Sunday, April 06, 2014

Reflection: My year of reading women, 1/4 of the way through

Last year Canadian academic--in scare quotes, because honestly how can anyone take seriously any academic who writes off an entire class of people on the basis of gender or national origin--announced publically that he did not assign books by women or Chinese writers. Anna Szymanski, perhaps in a counterpoint, wrote about her year of reading women.

Independently of #readwomen2014, which I only discovered researching this blog post, I decided that for 2014 I would read books only by women authors. The only exception to this is books required for professional reasons, that is work or study, though even the first book I'll read for study is by a woman. I also signed up for a Goodreads challenge to read 40 books.

It is the beginning of April, and I am a quarter of the way through the year. I've read 13 books, so I am on track to get the 40 I need. But what has it been like, reading women? What have I read?

I typically read a lot of books, a broad mixture of male and female authors, fiction, non-fiction, novels, literature, science fiction, crime, historical fiction, popular science, biography, popular economics, social theory...and reading women hasn't changed that. I have not felt in any way deprived, or even really noticed the absence of male authors.I'd like to read the last science fiction book in a long series that is authored by a man (and came out late last year), but apart from that I am missing nothing.

What I have read is:

  • Two memoirs, neither of which was especially good. One was two saccharine, and the other was too clinical
  • Wuthering Heights. Second go-round, the last time was in highschool. Interesting to read as an adult, though I don't think I'll re-read it a third time.
  • A crime fiction series by Kathryn Fox, an Australian author, with a female protagonist. These books cover a broad range of social topics, including rape in sport, the ethics of cruise holidays, and nature vs. nurture. Not all of them are great books, but they are all cracking reads.
  • A couple of Jodi Picoult books, one of which was formulaic and the other of which was actually not bad, about motherhood.
  • Little Men by Louisa May Alcott. It's interesting to note the attitudes about raising boys and girls, and the nature of men and women, that are so anathema to me in modern works.
  • A couple of pieces of literary fiction, including one by Amy Tan that fails both of David Gilmour's criteria, and which was actually a good read.
The only thing I would normally have read by now that appears on the list above is popular science, as it is I am reading a book about bad language that will be the first book in that category. So, are there any differences at all? Probably the most noticeable is the number of female protagonists, also noted by Szymanski. Honestly, it's nice to see bits of myself reflected in literature, especially given that I haven't sacrificed anything to do it (still plenty of male protagonists in women's writing). I am even, at the time of writing, reading an excellent Swedish crime novel by an author whose surname is Larsson.

Despite my comfort and satisfaction with women's writing, unlike David Gilmour I don't believe that reading the writing of only a proportion of the human race is a good thing. I am enjoying reading women this year, but this is only a year's hiatus from the male point of view. I challenge David Gilmour, and anyone who shares his bigotry to examine some other perspectives. Goodness knows most of the world's population has to live with other perspectives, because dead white guys are required reading. If you are a live white guy, take a leap! You might find something interesting out here.

For anyone who is looking for ideas, you can follow along on my year of reading women on Goodreads.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Seven things

Yes, it has been a ridiculously long hiatus, but it's high time I got back to this. So. I figure easing myself into it is the right thing to do, and thus, seven things:

Seven things that scare me
1. The fact that 6% (or more--PDF) of men will admit to rape, if you don't call it rape
2. Peak oil, in an oil dependent society
4. The fact that my alternative is New Zealand, where the economy is pretty much rooted, and the Prime Minister isn't listening to evidence of what might fix it
5. The enormity of the misery caused by unbridled capitalism in the world
6. The changes in the weather
7. Cockroaches

Seven things I like
1. People committed to social justice and equality (not linking, because I would surely miss someone important)
2. Intelligent, serious, thoughtful conversation
3. Cats
4. Music
5. Exercise
6. Autumn
7. Books

Seven random facts about me
1. I'm a vego partnered with an omni
2. Osaan jonkun verran Suomea
3. I sat next to Tim Finn on a plane, once
4. I loathe and despise carrots
5. I was introduced to feminism and 'Phantom of the Opera' by the same person when I was 9
6. I've made 6 baby quilts
7. I like androgyny

Seven things I want to do before I die
1. See a new world order that places the needs of people above the needs of corporations
2. See the human race make significant steps toward addressing climate change
3. Find and do volunteer work that suits me
4. Trek Macchu Picchu
5. Meet Placebo
6. Learn to crochet
7. Learn to tailor my own clothes

