Ferguson, race, and the disability politics of the teen brain

In an article published on Somatosphere this week, author Julie Passanante Elman discusses race, disability, and the volatile teen brain. Read an excerpt from the essay below—and be sure check out more from the website’s series, Inhabitable Worlds. 

In February 2014, University of Missouri students made national news when they formed a human wall to protest the Westboro Baptist Church’s presence on their campus. Westboro arrived to denounce Michael Sam, a gay “Mizzou Tiger” who would become the first openly gay NFL player. Mizzou students eagerly donned “Stand with Sam” rainbow buttons and “WE ARE ALL COMOSEXUAL” t-shirts (an homage to “COMO,” or how locals refer to Columbia, MO). The nation turned its collective eye to “The Middle,” a North American region that has been associated (at times, stereotypically, by those on the coasts) with religious conservatism, provincialism, and intolerant attitudes toward cultural difference or sexual non-normativity. Rather than asking “what’s the matter with Kansas?” in frustration, onlookers celebrated Missouri’s anti-homophobic moment of conviction, its investment in creating an “inhabitable world” for queers living outside metronormativity’s coastal enclaves.

While one “Missouri Mike” made his NFL bid, another would never arrive on his campus or attend his first college class. On August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, MO, Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. His body lay in the street for four hours, as his blood pooled on the asphalt, warmed by the same unyielding Missouri sun that shone on MU’s Francis Quadrangle as students returned in late August. Mizzou students returned to a very different campus. Many of my students were returning from their childhood homes in St. Louis and its neighboring suburbs. Many were from Ferguson. Others were the sons and daughters of St. Louis-area police officers.

In late November, Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson nearly a week before the grand jury decided not to indict Wilson. Politically committed MU students quickly mobilized to support the Ferguson protests. Using the social media handle “MU4Mike,” students organized die-ins in the student center and City Hall and were supported by a variety of faculty, including a Vice Chancellor.

Mizzou’s Facebook page posted photos of the event (including the one above), which incited a variety of hateful responses:

  • “White lives matter too!”
  • “…[B]lack lives appear to matter to everyone but black people…the black community is the one offing themselves in record numbers, not white cops defending themselves from charging aggressors.”
  • “Raise your kids not your hands.”
  • “How stupid. All lives matter. Stop wallowing in self pity [sic]. This was and is not a race issue. Get real.”

Meanwhile, campus police monitored the MU Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center after an anonymous threat to the center (“Let’s burn down the black culture center & give them a taste of their own medicine.”) appeared on YikYak, a mobile, anonymous social media application.

Perhaps no image better encapsulates the abruptness with which Mizzou’s political landscape shifted than this screenshot of Mizzou’s Facebook page:

image3-23-510x266

Enveloped in hopeful sunlight, an African-American student stands with his hands raised in peaceful protest. He stands in stark contradistinction to racist comments (“Your [sic] a thug bro!!”) as well as a meme of a white father and son pointing, as if to the man in photo, to proclaim, “Look son, a faggot!” Less than ten months after the campus had “Stood with Sam,” entangled racism and homophobia seemed more virulent than ever.

As an MU faculty member, I wanted to contribute my perspective to this special series—first off—to spotlight our students’ courageous (and ongoing) activism to make Mizzou a more inhabitable world for all of its students. As a critical queer/disability studies scholar contemplating Ferguson, I am thinking of the challenging questions posed by queer/disability activist Eli Clare, who invites us to map the sedimentary layers of injustice.

Continue reading on Somatosphere.

Artist as ethnographer: Jason Whitesel on Books Combined

[This article was originally posted on Books Combined, a collaborative blog launched by our friends at Combined Academic Publishers.]

—Jason Whitesel

Growing up, I found the human body an abundant source of artistic inspiration. Painting and drawing was a significant part of my life from grade school on into my early years of graduate school. I did mostly figure drawing and self-portraits  – my favorite artist at the time was Egon Schiele. Certainly my emotional state pulsated through my artwork: yet it was not the inner world of my imagination that I sought to express, but always direct observation of the world around me.

Later, ethnographic research appealed to me for the same reason: it engaged me in direct observation. When I think about the books that first lit my intellectual fire and subsequently shaped my career, they were all ethnographies. I was introduced to ethnography and the sociology of everyday life when I was an undergraduate. For me, they’re a natural fit with the perspective I take in my artwork. Conducting ethnographic research allows me to pay attention to the rich details of things we usually take for granted and help the reader visualize the community/culture I am studying by painting a vivid, “thick description” of it.

Of course, I am not the only one to think of ethnography in terms of artwork. In an undergraduate class on sociological fieldwork, I learned from Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (1995) by Robert Emerson et al. that fieldworkers, struck by a vivid sensory impression, sketch the social scene, depicting it like a still life, providing detailed imagery from the field. Likewise, when writing my recent book, I consulted John Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (1988) in which he speaks of confessional tales of ethnographers being similar to self-portraits, where one tries to show the biases and character flaws the fieldworker brings to the ethnographic table.

Among the ethnographies that I cherish is Marcia Millman’s Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America (1980), a social psychologically oriented comparative ethnography of three groups: the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA) – now it reads “to Advance Fat Acceptance”; Overeaters Anonymous; and a summer diet camp. The book takes off with the idea that fat is a feminist issue.  It contains autobiographic stories collected through in-depth interviews and thoughtful observations in each of the three organizations, their meetings, pamphlets, and booklets. When I first encountered this book, little did I know that approximately ten years later I would embark on a research project to expand upon this classic, by engaging gay men’s perspectives as they worry about their weight in meaning-laden ways.

Carol Brooks Gardner’s Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment (1995) is another ethnography that had a significant impact on my life. Anytime I have to sit down and start writing up my own work, I pull out the book and thumb through it, feeling certain that inspiration will seep in by osmosis. Gardner, who has been my mentor, studied under Erving Goffman, a professor of Anthropology and Sociology at U Penn. In 1979, in his book Gender Advertisements, Goffman used a micro-sociological approach to decode gender displays in advertising. Gardner applies and extends his concepts to explore unwanted public attention women receive from men on the street and in semi-public places like a department store. Through 506 interviews and five years of public observation in a Midwestern city in the U.S., she documents the various indignities women and other situationally disadvantaged groups are made to suffer and how such experiences erode these groups’ trust in public civility, and wear away at their psyche, constraining the way women engage with and enjoy public places or contributing to their fear thereof.

I can trace my intellectual pedigree to Goffman not only through Carol Gardner, but also through folklorist Amy Shuman, another significant mentor of mine who was also one of Goffman’s students. In graduate school, I took “Folklore Field Methods” and a seminar on “The Rhetoric of Ethnography” with Shuman, who introduced me to Goffman’s ideas about narrative. At the time she was preparing her own book Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy (2010). Through Shuman’s eyes, I began to see Goffman’s work in a different way; it was about how people create themselves through narrative. I came to understand that Goffman was not just interested in the public performance of identity where the self emerges as a series of façades, but also in the ways narrative opens up an avenue for one to make sense of one’s self, no matter how untenable one’s position may be.

As an artist and an ethnographer, I found these books, above all others, to have helped me build bridges between my creative and scholarly ways of seeing the world.

Jason A. Whitesel is a Women’s and Gender Studies Department faculty member at Pace University. His research focuses on gay men’s rigid body image ideal and the resulting intragroup strife among them. His recent book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014) describes events at Girth & Mirth club gatherings and examines how big gay men use campy-queer behavior to reconfigure and reclaim their sullied images and identities.

Why has TV storytelling become so complex?

—Jason Mittell

If you watch the season finale of The Walking Dead this Sunday, the story will likely evoke events from previous episodes, while making references to an array of minor and major characters. Such storytelling devices belie the show’s simplistic scenario of zombie survival, but are consistent with a major trend in television narrative.

