On November 8, 2017, I attended Alice Walker’s keynote address for Stanford University’s Contemplation by Design week. Contemplation by Design is a “campus-wide, multidisciplinary program designed to encourage all members of the Stanford community to enjoy the power of the pause for the purposes of re-establishing balance, tranquility, compassion and energy to support our creative excellence” (“Home”). I have enjoyed attending the keynote speeches for this event every year since I started at Stanford. This year, I walked away primarily reflecting on the tension among respect, contradiction, and accountability.
A short way into her speech, Walker told a story about Native American activist Dennis Banks who worked exhaustively throughout his life for the rights of his people. She illustrated the level of desperation he felt by describing how he tried to repopulate his tribe by having many children, joking that she didn’t think “all of the women were very happy” about that. This statement is overtly sexist with undertones of racially-based rape language, implying the women didn’t consent to being impregnated, as well as implying Dennis Banks was a predator.
Yet, the audience laughed.
I remained silent, struck by how casually Walker had made this comment and how easily and uniformly the audience had responded. I find it hard to believe people didn’t recognize the joke as problematic. If asked individually, I’m fairly confident the majority of audience members would say they are not sexist people and would identify Walker’s joke as clearly derogatory. I feel that people attending a “contemplation by design” speech tend to be ones who’ve reflected upon sexism in other contexts. Why, then, did everyone laugh?
My first thought is people laughed out of respect and admiration for Walker. People laughed not because they thought the joke was funny or wanted to endorse its ideas, but because they respect Alice Walker. They felt the pressure to be a good audience member, which required them to perform the expected response of laughter in a moment intended to be humorous. My second interpretation of the audience’s laughter builds off of the incongruity theory of humor. The incongruity theory suggests that people laugh when they perceive something incongruous, “something that violates [their] mental patterns and expectations” (Morreall par. 48). People laughed because deep down they realized the joke was sexist and this clashed with their expectation of what a feminist like Walker would say.
Regardless of why people laughed, they did laugh. How, then, should we approach Walker’s statement from her speech that “we have a responsibility to keep entertainers honest” by encouraging reflection? It is difficult to hold people accountable when our immediate response is to laugh at their incongruences (whether because we admire them or we see their blunders as unexpected). Our immediate response is not to challenge their statements or ideas, even if they are harmful to perpetuate. Where does that leave us as a society? Walker says (and I agree) that we all have a responsibility to highlight problems. However, we seem to feel we have a stronger responsibility to show loyalty to people who we otherwise see as upstanding, or we simply find ourselves laughing at the awkwardness of the moment. I suggest the solution lies in the embrace and expectation of contradiction.
As is theorized by Carrie Smith-Prei and Maria Stehle in their book Awkward Politics, a way to approach feminism is by acknowledging and examining “awkwardness.” Awkwardness can be defined as the ambiguity and contradiction inherent in many modern political acts as a result of technology and the transnational reach of ideas (Smith-Prei and Stehle 15). I would like to extrapolate this method to include how we approach people as well. People are “awkward” all of the time. Walker’s joke is a perfect example of awkward; she is a feminist making a joke about rape. The person and the presentation clash. Due to technology and transnationalism, we are more aware than ever of these clashes, both people’s successes as well as their flaws. If we were to acknowledge the contradictions of good and bad remarks, of healthy and harmful ideas in everyone, we would free ourselves to critique the different issues we have with people’s actions and words, without dismissing the people themselves.
This frame of thought is exemplified in Brittney Cooper’s essay titled “On bell, Beyonce’, and Bullshit.” Cooper critiques bell hooks for calling Beyoncé a terrorist. She also critiques Rev. Sekou for defending bell hooks, conflating Beyoncé and Obama and calling them both embodiments of neoliberalism (Cooper par. 4). As she explains why these assertions are problematic, Cooper clarifies that her critique “ain’t about disrespecting elders, but rather about saying that elders, especially elders as astute and insightful as bell hooks, don’t get a pass for making whack-ass arguments” (Cooper par. 6). This is crucial; being famous and well-respected does not excuse a person’s statements. In fact, the wider a person’s audience, the more accountable we need to hold them because their words have such a broad reach. That being said, Cooper’s reminder that “Beyonce is a human being, not just an image or an icon,” can also apply to bell hooks and Alice Walker. Their problematic statements can also be seen as “evidence of both struggle and process” (Cooper par. 36). Recognizing this awkwardness allows us to critique individuals (even those we admire) without disregarding them as people or invalidating their other ideas. This is why we must embrace and acknowledge contradiction in everyone.
Cooper, Brittney C. “On bell, Beyonce’, and Bullshit.” The crunk feminist collective, 20 May 2014, http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2014/05/20/on-bell-beyonce-and-bullshit/
“Home.” Home, contemplation.stanford.edu/.
Morreall, John. “Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 20 Nov. 2012, plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/#IncThe.
Smith-Prei, Carrie, and Maria Stehle. Awkward politics: technologies of popfeminist activism. McGill-Queens University Press, 2016.
Annina Hanlon is an undergraduate at Stanford University. She is majoring in Psychology, with a specialization in Mind, Culture and Society. She is especially interested in issues regarding race and gender, and how work done in academia can intersect with and impact these issues in the “real” world.
Carrie Smith-Prei | Maria Stehle
@BetülUlusoy und @KübraGümüşay: Wie erklärt ihr euch die Vereinbarkeit von Eurer pro- Erdoğan- und pro-IGMG-Gesinnung (Erdoğannahe Organisation in Deutschland), die ihr seid Jahren in diversen Eurer Tweets und Postings offensichtlich (Ulusoy) und teilweise durch die Blume (Gümüşay) ausdrückt, mit eurer Aussage, dass ihr “Feministinnen” sein wollt und für Frauenrechte kämpft? […] Feminismus […] bedeutet […] nämlich: neben der Bestrebung nach der Beseitigung von geschlechtsspezifischen Ungleichheiten im eigenen Leben und Gesellschaft vor allem der kritische Hinweis auf patriarchal-frauenfeindliche Strukturen in der eigenen Community – ich kann solche Tendenzen bei keinem von Euch erkennen.
