Black literature is often criticized more heavily and held to a higher standard than the literature of other races. The lack of historical Black narratives has left many Black writers focused on constructing non-fictional literature and realistic portrayals to rewrite history and break down racist ideologies. Non-fiction has always and will continue to have a place in society, however, much can be learned and expressed through speculative fiction. Bodyminds Reimagined investigates Black speculative fiction as a necessary avenue to understand the implications of the intersectionality of (dis)ability, race, and gender. However, many Black authors criticize this hybrid genre and accuse other Black writers of betraying their mission. The question then arises, does Black speculative fiction have a place in Black literature and provide alternative modes for understanding oppression?
War and social media have coexisted for the last two decades or so, however, the role social media is playing in the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine stands out from other ongoing conflicts, whether it be the current bombardment and mass starvation of Yemen, the ongoing civil war in Syria, or the practically invisible suppression of West Papuans in their prolonged struggle for independence. I contend that the distinction lies in the way the Western world is responding to the crisis in Ukraine. As a very active American consumer of social media, primarily on Instagram and Twitter, I have noticed an outpouring of support for Ukraine from my American peers previously averse to posting on matters of politics and current events as well as from American and European individuals and institutions with prominent social media followings, including corporations, celebrities and government officials (see images below). These individuals and institutions are what I am referring to when I say “the Western world.” Even my own college of Davidson in North Carolina is currently flying the Ukrainian flag beneath the American one in the center of campus.
I am pointing out this distinction that is the Western world’s response to the war in Ukraine because I think it can teach us an important lesson on a) the political construction of whiteness, b) how race and gender influence how the West perceives and responds to human suffering around the world, c) who is entitled to resistance to violent aggression in the eyes of the West, and d) who is given unequivocal support from the West in their respective fights against imperialist aggression.
I will perform my analysis using a TikTok I encountered on Twitter depicted below. First of all, for a TikTok to make it onto Twitter, especially the politics-focused Twitter spaces I am a part of, it needs to be one that is very prominent and being widely discussed and shared. In the case of this TikTok, it had over 750,000 likes, 16,000 comments and 15,000 shares and 14.2 million views alone at the time that I encountered it. The TikTok itself centered a horizontal video of a young girl confronting a taller and armed male soldier. The video follows the girl as she yells at the solider who responds by walking away and laughing. The environment in the background resembles a desert with a sandy road and hardly any trees. For a moment at the end, the video cuts to an old woman who is crying being interviewed by RT, a Russian media outlet. Above the video, there is text that reads: “LITTLE GIRL TRY TO STOP” followed by two broken heart emojis and a sad face emoji, which is then followed by: “PRAY FOR UKRAINE” [Ukrainian flag emoji] [broken heart emoji]. The caption for the TikTok read: “#ukraine #army #fyp #fyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy #RUSIA #emotional.” The TikTok was posted by @staystrongukrainee, which had 127,400 followers on the app, and now appears to have been removed (most likely for spreading misinformation).
As evidenced by the strange caption and the questionable editing of the video, this TikTok exhibits many standard “red flags” of misinformation. In fact, the TikTok is an example of misinformation as the video it references as depicting Ukraine is really a ten-year-old video depicting a Palestinian girl named Ahed Tamimi confronting an Israeli soldier in the Palestinian territory known as the West Bank. It is precisely the fake nature of this TikTok that interests me the most, as I believe its ability to exist as a piece of misinformation to illicit support, solidarity and sympathy for Ukraine in the current conflict reveals a lot about the political construction of whiteness, as well as the role of race and gender in shaping Western discourse around the Ukrainian conflict specifically, but also war and resistance in general.
First and foremost, I want to speak on this video’s ability to be used as a tool for misinformation and how that is related to whiteness. Ahed Tamimi, who has blonde hair and a fare skin tone, is white passing.
Before I delve into this, I want to touch on the history of this term. “Passing” was first used in runaway slave notices from 19th century America, which Andrea Guzman claims “brings us back to the tension between being white and being free. Are they really the same thing?” This history is significant as it reveals that the concept of “passing” for white is a political construction with implications of power and freedom. It also reveals the fact that whiteness has historically been a threshold demarcated by upper-class, property-owning white people. The runaway slaves could not decide themselves whether they were or were not white passing, but rather their whiteness was contingent on the whims of white people as revealed by the fact that poor white people were sometimes cast as “mulatto” by other whites and sold into slavery.
This is all related to the case for Ahed Tamimi in this example of misinformation as it was her white appearance that allowed this video of her to be repurposed for the Ukrainian conflict, which is situated in a country where the majority of the population has fare skin and, in some regards, is considered white. In fact, some journalists are noting how the skewed coverage of the Ukrainian conflict compared to others around the world (Syria, Yemen, Somalia and West Papua as some examples) is due to its nature as a nation of white people. Another source astutely classified the skewed nature of the coverage as “blatant racism.”
But while Tamimi’s white passing appearance has allowed an account like @staystrongukrainee to co-opt and frame her resistance against the Israeli soldier to be an assumed example of resistance from a Ukrainian girl against a Russian soldier, Tamimi’s identity as a Palestinian, and therefore a non-white, non-Western individual, did not afford her resistance to Israeli aggression the same level of support and sympathy from the Western world that has been afforded to cases of Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression. Kuan-Yun Wang, in an analysis of American and Canadian media coverage of Tamimi notes that “the media frame Tamimi and the Palestinians as violent initiators.” Wang found that the media also decry her persona as “fake’ and ‘propaganda,'” all of which Wang claims to “achieve the purpose of legitimising the use of state violence on colonised bodies, which ultimately reflects settler-colonial history in North America.” In terms of Tamimi’s reception in Israel, one member of the Israeli government has called her a terrorist, while the current Prime Minister, and Education Minister at the time, Naftali Bennett stated Tamimi deserved to be incarcerated for life following another instance of her slapping a soldier in 2018, which she served time in prison for. I will also speak on popular gendered tropes used against Tamimi in Israel later on.
This is all in stark contrast to the women in Ukraine who have taken up armed resistance against the recent Russian aggression and have been hailed by Western media outlets (examples: France24, Vanity Fair,Slate) and labeled as “brave” and as “heroes,” as seen in the tweets below.
While Tamimi’s relation to whiteness (being non-white but white passing) has impacted the way her resistance is received and, in this case, commodified to illicit certain reactions, her gender has also been used to further delegitimize her resistance, unlike the case of the Ukrainian women. For example, Yasmeen Serhan in an article for The Atlantic noted that “a young girl known for her long, curly hair isn’t the image one might typically come to expect of a national freedom fighter.” While the validity of Tamimi’s status as a “hero” figure is questioned due to her age, appearance and gender, the Ukrainian women being heralded on Twitter and in the media are not subjected to such scrutiny, even when, in another case of misinformation used to illicit support for Ukrainian women fighters, the women are wearing neo-Nazi symbols on their bullet-proof vests. Additionally, I have yet to come across any source that labels the Ukrainian women fighters as “fiery,” which is the sexist term The Mirrorused to characterize Tamimi.