Prime time television’s storytelling palette is broader than ever before, and today, a serialized show like The Walking Dead is more the norm than the exception. We can see the heavy use of serialization in other dramas (The Good Wife and Fargo) and comedies (Girls and New Girl). And some series have used self-conscious narrative devices like dual time frames (True Detective), voice-over narration (Jane the Virgin) and direct address of the viewer (House of Cards). Meanwhile, shows like Louie blur the line between fantasy and reality.

 

Many have praised contemporary television using cross-media accolades like “novelistic” or “cinematic.” But I believe we should recognize the medium’s aesthetic accomplishments on its own terms. For this reason, the name I’ve given to this shift in television storytelling is “complex TV.”

There are a wealth of facets to explore about such developments (enough to fill a book), but there’s one core question that seems to go unasked: “why has American television suddenly embraced complex storytelling in recent years?”

To answer, we need to consider major shifts in the television industry, new forms of television technology, and the growth of active, engaged viewing communities.

A business model transformed

We can quibble about the precise chronology, but programs that were exceptionally innovative in their storytelling in the 1990s (Seinfeld, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) appear more in line with narrative norms of the 2000s. And many of their innovations – season-long narrative arcs or single episodes that feature markedly unusual storytelling devices – seem almost formulaic today.

What changed to allow this rapid shift to happen?

As with all facets of American television, the economic goals of the industry is a primary motivation for all programming decisions.

For most of their existence, television networks sought to reach the broadest possible audiences. Typically, this meant pursuing a strategy of mass appeal featuring what some derisively call “least objectionable programming.” To appeal to as many viewers as possible, these shows avoided controversial content or confusing structures.

But with the advent of cable television channels in the 1980s and 1990s, audiences became more diffuse. Suddenly, it was more feasible to craft a successful program by appealing to a smaller, more demographically uniform subset of viewers – a trend that accelerated into the 2000s.

In one telling example, FOX’s 1996 series Profit, which possessed many of contemporary television’s narrative complexities, was quickly canceled after four episodes for weak ratings (roughly 5.3 million households). These numbers placed it 83rd among 87 prime time series.

Yet today, such ratings would likely rank the show in the top 20 most-watched broadcast programs in a given week.

This era of complex television has benefited not only from more niche audiences, but also from the emergence of channels beyond the traditional broadcast networks. Certainly HBO’s growth into an original programming powerhouse is a crucial catalyst, with landmarks such as The Sopranos and The Wire.

But other cable channels have followed suit, crafting original programming that wouldn’t fly on the traditional “Big Four” networks of ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX.

A well-made, narratively-complex series can be used to rebrand a channel as a more prestigious, desirable destination. The Shield and It’s Only Sunny in Philadelphia transformed FX into a channel known for nuanced drama and comedy. Mad Men and Breaking Bad similarly bolstered AMC’s reputation.

The success of these networks has led upstart viewing services like Netflix and Amazon to champion complex, original content of their own – while charging a subscription fee.

The effect of this shift has been to make complex television a desirable business strategy. It’s no longer the risky proposition it was for most of the 20th century.

Miss something? Hit rewind

Technological changes have also played an important role.

Many new series reduce the internal storytelling redundancy typical of traditional television programs (where dialogue was regularly employed to remind viewers what had previously occurred).

Instead, these series subtly refer to previous episodes, insert more characters without worrying about confusing viewers, and present long-simmering mysteries and enigmas that span multiple seasons. Think of examples such as Lost, Arrested Development and Game of Thrones. Such series embrace complexity to an extent that they almost require multiple viewings simply to be understood.

In the 20th century, rewatching a program meant either relying on almost random reruns or being savvy enough to tape the show on your VCR. But viewing technologies such as DVR, on-demand services like HBO GO, and DVD box sets have given producers more leeway to fashion programs that benefit from sequential viewing and planned rewatching.

Serialized novels, like Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, were commonplace in the 19th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Like 19th century serial literature, 21st century serial television releases its episodes in separate installments. Then, at the end of a season or series, it “binds” them together into larger units via physical boxed sets, or makes them viewable in their entirety through virtual, on-demand streaming. Both encourage binge watching.

Giving viewers the technology to easily watch and rewatch a series at their own pace has freed television storytellers to craft complex narratives that are not dependent on being understood by erratic or distracted viewers. Today’s television assumes that viewers can pay close attention because the technology allows them to easily do so.

Forensic fandom

Shifts in both technology and industry practices point toward the third major factor leading to the rise in complex television: the growth of online communities of fans.

Today there are a number of robust platforms for television viewers to congregate and discuss their favorite series. This could mean partaking in vibrant discussions on general forums on Reddit or contributing to dedicated, program-specific wikis.

As shows craft ongoing mysteries, convoluted chronologies or elaborate webs of references, viewers embrace practices that I’ve termed “forensic fandom.” Working as a virtual team, dedicated fans embrace the complexities of the narrative – where not all answers are explicit – and seek to decode a program’s mysteries, analyze its story arc and make predictions.

The presence of such discussion and documentation allows producers to stretch their storytelling complexity even further. They can assume that confused viewers can always reference the web to bolster their understanding.

Other factors certainly matter. For example, the creative contributions of innovative writer-producers like Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams and David Simon have harnessed their unique visions to craft wildly popular shows. But without the contextual shifts that I’ve described, such innovations would have likely been relegated to the trash bin, joining older series like Profit, Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life in the “brilliant but canceled” category.

Furthermore, the success of complex television has led to shifts in how the medium conceptualizes characters, embraces melodrama, re-frames authorship and engages with other media. But those are all broader topics for another chapter – or, as television frequently promises, to be continued.

Jason Mittell is Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies at Middlebury College. He is the author of Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (NYU Press, 2015), and co-editor of How to Watch Television (NYU Press, 2013).

[This post originally appeared at The Conversation.]

An interview with Tom Shakespeare: Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, through the lens of disability studies

Sociologist Tom Shakespeare of the University of Norwich Medical School recently did a five-part series on “The Genius of Disability” for BBC Radio 3, with the first radio essay in the series focusing on the blind poet and writer Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, whose The Epistle of Forgiveness was recently edited and translated, in two volumes, by Geert Jan van Gelder and Gregor Schoeler for the Library of Arabic Literature.

In the interview below, Shakespeare talks about how he engages with al-Maʿarrī’s work through the contemporary lens of disability and how he hopes the LAL volumes “are the beginning of a longer engagement with him,” as, with the new translations, “suddenly you can experience this tenth, eleventh century writer as if he was here.”

How did “The Genius of Disability” originate, and how did you settle on profiling al-Maʿarrī?

Tom Shakespeare: The background is that I have been running this blog for a number of years called “Our Statures Touch the Skies,” which is a quotation from Emily Dickinson. And what I wanted to do was write short biographies of famous disabled people.

I think that people need to know that disabled people have made all sorts of contributions throughout history. So, I was doing this blog, and one of my colleagues at the WHO [World Health Organization] was an Iranian psychologist, Taghi Yasamy. I was telling him about my blog and he said: “Obviously you should do al-Maʿarrī.”

I wrote the entry on the blog and, fastforward a couple of years, Radio 3 accepted a proposal to do five broadcasts. And I wanted to cover a range. I wanted men, women. I wanted a range of art forms. And, particularly, I wanted a range of impairments.

Al-Maʿarrī speaks to us today in a way that many more orthodox Muslim thinkers may not: he was a vegan, he was a pacifist, he was a freethinker, he was a skeptic. By including him, not only was I saying, Look, somebody with visual impairment can be at the forefront of the poetic tradition. But also that somebody from the Muslim tradition can be a freethinker and challenge our idea of what Islam includes.

[In 2013, Syria’s] al-Nusra Front beheaded a statue of al-Maʿarrī. So a thousand years after he lived and worked, he’s still a threat. This presumably fairly frail, old, blind guy, who lived to the age of eighty-something, and all he did was write poems—this poet was a challenge to the orthodoxy then and now.

As you read through his body of work in translation, were you able to connect with the poems and prose as much as with his personal story?