—(Lady Bitch Ray, excerpt of her Facebook posting July 19, 2016)
[I]n den letzten Tagen versuchte man mir Anhängerschaft zu verschiedenen Parteien und Organisationen anzudichten. Mich enttäuscht der Argwohn, das Lagerdenken und das Unvermögen Differenziertheit zuzulassen. Doch das sagt viel aus über unser Jetzt. Unsere Gesellschaft. Uns. Deshalb, einmal für alle. […] Ich bin weder pro dies, noch pro das. In meiner Person und Arbeit vereine ich mehrere Identitäten und Ideale, die in allen politischen Lagern der Türkei (aber nicht nur dort) auf die eine oder andere Art und Weise anecken, wenn nicht gar fundamental widersprechen. […] Statt in Lagern denke ich in Solidaritäten.
—(“10 Punkte, einmal, für alle.” Ein fremdwörterbuch, Blog by Kübra Gümüşay, posting on July 27, 2016)
Ehrlich gesagt finde ich Deine Stellungnahme vom 27.07.2016 zu meinem Posting, falls man diese überhaupt als an mich gerichtete Antwort betrachten darf, ziemlich schwach, liebe Kübra. Es ist eine schwammige, in Harmoniesucht getränkte Wir-haben-uns-alle-lieb-Haltung, mit der Du keine Antworten auf meine Fragen gibst. Du beziehst wieder keine klare Position in solchen Blogs und Beiträgen – oder besser gesagt nur allgemeine, doppeldeutige Botschaften. Ist das Absicht, Naivität oder politische Strategie?
I don’t know. […] Aus der Position einer alevitisch-muslimisch sozialisierten Deutsch-Türkin der zweiten Generation heraus, die mit keinem Verband, Organisation oder Institution (außer Universitäten und Hochschulen) verbunden ist: Ist es Absicht, dass Du – obwohl Du Dich aktiv in IGMG- und AKP-nahen Kreisen bewegst – spezifische Themen in Deiner anti-rassistischen und feministischen Agenda bewusst rauslässt? An welche Themen ich da denke: Erdoğans Frauen degradierende Politik in der Türkei, die Ächtung von Homosexuellen in der Türkei, die dortige Hetzjagd auf LGBTs und Transgender-Menschen, die Lage von Aleviten und Alevitinnen im Besonderen, konkreter: die Vergewaltigungen und Folter von Kurdinnen in Cizre und Muş-Varto in diesem und letztem Jahr, (natürlich immer aus kritischer Perspektive), Etwas allgemeiner: Die Folter von IS-Kämpfer*innen von Jesidinnen?
—(Lady Bitch Ray, excerpt of her Facebook posting in response to Kübra Gümüşay’s Blog, July 29, 2016.)
These are excerpts from a social media debate triggered by a posting by Lady Bitch Ray, stage name of academic-artist-activist Reyhan Şahin, on her Facebook site, a debate that addresses Muslim feminism, feminist positionality, and feminist politics more generally. Her first posting was inspired by the failed military coup in Turkey and by her longstanding suspicion that some Muslim feminist activists, specifically Kübra Gümüşay and Betül Ulusoy, who are active mainly in the digital realm, hide their association with orthodox Muslim organizations and might support (aspects of) the pro-Erdogan government in Turkey; in the public sphere of Germany, these digital activists feature themselves as anti-racist feminists who are also devout Muslims, but, according to Lady Bitch Ray’s argument, they take a different tone when speaking to the Muslim community. Lady Bitch Ray’s postings triggered many responses: some were in favor of starting the debate, others were openly hostile; some accused her of being divisive and playing into the hands of racist white mainstream feminists, others praised her courage to speak up as a Turkish-German academic in a complicated political debate.
One of the key complications of the debate is the manner in which it uncovers the potential for siloing within the contemporary landscape of feminisms in Germany. The social media debate between Şahin and Gümüşay inspired Sineb El Masrar to publish an article in in taz that states:
Wenn sich weiße, nichtmuslimische Feministinnen dem Diskurs zuwenden, gilt dies als selbstverständlich. Vor allem wenn die neue Generation der sogenannten Popfeministinnen der alten Riege Kopfschmerzen bereitet ob ihrer Positionen zu Prostitution, Porno und Islam. […] Die irritierten Reaktionen [auf die Debatte zwischen Lady Bitch Ray and Gümüşay] – übrigens auf beiden Seiten – offenbarten, wie viel Unkenntnis und Uneinigkeit beim Thema ‘Islamischer Feminismus’ noch immer herrscht und dass sachliche Kritik innerhalb postmigrantischer Gruppen zum Teil als Verrat gilt. (Sineb El Masrar)
El Masrar shows that Muslim feminist of color in Germany navigate an almost impossible range of political currents. Şahin as a scholar, and, in a rather different way, Gümüşay as a journalist, are not only aware of these currents but also try to make them useful for their respective causes and positions. Their different approaches and strategies are clearly born out of different political positions, something apparent even without their having to assume membership in any particular organizations. Traditional notions of the descriptors conservative, right-wing, racist or anti-racist, even feminist, however, do not seem to adequately describe the terrain.
