Asian men on TV: Waiting for the (onscreen) kiss

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

© ABC/Eric McCandlessPopular culture is one important realm where Asian Americans, along with other communities of color, negotiate and manage the representations of their communities. In particular, visibility in the mainstream media is one important way to assert an American identity that is inclusive of a variety of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. It also allows for complex representations of Asian America through desires and pleasure that go beyond the stereotypical renditions.

The premature cancellation of “Selfie,” unfortunately, takes another Asian American main character out of primetime television.  However, the melancholy of losing a staunchly heterosexual character fails to address how racism in the U.S. and Asian American exclusion is not solely governed through emasculation. By bemoaning the loss of John Cho, who could offer a primetime kiss to a white heterosexual heroine (a display of sexuality not often seen in Asian males on television), we underscore masculine contours of an Asian American hero whose acts of masculinity do not liberate all Asian Americans. Rather, as I witnessed in my study of Asian American sporting cultures, trying to live up to standards of masculinity that are recognizable and appreciated in our larger U.S. society does not guarantee membership and full citizenship.

Responding to emasculation alone as a major concern means that one is also taking part in devaluing femininity and gay masculinities. Desiring a traditional masculine hero only further affirms what is seen as “normal,” while remaining silent on the exclusions and violence against women, LGBTQI communities, and communities of color. Let us think and desire otherwise. Why must we shortchange our communities by emphasizing a recognizable masculinity? Is it not this recognizable masculinity also the culprit of sexual assault on college campuses, domestic violence in celebrity households, and everyday acts of sexism and homophobia?

Instead of pushing for an Asian American version of a mainstream masculine hero, there are other possibilities. Emphasizing LGBTQI heroes and celebrating dynamic working-class Asian American characters can create a version of America where the boundaries of inclusion within U.S. society is opened up to all. In the process, there is an affirmation of all the various sexual orientations, identifications, and class politics that constitutes Asian America. Once we forget our LGBTQI and working-class heroes, we will unfortunately long for a kiss that has little impact on creating an inclusive society.

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).

Queer Christianities: A new conversation

—Michael F. Pettinger, Kathleen T. Talvacchia, and Mark Larrimore

“Queer Christian lives are wildly, deliciously varied.”

With those words, our co-editor Mark Larrimore captured the most compelling reason for editing a book like Queer Christianities. He also hit on the greatest challenge we faced as editors. We wanted to start a new conversation, one grounded in the lived experience of individuals who consider themselves queer and Christian. The problem was that the delicious variety of their lives resisted any easy organizing principle.

So how do you give structure to a queer Christian discussion without closing out some voices and locking those included too rigidly into place? We thought about dividing it along denominational lines – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox. But would there be space for people to talk across those divisions? We considered arranging it according to different sexual identities. But the number of such identities was indefinable and fraught with potential conflict. Was there room at the table for heterosexuals? If we included gay and lesbian Christians who opt for heterosexual marriage or celibacy, would we alienate those who see these choices as a surrender to oppression? And what about the divergent methodologies that such a discussion would inevitably call upon – could theologians, theorists, philosophers, historians, sociologists have an intelligible conversation? If they are scholars who practice a tradition, how do they integrate their academic and religious commitments?

What we were looking for was a language accessible to both theologians and social scientists of religion. It would have to be a language useful to individuals from a broad range of sexual identities. And last of all, it would have to be a language that the contributors could use to answer the underlying question of the book – how do individuals reflect upon their erotic relationships while living in traditions that are often explicitly hostile to them? How do they put those reflections into practice? And how do those practices shape their lives and the lives of their communities?

The solution came almost as a joke, at the end of a long afternoon spent tossing out ideas and shooting them down. Why not borrow the language of the Christian states of life? We could have three parts – one on matrimony, another on celibacy, and a third on whatever else is left over.

At first, the idea seemed slightly ridiculous. After all, weren’t these “states of life” precisely the sort of tidy, stultifying taxonomy that queerness tries to resist? Weren’t the terms old-fashioned even among Christians? And what exactly is contained in the category, “whatever else is left over?” Does such a thing even have a name? Is it a name that anyone would want to claim?

In order to open these concepts to the many lives we wanted to explore, we had to queer them. As abstract singular nouns, “Celibacy” and “Matrimony” might name suffocating monoliths, but in the plural, “Celibacies” and “Matrimonies” point to the myriad ways in which specific individuals resist, reimagine, and reinvent these forms in their own lives. These plural nouns called for another plural to name the third part. After repeated discussion, we chose “Promiscuities,” a word that evokes the multiple forms of exclusion that have haunted the history of Christianity, while pointing to the many types of erotic relationship that queer Christians are reclaiming.

The states-of-life model proved capacious in ways that we could not have anticipated. Not only did it make it possible for theologians and social scientists of religion to speak with each other about queer Christian lives, it also opened the way for queer Christians to engage the academy on their own terms. Rather than creating three separate conversations around three static topics, the model allowed voices addressing one state of life to echo or respond to what was said in another. Indeed, the tracing of ideas between the three parts of the book mirrors the lives of queer Christians, as individuals transitioned from one state of life to another, and even inhabited multiple states simultaneously.

This surging dynamism is perhaps the single most important thing we have discovered in editing this conversation. As Mark pointed out, the lives of queer Christians “can be expected to keep pushing the limits of normalizing structures of all kinds.” The resulting harmonies and dissonances suggest further possibilities for queering and Christianity. This book is not a conclusion. It is only the beginning of a new and lively conversation.

Michael F. Pettinger is Assistant Professor in the Literary and Religious Studies programs at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. Kathleen T. Talvacchia is Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs at New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science. Mark Larrimore is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. They are co-editors of Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (NYU Press, 2014).

­­Diversity and the wage gap

—Cindy I-Fen Cheng

While much has been written about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley’s tech industries, recent findings by the American Institute for Economic Research sheds light on what may be a more alarming concern: wage disparities based on race and gender.

