Can I be a feminist, too?

August 24, 2018

I was recently on a panel in Washington DC, assembled by a congressman, charged with addressing how we should respond to the neo-Nazis marching in the streets of America. For my initial statement, I was only given 6 minutes so I was decided to make one point as strongly as I could. Fortunately, it was carried live on C-SPAN, so I think a large audience got to hear it.

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My one point was that people, especially white people, need to stop saying they’re not racist. We all internalize white supremacy from an early age. It seeps in from our parents and our TVs. It’s impossible to not be racist in this racist culture. Implicit bias tests prove it. And that goes for people of color who get the same “white is right” messages and devalue those with darker skin tones. Just look at the complexions in any black or Latina beauty magazine. Own it and work on it. We can’t deal with alt-right racists until we deal with our own racism.

What I told the crowd there (and a few members of Congress) was that an alcoholic can go for thirty years without a drink but they will never say they are an alcoholic, they’ll say they’re on the road to recovery, one day at a time. Racism is the same way. I never say I’m not a racist. I am a racist, but I’m on the road to recovery, one day at a time. The same is true with sexism, ableism, homophobia, and all the other bigotries. I have to unlearn messages that are still washing over me even though I know in my heart they are wrong.

So can I truly call myself a feminist? I’m a sexist, but I’m on the road to recovery, one day at a time. Some days I fall backwards more than a few steps. The misogynistic programming is more complete than the racist programming. I want to be a feminist but the sexism runs so deep, that after decades now of working the program, sometimes I feel like I’m barely out of the gate. Just today I referred to grown women in jazz history as “girls.”

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My path to and as a feminist has been littered with horribly un-feminist behavior. Some issues could be argued from a feminist perspective. For example, accusations that I have entered relationships where there was a “power imbalance,” force me to ask the necessary question – In a patriarchal society, in what male-female relationship is there not a power imbalance? If I dated a former student or a university administrator, there was a power imbalance. (I’ve dated both.) The issue arrises when that imbalance is exploited. That’s a lot different than it just existing. And often there are competing power balances at work. See? It’s not so simple in the real world.

Others have just been me stupidly not addressing my male privilege. Here’s a good example (changing the names). I had entered a relationship with a woman named Veronica, but I still cared what Betty, from an older relationship, thought of me. She was not convinced that Veronica was a good match. So I tried to sell Betty on how strong Veronica was, as a person. I told Betty a little about Veronica’s history of sexual abuse and that she was a true survivor with a depth not evident when you just glance at her. Now, I see it was a horrible betrayal of Veronica’s trust and was only shared with Betty for selfish reasons. Pretty freaking un-feminist.

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So do I have a right to call myself a feminist?  Feminist icon bell hooks defines feminism as the “movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” Then I’m on board as a feminist! But what if someone says, But you participate in sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression! You can’t be a feminist. And then I say you don’t? Can you guarantee the clothes you wear or the food you eat are not the product of sexist exploitation? And it goes around and around. As a man, I have to keep my “male fragility” in check and accept what the feminist consensus is. But is there a consensus?

The latest message is that men can’t be feminists because, no matter how down for the program we are, we still have a vested interest in patriarchy and the disempowerment of women. But we can be “pro-feminist.” That’s similar to me urging white people to stop saying they’re not racist, but take an anti-racist position in their lives. This is reflected in the great quote from Angela Davis, “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”  So maybe stating that I’m a pro-feminist male carries more weight than just saying I’m a feminist.

I mention this because a pro-feminist male colleague of mine is currently under the glare of the spotlight after some anonymous accusations emerged of inappropriate behavior on his part. How could this feminist role model not be be perfect in his gendered behavior? On one hand, it is important to believe women after generations of female complaints being dismissed out of hand. On the other hand, due process matters and in this day of rumor-mongering campaigns, people still have the presumption of innocence. From what I can tell, the alleged offense seems minor but I am far from knowing all the facts of the case (as, I’m guessing, most of the people who have commented on it are). But it seems like once there is blood in the water, those that think it’s impossible for a man to claim feminism are racing in for a chomp. His guilt or innocence won’t matter once he’s been devoured.

There is no such thing as a perfect feminist. I could be called a hypocrite once a day and I’m guessing the same could be true for most of my feminist sisters. Can you be a feminist and like Madonna? There is a feminist debate about that. Lots of feminists miss out on the importance of intersectionality. Can transwomen be a part of your sisterhood? There’s another debate. Those jeans you’re wearing were made by young girls in sweatshops in Bangladesh. A debate that should be happening about that. Us men have all those debates and the brainwashing that has told us from birth to dominate and conquer and never ever shut up and listen. So yeah, I’m a feminist who acts in un-feminist ways pretty frequently. But I’m working on it.

One day at a time.

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Note: I’m a subscriber to Voice Male Magazine. It’s a great place for men to find their place in the feminist effort liberate both women and men from patriarchal oppression. Check it out!

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And Jill came tumbling after. Why? Purging sexist kids’ stories.

September 22, 3017

I am Bunny

My mother has always been on the verge of serious hoarding. “Don’t throw that away! It might be worth something someday!” I heard that a thousand times. When Cozy was born, I was grateful. Stuff my mom had held onto for 50 years started to come our way, including my 1960s Batman sweatshirt. And a ton of kids books. Each one zapped my brain backwards. I just have to open I Am Bunny, and I’m sitting on my mommy’s lap, fascinated by the artwork and stories. And my mom read to me a lot.