Seven things I'm good at
1. Constructing a written argument
2. Cooking
3. Learning languages
4. Public speaking (though it to this day makes me nervous)
5. Designing and making beaded jewellery
6. Analysing data to create theory
7. Being staff to cats

Seven things I can't do but wish I could
1. Save the world
2. Play the guitar
3. Pee standing up
4. Run an 8 minute mile
5. Attend the weddings of my same-sex-partnered friends
6. Visit the US without having naked naked pictures of me taken at the border
7. Ensure no animal had to live in a shelter

Seven phrases I've been known to use
1. What in the everloving fuck?
2. I am not a librarian.
3. I blame the patriarchy
4. Wow, the implications of that are really interesting
5. From a user experience standpoint, I think we need to...
6. You're a rotten kitty!
7. Herra jestäs!

And now, it's about 7 minutes to bedtime.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Reflections: On bisexuality, and passsing

I am a mostly-out bisexual woman in a married relationship. If sexuality is a continuum, I probably fall more towards women than men (hear that? That was another closet door shattering), but my opportunities to meet women have been somewhat limited by my male-dominated profession and hobbies in my teens and 20s (during which time I met The Partner). Ironically enough, I am now in a women-dominated workplace (I'll post about what a breath of fresh air that is some other time) and have "feminine" hobbies, so had I not already been partnered, who knows what might have happened. I don't actually care--I am very happily monogamous with The Partner, as he is with me (and yes, he knows all of the above, and he doesn't care either). In the end, sexuality is for me about loving an individual, and the bits that individual happens to come with are largely irrelevant.

In a lot of ways, my marriage protects me from the dangers and oppressions that come with my orientation (for which my personal preferred term is "gender-bender"). For a start, I am in a state-sanctioned union, with all the rights and protections that pertain to that. I never have to answer that awkward question about a boyfriend with some variation on "uh, girlfriend, actually". I wear a ring that marks me as part of one of these societally approved partnerships which bizarrely enough means I get to behave (at least in terms of the longing eyes, or comments on attractiveness I need to stop indulging in) much more according to my preferences, because heteronormativity often blinds people to what is actually happening right in front of them. In many ways, I benefit from the appearance of straightness, even though I am not straight. I pass, and it not only makes many things easier, it actually keeps me safer.

Nonetheless, though, I am not straight. I have had the uncomfortable experience of being "outed" under circumstances not of my choosing. Every piece of anti-gay legislation that gets passed could one day apply to me. I have to self-censor when talking about my attractions in public, particularly when I am not with The Partner. I am certainly not claiming to be as affected by any of these things as my gay friends and loved ones, but they nonetheless affect me.

And then there is the third, weird set of...issues, for want of a better word that I deal with because I am bisexual and hetero-partnered (and each of these things has been raised with me several times, so they seem to be common misconceptions):
  • The assumption that my bisexuality is not actually real for lack of a visible history, or that it was something I have "grown out of"
  • The heteronormative assumption that I am straight, and therefore will not be offended by gay jokes or slurs (now, I would be offended by these even if I was straight, but that is a whole 'nother issue)
  • Being questioned as to whether my bisexuality is meaningful now that I am married, since I won't act on it
  • Or having it assumed that I will be unfaithful, just because I am bisexual.
Here's the thing: Bisexuality is real, and we bisexuals are just as in control of our sexuality as everyone else. Being bisexual is neither a stepping stone on the way to gayness for all who claim it, not a childish dalliance. Monogamous partnering is a reduction of choice under all circumstances: confining your sexuality to a single person doesn't change the gender or type of person you are attracted to, and being attracted to a wider range of people doesn't mean confining yourself to one person is impossible.

The purpose of this post is certainly not to get into any form of "oppression olympics", nor is it to call out (often loved and respected) the people in my life who have asked me these questions--I understand that my position is unusual. Really, this post is just a descirption of my own postiont, and an explanation about me for anyone looking for it (I don't claim to speak for anyone else). My bisexuality is an integral part of my identity. I benefit dramatically from being lucky enough to be partnered with a man, for sure--but the fact that I pass doesn't change who I am--and nor would I want it to.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Rant: 'Milk' and the closet doors

Last night I went to see the movie 'Milk', about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to major office in the US, and a significant force in the activism for gay rights. I'm depressed. Don't get me wrong, the movie was awesome, and if the Oscars had anything to do with real merit, Penn should win an Oscar for his performance.

