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FYI (if you’re a mom of teenage boys)

Dear moms,

I have some information that might interest you. Last night, as I sometimes do, I sat on my couch and looked at social media on my phone.

I’ve been on vacation, so naturally there are quite a few blog posts and news articles to wade through. Wow – the Internet sure has been busy with the slut-shaming this summer!  Some of my friends brought this to my attention, because as Christians and/or feminists, we notice shit like that.

I noticed other things, too. For one, it appears that I’ve been on the wrong path when it comes to raising my own son.

I get it – you’ve seen all those shameless hussies putting their pictures up on Facebook how our culture exploits women’s bodies, right? I can’t help thinking that maybe I’ve failed by trying to raise a son who respects women regardless of how they’re dressed.  Clearly, I should have been protecting his eyes.  I should remedy that.

So, here’s the bit that I think is important for you to realize.  If you are the parent of a teenage son, you should definitely make sure he never, ever sees a half-dressed girl.  Half-dressed boys are okay, though, because naturally, none of your sons are gay or bisexual.  Posting half-naked pictures of your own sons flexing on the beach is also totally fine, since no one ever equates strength and virility.  We all know that unless we see a penis, it’s not sexual anyway.  Besides, it’s not at all exploitative to parade their bodies on the Internet for your own gain; everyone knows that’s much better than making one’s own choices about what to post.

Please understand this also: you are not responsible for making sure your sons know that regardless of what a girl is wearing, she deserves respect.  All you need to do is assure they don’t see those pictures.  After all, if they don’t see them, then you can relax in the knowledge that your sons do not know what girls’ bodies look like or that they won’t satisfy their curiosity by looking at the Internet at a friend’s house.

Not to mention that those “sexy” selfies your sons’ friends are posting don’t reflect who they are clearly demonstrate that they are temptresses who want to cause your sons to fall into sin.  You need to be sure to remind them often so that you can keep your sons from acting like animals protect your sons.

And now – thank God – you have a good excuse to select who your sons are friends with. You can also have awkward family dinners during which you remind them that masturbation is a sin teenage girls are sluts they should probably not see a female-bodied person in her nightgown until they are married.

I know you’re concerned that these girls’ parents would be disappointed if they knew their daughters were causing your poor, defenseless sons to get hard think impure things when looking at them on the Internet. Obviously, you know that once a boy sees a girl in a state of undress, he turns from a respectable, nice kid into a raging, hormonal beast.  You don’t want your sons to only think of girls in this “sexual” way, do you?

Of course not.

You’re also probably aware that girls don’t fantasize about boys’ bodies, so you’re free to put as many objectifying pictures of them up on your blog as you like.  No worries–you won’t be causing any teenage girls to lust.  That’s because girls don’t really have any sexual feelings unless they are a)married or b)they weren’t properly guarding their hearts.  Naturally, they never masturbate or look at naked men on the Internet.  And they’re not ever lesbians, either.

Good thing you’ve resolved not to give any of these teen temptresses a second chance to corrupt your innocent little men. I’m sure you’ve also installed nanny software and have a firewall so good no one could ever hack it.  You’ve probably made sure that your sons’ friends have these things too.  Don’t forget that awkward conversation you had with all their dads to find out if any of them had a stray magazine or several that you needed to confiscate before you allowed your sons into their homes.

I know that sounds harsh and old-school, but that’s just the way needs to be if you want to raise your sons right.  Blocking, banning, and shaming is so much more effective than merely having open conversations about how your sons treat women.  Remind yourself that you are raising men, while their female counterparts are mere girls.  That way, you can convince yourself that your sons are mature enough to make adult decisions while these girls are not–and apparently don’t have any parents to help them learn and grow the way you’re helping your sons.  Their parents will probably be grateful that you implied their daughters are tramps anyway.

Meanwhile, you should have in mind the kind of women you want your sons to marry.  Your gag reflex probably prevents you from realizing that they may be gay, which is why you need to imagine them with women.  It’s not creepy and weird at all that you are making these plans for them when they’re only halfway through high school.  It’s never too early to control your children’s future adulthood.  Besides, there’s no chance whatsoever that your sons will go behind your backs and date or have sex or whatever.  And did I mention that these “men of integrity” are totally not ever, ever masturbating?  Oh, I did?  Well, I said it again.

Moms, it’s not too late! If you think you’ve made a mistake in raising your sons (we all do – don’t fret – I’ve made some doozies), RUN to your boys’ social media pages and block every single one of their girl friends.  There are pictures of them that make it easy for your sons to imagine them naked, including that lovely senior portrait.  After all, girls don’t even need to be in a state of partial undress to tempt boys to lust after them–all it takes is their mere existence.

