In her sharply intelligent and entertaining book, Female Chauvanist Pigs, columnist Ariel Levy examines what she calls ''raunch culture,'' which can loosely be defined as the increasing amount of flagrant displays and celebrations of female sexuality and objectification. Since I don't have the book here in Peru, I quote from the front flap of the book:
Levy captures what is a new form of sexism, one that is equally supported by men and women. It is a sexism that celebrates the objectification of women as ''liberation.'' To FCPs and their male counterparts, conforming to the sexual standards of porn stars and participating in classic misogyny is a way of asserting power and ignoring sexual subordination. But Levy argues strongly and convincingly that ''what has come to pass for liberating rebellion is actually a kind of limiting conformity.''
Meet the Female Chauvanist Pig -- the new brand of ''empowered'' woman who wears the playboy bunny as a talisman, bares all for Girls Gone Wild, pursues casual sex as if it were a sport, and embraces ''raunch culture'' wherever she finds it. If male chauvanist pigs of years past thought of women as peaces of meat, Female Chauvanist Pigs of today are doing them one better, making sex objects of other women -- and of themselves.
One of Levy's most salient points is that Female Chauvanist Pigs pride themselves on the fact that they ''get it.'' They can make sexist jokes and objectify other women and themselves with the same form of enjoyment. Exhibiting this role, Female Chauvanist Pigs enjoy special treatment from men, are more closely included, and are exempt from the condemnation of ''most women.'' What Levy illustrates here is an example of the fact that sometimes, people from oppressed groups can participate in their own group's oppression in order to gain access to status and power. Female Chauvanist Pigs are one thing; a similar character is the type of woman who is highly successful in the business world, exhibiting the same sort of aggressive, individidualist, cold-hearted and ultimately ''manly'' qualities of their counterparts in order to preserve their seat at the table of power.
In her NPR article entitled ''The New Republic: The Post-Gender Justice,'' author Naomi Schoenbaum features Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan for her silence on issues of gender and sexism. In contrast to Sonia Sotomayor, Schoenbaum contends, ''Elena Kagan might very well be the first female nominee to the supreme court who does not define her gender as salient to her public life.'' The article goes on to discuss Kagan's various successes, noting her complete lack of indication that she gives two shits about sexism. ''Of course, none of this is dispositive,'' Schoenbaum continues.
But Kagan's virtual silence on how gender issues have affected her career -- and her relative silence compared to her fellow nominees to the court -- is, at the least, very striking. Like President Obama, the man who nominated her, she has portrayed herself as a figure beyond identity politics.And there it is. Elena Kagan is ''beyond'' identity politics, because these days, it's possible to believe one can in fact be ''beyond'' identity politics. In fact, we're led to believe that this is desireable. Who wants to keep hearing about discrimination, anyway? Don't people know by now that if you just work hard, you can get ahead? This flagrant blow to the fields of feminist theories, racial studies, and other studies of oppression, is an attitude that's all too common. It is usually held by those who are in privileged positions, because the privileged are most able to overlook or intentionally ignore institutional oppression. And as Levy shows, it's also held by people like Female Chauvanist Pigs, because in order to ''hang with the guys,'' for example, they have to do things like make fun of how ''women nag too much.'' The sad reality of our very NON post-gender, or post-racism, or post-identity politics world, is that members of oppressed groups generally have to keep their mouthes shut when it comes to issues of oppression. It's particularly saddening, however, when this same tendency is displayed by members of oppressed groups, even after they achieve the privilege of being able to speak up. There are countless examples of this, the most relevant of which would be Kagan's good friend, another lawyer out of Harvard, the President of the United States, ''the man who nominated her,'' Barack Obama.
When the Tea Party was facing allegations of racism, Fox News made the timely move of unearthing a 24 year old video of former NAACP representative Shirley Sherrod's speech. Pulling a few remarks of her speech out of context, Fox News was able to create the now completely-nullified narrative that Shirley Sherrod herself was a racist, and when white people get the opportunity to call black people racist, they have a field day. I won't get into the horrendous problems that fueled this whole media-frenzy and why it's so appalling-yet-typical. That's been covered well by others. What I want to focus on is Obama's response. From ABC News:
[In firing Sherrod, Secretary Tom Vilsack] jumped the gun, partly because we now live in this media culture where somebody goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles. [....] If there's a lesson to be drawn from this episode, it's to avoid jumping to conclusions and pointing fingers at each other.You tell 'em, Obama. Those darn kids these days, with their YouTubez, and their blog 'o' spherez, and their Poke 'e' Monz, are just saying all kinds of things all kinds of quickly!! Way to get right down to what matters!