The truth is that I could connect with the ideas, but the actual poetry was harder to connect with, and I think that’s because the versions I was reading were by Reynold Nicholson, who obviously was this pioneering Arabist of the first half of the 20th century, so credit to him. But I don’t think he was a great poet himself. So what we read is in that slightly stilted early 20th-century style and so it was difficult for me to connect with it as poetry. Some of it more than others.

What’s really helpful about the new volumes of The Epistle of Forgiveness is that they’re very modern and you can read it as a story. It’s fresh. And suddenly you can experience this tenth, eleventh century writer as if he was here.

I really hope that what’s been done with his prose, in The Epistle of Forgiveness, is also done with the collectionsTinder Box and with The Unnecessary Necessities. Because I think that would bring this poet to a much wider audience.

I know that it’s not true to say that The Epistle of Forgiveness inspired Dante, but there is a comparison in that previous translations of Dante have been somewhat cumbersome. And then you get a fresh translation, by a poet, and suddenly it comes alive. And I think it’s the same with al-Maʿarrī. We have to have a translation for our own contemporary time.

Of course, there are poems in this prose [of The Epistle of Forgiveness], and they come out much better than they ever did before. What I hope is that these volumes reach beyond scholars of Islam or the Arab world. We need an accessible volume of the prose and the poetry. He can certainly appeal to a much wider audience.

The idea that this poet is writing in the eleventh century! Now, I studied Old English at Cambridge, and I read Beowulf, and I read other works of that time, and they are nowhere near the sophistication and the philosophical and dramatic interest of these writings. I think it’s a shame that we don’t hear more of these sorts of poets and prose writers in our Western tradition.

It’s interesting to think about al-Maʿarrī in this category, “disabled,” which as you point out is a very recent one. As you said in your radio essay, he would’ve been viewed differently in his time. How do you think looking at him through the lens of “disability” or “blindness” can help us see him afresh or connect to his work?

It’s interesting: Immediately you’re using a visual metaphor, “looking at his work through that lens.” That’s an example of the way that all our language is taken up with visual metaphors. I think it’s an interesting question: What does it do to us? Maybe we might look at his metaphors. Maybe we might look at his language and descriptions, and maybe we might say: How many times does he use a visual metaphor? We can ask, as critics and readers, questions based on our knowledge of him. I think that what’s really interesting is that he would’ve memorized vast amounts of the poetic tradition.

He must’ve composed huge strands of poetry or prose in his head. I think he had four or five amanuenses who he dictated to. He had many, many students, and people came to study with him from all over the place. We know that various later scholars were trained by him.

I don’t know the extent to which [blindness] informs his works in a very direct sense. Other people I’ve written about—for instance there’s Virginia Woolf, who had depression, and I think you can say that that’s informed her work. With other writers, their physicality or their mental state doesn’t necessarily directly inform their work, but it does say something about the state in which the work was composed.

What’s interesting is that his prose and his poetry are very technically complex. So we have here an extraordinarily scholarly person who couldn’t read any of that, but he must have had at his disposal an immense range of references.

Maybe when you are blind or you lack a sense, you concentrate on other parts of your sensory apparatus. I think this is very commonly the case, that people who are restricted actually go much deeper with what they have left.

If he wasn’t blind, he wouldn’t be the poet he was. I’m almost certain of that.

You said, in an interesting short moment in the radio program, “I imagine his needs were met.” That would’ve been key.

Yes, he was a man who was very venerated. He came from quite a noble family, so that would’ve been a help. I suspect he put his hand on someone’s shoulder, and he wandered around and was guided by somebody.

He lived to the age of 84, and when he died, apparently, 80-some poets created poems in his honor. This guy would’ve been rather a celebrity. He’d written a considerable amount of poetry and intervened in the political debates of the day. He’s a really fascinating figure and of course remains famous to this day. And he did all this despite beyond blind.

We also know that right at the core of the Islamic tradition, there is an acceptance and an inclusion of blindness, which must’ve helped.

How would you place al-Maʿarrī’s disability in a context of how blindness is and was seen elsewhere? You said it’s often, across places and times, been seen as a blessing.

Yes, it often has been. Obviously, Homer is said to have been blind, and I don’t know if he actually was, but that’s the tradition. And some of the Old Testament prophets were said to have been blind. It’s almost like a trope that blindness doesn’t stop you, that people with blindness maybe even have additional insight. There’s almost like a special status. Right up to the present day, blind people have had a special status which other disabled people haven’t had. And sometimes blind people don’t want to be lumped in with everybody else because they might lose of their specialness.

On your blog, you wrote, “Throughout history, disability has led to isolation, either because people are excluded and shunned by their community, or else because their mobility or communication problems make it hard for them to participate. The upside of isolation can be a blossoming of creativity …” Did you see evidence of this in al-Maʿarrī’s case?

I don’t think disabled people have always been excluded and shunned. I think they often have been. But on the blog, I talk about a lot of people from different eras who did manage to be accepted and included, and I think you have to be quite exceptional to manage that. If [al-Maʿarrī] had been a kid who’d gone blind at the age of four and had not shown any particular talent, we obviously would never have heard of him, and his life might’ve been far more short and brutal. But the fact was, at an early age, he showed that he had something to offer.

If you are disabled, you’re much more likely to have fallen by the wayside, to have not been able to make a contribution, to have been excluded. Unless you had a particular talent, in which case there are these few people in history who, because of their abilities or talent, do survive and do make a contribution and are remembered.

For example, on my blog, I talk about an Egyptian called Seneb. We only know about him because there’s this funerary monument, and it’s wonderful, and he’s a dwarf. And we have this beautiful rendering. He’s a little guy and he’s sitting on a bench next to his average-height wife and his two children. And he’s a civil servant in the pharaoh’s household, and he clearly lived, thrived, survived, had a happy life, was accepted and venerated. And you think, well, isn’t that great. And every now and then, you get a figure like this. But they’re not many and we must think that disability was actually very common.

We don’t hear from 99.99 percent of them, but every now and then, in the pages of history, we find that despite whatever ailed them, they were nurtured and did thrive. We can’t be sort of Pollyanna-ish and think that maybe it wasn’t a problem. It was a problem. But every now and then, disabled people managed to overcome the obstacles and make a major contribution. And he’s one of them.

I think from a Disability Studies point of view, and a Disability History point of view, it behooves us to remember, celebrate, and popularize these people. Because otherwise we end up with some glib assumption that, ‘Oh, it was always impossible, oh there was never hope for people.’ When that’s not quite true.

And today [it’s much the same]: one third of the children out of school are disabled. If you are blind in Syria today, or in many parts of the Arab world, you’d have real trouble getting an education. You would be at risk of exclusion. There are blind people who flourish, of course, but they’re facing additional barriers today as they would’ve done then.

You found evidence of al-Maʿarrī’s blindness possibly affecting his relationship to the body, for instance in, “The Body is Your Vase”?

“What matters is inside,” is what it says. It’s not that he ignores it completely, but he’s not defined by it. Disability was different in those days. It wouldn’t have been a sense of identity. If you were a modern American poet with a disability, that would be part of your identity, and you would probably talk about it. You would probably affiliate with other disabled people. It would be part of your makeup. It might not be the theme of your work, but you would have made a conscious choice to avoid it. Whereas in those days, it was just one of those things. God had sent you an ailment, and it was up to you to deal with that.

What do you hope next for al-Maʿarrī’s work?

I hope that these volumes are the beginning of a longer engagement with him. I sincerely hope that more of the poetry will be translated and that these efforts that the publishers have made will lead to a wider appreciation of his work. If my small little broadcast is part of that, I’m really, really pleased.

[This interview was originally posted on the Library of Arabic Literature blog.]

Maddening pleasures, subsequent silence

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

March Madness is just kicking off, and ESPN has already predicted that this year’s tournament will see over $9 billion in bets and gambling.

MarchMadness-confettiFrom offices to college campuses, March Madness continues to attract more and more constituencies in ways that other sporting events, even the Super Bowl, cannot. This time in March and April is often marked by explicit displays of collegiate allegiances and intense and passionate rivalries within the institution of higher learning, a kind of ‘madness’ that is unmatched in any collegiate setting across the globe.