Will you trust me? Your boys are crying out for you to teach them that girls are the cause of all their adolescent hormone surges as well as any other behaviors they may exhibit.  Deep down, they are uncontrollable cavemen who cannot possibly learn how to respect and love women unless you protect them from the grasps of those alluring young things.  (And also, they are NOT gay, so you probably don’t need to worry about protecting them from other boys.)

You are raising MEN.

Teach them guilt, sexism, and blame.

I’m glad could have this talk.  Maybe we’ll talk again sometime about how we can raise our girls into women who feel ashamed of their bodies.

Mrs. Mitchell

It’s not about the sex

Courtesy of http://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/miley-cyrus-sexual-exploitation-vma-2228134 (this was the least offensive photo I could find)

While some people are busy fretting over how they can’t let their kids watch the VMAs because of performances like Miley Cyrus’, I’m shaking my head and wondering how it’s gotten boiled down to arguments about whether her parents did their job or whether she’s just acting foolish because of her age/fame.  There are problems with her performance (which I didn’t watch live; I saw the video this morning).  None of them have to do with what she wore, whether or not she’s trying to be “sexy,” or whether or not she has gone from wholesome to trashy.

I didn’t find her performance sexy (and what was wrong with her tongue?  Does she have a condition?), but I’d be happy to chalk that up to personal preference.  That is, if not for two glaring problems:

  1. It was racist.
  2. It wasn’t empowering for female sexuality.

I’m not the best person to explain what was racist about it.  You should just go read this (and the several articles linked therein).  It explains perfectly what was wrong with Miley’s performance from an intersectional feminism perspective.  I was glad to read that; I’m not always sure that I’m on the right track, so I was happy to have confirmation that my initial reaction wasn’t off-base.  There is obviously more wrong than this, but my first question after watching was, “Why are all the back-up dancers black?”  It didn’t seem right, so I dug a little deeper.  I’m glad I did.

I can speak a little better to the second point.  Other women have performed in less clothing than Miley wore and have had equally sexual dance moves.  Why is hers somehow worse?  The short answer is that by itself, it’s not.  If it were just Miley up there (preferably minus the objectification of black women), it would have been less of an issue.  In one sense, Miley is trying to find out who she is apart from her family and her childhood.  When other child stars do the same, they are often shamed for their mistakes because they can’t screw up in private.  But there’s a special kind of venom reserved for “wholesome” girls who grow up into women with sexuality.  For some reason, the finger-wagging always seems to crop up around things like the VMAs, with parents lamenting, “What about the chiiiiiildren????”

Young men don’t seem to have this problem.  One of my friends was kind enough to point out that Daniel Radcliffe didn’t get the same treatment when he was naked.  On stage.  With a horse.  I mean, I guess parents probably figured that wasn’t something to take the kids to see, but still–he got more flak when people thought he was gay than for his performance in Equus.  Right there, that says volumes about people’s priorities.

The real problem with Miley’s performance is adding Robin Thicke into the mix.  A few years ago, I had a grad school professor who mentioned in class that he’d done some research on pornography (yes, that’s actual research, people).  He evaluated pictures in magazines based on several criteria–pose, facial expression, etc.  He discovered that in many photos of women, they were pouting and passive, and there was often a fully clothed man in the photograph.  This was in sharp contrast with photos of men, who were mostly smiling, active, and alone.  It was the last one that surprised me (and bothered me) most.

As it turns out, I wasn’t wrong about that.  The presence of a fully-clothed man feeds into the idea that women are bodies that exist solely for men’s pleasure.  Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke played that out on national television.  The excuses were strange, too–that this is his “thing” and he’s never been a Disney star are hardly important when he’s perpetuating a degrading view of women with someone half his age who’s barely an adult.  His sexual freedom and aggression are celebrated; she’s shamed for not living up to her status as a role model (which, by the way, she is not obligated to do).

The two problems (racism and misogyny) that I mentioned are linked by the fact that Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke have intentionally joined them.  This is their view of what it means to be sexual, and it hinges on exploitation and the blatant appropriation of a subset of black culture–along with a host of horrible assumptions about black women.  Combine Miley’s own admission that she wants to try on “black culture” with a man singing about “blurred” consent while a woman mimes sexually pleasuring him and you should get a good idea why this is so disgusting.