The fetishization of Tamimi’s hair is also very prevalent in media and individual accounts of her. The Washington Post described the appearance of her hair as “wild locks swept up in a hair band,” which is yet another example of the emphasis on Tamimi’s supposed feistiness and “wild” nature, which is notably not how men, or the Ukrainian women I’ve referenced, that participate in resistance are ever described. A popular nickname for Tamimi among Israelis and others is “Shirley Temper,” which both fetishizes her hair, in its reference to the hair of Shirley Temple, and weaponizes her gender as something that is associated with rage. The general focus on her hair above everything also points to a form of dehumanization that Tamimi, and not the Ukrainian women, experience.
Other accounts of Tamimi have described her as a “metoo heroic victim” and have classified her resistance as “provocative,” which is yet another sexist term commonly used to objectify and victim-blame women. One Twitter user, who notably has their profile picture set as the Ukrainian flag, objectifies Tamimi in referencing her “usefulness.” They wrote: “Shirley Temper’s arrest was the grand finale of her parents’ grooming. Now that she’s no longer a photogenic little girl, she’s no longer useful.”
Returning to the focus of this analysis, it is clear from these examples that resistance to violent aggression is not created equal according to the West. While Ukrainians are heralded for resisting the violent invasion of Russia, Palestinians like Tamimi who resist the violence of Israeli soldiers (unarmed, in the case of Tamimi) are put under intense scrutiny, delegitimized, objectified and ridiculed. Additionally, it is clear race and gender play key roles in how resistance to violence is negotiated and classified by the West. As evidenced by the TikTok I’ve been referencing, the political construction of whiteness, and its ability to be weaponized at the whims of those looking to achieve certain goals, also plays a key role. Tamimi’s white passing appearance was weaponized to create misinformation to illicit Western sympathy for Ukraine, while her identity as a non-white Palestinian girl (at the time of the 2012 video) complicated and invalidated her actual act of resistance in the eyes of the West.
Tamimi’s relationship to whiteness can be understood using the words of Bree Newsome Bass, an artist and organizer based in North Carolina, who writes that “The ongoing conflict in Eurasia again shows that whiteness is not an ethnicity but a fluid power construct, a product of colonialism, where inclusion/exclusion fluctuates largely according to the whims of the ruling white elite. Where is the dividing line between Europe & Asia? Between East & West? Between European & non-European? Between white & nonwhite? Anti-Black racism remains the only constant that holds this fragile construct together. There must be clarity on who is unequivocally excluded.”
Bass’ inclusion of anti-Black racism is also relevant to the Ukrainian conflict, as African international students, migrants and residents of Ukraine have experienced immense racism, as well as acts of violence, in their attempts to escape the fighting.
This case of misinformation from TikTok I have dissected is important in that it reveals the impact of whiteness as a “power construct,” to use Bass’ terminology, that factors into the negotiation of whether or not certain people are entitled to resistance, whether or not it is acceptable that certain people suffer, and whether or not certain people are given unequivocal support from the West, even in the extreme cases of displaying connections to Nazism, like some fighters in the Ukrainian army.
As the Ukrainian conflict continues to this day, alongside numerous other conflicts and cases of Western imperialism around the world that have been purposefully swept under the rug and overlooked, it is important that we do not perpetuate narratives or spread media that supports the racist Western double standard regarding resistance that is rooted in whiteness and its weaponization. All peoples are entitled to resistance against oppressive forces, and we must recognize that.
White feminism is a type of feminism that concentrates primarily on the hardships of white women without acknowledging oppression felt by non-white women or the layering intersectionalities of identity. While most modern-day feminists associate white feminism with the first wave of feminism, white feminism still very much endures within patriarchy and permeates into the rhetoric of many feminists. White feminism is not merely the image of white women holding a Daughters of the American Revolution flag and walking along the streets of Washington DC. It’s more than suffragettes and VOTES FOR WOMEN sashes. Rather, white feminism is a system of oppression that has stemmed from white supremacy and racism.
Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption is a historical analysis of white feminism and an “argument for feminism to pitch itself against a very specific frontier, that of whiteness, where whiteness is not constructed as a biological category but as a set of practices and ideas that have emerged from the bedrock of white supremacy, itself the legacy of empire and slavery” (Zakaria 208). Against White Feminism is an attempt to excise whiteness and its assumptions of privilege in order to foster the liberation of all women. Zakaria splits up the book into eight different chapters regarding different areas of feminism, including the suffragette movement, the white savior complex, the insertion of white feminists into international wars, and sexual liberation.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, political philosopher, and a Ph. D. candidate in Political Science at Indiana University. Furthermore, she serves on the board of directors of Amnesty International USA and has experience being a feminist of color within academic and professional spaces. Zakaria has written a few other works, including The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan and Veil (Object Lessons). Zakaria is also the only Pakistani American woman recognized by the Indiana House and Senate for her effort towards women’s rights, a significant feat as few brown women are granted access to politics. Her personal experiences in academia and human rights are notable concerning Zakaria’s qualification because she has had first-hand experience with and discrimination from white feminism.
Zakaria’s primary methodology is content and text analysis from well-known feminists such as Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. By using the method of close readings from influential feminists of color that came from before her, she pieces together an argument for the deconstruction of white feminism that began long before the writing of this book. Additionally, Zakaria provides analyses of white feminist texts such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex to contextualize white feminism. Alongside the close readings of critical feminist theories, Zakaria also provides information from historical events that western historians essentially recognize with little space for or mentions of women of color. By presenting these accounts, she restructures the narrative to uplift the voices and actions of black and brown women, using the book itself to accomplish her mission of liberation for all women.
Zakaria begins her discussion with chapter 1, “In the Beginning, There Were White Women,” where she depicts the history of the feminism movement and the racism within, particularly in America and Europe. Zakaria dives into the history of colonialism and how the white feminism movement was able to progress due to being supported by colonial powers and white supremacy. For one, white British suffragettes during the early 20th century would defend voting rights for women in India (a colony of the British empire) but “refused to support the fight against colonial domination abroad” (29) because they profited off of colonial domination. Throughout the book, Zakaria notes these historical instances of hypocrisy within feminism movements that reinforced the subjugation of some, particularly women from Africa or the Global South. Similarly, Zakaria uses chapter 2, “Is Solidarity a Lie?,” to question the lack of intersectionality in contemporary feminist movements. Zakaria critiques Simone De Beauvior’s The Second Sex as universalizing “women” as “white women” and the “ultimate other,” disregarding the systems of oppression that overlap one another (43, 44). In response to this trend, Zakaria proposes a solution by combining two notable feminists, Kate Millett and Kimberlé Crenshaw. She asks, “by bringing together the intellectual tools of Millett’s epistemological skepticism and Crenshaw’s understanding of intersectionality, can a true feminist solidarity finally be born?” (55). Zakaria explores this idea through the rest of her book as she considers possible solutions.
