The Princess Problem

Sept. 15, 2016

As a dad and a feminist, I don’t really know what to make of this princess thing. It’s a huge industry. (It would be ironic if it was just a “cottage” industry.) I didn’t notice it until I became a parent, but there a princesses freaking everywhere!  Want to take you daughter on a “Disney Princess Cruise?” Your son probably will skip that one for a roll in the mud. But there is a pushback against the “princess narrative,” so I’m trying to figure out how to fit my daughter into it and still keep a smile on her face.

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I know that I never played “prince” as a little boy and all the storybook princesses I knew just waited around to be rescued by Prince Charming. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your damn hair!” One might guess the Brothers Grimm didn’t know many bad-ass chicas who could escape the castle on their own. Or maybe stories of heroines just didn’t sell in the early 1800s. The Nazis really loved those Grimm fairy tales, so that should tell you something.

The Brothers Grimm published Cinderella in 1812 so you’d think 204 years later this princess thing would be played out, right? Au contraire mon frère, it’s bigger than ever. Just take a trip to the “pink” isle at any toy store or the Help Wanted ads at Disneyland. “Help wanted: An anorexic girl to dress as Sleeping Beauty and smile for 8 hours a day in the Anaheim sun. Previous princess threw herself under a pumpkin.”

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This gets a mention because suddenly one of my daughter’s precious vocabulary words is “princess.” I was hoping “theoretician” would come first, or even “OBG/GYN.” But there it is. “Princess!” with a squeal of delight. She has a CD from the Disney TV show Sofia the First and the good thing is that she learned how to work the CD player in her room so she could play it. (It’s playing as I write this and Cozy is dancing in her Minnie Mouse dress.) The bad news is these are the lyrics:

There are many things princesses do

Like hosting balls and dancing too

Or Wearing gowns of pink and blue

That’s what we like to do

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There are many things that princes like

Jousting polo and taking hikes

Suits of armour with lots of spikes

That’s what we really like

We do princess things

And we do princely things

And no-one crosses in between

We stick with our routine

Not very gender queer. To be fair, Sofia believes that anything can be a “princess thing,” but it’s an uphill battle, not a given that she’s already liberated from her princess routine.

The princess tales seem to fall into two categories, one is the girl born into royalty but the more common version is the peasant girl who is “lucky” enough to be launched into royalty. What’s better than being rich? And they are all hyper-heteronormative. How many little girls grew up singing, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” from Snow White, thinking the story ends when he (or a reasonable facsimile of Prince Charming) shows up. The fairy tale leaves out the part that after the “happily ever after” part when he’s banging the milkmaid and won’t even think about letting his “queen” take night classes at the kingdom’s community college.

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Little girls seem to think the life of a princess is all peach pudding and party dresses. Bud Light pitch girl Amy Schumer has a brilliant skit about the reality of the medieval princess forced into arranged marriages with cousins so she can get busy birthing male heirs to the throne. Every girl should see it before asking for a princess party for her next birthday.

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Earlier this week, Andrea and I were at the Disney Studios in Burbank visiting a good friend and pretending that Hollywood was ready for us. We stopped by the employee store to pick up some Minnie Mouse swag for Cozy. (It’s just too cute when she says, “Minnie Moush.”) When I saw all the princess dresses from all the Disney films I could just imagine our daughter exploding in screams. I resisted the urge to buy her a Belle dress and bought her an Incredible Hulk t-shirt instead. (Disney owns Marvel now.) But I know what she would really want.

Let me say Disney princesses have come a long way since Snow White. There are princesses of every shade these days, including Elena, the Latina princess. And Merida, from Brave, isn’t exactly a damsel in distress and didn’t even have a romance with a brutish boy. But if you survey the list of Disney princesses, they pretty much are all teenage girls who are awarded with a dominant male at the end of the tale. They are less passive than Sleeping Beauty but their goal is still to end up like a Mrs. Trump.  I’m going to encourage Cozy to avoid all that. The princesses tale is exactly what not to wish for.

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We’re not raising a demure princess in this house, looking for her Beast. She’s not a kitten who needs to be rescued from a tree. (As Ani DiFranco once sang, “Don’t you think every kitten figures out how to get down, whether or not you ever show up?”) If she wants to live in a palace, she can invent an app or something. But she can pretend to be whoever she wants to be. Who are we going to be today, Cozy? Ariel or Harriet Tubman? Oh, Princess Leia? We’re good.

 

Here’s Why Saying “All Lives Matter” Makes You Sound Racist

July 12, 2016

Let me get this out of the way first – Rudolph Giuliani is a first class idiot.