I was excited to introduce Cozy to my love of books (Thanks, Mom!), so I wasted no time reading to my daughter. I took about two seconds to realize that the message that this father was sending to his girl was dramatically different than the one that my mother had sent to her boy. On the one hand it was exciting to see these books sold for only 39 cents when I was little, but on the other side the messages about gender were heartbreaking. From the time when Donald “Dotard” Trump thought America was “great.”

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Many of the stories are a continuation of the fairytale traditions from Hans Christian Anderson where some damsel in distress or dainty princess has to be rescued by a dashing prince. So much of the classic Disney filmography is rooted in this sexist trope that has, thankfully, been exploded by Frozen and Moana. These two movies mean so much to Cozy and now I understand why. (Mulan had too much fighting. “I don’t like this, Daddy. Turn it off.”) More of these books followed the domestic dynamic of the mid-century model. There’s mom in the kitchen. A legion of my friends reminded me how messed up the Berenstain Bears books are when you read them through a gendered lens. The same is true for most of the books by Richard Scary and Dr. Seuss. (But I still have a soft spot for Cindy Lou Who.)

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Even more books are just male-driven stories. How can my daughter find herself in Where the Wild Things Are? The imbalance really hit me when I was reading Cozy a book called Jumping. It’s about how much boys love to jump. Seriously. I grew up reading the adventures of the Hardy Boys. Will Cozy be left with the Bobbsey Twins? Was Nancy Drew a feminist? Can we get a 21st Century reboot? I do not like green eggs and misogyny.

It became a real struggle to find a book in the boxes that were arriving that had a female character that was somehow equal to the males, let alone in the lead role. Cozy was getting that in her contemporary cartoons, like Disney’s Elena of Avalor and PBS’s Peg + Cat. It was time to update my girl’s library. So we took a walk up to Green Bean Books.

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Cozy loves any store that has a “kids’ section.” She appreciates any space that is carved out for “kids not people” (adults are “people” – we have to work on that one). Green Bean is all kids’ section and she loves the feeling that it’s all there for her. (Wait, I’m smelling the seeds of a generation gap.) When I asked for a storybook for a three year-old, the clerk had the perfect recommendation, The Princess in Black. Cozy set down her book about dinosaurs and grabbed the book, plopped down on the little sofa and pretended to start reading.

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The Princess in Black is a five-part series by Dean Hale and Shannon Hale. It follows the adventures of prim and proper Princess Magnolia who sneaks into her broom closet to become… The Princess in Black; a superhero who fights monsters. Cozy loves both princesses and superheroes. (Ask her to do her Spiderman imitation.) Seeing her respond to this book was fascinating. It’s 15 short chapters, cleverly crafted, that we’ve read pretty much every night since we got the book. She’s got the whole story memorized and has even picked up on hints that our superhero may get a sidekick in future volumes – the Goat Avenger (aka, the mild mannered Goat Boy).

It was almost like a shock to the system after all these books about male characters, including Richard Scary’s male bunnies, to have a female-driven story. It must have been like women 200 years ago reading a Jane Austen novel for the first time. (I’m not equating The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate to Pride and Prejudice, but I kind of am.) As a male, I could read all these male-driven kids’ stories to Cozy and not notice the impact of it all on her, as girls and women were pushed to the background (and draped in aprons). But three pages in to the PIB and I saw the shift. She has a place in the world of stories.

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Of course, there is a debate worth having that this place is in occupying the traditionally male-dominated world of superheroes, which often relies on violence to solve problems.  The Princes in Black does open a can of whoop ass on a big blue monster. Sparkle kick! This is at the heart of the debate between liberal and radical feminists. Does gender equality mean that females should want half of the world that patriarchy created. When 50% of serial killers are females can we raise a toast and say, “Equality!” Or are their other ways of organizing ourselves that don’t don’t involve trying to beat men at their own game? As a parent of an evolving girl, I wrestle with this question. A female version of Trump saying she is going to “totally destroy” a nation of millions of people would not be progress.

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For now, story time will be about a consistent messaging that Cozy will not be marginalized because she is a girl. Andrea has been reading her Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. My mother sent a new book about Frida Kahlo, Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales, that Cozy fell madly in love with. And I know that there are now tons of others out there. (Please feel free to make any recommendations.) Seeing how my daughter responded to this one book pierced a gaping hole in my male privilege bubble. It might be time to put The Cat in the Hat on the bottom of the stack. What would you do if your mother asked you?

“Speaking for all feminists…”

July 28, 2017

I’ve never pretended to speak for all male feminists, let alone all feminists on earth. I don’t even speak for my own feminism from a year ago. Life, its lessons (and a few good articles in Gender & Society) have their impact. Just like a person can’t step in the same river twice, one’s understanding of the world is constantly evolving. Take a look at Donald Trump. A year ago he pledged to be the advocate of transexual Americans and now he’s throwing them under the bus to divert attention from his multiple dumpster fires. He’s (de) evolving!

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When I taught feminist theory at Portland State University, I would warn students about people who painted feminism with broad brushstrokes and feminists as simplistic caricatures. People like woman-hating personality Rush Limbaugh, who is fond of using the therm, “femi-nazi.” People who think being pro-woman means being anti-man. People who can’t even define feminism but spend their free time making the feminist-bashing memes that litter the internet.

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The reality is that feminism is a many splendored thing. It’s a huge umbrella under which there are multiple ideas about gender relations. I’ve spent some time on this blog discussing liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, and Riot Grrrl feminism. There’s first, second, and post-modern third-wave feminism. Eco-feminism has a voice but so does free-market feminism. There are Muslim feminists, Catholic feminists, and conservative feminists. Even Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist. There’s also a growing phalanx of male feminists who I hope will become the fourth wave, smashing male domination from inside the old boys club.