The various layers of this brief example speak directly to questions of position, voice, and appropriation of certain voices for certain causes, all of which is heightened in the age of digital media; it also speaks to the politics of racialization and to anti-racist activism and to debates about religion and Islamophobia. Moreover, fostering a politics of solidarity, albeit differently and maybe ironically, is the stated goal of both Gümüşay and Şahin. While feminism has certainly come to the forefront of conversations around anti-racism in Germany, increasingly since the New Year’s Eve events in Cologne (prompting Die Zeit to ask in a January 18th discussion between Christina Klemm and Sabine Hark: “Sind wir über Nacht zu einer feministischen Nation geworden?”), the public entanglement of race and feminism has also further complicated the increasingly contested definition of feminism, including what individual feminists looks like, say, and represent. These questions are at the center of debates about feminist activism today: voice and appropriation, the politics of digital activism, race and religion, the true form of feminism, and the meaning of feminist solidarity. If traditional binaries do not appear to trigger a productive political debate, one can either try to find positions outside of these binaries (which is what Gümüşay stands for) or insist that confronting these tensions is the only way forward (as Şahin seems to suggest), even in a seemingly unproductive debate that threatens to backfire. Said differently, this position argues that we need to go for and to the political impasse and cause trouble.
Indeed, these questions are “trouble” and, as we call for in our book Awkward Politics, citing Donna Haraway, we need to “stay with the trouble.” For (white) academic feminists, however, this seems to be a difficult demand. Why does staying with the key issues of this debate seem like too much trouble? And is there a point at which we (white) academics ourselves become (too much) trouble? Beyond being specifically about the current situation in Turkey, Germany, and Europe, this debate raises a more theoretical question about patriarchy and complicity, about populist appropriations of feminism and right-wing populism, and about (the limits of) global feminist solidarity. In this discussion, both, Gümüşay and Şahin, are “willful,” as defined by Sara Ahmed:
To affirm willfulness does not mean prescribing a set of behaviors […] as if they are an appropriate or necessary way of doing politics. […] Willfulness could be thought of as a political art, a practical craft that is acquired through involvement in political struggle, whether that struggle is a struggle to exist or to transform our existence. Willfulness might be thought of as becoming crafty. (133)
But does Ahmed’s concept of “willful obedience” (137ff) also describe parts of Gümüşay’s political craft? Her insistence on her Muslim identification, on her veil, is, in most situations, a willful act. In others it might be willful obedience—and this is precisely what Şahin seems to point to: that there is a politics of willfulness that changes according to context and that this, precisely, is where we need to carefully and self-critically examine our solidarities. Gümüşay calls for solidarity, for listening and for telling our stories, for open communication (see her blogs and lectures on video), but she refuses to engage directly with Şahin’s questions. Again, is this a willful political act of evasion or is it a perpetuation of power structures in a political sphere that is constructed as “elsewhere” (in Turkey, maybe, or within certain communities) but that is, in fact, also always very much “here” (in Germany, in the US, globally)? The answer to these questions depends completely on position, but due to the political urgency of these questions, relativism cannot be an option. A simple posture of “well, that depends” is an expression of privilege (and not an option for Şahin, for example). Solidarity appears selective, then, and becomes part of a questionable political power play.
Added to Gümüşay’s willfulness is Şahin’s own, as Lady Bitch Ray. On January 15th, 2016 an interview with Şahin was published in the online edition of Die Welt in which she claims the mass sexual assaults that happened during as well as the racists responses to the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne stand in for a national problem that should prompt Germany, and German feminism, to redefine itself:
Deutschland hat gerade viele Baustellen. Vor allem bezüglich seiner Selbstdefinition als Einwanderungsland und mit dem Umgang mit ‚anderen’ Menschen. […] Wir brauchen eine Neudefinition des Deutsch-Seins. Daneben entwickelt sich der Medien-Feminismus in Deutschland zu einem mit Wasser aufgeblasenen Kondom, der, wenn er platzt, nichts außer stinkender Plörre hinterlässt. Ich finde, wir sollten auch über einen klügeren und wirkungsimmanenten Feminismus sprechen.
Here she criticizes not only the racist and anti-Islamic images that are associated with the violence against women on New Year’s Eve, but also the media culture that allows for and promotes such racism and violence, a media culture equated with Medienfeminismus that presents feminism as harmless and easy to consume. In this interview, Şahin utilizes playfully pornographic language—the marker also of her music and fashion creations, other writings, and popular Bitchsm seminars—that underscores the normalization of violence and consumption: “Ich würde alle Männer auffordern, von nun an 69 Klitorislängen Abstand von Frauen zu halten und einen höflichen Umgang einzuschlagen, wenn sie sich entscheiden, mit einer Frau zu sprechen. Und ich fordere mehr Raum für vaginal-votzige Selbstbestimmungsrechte und weniger Schwanzimperialismus.”