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If you are white, I’m going to ask you to turn off your defense mechanisms and think about the value of empathy. Please, just try.

This has been a rough week in America’s tortured history of race relations. Two years after Ferguson (one of the first things I wrote about in this blog), we thought we’d be a little further down the road; not living through even more stories of police, caught on camera, killing black men. And then Dallas happened, a massacre that could only described as a hate crime. What is happening to us?

A lot of white people are freaking out. They think it’s suddenly open season on them or “their” police. They are desperate to blame Obama, or Black Lives Matter, or civil rights, or Beyoncé. They bleat, “No, ALL lives matter!” perhaps not realizing that they are only adding fuel to the fire and making things worse. Many of these people don’t actually care about all lives. If they did, most of these root problems would be long gone. These are the same people who think saying “Happy Holidays” erases Christmas. Yet they are willing to erase the real lived oppression of their fellow non-white Americans. Confronting the complexity and history of racism in 2016 America (and their role in it) is too hard and scares them right down to their tighty whiteys, so they bleat about “all lives,” like they give a rat’s ass about what is happening to black lives and the very real trauma of endless systemic racism.

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Hey, if I say, “Northern White Rhinos matter!” it doesn’t mean that other types of rhinos don’t matter, but there are only 10 white rhinos left on the whole fucking planet. You get that, right?

A lot of white people hear “Black lives matter” and their fragile egos hear, “ONLY black lives matter.” Either they’re suffering from delusions of persecution or a fear that the hell foisted upon minorities in America is coming back to haunt them. Stop. There is no “only.” It’s all in you messed-up mind.

The Point of BLM

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The point of “Black lives matter” is that all lives matter, including black lives. But those black lives have been devalued since the founding of this country. First it was slavery. Then it was Jim Crow. Now it’s the institutional racism of the criminal justice system and the informal racism of bigots, like Giuliani (and plenty of liberals), who pretend to be colorblind.

Any social scientist will tell you that every major institution in America suffers from racial bias. Just Google, “predatory lending and race.” We dump our toxic waste in black parts of states and defund job training programs in black parts of cities. Racism permeates the education system, the financial industry, housing, urban development, hiring, Hollywood, and, perhaps most of all, the criminal justice system.

Every step of the justice system demonstrates racial inequity. From who gets pulled over, to who gets arrested and when force is used. It’s in who prosecutors charge and how they charge them. It’s in who judges sentence and how long they get sentenced. There is racial bias in corrections and in parole. Every single step of the way. Whether were talking drug sentencing or the death penalty, there is no debate that blacks get it worse. Dr. Devorah Pager’s famous 2003 study found that whites with a criminal record had an easier time finding a job than equally qualified blacks without one. I could show you a hundred studies like that.

Every single African-American understands this. Most white Americans either don’t or choose to somehow justify it.

This racism knows no class boundary. Just ask a rich black guy who drives an expensive luxury car how many times he’s been pulled over. Of course, if you can afford a good lawyer, you might avoid the rest of the criminal justice nightmare.

So I’m thinking this is a good time to think about some other folks. I’m thinking about black friends, and, after Dallas, I’m thinking about my law enforcement friends. And I’m really thinking about the two worlds my black law enforcement friends navigate. I don’t want to listen to people try to rationalize the killing of Alton Sterling or Philandro Castile. (“They were thugs!” If police can kill thugs without due process maybe we should start telling them about the thugs on Wall Street who are robbing us blind.)

I’m thinking about the black father who has to have “the talk” with his 16-year-old son. The one about how to act if the kid gets pulled over by the police so he doesn’t end up dead. You know, the one white fathers don’t have to have with their sons.

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Look, anytime you have hyped-up males in the mix, you’re gonna have some problems, whether they’re hyped up because their sports team won or hyped up because their race has been systematically and violently oppressed for centuries. Yeah, there are some male folks who scream about “killing cops,” and one or two who have thrown a brick at public safety officers who are just trying to make it through another day at work. That’s not the true face of the nonviolent Black Lives Matter movement, but you’d never guess that watching Fox News. (As it turns out, the brick throwers were not BLM activists, but outside dickwads.)

It’s Getting Better All the Time

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First, some good news. I know there are fear-mongers in the media and on the campaign trail that want to tell you that everything is getting worse and what we need is some old fashioned “law and order.” Sorry, Chicken Little. The crime rate in this country has been dropping steadily for over 20 years. That includes a dramatic drop in gun violence. The shooting of police officers has also dropped. That might not be much comfort to law enforcement folks who are understandably on edge right now. The only thing that is up is fatal shootings of blacks by police. And there it is. We don’t need more “law and order.” We need real justice and education.