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There’s plenty of disagreement within these camps. Just read bell hook’s first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981). In it she writes, “It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement.” There are plenty of people who call themselves feminists in the pop world and have no idea what intersectionality is (and I’m guessing that includes Ms. Palin).

So to say, “feminists think…” is hugely problematic. What is the feminist position on the Wonder Woman movie? I’ve read dozens of different positions, all rightfully feminist. The people that paint feminism with a broad strokes don’t truly understand what feminism is and is not. I got some chuckles when I presented a paper at a conference in the late 1990s making the case that the Spice Girls were an effective vehicle for teaching tweens about feminist principles. Nearly 20 years later there are a lot of millennial feminists making that exact same case.

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What feminists of every stripe have in common is a belief in patriarchy, a power dynamic that advantages men. Some see that as a individual level thing, like men’s use of violence against women, some see it as a macro-level systemic thing, including any religion that defines God as “He.” Even more see it as both. But after that, all bets are off. I often argue that all women understand the presence of patriarchy, whether it’s the glass ceiling at their job, or their rapey uncle, or the constant pressure to “look good” in the face of the tick tock of age. They might not have the intellectual vocabulary to “frame the present discourse,” but all women are feminists IMHO. Even anti-feminist women have a feminist brain.

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There are plenty of aggro feminists who don’t think men can be a part of the dialogue, just as there are black activists that don’t think there is room at the table for white allies. I get it. As a white person, I can dip into the struggle for black liberation when I have time and pat myself on the back for being “woke.” My male privilege is the same thing. I can work to smash patriarchy, but I’m still benefitting from that patriarchy even when I’m in the middle of a woman’s march. “Look, it’s a man here to save us!” I’ve been tackling both the issue of male privilege and white privilege in my Recovering Asshole podcast and some of the conversations have been challenging for this “woke” white boy.

There is this emerging concept of “solidarity work” – showing up to the liberation work of groups you don’t belong to.  It’s all about being ready to take a backseat and asking how to help. That means men can be feminists but they have to know when to shut up and listen to their female compatriots. Since men have traditionally been the “voice of authority,” it can be a new experience for guys to STFU, especially when males have been taught to disregard female voices. Remember when Trump said he didn’t think Hillary Clinton had the stamina to be president? I guess by “president” he meant “playing golf every weekend.”

Without a doubt there are people who have hijacked feminism for their own purposes. This includes the “victim feminists” who see all women as inherent victims of men. This is not feminism. These fake feminists erase women’s agency, including to be sexual beings who want what they want and have every right to go after the shama-lama-ding-dong. Consenting adults, even the female ones, can get up to some freaky hanky skanky. (This is a theme in my recent book, The Dream Police.) No leading feminist, not Andrea Dworkin, not Catherine MacKinnon, has ever said “All sex is rape.” But the enemies of feminists repeat this fake feminist mantra, and it’s not just Rush Limbaugh doing it.

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There’s a whole world of feminism to explore, something for everyone, and none of it is set in stone. People’s perspectives evolve. Just ask a roomful of feminists whether or not transwomen are part of their struggle. You’ll get lots of answers. Then ask that same room six-months later. My own feminist path as been a jagged path with plenty of missteps. Becoming a father of daughter certainly has played a role in that. So beware of anyone who claims to speak for all feminists. You just can’t have that many brains in one head.

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It’s all a part of asshole recovery

June 15, 2017

Other than Donald Trump, does anybody truly like the sound of their own voice? Mine makes me cringe when I hear recordings of it. I feel for the thousands of the students who have had to listen to me over the years. But I do love to talk and maybe my jabber has some value in the world. Those students got a lot of stories from my weird life to illustrate points, hopefully finding applications in their own stories. Maybe I should keep talking.

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The reason for talking is that I’m an asshole. But I’m trying to get better. I was featured in a front page interview in yesterday’s Oregonian newspaper. I casually chatted with the reporter about all things related to racism in Oregon. I assumed this was background research for a larger story, but it was an actual interview. I was trying to make the case that institutions are changing from the inside and said, “I’m the last person in the world that says human resource ladies are giving us hope in the world, but they are a reflection of how much institutional change has happened. Every HR department has an equity and diversity department now.”

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I was trying to make a joke about the stereotype of people who work in Human Resources offices and how they are, in fact, agents of change. In print it fell flat. I just looked like an asshole and the online commenters sunk their teeth into my quip. I could’ve gotten defensive, bleating, “It was just a joke!” but I’m in recovery and that means taking responsibility for my mistakes.

There are two types of people in the world, (I love it when people bisect humanity like that) assholes and people who know they are assholes and are trying to not be. I’m trying to be in the latter category and that requires more listening than talking. So why am I starting a podcast about my privilege? Shouldn’t I shut my privileged mouth up?

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Privilege is such a dirty word in our culture. Everybody’s “worked hard” for whatever they have. Try telling a white guy who is homeless that he has white privilege and male privilege. It might be a hard sell. But he does. Devah Pager’s profound 2003 study, “The Mark of the Criminal Record,” found that African-Americans without criminal records faced more job discrimination than whites with criminal records. For years I assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to my Intro Sociology students. (“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”) Most of them were smart enough to get it. Having an unearned privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means the playing field that you walked on to is not even.

I had a trick that usually worked pretty well in the classroom. I’d ask the left-handed students to raise their hands. Then I’d have them testify to the multitude of advantages that right people have. Usually the right-handers would be a bit surprised. “Well, I never thought of that,” they’d grunt. Then I’d ask the righties how many had lefties in their life that they cared about. “Is it possible that there’s a similar dynamic with race or sexual orientation?” “Oh,” they’d grunt.