Her sexualized and very physical word creations, here and elsewhere (also in the debate discussed here, for example when she opens the July 29 posting on Facebook quoted above with the demand: “Pussytionier’ Dich!”), function not only as communicative tool but also as material that can be reconfigured, thereby gaining body, oversized and excessive. The suggested “69 Klitorislängen Abstand” in this interview excerpt, is of course a reference to the Cologne mayor’s remarks in response to the New Year’s Eve events that women should remain “eine Armlänge” from strangers at all times, which sparked the digital campaign #einearmlaenge that preceded #ausnahmslos. The excessively extended body part—the 69 clits—of Lady Bitch Ray’s comment points toward the ridiculousness of one-arm’s-length; the clits and the arm function as indexes for the violence of sexist and racist culture while also highlighting feminist political wilfulness as an of aesthetic disturbance. Ahmed opens her 2014 Willful Subjects with a reading of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale “Das eigensinnige Kind.” The fairy tale tells of a child who never listens to its mother and even in death extends its willful arm out of the grave. Ahmed uses this story to speak of willfulness or the willful as part of feminist, queer, and racialized existence. Here, the material is willful; the pornographic words are on bad behaviour, naughty. Ahmed concludes her book with the following:
When arms come up, they disturb the ground. Can we learn not to eliminate the signs of disturbance? Disturbance can be creative: not as what we aim for, not as what grounds our action, but as the effect of action: disturbance as what is created by the very effort of reaching, of reaching up, of reaching out, of reaching for something that is not present, something that appears only as a shimmer, a horizon of possibility. (204)
In Lady Bitch Ray’s interview, the clits become these arms, they are raised #einearmlaenge to point toward a creative process of assemblage that here and in the example of the debate is made possible in the digital sphere. At the same time, they point toward possibilities for utilizing the methodologies of digital feminism in the non-digital world. In digital feminisms, a whole host of themes as cultural forms founded on exponential difference collide, awkwardly: present and future, race and anti-racism, consumerism and critique thereof, nation and internationality, body and material. These collisions can be thought of as assemblages in which, to quote Puar, “[c]ategories—race, gender, sexuality—are considered events, actions, and encounters between bodies, rather than simply entities and attributes of subjects” (52). Assemblages “de-privilege the human body as a discrete organic thing” (57); when the human and identity or subjectivity are no longer privileged sites for analysis, the body is expanded to include all forms of matter, material, and institutions, and urgent themes rise to the surface. Puar writes, assemblage is about,
design, layout, organization, arrangement, and relations—the focus being not on content but on relations, relations of patterns (Phillips 2006 , 108 ). […] Concepts do not prescribe relations, nor do they exist prior to them; rather, relations of force, connection, resonance, and patterning give rise to concepts. (57)
In many ways, assemblage is also about deviance (see Heather Love, “Doing Being Deviant”), discipline, and control; thinking “the intertwined relations of intersectionality and assemblages […] can help us produce more roadmaps of precisely these not quite fully understood relations between discipline and control” (Puar 63). Both, Gümüşay and Şahin try to not only uncover the process of assemblage but also to take control of the female body as assemblage; relations of force assign their bodies a place within patriarchal concepts (in Schwanzstrukturen, as Şahin would describe them) but their visibility as willful, deviant, and feminist, produces relations of connection and resonance.
Moreover, that the debate began on the official Facebook page of Lady Bitch Ray shows the willfulness of the aesthetics in that disturbance. The platform, which itself is highly commercial and driven by individually tailored ad revenue, and the page, which carries all the markers of Lady Bitch Ray’s sexualized, irreverent, and poppy visual language, become a further component assembled onto the question of race, power, and solidarity, one that spurs on perhaps unexpected, vitriolic, or confused affective responses in a broad range of participants. Thus one manner of addressing these political questions is by looking at aesthetic forms and their affective resonance (aesthetics as defined in its broadest sense as the way in which we address our relationship to the world around us; affect as what happens in us and between us in our confrontation with that world), which might help to politicize this trouble. Lady Bitch Ray works with hyper-visibility and awkwardness (as we describe in Awkward Politics) and Gümüşay “confronts the relationship of her work to the public by challenging a particular form of visibility and by resignifying the limits of the political” (Weber 3). Both approaches represent and also confront an impasse, the impossibility of situating the racialized, sexualized, gendered body in any sphere outside of the realm of power politics and violence. The digital realm, however, opens up different sets of relationships between forms of violence, bodies, aesthetic forms, and social realities.
In our work on digital feminisms, we think through the digital not only for its distribution of feminist topics, but also for the fundamental restructuring of the material culture of feminism, with broad-reaching aesthetic, affective, and political implications. We engage in theoretical thinking about the material culture of digital feminist work, the aesthetics of feminist protest in the digital age, and the consequences of digital feminism for contemporary antiracist, feminist, and queer theory and methodology. When we speak of digital feminisms, we reference feminism as an ongoing process of continual becoming, one that also contains its histories and futures. Digital spaces are places of political collaboration or community building as well as spaces of divergence, deviation, and transition. A definition (and dismissal) of digital feminism that focuses on activism powered by social media and ignores the theoretical and methodological possibilities that digital feminism might offer is short sighted. In their introduction to Digital Anthropology (2012), Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller discuss how the digital intensifies the dialectical nature of culture. The digital is made up of binary code, 0s and 1s. Thus, it creates a dialectical system of differences that expand and reproduce themselves ad infinitum and at breakneck speed. The 0s and 1s in the code represent simplest and most abstract thought, as the infinite possibilities for the production of differences cannot be conceived of conceptually. Horst and Miller warn that while this description of the digital seems idealistic, as it could suggest the potential to lead toward a new equality and openness, this idealism is deceptive; gender parity in most digital cultures and arenas is a long way off.
This understanding of the dialectical nature of digital code, a code founded on difference, can be extrapolated onto an understanding of new cultural forms made possible in the digital sphere, but also those communities, cooperations, and collaborations—even the contentious ones—arising there. Assemblage helps us to get at the materiality of digital feminism as a coming together of bodies of all sorts that hold gendered, racial, ethnic, national, or economic meanings, a coming together that can only be read as an event of identity, one that continually constitutes itself anew, much like the 0s and the 1s of the digital code. In their writings on digital anthropology, Horst and Miller emphasize that the important relationship between the digital and the material allows for a different approach to normalization. They explain this as the tendency to quickly accept new material cultures of the digital as “normal.” In digital feminism, this normalizing tendency is political, the politics of which become apparent as an aesthetics of disturbance. That disturbance is willful.
In the example of the debate sparked by Gümüşay and Şahin, it is precisely the pushback against the normalizing tendency of media discourse—that which at first appears contentious or shocking becomes quickly subsumed by the constant barrage of images—that acts as a disturbance, one with aesthetic dimensions. At the same time, it would seem the more personal attacks between the two would also ask after the normalizing tendencies of cultures of violence, of the control of the body, and of the unilateral desire for fixed political (feminist) definitions and allegiances. All of this is slippery in the digital. Digital feminisms offer strategies for creating willful disturbances also in the non-digital world by developing connections and new discourses through assemblage. These strategies include hypervisualization, cooption, quotation, flattening, disappearance—all as a disturbance of the social order, of the (digital) dialectic of difference. Specific themes and images leave the digital arena and appear again, synchronized to the quickly changing tempo of their political aims. But while oriented toward futurity, this does not mean that digital feminism is ahistorical. Instead, it offers new forms of engagement that ask us to change our political reading habits and our community-building strategies.