What’s changed in those 20 years is the public eye. In kind of an upside down version of Orwell’s 1984, it’s not just Big Brother who is watching. It’s nearly every little brother and sister. It wasn’t the 1991 police beating of Rodney King that changed things. Shit like that went on and goes on all the time. It was that it was caught on video and still the cops were acquitted. Now with cell phone cameras, more and more of these incidents are caught and even live-streamed. It only seems like things are getting worse. Technology is just letting us see things as they’ve always been. When people carry tools to document social injustices in their pockets, things are bound to get hot.

The Life of a Cop

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After the Rodney King riots, I wanted my students to better understand the world of the police officer and how even well-meaning public servants can end up in a situation that can go FUBAR in seconds. I’ve brought officers, detectives and FBI agents into my classroom to address some of the hard questions about the thin blue line they stand behind.

The life of a cop is extremely stressful. While being a public servant can be highly rewarding, law enforcement officers have higher rates of divorce, alcoholism and death from heart disease. It’s one of the few occupations where every time you walk out the door, you are well aware you might not walk back in at the end of your shift. To serve and protect. The kevlar vest is hot and heavy and shot to the face doesn’t care if it’s on your back or in the back of your cruiser.

So maybe we can dial back the simplistic rhetoric that police officers are secret Nazis, with shrines to Hitler in their backyards, or fronting for the KKK. Police departments recruit from the human department and they reflect that mix. You’re gonna get cops who are rude, or dealing with anxiety poorly, or are garden variety dickwads. But also plenty of men and women who get into policing because it seems like an effective way to make their community a more livable place for families like and not like theirs. I guarantee you for every avowed racist with a badge there’s a truckload of liberal social work-minded cops who voted for Bernie. I can give you names.

One of the lessons the Johnson Administration’s Crime Commission in 1967 was that police departments needed to look like the communities they policed. White cops coming into black neighborhoods, like in Detroit and Watts, with all their white baggage, inflamed the “us vs. them” tensions and cities burned. Now, about a quarter of all police officers are minorities. But that still means that mostly white police officers are patrolling black communities. Room for improvement.

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Where the racism is real is in the very real mindset of implicit racism. In a racist society, all of us (including African-Americans), have been brainwashed into thinking black men are dangerous THREATS (while we let Bernie Madoff slip by). It’s an unconscious form of racism. Dr. Kimberly Kahn, a professor in the Portland State Psychology Department, completed a fascinating study that found white motorists were less likely to stop for black pedestrians than white pedestrians. Do you think those white motorists truly believed “all lives matter”?

So that white cop may go for his (any her?) use-of-force toolkit more quickly with a black male based on same “threat assessment” toolkit the rest of us carry with us. There’s plenty of “open carry” white guys walking around that probably wouldn’t be right now if they were black. They are labeled “2nd Amendment Activists,” not dangerous thugs.

STFU

black-lives-matterSo don’t tell me, “all lives matter,” if toxic waste incinerators in black areas or the defunding of black schools or health care discrimination or drug sentencing and use-of-force disparities are not on your “things to abolish” list. You’re talking shit and black America knows it. They are in the street telling you the expiration date on your white bullshit has passed and you better listen because there is no going back.

I know you think that when Obama was elected, he snapped his brown fingers and any vestige of racism disappeared (and now he’s just “dividing us”) but reality begs to differ. If anything, Obama has helped to reveal the depth of the problem of race. But don’t worry, the next president will be white. So, for now, if you are telling us, “All lives matter” and you are not actually doing anything to stop the devaluing of black lives, I am going to politely ask you to shut the fuck up.

Here’s the challenge. If you are not black, be quiet for a bit and listen to the concerns of your fellow citizens who are. Actually listen. And if you are not a cop, be quiet for a bit and listen to your fellow Americans who are. Don’t tell us about “them,” just sit with the information for a little while and then ponder how you would walk in those shoes.

I’m going to ask you to turn off your defense mechanisms and think about the value of empathy. Please, just try. Even you, Rudy.

Sometimes you really need a moment.

June 12, 2016

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Since I started writing this blog, I’ve been pretty good at least one piece each week. I kind of got overwhelmed last week. First, my last piece on rape culture cosmically intersected with the revelations of the sentencing of Stanford rapists Brock Turner and his pathetic parents.  I also had a truckload of work reviewing research proposals for the National Institute of Justice for a big meeting in our nation’s capital. Now I’m in Washington DC just glued to the news from Orlando. Sometimes you just don’t get much of a chance to collect your thoughts (especially when you waste valuable life time arguing with people on Facebook).