As data released by Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter has shown, the tech industry is dominated by men. Racially, whites made up the largest percentage of tech workers while Latinos, Blacks, mixed-race and groups listed as “other,” the smallest. Unsurprising to those who are familiar with the layout of Silicon Valley, Asian Americans were not only well represented in these companies; they also comprised the largest percentage of tech workers at Yahoo and LinkedIn.

This impressive showing of Asian Americans in tech positions may explain why findings on wage disparities are so appalling. As the tech industry is inching towards “diversity,” isn’t “equality” within the work force the anticipated result?

The wage gap suggests that the answer is “no.” According to the findings of the AIER, Asian Americans made $8,146 less than whites in 2012, $3,656 less than Blacks, and $6,907 less than employees listed as “other.” With this wage gap, “diversity” is reduced to being merely a symbolic measure of equality.

Notably, the Asian American wage gap raises other concerns. With the strong presence of Asians in the tech industry, does this suggest that companies are choosing to hire foreign workers, also known as H-1B workers, over citizens and permanent residents? More importantly, does the wage gap suggest that the hiring of H-1B workers are driving down American wages, given the longstanding practice of hiring foreign workers as “cheap” labor over filling a skills gap in the work force?

Thus far, the debate over H-1B workers has focused on a narrow set of questions that seek to determine whether H-1B workers and more broadly, immigrants, are good or bad for our country. Missing from this debate are questions over what corporations and the federal government are doing to ensure equal pay for equal work. Instead of asking whether or not foreign workers are driving down wages, we should also consider how the belief that it is ok to discriminate against H1-B workers and pay them less is working to sustain wage disparities.

If we want to see equality in work place, we need to recommit ourselves to the struggle against discrimination and engage in open and frank discussions about the effects of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Only then will we see a fair distribution of people from various backgrounds and genders in the work force, and wage parity for all workers.

Cindy I-Fen Cheng is Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Citizens of Asian America: Democracy and Race during the Cold War (now available in paperback from NYU Press).

Challenging Barbie’s image of beauty

—Amanda M. Czerniawski

Kalliopi Monoyios for Scientific American writes about artist Nickolay Lamm’s Barbie project, where he created a doll based on the measurements of a “real, healthy 19-year-old” and compared it side-by-side with a Barbie. He also hopes to create more dolls, representing a variety of body types, ethnicities, and genders.

His Lammily doll demonstrates how Barbie, along with fashion and media, distorts our sense of normal bodies by constructing an idealized body that is far from a natural one. Barbie, with her impossible physical measurements and proportions, presents an unattainable image of beauty; yet, her body type is depicted throughout the media landscape, including in popular animated films geared towards children. Monoyios laments, “Are we still stuck on the impossibly thin-waisted, big-boobed, bobbleheaded ideal of beauty? When can we let that go?” I would like to add: Can we let go not just a particular image of beauty but the concept of beauty itself?

Our culture places a high premium on the look and shape of women’s bodies. The female body, in particular, is constructed as an object to be watched. Barbie typifies this objectification with her limited mobility, implicit focus on dressing up, and her penchant for high heels. As a consequence of this intense focus on appearance, women experience their bodies as not solely for their pleasure and amusement but as under the constant gaze of others. This focus on the physical may lead to a separation of the mind from the body, i.e., disembodiment. This occurs when we are taught to think of our bodies as passive objects meant to be admired by others.

When women begin to hold themselves accountable for the proper display of their bodies, they risk becoming objects in their own body projects. They invest in and manipulate their bodies and engage in extensive body practices to cultivate their physiques, often towards these unattainable Barbie-like goals of perfection. If women do not feel like they measure up to this ideal, they may disconnect from their bodies in order to shield themselves from the pain associated with living in non-normative bodies that fail to match contemporary standards of beauty. Ultimately, many women often find themselves continually toiling away at their bodies without reaching the goal, for the fashion icons they aspire to emulate do not really exist but are, instead, carefully constructed and manipulated by the brush strokes of master aestheticians and computer technicians. We have forgotten (or simply ignored) that these kinds of bodies are fantastical images.

The Lammily doll aims to expand the notion of beauty to include average bodies, but does it help eliminate the engendered problem of disembodiment? While the website presents a photo slideshow of Lammily’s figure (including close-ups of her bust and rear-end in a teal bikini), it also stresses the doll’s articulated wrists, knees, elbows, and feet. At least Lammily may be able to do something besides pose and look pretty.

While Lammily may be a step in the right direction, ultimately, we need a doll that instills the lesson that we should not judge women and girls on the basis of their looks. We need a doll that does not sexualize or objectify women’s and girl’s bodies. Instead of being judged on their “good looks,” let us value women for their “good works,” in the home, the workplace, and the global beyond.

Amanda M. Czerniawski is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Temple University and the author of Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling (forthcoming from NYU Press in January 2015).

Books That Cook: Lettuce in Ribbons with Cream

During the month of September, we’re celebrating the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! In the next few weeks, we’ll be serving up reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.

Today’s special:
Assistant Editor Caelyn Cobb, on pot brownies, Gertrude Stein, and how to cook lettuce (or “sacrifice the innocents”). 


“So does it have pot in it?” my boyfriend asked when I said I planned to make a dish from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook for our blog.

More than any other Modernist writer, Alice B. Toklas is a household name, due largely to the success of her cookbook, a mishmash of memoir and recipes which contained one of the earliest published recipes for pot brownies. I am here to break the terrible news that Books That Cook does not contain a recipe for pot brownies. (Maybe in the second edition.)

Instead, the excerpt from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is a retelling of the writer’s time at a house in the French countryside, where she and her partner Gertrude Stein spent fourteen summers. It is largely about fruits and vegetables—growing them, picking them, cooking them, serving them, and eating them. I was attracted to this chapter for two reasons. First of all, vegetables seemed much easier to prepare, involving less time, fewer ingredients, and less of my money. I was sort of right about these things, but then again, I only sort of made the recipe. But more on that later.