I’m right-handed.  And a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, male, middle-class homeowner. I’m pretty damn privileged. Some days it doesn’t feel like it, but even on those days I am. If I ignore it or, even worse, deny it, I’m officially an asshole. So I thought I’d make my own recovery a public one. Growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia (the birthplace of the modern KKK), I can recall some pretty racist moments in my life. I wrote a paper in high school titled, “If they have Black History Month, why can’t we have White History Month?” I was a product of my environment. Now I’m actively anti-racist, but I have to acknowledge there is racist residue (it’s sticky), and it is strongest when I deny my white privilege.

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So I’m kicking off my first podcast, Recovering Asshole. I’m going to talk to people who don’t have privileges I enjoy. Maybe they can help me (and you) be a little less of a privileged asshole. In the wake of the Portland Max stabbings, I thought we’d tackle immigration first. It made sense to talk to my fabulous wife, Andrea Barrios, about her boarder crossing. In the spirit of John & Yoko, we did the interview in bed. It gave me a deeper appreciation for what she went to just to be in this country. I won’t discuss what happened after the interview. (Maybe I should launch Recovering Asshole: After Dark as a paid subscription podcast.)

Recovering Asshole Episode 1: My Favorite Alien

We’re here on iTunes. Please subscribe. It’s free. And share. If you don’t have iTunes, you can find it on Soundcloud. Maybe we’ll get a sponsor. Maybe we’ll bring a bit of empathy into our lives. I know there are a ton of great conversations coming.

I’ve got lots of interviews lined up. We’re going to talk to Muslims, African-Americans, Trans people, gay parents, domestic violence survivors, and, yes, even left-handed people. I’m a podcast fan (Fabcast is my current favorite), so I think I know how to keep the listener engaged. My hope is that people who find Recovering Asshole with share it with their friends (especially the assholes) and it can grow into something that can have an impact.

We’re allowed to make mistakes on this journey. It’s not easy. I’m sorry if my comment about “HR ladies” came off as sexist. I’m using it as a moment of reflection. My tagline for the show is my tagline for life – We’re all works in progress, so let’s get to work.

PODCAST EPISODES ARCHIVED HERE

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An Interview with My Dad about Parenting and Gender

April 5, 2017

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Last week I took a Spring Break from this blog. My father was visiting us in Portland. He had just celebrated his 75th birthday in Hawaii and (for some reason) chose to leave a sunny beach for cold and rainy Oregon. I was happy because it had been over a year since we had seen him and Cozy really wanted to see her Grandpa. He took Cozy and I to see Moana (Cozy loved it, powering through the scary part, and I appreciated Disney utilizing a Goddess tale) and we had a belated birthday dinner at Portland City Grill. It was nice to catch up.

It’s an odd thing being around your parents when you’re a parent. You realize how like them you are, whether you want to be or not. I see so much of my dad in me. We even have similar mannerisms. It kinda freaks me out a bit. There are certainly qualities in this man I greatly admire, and a few I’ve worked to limit. How much like this person am I? I tend to think I turned out pretty good. I didn’t become a serial killer or a military contractor or a wife-beater or a guy who spends all his time playing fantasy football. I went to graduate school instead of Wall Street. Also, I like quiche. (There are a few kinks still to be worked out.) He did a pretty good job on the parenting front it seems.

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So I thought, while he was here, we’d sit down and I’d ask him what it was like to be a new father of a boy in the mid-1960s, when the world and gender roles were changing. What I got was a very honest conversation about his struggle to find balance between his home life and his work in sales that often took him away from home, a flash of insight into issues that led to my parents divorce when I was 17, and some useful wisdom about how to be a great parent to my daughter. We sat on the couch in my living room talking and I just wanted to ask good questions but as I transcribed our talk I got a greater appreciation for his own journey as a parent.

Randy: So I was born in February 1964. The world was a little different then. Did you know I was going to be a boy?

Dad: No. We talked about it before you were born, about whether we wanted a boy or a girl and we agreed it doesn’t matter the first time, especially the first child, as long as they’re healthy and have all the fingers and toes. It didn’t really matter to us. In fact, we decorated the nursery in yellow so that it didn’t matter whether it was a boy or girl. We changed the decor after it was born, but we were just happy to have a healthy child.

R: Would you have thought differently if I had been born a girl, knowing girls had fewer opportunities?

D: If it was a boy we would have raised it one way, and if it was a girl, we pretty much would have raised it the same way.

R: Did it help that mom had a job before she got pregnant? She didn’t really work after I was born.

D: She was woking in a business office and we agreed that when she was 6 months pregnant that she would stop working and stay home and make sure that she was healthy. We could live on one income and that’s what we did. The second income was nice but it wasn’t necessary. I was making enough money to take care of the family and I really didn’t want her to work. I wanted her to stay home with the baby. And she did.

R: Did she want to work?

D: Yeah, oh yeah. She was always wanting to help out and work and stay active but she found things to do at home and concentrating to getting to that baby to one year, at least.

R: The mid-60s was really the rise of the feminist movement and women discovering their life outside of the home. What did you think about “women’s lib”? Mom has said she was aware of it, but were you thinking it was a big change?

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D: I was open minded about it. If she wanted to work she could work. But we had to consider the babysitter situation. We had an elderly lady upstairs that was a good babysitter and she had some girlfriends that would come over and babysit after that year. But she stayed home for about a year before she went back to work. And she was really bored and anxious to get back to work. She wanted to do more than be just a mother.