I’ve written about how gay pride events have helped me move away from my own homophobia. I’ve also written about how being a media “expert” on mass violence is a double edge sword. I had planned on finally giving an update on Cozy’s gender evolution as she approaches 22 months old. A chance to move from the macro back towards my domestic micro.

But right now in my hotel room in Arlington. I was going to go to the gay pride parade in DC. I probably should. I’m sure it will be a somber emotional event as we remember the 50 dancing souls that were exterminated this morning by a madman (again, a man). I think I’m just going to close my eyes and imagine a world without hate that I so desperately want to deliver to my child. No prayers or thoughts, just a quiet dedication to make it so.

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Farewell to my Good Wife

May 4, 2016

Alicia Florrick, I can’t be ready for court without you.

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As a feminist sociologist, I’ve lectured for decades now on the problematic world of television. It’s easily dissected as a tool of patriarchal social control, with the camera lens as a metaphor for the male gaze. As a kid who grew up on incredibly messed-up shows, like Three’s Company, there is plenty to talk about. And don’t get me started on the commercials that still run during daytime soaps. In this blog I’ve taken on current fare like The Bachelor and the short-lived NBC show, The Island. The Miss America beauty contest is still coming to a network near you.

But something has been happening since the days of jiggle TV.

Some of you know I have a toe in the Hollywood pool (more like a cuticle at this point), and it is evident that the “old boy network” that ran the town is caving in. There are more women writers, directors, and producers each year. According to Variety, women now make up 23% of executive producers in TV Land. Variety reports that shows with at least one female executive producer have significantly more female characters. Add to that the long-held knowledge that women watch more TV than men and now we have some programming that would have been hard to imagine when the best thing females had was Charlie’s Angels. Have you seen the Reddit discussions on Comedy Central’s Broad City? It’s off the feminist hook!

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One of those shows is CBS’ The Good Wife that, sadly, ends its seven-season run on Sunday. I’ll be stuck in front of the TV begging Alicia to run away with Jason into a spin-off where they fight crime on the streets of Chicago. The Good Sex Partners.

The Good Wife hit the airwaves in 2009. I was oblivious. CBS seems to have a lot procedural crime shows that people love, but I just don’t have the time for. You’d think as a criminologist, I’d be all over CSI: Toledo, or whatever it’s called. But I kept seeing the show win awards and my curiosity started to ask, “What’s up with this good wife?” I’d see the show’s star, Julianna Marguiles (who is roughly my age), at numerous awards events, like the Golden Globes, making speeches about women finding new roles in television and I was reminded that this was something I cared about.

So when Andrea and I got pregnant during the 2013 holidays (well, I had something to do with it), I decided we had the perfect opportunity to play America’s new favorite game, binge-watching. It was time to enter the complicated world of one very smart and funny lawyer. While we waited for Cozy to arrive, we burned through several seasons of the show that follows the adventures of defense attorney Alicia Florrick and her legal compadres in a twenty-first century version of Perry Mason. It was clear that the title of the show, The Good Wife, was an ironic one. She performed the role of the good wife to her philandering husband because it served her own interests. Needless to say, we were hooked. How could a network show be this well-written? One more episode.

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As a criminologist, I could have written lectures about crime and the law from these episodes. Topics like the problems of forensic science and eye-witness testimony, institutional racism, intellectual property rights, and the corrosive impact of incarceration were presented by writers who knew the research. Intelligent topics for people looking for something a little deeper than Teen Mom 3. The shows were often “ripped from the headlines.” Even though I was enjoying my paternity leave from Portland State, I was looking forward to bringing Florrick and associates back into my classroom.

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Now that Andrea works at a law firm in Portland, it was fun to compare her daily dramas to the nighttime dramas CBS provided. Much law work is really just paperwork. Very few cases ever make it before a judge and especially before a jury. But each case has its own human story about how we manage to exist in such a complex society. Turning that into something that’s actually compelling viewing is the result of some insanely talented people whose names I will probably never know.

As a feminist, there was so much to unpack and debate about this show. For once, a show built around a woman who refused to bend to the will of the men in the cast because she was female. Julanna Margulies played the role with great pathos, including Alicia’s need for another glass of wine or a sexual diversion with her law school sweetheart, Will Gardner. We got to see the world through her lens and it was eye-opening. And she wasn’t the only ferocious female in the cast. Women representing a wide range of ages and skin tones created the type of intersectionality that’s often absent when the the focus is just on gender politics.