The reason why I am depressed is this: Harvey Milk hoped, in a recording he made in anticipation of his assassination that 'if a bullet should enter [his] brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door...' Well, sure enough, Harvey got shot to death (and the guy who did it got away with it, essentially), but the closet door remains firmly closed.

I live on the other side of the world. I know who Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker and Betty Friedan and Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers and Angela Davis are, though some of the oppressions they fought are not oppressions I face. For fuck's sake, I even know who Camille Paglia is, though I could live without her. And to be fair, I knew roughly who Harvey Milk was, though I knew very little about him--even though the oppression he fought is one I face, to a lesser degree than many of my comrades, to be sure--I pass, making me one of the lucky ones--but I face it nonetheless. Let me be clear, I am not trying to diminish the achievements of any of the civil rights activists I listed, nor I claiming any one of them was a paragon of virtue, but...

Why isn't Harvey Milk's name up there in the pantheon of American civil rights heroes? Because that closet door is made of kevlar. Because sexuality isn't visible, and because there seems to be an insidious sense that it is a choice, and because it is about sex, GLBTQI civil rights just aren't an issue that many people are interested in.

Except they are interested. Just not in a good way. It is still bizarrely acceptable to poke fun at gay people in movies. Obama is seen by so many as ushering a new era of human rights, and being fabulous for gay people, but as Ann at Feministing points out "not-Bush" is a pretty low threshold. He didn't come out openly against any of the anti-gay-marriage bills in the US, and all 11 of them passed, including one in California, Milk's adopted home state, and the place where he did such amazing work (and this is similar the world over--there are few places that recognise full marriage equality). I'm aware of the arguments against state-sanctioned marriage--this post isn't about those--but while the state does sanction marriage, to deny it to people because they happen to be the same gender is unacceptable. Saying "that's so gay", and calling someone a faggot are not seen as the slightest bit transgressive. People still ask each other about partners in gendered terms, and it is still up to those in non-heterosexual relationships to explain themselves. For those of us who are in a heterosexual relationship, our orientation is considered confirmed. Gay people are still beaten for who they love (though probably not nearly as statistically frequently as trans people).

30 years after Milk's death, not much has changed. Gay people are still told consistently in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they are not acceptable. I still cannot imagine an openly gay leader in New Zealand (which is fairly diverse in its political representation--we've had female leaders, openly gay and lesbian MPs, a trans MP, MPs of many ethnicities...), much less the US. The closet door is still firmly closed. And the biggest shame of all? Until the movie, the world didn't even know Milk's name.

Update 28 Jan 09: Iceland has just gotten a female, openly gay prime minister (thanks, Shakesville, for bringing me the news). Yes, she has been appointed, not elected, but--was that the sound of one more closet door shattering?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rant: Vegan activism as able-bodied privilege

I'm a vegetarian (as of September this year), because after reading one of Peter Singer's books, I couldn't deal with meat anymore (not even fish). While I am ethically okay with my choice, it is a pain in the ass socially; I do not want to impose my choices on others, and I hate being that person, the one who no-one wants to have over or go out for dinner with because they are annoying about food. I also worry that for some, my choice will imply judgment on their choices, and I don't want that; everyone needs to do what they need to do to stay happy and healthy, and (particularly that latter bit) for people with many medical conditions that implies a diet which includes meat as a source of protein.

Which brings me to vegan activism: It is a form of able-bodied privilege. If you read (for example) this page, it states that 'a properly planned vegan diet is healthier than the average American diet' and that 'it is very difficult [for a sensible vegan] not to get enough protein'. Ironically enough, that page also recommends B12 supplementation, and while B12 can now be artificially synthesized, I would lay money that the synthesized form was tested on animals).