The whole thing made me feel sick, and many of the reactions have made me feel sicker still.  It was gross, and it was wrong, and we need to ask ourselves why we’re more concerned with the fact of Miley’s attempts at being sexy than how she’s trying to achieve it or why it’s so wrong.  It’s not about teaching our daughters about what’s “appropriate” when it comes to clothing or dance moves.  It’s not about another former child star “gone wrong.”  It’s about how we’ve failed as a society to stop exploiting people for profit and how we’ve failed as a society to teach our children that growing up means knowing the difference between empowering people and continuing to subjugate them, even when the line seems thin.

Today, I’m not a good feminist.

Anti-feminist symbol. By Ahmadi (own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I think I haven’t been a “good” feminist for a while now.  I’ve been thinking about it, and maybe I’m just not cut out for this gig.  Oh, I don’t mean that I’m not into equality and I’ve suddenly gone backwards to the world of women having a proper place.  I just mean that I don’t really fit in with what looks sometimes like the Ideal Feminist.

When I stopped believing in the typical conservative evangelical version of Christianity, the first thing to go was the notion that there is some ideal standard out there.  This isn’t Jesus, this is Plato.  That’s not to say there isn’t “better” and “worse,” just that there’s not some magical fairytale Perfect Being with such an impossibly high standard that all of humanity disgusts the Perfect Being.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that this notion exists outside Christianity.  Evangelical Christianity is at least honest about it–if you don’t agree that you’re bad and repent (with the appropriate belief in the magical Perfect Being), you get a one-way ticket to Hell.  The rest of the world is not quite so open about what will happen to you.  From what I can tell, though, if you don’t get it right (there’s no Perfect Being to rescue you), you get ejected from the club and placed on the list of People Who Piss the Gatekeepers Off No Matter What They Say.  I have a feeling there are some people who could say, “The sky is blue” and they’d get an argument about the specific shade.

The reason I say I’m a lousy feminist these days is that I want to concentrate on the big picture and not the minutiae of precisely how someone said something or what an individual woman chooses to do.  I’ve been guilty of hair-splitting myself, and I think it’s time to be done with that.  I’m not convinced the right way to be a feminist is to demand that we consider every damn detail of the decisions we make, analyzing it all to make sure it conforms to the Feminist Policies and Procedures Manual.

There’s this list of rules (sometimes spoken, sometimes not) that exists somewhere, and I just don’t think I can keep up anymore.  This is by no means exhaustive:

  • Don’t do or say anything that could be construed as “what about the men” (the details of what that entails will be explained to you after you screw up)
  • Define anything men say that sounds corrective as “mansplaining,” even when it has nothing to do with feminism (because there’s no possible way you could be wrong if you studied it, read it, or wrote about it)
  • Grill women about the choices they make (taking husband’s name, having babies, working for pay, etc.) and tell them there’s a right answer for anything you think isn’t “feminist” enough
  • Police people’s methods of healing from abuse (but expect them not to do the same to you)
  • Make violent threats, use verbally abusive language, and do the same creepy things you complain men do, but say you can do it because your threat is “empty”
  • Find the most mild examples of your own privilege and say, “See? I check my privilege!” (this applies exclusively to white feminists and mostly to straight feminists)
  • Complain about “creepers” on social media but don’t bother blocking them the first time they make you uncomfortable
  • Do all this to others while claiming you have no issues to work on

I am not in either therapy or recovery, but I know plenty of people who are.  The steps above are aspects of what’s called “taking someone else’s inventory.”  The essence of it is that you’re finding fault with other people and assessing their motives without examining your own.  The problem with this approach when it comes to feminism is that it separates women from each other.  I’m not saying every feminist I disagree with does all of these things, but a fair number of them do at least two, one of which is usually the last item on the list.

A good example of this behavior is an article I linked some months ago about women’s reasons for taking their husband’s names.  The writer didn’t see any valid reason to take one’s husband’s name except for being religiously conservative and believing it was the right thing to do.  Any other reason, including “because most people do it and I didn’t think that deeply about it,” were game-show-buzzered automatically.

Name-changing is not a primary issue, yet somehow, it’s been put on the Throne of Importance.  If I’m not railing against the oppression of changing my name, I’m apparently an idiot and a faux feminist.  You know what?  I honestly do. not. care if you change your name to your husband’s, hyphenate it, make up a new name, give him yours, or drop the last name entirely, Cher-style.  You could insist on having your birth name (which may be your father’s anyway) and still be part of a complementarian marriage or have a husband who abuses you.  That’s because the name isn’t the real problem.