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There are a ton of essays debating feminism on The Good Wife (just click on this word, Google). But the proof is in the pudding. When Margulies says young women regularly tell her that they are going to law school because of the show we know that television can change power structures. An army of female attorneys with an affinity for red wine and lovers on the side is nothing to be trifled with. Like how female TV producers have changed the portrayal of women and girls in media, they will change the very institutions that have worked against the interests of the feminine half of our country. Throw a female president into the mix, and we may hit a critical turning point.

TV shows come and go. I’ve leaned not to get too hung up on their passing. (I still remember bawling my eyes out after the last episode of M*A*S*H.) But Sunday nights at 9 pm have become important, especially for a lot of women of my generation.  They, and their daughters, benefit from something that looks like a grown-up version of the Romper Room mirror. “I see Alicia, and Kalinda, and Diane and Lucca and a world where women are full players in the game.”

And if you’ve never seen an episode of The Good Wife, I have two words for you; binge watch.

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We need a Rosa Parks of genitals: North Carolina and the need to pee

April 21, 2016

I used to love North Carolina, the beauty of the artist nook in Asheville, the cool cranny of a rock scene in Chapel Hill. I’ve spent a lot of time crossing the state and enjoying its wonderful nooks and crannies. That was until North Carolina became the new Mississippi, the bastion of backwards bigotry. Ever  since its governor, Pat McCrory, signed HB 2 this month, the rest of the world (including Bruce Springsteen!) now knows the truth about the Tar Heel state. And the truth is North Carolinians are convinced that in those nook and crannies are hiding… transexuals. Transsexuals who want to attack them in restrooms!

Even bonafide bigot Donald Trump thinks the new law goes too far. He is a businessman after all (and wouldn’t want to alienate Caitlyn Jenner). The ongoing boycott and recent appeals court decisions will doom the law before Ted Cruz and “Christian” hate-mongers will be able to claim it as a victory for “religious freedom,” or “decency” or “safety.” After all, if kids are going to be molested in bathrooms, it should be by someone with the same genitals. Gawd!

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The right needs to manufacture a continuing parade of bogeymen to project their fears on. Trump’s “rapist Mexicans” sort of backfired when Republicans realized Latinos were lining up in record numbers to vote against the entire GOP slate. “Who haven’t we kicked around yet? Transexuals! After all, you are your genitals!”

We are ignorant of so many things. It’s understandable that so many people don’t understand the challenge and reality of being a transexual person. The DSM-V has moved from the term “gender disorder,” to “gender dysphoria,” but there is still a stigma of “sickness” among many who are in the dark about the population. Fortunately, I have friends who are transitioning or have transitioned from both male to female and female to male identities and I can say they are probably the most “not mentally ill” people I know. (Some of my Republican friends, though…)

I don’t have it in me to do another lecture on the innate difference between biological sex, gender performance, and sexual orientation. Maybe later. Let me just invite the good-hearted people of North Carolina and other shit-holes of bigotry (which might be in your own home) to talk to a human being who is transsexual and ask them about the basic right of using the bathroom that conforms to your gender.

The right like to pretend that this is about “safety.” As if they care. Women are raped outside of bathrooms everyday. It doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for them (unless it’s done by an “illegal alien”). Every day seven kids are killed by guns. They could care less about that. But the weird scenario where a perverted man dresses as a woman solely so he can assault a woman or a girl in a public restroom is sufficient reason to change the law and screw over an already marginalized part of our American family. How Christ-like. Maybe a law that keeps ministers away from children, I mean, if you want to base legislation on actual documented sexual assaults.

Let’s be clear. There is no documented cases of a transgender person assaulting anyone in a restroom. There are, however, multitudes of reports of transgender people being assaulted in restrooms. And violence against the transgender people is on the increase. The legacy of the ignorance coming out of North Carolina.

So let’s break this stupid law down. The Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act says people have to use the public restroom or changing room that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificate.

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First, how the hell is this enforced? Will the state fund an army of crotch monitors to check the junk of anybody using the restroom. “Excuse me Miss, I need to verify that you have a vagina.” And will this enforcement be administered fairly? I know some pretty butch ladies and some femme boys that may be asked to drop trou more often than Biff and Tiffany. And how will I know that the genital monitor in the men’s room who is verifying the presence of my penis does not have some alternative motive? And what about folks who have had gender reassignment surgery? Are we going to have to carry our birth certificates with us into the john? I know you really need to go, but can you prove RIGHT NOW what YOUR sex at birth was? (And can someone please tell me where intersex people in North Carolina are supposed to take a leak?)