R: What did you think about her going back to work then?

D: Back then I wanted her to stay at home and take care of the baby and make dinner and do the laundry and all the stuff that women did then. And I was happy just working and having her be the housewife. Now I think the mother should do whatever they feel comfortable doing. If they wanna work, they should work.

R: OK, lets talk about me. Or just raising a boy. I didn’t really turn out like a typical boy. I wasn’t too obsessed with violence or sports. I’d rather just read. When I was little, did you have a philosophy about how to raise a boy?

D: Like all couples with their first child we didn’t have a clue. We were flying by the seat of our pants. From a philosophy standpoint, we didn’t want you to be a soldier. We wanted you to have a happy childhood. That was really important to us. We tried to do things with you that you’d enjoy. We bought that canoe and we used to take you canoeing when you were little. We went on some camping trips and things like that. We involved you and let you see what the world was like but we didn’t have any ideas of the future of what you were going to be or were going to do. You were always such a good kid we didn’t have to go through the challenge of trying to raise you. You kind of took care of yourself.

R: Did you think boys should be raised differently that girls?

D: We just let you do your own thing. We would keep an eye on you and make sure you didn’t get into anything too violent. We moved from the rental home to a house in Parma Heights, a three bedroom ranch house and I can remember you had your own room. It was a fun place. The backyard was fenced in and it had a playground and swing and you used to go out there and have fun by yourself. We would kind of keep an eye from the house and make sure you were OK.

R: We like to think we’re not raising Cozy as a girl but as a person. She’s gonna have to know about the world and that there’s some inequality she’s going to have to wrestle with, but she’s a person first.

D: Even thought it was 50 years ago we did the same thing. We raised you the same way. We didn’t try to make you macho. You’re your own person. You have respect for both genders and that’s important and you still have that gentleness you had as a kid. You never lost that and that shows up in Cozy.

R: You traveled a lot when I was little. Do you think that impacted how I developed?

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D: I think I would have been able to more things with you and teach you more things. I tried when I was home to concentrate on teaching you the basic fundamentals and to get you involved in things, in sports, in life, in outdoors, and swimming. That was a big part of me. Then swim team. I tried to keep you involved. We started out with Indian Guides. You were Little Crow and I was Big Crow. We had a lot of fun with that. I tried to get you and your brother involved with things, but I tried to be there, included and supporting you. I think that created a problem with the marriage, actually, because when I was home I was so involved with you guys, I probably didn’t pay enough attention to Sandy (my mom). I think it created a lot of boredom on her part because a lot of the time she wasn’t working. She was at home taking care of you guys. There has to be a balance there and I didn’t recognize that balance. I was too intent on making as much money as I could so you guys could have a good life. You were always in neighborhoods and homes that were, um, “upscale.” You always had friends, it was safe, you could walk to church. I always tried to have the family in a place that was safe and fun.

R: OK, last question. What’s your general advice to being a parent to someone Cozy’s age.

D: You’ve gotta give them room to grow. Encourage them to do the right thing, of course. And push them in a direction they don’t want to go but pay attention and see what they enjoy and like to do and just kind of guide them in the direction to their future. They’ll tell you. They’ll let you know what they like. Cozy’s got a great start because she’s got an artist mom and a well-educated dad. You guys are in that period where you’re in a transition now. And when you find out what you want to do next it’s going to be good for you and good for the family. When you’re happy the rest of the family is happy.

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That’s certainly a good piece of truth. Talking to my dad reminded me of Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, and how my mom must have felt a bit stifled in that home in Parma Heights. Those were times when gender roles in middle class homes were really being re-examined. But it also made me think about how much free reign I had as a little boy, to explore the yard, the neighborhood streets, and the woods. That had to play a role in my sense of independence. And that’s what we’re doing with our daughter.  So my father will be a part of her independent spirit.

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Postscript: My mother just read this and thinks a lot of it is just wrong. She used words like “male chauvinist” and “doormat.” I’m gonna do a parallel interview with her about this period and get her side of the story. It’s funny how we (re) remember our own lives.

 

Hey, hey, hey, it’s fat shaming!

Feb. 9, 2017

Let’s be honest, this is a blog. It’s not an academic research journal. It’s not Time Magazine. It’s my personal weekly spiel, so it’s both my take on things big and small and a refection of my own evolution as a woke humanoid. If there are some fools that want to hold something I did or said in the 1980s over me, let them. That person was. Even the cells in his body are long gone. If I share my journey, maybe others (perhaps you, my beloved reader) will reflect on theirs. We are on a path, trying not to be dragged backwards by the trolls tweeting at our heels. The key is intense self-reflection. Sometimes you don’t like what you see.

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Some of the big ticket items of oppression come through pretty clearly for the people that are ready to see them and the impact on their world; racism, sexism, homophobia, even Islamophobia. People might even be able to make it from there to discussions of white privilege, intersectionality, and queer identities. But start talking about fat people and things fall apart quickly. “But…. But… But…” Suddenly there are lots of reasons not to practice empathy. It’s still safe to look down on the large.

I’ve been one of those people. Like Donald Trump, I’ve been on three sides of a two sided issue. Obviously, America (and Donald Trump) has a weight problem. I noticed it when I lived in Europe. You could pick out the Americans in any crowd by their waist size. According to the CDC, 36.5% of Americans are obese. Those folks suffer all kinds of medical woes, including early deaths and their health issues are a part of are swelling health care costs that get folded into our insurance premiums. In 2008, the CDC pegged the medical cost of obesity at $147 billion. So it’s right to get angry at fatties, right?