Chapters 3 (“The White Savior Industrial Complex”), 4 (“Feminists and Feminist Wars”), and 6 (“Honor Killings, FGC, and White Feminist Supremacy”) all touch on the cultural differences between white feminists and women of color in the international realm. Specifically, Zakaria describes white female journalists and activists who attempt to “save” black and brown women via awareness or humanitarian aid. This notion is historically rooted in colonialism and white supremacy where Western (and almost always white) nations or cultures would attempt to enlighten black and brown people in Africa and the Global South based on the premise that western ideals were inherently correct. This ideology is exemplified by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous declaration of “white men saving brown women from brown men” (11). Zakaria introduces white women into the equation, as they also participate in the white savior complex alongside white men.
In Chapter 5, “Sexual Liberation is Women’s Empowerment,” Zakaria discusses sex-positive feminism and choice feminism as theories that “sideline the concerns of women of color and poor women who need the status quo to change” (138). This is because the liberation of women of color is reliant on structural change where sex-positive and choice feminists can comfortably exist within the oppressive status quo that fronts white women’s voices. Zakaria uses this notion to argue for a more collective movement to liberate all women. Chapter 7, “I Built a White Feminist Temple,” continues this discussion by asserting that a lack of parity between feminists results in a lack of equality between gender as a whole. Zakaria ends the book with chapter 8, “From Deconstruction to Reconstruction,” which provides a glimpse of “reconstructed feminism” (204). This form of feminism is meant to transform the discourses surrounding feminism and challenge neoliberalism. Contemporary feminism is without a “clear political frontier toward which to unite,” but Zakaria asserts that the most crucial frontier to unite against is capitalism since it is “bad for all women, even white women” (202). Zakaria’s conversation of the individual vs. the collective culminates in the last chapter as she calls for a collective understanding and engagement to deconstruct both capitalism and patriarchy, which aim to dominate all women and all people. While a wholly unified “we” is impossible within contemporary feminism movements, a reconstruction of feminism is possible. Zakaria argues that it will require the “great challenge of transformation” and white feminists to cede spaces to women of color (209). Zakaria concludes the book with a quote from Audre Lorde regarding the necessity of community: “without community, there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist” (209). This quote exemplifies both the historical continuity of whiteness within feminism and inspiration for a way forward.
Zakaria’s greatest strength is that she provides anecdotes from her life and connects them to feminist theories or historical events. This allows the reader to have a direct connection with the book. Furthermore, feminist theory is often very arbitrary and abstract, so providing concrete stories from Zakaria’s life helps the reader understand the theory and issues in today’s world. For example, Zakaria wrote an article called “Women and Islamic Militancy” in 2015 for Dissent, a traditionally leftist magazine. Her article highlighted how “some Muslim militant organizations used ‘empowerment-like rhetoric” to entice women (111). Zakaria claimed that a cause of this development was the expulsion of Muslim women from the central narrative of Western feminism. Ultimately, the article was rendered so controversial that the editors included a response from a “real feminist” alongside Zakaria’s piece (111). One of the editors of Dissent also stated in an interview that Zakaria was “fascinated and even excited by the idea of a Muslim woman warrior and terrorist killing” (111). Alongside this anecdote, Zakaria provided an analysis of liberal Islamaphobia and how intersecting identities of gender, race, and religion can create oppression. By contextualizing the theory with her own personal experiences of discrimination, the reader has a much firmer grasp of the philosophy.
One of Zakaria’s weaknesses is that some of her claims are very generalized. For example, Zakaria describes how white feminism often permeates into international relations, specifically when western nations claim commitment to a feminist framework, but their actions convey otherwise. Two examples Zakaria provides are Sweden and Canada, both countries with “feminist foreign policies” that engage in arms trade with Saudi Arabia “whose use of arms and intimidation to harass Saudi women’s rights activists was well known” (92). I took issue with this argument because it oversimplified the international process and politics behind arms dealing. For one, Zakaria makes a direct link that military arms are used to pressure women’s rights activists despite most women’s activists in Saudi Arabia being jailed rather than threatened via tanks or machine guns. Furthermore, Zakaria makes this claim but provides no evidence or source regarding the direct impact of military arms on women or feminists. While I agree that western nations contribute to the oppression of women of color via military arms sales, I do not believe that this was the best example or argumentation.
Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Against White Feminism and would recommend it to all individuals who identified as feminists. Zakaria opened my eyes to many historical events and processes that I had not thought of as perpetuating whiteness, but her argument was coherent and compelling. I also personally appreciated the inclusion of brown women’s works and historical oppression from white feminism because much of intersectional feminism in America focuses on the oppression of black women rather than black and brown women. Furthermore, I believe that feminists who are white (not necessarily white feminists) should read this work in order to deconstruct the biases that they may not be aware of. Taking inventory of one’s privileges and the historical context surrounding their identity, especially those who want to create structural change, is vital to the feminist movement. Reading Against White Feminism is one step towards this direction and the collective feminist movement to come.
Zakaria, Rafia. Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption. 1 ed., New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.
What do you first think of whenever you look at this ad? Budweiser is a very popular beer company, so it particularly stands out. When I first looked at it, I thought to myself “Hmm, this advertisement is probably from the 1900s”. Budweiser created this advertisement in the 1950s and the intended audience of it seems to be pretty clear: white men. The purpose can also be quite clear: sell Budweiser beer to white men. These are the things you can decipher when you just take a slight glance at this advertisement.
As you dive deeper into the symbolic art that is presented in the advertisement, these things unearth more purpose and intention from the advertiser. Let us talk think about and analyze the actions of the two people in this ad. For instance, looking at the white man, he holds a hammer. As he is holding this hammer, it seems he is working hard on building something and we can assume this is either something for home or it is a part of his job. When looking at the white woman who we can assume is his wife, she is pouring him a glass of Budweiser beer. There is nothing hardworking about what she is doing, she is just simply acting upon her husband’s needs. This image sparks more controversial topics. In the 1950s, they would say “Well that is the role of a women, isn’t it?”. They would assume that the role of the women is to take care of her husband and fulfill all of his needs. Whenever we compare these two actions of the man and the woman, it really reflects those assumed and assigned gender roles that society claimed to be “right” in the 1900s. The typical woman staying at home, tending to her husband, the breadwinner. In contrast, the husband is the hardworking spouse in the relationship who has a job, does the “handyman” work at home, and acts upon all the “masculine” things society expects him to do. Just by looking at the actions of the two in the ad, it easily already brings those gender assumptions to the audience’s minds. However, when looking at the advertising techniques of Budweiser, you can question them on why they ignited these prominent gender roles in the ad. Well, since it was the 1950s, it was assumed that after a long day of hard work, men needed to decompress, so their wives could pour them some Budweiser beer at the end of the day.