If there is only space for antagonism, we are in a realm where we cannot reassemble zeroes and ones in new contexts. We freeze. There is, however, room for the creation of new reading habits and new strategies of community building. If Gümüşay is supporting a violent regime in parts of her work, then there has to be room for feminist critique without dismissing her anti-racist and feminist work in Europe. What one might want to call a queer reading of our digital-material realities implies that we can question solidarities in one space while, at the same time, we may foster solidarities in another. To act as (digital) feminists, then, means to welcome critique when we use gendered and racialized tools for power and control, or when we see them in use, but it also means to call for willful solidarity when we face these very tools together.
Ahmed, Sara. “A Willfulness Archive.” Willful Subjects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.
—. “Willfulness as a Style of Politics.” Willful Subjects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.
Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Alaimo and Hekman 120-54.
El Masrar, Sineb. “Frau muss genau hinschauen.” Taz, August 6, 2016. Accessible at: http://m.taz.de/!5324213;m/
Haraway, Donna. “SF: String Figures, Multispecies Muddles, Staying with the Trouble.” Keynote Lecture presented at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. March 24, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1uTVnhIHS8.
Horst, Heather und Daniel Miller. Digital Anthropology. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012
Gümüşay, Kübra. ein fremdwörterbuch. Blog Posting “10 Punkte, Einmal, Für alle.” July 27, 2016. Accessible at: http://ein-fremdwoerterbuch.com/2016/07/10-punkte-einmal-fuer-alle/
Lady Bitch Ray, official Facebook Site, postings July-August 2016.
Love, Heather. “Doing Being Deviant: Deviance Studies, Description, and the Queer Ordinary.” Differences 26.1 (2015): 74-95.
Puar, Jasbir. “I Would Rather Be a Cyborg Than a Goddess: Becoming Intersectional in Assemblage Theory.” PhiloSOPHIA 2.1 (2012): 49-66.
Şahin, Reyhan. “Frauen werden behandelt wie verfügbares Frischfleisch.” welt.de, 15 Jan. 2016, http://www.welt.de/regionales/hamburg/article151041833/Frauen-werden-behandelt-wie-verfuegbares-Frischfleisch.html. Accessed 25 Aug. 2016.
Smith-Prei, Carrie and Maria Stehle. Awkward Politics: Technologies of Popfeminist Activism. McGill-Queens UP, 2016.
Weber, Beverly. “Kübra Gümüşay, Muslim Digital Feminism and the Politics of Visuality in Germany.” In Feminist Media Studies. Digital Feminisms: Transnational Activism in German Protest Cultures, edited by Christina Scharff, Carrie Smith-Prei, and Maria Stehle. Spec. issue of Feminist Media Studies 16.1. New York: Routledge.
“Almost Nothing is Not a Pussy” –@look_at_this_pusssy
Mary Catherine Lawler
The LA-based Eva Sealove and Chelsea Jones started Look at This Pussy, affectionately abbreviated as LATP, as an in-joke, but their co-founded instagram account has blown up to over 7.600 followers. Re-envisioning the every day in terms of the yonic rather than the phallic and shattering the idea that only phallic shapes, symbols, and signifiers are visible Sealove and Jones provide a new lens for the everyday, working in what they call “visual euphemism” (Dazed).
Engaging in this “visual and textual project”, the BFF pair post vaginas seen in architecture, clothing, food, plants, cats and caves (ha ha), public art, advertisements, and other sources and exposing these shapes previously thought “unseeable” or “nonexistent” vis-à-vis those resembling the male anatomy, Jones and Sealove train their instagram followers and their larger audience to look for and recognize the female form in everyday objects and animate life. They also receive many submissions from fans and incorporate the most unique and crazy of them into their social media account.
Featured online in for example Dazed, Wut, Bullett, and Paper, Sealove and Jones have attracted significant attention with a new perspective that is “militantly anti-shame” (Sealove in Bullett interview) and all about “peep[ing] the puss” (Paper). The Fusion article on the 20-somethings even coined a new German word for “vaginal doppelgängers (or, voppelgängers)” – for the snapshots. In using pictures of simulated or recognized vaginas, the pair additionally enjoy the benefit of dancing around most – though not all – censorship.
In response to the question/request to “[d]escribe the perfect pussy”, Jones answers “I think that all pussies are perfect, in being un-perfect. I don’t think the ‘perfect pussy’ really exists. My pussy, your pussy, everybody’s pussy is fucking perfect” (Bullett). Also, when asked which pussy is their favorite, both replied that each has its own unique merits.
Though unfortunately both have received some pushback (“please stop sending us pictures of your dicks” – Sealove, in Dazed, the ‘it’s-a-vulva-not a-vagina’ terminology debate, and accusations of being anti-trans and essentialist), the yonic-seeking duo, Sealove and Jones, have over 7.600 Instagram followers convinced – “almost nothing is not a pussy”. They push for self-acceptance for women and a broader understanding of the difficulty of existence as a woman, while arguing for de-mystification – not, both underscore, de-sexualization – of the female form.
For more LATP, don’t miss Sealove and Jones’ podcast, which will be released on May 1, 2016, called ‘Do What Feels Right’.