Another one I saw the other day was a tweet asking why people had kids.  No, seriously.  Because it’s totally invasive to ask people why they don’t have any but not at all violating to demand we explain ourselves as to why we had them.  (Before you ask, yeah, I answered the question, because I didn’t think anything of it until later, when I realized how much it upset me.)  Anyway, the tweet also said that “because it’s what people do” is not a valid reason.  Again, I’m not making this up.  I love the attitude that says someone else can evaluate my choices but God forbid I evaluate theirs.  As with the name change, I do not have any interest in whether you have kids or you don’t.  That’s your choice.  But it’s a super-duper privilegey thing to do to ask people why they reproduced and blast people you think didn’t consider it hard enough.  (Pro tip: it’s classist.)

I feel more in feminist spheres like I don’t measure up than I ever did in religious ones.  That’s probably owing to the fact that I wasn’t abused in church like some were, so I acknowledge that.  There are also some feminists (even of the more extreme sort) who don’t do this.  It seems to be, for the most part, limited to (strangely) Christians who claim the feminist label.  I chalk that up to the need to rebel against an anti-feminist system, but it doesn’t make it right.  You know what I want out of my feminism?  I want to work toward making sure that all people have opportunities.  I want equality and justice.  I want women of color to be paid the same thing as white men for doing the same job.  I want my son to be a ballet dancer and my daughter to be an engineer (if that’s what they want).  I want our culture to reflect the beauty and diversity of women’s contribution to the arts.  I want all forms of human-against-human violence to end.  I do not want to argue about names and babies and the definition of “job.”

There’s an attitude among some women that they are better than others because hey, at least they aren’t anti-trans like some people or at least they don’t use the word “c*nt” like some people.*  ‘Nother pro tip: taking other feminists’ inventories is also bad.  Stop doing it.  Stop nit-picking my decisions and asking me rudely personal questions in order to prove that you’re the better feminist.  If that’s what you want, then fine.  You can be the Queen Feminist.  I’m out, though.  I’m claiming my fourth-prize ribbon for being a lousy feminist and calling it a day.

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*Last pro tip, I promise.  The word “c*nt” is really, really bad in the U.S.  Don’t use it if you live here or are visiting here.  I understand that it doesn’t have quite the same impact in other places, though.  So we in the U.S. really don’t have the right to tell non-Americans whether to use it or not.  For some reason, there’s a boatload of policing that particular word because “Zomg! Someone used it on Twitter and Americans read Twitter!  And they used it IN THEIR TWITTER HANDLE OMG I AM SO OFFENDED!”  Yeah.  Get over it.  We have words that are equally offensive to other cultures.

Healing, forgiveness, and redemption

Joseph Forgives His Brothers, by the Providence Lithograph Company (http://thebiblerevival.com/clipart/1907/gen45.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I recently had the privilege of connecting with Stephanie Drury (of Stuff Christian Culture Likes) through an online community we both belong to.  I’ve long appreciated what she has to say because even though I don’t agree 100% with everything she says, she’s one of the people who comes closest to expressing more or less where my own faith is right now.  I don’t have the history of spiritual (and other) abuse she’s endured; my stay in the conservative evangelical world was comparatively short and uneventful.  My leaving was mostly for the sake of my children.  I saw enough to know that even in the best-intentioned evangelical spheres, abuse is a natural outflow of certain teachings.  It wasn’t something I wanted my children to have long-term exposure to.  Trust me when I say I’d have been happy to foot the therapy bill knowing I could have prevented the damage and didn’t.

That said, yesterday, I read Stephanie’s post, hugo schwyzer’s suicide attempt, the feminist response, and the tension of holding horrible things alongside possiblity.  While again, I don’t agree 100% with everything she says, it resonated with me.  Bear with me as I attempt to explain why, keeping two things in mind:

  1. Stephanie writes from a place of having been harmed.  No one should accuse her of failing to understand what it’s like to be victimized.
  2. I am not writing from that place.  I’m writing from the place of one who has both done the harm and seen the harm.

A lot of people were pretty angry about what Stephanie said in her post.  I understand that.  There was a time when I would have readily jumped on that train.  I have my own experiences with being told to forgive someone who had wronged me–to the point of not being able to express my anger because both Christianity and “psychology” told me that the burden was on me to “own” my reactions.  I wasn’t supposed to hold past misdeeds against people who continued to hurt me.  All of those things are lies; it’s not on me to do anything, and a person’s history does inform his or her present actions.  So believe me when I say I get it that some of what Stephanie said could trigger a lot of feelings.