If anyone knows this anger it’s a heavy person. And that’s the problem. The sociological causes of high obesity rates is one discussion (as well as what is defined as “obesity”). How we treat heavy people is another discussion. And why there should be anything close to a “perfect” weight is a third. I’m going to ignore the first discussion, and only say that scones are not supposed to be the size of your head, to focus on the other two.

She’s a perfect 10

It’s no shocker that we want women to look like “girls.” I mean, just ask why we demand that women shave their armpits. What’s the function? You can look like a pre-pubescent girl maybe into your early twenties if you work at it. But after that, it’s a losing battle. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! And there are several industries to help you out.

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In the early 1990s, I religiously assigned Naomi Wolf’s first book, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. College women were suffering from record reports of eating disorders and American women were dying from botched liposuction surgeries and it just seemed like the right book at the right time to put in front of female and male people. It’s based on the staple of gender socialization that boys are raised to be judged on their actions and girls are raised to be judged solely on their looks. I’m certainly going to write more about this complex issue, but their is one easy way to fit it into this topic; the perfect 10.

Is your butt too round or too flat? Are your boobs too big or too small? Are you too short or too tall? What about your nose? And how is your skin? While these questions might impact males, they define females very worth from an early age. There is a narrow window where each characteristic is in the acceptable beauty zone. But there are a hundred moving parts (Maybe your ass is fine but your knees are knobby) and it’s a constantly shifting matrix (Is the thigh gap in or out this season?). It’s enough to cause a girl to lose her mind and that’s the point, according to Wolf. Drive females crazy with anxiety and keep them away from the thrones of power.

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The women in Trump’s beauty contests are held up as the “ideal,” but they all look very similar in their proportions. A gold medal swimmer, like Missy Franklin, wouldn’t have the body to compete for the Miss USA crown. Neither would comedian Amy Schumer for that matter. How dare they not at least try to be a Trump 10? “It makes me so angry. Amy Schumer would be so hot if she lost like a hundred pounds.” Every woman should do everything possible to make it to TEN and if they don’t there’s something wrong with them. Maybe they’re “lesbians.” (Because any female who doesn’t rank her evaluation by men’s gaze first and foremost must not like men. Right, bros?)

Forget the fact that even the “perfect” women don’t actually look like that. Can we get some non-airbrushed pictures of Ivanka Trump up in here? I bet even supermodel Gigi Hadid has parts of her body she hates. Self-hate is the goal of the beauty myth. It’s not what you’ve accomplished in life, it’s how the guys rank your hotness. And after about age 21, it’s a losing battle. Better fit Botox into your budget.

Add the majority of women who are not a size zero into that anger at the imperfect. Here is the genesis of fat shaming. “How dare you be fat? What’s wrong with you? I have to look at you!” So it’s not about the issues of the looker, but the issues of the looked upon. Sociologists call this attribution theory. We can make up a whole story about people we define as somehow deficient. “I bet she goes all in for Venti Caramel Frappucinos.” Fat people are lazy, gross, ugly, selfish (and, oddly, self-hating), unhealthy, but, hey, they’re funny as hell.

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This topic reared its ugly head after last month’s Women’s March. I saw a meme that tried to make a joke that Trump got a bunch of large ladies to do some walking. Because 1) feminists are fat, 2) liberals are fat, and 3) hot skinny chicks would never waste their time marching when they could be getting their boyfriends buckets of fried chicken before the big game. Let’s put aside the reality of who is heavier, liberals or conservatives (here’s a link) or if your are more likely to see an abundance of plus-sized women at a NASCAR event, and focus on the message. Women who stand up for their rights are fat and any women who is not this week’s definition of a “10” is to be devalued. Those fat, hairy lesbian feminists are barely people, let alone women. Right, bros?

The emotional impact on the women we love

Devaluation and dehumanization are the most accessible tools of oppression. Calling a grown black man a “boy,” or a person with disabilities a “retard,” or a woman a “bitch.” It’s all the same. The perpetrator might say, “It’s just a word. Lighten up!” But to the recipient there is a cumulative effect that is emotionally and psychologically devastating. The constant message that you are “less than” erodes a person’s self-worth. Plenty of research backs this up. Just ask a fat person. I did. There are women in my circle that have struggled with their weight and, being an ethnographer (and someone who has probably made a few fat jokes in his life), I wanted to shut up and just listen. What does it feel like to be shamed because of your weight? I got so many responses, I just had to sit with them for a while. Some had me in tears. And some said they were in tears while they wrote their answers to me.

Many were first fat-shamed by their mothers and then by other women, showing how these values become internalized, like one group of slaves being used to keep watch over another group of slaves. Some became fat after the birth of their children or injuries, and for some the shame was there as long as they could remember. Some were body-shamed for being “too thin,” but continually felt fat. All were people I cared about. Suddenly I wanted to write a book on the topic. But for now, listen to some of their truth.