Mainly, though, I was drawn to this chapter due to my past life as a literature student. Most interested in feminism, poetry, and Modernism, I was steered by many TAs and professors to Gertrude Stein’s most famous work, the poetry collection Tender Buttons. I was disappointed to find that I did not like this book anywhere near as much as I liked feminism, poetry, or Modernism individually. Tender Buttons is often described as “cubism for poetry,” which mostly means that you can only sometimes tell what is going on.

It wasn’t easy being a Modernist woman, especially on the American expatriate scene, and so I feel bad about not being a bigger fan of Gertrude Stein’s work. The leading lights of the Lost Generation were the greatest literary bros of their generation, ushering in a period of literary bro-ism that persists to this day. Given the time they spent watching bullfights, locking their wives in sanitariums, learning to box, and moving young ingénues into their homes (with or without approval of their wives) because it “helped with their creativity”, it’s a wonder that they got any writing done. Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas hosted, promoted, and befriended many of these men, introducing them to leading artists and intellectuals—and looking at their memoirs, it sounds like quite a lovely and exciting time. However, Hemingway would later memorialize Stein in his own memoirs as looking “like a Roman emperor, and that was fine if you liked your women to look like Roman emperors,” so maybe not.

I mull this over as I get ready to make my dish, getting in the mood by thinking angry feminist thoughts and listening to the moodiest French band I had on my iPod. I had selected a cooked lettuce dish called “lettuce in ribbons with cream” because I thought it was funny how Toklas only begrudgingly gives these recipes, calling them “the sacrifice of the innocents” (innocents being lettuce, I presume).

It is the simplest of the recipes but also the least specific. What kind of lettuce? What is “heavy cream sauce”? I imagine her cooking with the tiny, sweet lettuce my grandpa grows in his garden, but I can’t find these in Queens and settle on two tiny heads of Boston lettuce. I contemplate making my own béchamel sauce, which I think is what she means by “cream sauce”, but I instead purchase a jar of Alfredo sauce because I do not feel like it.

The recipe does call for one specific ingredient, and that is “one teaspoon of onion juice.” They definitely do not have this at my grocery store; I turn to Google for instructions on how to make my own onion juice, but it seems like way too much work for one teaspoon. I instead buy an onion and sauté a few pieces with the lettuce. I am basically murdering this recipe, but you know, death of the author, etc.

The dish itself is pretty easy: slice up the lettuce, sauté it (with onion) in a lot of butter, then once the lettuce absorbs the butter, add salt, cover it and let simmer. I buy two heads of lettuce and the shredded bits fill three large bowls. I cook down two and half of them into a tiny wad of lettuce, which I then cover in Alfredo sauce. I am reminded of a Dutch dish, which involves cooking lettuce with ham and root vegetables in a white gravy. I’m sure it has a Dutch name, but in my family we just call it “Dutch lettuce.” It is not a crowd pleaser. My aunt would request it for her birthday dinners as a child just to prank her siblings. I begin to regret my choice of dish, but am too far in to turn back, much in the way I began to regret my decision to write my BA thesis on Modernist poetic criticism over winter break of my senior year. The only option is to suck it up and see it through.

Early in our courtship, my boyfriend had confirmed a deep love of vegetables that we both share. “Don’t insult my home by bringing a salad into it,” he warned, as I offered to do this very thing. Thus, I have promised the meal I make will not be only vegetables, and set about preparing bacon and tomato wraps while the lettuce is simmering. At the time I planned this, I had liked the BLT symmetry.

When I serve up the lettuce, he pronounces it “very tasty.” It is not bad. It is also very heavy; cooked lettuce has an earthy taste, and paired with a creamy cheese sauce, it’s extremely rich. I recommend serving it with something lighter than a bacon sandwich, like tilapia or chicken or anything besides bacon. I feel like I just ingested a grease ball.

After we finish our meal, I jokingly whip out my copy of Tender Buttons.

“Vegetable,” I read. “What is cut. What is cut by it. What is cut by it in.”

“Okay, that’s enough of that,” my boyfriend says.

Caelyn Cobb is Assistant Editor at NYU Press.

Not a monster: Society’s creation of men who use violence

—Hillary Potter

The surveillance video footage released this week that depicts professional football player Ray Rice rendering Janay Rice unconscious with a single punch seems to have evoked a fairly unified opinion of Mr. Rice’s actions and how he should be sanctioned. It appears most of the public sentiment about Mr. Rice’s brutal actions is condemnation of the assault. These denunciations came in the form of calls for Mr. Rice’s permanent ousting from the National Football League and for Rice to be criminally prosecuted and incarcerated​—all of which satisfy standards of punishment in U.S. society.

Although already sanctioned months ago by the NFL commissioner with a two-game suspension after the release of a video that captured images after the assault took place, the commissioner and Baltimore Ravens management levied heftier sanctions. The collective public cheer for the swift actions of Ravens management and the NFL to, respectively, release and suspend Mr. Rice is welcomed in the wake of the often racially divided responses to last month’s shooting death of unarmed Black teen Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. As a scholar and activist who critically interrogates the roles and impacts of race, gender, and socioeconomics on crime, criminality, and criminal legal procedures, I am pleased the NFL is no longer maintaining its complicity in Mr. Rice’s violent actions toward a person he presumably loves.

Aside from my personal concern for gendered violence, which overwhelmingly finds girls and women as the targets or victims of this form of transgression, this case seized my attention because of my research that especially focuses on the intersecting role of race, gender, and socioeconomics in the manifestation of and responses to intimate partner abuse and violence. The tactics used by abusers to control and harm their mates (and their children) have little variance across race, culture, and class; what frequently varies are responses by victims, family and friends of the couple, legal system officials, and factions of the general public because of distinct sociocultural views, values, and customs.

