain ideology of beauty. Of course, for the Rima Fakih haters, that’s not a surprise, but rather the acknowledged goal, and that’s why to them crowning a Muslim woman as Miss USA, no matter how nubile and light-skinned she may be, is an outrageous and obvious offense. If white people can’t even win beauty pageants hands down, then how can they keep convincing themselves of their natural superiority to all people of color?


Smile, you have always been on Candid Camera

12 May

by Laura

Even bananas are in on it

Thank god Amanda reads Christopher Hitchens so I don’t have to. Jess and I found out a while back that Hitchens is friends with Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, and we fervently hope that all their nights out at the pub end with Amis and McEwan gutpunching Hitchens. Normally I don’t advocate violence, like, at all, but since Hitchens volunteered for waterboarding I think he can take a friendly British dude punch.

Anyway, Christopher Hitchens apparently thinks he has a right to see your pretty face without a veil, cupcake, because there lies the way of freedom. This reminds of Amanda of the Smile, Baby Guy (familiar to all women who have ever scowled, or just looked neutral, in public), who is possibly my least favorite version of John Q Public apart from actual assaulters.

I got “Smile, baby”ed a couple weeks ago; not surprising, as I am a lady and I walk a lot. But on this particular walk I was thinking a lot about my mom and how much I miss her, when this guy who was sitting on a bench at least 20 feet away from me hollered, “Smile, lady! It’s not the end of the world!” I was ready to yell “Fuck you” back at him, but there was no one else within, say, half a block, and I was worried he might come after me if I yelled. (Or, I suppose, just shoot me.) So I just looked at him with my eyebrows raised — decidedly not a smile — and he yelled, “That’s it! Not so hard!” I would describe my expression more as a bare-teeth grimace than anything resembling a smile. As always, he was not interested in making the world a happier place, but making a woman obey/pay attention to him.

The amount of self-control it took not to tell him to fuck off almost ruined my night–as of course did the internal monologue of “It’s not the end of the world but my mom just died so fuck you and your fucking fuckhead face, you fuck, fuck yourself sideways and also can you bring my mom back from the dead while you’re at it.”

Moral: Men, ordering a strange woman to smile for you is patronizing and demeaning. We are not your fucking pets. You do not have a right to see or control our faces. And Hitch, that goes double for you. If I saw you, I would put on a veil and then punch you in the gut and then ask Ian McEwan to explain why Atonement wasn’t as good as everyone said.