On the other hand, her post did make me consider two things that are very important for me.  I emphasize that last part because I recognize myself to be pretty near the top of the privilege food chain.  I’m white, I’m cisgender, and I’m straight.  I’m a married stay-at-home-mom (to me, that’s like the height of economic privilege, that I can choose to do what I want).  I’ve never been spiritually abused, though I have a long history of other forms of bullying, and there were certainly abuses in my family.  What Stephanie’s post made me think about wasn’t how I treat those who have wronged me but how I, as a person who has wronged others, have had my own redemption story.

First, I have to really, truly, deeply own my history of fundamentalist ideas.  When I was 15 or 16, I was in the car with a couple of family members.  I cheerfully told them that “sin is sin,” a line I was repeating from church.  They already knew that my church had taught me that gay = sin.  The conversation went like this:

Me: Sin is sin.  One sin is no better or worse than any other.

Family member 1: So, lying and murder are equal.

Me: Yep.

Family member 2: You believe it’s wrong to be gay.

Me: Yes.

Family member 1: So, being gay is as bad as being a rapist.

Me [now very uncomfortable]: Yeah, I guess, but it’s just because all sin keeps us from God.

Family member 2: So I’m as bad as a rapist.

Me: I don’t know. I guess so.

And that’s the most mild and printable of the ways I hurt this person.

Ten years.  It took me ten years to get to a point where I didn’t still believe that.  I have no idea how that particular family member stuck it out with me.  All I can say is that from the time I was old enough to remember, she’s been one of my favorite people in the whole world.  She’s been one of my biggest advocates.  Because she (and other family members, who have also been wonderful) loved me and waited patiently for me, we made it past all that.  I changed.

It’s that belief that people can–and do–change that keeps me blogging.  It keeps me searching for new ways to be an ally and it keeps me reading on Twitter to see where my privilege is showing and what I can do to make it right.  It keeps me searching for justice and my part in it.  It keeps me pointing to the voices of others and asking people to listen.  I express all that in different ways.  Sometimes I’m angry and bold; sometimes I use Scripture; sometimes I write about how deeply I love the people in my life.  I keep going, though, because someone, somewhere may be reading and might just find the spark to change.

The second thing that occurred to me is that I’m a harsh critic of people.  I don’t actually like people very much.  Perhaps that’s the result of my history with peers at school or with some of my family.  It could be because I’m pretty introverted.  I don’t really know.  The problem is that I often have trouble separating what people say and do from who they are.  This is particularly true when those people are public figures.

I have little difficulty accepting and loving ordinary people, even when they aren’t perfect.  The real people in my everyday life get the benefit of my ongoing forgiveness.  My two closest friends (other than my husband) are very different women, but I love them both so, so much.  Have we ever hurt each other?  Sure.  Do we do things the others think are probably bad ideas?  Of course.  But there is a lot of good history that none of us are willing to throw away.  We make things right and we move on.

That can’t be done with these big-name “celebrity” bloggers, pastors, and speakers.  I’m not at all condoning what any of them say or do.  We need to keep calling them out on their behavior because they are doing these big, public things and using their fame to gain followers who will then turn around and do the same things.  We need to stop them.  We need to be angry, we need to be pushy, we need to be bold.  We also need to be gentle and persuasive and kind–not because that’s the “best” way to do it but because our natural personalities make us respond in our own ways.  I cannot imagine some of my fellow bloggers being polite about Mark Driscoll or Hugo Schwyzer’s latest pile of poo.  On the other hand, there are many bloggers I can’t imagine writing a scathingly funny take-down or an angry rant; they normally write very differently than that.

Where we may be able to agree is that we can say what a person is actually doing without assigning motive or making assumptions about who that person is or whether there is any hope for change.  We can say with certainty that Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Hugo Schwyzer, and others have said and continue to say terrible things.  We can worry about their families.  We can tell anyone who will listen in whatever way we need to that their words are damaging.  What we can’t do is know why they do those things or whether they will ever change.

I also feel uncomfortable with name-calling, as that speaks to who or what we think someone is at their core.  I admit to having done this; I imagine that I learned to do it as a child.  My mother used to call me names when she was angry, and I was bullied mostly with name-calling for years.  Whether or not anyone else agrees, I believe no matter what abuse someone has committed or appears to have committed, it is, in fact, bullying to call people steaming piles of shit or assholes or fucktards or douchebags.  I don’t really care that you think it’s not hurting them because they hurt you first or that you’re just expressing your anger.  It’s still not right.  They are humans, not poo or body parts–regardless of the evil things they’ve done.*

There is one place where I strongly disagree with Stephanie (and I hope this does not hurt her, in the same way that I hope not to have hurt others with my words above).  In the specific case of Hugo Schwyzer, his past is applicable.  He may have apologized for what he did, but the fact that he keeps on doing it says volumes more than his apology.  Perhaps he wouldn’t try to kill an intimate partner now, but he isn’t demonstrating respect for women.  This is the same man who penned an article (which I will not link to) about removing a tampon from his soon-to-be ex-wife.  If that’s not a violation of her privacy and her womanhood, I don’t know what is.  If he wants people to stop bringing up his past, then he needs to stop behaving that way in the present.