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Secondly, despite the drag queen stereotype of Flip Wilson dressed as Geraldine (a reference for us old timers), it’s not exactly easy to identify a transperson. So what this law does is forces a lot of guys (who have vaginas) into the ladies’ room and gals (who have penises) into the mens’ room. I’m not sure that’s going to make the transphobic folks of North Carolina feel more “safe” while they pop a squat.

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I secretly think that there might be a hidden agenda here. I know plenty of people in the trans community and those are some good looking folks. Often the transmen (born female) are very masculine and transwomen (born male) are very feminine. What North Carolina lady wouldn’t want a hunky macho guy? Who wouldn’t beat her! And what curious NC boy wouldn’t want a glamour girl? Who knows what a man really wants! Maybe this is the Tar Heal state’s “tearoom trade,” and there is a secret desire to queer “chance meetings” in the toilet. Hey, a cis-boy can dream. (But it would be helpful to know how many people from NC cruise trans-porn websites.)

And third, this law obviously exposes transpeople to even more violence. Imagine a high school girl who was born male being forced to use the restroom with teenage boys who already use words like “fag,” and “pussy” as a put down. And how are women in the locker room at the gym going to react when dude comes in (who happens to have a vagina) to change clothes? The result will be to push people away from the gender expression that they feel most comfortable in. Just like the bigots who want gay and lesbians to just “act straight,” this is another dictatorship of the majority designed to force people to act in a way that doesn’t make the bigot feel uncomfortable. What ever happened to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? But instead we are likely to see more suicides because of North Carolina’s move backwards.

But I like to look for the light. Look how far we’ve come in a short time on the issue of gay marriage. Public attitudes have flipped. Well-meaning people realized that gay folks just want to have the same right to enter into disastrous (and occasionally successful) marriages as they do. They didn’t want to get married so they could molest children in churches and rose gardens. At some point even the backwards people of North Carolina will realize that when it comes to really having to pee, we are all the same.

But in the mean time, I would encourage a little civil disobedience by my friends in North Carolina. If you identify as female (whether you are transgender or cisgender), every time you enter a public restroom or changing room, announce, “I do not have a vagina!” And if you are a male entering the men’s room, exclaim, “I do not have a penis!” Then wait for a law enforcement officer to verify your crotch situation. You could be the Rosa Parks of genitals.

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A Zombie Ate My Baby! Social anxiety and the Walking Dead

March 28, 2016

As we all get ready for next week’s season finale of The Walking Dead it is understandable that our collective thoughts turn to zombies. I’ve loved the zombie genre ever since I saw the low-budget 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. It was at a midnight movie in Stone Mountain when I was 13 and I didn’t sleep all night. But as a parent, my consumption of zombie media has changed a bit. After the last Walking Dead episode I had a flash of stepping into the nursery and seeing a ravenous walker chomping on my daughter. Cozy had a look on her face that just said, “Daddy help me.” The horror. And if you know anything about the undead then you know by that point it’s just too late.

Let me point out before I go any further that there is no such thing as a zombie. Sure there are some people wacked out on bath salts or haunting 80s dance nights that might seem like they are zombies. And of course there are kids who “die” on the operating table and their parents convince them they went to heaven and should write a book that might technically be zombies for a moment. But other than some meth head that thinks your arm is a corndog, there are no zombies. So don’t waste a second worrying about World War Z.

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But the question remains; What is up with zombie-mania? And is there a feminist take on it? We’ve got movies, TV shows, video-games and comic books. You can buy zombie toys, costumes, t-shirts and even doorstops. We’ve gone zombie crazy! Are we hoping for the zombie apocalypse as a preferable alternative to a Trump presidency? Or is it perhaps an excuse to unleash our inner Rick Grimes and kill at will? What’s the appeal?

Not surprisingly a “sociology of zombies,” has been around for awhile. I would recommend Todd Platt’s “Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture” (2013) for a recent overview. Usually, the explanation is rooted in some type of social anxiety, whether it was the Cold War and the fear of a nuclear apocalypse or now, in a post-9/11 world, it is a fear of the collapse of western society. We play out these “What If?” scenarios and imagine how we would respond when the shit hits the fan for real. Would we recreate a new authoritarian hierarchy, form a collectivist team response, or just devolve into every man for himself? (Women and children don’t usually fit anywhere in that last one, at least not in a good way.)

One of my right-wing pals told me yesterday that we don’t need illegal immigrants. And I said, “Who is gonna pick your food?” His response was that there was a time in America when most Americans worked on farms. I said, “Yeah, maybe 1816. In 2016 kids don’t even know what a fucking tomato looks like.” Face it, most of what we eat is processed. After your Kroger gets looted, next on the menu is your family pet. We would not do well in an apocalyptic setting where the food delivery app on your phone stops working.