Yet, there is something very particularly American about this event. This is very much a United States phenomenon. In many ways, March Madness tells us about ourselves, and the values we interject into collegiate sports, and March Madness, in particular. It is this matter of values—and how sport reflects us, as an American society—that I am interested in. Specifically, I want to focus on student-athletes in two respects: the male basketball collegiate players and the women’s NCAA tournament.

While March Madness is a time to celebrate alma maters, there is a way in which the iconicity of the athletes, the power and recognition of coaches, and the transcendental nature of sport intersect to create quite a venomous concoction. American studies scholar, Nicole Fleetwood, in her elegant and sophisticated analysis of the visual plane of black iconicity in Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, asks that we critically evaluate how iconicity and icons fail to address either the messiness of social life or its major contradictions. Likewise, the iconicity of coaches, such as Jim Boeheim, John Calipari, Roy Williams, and Mike Krzyzewski, along with number of collegiate players, hides significant problems within the realm of sport. In the midst of sheer athletic movements, creative plays, intense and intimate camaraderie, and shows of sportsmanship, many other questions and points will remain, at best, minimally discussed and, at worst, completely brushed over.

With so much of the focus on the athleticism of the young men in the men’s national basketball tournament, there is little time to reflect on their lives outside of sport and in classes, in the collegiate physical environment, and in the larger social landscape. As I have taught in big and small institutions of higher learning, in Division I and Division III schools, and I have myself played and coached at the collegiate level, I recognize that the student-athlete has become a source of capital in ways that the “student” is extracted from the “athlete.” The hyphen connecting and demanding a peaceful, synchronized, holistic existence does not exist in present-day sport. Rather, our collegiate (as well as other forms of amateur) sports are a mere show in ideals, but the reality is much more troublesome. “Student” is often treated as an adjective to athlete. With that, as the games proceed through March Madness, I ask this first question: What are ways to create a fantastic learning experience for student-athletes? What type of support is there and where is the support for the student-athlete? The athlete has become the pariah within the realm of students, as if his/her natural place is often assumed to be only on the court, the field, the pool, or the mat. My encounters with student-athletes have shown the precarity of their lives and various forms of alienation within institutions of higher learning.

There has been a trend to let out a big sigh of frustration upon hearing of a student-athlete in one’s class, especially if he is a basketball or football player (read as African American). Although instructors might take great joy in the feats of the athletes on the playing field, the same type of energy does not surface in the face-to-face interactions with student-athletes. As a result, some student-athletes that I have met expressed their alienation in the class setting. They felt like disregarded, like scrap metal. Especially for working-class African American student-athletes, as I discuss in my book, there was the everyday experience and dilemma of already being overdetermined as athletes and sporting bodies. Scott Brooks, in Black Men Can’t Shoot, and Rueben May, in Living through the Hoop, attest to the difficulties of poor young black basketball players. This over-determination meant that their excessive bodies were seen as lacking mind and other key elements of the academic experience.

In the place of this crevice within the college experience for athletes are academic counselors, advisors, and tutors. This seems like a good substitute. However, would anyone substitute John Calipari with a non-sport professional who does not have any of the training, experience, and strong basketball pedigree? Why then would it be okay to insert advisors and tutors who do not have the training and expertise as the professors teaching the courses? The providing of such tutors, counselors, and advisors is important, but it is a double-edged sword, cutting deeply on both ends. For one, it fails to manufacture a positive learning experience and relationship with faculty in the classroom. Instead, what we need are fewer classes so that student-athletes can enjoy classes like the rest of the student population. Taking only two courses a semester would free up time for student-athletes to engage the material fully. They would not feel overwhelmed and feel like studying is a losing battle especially with the demands of the sporting field.

The athletic academic counseling structure justifies an entire cottage industry of sport services professionals within higher learning without providing a greater critique of collegiate and amateur sport. Several football players would be so worn out that staying awake in class took greater energy out of an already exhausted body. When I asked them why they were tired, a few of them spoke candidly that their coaches take every bit of energy out of them. Each coach, assistant coach, and trainer is there to take out all that if left in the athletic body. The student-athletes secure jobs and income for a wide assortment of sport professionals yet their lives reveal such insecurity. An injury could derail the entire collegiate experience. Yet, these students are pushed to the limits, and when demands are made for large stipends or paying student-athletes, the response is always, “They are lucky to be here,” “The scholarship is their payment,” or “The scholarship is the greatest gift.” Really? Is it this simple? Or have we become so blinded to the corporate regime of college sports?

The student-athletes barely have time for anything other than sports. Yet, they have to manage their work day (sports training) with their full-time class schedule. How many students, other than student-athletes, have to travel long distances for work, miss classes (and holidays and family events), and train for the entire course of the year? While we watch March Madness and take in all the joys that come with it, we have to ask whether the traditional student would have to put in the same hours and labor without pay as student-athletes. Student-athletes cannot even enjoy other experiences of the college environment, such as partying, studying abroad, holding part-time jobs, and securing important professional internships. With each round that goes by during March Madness, we should be obligated to ask how to equip and provide support for all of our students, including our student-athletes. As jobs increase around sports like coaches, assistant coaches, trainers, medical professionals, and even scholars of sport like me, we owe it to fair play in sport that we give our student-athletes a fair play in academia with stipends and an unlimited commitment to fund the scholarship for student-athletes, even many years after their playing days.

While we talk about guaranteeing college futures for male student-athletes, we need to also interrogate why men’s collegiate basketball appears in sports media as just “basketball,” while women’s basketball foregrounds the gender category of woman as an adjective, appendage, and an addition to basketball. Basketball, as my research has shown, was already taken for granted as “masculine”—a sport to be practiced by men. As such, March Madness stands ubiquitously for men’s basketball. While filling out the men’s bracket, there is little engagement in sporting communities for filling out the women’s bracket. Accordingly, the iconicity of men’s basketball reduces sport to a male arena and celebrates male sporting accomplishments. In the process, female athletes, like female basketball players, are relegated to a realm where they are outside the language of everyday basketball talk. There will be little to no discussion of how Title IX does not guarantee equity in the field of play. (See Deborah Brake’s brilliant book, Getting in the Game: Title IX and the Women’s Sport Revolution.) Rather, one sees equal numbers of men and women playing collegiate sports—but this metric does not translate into equal access to resources, nor does it mean that the voices of women players are heard as loudly as men’s.

This disparity is also prevalent in sponsorship opportunities and the minimal funding for women’s teams. There is frequent talk about the greatest collegiate basketball coaches, but rarely do coaches of the women’s game like Pat Summit, Dawn Staley, and Geno Auriemma enter that conversation. Likewise, there are many men coaching the women’s game, but no women coaching (as a head coach) the men’s game. Furthermore, as the case of transgender athlete Kye Allums shows us, there are few spaces in either the men’s or women’s game for gender-non-conforming or trans athletes. To add, another disturbing fact is the gendered and sexual violence within women’s collegiate sports. None of this, or very little of it, will be the subject of conversation during March Madness. The sexual violence that is normalized on college campuses seeps into and destroys women’s athletics as well. As basketball is rendered as a game for men, the violence against female basketball players is not always fully investigated. This is also because the women’s tournament becomes a side-show, not the main attraction. As a result, the storylines and issues within women’s sports are not legitimated and made visible.

There has to be a national discussion about sexual violence and it must also take place within the confines of collegiate sport. We need that discussion to begin now. In the late 1960s, sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards played a critical role in organizing African American student-athletes against racism locally, and within the larger Olympic Games. We know of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics protest. There is a foundation, although we cannot always see it, to use sport as one of the key arenas for creating livable, fair, just, and equitable worlds. Sport, as the great scholar C.L.R. James has argued in Beyond a Boundary, is not apart from the real world but intricately connected to it. Sport provides various forms of reprieve from the outside world but that does not mean that we can forget about how power operates in sporting cultures. Through sport, we can harness new social arrangements and social justice principles that then truly make sport the most utopian social site.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, June 2015).