I have read and heard recent comments about Mr. Rice referring to him as a monster, an animal, and a “piece of shit.” Whether there is video documentation or not, I wish that assaultive behaviors like Mr. Rice’s​—by men of any race​—would always produce such a visceral reaction by others and I hope the average person is always disturbed by abuse and violence subjected on girls and women by their so-called partners.

There is, however, a minority who essentially supports Mr. Rice’s actions because of a perception that Ms. Rice slapping at or spitting on Mr. Rice was provocation or justification for Mr. Rice’s assault. In my research, victims are placed at the center of the analysis and I view them as the experts in their lived experiences. This must also be the way we consider the present case. The brutality against Ms. Rice must remain central to this case, but only to the extent that she is not blamed for Mr. Rice’s actions. Furthermore, that the couple married after the assault is not to be judged by those who are not privy to Ms. Rice’s experiences and emotions. Many women remain in relationships with abusive mates for a variety of reasons, and it behooves uninformed purveyors of this case to educate themselves on the virtual entrapment of women subjected to abuse by their intimate partners.

Those who victimize others must also be placed at the center of the analysis. However, deeming Mr. Rice a monster, an animal, or a “piece of shit,” serves no one. This labeling is a copout. To simply call Mr. Rice a monster​—just as is done with serial and mass murderers​—is easy, because doing so distances the abuser from the “regular guy,” and explaining abusive and violent behaviors without tenuous biological or supernatural explanations is complex, confusing, and messy. But we must reflect on the social and cultural mechanisms of our society that instill and preserve violent and controlling behaviors in our boys.

Once we recognize and acknowledge sociocultural explanations for abuse and violence, we are forced to acknowledge our role as a society in creating these “monsters.” Indeed, we know that many regular guys are abusers. The regular guy who abuses girls and women often operates in clandestine locations (such as the home) or his behaviors are known or seen by others who do not or cannot confront the regular guy’s abusive behaviors. But some regular guys who violate others are exposed. Ray Rice, in effect, is a regular guy.

I also believe aiming the mirror on society’s self will push us toward a criminal legal system that rejects ineffective punishment and banishment methods and adopts a system focused on accountability, healing, restoration, rehabilitation, and treating each other with humanity. To be sure, this notion is the basis of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative that seeks to ensure boys and young men of color are provided with the resources necessary to realize socially productive and healthy lives. Although the initiative has been duly criticized for overlooking analogous plights faced by girls and young women of color, it has generally been accepted as “the right thing to do” to provide boys and young men of color with equal opportunities for success as their white counterparts.

Thus, even as a Black feminist criminologist who knows, works with, advocates for, and gathers personal stories from women victims of intimate partner violence, I promote and believe in a restorative and transformative approach that does not desert the abusive and violent men that our society has produced. These abusive men were once harmless young boys, but were ultimately “trained” by the best to become violent and controlling. They were trained by the gendered customs that are permeated throughout our society and have been transmitted through the generations for generations. Today’s abusive men were schooled in social scripts that trained them that girls and women are inferior to males; therefore, it is their right as men to control “their women” in any ways they see fit. This patriarchal training program spans a broad range of abusive and controlling behaviors, some of which involve blatant physical violence and others that result in discriminatory employment, legal, and social policies that suppress girls and women.

As the sports-based saying goes, “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Ray Rice is not a rare, unexplainable creature, and Janay Rice is not to blame. Ray Rice must be held accountable for his actions, but we must also place universal blame in the societal norms that social institutions and members of our society continue to espouse, and that too many men (and some women) are too complacent with and too fearful to abandon.

Hillary Potter, a resident of Denver, Colorado, is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the author of Battle Cries: Black Women and Intimate Partner Abuse (NYU Press, 2008).

How not to react when your child tells you that he is gay

—Bernadette Barton

I actively avoided watching “How Not to React When Your Child Tells You that He is Gay” for a little while. A former student Facebook messaged me the link. I saw it pop up on other people’s Facebook walls. Dan Savage commented on it. And then my spouse Anna added it to our Plex queue and made me watch it on our television, though there isn’t much to see, just a lot of skewed shots of carpet, and later, a bunch of limbs tumbling.

So I listened, nervous, full of creeping dread, secretly overhearing, along with, at this point, 100,000 YouTube others, a violent family reaction to their son’s coming out. When our protagonist speaks, he is careful with his logic, even while his voice is strained and angry. He explains that he did not choose to be gay, he was born this way, right out of the uterus. His family members, especially his mother, respond that it is a choice, that he is choosing to shame them, and she tells him that they will no longer support him in his sinful lifestyle if he continues to choose to be gay.

The conversation begins with an ultimatum: if he does not try to change, with the help of an ex-gay organization, he is to leave. The listener enters at this point, and can track the conflict as it escalates and his family members physically attack him, yelling obscenities and insults.

And then the clip cuts off and we don’t know what happens next, although we can imagine it—the boy escaping out the back or front door with just the clothes on his back, or the boy subjected to a long, protracted period of testifying, or the boy submitting to his family long enough that they calm down and allow him to stay until “Thursday at midnight” to collect his belongings and find a place to live.

This disturbing clip, this painful moment captured and frozen in a person’s life, identical in so many ways to the stories shared by Bible Belt gays in my book Pray the Gay Away, frankly makes me queasy. The verbal accounts I collected with IRB approval, tape-recorder in hand, generously shared some time after the worst of such family abuse had receded is easier to process than the raw anger, hurt, and rejection expressed, indeed secretly recorded, here.  The trauma of familial abuse—being deliberately hurt by those who claim, and who are expected to love one the most—makes me dizzy and unsettled. I wonder how it is affecting all those who have experienced some version of it in their past.  Do they click on this YouTube offering unaware what is in it, try to avoid it like I did, or suffer through it reliving the trauma, purging it, feeling angry, unsettled, surreal, I wonder?