Back to the claims on, though, which as vegan activist sites go is fairly mild: both the claims listed there (and a number of others I have chosen not to address) rely on the assumption of an able body to hold true. We don't normally think of able bodies in terms outside of motor functions, neurology, and the senses working adequately, but none of those systems is the one most affected by veganism. If you have (as I do) a digestive tract that does not work correctly, not only will a vegan diet not nourish you adequately, it may actually kill you. Patients with bowel diseases need more protein than the average bear, particularly when they are ill. This on its own would be no problem, but when you combine it with the type of protein readily available in the vegan diet, it becomes a problem. Those with active bowel disease often need to be on a low-residue diet, that is a diet that won't leave too much stuff in their poo to irritate them, or block up narrowed areas in their intestines. Fibre (as is foind in legumes) and nuts and seeds are all potentially harmful (and in very rare cases, fatal) for many bowel disease patients with active disease. This leaves only highly processed soy protein as a protein option to fulfil those extra protein needs which (in addition to being a very dull diet for patients with high protein needs and risking taste fatigue and thus further weight loss) may be a cancer risk (it is also an allergen, which would leave some people completely unable to use it).

Now, as I have said, I do not judge others for their choices about their diet. Like Jill, I believe that it is best to eat things that are humanely farmed, and I personally will only eat free range eggs, but I also recognise that veganism (and to a certain extent vegetarianism) rely on economic privilege as well. I also recognise that for some, their health is a barrier to a meat-free diet; this is likely to be true for me in my lifetime. Having said all that, I respect the choices and commitments that vegans make, but vegan proselytizing, particularly the kind where everyone should go vegan and consequences be damned, is a form of able privilege, and I am here to call it out.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Rave: 'Ana's song' as a representation of pain

As I said in my post yesterday, 'Ana's Song' by Silverchair has been in high rotation for me lately, partly because I have noticed (and been saddened by) the food issues in society around me, but probably partly also because I'm in that kind of mood. Whatever the reason though, it is an incredibly clever song.

It's well known, I guess, that the song was written by Daniel Johns in the throes of his own struggle with anorexia and other mental illnesses so the pain is very real. The song is about anorexia nervosa, though, and while I was never anorexic, it certainly resonates with some of the less-sane coping strategies I have witnessed, and used myself.

There is an incredibly clever pairing between the quiet, high, stripped down first verse and the description of the destruction of anorexia that it offers: Even as Johns asks it to 'please die', and talks about it's sharpened nails, he sounds like he is singing about love and lust. The rhythm section of the song kicks in with the chorus, and adds the tension to the music between the open fire that burns, and needing that same fire. The verse is once again soft, talking about the seductions of a coping strategy that fails and hurts every single time, until describing the damage done, where the tension again becomes evident. The third verse is positively ragged, and while it is the most "sane" of the verses in terms social perception, it is the place in the song where the music is roughest, one could almost say angriest. The song closes with two repeats of the chorus with slightly less tension, but tense nonetheless.

The pairing of the "least sane" lyrics with the most seductive parts of the song, and the "most sane" with the angriest, most ragged, least stable parts of the's clever. It reflects obsession from the inside so cleverly that the listener becomes sympathetic with insanity without even noticing.

I am truly in awe of what was done here, and I think the world is a more beautiful (if sadder) place for the existence of this song.

Rant: 'Please die ana' and other food obsessions

This is going to be a bit of a rant, so if that offends you I suggest you look away now. The topic of today's rant is food, and in particular the way we have managed to generate obsession in a time of plenty.

In the past week I have watched someone suffering so deeply from an eating disorder I can count every bone in her body put out eating disorder awareness fliers out before she went to work out. I've read a posting on an online community from someone who, trying to instill healthy eating habits in her children said there was no dessert, and then ate candy from her desk; this post led to others (all women) saying they can't open Halloween candy because they eat it all. I've seen one of the fittest people I know actively wage war on half a slice of cake. I've read the story of someone trying to balance blood sugar and digestive disorder, saying that the "healthy" pasta was not worth it for her. I've had someone tell me that they need to join weight watchers because of their risk for heart disease (and their hatred of exercise), but they are worried about it because they have no food or body issues. I've seen a man on TV claim that the meal he cooked at 50 (his first) was the high point of his life, and that until that point food had been merely fuel. Is it any wonder 'Ana's Song' is in high rotation for me right now?

The nexus of all this, of course, is food and the ways in which people do not enjoy it, and all of them in one way or another resonate with me. My relationship with food is only now starting to normalise after a time where I could eat nothing due to illness, and then a time where I would eat a table if it wasn't nailed down because I was on prednisone, and frankly that is enough to headfuck anyone. Part of coming back to food, for me, has been coming back to enjoying it without fear, and part of that process has been noticing how completely and utterly fucked up most people's relationship with it (and I am not letting myself off the hook here) is.