These points can also be proven by the facial expressions of the man and the woman in the advertisement. By the looks of the man’s face with his wrinkled forehead lines and his subtle yet irritated facial expression, he seems to be stressed out and tired from a long day of labor and responsibilities. Let’s remember, the 1950s were times when gender roles were prominent. Where the golden standard was the men working and laboring during the day while the women stayed at home with the children. So, because men are stressed out at the end of the day, this is why Budweiser aims at this audience of white men who have jobs. Budweiser tries to convince you that alcohol, specifically their beer, will help you decompress and relax at the end of the day. Now, looking at the intended audience of the advertisement, it sparks conversation on the assumptions of gender roles. For example, why is Budweiser assuming that only white men drink beer? Why can’t they advertise it to women or even non-white men? This question does have an obvious answer which has to do with the time that the advertisement was released, however, this only shows how prominent these gender stereotypes and standards as well as racial issues were during the 1950s. It shows how companies and businesses convinced society that men have specific roles and women have specific roles. It shows how there was so much assumption on what race was superior during the time and which were inferior. Moving on, let’s start looking at the women pouring the Budweiser beer for who we assume is her husband. She looks so content while pouring the beer. She looks as if she has no problems in this world. That may be true, or it may not be. Budweiser is trying to convince the audience that since it is the 1950s where women are at home while men are working during the day, the least they could do for their hardworking husbands is pour them a glass of Budweiser beer. Budweiser is trying to force these couples into these roles in order to advertise their product.
Looking back at the advertising strategies that Budweiser tried to use, it may have been effective during the 1950s. However, that does not make it necessarily “right” to advertise in the first place. When people look at the advertisement in modern time, there are so many gender, racial, and class issues within the ad. However, we can learn to appreciate that advertisements such as this one was produced in history, because we can now analyze them and learn from them. That is the major takeaway we can obtain from media that occurred a long time ago, and that is what we need for social justice.
Through our time in GSS, I learned more about something I am already very passionate about, reproductive justice issues. If I learned anything in our short time delving into these issues in class, it is that they are highly intersectional, something which is often omitted from mainstream discussions of them. While not the only reproductive justice issue in any regard, the most commonly discussed topic of our time is abortion access.In popular media, pro-choice and pro-life narratives are heavily centered around towing the line of viability. Furthermore, a sticky compromise, legally, was made by founding the right to abortion in a constitution right to privacy. This has allowed the focus on abortion to be shifted on morality instead of looking at the many nuanced reasons that women reach out for these procedures.
In my literature review I focused on what the major ways in which pro-choice arguments have been founded and identifying some common themes that are seen across the literature. These themes did include some legislative basis, particularly regarding rights to autonomy and how we discursively construct or limit personhood, particularly in regards to the oxymoronic concept of fetal personhood. One of the more interesting themes that I found was the topic of class equity as a means for opening up abortion access. A lot of these arguments center around women lacking access to provide adequately for any child. A number of narratives have noted that it is not just to have children if they are unable to be provided for and cherished. These arguments have also been used in a similar fashion regarding the cost of maintaining a healthy pregnancy. Depending on a woman’s health needs and the state she lives in, the total cost of pregnancy can be a very expensive process in comparison to the cost of an abortion.
Due to these issues being more current than some that are often discussed, I would like to use this information to propose a DRI / some other research project specifically into the intersections of class equity issues and abortion access. I would specifically like to focus on class equity and how this concept interacts with race regarding these issues, as many of the books commented on token populations, and I would personally like a more thoroughly representative depiction of the wide experiences of women seeking out these procedures. I believe that, as this issue is one with many extremist attitudes on both sides of the aisle, this research is essential and would provide different points and voices in the reproductive justice conversation.
High school, while being a time in a adolescents life where the most growth, physically, emotionally, and psychologically, is looked on by many to be a stressful and miserable period full of bullying, angst, and feelings of inadequacy. Why do so many people hate high school? While it is a tendency of the 21st century to assert that we, as citizens of the United States, have made progress regarding how we accept people of different races, ideologies, and sexual identities, the normal high school environment proves otherwise. The four years adolescents spend in high school form the cornerstone in which they build their beliefs and how they come to interact with the world as adults. C.J. Pascoe’s academic monograph Dude You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School is a case study of a high school in Northern California. In her work, Pascoe interviews numerous students and faculty and observes the daily workings of the institution for over a year. What she finds is an environment where adolescents ages 14 to 18 are bred to join the heteronormative, patriarchal society that we are all too familiar with.
Pascoe asserts that commonly held notions of gender, masculinity, and sexuality are solidified during the years in high school. During these formative years, Pascoe argues, important social events are central to the development of sexual and gender identity. Formal occasions such as prom, Friday night dances, and homecoming solidify heteronormativity by encouraging teenagers to pair up, girl and boy, and interact romantically in a social setting. Also examined by Pascoe is how the male students interact in ways that are misogynistic and homophobic. She uses the example of the “fag” epithet to show that teenage boys are forced to prove their masculinity and sexual orientation to their peers in order to gain their respect. If a boy is seen as effeminate or weak, they are more likely to be regarded as a “fag”, which is associated with not being “man” enough. One student that Pascoe interviewed said of being called this insult, “To call someone gay or a fag is like the lowest thing you can call someone. Because that’s like saying you’re nothing” (55). This student is pointing to a central idea in Pascoe’s book and a glaring problem of homophobia that is still present today. Being labeled as “gay” when you identity as a straight, cis-gender male delegitimizes the careful presentation of masculinity that many try to portray to the world. Pascoe also discusses how race plays a factor in determining masculinity. She found that black teenagers were automatically placed on a higher level of masculinity as their white counterparts, and because of this they were more likely to be seen as stronger, more aggressive and sexually domineering. The distinction between the types of masculinity led to more black boys being disciplined by the administration and their teachers. The intersectionality between race and masculinity is a vital part of Pascoe’s thesis and is also very relevant to today’s political and social climate, where the demonizing of black bodies is all too common. Pascoe’s monograph leads us to the starting point of the many issues we all face and grapple with in today’s world.
The author and researcher behind this monograph is C.J. Pascoe, a professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon. Pascoe graduated with a degree in sociology from Brandeis University and received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on the masculinity and femininity, youth, and sexuality studies. Her monograph Dude You’re a Fag won the American Educational Research Association’s 2007 Book of the Year Award. Pascoe’s knowledge expands beyond masculinity and into the realms of anorexia and its prevalence in society today and how social media and technology is changing how teenagers communicate and grow up. The expertise Pascoe brings to this subject is a deep understanding of adolescents and the developmental milestones they hit during high school. The knowledge gathered by the researcher from many years in academia and the practical world qualify her to write such a book.
Pascoe’s monograph is considered a case study of a singular high school that she uses to draw conclusions about educational institutions and their effect on students throughout the United States. Over an eighteen-month period, Pascoe interviewed numerous students, faculty, and administrators while also observing classes and conversations among students. Pascoe also attended common high school events where socializing takes places such as sports games, dances, and school sanctioned assemblies. Both by quoting directly and drawing conclusions based on conversations, Pascoe comes to find that at a working class, diverse high school gender norms and heteronormativity are deeply ingrained into the students. She observes school authorized events, such as the high school’s homecoming assembly before the dance, in which male students dress up and dance scandalously (in ways that would be considered unacceptable for girls to do) and attempt to win votes and be crowned the king. Other occurrences analyzed by Pascoe are the school plays, the only occasion where it is acceptable for boys to dance, wear makeup, and act flamboyantly in public, and the meeting of the Gay Straight Alliance club (GSA), a place where the margins of the school come together for support. What her observations found is not surprising. There are a very small number of students that participated in the GSA and sponsored activities, while many students either acted in or attended the school plays. The thin line between when it is acceptable to embody traditionally feminine characteristics and when it is considered taboo is shown through these events. Pascoe’s discovery of how deeply the notions of masculinity and femininity are pushed, even through our education system, asks if any progress has been made.