Ayahuasca and the spiritual natives

—Brett Hendrickson 

What do Lindsay Lohan, Sting, and hundreds of Brooklyn hipsters have in common besides their glowing personalities? They all sing the praises of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic and psychedelic brew that has long been used by indigenous Amazonian groups. Ayahuasca sends its consumers into throes of reverie and feelings of spiritual connectedness. It also causes bouts of vomiting, which users lift up as part of the cathartic experience—the “ayahuasca cleanse.”

North American and European spiritual tourists being treated by a Peruvian shaman.

In its original Amazonian context, ayahuasca use is an integral part of the trances that shamans enter to carry out powerful transactions between waking life and other levels of their reality. The impetus for most of these trance journeys and transactions is healing of one sort or another, whether this be physical recovery from illness or the restoration of ruptured social norms. Shaman specialists take the ayahuasca in order to enter the visionary realm wherein they can do the important work of re-establishing balance, harmony, and health for their patients and communities.

By the mid-twentieth century, anthropologists who studied ayahuasca-using South American tribes were trying the drug for themselves and bringing back stories of its psychedelic properties. Soon, the growing counter-culture was experimenting with ayahuasca and other psychotropic plants common in Central and South America like peyote cactus and psilocybin mushrooms. Adding significantly to these plants’ inherent hallucinogenic properties was the ostensible authenticity and simplicity of indigenous people’s wisdom and spirituality.

The last few years have witnessed a rise in the popularity of ayahuasca use both on ethno-tourist jaunts to Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil, and in spiritual salons dedicated to the drug in the United States. It has become especially trendy among creative types like musicians and writers and also with young urbanites who might self-identify as spiritual seekers. Like-minded people have taken advantage of online social networking to gather with shaman/entrepreneurs who provide not only the ayahuasca but also a guided tour into a commodified form of indigenous spirituality.

A recent story in the New York Times describes such a meet-up in Brooklyn that featured a Colombian shaman, cups of ayahuasca, barf buckets, candlelight, chanting, drumming, and a $150 price tag. Others are not content with this kind of dabbling and have taken the plunge to remote South America to learn to have even more authentic experiences and perhaps become shamans themselves. A recent profile of one such individual describes a young Jewish man from Williamsburg who made various trips to the Amazon and the Caribbean where he received a new name from indigenous masters: Turey Tekina (allegedly “Sky Singer” in Quechua). After many spiritual adventures and self-discoveries, he “returned to Brooklyn, and turned his apartment into a temple for [ayahuasca] ceremonies. He has a steady flow of regular and new clients, all who learn of him through word of mouth.”

The history of Anglo-Americans who have dabbled in—or even appropriated—the religious and traditional medicines of indigenous people is long but remarkably constant. In almost every case, the white seekers are looking for healing and wholeness, but almost always in a such a way that critiques the complications and coldness of “Western” life and/or its “institutional religion;” utterly romanticizes indigenous people as simple and pure sources of unadulterated ancient wisdom; and can be easily commodified and thus sold in packages with other alternative medicines or therapies.

The latest craze for ayahuasca’s visions and vomiting is one more item in what sociologist of religion Wade Clark Roof has called America’s “spiritual marketplace.” When this particular trend passes, no doubt another will take its place in this unique form of American religiosity that privileges the sacred wisdom of the natives, as long as we can have it when—and how—we want it.

Brett Hendrickson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lafayette College (PA). He is the author of Border Medicine: A Transcultural History of Mexican American Curanderismo (NYU Press, 2014).

Feminist ire in all the wrong places

—Suzanna Danuta Walters

[This piece originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Vaginas keep causing trouble. The latest labial kerfuffle involves none other than the mother of all things “down there,” Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues. A few weeks ago, a student-theater group at Mount Holyoke College (full disclosure: my alma mater and the current home of my daughter) made a decision to discontinue production of the play and instead to do something more, as they wrote, “inclusive.” This quickly became a media firestorm, with Ensler herself arguing that “The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman. It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina.”

Had the students simply made a decision to produce other work and not gone out of their way to indict Ensler, one could imagine that this “controversy” would never have emerged in the first place. But the students’ statement referred to the work as “extremely narrow” and “inherently reductionist,” among other dismissive language. (Another disclosure: Ensler is a friend whose work and advocacy I have long admired.)

This is, of course, not the first time that feminists have directed their resentment at other feminists. Indeed, feminism, in both its theoretical and its practical applications, is well known for vicious infighting. As early as 1976, the pioneer activist Jo Freeman wrote about this phenomenon in an incendiary article in Ms. Magazine calling out “trashing” or, as she put it, the “dark side of sisterhood.” And when Ti-Grace Atkinson resigned from the radical feminist group The Feminists in the 60s, she wryly commented that “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.” Internecine battles have long been a staple of most vibrant social movements, particularly those with left-wing aspirations, because they are generally more open to democratic debate.

The instant world of the Internet—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the rest—has not only upped the ante but also accelerated the speed at which nominal disagreements get morphed into full-fledged “wars.” Contemporary punditry has weighed in on this, as in “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” in The Nation, and “The Incomplete Guide to Feminist Infighting,” in The Atlantic. And our broader media culture amplifies anything it might see as conflictual, so what gets retweeted is often that which is most easily slotted into a for-or-against model that does precious little to deepen the debate. This latest round of trashing comes at a time when (some version of) feminism has an increasingly public and popular face, and when feminist activism—around sexual assault and harassment, reproductive autonomy and sexual freedom—is witnessing a refreshing renaissance. In other words, we are at a critical moment, when the flourishing of feminism—both online and off—has a potential that should not be derailed by an endless circuit of self-destruction and misdirected ire.

This anger seems particularly targeted toward women in the public eye who explicitly define themselves as feminist and who espouse what certainly look like feminist beliefs, whether reproductive autonomy or freedom from sexual harassment. When the actor and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson gave a speech in September, calling for more male involvement in the struggle for gender equality, she fell prey to hyperventilating tirades accusing her of ignoring racial differences, asking men to protect women, and other sins of both omission and commission. Not long after, the anti-street-harassment campaign Hollaback! released a video depicting a day in the life of a woman whose walk though New York elicits endless undesired harassment by a stream of male bystanders. The video went viral, but so did immediate condemnation of it as exclusionary and even racist: The woman was white, and most of the harassers were men of color. Even the apology of the video’s producers did not derail the onslaught.

The wunderkind Lena Dunham was next in what has now become a long line of women—many of them young celebrities—to come under intense scrutiny in the vibrant feminist blogosphere. Dunham is no stranger to eliciting strong emotions; her hit HBO series, Girls, was roundly excoriated for its overly white and upper-class portrayal of a Brooklyn we know to be much more diverse. And her self-abnegating narcissism has rubbed many the wrong way. Her book, Not That Kind of Girl—part memoir, part self-help, part comedy sketch—has further amped up the Dunham wars, as she has now been accused of child sexual abuse in recalling and writing about what appears to be innocent childhood curiosity about the female body. In her book, she remembers looking into her sister’s vagina—when they were both young children—prompting the accusations of abuse and Dunham’s angry response (and that of her sister, who defends her by saying, in part, that “I’m committed to people … determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful”).

While moralists at large took the opportunity to deem Dunham an abuser, some feminists, too, jumped on this train, creating the hashtag #dropDunham and calling on Planned Parenthood to disengage from the star, who used her book tour in part as a way to support abortion rights. True, some prominent feminists, such as Roxane Gay and Katha Pollit, have eloquently come to her defense, but the blogosphere was fairly bursting with anti-Dunham fever. Gay, in particular, notes her discomfort with the scene (“I read the passage about Dunham inspecting her younger sister Grace’s vagina when she was seven and her sister was one. I found this disturbing and utterly bizarre”), but then goes on to say that she didn’t take particular note of it and, moreover, questions whether or not the disclosure is what is really animating the angst. Rather, she writes, “there is an undercurrent of rage that seems to have very little to do with the book, its disclosures or ‘the good fight,’ and everything to do with resenting a privileged young white woman succeeding.”