You'll have to excuse the sarcasm. I'm just starting to get infuriated with the fact that after Acorn, and after the ''beer summit,'' and after Sherrod's life got turned upside down to be the object of white-Americas self-indulgence, Obama has yet to say anything substantial about race. Yes, the mainstream media often jumps the gun and turns something petty into a controversy. But there's another, much more consequential reason that this 24 year old clip was so interesting to so many people. And that reason is the fact that since so many white people like to believe that they're ''beyond racism,'' because racism ''only exists in individuals who are lagging behind the pack,'' it's incredibly important to emphasize any instance of a nonwhite person saying something racist. Pointing out when nonwhites say racist things is probably the most effective tool in derailing conversations about white racism -- as proven by the fact that no one's talking about the Tea Party's racism or white privilege anymore.
I understand that some people would argue that Obama's raising his voice on the issue of race would not be a smart political decision. This argument is supported in a few different ways. One is that ''there are more important issues to focus on right now.'' Another is that ''everyone would just jump to the 'angry black man' stereotype, and it would become another media frenzy.'' Another is that ''after that, he wouldn't be able to get anything passed.'' I don't buy any of these arguments, no matter how well-intentioned they are. I'd like to draw a historical comparison here to make my point.
When the United States was at war in Vietnam, failing miserably and killing thousands of Vietnamese children, Martin Luther King Jr., a Nobel Peace Prize holder like Obama, decided to speak up. Long after the bus boycotts, after the sit-ins, after Albany, after Birmingham, after ''I have a Dream,'' MLK still had a strong following and was working on visiting Watts, L.A., in response to race riots, and working on ''The Poor People's Campaign,'' organizing against nation-wide poverty. The Vietnam War was a controversial issue, and relatively inconsequential to his main political goals, but MLK decided to speak up.
The time had come -- indeed, it was past due -- when I had to disavow and dissociate myself from those who in the name of peace burn, maim, and kill....I watched [this war] broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as advertures like Vietnam continued to draw menKing struggled, at first, on whether or not he should bring Vietnam into his public politics. As a powerful public figure with a strong following, one that was united but easily divisible and still held many goals on its agenda, it was a risky move. MLK struggled with the fact that by voicing his concerns on this issue, he would be putting his movement, his popularity, and he and his movement's political effectiveness at risk. But as you can plainly see, when King spoke out, he didn't pull any punches. Sure enough, he was not let off the hook easily. He was criticized in almost every newspaper in the country, and they were joined by blacks and whites alike from within and outside of his organizations and movement. King described the response as resulting in a ''low point in his life.''
and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and attack it as such....A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spritual death....There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precendence over the pursuit of war.
As expected, King's opposition to the Vietnam War was a bad ''political'' decision, as there were ''other more important things to talk about'' and ''he might not have been able to get anything done.'' But he did it anyway. As far as he could tell, the issue was in dire need of attention. And he was risking something which practically defined his career and his identity. After bombings of his house, waves of serious death threats at a time when the murder of blacks was at a high point, and recommendations from his own family and friends not to attend certain events, he would risk and eventually give his life to go. This was a movement that enjoyed far more commitment from MLK than Obama has given any issue, and it was a movement in which he might have lost his place for the sake of supporting a just cause. Staying silent on the Vietnam War would have been incompatible with his beliefs. I believe that one of the main reasons that Martin Luther King, Jr. is so widely celebrated is that he was willing to take personal risks and make enormous sacrifices time and time again in the name of fighting oppression. Whether it was popular or politic, few doubt that MLK made every decision he could in the service of justice and peace.
President Obama is obviously in a far different position. But nonetheless, when it comes to the issue of race, he faces a similar predicament. So far, he has remained silent on the issue of racism, just as Kagan remains silent on issues of sexism. The two of them demonstrate well that sometimes, people in power sacrifice very important issues for the sake of politics, because no one in power wants to hear about them, and their popularity might plummet if they do. Obama did mention Rosa Parks and other civil rights activists during his campaign to jerk a tear or two during his speeches. He effectively convinced a lot of people that he was a ''different kind of Presidential Candidate,'' one that fostered ''Hope'' and ''Change.'' What kind of President is he now? If we continue to be afraid of bringing up controversial issues, we will never overcome oppression. If we continue to be afraid of the next ''media frenzy,'' we will never introduce substance into our media's dialogue -- white racism will continue to be far too taboo to get any meaningful attention. And above all, if we continue to be afraid of what might not be ''politic,'' then once we become powerful politicians, we will betray the kinds of things we said in our campaigns and turn our backs on so many of the issues and people which supported us.
Maybe if Obama never says anything about white racism, or about institutional and societal racism in general, he will get reelected, and he will enjoy 8 full years as the first African American President of the United States. But I'd rather see him get thrown out of office for sincerely trying to make a difference than to keep his mouth shut for 6 more years. Avoiding the topic of racism like the plague might make Obama a strategic politician. But it will also make him a coward.