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I was a size 6 until at age 40 I had another baby and then 2 years of surgeries. I am an 18 now. The people who hurt me are actually acquaintances and old friends that haven’t seen you in a while. I’m sure they aren’t trying to hurt me, but when someone says something like oh my god what happened to you? Or you’ve gotten so big I wouldn’t have known you. I have literally stopped being social over this I am terrified of being in public and someone saying something like that even if they don’t mean it to hurt me. (S)

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Before my 48th birthday my mother announced with a huge sense of glee that she knew what she was going to give me for my birthday. I said, “What?” She said, “Liposuction.” To be honest, I’m about 15lbs over the weight I should be. (C)

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“If you could see yourself from behind, you’d shoot yourself”….My mother to me at 13 years old. 25 years of therapy later, and 2 Master’s in Mental Health…here I am living that moment. (A)

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I am told I look better than a 25 year old and I am 45, but when I look in the mirror I see an overweight, blob of laziness. I try to challenge my thoughts of myself but when I continuously get praised for my physique I cannot help but hang on to it. I don’t agree with what others see but I know I do not see my body how it is so I trust that others do. Its like being in prison and I am unable to break free from it. (M1)

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I can’t imagine living in a world where I actually feel good about my body. I watched some clip of an athletic, slim woman walking on a beach in a bikini and thought “I can’t imagine putting on a bikini and walking on the beach. What would that be like? What would it be like to walk so confidently, openly, unafraid that you’ll be trolled or insulted, content in yourself?” (M2)

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When I was younger, I was always on the heavier side. I dealt with bullies my entire life calling me “fat” and saying just awful things. From the age of 7 on. My own father used to fat shame me and say awful things. “If you would get your fat ass out of the refrigerator, maybe you’d be able to finally listen to me!” I always struggled with being heavy. My thighs always touched, my ass was always bigger and I got boobs earlier than all the other girls. One second, a guy would call me a “slut” for having big boobs and then next, I would be called a “cow” because I was big. (C2)

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This is just a tiny slice of what I received. Women who work in the media got it in email and Facebook comment form and women who stayed at home got it from the family members who loved them. The body shaming came from friends and strangers because everyone has permission to comment on a woman’s body and where it is in relation to Trump’s 10.

While there is a parallel narrative of men who are fat shamed, men have the privilege of plugging into the patriarchal power structure. When I was a kid, many overweight boys found refuge on the football team. It’s surely a struggle for larger men in the competitive GQ work world, but there are infinite messages that still tell them they are their accomplishments, not their belt size. You can even become president!

There is a ton of research on this subject I could cite but the message I got was how many women I know suffer in silence. Heartbreaking silence. The internet is on fire with fat shaming “humor,” but we tolerate the suffering of people we love. Why?

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Can I be a part of the solution? I’ve certainly made comments about the obesity issue that were cloaked in concern about health issues (and insurance premium rates). But I have to wonder if I’ve avoided relationships out of fear of fatness. I’ve always been pretty slim (even when I played high school football) and been dedicated to healthy diet and exercise. I know I’ve thought of heavy people as not caring about those things. In many cases, it’s the exact opposite – they care and engage more. The fat = sick assumption is hugely problematic. It’s so much more complex than that. But stereotyping is so much easier than wading into the complexity. (Just ask a Trump fan about Mexicans and Muslims.) And liberals are just as guilty. Spend some time on the People of Wal-Mart website for a good dose of liberal fat and class-shaming.

It doesn’t do any good to tell a fat person they are fat. They know, believe me. In fact, it’s likely to have the opposite effect. It’s not like someone hears a comment and thinks, “Oh, shit, I might be obese. I’m going to cut carbs out of my diet today!” These are life long struggles, fueled, at least in part, by the belief that there is some perfect body size that will get you back into the “fully human” category.

Think of the human potential that has been lost because of the impact of that shame, of people who hide their talents because of one category of evaluation. And think of people  who just gave up on their own health because it is impossible (impossible) to ever truly reach this socially constructed ideal of perfection. And think of the woman who really deserves some Ben & Jerry’s and the simple joy a mouthful of ice-cream can bring, standing in the check-out line next to air-brushed magazine cover models, diet books, and the National Enquirer beach bodies issue with the teaser, “Whose disgusting fat ass is this?”

I want to write more about this issue, but for now I want to just say we are all fully human with a right to be here. It doesn’t matter what your size is. But we need to hear the stories because anyone who cares about a person who is suffering should care about why they are suffering. Things are changing. People don’t care as much about beauty pageants as they used to (Sorry, Trump.) Real people have stretch marks and bounce around on the scale and have days when they feel like not leaving the house. We’re probably more ready for the Rosie O’Donnells (Trump’s “fat pig”) and the Alicia Machados (Trump’s “Miss Piggy”) of the world than the Ivankas and Melanias, but there’s room for all to exist without being placed under our microscope of evaluation. Your ass is fine.

To be continued.

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2016: End of a Rough Year

December 31, 2016

I don’t think I’ve ever seen people so angry at a year, a manmade block of twelve months, like it was some independent actor. “2016 kicked my ass!” Granted, 2016 was the year that took away Carrie Fisher and gave us President-Elect Donald “Pussy Grabber” Trump, but it’s not the damn year’s fault. We’re all glad it’s over, but there’s little hope that 2017 is gonna be any better as America suffers the results of the greatest con in history and deals with even more cultural icon deaths. (Can I get $20 on Hugh Hefner by Valentines Day?)

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On the home front, it was a wonderful year as I watched our daughter Cozy go from a toddling toddler to an articulate 2-year-old who is happy to argue that Mickey and Minnie Mouse are really the same person/mouse and knows the proper usage of no, nope, and “No way, Mommy.” She can also sing “Hey Jude” all the way through. (Well, at least the good bits.) It’s been an insane year watching her transition from “baby” to “person.” A highlight of each day has been picking up Andrea from her job at the law firm and relaying what amazing feat she’s accomplished that day. Yesterday she put on a dress by herself and then put a little Santa figure on a spinning turntable and screamed, “Help, Daddy!” over and over again. Poor Santa.