So maybe the zombie thing is a reflection of our fear that society could collapse at any moment and we would be tested on our social survival skills. It seems like we are perpetually on the verge of the big flame out. Would you just blow your brains out or “man up” to fight the undead? Ah, there is a little clue to another explanation.

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I was in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program and my little brother was a sweet kid who had a touch of the developmental disability. He loved video games and taught me how to play Halo (which I found infinitely boring). His big fantasy was a zombie apocalypse so he could kill thousands of zombies. He would go into great detail of how he would shoot them, behead them, and set them on fire. It became clear that the zombies were stand-ins for all the people in his life who he wanted to dispatch with a sharp blade or a shotgun blast. He had a whole list of people he dreamed about killing.

In war movies, we don’t kill human beings. They are nips, gerrys, gooks, and hajis. In Westerns it’s savages. Science fiction body counts are aliens and robots. And in zombie shows, films, and games it is the undead. Each one a less-human than human enemy that we have permission to kill. For its time it is the act of dehumanization that allows us to vent our violent bloodlust against those who threaten our world somehow. Indians and Muslims and Zombies, the infected. Much was written about how the westerns of the 1960s used Native Americans as stand-ins for African Americans who threatened whites living on the urban frontier. Guns and blades allow us to re-establish the white male order over the chaos of the “diseased” other. And if we can bring a few women and people of color (and Michonne) along, all the better.

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If you watch The Walking Dead, you know (and probably love) the character Daryl Dixon, played perfectly by Boondog Saint Norman Reedus. I’ll admit I have a man crush in Daryl and would give anything if my hair could be that greasy (without my under-carriage being equally rank). And here’s why. Daryl is the iconic strong silent type and on a steel horse he rides. He’s best on his own. He doesn’t talk about his feelings or much of anything. He squints and kills in a primal way. He is Clint Eastwood in the the first 20 minutes of High Plains Drifter (1973). He is everything that is right about a film or show set in an apocalypse. He is also everything that is wrong with masculinity in our culture. (And Norman Reedus is absolutely nothing like this fictional character.)

In the real world, men don’t need to kill, abandon the group (Oh, there goes Daryl again.) and keep their emotions buried deep behind their “I don’t give a fuck about you” (sultry) eyes. I love Daryl because he is who I was told I was supposed to be when I was a boy. I used to practice squinting like Clint Eastwood when I was a kid. I tried to be silent and menacing. It sucked (or I sucked at it). That way is pain and loneliness. Feminism gave me permission to be a human instead of a cartoon character male. I don’t want to ride into the sunset. I want to hang out with my friends and family. No slaughter necessary.

The same right-wing friend asked me what I would do if some guy called my wife a “cunt.” I told him I’d tell the guy that vaginas are awesome and probably let my wife take it from there. He (and a very confused female friend) were horrified. How could I not immediately respond with violence? What would Daryl do?

I will continue to be a zombie fan. I live for the post-episode discussions of The Walking Dead on reddit. TWD fans are brilliant and clever and can find humor in deep meaning in the handle of Carl’s gun. (Oh, Carl.) I just wonder how much of the appeal is based on the push to use of violence against those who would challenge the existing order. Maybe I should be rooting for the walkers. Just don’t eat my baby!

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How David Bowie Bent My Gender

January 11, 2016

This is a strange bifurcation point on our blue planet. From this point on there is no David Bowie to share the world with. Like people born after 1980 who claim John Lennon, or those born after 1959 who claim Billie Holiday (as they have a right to), every child born after today will never anticipate hearing David Bowie’s new song on the radio or changing their fashion to fit Bowie’s new style. It’s all just back catalog now. He can’t be truly their peer. Fortunately there’s enough there for future generations to mine for inspiration.

I awoke this morning to a message from my friend Roy in England that just said, “Sad day for music.” A sense of dread swelled up. I know that I am likely to witness the passing of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Patti Smith. What will the world be like without them? For the moment we share the same sunlight and oxygen supply. When there is a lunar eclipse, I know that Paul McCartney and Toni Morrison are looking at it, too. I know there is a chance that I could bump into Smokey Robinson or Elton John getting coffee in an airport somewhere in the world. We share this tiny globe together.

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But not with Bowie. He is gone so unexpectedly. I was in New York City all weekend and was waiting for today to get Blackstar, his heralded new album. The beginning of the next phase of Bowie in our lives. Would there be a tour? Would I get a new haircut to look like him? Again? I should have found him on his deathbed there in Manhattan to thank him. A kiss on his alien eyelids.