Let me be as clear as I can: This is—of course—not an argument against critical engagement. Criticism and challenge are vital to the health of any social movement, as they recalibrate priorities and assess goals and underlying values. As I write this, I am keenly aware of the ease with which some observers—such as Jonathan Chait in a recent piece for New York magazine—look at this infighting as evidence of PC-mad feminazis run amok. But the politically-correct-or-not framing is tired and illusory, undermining the substantive concerns at the heart of feminist discourse. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of feminist theory and the women’s movement more generally has been its insistence on self-scrutiny in the quest for ever more robust and inclusive analyses. And surely errors, miscues, and worse can be found in these and other examples.

Feminism has long struggled with its own suppositions and assumptions, from unacknowledged white privilege to presumptive heterosexuality to America-centric concerns. Calling these out remains a key ingredient in creating ever more salient and meaningful feminisms. What I am suggesting, however, is that this moment seems to have a skewed heat-to-light ratio.

When criticism becomes rote recitation of overdetermined keywords and loses what might be called an economy of scale, movements end up devouring their own and deflect attention from the larger and more pervasive problems they set out to challenge in the first place. Dunham and the Girls phenomenon might not be the feminist nirvana some hoped for, but she is a celebrity explicitly discussing her support for feminism and displaying an active commitment to (some) of the issues the movement cares about. The same could be said for Watson, Hollaback!, and Beyoncé (another feminist/sex-symbol Rorschach test); it bears noticing that recognizing the continuation of serious gender inequity and violence in a world many have blithely declared “postfeminist” is a position all should applaud. That doesn’t mean that any individual or organization should be above criticism; it does mean, however, that some perspective might be in order. It should matter, for example, that Ensler’s V-Day organization has raised more than $90-million, most of which goes to building feminist institutions like City of Joy, in Congo, or supporting grass-roots feminist organizations the world over.

There are real and potent enemies of women’s freedom out there in the world—those who want to sweep sexual violence under the rug, or do away with reproductive choice, or ignore wage differentials, or constrict sexual and gender freedom, or turn a blind eye to the lopsided gender representation in our halls of government. Perhaps those persistent problems seem too intractable, making the lure of the Twitter pile-on both easier and more satisfying in the face of our vexing inability to solve the larger problems. Easier perhaps to trash a Dunham or a Watson or an Ensler than to unseat an antichoice legislator or put a dent in the rates of sexual assault.

This could be, as they say, a “teachable moment” to parse the difference between, for example, discussions of “inclusion” and concerns about substantive bigotry and hateful representations. Isn’t there a way to stand in solidarity with all kinds of identities and communities without simultaneously declaring something else either “essentialist” or null and void in some way? To insinuate, for example, that The Vagina Monologues is a transphobic play is patently absurd—what precisely would be the evidence for that argument?

No doubt there is plenty of real transphobia out there to struggle against, some of it by the usual suspects and some of it authored by feminist theorists and activists, who should indeed be taken to task. But Ensler’s play is a poor target. And to mistake and conflate issues of inclusion for issues of discrimination is a dangerous and sloppy political error. It’s akin to calling the great epic Angels in America misogynist because it doesn’t include stories of women with AIDS.

Challenging one another and pushing at boundaries should never—must never—mean that we lose an economy of scale and create a topsy-turvy world where allies are enemies and borders are policed in ever narrower ways. When that happens, we let the real bigots off the hook and do a grave disservice to those activists and thinkers whose lives have been dedicated to human flourishing and gender and sexual freedom.

Suzanna Danuta Walters is editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Societyand a professor of sociology at Northeastern University, where she directs the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. She is the author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press, 2014).

Book giveaway: Plucked

“Most of Earth’s mammals possess luxuriant fur. Only one seeks to remove it. Rebecca Herzig’s delightful history of hair removal in America helps explain why: smooth skin is a cultural imperative.”
The Economist

Plucked is an important work, not least because it is so very readable. What’s more, Herzig is angry, and anger is the first step towards social change. ‘Plucked,’ she writes, ‘is, first and foremost, a call to remember those excluded others: the staggering volumes of sweat and blood and imagination and fear expended to produce a single hairless chin.'”
Times Higher Education 

To celebrate the stellar reviews rolling in for our forthcoming book, Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, we are giving away a free copy to two lucky winners!

In Plucked, historian Rebecca Herzig explores the long history of hair removal around the world, examining how Americans came to perceive body hair as a sign of political extremism, sexual deviance, or mental illness. Moving beyond the experiences of particular patients or clients, Herzig describes the surprising histories of race, science, industry, and medicine behind today’s hair-removing tools.

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred e-mail address. We will randomly select our winners on Monday, March 2nd, 2015 at 1:00 pm EST.

It turns out male sexuality is just as fluid as female sexuality

—Jane Ward

If women can kiss women and still be straight, what about men?

Some scholars have argued that female sexual desires tend to be fluid and receptive, while men’s desires – regardless of whether men are gay or straight – tend to be inflexible and unchanging. Support for this notion permeates popular culture. There are countless examples of straight-identified female actresses and pop stars kissing or caressing other women – from Madonna and Britney to Iggy and J-Lo – with little concern about being perceived as lesbians. When the Christian pop star Katy Perry sang in 2008 that she kissed a girl and liked it, nobody seriously doubted her heterosexuality.

The story is different for men. The sexuality of straight men has long been understood by evolutionary biologists, and, subsequently, the general public, as subject to a visceral, nearly unstoppable impulse to reproduce with female partners. Consequently, when straight men do engage in same sex contact, these encounters are viewed as incompatible with the bio-evolutionary coding. It’s believed to signal an innate homosexual (or at least bisexual) orientation, and even just one known same-sex act can cast considerable doubt upon a man’s claim to heterosexuality. For instance, in 2007, Republican Senators Larry Craig and Bob Allen were both separately arrested on charges related to sex with men in public bathrooms. While both men remained married to their wives and tirelessly avowed their heterosexuality, the press skewered them as closeted hypocrites.

Despite the common belief in the rigidity of male heterosexuality, historians and sociologists have created a substantial body of well-documented evidence showing straight men – not “closeted” gay men – engaging in sexual contact with other men. In many parts of the United States prior to the 1950s, the gay/straight binary distinguished between effeminate men (or “fairies”) and masculine men (“normal” men) – not whether or not a man engaged in homosexual sex. Historian George Chauncey’s study of gay life in New York City from 1890-1940 revealed that through much of the first half of the 20th century, normal (i.e., “straight”) working class men mixed with fairies in the saloons and tenements that were central to the lives of working men.

With sex-segregation the general rule for single men and women in the early 1900s, the private back rooms of saloons were often sites of sexual activity between normal men and fairies, with the latter perceived as a kind of intermediate sex – a reasonable alternative to female prostitutes. Public parks and restrooms were also common sites for sexual interaction between straight men and fairies. In such encounters, the fairy acted as the sole embodiment of queerness, the figures with whom normal (straight) men could have sex – just as they might with female sex workers. Fairies affirmed, rather than threatened, the heteromasculinity of straight men by embodying its opposite.

The notion that homosexual activity was not “gay” when undertaken by “real” (i.e. straight) men continued into the 1950s and 60s. During this period, the homosexual contact of straight men began to be undergo a transformation from relatively mundane behavior to the bold behavior of male rebels. The American biker gang The Hells Angels, which formed in 1948, serves as a rich example. There are few figures more “macho” than a heavily tattooed, leather-clad biker, whose heterosexuality was as much on display as his masculinity. Brawling over women, exhibiting women on the back of bikes, and brandishing tattoos and patches of women were all central to the subculture of the gang.Yet as the journalist Hunter S. Thompson documented in his 1966 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, gang members also had sexual encounters with one another. One of their favorite “stunts” was to deeply French kiss one another – with tongues extended out of their mouths in a type of tongue-licking kiss often reserved for girl-on-girl porn. Members of the Hells Angels explained that the kissing was a defiant stunt that produced among onlookers the desired degree of shock. To them, it was also an expression of “brotherhood.”