When to Shut Up and Listen and When to Speak Up: Reflections on Collaboration, Race, and Activism
Listening can be a very comfortable activity; to sit, stare, and nod, either knowingly or empathetically. But, and I know I am not the first person to ask this, what are the politics of listening? What makes listening comfortable and when does it get uncomfortable? When and for whom does listening mean feeling impacted and affected? There is a similar dynamic in speaking: to speak means to have the word. But to speak can also be uncomfortable, can mean that one will either be or have to make uncomfortable, take a risk, or risk confrontation. The question I am asking is not just, as Spivak so famously phrased it, if the subaltern can speak. I am asking who can speak comfortably and safely and who takes a risk, and who can and who has to speak rebelliously (Judith Butler) or willfully (Sara Ahmed), who chooses and under what circumstances do we get to choose the voices we speak in. Thinking about the work of scholars like Spivak, Butler, and Ahmed, for me the politics of listening and speaking offer a productive avenue to confront what is often referred to as privilege. People who find themselves in a privileged position can practice this kind of safe-listening and safe-speaking, which, of course, corresponds directly to their physical safety. What this also means, however, is that, often by pointing out their own awareness of privilege, people practice a strange form of privilege; they solidify their privileged position by retreating into comfortable listening or they feel entitled to speak, yet again, since they have acknowledged their privilege. My suggestion is that rather than talking about privilege, we talk about who is talking about what and who is listening to whom, or who is, or should be, talking to each other. Why, for some people, it feels safer to shut up while for others, remaining silent becomes a threat. And yet, sometimes, not speaking can be an act of resistance. This means that we also need to talk about why and when people, either choose to or are forced to, remain silent.
There can be strategic silence, of course. For example, not the violence and abuse itself, but the media discussions about the crimes committed on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany, show these strategic silences on all sides of the discussion: while some claim that a focus on sexual harassment of women by groups of men obscures the fact that the men harassing women on a central square in Cologne were not white German men, had migration backgrounds, were recent refugees, and/or Muslim. Others claim that the focus on the ethnicity of the men obscures the fact that such sexual violence is common and also commonly committed by white men, but when white men commit it, it often remains unreported. In Germany, notably the hashtag #aufschrei (outcry) has already attempted to make the sexual harassment and the sexual/sexist violence that women are subjected to on a daily basis visible when it was launched in 2013. In response to Cologne and the media responses to the Cologne attacks, a new hashtag was launched, #ausnahmslos (without exception), which calls for action against sexism and racism, without exception.
As with a lot of online activism, people who sign petitions or use hashtags find themselves in the company of often unlikely and sometimes unwelcome allies. This phenomenon is one aspect of what Carrie Smith-Prei and I describe in our book Awkward Activism: the unpredictability of digital activism, meaning that it can and often is appropriated for other, and certainly unwelcome to some, causes, that it attracts trolls and can be used against the initial cause, can lead to the argument that such activism is ineffective. We strongly argue against this critique, but admit that when it comes to political effect, we face a new kind of unpredictability, which can be so confusing that some people respond by being silent. In some cases, this is as a response to the silencing people experience themselves, which is part of this unpredictability; but it can also be a, and may I say privileged, form of retreating into silence. This is related to a certain kind of silence common to academics: they retreat behind their need to research a subject first to write about it and behind their insistence that academic writing cannot and should not be journalistic. Facing the complexities of today’s world, we cannot afford to hide behind textual analysis without also always considering context (of who speaks and who listens, of who and what is meant to silenced, and of what might happen next). We also cannot claim that we can understand that context without listening and collaborating; we cannot claim that we can speak in a singular voice. And regardless of how many voices speak, we will make mistakes. We will find ourselves in a mess. We will talk and listen und understand the mess, collaboratively. And then we will get ourselves in a mess yet again.
What, among many factors and as many voices since then have pointed out, turns talking and writing about the sexual violence committed on New Year’s eve in Cologne into such a messy, difficult, and political affair, is that “Muslim” is a racialized category and that we are talking about race; and that women’s bodies once again have become a political tool for many different sides of the messy debate about race and racism. Additionally, women with migration background, non-white women in Germany, are not part of the discourse. The fears—or panic—of refugees from war-torn countries, mainly Syria, focuses on young male migrants while images of children and mothers trigger empathy. Female refugees, the mothers, sisters, or daughters of these presumed sexual predators once again appear only as silent victims. In the face of these complexities, we—and this “we” refers to middle and upper class white women—shy away from the mess and: we either remain silent about certain aspects of the issues at hand or we might even righteously claim that political correctness needs to be put aside when we are confronting violence against women. Again, this shying away from acknowledging that this complicated mess is rooted in our positions of speech, in our feeling of entitlement or our desire to stay out of trouble, to stay safe, in our inability to confront the politics of silence and speech. Positions of white feminists have far too long relied on othering and racism, on racialized constructions of victims and perpetrators as well as of oppressed other women, and on racisms.
For a week in January, when the attacks in Cologne and their aftermath were still hotly discussed in the media, Reyhan Şahin was visiting my home university in Knoxville. And it is our listening to each other, in Reyhan sharing some of her new songs, her research, and her writing, in us listening to her talk, in our conversations with students, friends, and colleagues, but most importantly, in our talking to and with each other, which sometimes included me translating, my children’s German-English code switching, as well as the food we ate and the tea we drank together as we nursed our colds, that I found a voice to write this research blog. We must not fall silent in the face of the complexities of today’s world, the overlapping, intersecting, or assembling forms of violence, oppression, and injustice. We can speak politically when we listen to and speak to each other (see also Beverly Weber’s work on Spivak). I am writing because I am reflecting on what Reyhan and I talked about, but also on what remained unspoken, and why. I am writing to trigger responses from others and to kick-start a popfeminist academic blog. Popfeminism – a word I use in my research also to describe Reyhan Şahin’s work as Lady Bitch Ray. Now, Reyhan told me that she does not identify as popfeminist even though many journalists and researchers, including myself, describe her work as popfeminist. Popfeminism, she said, is a white term. There is hip-hop feminism. There is a new song about Cleopatra and a song about butts, coming out on Reyhan’s next album.
So, for me, listening is one part. Even if – or exactly because – listening makes one feel awkward and questioned. But when, for example, Reyhan and I jokingly referred to Reyhan and/as Lady Bitch Ray as our research subject, we took pleasure in blurring boundaries between researcher and researched, between personal conversation and friendship and academic rigor. The dynamic of the native informant, who has to speak truth to power, whereas I, as the white female researcher in a secure academic position, can listen and nod and then write something and publish it, is and remains the so-called elephant in the room. Again, this is not just a reason for me to shut up and listen. It is also the very reason why we need to listen and speak, in discomfort, but also with joy, as a form of connection, collaboration, as a killjoy and as a boundary-blurring willful subject (to return to some of Ahmed’s terms).