I know this post is already too long; I hope you’ve stuck with me.  I honestly don’t want to hurt anyone with my words.  As I said near the beginning, this was mostly about the things I believe I’ve done wrong and now wish to amend.  It won’t change the fact that I’m going to continue to use my words to fight injustice.  It does mean that I want to be careful not to conflate actions with unknown motives or words with people.

I’d love to know what you think; leave me a comment and tell me what’s on your mind.

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*I maintain that name-calling can be ok for institutions (which are not thinking/feeling beings) or in certain humorous contexts, such as the post I linked in my News last Friday about being a better douchebag (it wasn’t connected with a specific individual).

The tone policing needs to stop

I follow Stuff Christian Culture Likes on Facebook, and the other day, Stephanie linked to this post: Are Christian Feminists Hurting Their Cause?  If you would like to feel the rage along with me, just click that link.  Also, Sarah Moon wrote a brilliant response, which you can read here.  I normally think that when someone as cool as Sarah writes something as dead-on as that, there’s no need for me to follow up–I just link to it in my Friday “best of” post.  But when something sucks as hard as Mike Duran’s post, the more people saying so the better.

Actually, I don’t really want to rehash Mike’s words and explain how ridiculous they are.  There’s no need; they speak for themselves.  What I want to talk about is the specific thing he did that just makes me want to throw heavy, breakable things at the nearest wall: tone policing.

I’ve endured my fair share of tone policing.  It annoys me because it derails the conversation.  If you want to argue with a point I’ve made, then do so–but don’t come over here to tell me, “If you’d said it this way instead, I would have agreed with you!”  If you have time to comment on my blog about my tone or individual words I’ve used, then you have time to go write your own thing about the same topic, using any words you like.

What I’ve discovered is that it doesn’t really matter how “nice” I am or whether I use a specific configuration of words.  There will always be people who simply don’t agree or don’t like what I’ve said.  Demands to say things a certain way reduce vital conversations about people’s humanity to some kind of polite disagreement about whether or not those people deserve respect, particularly within religious communities.  For example, when women are oppressed by patriarchal systems within the Church, politely requesting that it stop merely leads to continuation of that system by way of “agreeing to disagree.”  It works with other forms of oppression, too.

I also find it frustrating when people try to bring Jesus into the tone policing.  I’m sure you know what I mean–that thing where people tell you that Christians are “nice” about things.  Guess they forgot the part where Jesus called the religious leaders a “brood of vipers” or that time he upended the money changers’ tables or that incident with the fig tree.  (Ironically, these same people seem to love literal readings of Revelation where Jesus wields a sword; go figure.)  It goes hand-in-hand with a faulty reading of “turn the other cheek” wherein being nice becomes a way to prove to your enemies that you can win the holier-than-thou fight.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being nice or polite or carefully measuring one’s words.  That’s a natural part of some people’s personalities.  It’s not good form, however, to point to those people and ask, “Why can’t you be more like her?”  If those are the people you are drawn to, then why are you here (or on any other blog written by someone who is naturally less gentle)?  I love discussing issues; I do not love discussing specific words or phrasing or tone.  Come here to challenge what I’ve said, not how I’ve said it.

Mike Duran has two choices.  He can either stop reading Christian feminists he doesn’t like and ignore us, or he can be truthful about the fact that he doesn’t agree with some of the arguments being made.  In his blog post, he did neither of those things–he tone-policed the comments on a months-old piece that nearly all of us (Christian feminists) agreed was a horrifying example of abuse apologism.  Of course, what it really seems like is that he just doesn’t agree with us, so he’s avoiding coming right out and saying it by criticizing our tone instead.  After all, he does say in his introduction,

While I think it’s pretty clear Scripturally that Men and Women were designed to complement each other and that, in that union, men were called and equipped to lovingly lead, I also believe there’s far too much evidence (both Scriptural and sociological), that women are entirely capable of leading men and teaching men, exercising equal authority, and pretty much occupying any office or role that a man could. That said, the longer I remain here and watch the debate escalate, the more I’ve found myself inching to one side.

Mike and others just need to be honest rather than using “how [we] come off” as an excuse to disagree.  Meanwhile, I’m going to go adjust my comments policy to reflect my distaste for tone policing.