The paramount strength of Pascoe’s work is how she takes into account and analyzes the importance of intersectionality when looking at masculinity. By bringing race into conversation, Pascoe solidifies her argument even further. As noted earlier, the black students at River High were almost excluded from the “fag” discourse so commonly heard. Protected by what Pascoe calls “hip-hop culture” it is socially acceptable for the black students to pay attention and care to their appearance and dance in public without fear of being referred to as a fag. Pascoe pinpoints this phenomena as an underlying racist attitude that, because black men are seen as meaner, sexually aggressive, and domineering, they are hypermasculinized. Another succinct intersection is that of masculinity and queer identity in America’s high schools. One student at River High, Ricky, an openly gay student, is discussed about in length as an example of how queer students are treated in high school. Ricky describes his experience as violent and unpredictable at the hands of the male students attempting to assert their masculinity. If Pascoe were to leave out these very important intersections of masculinity, her book would not have had the weight and argument that it has.
The way Pascoe chooses to draw conclusions based on the observed actions of the students can be problematic at times. While Pascoe has and listens to numerous conversations with and among boys about their various sexual conquests with girls, she rarely receives female viewpoints. She instead analyzes the interactions of the students, which sometimes border on sexual harassment, and reports on them. In many of these scenarios, Pascoe reports that the girls are most often willingly submissive to the physical dominance of the males without giving a reason why from the girls’ perspectives. The lack of primary information the readers get calls into question Pascoe’s diligence in her research.
This particular monograph examines a subject that is relatable to anyone who graduated from an American high school. Though this may not have been the experience for everyone, River High is a portrait of the American, public, educational institution that casts its influence over the rest of society. Its explicit and easy to read format makes it accessible to readers that are not academics, while its well-researched and deep arguments make it attractive to those who are. I think that this book is analyzed deeply and has an argumentative and interesting take on an experience that is so common to so many people, even today.
“CJ Pascoe.” Department of Sociology. University of Oregon, 2016. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.
Pascoe, CJ. Dude You’re a Fag: Sexuality and Masculinity in High School. Berkeley: U of California, 2007. Print.
Day by day interactions with the world lead to many an unanswered question in our minds. When it comes down to the hard ones – figuring out what type of domesticated animal you are or how much your relationship resembles Beyoncé’s, there is only one place to turn: Buzzfeed. This social media entertainment web-sphere creates everything from memes to movies for their readers, who are usually young adults. The most enticing thing about all of Buzzfeed’s posts and articles is the quick, easy to read and comprehend quality. Everything opened will be closed within 3 minutes, have plenty of visuals to grab attention, and language that is up to date with pop culture. When looking at a particular video created by Buzzfeed called “8 Types of Girls You’ve Danced with”, the question comes up: why is this video so easily entertaining to their target audience? While I may not be immune to the tempting articles on puppies, I aim to answer this question by pointing out the assumptions and stereotypes of gender, sexuality and race present in this Buzzfeed video.
The video is presented to us through first person. For a little more than 1 minute, the camera, representing ‘us’ as the dancer, dances with 8 different females that all have catchy nicknames and corresponding personalities. I say personalities and not dance behavior as there are actually no references to how that woman dances or their style. I will return to this later. Its purpose is to entertain and humorously relate to a person’s dance experiences.
The viewer of the video starts watching with this first person perspective and places themselves in the position of the one being danced with. This allows one to relate to the person being danced with, with the shaky camera movements and eye contact directly to the viewer. One feels as if they are truly the female’s dance partner. The dancing view of the camera and characters talking directly to you brings forth the humor of the video as well. However, 35 seconds into the video, a selfie reveals behind the camera. The picture shows the female being presented, ‘The Photographer’, and the person revealed is male. This reveal breaks open the effect of first person. Now the video has shown the viewer the person dancing with all of these females is most likely male, and has been all along. The first assumption has been brought into the video. There is now a heteronormative perspective to look through. This reveal has multiple effects. Firstly, the relatedness has been shattered. For some, there is no relating to the male’s gender. Further, since there is now a face and distinct person assigned to behind the camera, the video is no longer first person. It is as if a veil has been lifted. Although the veil may be placed back in front of one’s vision, they still know who is under the veil. This reveal does represent a societally comfortable lens of heteronormativity though; seeing a male and female dancing together is more comfortable in a person’s mind in this contemporary society and makes it easier to watch this video. This use of heteronormativity, while destroying one’s ability to relate to the video, does provide a space that is assumed typical in society for our brains to imagine.
Each dancer in the video is named with text that describes their personality. As I stated before, none of the descriptions of the females include any reference to their dancing moves or style. All are representative of the characteristics they display on screen. Further, almost every single one of the 8 female characteristics shown correspond with a typical female stereotype. Here are a few of the examples of the portrayal of the females in this video, and the underlying assumptions that each nickname and corresponding traits bring forth. The first female is ‘The Texter’ who only texts while dancing. This goes along with the stereotype of a female being vapid and unconcerned about important issues and life around her. ‘The Mess’ is a drunk woman who can’t control herself, an age old stereotype. This points to the idea of women being stupid and unable to take care of themselves. It also subtlety reinforces rape culture by placing the inability to care for oneself on the fault of the woman, and therefore leaves a space open to blame her for events to come. The ‘Leave Room for Jesus’ is taking jabs at the idea of a religious women that has a certain set of beliefs by representing her as someone who is fairly unwilling to dance. This character is countered and immediately followed by her opposite, ‘The Pro’, a seductive figure who is very willing to dance. This age old dichotomy of the ‘virgin and the seductress’ is a common theme when talking about women throughout history. Freud coined this phenomenon as the Madonna-whore complex. Women’s sexuality has been seen in these binary terms; it is pure or impure, suited for a man’s marriage or suited for his lust. This phenomenon is present throughout culture and appears specifically in visual history. Works of art spanning from 1400 by Carlo da Camerino with The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve (left image) to Edvard Munch’s Women in Three Stages from 1895 (right image) show this very dichotomy. It is interesting that in an entertainment video of today this same theme is brought forth. The last female character is ‘The Clinger’, a dance partner who won’t let the (male) partner escape. The stereotype brought forth is the female as a dependent only looking for and needing the attention of a man. Laid out in this fashion, these female personas make one cringe with the blatancy of the sexist stereotypes. However, Buzzfeed chose these because these assumptions make it easy to classify females in contemporary minds. These stereotypes and themes are still around, easy to understand, and easy to create.