#askeljames or, Q & A and literary antifeminism
Mary Catherine Lawler
EL James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey, was catapulted to success by the incendiary interest in her triptych of Twilight fanfic qua BDSM fantasy. The BDSM community was understandably upset by James’ lack of respect for mutual boundaries, safety, and caution, while (wo)men* everywhere wondered how a thinly veiled abusive relationship could pass for romantic (as long as he’s rich and hung, he can hit me, stalk me, and isolate me?).
James’ dead horse-tired plot of a virgin (of course, the female protagonist) meeting a dangerous and sexually experienced man who introduces her to technology (wow, a laptop!), patriarchal condescension (he acts without permission both in and out of the bedroom), money (sex for things – prostitution?), and, of course, sex, is only marginally better than Stephanie Meyer’s lackluster Twilight, featuring paper-thin character Bella (no talents, no interests – a canvas for YOU!). At least main character Anastasia Steele (a shade of grey, get it?) can do something – write. She’s an English major and does land a notable publishing job post-graduation, although hubby-to-be Christian Grey then buys out the company “to keep an eye on her”.
Readers (presumably) chimed in during Twitter’s Q & A , asking sarcastic advice and rhetorical questions, referencing allusions to Meyer’s Twilight, and pointing out how poorly the event itself went (not as predicted, to be sure).
One Twitter-literature user posted a reference to George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones‘ character Ramsey Bolton, a sadist and sociopath, linking EL James and Fifty Shades of Grey to larger literary culture, but at the same time underscoring the unquestionably negative drive of character Christian.
The ironic tone in these posts point to the clarity with which readers recognize verbal, physical, and sexual abuse in the poorly written three-book saga.
As we see here, Twitter as an online platform provides both the means to open up a discussion and also the potential for it to go off-direction, veering off course and dragging all skeletons out of the closet. Intent and reaction misalign here as users simultaneously wield humour and critique to express the affective repercussions of simplistic, sexist, gender-normative storylines such as James’, and to tell the author that her writing is “fifty shades of fucked up”.
Mary Catherine Lawler
Recently in the US, dress codes have been aggressively enforced against young women in high schools. Last year in New Jersey, a group of young women formed#iammorethanadistraction to emphasize that dress codes as they are currently being enforced (read: against women and not men) are not only sexist, but also promote rape culture, teach women that physicality trumps education, and teach men that women are sex objects. In May of this year, female students in Toronto joined Alexi Halket, a high schooler at the Etobicoke School of the Arts criticized for wearing a crop top to school, with #croptopday, while August 2015 saw the rise of the hashtag #IfAnythingSchoolTaughtMe in protest of dress codes being prioritized over women’s learning.
Laci Green, a vocal feminist vlogger, issued a summary of what’s going on and five ways that the dress code epidemic is damaging young women and even girls as young as Kindergarten-age.
Megan MacKay spoke out with a satirical vlog-style YouTube video in which she demonstrates ways to tweak your outfit based on different dress code criticisms:
A high school posted some pictures of herself on Instagram and described her experience at school, captioning it as follows:
“Today, I wore this outfit to Beaufort High School. About 20 minutes into the day, my friend and I were excused from class to venture to the vending machine because our teacher was planning to do nothing all class period, as usual. On our way back, I learned something very important about myself: I am a whore.
As I was walking down the hallway, I heard a voice behind me. “Your skirt is too short. You need to go to in-school suspension and then go home.” Thank you, Mrs. Woods. Thank you for teaching me that looking good for school is NOT appropriate. Thank you for letting me know that while I may think that I am dressing up for my Teacher Cadet lesson, I am in fact dressing to go to a night club or the whore house. Thank you for bringing me to tears in front of my friends and classmates because you do not have the decency to pull me aside and explain the problem. Then again, I did not have the decency to put on real clothes today.
So maybe I am in the wrong. Maybe our society isn’t yet advanced enough to handle 3 inches of my thigh. This is a patriarchal society and I am a woman. I have to be kept in my place, or I may do something that is so rarely seen in Beaufort High School- learn.
You saved me, Beaufort High. As Student Body President, junior marshal, and a recipient of the Palmetto Fellows, I was heading down the path of hard drugs (good thing you’re testing next year!), strip clubs, and sugar daddies. I don’t know where I would be without your misogynistic views. How could I go on without a certain teacher making sexist jokes all class? How could I survive without my science professor letting me know I am an inferior woman? Yes, I am a woman. I am woman with thighs, a butt, and a brain. I am bigger than Beaufort High School. All of us are. Maybe instead of worrying about my skirt, Beaufort High should take notice of its incompetent employees, and sexist leaders.”
Others at the Charleston County School of the Arts in North Charleston, South Carolina stood up for women’s rights to wear what they like by showing up to school with a literary and social accessory: a scarlet letter.
This summer, the Toronto-based trio Andrea Villanueva, Kerin John and Erin Dixon formed Project Slut, making public a video that explains the dangers of dress codes for non-traditional, non-heteronormative, and non-white students. Their promotional image, seen early in the video, closely resembles Santigold’s 2006 debut album Santogold and issues a call to action to #endthedresscode.
As fashion changes, it remains crucial for us to use social media as a use to combat everyday sexism such as the enforcing of dress code only for women. With female-only mandatory assemblies, the removal of students from class for hours, detention, and other public embarrassment and harassment of female and non-traditional students, features like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, though too often also an anonymous platform for misogynistic and patriarchal hatespeak, also provide us the means to speak out and fight back.