Geeks for Jesus

By powerbooktrance [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Some time ago, I tweeted about my interest in the relationship between the misogyny in geek culture and the misogyny in Christian culture.  I haven’t forgotten about it, and I’m still digging through some things.  Something a friend commented on what I shared on Facebook yesterday made me sit up and take notice, because I think it’s relevant.

I linked to this piece about prejudices that continue to appear in films.  My friend commented that she wasn’t surprised, as she believes media reflects culture rather than influencing it.  Now, I don’t entirely agree–I think there’s a kind of unhealthy symbiosis there–but I do think she’s mostly right.  Playing with Barbies doesn’t make little girls want skinny waists and big boobs, but Barbie sure does reflect what little girls are taught to want.

Over time, I’ve seen how Christian culture reinforces many of these norms.  For all the talk of being “in the world but not of the world,” there’s an awful lot of blending of church and culture.  This includes running a church like a business, creating flashy shows and aiming for being “relevant,” and a capitalist mentality that urges people to give more of their money to a specific church and its programs than to their community’s needs.  It’s not surprising to see the same kind of mutually parasitic relationship between church and culture as between media and culture.

I want to continue to explore the subject of geekdom and Christianity in part because I’ve seen a slow progression in the church over the last 20+ years I’ve been involved.  When I first became a Christian, the sorts of things one finds at gatherings like Comic-Con were acceptable among adolescents, but still considered fringe.  These days, pastors even give sermons on Star Wars, video games, and the latest superhero movies and you can find Christian web sites with geek themes.

I’ve also noticed that a lot of my more conservative religious friends (which is, admittedly, a very small sample of American Christians) really love the just-this-side-of-mainstream geek culture–but only if it’s perceived as not being “evil” in some way (Luke Skywalker but not Harry Potter; Batman but not Buffy).  There’s also a failure to examine sexism, racism, and homophobia in any of these worlds.  When one holds up the lone female character–who often has to be saved by the men–as an example of “but it does contain women!” there’s something wrong.

It’s hard to tell how the lines ended up blurred.  Are churches cashing in on the cultural shift in geekdom becoming at least marginally more mainstream?  Are the reinforced gender stereotypes in much of geek culture and in church culture related by more than just the broad category of misogyny?  Or is the church just, in a warped sense, welcoming something perceived as an ally in proper gender roles?

I’m interested in your thoughts.  If you have something you’d like to say about any of this, my space is open to you.  What have your experiences been?  I’m leaving it open-ended, so there’s no time limit.  If you have something to share, let me know.  You can leave a comment or use the contact form.

Barnes & Noble, Harry Potter, and the Smurfette Principle: Part 3

Pretty sure she had something to do with the on-shelf options at B&N.

This is the last part of the series on using men/boys as the default for readership.  Read the first two parts here and here.  Today, I’m offering some solutions.  We can’t solve everything, but this might be a start.

Time for the Big Question: What if Harry Potter had been a girl? (TRUTH)

I don’t just mean would we have read the books or would she have become a cultural icon.  I’m asking what would have changed if the story had been about a girl.

As written, the whole point of the story is The Boy Who Lived.  My guess is that if the protagonist were a girl, even though the story would have remained the same, in our cultural consciousness it would have become about The Girl Who Lived.  That is to say, suddenly it would have been about her femaleness rather than her spirit or her heart or her resolve.  (I like to give J. K. Rowling credit that this would not have been her doing, but that of cultural constructs that dictate male as neutral, objective, and default.)  The books would have been marketed toward girls, with a whole line of pink merchandise.

Because boy wizards are for everyone; girl witches are for girls.

(Interestingly, StoryNory has subverted this quite nicely.  You can listen to the original stories about Katie the Witch here.)

We could actually ask this question in a whole host of different ways, because the problem of the default is not limited to simply being male.  It’s also about being white, straight, neurotypical, able-bodied, and cisgender.  The moment a main character is not all of those things, it becomes all about being whatever else they might be.  (For example, if Harry had fallen in love with Dean or Neville instead of Ginny, it would have become a Coming Out story instead of a Defeating Voldemort story.)

The whole point of speculative fiction (which covers a pretty broad range–fantasy, science fiction, distopian, urban fantasy) is to leave our world and enter another.  Too often, those stories feature either a male main character or a character for whom their not-maleness (or not-straightness or not-whiteness or not-able-bodiedness or not cis-ness or whatever) becomes a key point in the plot.  You could have a story about a kid from the 25th century who travels back in time with a laser sword and a trusty sidekick to battle pirates in the 18th century.  Make the kid a girl and suddenly it’s all about how she has to “prove” herself among men or how she’s “atypical” in her culture for wanting to battle pirates.  You can swap out the girl for pretty much anyone who isn’t a white, straight, cis dude and the same thing happens.