I want to wrap up this boy’s story on a hopeful note. As reader, viewer, voyeur, and story-teller, I crave a heroic ending, and perhaps it is this: even as his own family members were physically and verbally attacking him, our protagonist continued to assert that there was nothing wrong with him, there was something wrong with them. Doing so, he illustrates that he is not participating in his own oppression. He may be permanently estranged from his home and family, but he sounds aligned with himself, and perhaps that is powerful enough, for now.

Bernadette Barton is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. She is the author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (NYU Press, 2006) and Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, (NYU Press, 2012).

Diamonds and death

—Susan Falls

Engagement ring sales drive the diamond market in the United States. But people purchase diamonds to celebrate all kinds of occasions, many of which are rites of passage: births, graduations, and weddings. As people experience these events, their social status changes, or is reaffirmed. They may get a new name, a new title or different responsibilities. In the case of an engagement, a woman moves from single to (almost) married and often, into adulthood (at least in the eyes of some people). In a wedding, one becomes a husband or wife. And diamonds are sometimes given to new mothers or babies as a way to celebrate birth. But what about the ultimate rite of passage: death?

When I was working on my recently published book Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press 2014), death was a theme that loomed large, even within stories of happy unions and new relationships. Many people told me about diamonds they keep hidden away in small velvet boxes because of the emotional power these glittering objects can exert upon us.

My friend Mabel described a diamond her grandfather gave her when she turned sixteen. Her grandmother had died when she was a young child but had asked that the diamond be given to Mabel when she came of age. Mabel treasures this diamond because it belonged to her beloved grandmother, and because it shows how she was already thinking of her granddaughter as the woman she would miss knowing.  But, Mabel told me, “I rarely wear it, and when I do, it makes me kind of sad.”

As it turns out, her grandmother had purchased it for herself. Her grandfather was “not romantic like that,” never giving her fancy jewelry. In what Mabel describes as a brave and difficult move, her grandfather came out following the loss of his wife, and so for Mabel, as much as she adores her grandfather, the ring not only represents her grandmother’s love for her, but also makes her think about “all of the things that she should have had, deserved to have—like romantic love and passion—that she did not get to experience.” The gem contains a story of generosity, family and attachment, but also of longing, even sacrifice. Perhaps Mabel would have the stone reset, or she could pass it on to another family member in the future, but it is hard to image gifting a stone with such a story to a new bride or fresh graduate.

On the other hand, in another story, a woman named Chandra keeps a small, but well cut diamond that belonged to her mother tucked away in the bottom of her closet. She explained that the stone was too much to wear (bear), bringing up memories of her mother’s early demise. But she knew it was part of a fulfilling marriage, passed on to her with the idea of having an heirloom for future children. And indeed, she is excited about passing it on to her nephews when they get engaged.

One thing I learned is that stories definitely stick to diamonds. But what about a stone that is not only associated with a story about someone, but is someone? The company Life Gem can transform cremation remains into diamonds, as a “memorial to their unique life,” which can then be set into a ring or pendant. The company website states that over 100 Life Gems can be made for the family in about six to nine months, and—in following the 4 C’s grading criteria used by the natural diamond industry—provides information on the color, carat size, cut and clarity of their product. The gems can be ordered in a variety of colors (from clear to varying shades of blue, yellow, red or green), and they come in several shapes, or cuts, such as round, princess and radiant, although all are expected to have flaws (just as most natural diamonds have). The diamonds are sized from 0.1 to 1.5 carats, but the company expects to develop an ability to make much larger stones in the future.

I know I was pretty surprised when I first learned of people making synthetic diamonds from cremation ashes or even hair, but, then again, a diamond is just carbon that has been submitted to tremendous heat and pressure. Here we have a man-made stone whose value comes not only from one’s memories, but from enjoying an actual material connection to a loved one. Barring a catastrophe, these diamonds really will be around ‘forever.’

Susan Falls teaches anthropology at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. She is the author of Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press 2014).

Illustration by Kay Wolfersperger.

Maleficent: A feminist fairy tale?

—Jessie Klein and Meredith Finnerty

Maleficent makes us want to stand up and cheer—and then sit down stunned. The film distinguishes itself as the third in a trend of major studio releases that seem determined to reverse the damage of the common fairy tale motif: “Wealthy princes save skinny damsels for love ever after.” Yet, as research reveals high U.S. social isolation, the reinvented princess plots portend ominous new troubles while embracing old snares; together these phenomena suggest that human love in the U.S. may be endangered.

In the wake of Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013), Maleficent suggests that true love at best won’t be found in some random prince you meet one day, and at worst, said prince may well be seeking to destroy you to realize his own ambitions.

“You got engaged to someone you met the same day?” howls Kristoff to Anna in Frozen. These messages are a partial triumph, advising young people to work to find a forever partner, among other priorities.

The other themes, though, are foreboding: In addition to pressure to look like ever more unattainable Photoshopped images (still contributing to eating disorders at ever younger ages), young people are told to look for intimacy from parents and siblings—and consider romantic love from a spouse (or anyone else) a distant, and perhaps unachievable, goal.

Maleficent’s former love, Prince Stefan, steals her power to fly when he absconds with her wings, to become King. In Frozen, Anna’s fiancé, Prince Hans, tries to kill Anna and destroy the ice-power endowed to her older sister, Queen Elsa, in order to mount their throne. And Princess Merida’s suitors, in Brave, chosen by her parents, are arrogant and incompetent.

In Frozen, it is Anna’s sister, Elsa, who accidentally ices Anna’s heart, and then frees her from this fate with her own true love sibling kiss. In Maleficent, the evil witch-turned-doting mother figure embodies such love; and in Brave, Merida herself liberates her mother from life as a bear, with the heart only a daughter can bestow.