The last stereotype this Buzzfeed video utilizes happens when the female character ‘The Hair’ is shown. There is really no sugar coating this pretty flagrantly racist portrayal of the only female of color in the video. Her character’s face is never shown, instead an image of her hair is shown taking up the whole view of the camera for about 10 seconds. This is problematic for a couple reasons. First the woman’s face is never shown, meaning that not only has this character been narrowed down to one trait, but she is not even allowed the humanity of the face. Second, the only representation of a woman of color in the whole video is one where her face isn’t even shown. And last, the history of shame and prejudice against a woman of color in regards to her hair is as old and thorough as the history of racism. Women of color and their natural hair are underrepresented now and throughout media history. This background in our society means Buzzfeed’s choice to use black hair as their representation of a faceless woman who is hard to dance with is intentional and relatable to contemporary media. I cannot speak for anyone, but it seems with this choice Buzzfeed would pretty easily offend lots of people of color. Whether their audience truly is more white or they have just catered to their white audience’s historical media assumptions means the same thing, Buzzfeed’s target audience is white.
Almost more frightening than this video is the paired video Buzzfeed created called “6 Types of Guys You’ve Danced with”. The video begins right away with the heteronormative assumption: this time the camera view is in third person and the person dancing with all the males is a female. There is an underlying masculinity assumption underneath all the male personas that each needs to impress this female somehow through different means. As opposed to degrading stereotypes, there is an assumption of impressing and a focus on success. This paired video shows us that these videos are not anomalies in Buzzfeed’s collection. The video “8 Types of Girls You’ve Danced with” is focused on quick, relatable humor for Buzzfeed’s audience. It does this by incorporating a heteronormative lens, using age old categories to define different women, and stereotypes on black hair to ease their (white) audience in through assumptions that have been present throughout history. It’s easy to look back at all the subtleties present in this video and scoff, but the reason they make audiences feel comfortable is because they are not only society wide but present in many other contemporary forms of media. So when reading the news or scrolling through the internet, go forth and take that quiz on cheese Buzzfeed has made; but remember they too are victim to the contemporary conventions surrounding gender, sexuality, and race.
In Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, Margot Weiss discusses the social, economic, class, race, and gender inequalities of the BDSM scene in San Francisco, and what Weiss calls circuits between those dynamics. She says, “I call such dynamics a circuit to draw attention not only to the dense connections… but also to the functionality, the effects of these connections.”[i] Weiss applies an ethnographic analysis to identify circuits in the BDSM scene based interviews she conducted with practitioners and participants in the scene and from in-person observations of various BDSM events, classes, and practices. As part of her class, gender, and racial analyses of the BDSM scene, Weiss cites and references a wide array of scholars in fields as diverse as economics, gender, sexuality and queer studies, history, politics, and race studies. Techniques of Pleasure provides a thorough, informative, and original account of the various dynamics within the BDSM community.
Weiss claims in her book, “I explore BDSM as a series of sexual, social, and bodily practices that provide opportunities to remake and consolidate forms of subjectivity built both on capitalist practices of consumption and production and on the regulatory normalization of race, gender, and sexuality.”[ii] She describes the various ways individuals in the scene argue that their interactions subvert various societal norms. Then, Weiss shows how the BDSM scene actually relies on and perpetuates racial, gender, and class norms to derive the power of the community’s alternative sexual practices. The book begins with an account of how and why the kink sexual scene in San Francisco evolved from a small, close-knit, lower class, largely queer community into a larger, predominately white, middle class one. As San Francisco developed an economy dependent on high-income information technology jobs, the demographics of the city and the scene changed to reflect the people more likely to hold those jobs. From there, Weiss discusses the prevalence of toys in the scene, arguing that the focus on material toys gives an implicit status and pleasure advantage to the white middle class practitioners who can afford both the toys themselves and the time to master their use. She finishes with a discussion of the social and political impact of BDSM sex and scenes. Weiss describes how the explicit, intentional power exchange in BDSM depends on existence of actual power inequalities based on race, class, and gender for their emotional impact and sexual pleasure. For example, in the scene it is considered ‘more acceptable’ for a woman to be a submissive than a man, reflecting the patriarchal power men have in society in general.[iii] Weiss’ analysis and discussion of the circuits she describes in the BDSM scene are consistently insightful, and wonderfully account for the impacts that intersections of class, race, and gender have on the practices she observed.
The analysis that Weiss brings to the BDSM scene are informed by her methods of gathering relevant information. She interviewed practitioners in the scene, and also experienced various parties, events, classes, workshops, and scenes as an observer. Weiss interviewed sixty-one participants “most [of whom] were professional-class white people in long-term relationships.”[iv] Bits and pieces of the transcripts of these interviews were included in the text, supporting and complicating claims made by Weiss and other scholars whose work she references. The quotations are a definite highlight of this book. The original voices and experiences of the interviewees shine through authentically, adding some much needed personality to the otherwise academic language of the book. The practitioner’s words provided frank and fascinating windows into the scene. Weiss also includes detailed descriptions of a variety of kink events such as slave auctions, national conferences, private bondage parties, takedown workshop demonstrations, as well more less sexually charged events such as munches, social gatherings for food and drink that do not involve any BDSM practices at all. However, the author uses a decidedly detached tone and point of view. Weiss says she told the people she interviewed that she is not into BDSM, and implies that she did not participate in any scenes as part of research for this book. Her personal taste for BDSM is unclear: “I found that the lose-lose situation of being, on the one hand, too close to or overinvested in SM or, on the other hand, too distant from or incapable of understanding it was more easily negotiated with SM practitioners… I have placed the imaginations and experiences of my interviewees and their scenes at the center of this book.”[v] Maintaining a measured distance from one’s subject of study in the name of academic integrity is certainly admirable. However, I would be fascinated to hear how direct participation in a BDSM scene would influence her analysis. That being said, it is certainly unreasonable to expect that the author would be interested in or willing to take part in a scene, much less relate such an intimate experience to such an impersonal audience.
Weiss locates her book and her argument firmly within the various class, racial, and gender conversations about BDSM. In accordance with her intersectional approach, she references gender theorists such as Judith Butler and Michael Foucault and other feminist theorists, as well as various economists, historians, journalists, race theorists, and activists. Each claim Weiss makes is carefully explained in reference to the work of previous scholars, making sure to clearly outline which ideas she finds useful for her own analysis and which concepts she intentionally disagrees with or discards. However, the quotations from other scholars were almost always outshone by the accounts of practitioners in the scene. The interviews were always more interesting and more enlightening, and it is curious that Weiss chose not to lean more heavily on the visceral accounts and surprisingly cogent arguments made by people in the scene, rather than academic arguments made by scholars who may or may not actually have experience in what they are discussing.
Techniques of Pleasure provides an original, intersectional account of the politics of the BDSM scene in San Francisco. While it is easy to view a community based on fringe sex acts as transgressing social norms, Weiss compellingly argues that, to the contrary, the BDSM scene depends on and reproduces those very norms it claims to transgress. The book is well-researched, and the entertaining descriptions and accounts of various BDSM practices keep even the non-academic reader well enough engaged to digest Weiss’ arguments. This book stands as an informative, unique account of the complex dynamics present in the BDSM scene.