That is not to say that there shouldn’t be anything different between the laser sword-wielding boy and the laser sword-wielding girl.  I’m not advocating for some unknown ideal of gender-neutrality.  I’m just explaining that when it comes to what’s on the book shelves, anyone who isn’t in the Approved Default Category gets a specially roped off section devoted to People Like That–which means that the story is often about dealing with both pirates and being a girl (or whatever) instead of just being about Saving the World From Pirates.

So what the heck do we do with that?  Let me give some completely unsolicited advice.

For writers:

  1. Be conscious of what you’re doing.  If you write a character that is Not You, please don’t make it all about how that person is Not You.  It might help to actually talk to (or better yet be friends with) people who are Not You so that you know what people might appreciate.  For example, I am done with princesses who rebel against expectations in order to go battle dragons.
  2. Discussing cultural norms works fine in historical/realistic fiction (when done well, mind you), but it doesn’t work well in fantasy.  Part of the appeal of speculative fiction is that these issues can be addressed sideways (as in Harry Potter with pureblood supremacy).  A girl dealing with sexism in her school election when she’s supposed to be dealing with sexism is great; a girl dealing with sexism on an alien planet when she’s supposed to be Saving the World is not.
  3. Be mindful of tropes.  Not all of them are bad, but racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, and transphobic tropes are NOT EVER OKAY.
  4. Don’t make assumptions about what people will or won’t read.  Boys do, in fact, want to read about girls.  Not just adventuresome girls, either; boys do not naturally come with a setting that says, “Girls are boring.”  You can have an entire book that has mostly girls in it and guess what?  Boys will still read it!  Amazing, that.
  5. Stop limiting girls in “realistic” fiction to domesticity and relational drama.  Sometimes, girls have to deal with the death of a parent or a move to a new city or nerves about being the trombone soloist in the band concert–oddly, much like boys do.
  6. Same thing goes for any other characters that are not white, straight, cis boys.  It’s true that there are experiences unique to people who haven’t been considered the default, so those issues may come up in realistic fiction as things characters have to deal with.  But this can be done in a way that every kid can understand.  A good example of this is James Howe’s The Misfits and its companion books.  The kids in the books are dealing with things specific to them, but it’s done in the context of bullying–which makes it relatable regardless of the particulars.
  7. Most importantly, tell the story you have to tell.  Don’t stress about making your story an issues story, just make it a good story.

For readers (especially parents giving books to their kids):

  1. Don’t limit yourself.  If you can’t find the book at Barnes & Noble in-store, then look online.  Ask friends to recommend books.  Check with a librarian at your local branch.  There’s more than what’s on those store shelves.
  2. Make sure you give both boys and girls a wide variety from which to choose.  Read the back cover and the first chapter before handing something to your child–don’t just look at the cover and make assumptions.
  3. If you have a boy, don’t pass up books about girls because you think he won’t be interested.  The American Girl stories are really good (stupid, expensive product line aside).  The stories are not about “girlhood”; they are about friendship and family and kids experiencing changes in their lives, all within a historical context.
  4. A great way to find books for your child is to check out lexile.com.  If you know your child’s actual lexile, you can find books based on that.  If not, take a look at the last thing your child read.  Type the title into the search engine and you’ll come up with a lexile number for it.  If your child says that book is what my own son calls a “just right” read, you can enter the lexile number into the search to find similarly leveled books.  You can search by genre as well, including non-fiction.
  5. When you read, set the example by reading a broad range of books.  Interestingly, in the “new fiction” section of B&N, I found a completely different story from the kids’ section.  There were books by and about both men and women in approximately equal numbers.  The stories were varied–memoir, action, drama, romance, horror, mystery.  Take a chance on a new author!

Finally, I want to briefly touch on how this relates in particular to people of faith.  As a Christian, I take it seriously when the Bible says that in Christ there is no male or female.  For me that means that I need to work toward ending the injustice toward women, including the view that men are the default.  It’s important to me that my kids grow up knowing that real freedom, spiritually speaking, means being true to themselves and having the expectation that others will do likewise.  My daughter should not grow up believing the only thing God made special about her is that she’s a girl; my son should not grow up thinking that God put the burden of being the measuring stick upon him because he’s a boy.

Thanks for coming along for the ride this week, everyone.  Happy reading and writing–now go, change the world!