What a departure from the historic themes where evil stepsisters, stepmothers, and girls generally are so competitive that they achieve each other’s demise. Such parables characterizing sisters as envious and hateful are present in, among others, Oz, the Great and Powerful (2013) and expected in Cinderella (2015); and a constant in contemporary film renditions of classics such as King Lear.

The depiction of sisters and “stepmothers” as devoted to one another in Frozen and Maleficent is new; and the portrayal of true love found in familial bonds reflects startling statistics. Family intimacy remains constant when relationships of other kinds are disintegrating as revealed by the General Social Survey 2004 when compared to GSS 1985. The U.S. marriage rate has reached its lowest point in the past century. In 1920, 92.3 percent of Americans married; now it is 31.1 percent according to a 2013 study by Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Marriage and Family; and 40 to 50 percent of those unions end in divorce. Not least, people have fewer friends, and connect with neighbors and other community members less.

Today’s fairy tale heroines are also turning to non-human companions for support (note Maleficent’s bird and Anna’s snowman). Princess Merida and her mother see each other’s wisdom only when the mom becomes a bear. Could this be a reference to real world declining rates of social connections outside family? Almost 25 percent of women won’t marry unless their pets approve (as per JDate and Christian Mingles State of Dating in America, 2014), suggesting that animals are replacing humans for family support. Another trend is for women to adopt dogs instead of children.

Young people watch these films while social isolation has tripled; and empathy and trust decreased. Other than with Mom and Dad, a trusted sibling, and perhaps a dog, people in the U.S. have less love in their lives than past generations.

We celebrate the victories in these reimagined legends. When before have children’s movies warned against blindly following the call to marry, above any other goal—and encouraged girls to look for intimacy elsewhere, much less the family? We appreciate the themes encouraging girls to know and use their inner power. These are among the memos we wish we and our peers received in our formative years.

We hope, though, that future scripts will also describe, and prescribe, more hope for social relationships in America among intimate partners (gay, straight and other) and male and female human friends. We look forward to heroines who defy the still frozen frames whereby women must be blonde and stick-thin to be loved.

These standards are destructive and cruel, and have even expanded to torment men. New impossibly high-definition muscle man images have contributed to increasing rates of eating disorders among men who are afflicted with life-threatening diseases such as the still recently dubbed: “Bigorexia.”

Each of these tales shifts hope for the marriage in question from the classic “happily ever after” to “perhaps.” Will we see such a “maybe” embrace heroes and heroines with different body types, in future films? Could friends and neighbors be the source of an expanded depiction of the many shapes of true love? Let us know.

Jessie Klein is the author of The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools (NYU Press, 2012). She is Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Adelphi University. Meredith Finnerty is a Birth doula and certified HynoBirthing Childbirth Educator (HBCE).

[Note: This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.]

Our legacy, too: Muslim women and the civil rights movement

—Jamillah Karim

“No one person owns this. This history is a history of thousands of people and we tell hundreds of those stories.”

When I heard former mayor of Atlanta Shirley Franklin speak these sentiments about the civil rights movement on the occasion of the opening of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in my hometown of Atlanta, GA, I could not help but think about the courageous women whose stories are told in my new book Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam, co-authored with Dawn Marie-Gibson.

Growing up in a Sunni mosque community in Atlanta, originally a temple in the Nation of Islam, I regularly heard the stories of men and women who converted to Islam to boldly protest racism and advance opportunities for African Americans. Through them, I felt that I had inherited firsthand the legacy of the civil rights movement. Later, however, I learned that the “Black Muslims,” as scholars called them, were not considered part of this movement. While the civil rights movement was marked by aspirations to integrate with whites, the Nation of Islam was labeled separatist because it promoted black pride and independence.

A few scholars, however, have resisted the tendency to write African American Muslims out of the movement. With efforts to see the movement beyond the black church and to include Muslim women among leaders of the civil rights era, womanist religious studies scholar Rosetta Ross devotes a chapter of her book Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights to Clara Muhammad, who contributed significantly to the NOI’s beginnings. Ross writes,

“Although she was not a part of what might be called the ‘mainstream’ Civil Rights Movement, Clara Muhammad’s role as one who helped construct the vehicle that transmitted notions of race pride to the Black masses made her a significant participant in the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement” (142).

It was during an interview with Karen, a former member of the Nation in Queens, New York that I realized that Nation women were not unlike the African American women of the civil rights movement. With a tone of “righteous discontent,” Karen described her dedication to the Nation of Islam but also her protest to some of the Nation practices that confined women. Her simultaneous alliance with and protest to male leaders in the organization immediately reminded me of the position of black Baptist women in the South as portrayed by Evelyn Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent.

Quite literally, Nation women were these women before converting. Before the Nation, they had membership or affiliation with the black church, and some were members of civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). No Nation woman that I met proved this connection to the civil rights movement as remarkably as Ana Karim.

Ana was no ordinary woman in the Nation—or person, for that matter. She was invited by Elijah Muhammad personally to join the organization. A SNCC activist carrying out voter registration work in poor, rural areas near Tuskegee Institute, where she attended college, Ana witnessed grave atrocities against African Americans. “I nearly lost my life,” Ana told me, her words bearing no exaggeration. Some of her peers were shot to death fighting for the rights of others. News of these courageous students made local newspapers that eventually fell into the hands of Elijah Muhammad. Upon his invitation, she sat with Muhammad who tried to convince her to join the Muslims. She initially declined, returned to Tuskegee, and witnessed one of the most horrific acts of inhumanity, perpetrated against a pregnant African American woman.

Elijah Muhammad’s call began to make sense to her: “It’s not that I feared death, but there was so much I wanted to do. I didn’t want to die not having accomplished anything—just die on a back road in some rural county and my body be buried in a cornfield or drowned somewhere in a stream. I didn’t want to die like that, so I left because I thought there was a higher mission, a better opportunity to help my people with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.”