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This blog has been a great way to chart both her development and the development of the world she is growing up in. I’ve been able to bounce back from macro to micro on a weekly basis. From her potty training to the terrorist attack in Brussels, it’s all been here, warm and fuzzy moments and moments of shear horror. Of the 54 posts in 2016, the most popular  (over 9,200 reads) and discussed (30 comments) was one of my several pieces on rape culture, entitled Why we can’t have good things: Men and rape culture (June 2). My favorite piece was actually written by Andrea, a powerful guest essay on her border crossing, that was latter published in the collection, A Journey of Words.

Donald Trump’s name was in the title of seven blogposts but, in a way, his tiny fingers were in all of them as he is the figurehead of the cultural backlash that our Cozy must live in. If Russian Stooge Trump (or Crooked Trump, either works) makes it to the end of his first term, Cozy will be six-years-old and we’ll be hoping there will still be public schools to send her to. Let’s hope there’s still a United States, as well.

There has been plenty of commentary on Cozy’s gendered (or non-gendered) development, as well as commentary on shows we watched while she was asleep or at her abuela’s (The Walking Dead, The Good Wife, Stranger Things, etc.). A little bit about sports, Sigmund Freud, and maybe not enough about why saying “all lives matter” makes you sound racist.

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The blog has really helped me with my writing. The piece on Bowie’s passing was published in a magazine and two of my pieces on Trump, “Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity” and “Who the hell is supporting Donald Trump?”, were published in Counterpunch. Three of my favorite pieces were written far from Portland. My piece on Patti Smith was written in a coffee shop in Greenwich Village, New York that she hangs out in, the post on the Orlando gay bar shooting was written in Washington, DC, and the piece about sexism in Cuba was written on a flight from Havana to Mexico. Like a rolling stone.

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Who knows were 2017 will take us. It feels like the Trump trolls, Trump billionaires, and Trump generals want to roll America back to a dark time where the freedom of anyone who wasn’t a straight white cis-gendered Christian male was just a far off dream. But I think they underestimate our will to defend what we’ve won and fight on every single front, including on-line. My sincere hope is that Donald will realize this job is a bit harder than he hoped and go back to his tacky gold castle after a few months of trying to understand how the Constitution actually works.

In the meantime, we will be raising our daughter to stand strong against the next generation of pussy grabbers that Trump has been fostering. We will travel, write, make art, and continue to rage against those in power who rage for the machine. And maybe dad will take a great job somewhere on earth to help move the wheels of justice in the right direction.

Here are the Watching the Wheels posts of 2016. Thank you for letting me share these thoughts with you.

The Kid’s First Trip to the ER: Anatomy of a Panic (January 4)

My Little New York Patti Smith Dream (January 9)

How David Bowie Bent My Gender (January 11)

I’m in charge of your butthole: The intimate world of parenting (January 20)

What does the Bundy militia really want? (January 25)

Violence is the answer: I’m over football. (February 2)

Pushing back against trolls (February 10)

A Valentines Poem for My Beloved Wife (February 14)

18 thoughts for Cozy’s 18-month birthday (February 17)

Ben Carson is not retarded: The language of marginalization (February 23)

A Coyote brought her to us – Cozy’s birth week (March 2)

Who the hell is supporting Donald Trump? (March 10)

Me and My Shadow: More baby brain fun (March 17)

Living in an age of terror: Brussels (March 22)

A Zombie Ate My Baby! Social anxiety and The Walking Dead (March 28)

A Year as a Penniless Writer (April 6)

The Feminine Mystique: Stay-at-Home Dad Edition (April 14)

We need a Rosa Parks of genitals: North Carolina and the need to pee (April 21)

Prince Died for Your Sins: Prophecy and Phallacy (April 28)

Farewell to my Good Wife (May 4)

Cinco de Mayo guest essay: A Conversation with the Serpent (May 5)

Saying “No” to Elmo: The Superego vs. the red monster (May 13)

The Millennial Effect: Here comes Generation Z (May 18)

Douchebags, Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The perils of wounded masculinity (May 25)

Why we can’t have nice things: MEN and rape culture (June 1)

Sometimes you really need a moment. (June 12)

Ode to a Gay Bar (June 15)

Gender – Nature vs. Nurture 6: Fierce fashionista for a fiercer world (June 22)

Dad Love 8 – I’m on drugs (June 30)

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The Man Way: The stupidity of fighting terrorism with more terrorism (July 6)

Here’s Why Saying “All Lives Matter” Makes You Sound Racist (July 12)

The Casual Sociologist: Causally watching race and races from Mexico (July 26)

Empathy and PTSD in Rape Culture: Maybe a veteran would understand (better than Trump) (August 3)

Dad Love 9: I Become Winona Ryder in Stranger Things (August 8)

Feministing in Havana (August 14)

I found a 2-year-old! (August 22)

My Unintended Gap Year: The humility of looking for work (September 1)

So I Married an Alien (September 8)

The Princess Problem (September 15)

Owning My White Privilege: Stories I won’t (have to) tell my children (September 21)

How Donald Trump makes me a better feminist (September 28)

The Dream Police Are Inside My Head (October 6)

Donald Trump for President of Rape Culture (October 10)

Can you lead an authentic life in this mortgaged world? (October 20)

What drugs go well with a toddler? (October 26)

My toddler has flown the nest and I don’t know what to do with my hands. (November 3)

11/8 > 9/11: Trump’s body count starts now (November 10)

Bring on the anal phase! (November 15)

Watching the Wheels turns 2 and can use the potty! (November 23)

Butterflies for the Children of Aleppo (December 1)

Delayed gratification and Santa’s Advent calendar (December 7)

Writing to Live: The birth of the “rock novel” (December 14)

Trump Lessons 1: Is this sexist? (December 22)

Father Randy’s Top 20 for 2016, Back to Vinyl (December 27)