In a time of plentiful food, as many of us in the west are privileged enough to enjoy, instead of enjoying it, food has become an instrument of torture for so many of us. Fat hatred has talked huge numbers of women into imposing artificial famine upon themselves, and when we do break that famine we gorge, because we're not being "good" so why the fuck not? The wester beauty ideal has a lot to answer for, let me tell you. When it isn't famine, it is eating the "right" things as defined by some metric of health; there is even a named eating disorder for taking this to extreme: orthorexia. The specter of "long term health" is being used as a stick to beat food choices with now, for many, and as in the case of my friend above some people can't win for losing. And even for those who are fuelling their bodies, for some it has become utilitarian and there is no joy in it. And lack of joy does not even begin to describe the hell and the demons battled by those with EDs; hell and demons that make me unspeakably sad.

What the fuck have we done as a society? How is it that we have managed to take the joy out of food for so many people, when there is plenty of food to go around? How many people are not performing at their best right now, because they are underfuelled, or obsessing about what they want to eat? How many people are eating chocolate and feeling nothing but guilt?

Do me a favour today: Enjoy something you eat, and don't feel guilty about it.

Postscript: Without meaning to, and truly ironically, I posted this just after the end of 'Love your Body Day' where I live. Life is so weird sometimes.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Revelation: Why I like (primarily) male vocal music

I have long been deeply disturbed by my own personal preference for music performed by male vocalists; I feel like it is something I should hand in my feminist card over--it seems contradictory to believe women should get equal opportunities in the music industry but not really be that into their music myself. And the thing is, it's not that I like what most people would cosnider "nice" male voices; I'm a huge fan of Placebo (no, really, I hear you say); I've done my time with the Smashing Pumpkins, and I was briefly fascinated by Lukas Rossi--none of these men have traditional voices. I've always been obsessed with the lyrics of songs, and I know far more lyrics than it is reasonable for one human being to know, so the words that are being sung are often (though not always) more relevant to my choice of music than the voice that is singing them.

So, recently I was working on a playlist for a mix CD for a friend of mine who likes female vocalists, and to my surprise, I discovered that actually, I like quite a number of female vocalists--Dilana, Brooke Fraser, both the Runga sisters, Alanis, Marie Fredriksson, Beth Ditto and Hanna Pakarinen--to name a few she might not have heard, or who she might not have heard recently (which doesn't even begin to touch on my flirtations with better-knowns like Annie Lennox, Stevie Nicks and P!nk who I know she listens to). I was trying to figure out what the common theme was, and initially I thought it was rage, but that should imply that I would like (for example) Lily Allen, who I cannot abide. Thinking about it more, I realised it was actually just having something interesting to say, and saying it to an appealing melody in a way that meant I could connect with it emotionally. This allows for the spectrum Placebo have presented me with, for Hanna's rage and Bic's homesickness, even for Brooke's devotion that I do not share.

So where, I hear you asking, do I get my feminist card back? The answer is pretty simple: Exposure. The majority of my music exposure is through popular channels, for example the gym, commercial radio, television, and my itunes recommendations. At a guess, exposure is usually going to come via a record company, adn besides suing 12 year olds and screwing artists out of the majority of their royalties, record companies exist to make money. In a culture where women are objectified, dismembered and made two dimensional at every opportunity, it's a big risk for a record company to take on a woman who has strong feelings about anything, because you know, thinking and feeling women who sing about it are more than just tits, ass and male sexual fantasy. Even when such a woman does make it through the record company gauntlet, too often the lyrics are about how men have altered their lives for the worse, and how they are still cut up about it (this is probably how Alanis made it out, but all the subsequent albums were much more interesting). Men, on the other hand, can sing about whatever they want and get away with it; record companies will still sign them if they are angry or even write music that doesn't have women at its centre.

While this discovery has made me realise my discovery channels are failing, and has reinforced to me that the record companies are failing to provide what I want in so many ways, I no longer feel like I should hand in my feminist card over my musical taste...I just need to keep looking in less mainstream channels for women to love.

Update 8 Jul 2008: For a more theoretical and coherent discussion, read this at Smart Like Me.