Interviewing Ana was a highlight of my career for I had been chosen to tell the story of this remarkable African American Muslim woman. Ana went on to do extraordinary things in the Nation and in the Sunni community that emerged from the Nation under the leadership of Imam W. D. Mohammed. She rose as a leader of African American Muslims—men and women—because, she says, “I assumed the hardship of the civil rights movement. God prepares you for what’s coming in the future.” Ana proves that no one person or one religion owns this history.

Jamillah Karim is co-author (with Dawn-Marie Gibson) of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam (NYU Press, 2014).

Pride Q&A with Suzanna Danuta Walters

The parades are over… the fight for equality is not. 

As LGBT Pride Month comes to a close today, we invite you to read this Q&A with Suzanna Danuta Walters, author of The Tolerance Trapin which she discusses the shift from gay pride to tolerance, the trouble with same-sex marriage victories, and what it might look like on the other side of the rainbow.

Who doesn’t like tolerance? As you write, “It seems to herald openness to difference and a generally broad-minded disposition.” Looking a bit more deeply, what does “tolerance” really imply?

Suzanna Danuta Walters: Well, tolerance is certainly better than outright hatred for sure!  But think about it: we tolerate things we would rather do without (an irritating neighbor, a boring movie, a meeting that never seems to end) – we rarely speak of tolerating the things we enjoy (a delicious meal, a vibrant party, a sunny day.)  So tolerance is a very low bar to set when we are pondering the real and robust inclusion of a minority group into full citizenship.

Out gay and lesbian celebrities, the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, the end of sanctioned discrimination in the military… Are these not good things?

Of course these are good things – I would be the last person to deny the very real changes that have occurred in the past 15 or so years.  Things are undoubtedly better.  But three points need to be made here:  they are not better enough (we still have disproportionate numbers of gay youth on the streets, we still don’t have ENDA passed, we still have only a handful of openly gay politicians and national leaders).  Second, those gains—out celebrities, gay marriage, and military inclusion—are not the “end” of the struggle for full inclusion. Gay marriage does not = gay rights. And, third, the framing of gay rights around “tolerance” and acceptance forestalls addressing the deeper and more challenging questions posed by full inclusion.

Social movements usually evolve through various stages over the course of years or decades. What stages has the gay and lesbian movement gone through, and where are we now?  What would success look like to you?

True, some of what we are seeing now is the inevitable “normalizing” and mainstreaming of a social movement. But I do think there are some peculiar twists that the gay movement and gay rights has taken. I think “tolerance” as both a means and an end is NOT, in fact, what most social movements have centered their work around.  So feminism didn’t demand “tolerance” for women, but full inclusion and rights and— more importantly—a sea change in cultural attitudes about gender. The civil rights movement asks not for “acceptance” but for a robust re-imaging of race and an historical reckoning with slavery and Jim Crow. We’ve had a wonderful and radical history of gay rights and gay activism—and that has by no means disappeared—but I think we are now threatening that progressive potential by buying into the tolerance trap.

What did “gay pride” used to mean? What does it mean now?

Oh gosh, I still feel a little tingle at the parades, but it does seem it has become more of a rainbow food court than a righteous rally. I do think “pride” is actually a very different affect than “tolerance” or “acceptance.” If we actually got back to that old way of thinking of pride (evidenced in slogans such as “gay is good” and “glad to be gay”) we might begin to shift away from the tepid language of tolerance.

Can you talk a little about how coming out has come to be seen as the master narrative of a gay person’s life? In what ways does the mainstream, at least as represented by conventional wisdom and popular culture, get it wrong?

Coming out has long been both our master narrative but also the way in which gay identities and lives are seen and even “measured” by straight “audiences.” But coming out stories are complicated. For example, in much of popular culture, coming out tales focus more on the reaction of the heterosexuals than on the actual feelings and lives of gay people doing the telling. It often serves to give straight folks a pat on the back for tolerating their gay brethren but often asks little of them in terms of real shifts in attitudes.

In whose interest is it that gay people become “just like everyone else”? What does the gay and lesbian community stand to lose if this assimilation becomes complete?

I actually don’t think it is in anybody’s interest. Assimilation surely might help some (wealthy, white, married) gay people find a home in this country, and it might give comfort to some anxious heterosexuals who don’t want to be bigoted but also don’t want to themselves have to change. But we all—as a nation—lose out when the rich difference of gay life and history and culture are stripped away in the march toward tolerance.

As a progressive (and a lesbian), you are obviously not against marriage equality. And you admit to certain sentimentality about the very fact that gay men and lesbians can now marry their partners in many parts of the U.S.  Yet… you suggest that gay marriage is “the perfect Trojan horse for the tolerance trap.” [p. 177] Tell us more.

Of course I am for marriage equality in the sense of opposing any restrictions on basic civil rights. But what I mean buy “Trojan horse” is that I think gaining marriage rights produces the appearance of full inclusion and equality—it sneaks it through the gages so to speak, and thus allows everyone to pat themselves on the back for their tolerant acceptance of gayness.

Some people may not realize that there has been a healthy debate within the gay and lesbian community for decades about the wisdom of fighting for marriage rights.  Give us the argument against marriage.  What would a more progressive family rights agenda look like?

Same-sex marriage has been won largely by making one totally kosher claim and two (well, many more actually…) hugely problematic ones. The legit claim is the simple one of equal treatment under the law. A no-brainer. Easy to support. But the other two…not so much. The first, used in amicus briefs throughout the country, is that gays should get their marriage because they are “born that way” and therefore their immutable homo-ness puts them in the same category as other groups with supposedly immutable qualities. So “we can’t help ourselves” is the identity argument at the core of much of marriage argumentation and indeed pro-gay discourse more generally. The second claim is that legalizing same-sex marriage won’t affect straight marriages at all (because we’re just like you). To which I have to say: if it doesn’t change gender normative, often abusive, deeply unequal, heterosexual marriages, then why does it matter at all? If queer marriages DON’T alter straight sensibilities around gender and intimacy and family then they are strangely not queer at all. And not worth all the fuss.