[i] Weiss, Margot Danielle. Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality. Durham: Duke UP, 2012. PDF. Page 7.
Kamala Kempadoo begins her monograph, Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race, and Sexual Labor, with the following quote: “Territories that once served as ex-havens for the colonial elite are today frequented by sex tourists, and several of the island economies now depend upon the region’s racialized, sexualized image” (1). This statement sets the tone for the rest of her book as she analyzes the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race with economics in the Caribbean. Kempadoo argues that there is an engrained “heteropatriarchy” seen through Caribbean societies, which draw from colonial theory to continue oppressive practices to further economic advances in the islands (9). Sexing the Caribbean strives to provide its audience with a dynamic, non-Western ethnocentric understanding of the history and role of prostitution and sex labor in the Caribbean today.
Sexing the Caribbean begins with the historical background of colonial involvement in the islands, like Jamaica, Trinidad, and Curacao, and how race came to be sexualized. Kempadoo retells the history of different areas in the Caribbean being settled by colonial powers, which imposed new social hierarchal frameworks that were mostly based on race (5). Even after emancipation from these white men, white bias still defined sexual relations as local men began to prefer one skin color of women to another. Here the introduction of the “SanDom,” or “a migrant woman of lightly brown skin tone with a slender though shapely body and loosely curling hair,” became a common reference in society (144). Kempadoo continues to explain the impact of migrants to the countries located in the Caribbean, not only racially but also economically. Through her retelling of women’s internalization of gender roles and their role in society as sex workers, she highlights the intersection of race and economics. The intersectionality of race and economics was explored by Kempadoo in her analysis of sex laborers and the job opportunities available to them based on race. It was intriguing to read about how women in the Caribbean took pride in the fact that—for the majority of sex laborers—they envisioned themselves as their own boss, creating their own hours; it was a form of women empowerment in a paternalistic society. Sex became a source of power for women as they “capitalized upon white men’s sexual desire for women of color” (54). Women in this environment established their dominance and power by setting boundaries with clients—such as certain body parts like lips and breast were off limits—and defined the notion of romance and love for their community. Through this loophole of empowerment, women of the Caribbean found a way to be economically sufficient and gain power in society. Although Kempadoo champions the strength of these women of color, she also recognizes that not every woman was so lucky to gain a hold in society. For example, she touches on stories of women acting as “pimps” of other women, and men controlling the income and working hours of a prostitute. Just as women affected each other, men visiting the Caribbean also played a role in determining the economics of prostitution. As tourism plays a huge part in the economics of the Caribbean, Kempadoo also interviewed many male tourists looking for female company. She states that, “The woman are not, in the imaginations of the men, prostitutes who are having sex for money, but are perceived as poor women who genuinely enjoy the sex” (123). This particular framing shows the different global perspectives of prostitution and how the local interpretation based on colonial history and job opportunities greatly differ.
Kamala Kempadoo says that her work draws on the foundations of Third World feminism, which is based on gender relations and “material-feminist traditions” (11). As written about in her work, she relies on a bottom up approach to her qualitative research through interviews, recording personal stories, and local opinions and myths (11, 65). Kempadoo shares little research has been done on this region of the world in regards to the “historical racialization of social relations” (55, 64). Therefore, the basis of her data collection—before she could conduct any interviews—relied on the works of scholars, historians, and anthropologists (17). Synthesizing the information of other scholars is how Kamala Kempadoo situates herself in conversation with other authors. By learning the structure of society and the influence of cultural in specific areas, Kempadoo could contextualize the impact that colonial history had on defining race and sexuality in the Caribbean. Important structural factors Kempadoo had to analyze ware the legal codes written about prostitution. I found this aspect of her work to be a strength of her argument as it gave the readers a better understanding of the time and history of how government played a part in regulating prostitution (89). As well as relational structures, the author continually references to the importance of needing to know the local slang, like SanDom, to comprehend the complexity of the history and role sex laborers play in everyday society.
While reading Sexing the Caribbean, Kamala Kempadoo did a brilliant job of both intriguing and greatly disturbing her readers. As a political science major, I find one of the most intriguing features of sex work in the Caribbean to be the role of the government institutionalizing legal regulations for prostitution by women, but also, on the flip side, criminalizing the economic transactions of sex by homosexual or bisexual men. This in depth analysis of the intersectionality of politics and sexuality was very interesting to me. One story she including about “The Happy Camp in Curacao” was particularly disturbing and illustrative of the oppressive situation surrounding sex (90). Kempadoo did a wonderful job of drawing her readers in through similar stories of how men referred to workingwomen. One quote that stood out to me was a man referring to a woman as “butt ugly” (124). The way Kempadoo reflects the cultural interpretation of “hegemonic constructs of sexuality” served her purpose as hooking the audience into the conversation about sexuality and politics in the Caribbean (2).
Another area I thought Kempadoo did justice in explaining was the role of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean. Kempadoo acknowledges that “AIDS is now established as the leading cause of death in the Caribbean” and the “initial problem of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean is traced to gay sex tourism” (167). She traces the history of the epidemic as well as explains the role this disease has in the local communities regarding gender roles, sexuality, and economic consequences. One question I had for the author was how the organizations targeting vulnerable populations, such as female sex laborers, and the government interacted since the government regulated these “vectors of disease” in the first place and criminalized homosexual acts (169, 170). Another question I had for Kempadoo is why she did not focus on organizations—if any—trying to reach homosexual sex laborers as she previously states the illness was introduced via “gay sex tourism” (167). Also I have questions about how the these organizations were continuing to operate within a society that regulates and perpetuates a stigma of discrimination against sex workers. Many scholars forget to include the vulnerable populations, such as sex workers, migrants, and adolescents, but Kamala Kempadoo successfully created a mental picture of the complexity of the HIV/AIDS issue at hand in the Caribbean. As someone who has an interest in medical humanities, her inclusion of medical violence as a disturbing aspect of daily life was very effective. She discusses how although “the government tolerates all activities in the name of servicing male sexual desires” many at risk groups for contracting HIV are denied healthcare and treatment (102).
Kamala Kempadoo effectively outlines the influence of colonial history on the racial and economic boundaries seen today in the Caribbean, especially when discussing women in sex work. She also includes a political aspect to her analysis, which adds another dimension to her argument that gender roles were established by colonial powers and instilled in local culture. Kempadoo demonstrates strength as an author by equally intriguing and disturbing her audience as well as providing an informative historical and legal context. Sexing the Caribbean should definitely be read by students participating in a Gender and Sexuality Studies course, if they have an interest in human rights and prostitution, or would simply like to be well aware of the impact of colonialism has today on social structures and sex work.
Kempadoo, Kamala. Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race, and Sexual Labor. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
I first picked up Riché Richardson’s book, Black Masculinity in the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta solely because I have great respect anyone who can get a scholarly work published with the word “gangsta” in the title. I was unprepared for the depth and scope of the work I had before me. Upon initially picking up the book, I was surprised by what felt like a narrow approach to a broad topic. Richardson approaches her subject through the lens of southern black literature (not the well-known kind) published mostly in the 1960’s-1980’s. As I read, I changed my mind about just how narrow Richardson’s lens was. Upon finishing the book, Richardson’s choice of popular film, literature, and music appeared suited vehicles through which to explore to the portrayal of black southern masculinity.