Today, sexual encounters between straight-identified men take new but similarly “manly” forms. For instance, when men undergo hazing in college fraternities and in the military, there’s often a degree of sexual contact. It’s often dismissed as a joke, game, or ritual that has no bearing on the heterosexual constitution of the participants. As I document in my forthcoming book, fraternity hazing has included practices such as the “elephant walk,” in which pledges are required to strip naked and stand in a circle, with one thumb in their mouth and the other in the anus of the pledge in front of them.

Similarly, according to anthropological accounts of the Navy’s longstanding “Crossing the Line” initiation ceremony, new sailors crossing the equator for the first time have garbage and rotten food shoved into their anuses by older sailors. They’re also required to retrieve objects from one another’s anuses.

One relatively recent example of the pervasiveness of these kinds of encounters between straight men was revealed in a report by the US-based watchdog organization Project on Government Oversight. In 2009, the group released photos of American security guards at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul engaging in “deviant” after-hours pool parties. The photos show the men drunkenly urinating on each other, licking each other’s nipples, and taking vodka shots and eating potato chips out of each other’s butts.

Individuals often react to these examples in one of two ways. Either they jump to the conclusion that any straight-identified man who engages in sexual contact with another man must actually be gay or bisexual, or they dismiss the behavior as not actually sexual. Rather, they interpret it as an expression of dominance, a desire to humiliate, or some other ostensibly “non sexual” male impulse.

But these responses merely reveal our culture’s preconceived notions about men’s sexuality. Look at it from the other side of the coin: if straight young women, such as sorority pledges, were touching each other’s vaginas during an initiation ritual or taking shots from each other’s butts, commentators would almost certainly imagine these acts as sexual in some way (and not exclusively about women’s need to dominate, for instance). Straight women are also given considerable leeway to have occasional sexual contact with women without the presumption that they are actually lesbians. In other words, same-sex contact among straight men and women is interpreted through the lens of some well-worn gender stereotypes. But these stereotypes don’t hold up when we examine the range of straight men’s sexual encounters with other men.

It’s clear that straight men and women come into intimate contact with one another in a range of different ways. But this is less about hard-wired gender differences and more about broader cultural norms dictating how men and women are allowed to behave with people of the same sex. Instead of clinging to the notion that men’s sexuality is fundamentally inflexible, we should view male heterosexuality for what it is – a fluid set of desires that are constrained less by biology than by prevailing gender norms.

Jane Ward is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of California, Riverside. She is the author of Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men (NYU Press, 2015).

[This piece was originally posted at The Conversation.]

Dancing Tango: Q&A with author Kathy Davis

Argentinean tango is a global phenomenon. Since its origin, it has crossed and re-crossed many borders. Yet, never before has tango been danced by so many people and in so many different places as today. In her new book, Dancing Tango, Kathy Davis shows why a dance from another era and another place appeals to men and women from different parts of the world. 

In the Q&A below, Davis gives us a glimpse into the world of tango dancing, and the hierarchies of gender, sexuality, and global relations of power in which Argentinean tango is—and has always been—embroiled.

Q: When did you first become passionate about tango and why?

Kathy Davis: My first encounter with Argentinian tango was in Amsterdam many years ago when I wandered—quite by chance—into a place called a “tango salon.”  I had no idea what this was, but was curious enough to go in and take a look. What I saw there, were men and women of different ages and lifestyles, dancing in a close embrace to music from another era. Aside from wondering why on earth people would want to dance to such old-fashioned music, I was intrigued by women dancing with their eyes closed and an expression of utter rapture on their faces. I still clearly remember thinking, ‘Wow, if I only could know how that feels!’ It wasn’t until many years later that I decided to learn to dance tango myself but, once I started, I never looked back.

Your research is based in both Amsterdam and Buenos Aires. How are their social contexts different for tango?

Buenos Aires is where tango originated and where it has a long tradition. Although most Argentinians do not actually dance tango, everyone is familiar with the music and considers tango as a treasure that Argentina has given to the world. Today, there is a vibrant dance community in Buenos Aires, with dozens of different venues each night where locals and tango lovers from across the globe meet to share their passion for the dance. In Amsterdam, there are only a few tango salons. They tend to be much smaller, but are otherwise pretty much the same as the salons in Buenos Aires: the music, the style of dancing, and the rules about how to behave on the dance floor are almost identical.

However, there are important differences, the most noticeable having to do with gender. In Buenos Aires, it is a tradition that men and women sit separately, invitations to dance occur by making eye contact and a subtle kind of mutual nodding called cabaceo, and men escort women to and from their tables before and after a dance set. Men and women cultivate gender differences in both in their appearance and their (often openly flirtatious) behavior. In Amsterdam, ‘sex-segregation’ in a salon would be regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned. Women resent having to wait to be asked to dance and many even have problems being led by their male partners during a dance. Unlike dancers in Buenos Aires who seem comfortable playing with gender differences, tango dancers in Amsterdam tend to be uneasy with their tango personas when they seem to be at odds with their identities as ‘emancipated,’ late modern individuals.

How do you look at the interplay between “passionate encounter” and “differences” during tango dancing?

The passionate encounter that tango can produce involves two people entering a space which feels totally intimate: you breathe together, you feel each other’s heart beating, you ‘know’ what the other person feels and wants without having to say a word. While you can dance with your lover, your spouse, or someone you know or care about, many dancers admit that this is not how they want to dance or, at least, not all the time. In fact, there is something particularly exciting about entering the intimate space of a tango with someone you don’t know or couldn’t even imagine having to deal with in your everyday life. Actually, you can often see unlikely combinations of dance partners on the dance floor: dancers of different generations, ethnicities and social classes, or walks of life, locked in a close embrace that, in their ordinary lives, would be unimaginable.

Why might tango and post-colonial feminist theories be at odds with each other?

It’s pretty obvious why tango might be at odds with feminism. Tango is almost synonymous with feminine subservience and masculine machismo. What feminist worth her salt would advocate that? Just imagine a feminist dancing tango and submitting herself to the gendered hierarchies of men inviting and women waiting to be invited, men leading and women following, not to mention the hyper-heterosexual power-games of seduction which are part and parcel of what goes on in a tango-salon. From a postcolonial feminist perspective, dancing tango is even more problematic because it not only reproduces asymmetrical relations between the sexes, it draws upon and exacerbates socio-cultural and -economic divisions between the global North and South. For example, some Argentineans feel forced – often for economic reasons – to offer themselves up as raw material for the desires and fantasies of Europeans and North Americans longing for sexy Latinos who they believe to be ‘closer to their bodies,’ more ‘natural,’ or more in tune with their ‘primitive desires.’ For anyone who is even slightly aware of the role which exoticism has historically played in imperialism and colonialism, a passion for tango cannot be considered simply as a harmless and innocent pastime.

What is your take on reconciling this conflict?

I actually don’t think this conflict can be reconciled, but rather needs to be analyzed in a more grounded fashion. The postcolonial feminist critique of tango is important because it places the dance and the global dance culture it has spawned in a broader geopolitical context. However, as it is the case with any critique that is primarily top-down, the postcolonial critique does not do justice to the experiences of men and women who actually dance tango, both inside and outside Buenos Aires. Nor does it take into account how tango dancers from different locations actually negotiate and manage the contradictions they encounter through their desire to dance with one another. I think we need to pay much more attention to tango as a transnational cultural space that allows a passionate encounter, full of both possibilities and problems, across many different kinds of borders.

Any thoughts on dancing tango in the United States?

Tango is, of course, not only danced in Buenos Aires and Amsterdam. As a global dance, it has produced avid dance communities all over the world, including in most cities in the US. While most of these communities take on many of the features associated with tango dancing in Buenos Aires, US tango communities have their own specific features, depending on the place and the people who attend the tango salons. For example, in New York, where there are many immigrants from different parts of South America, the dance community is much more ethnically diverse than, say, in Cleveland or Milwaukee. And, unsurprisingly, San Francisco, with its vibrant LGBT community, has become internationally famous as a center for queer tango.