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For those of us that came of age in the 1970s, David Bowie was more than a “rockstar.” He was an avatar of our awkward young selves as gangly beings who had just fallen to earth, genderless and omni-sexual. I was an Apollo kid so it started with “Space Oddity,” and imagining the astronauts circling our troubled planet. But when Ziggy Stardust arrived, I could see clues to a third path, somewhere between male and female that was beautiful and personal. Glam rock was liberation, even if was just the thought of it. “Rebel, rebel. You’ve got your mother in a whirl ’cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.”

That was the beginning of me wanting to grow my hair long. Endless battles with my mother (“Boys with long hair are all on drugs!”) and my father (“Why would you want to look like a girl?”). Each half inch it grew, you’d get called “fag,” and “queer,” in rural Georgia. (Of course, once Willie and Waylon grew their hair out all that ended.) If word got around you were a Bowie fan, that was like declaring your homosexuality. “You must be AC-DC like him!” I didn’t really care. The music came from some place magical. His self-declared bisexuality created a safe zone for us as we engaged in our own space exploration. My sexuality was never an issue. The sanity of the world I expressed it in was.

All us misfit kids had Bowie. Before punk roared in, we had Bowie to speak for us and to tell us we were wonderful. “Rock and Roll Suicide,” must be an anthem for so many young people, both then and now, who feel zero validation from the straight world. It’s a reason to reject suicide as an option.

You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair

You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care

Oh no love! you’re not alone

No matter what or who you’ve been

No matter when or where you’ve seen

All the knives seem to lacerate your brain

I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain

You’re not alone

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In fourth grade, when the other kids were obsessed with the Captain and Tennille, me and my little goon squad were memorizing “Young Americans,” and “Fame,” (listening for John Lennon’s voice). It was like a secret society. You had to say, “Oh yeah, Deep Purple rocks!” and then find out what kid in the neighborhood had a copy of Diamond Dogs you could borrow, being sure to hide it from your parents’ gaydar.

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Bowie always defined gender non-conformity. Wearing make-up, dying his hair, wearing a skirt on Saturday Night Live. In a culture obsessed with a simple gender binary, what could be more rebellious than that? Boys keep swinging! For all us kids that didn’t quite fit in the butch boy/femme girl box, we had permission to mix and match and create something completely new.

My first sociology professor at Oxford College who radicalized me in so many ways had a bit of blind spot around queer issues. I remember him trying to make the case that we are all sexual but socialized to be heterosexual and if that process gets messed up we end up confused, “like David Bowie.” I remember thinking, Wait, that’s not right. Bowie’s not “broken,” he is just free and rebelling against social constructions of gender. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

So, yeah, I have every piece of music that Bowie has released (except Blackstar, which is sold out all over the city). I have b-sides and oddities. Have you heard the soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)? You should. I’ve seen him in concert several times. My favorite moment was at Live Aid in London in 1985. I was right front for the global event. All my favorite stars were there. I should mention that I really hated Bowie’s Let’s Dance album when it came out in 1983. It was such a commercial piece of fluff compared to 1980’s Scary Monsters (although it has aged better than I have). So I was supremely bummed when he opened with “Modern Love,” my least favorite Bowie song. But then he played “Heroes,” and it could not have been more perfect. We were there trying to feed the world, just for one day. There were tears everywhere. Bowie transformed us.

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He transformed us many times. He loosened us from our moorings. He made being smart and aging into your 60s look really, really cool and never stopped playing with our weird obsession with gender roles. All the kids that got beat up for being “Bowie fags” can have the last laugh (the ones that weren’t murdered, at least). Now that he’s dead, everybody will claim him as their own.

He’s never not been with me. His ex-wife, Angie Bowie, was my first guest speaker at Emory, delighting my students with tales of Ziggy and Iggy and the glam explosion. I courted my wife, Andrea, with mix CDs that linked Bowie songs to Nina Simone songs. When Cozy was born, I sang “Little Wonder” to her repeatedly (and “Space Oddity” when I strapped her in her car seat). And she’s napping to Station To Station as I write this. I want her to have the sexual and gender freedom that was so hard for us over forty years ago. But for all the goon squads out there, Bowie made it a lot easier and cooler.

A lot will be written this week about the Thin White Duke as a “chameleon” and all the ch-ch-changes he went through, the movies he made and the fashions he inspired. I just think about us kids who didn’t fit in who got to feel that we had a very special space boy on our side.