Gender Reversal YouTube Videos: Responses from India and France
Mary Catherine Lawler
As a visual pushback to responses of ridicule to outspoken feminists, two YouTube videos from India and France, respectively, portray day to day life by showing male actors experiencing social prejudices against women and female actors enjoying the privileges normally and invisibly bestowed upon men. Though at times it almost seems that the video is making fun of how women move, talk, and dress (see the nightclub scene in Man’s World or the daycare drop-off scene in Oppressed Majority), overall the stories do a decent job of throwing into relief problematic gender interactions and highlighting daily sexism.
To start, I will give a brief summary of both videos. Oppressed Majority (Majorité Opprimée English) deals with a day in the life of a man living in a woman’s world; he interacts with neighbors and friends, takes his child to daycare, is harassed both during the day and at night, and met with disdain from his high-profile business wife. Man’s World is a four-part series of videos much in the same vein; Kiran, a young man, is frustrated with the “preferential treatment” given to women and after we see a typical privileged day in his life, he wishes for gender experiences to be reversed. They are indeed, but his attempt at a reverse wish fails, and he marries and has a child in a woman’s world.
Man’s World, Episode 3 / 2015
Oppressed Majority / 2014
Though on the whole on point, the French YouTube video betrays its stance as staunchly secular, in a scene in which the father (who lives in a feminist world) drops off his child at a daycare run by another man in a mock-hijab. He confronts his acquaintance, telling him that as men, they’re “not objects”, but his friend protests that “it’s the law” and “God will protect me”. This rather simplistic view of Islam is disappointing, but we understand the feminist point trying to be made, as this man’s wife had asked him to cover himself.
While the Indian YouTube series can at points be somewhat silly (we see Kiran getting his period and a pull-back shot of him screaming a drawn-out “Nooooo!”), the ending of the series is both the best and most difficult moment to stomach. After Kiran monologues to his newborn son, rejected by most of the women of the family, one of whom even offered to “take care of it” for her daughter, Kiran’s wife has a realization about the woman’s world in which the characters live. She makes chai, serving it to Kiran, which in the context is a progressive gesture, but to us as viewers who still live in a patriarchal environment, almost seems like a 180 back to the original world Kiran wished for.
Both videos assertively tease out daily problems faced by women such as workplace harassment, difficulty on public transit, sexism in interactions with the police, and overall safety concerns and discrimination within the family. More work is needed, however, to create a video response that doesn’t read as sometimes borderline mimicry or ridicule; sometimes the acting comes off as a straight man trying to play a gay man rather than a man living in a woman’s world. Perhaps this itself is a symptom of the man’s world in which we live and the stereotypes of gender and sexual orientation with which we operate.
ASMR and Comment Pushback
Mary Catherine Lawler
ASMR, an acronym for autonomous sensory meridian response, is a scientifically unfounded phenomenon described by the YouTube community as experiencing “tingles,” or having physical sensations of tingling in different parts of the body. The goal of this audio-visual content is to enact relaxation and to combat anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, depression, and insecurity, along with other mental health issues, and it comes in various forms, such as role-play (visit to the doctor, caring friend, spa) and specific “trigger” videos that employ particular sounds or visuals to “trigger” ASMR in the viewer, always including a form of personal attention (eye contact with the camera, having a “conversation” with the viewer.
Recently, a new ASMRtist has begun posting videos, calling herself Bella ASMR (most ASMRtists operate under a “pen name”). Her videos, while somewhat pubescent in humor and content (see “Friend with Weed Roleplay”), are also lighthearted and sweet. Much of the community surrounding ASMR can be supportive and encouraging, leaving messages of gratitude for others’ creativity and attentiveness, but many others, commonly known as “trolls”, write hurtful insults and threats, armored behind a wall of internet anonymity.
Only one week into posting videos, Bella ASMR uploaded a video entitled “Not ASMR – Being a Human (People and Hurtful Comments)” in which she addresses both the comments themselves, by which she reads them aloud, almost in tears, and then provides a verbal response to get her feelings off of her chest.
(Update: This video has been removed by the user since I wrote this post. Her channel can be found here.)
In this video, she reads – to name just a few – rape threats (“where can I dump your body?”), racial slurs (“ape face”), and misogynist insults (“whore”, “slut”, “nice tits, bitch”).
While this is an acknowledgement of these comments and in some ways a concession to the “trolls”, it is also a great way for Bella ASMR to reclaim and stand her internet ground, responding to and directly addressing the nonsensical and cruel nature of these insults.
“Traumatic” – Martine Thompson’s Rejection Texts
Mary Catherine Lawler
Martine Thompson self-describes as “a miserable but willing passenger” in relationships. Her work, a series of screen caps of dismissive texts from men entitled “Traumatic”, looks at the casualness of relationships and the casualness of communication via technology. Texts, so fleeting and yet so permanent – archived not only mentally, but also in digital text form – can be downloaded, printed, and, as in the Tyler Clementi court case, used in court as evidence (in that case, it was a text projected on to a wall screen).
The above screenshot, captioned “unrequited love or whatever”, gives us a glimpse into the colloquial nature of her attitude and the tenuous connection between her and this guy.
Caption: “A lot of shit happened. His emotional ineptitude paired with our sexual compatibility made for a confusing predicament. I kinda despise him but have sporadically sent hateful and/or flirty messages through various platforms (to no avail) all summer”
The lack of effort put into these relationships is mirrored by the lack of effort in language. Proper punctuation is left out, spelling errors not proofread, and capitalization is out, while colloquial terms are favored. While all this is obvious in personal internet communication, its presence amplifies the disturbing lack of authentic engagement between Thompson and her romantic attachments. The option to be in touch online has the potential to trivialize communication through its instant and accelerated form, but also makes it harder to disconnect upon breakup for Thompson, among others, as she mentions that “[t]he worst part was how long I stayed involved with him, and then how long I pined over him and cyber stalked him”, the digital one-sided interfacing playing a role in prolonging her anguish over the end to a relationship.
“More than anything, I hope it reminds girls to love themselves endlessly and rid their lives of garbage people.”