Kathy Davis is Senior Research Fellow in the Sociology Department of the VU University in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. She is the author of Dancing Tango: Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World (NYU Press, 2015).

Fashioning Fat: Q&A with author Amanda Czerniawski

For over two years, sociologist Amanda M. Czerniawski went undercover as a plus-size model to gain insight on how women navigate this sector of the fashion industry—and the impact plus-size models can have on our constructions of beauty. The result is her new book, Fashioning Fat, forthcoming this month from NYU Press. She spoke recently about the intense pressures plus-size models face and how it feels to be “just a body.” 

Q: What struck you most when you began your research as an academic entering the fashion world?

Amanda M. Czerniawski: Initially, I thought I had an advantage due to my past experience in the entertainment industry. As a child actor, I entered an audition room with a blazing personality, showing wit and a high social aptitude through conversational banter. So, for my first modeling open call at an agency, I prepared to wow the agent with my purposefully peppy personality. I never got the chance. Before I could even offer simple words of introduction, she told me that she was not interested in representing me. The agent evaluated my potential to model based only on a snapshot, without a word exchanged. I was caught off guard by the impersonal nature of this interaction, as well as the immediate evaluation performed by the agent. With one glance at me, and my pictures, she was done. That was my first glimpse at what it felt to be “just a body.”

As an academic, you would think that I would have learned from this exchange and adjusted my expectations at subsequent calls and castings. Nope. I still waited for my chance to dazzle the next agent with my way with words. At that next opportunity, it happened again (but with different results).

Ultimately, I learned (the hard way) that while acting and modeling are alike in terms of the need to transform yourself into a character for the camera, different skills are used to achieve this goal. In acting, I used my body and voice. In modeling, I was voiceless. You can imagine how difficult this could be for an academic.

How is the concept of being “fat” in the model industry different from our everyday experience?

Fashion often has strict and often extreme bodily standards. For example, in 2009, designer label Ralph Lauren fired model Filippa Hamilton for being too fat. At the time, Hamilton wore a woman’s size four. While the casual observer viewed her as thin, a fashion professional argued that she was fat. This case and others reveal the range of meanings associated with “fat” in fashion. Many of today’s plus-size models do not conform to typical cultural representations of fat. They are “average” to the ordinary consumer, but, in sharp contrast, they are “plus size” to the fashion industry.

For what reasons do women become plus-sized models?

I found that there are four types of plus-size models: the former straight-size model, the performer, the outsider, and the self-promoter. In the first type, a traditional, straight-size model turns to plus-size modeling after failing to maintain a thin physique. In the second, an actor or singer happens to book a modeling job and then continues with it. In the third, a woman, without prior knowledge or interest, is encouraged to model by someone connected to the fashion industry and is then intrigued (and flattered) enough to try it out. In the fourth, a woman tries her luck at modeling without the aid of a network connection. The majority of the models were of the third type.

For many of the women, modeling was thought to be an unattainable dream. Many never imagined that they could work as models because of their culturally maligned bodies. Given the normative expectation of fashion models as young, tall, and thin, it is no wonder that these women had trouble envisioning a place for themselves in fashion. For these women, modeling became a journey of personal growth where they overcame their body issues. Once they discovered plus-size modeling, they began to see their bodies in a different light, often embracing the mantle of spokesmodel for body acceptance.

While sometimes praised as brave heroines, plus-sized models often face the challenge of marginalization and fetishization. How do they cope with this paradox?

Often the images of plus-size models fetishize the fat body or they are relegated to a special “curvy” issue as a sales marketing feature. For example, a top plus-size model, Crystal Renn, was the subject in an editorial spread by photographer Terry Richardson for Vogue Paris in 2010. The series of images depict Crystal feasting away at platters full of bloody meats, squid, chicken, piles of spaghetti, an abundance of grapes, and a massive wedge of cheese. I also spoke to models who admitted to appearing in weight-loss ads as the “before” image or modeled maternity wear when not pregnant. These kinds of jobs can be taxing on a model’s psyche. Unfortunately, they do not have the power to set the parameters of their work, so if they want to continue to work, they often submit themselves to these unflattering roles and hope for better jobs in the future. 

Besides criticizing the impossible ideal body type created in media, your book also mentions the image manipulation of “plus-sized” women as a marketing strategy. Are you suggesting a problem more complicated than skinny or fat here?

Studies suggest that an increased presence of plus-size models (i.e., larger bodies) in fashion may alleviate the trend of bodily dissatisfaction; however, these plus-size models are not average women. So, the mere presence of these models in the media landscape should not be our only focus and, in fact, may contribute to the persistence of bodily dissatisfaction. Let me explain.

While a plus-size model is, arguably, closer in size to the average woman, her body is still atypical in terms of symmetrical facial features and proportional frame. A fashion expert chose her because she was a standout among the crowd. Then, as a fashion model, she is a blank canvas. A slew of aesthetic professionals—her agent, photographers, stylists, makeup artists, and hair professionals—work on her. On top of that, photographers and image editors manipulate the photos either by airbrushing or photoshopping, a practice exposed in Dove’s Evolution commercial.

The final product that appears in print or the Internet is, ultimately, a carefully constructed fantastical image, i.e., an illusion. These images reveal a fun, flirty, and fashionable woman but hide the active work done by and on the plus-size model. Plus-size models engage in, at times, severe bodily management practices, such as strict calorie restriction to drop a size and even binge eating to gain a size, as well as more routine bodily manipulations, such as applying make-up and hair products, wearing shapewear, and adding body padding to make the body frame more proportional. Which is why, after all this work is done (behind the scenes and hidden from the consumer), a woman may look at this image of a plus-size model and think, “We’re the same size. Why don’t I look half as good as her?” This observer may then continue to experience discontentment with her body because she still does not measure up to fashion’s standards for larger bodies. 

What is the most important message in Fashioning Fat for readers?

Plus-size models aim to expand the notion of beauty beyond a size six, but that does not eliminate the engendered problem of disembodiment because these women, no matter their size, are simply bodies. Fashion still judges these women on the basis of their looks. Modeling reduces them to curves and numbers on a tape measure. They are not women but breasts, bums, and hips. After all their intensive aesthetic labor, plus-size models are still objectified, sexualized, and, yes, disembodied.

Amanda M. Czerniawski is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Temple University.

American dream: Cuba and credit cards

—Nancy Stout

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that what I heard most clearly in President Obama’s recent speech on U.S. normalization of relations with Cuba were his reassuring words that the American people will soon be able to use credit cards on the island. Try to live, do research, or simply travel without the gracious backup of a piece of plastic, as I have done. I can promise you, it is very hard.

My first trips to Cuba, during the post-Soviet economic hardship of the early 1990s, happily corresponded with the popularity of the Wonder-bra—beautifully shaped with all the enhancements of under-wiring and petal-shaped pockets for push-up padding. There, I’d put rolls of $50 bills to finance my sometimes extended stays in Havana. Later, I got my translator to keep some of my cash, which she placed in a book in her library, usually.

Once, I spent nearly seven months in Havana, in 2000, when the Cuban government suddenly allowed me access to their archives to research the life of Celia Sánchez [a major leader of the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s closest companion]. As banks and ATMs in Cuba were useless for Americans, at one point I flew to Mexico City in order to go withdraw more money. I lost lots of it in the required conversion of dollars to Mexican pesos, and lost even more changing those pesos into Cuban pesos. Recently, I’ve been making shorter trips and paying in advance for a hotel room through a Canadian travel agency—again, all on account of the embargo.

I’ve made nineteen trips to the island and none easily because of the money factor. Manageable, yes, but there was never the complete ease of saying to your friends one night (except on the eve of a departure), “Let me pick up the tab.” Every year or so there were predictions that things between our governments were going to change, but I had learned to be skeptical. And, I don’t think I’ll throw away my Wonder-bra just yet.

Nancy Stout is the author of One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 2013).

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