I’ve been so frustrated at the centrality of marriage to the gay rights movement. We are told that this is the culmination of the long march of progress and soon we’ll live in a happy rainbow world of official homolove. Lawyers and plaintiffs alike claim this decision makes us “more equal” and our families “more legitimate.” Gee, I thought we were pretty legitimate without marriage, and that our children weren’t torn apart by the agony of unmarried mothers. My nineteen-year-old feminist daughter (of a single mother to boot!) widened her eyes in horror at that old anti-feminist canard being trotted out and declaimed with nary a whiff of irony.

Love is not more legitimate or good or valuable if the state makes it official, and garnering a basic victory is not the same as making the world a more genuinely amenable place for sexual difference. Marriage rights are not synonymous with full citizenship or true belonging.

Also, many of us fear a few other things:  that we will now see a division between the “good” marrying gays who deserve tolerance and those recalcitrant gays who are pushed even further outside of the field of respectability.  So as I listen to the victory speeches I have a smile on my face, but I also hear the voices of my friends who have pledged not to take part in this rush to the altar. I hear the voices of the poor, the disenfranchised, the gays of color for whom marriage is hardly the golden egg or prized victory. I am sickened by the wedding industry that bilks billions out of those who need these resources for health care and housing and everyday life. I shudder at the resources that go into this industry, while HIV/AIDS remains a national crisis. I am reminded, again, of the vexed history of this institution and its stubbornly gendered and racialized parameters.

What is on the other side of the rainbow?  Give us a picture of how things have changed, not just for gay and lesbian Americans but for all of us, when gay and lesbian people truly belong?

We can’t know in advance what that will look like but I can say that gay belonging will mean assuming that heterosexual business as usual gets upended.  If you really reject the tolerance trap—and all that goes with it in terms of “born that way” ideas and odes to acceptance and assimilation—you open the door to a re-imagining of intimacy, family, sex, and love as unmoored from gender certitudes and assumptions. It might be pretty fun.

Trans*politics, solidarity, and ENDA

—Isaac West

Having already declared June as LGBT Pride Month via a presidential proclamation, President Obama is prepared to further demonstrate his commitment to LGBT equality by signing an executive order designed to prohibit federal contractors from practicing employment discrimination against LGBT individuals. Obama’s action is necessary because the Republican leadership in the House refuses to allow the membership to vote on the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), which the Senate passed 64-32.

In short, ENDA would incorporate sexual orientation and gender identity into the protected classes of federal employment anti-discrimination law. (The current version of ENDA is not without its problems—the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Transgender Law Center and GetEQUAL, among others, withdrew support for the current bill, citing unprecedented religious exemptions for non-religious employers.) Even though 208 co-sponsors have signed on to ENDA in the House, including eight Republicans, Speaker John Boehner will not bring it to the floor. According to Boehner’s rather disingenuous reading of employment law, he finds ENDA redundant because he claims LGBTs are already covered by current legislation and does not want to afford “special rights” to any new minority groups.

If Boehner’s interpretation of our current laws was not motivated by his catering to his right flank, he would be in good company given that the majority of Americans think that it is already illegal to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Along with this common misperception, paradoxically, there is also a consensus that LGBT employment discrimination is widespread. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of the general public revealed 67% of respondents answered affirmatively when asked if “LGBT people experienced discrimination ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ in applying for or keeping a job.”

Given these conditions, it is unsurprising that in a recent poll of LGBT Americans, conducted by the Pew Research Center, employment protections topped marriage rights as the most pressing legislative issue. Although same-sex civil marriage equality gets most of the media attention, LGBT advocates and allies have waged at least as vigorous a campaign for employment protections.

Like most legislation, ENDA’s long, slow march through Congress began in 1974 when Bella Abzug introduced the Equality Act of 1974, a bill that outlawed address discrimination based on sexual orientation. After two decades of little to no movement on measures such as this, ENDA experienced numerous stops and starts during the Clinton and Bush presidencies.

Congressional momentum picked up in 2007 when Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin, self-identified gay and lesbian members of Congress, championed the bill. The 2007 version of ENDA finally included gender identity as a category, which had been a sticking point for years, until Frank, over Baldwin’s objections, excised the gender identity protections from ENDA., justifying the move on the grounds that some members would not vote for a bill with gender identity as one of the protected categories.

In a surprising turn of events, almost every major LGBT organization, excluding the Human Rights Campaign, withdrew support of the sexual-orientation-only ENDA. Over 400 LGBT organizations joined forces to form United ENDA, pledging to actively work to delay, if not defeat, the bill if it excluded trans’ protections.

In my analysis of these events, I highlight how the gender identity provisions of the bill provided an occasion for solidarity, reversing the general trend whereby trans* and gay and lesbian issues are framed as separate and competing agendas. In this case, these advocates had to make a choice about whether or not they would fight for the rights of the whole LGBT community, or accept a partial victory for the LGB community. After examining the legislation, United ENDA argued that gender identity protections would prevent employers from exploiting the “gender identity loophole,” meaning that an employer could claim to fire someone for their atypical gender performances, not their sexuality.

What makes this case instructive for the future is how United ENDA placed trans* concerns at the center of their advocacy and used it as the glue for their coalition. Instead of treating trans* and gender identity matters as a fringe issue, they served a unifying purpose for rethinking what LGBT solidarity might look like. By rethinking LGB identities through a trans* perspective, the advocates understood that their identities could not be cleaved off as neatly as Frank would have liked to do. As we move forward, keeping in line with the actions of United ENDA, we need to make sure that LGBT politics work toward the good of the whole, and sometimes this may require us to focus more on our shared positions of vulnerability rather than our differences.

Isaac West is Assistant Professor in the Departments of Communication Studies and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Transforming Citizenships: Transgender Articulations of the Law (NYU Press, 2013).