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

[This piece was originally posted at The Conversation.]

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).

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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Nation of newcomers

—Peter G. Vellon

A recent letter to the editor published in the New York Daily News expressed its disappointment that television commenters covering the Columbus Day Parade used the words “illegal” and “legal” to differentiate contemporary immigrants from earlier, Italian, arrivals. Why do so many Americans feel compelled to make such a distinction, especially since the term “illegal” is so problematic and inaccurate? Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in political manipulation meant to encourage an association between immigrants and criminality. However, the desire to differentiate “legal” from “illegal” may be deeply rooted within the history of immigration and race in the United States.

Here’s what we know. The majority of immigrants in the United States have permission to be here. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Rights Center, undocumented immigrants comprise a small proportion of contemporary immigration. Of those who are here without documents, a large portion roughly 45% entered country legally, only to have their visas expire.

We also know that many of the same critiques hurled at today’s immigrants, especially those described as “illegal,” are almost identical to those faced by southern Italians 100 years ago. Prone to criminality? Check. Lack of desire in becoming American citizens? Check. Siphoning tax dollars and jobs away from Americans? Check. Sending their earnings money back to their country of origin? Check. Given this historical context, it is ironic that many Americans today think of the Ellis Island era with nostalgia and perceive it as quintessentially American.

Other charges questioning immigrant’s willingness to assimilate are similarly off base. In fact, the insatiable demand for English language classes throughout the country contradict allegations of immigrant nonchalance in learning English. More familiar charges portraying a country overrun by undocumented immigrants, or that undocumented immigrants increase crime, similarly fall flat against closer analysis. Once again, the only accurate aspect of the charges is how strikingly similar they are to ones leveled against Italians in the early 20th century.

During this period, anti-immigration crusaders primarily targeted Italian and Jewish newcomers. Defined as a different, and inferior, race to northern and western European stocks (“old” immigrants), southern Italians and eastern European Jewish immigrants (“new” immigrants) remained consistently dogged by assumptions about their inherent “un-Americanness.” Assisted by a relatively open immigration policy in place since 1792, Italians could enter the country relatively unrestricted, and therefore avoided some of the barriers that immigrants confront today. However, this did not stop some immigrants from forging documents such as health certificates, or stowing away on steamships.

Today long waitlists for visas often create an almost impossible situation for family members and children who seek to reunite with those living in the United States. Who is to say how prospective immigrants a century ago would have responded if these laws had been in place from 1880 through 1920? Would folks have patiently accepted wait times of up to 20 years for “legal” entry?

Much of the need to distinguish between “legal” and “illegal” immigration lies in how people assign meaning to those terms. According to Department of Homeland Security statistics, undocumented Mexican immigrants in 2011 numbered approximately 6.8 million, and comprised 59% of the undocumented population in total.  To many people in the United States, the term “illegal immigrant” has become reflexively interchangeable with “Mexican,” or any immigrant from Latin or Central America. No doubt, the fact that Mexico is the leading source of “unauthorized” immigration, rather than, say, Ireland, has much to do with the tenor of the immigration debate. Indeed, as Matthew Jacobson pointed out in his book, Roots Too, illegality never became a major issue when in the 1980s and 1990s an influx of Irish immigrants, many of whom overstayed their visas, hence becoming “illegal,” entered the country. In fact, quite the opposite occurred, and Irish “illegal” aliens never became a source of nationwide concern. Categories of race and whiteness proved fundamental in constructing the difference between “old” and “new” immigrants 100 years ago, and remain a primary element in the debate over legal versus illegal today.

Given that we are a nation of immigrants and celebrated as such, why is there not more understanding for many of today’s immigrants seeking similar paths as those who came before them? It’s possible that for the descendants of those questionable European immigrants who came through Ellis Island, their own family’s problematic status may be an uncomfortable reminder of a more contentious, less linear path toward assimilation. Now, fully socialized within the American racial system, it is easier to construct an “illegal other” rather than face the uncomfortable questions about how our society constructs Americanness, race, and whiteness. The assignation of criminal status to today’s new immigrants serves as a perfect balm. Unwilling to acknowledge the obvious commonalities between immigrants today and those from 100 years ago, “legal” versus “illegal” becomes a useful, and in the minds of many, justifiable delineation that their forebears did it the right way.

Similar to the debate over “old” and “new” immigrants a century ago, is it possible that much of the “illegal” immigration debate revolves around racially informed perceptions of what America should look like? However, whether fleeing economic, political, or social despair, just as those who came before them, the overwhelming majority of immigrants arriving today want a better life for themselves and their children. When viewed through that lens, what could be more American?

Peter G. Vellon is Associate Professor of History at Queens College, and the author of A Great Conspiracy against Our Race: Italian Immigrant Newspapers and the Construction of Whiteness in the Early 20th Century (NYU Press, 2014).

Doing Time in the Texas Prison Rodeo

Doing Time in the Depression, Ethan Blue’s seminal work on prison life in the 1930s, is coming out in paperback next month! To celebrate, we pulled one of our favorite excerpts from the book to share with y’all. 

In the passage below, Blue takes us into the world of prison sports, starting with the king of all penal sporting events: the Texas Prison Rodeo.

Texas Spectacle

Prison sport in Texas shared something with sports in California and elsewhere. Inmates in Texas played baseball, they boxed, and they even had volleyball. While black and white athletes might play together in the San Quentin or Folsom baseball leagues, this was unthinkable in Texas, which sponsored firmly defined white and Negro leagues. But penal sport in the Lone Star State had a peculiar twist. Rather than private affairs, prison sports and celebrations became massive, public spectacles.

The Texas Prison Rodeo, originally billed as the “Fastest and Wildest Rodeo in Texas” (later expanded to “the World”) was first instituted in 1931 as a self-proclaimed progressive reform. Lee Simmons, who claimed the rodeo as his brainchild, thought a rodeo would be cheap entertainment for prisoners and guards. It was this and more—the rodeo ballooned into a huge public relations success and a source of considerable income. Audiences grew from just a few hundred in 1931 to tens of thousands by the end of the decade. The prison stadium was built, expanded, and rebuilt to hold the overflowing crowds, thousands of whom were regularly turned away for lack of capacity. According to prison official Albert Moore, the first Sunday’s rodeo in 1939 drew “the largest crowd ever to witness a rodeo in the United States.”

The rodeo drew from Lee Simmons’s invocation of the slaveholding tradition of forcing captives to celebrate. Its form was of an imagined Texas frontier past. A radio advertisement hyped the event, where “one hundred and fifty daring inmate buckaroos will clash with outlaw broncs, vicious brahma bulls and steers, which have been brought in from the outlying reaches of the vast farmlands and river bottom pastures of the System. It’s a case where outlaw meets outlaw! And there will be action such as you have never seen before.”

Baseball may have been America’s game, but rodeos held a special place in Texans’ hearts. The rodeo accessed a different form of nationalism and statemediated identity than baseball did. Like baseball, the rodeo was notable in the way that it structured the temporality of the prison year, and in the way its creation of “leisure” validated the existence of “labor” as an organizing force of life. But unlike baseball, the Texas rodeo was based in an Anglo-Texan memory of the American West, steeped in the lore of the open frontier.

For more information on this book, visit our website.