Riché Richardson was an associate professor of English at the University of California Davis when she first published Black Masculinity. She credits personal interest in the south as one of the major motivators in pursuing the project: “Admittedly, my background as an African American born and raised in the south has partly fueled my passion to engage in systematic critical reflection on the region,” says Richardson in her introduction. She credits scholars in the Duke English department for allowing her the creativity to be experimental in her methods in a time when the field of “southern studies” was in the process of big change. The change to which Richardson referred was the development of the field of “new southern Studies;” Black Masculinity is Richardson’s foray into this field. Richardson’s second intervention is into the field of black masculinity. Recent years have brought scholarship investigating hierarchies of sexuality within black masculinity, “however,” Richardson argues, “beyond the expanded conceptions of black masculinity yielded by the work on sexuality, black men frequently continue to be treated as an undifferentiated and monolithic racial and gender category.”Black Masculinity and the U.S. South is Richardson’s venture into the intersecting fields of southern studies and studies of black masculinity.
Richardson’s analysis of southern black masculinity follows a rough timeline from the roots of the Jim Crow south in the beginning of the Klu Klux Klan, through the civil rights movements of the 1960’s, and into today’s “Southern Rap” movement. She argues that southern black masculinity exists at the bottom of a hierarchy of black masculinities, and that culturally prevalent “types” of the southern black masculine identity are the foundation of the hierarchy. Types such as the “uncle Tom” or the “black rapist” are rooted in the Jim Crow and slavery south, and are the tools through which southern black masculinity has been subjugated to other black masculinities. Richardson calls for studies that probe distinctive black masculinities, and proposes her study founded on regional masculinity as the beginning of such a process.
Richardson begins chapter one with the identification of three “types” of black masculinity, both of which are clearly rooted in the south: the bad negro and the black rapist. The bad negro is the black man who is a lawbreaker and a trouble maker. Richardson roots the bad negro type firmly in the south by claiming him as “an outgrowth of the “rebel slave,” with roots in African American folklore.” The bad negro of the civil rights era was “not essentially bad so much as the fruit of the repressive southern Jim Crow ethos.” The second type –the black rapist—grows out of the bad negro. The black rapist is the white supremacist version of the bad negro. He is not only bad, he is dirty and animalistic: he has designs to pollute the white race by raping white women. The third type is the antithesis of the first two: the uncle Tom is the passive and has evolved into an asexual (and sometimes homosexual) type. The black rapist is primarily a vehicle of white oppression, the uncle Tom is primarily a vehicle of black oppression: the bad negro has been used by both groups to oppress southern black men.
All three types are key to Richardson’s analysis. In Chapter one, Richardson turns to a reflection of the bad negro and the black rapist in white supremacist thought as explored in William Bradford Huie’s novel The Klansman. (Which is itself a complicated parody of and reflection upon the white supremacist thought prevalent in The Birth of a Nation and TheClansman). The movie The Klansman, released seven years later, offers a reflection on the way that the types influenced the black power movements of the 1960’s. Richardson argues that changes made in Huie’s novel when it was adapted for screenplay reflect the appropriation of the bad negro type by the black power movement. Authentic black masculinity was linked with violence in resistance: by shifting a key scene in the novel away from the rape of a black woman and onto the lynching of a black man, the creators of the movie the Klansman highlight white supremacists’ attack on black masculinity. Richardson finishes her chapter with an analysis of O.J. Simpson’s characterization of a “bad negro” type following his arrest ad highly-publicized trial. The bad negro and the black rapist type are mixed in O.J.’s portrayal when his white wife is examined as a part of his identity.
Chapters two and three move beyond Richardson’s analysis of black masculine identity in the south as formulated by white supremacists and into the inner hierarchies of black masculinity. Richardson uses chapter two to explore the hierarchies of black masculinity, and chapter three to connect the white supremacist ideologies of the bad negro and black rapist to the formation of the black masculine hierarchy. Richardson uses the vehicle of Charles Fuller’s work A Soldier’s Play to begin to examine how black men relate among themselves. Through the struggles of an all-black army unit in WWII, Richardson argues that Fuller exposes the stereotypes of southern black men that are used for their degradation, such as stupidity and animalistic sexuality (both of which are based in the white supremacist thought that produced types such as the black rapist). In Richardson’s argument, I was beginning to see the connection between a black southern masculine identity, as defined by white supremacists, and the denigration of black southern men by other black men. Fuller’s exploration of this denigration, argues Richardson, was intended to expose the flaws in hierarchical black masculinity. Richardson believes Fuller failed, and I was inclined to agree. Fuller, in assigning the Northern Black male as the hero of the story and relegating the southern male character to a silent death, perpetuates the hierarchy that places southern black masculinity below that of the urban north.
Chapter three, and Ralph Elison’s Invisible Man, allow Richardson to explain why hierarchies like those exposed through Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play exist, through the lens of black rural otherness. Richardson argues that Elison’s use of Invisible Man to juxtapose white American subjectivity with elite notions of blackness within the African American south exposes the root of the subjugation of southern black masculinities to other black masculinities: the discourse of southern white supremacists, who use the black rapist character to identify the southern black male with animalistic sexuality, allows other black masculinities a sense of superiority. Richardson’s exploration of Invisible Man was the glue that held chapters one and two together, and began to weave the created types of black masculine identity into black men’s own performance of their masculinity.
Richardson is careful to point out that ultimately Elison, like Fuller, is unable to escape the trap of perpetuating the stereotypes of black masculinity: Elison’s hero (like Fuller’s) ultimately ends up appealing to the north for the formation of his authentic masculine identity. “The novel advances the logic of urban as authentic in definitions of black masculinity.” Richardson demonstrated that because black masculinity in both Elison and Fuller’s stories was constructed by, but not of, the southern types against which it was opposed, northern black masculinity dominated.
Richardson explores how this dominant ideology of northern (and urban) masculinity was expanded by the black power movement of the 1960’s: specifically the speeches of Malcom X. Malcom X subjugated not only southern black masculinity, in ferociously denying his southern roots, but also through the use of the uncle Tom type. In several speeches, Malcom X invoked the uncle Tom as not only a rural and passive character, but also as a character that was homosexual: pleasing his white master and desiring him in an erotic and subservient way. By invoking the uncle Tom as homosexual, rural, and passive, Richardson holds that Malcom X links authentic black masculinity with an urban setting, heterosexuality, and violence. According to Richardson, this hyper-masculine, sexualized type of back masculinity is perpetuated by Spike Lee in his films of the 1960’s such as Get on the Bus, School Daze, and Bamboozled. Richardson sets up her final chapter when she argues that Malcom X and Spike Lee’s promotion of violent urban and sexualized black masculinity paved the way for the rise of gangsta rap.
The final chapter is where I finally began to see how the strands of Richardson’s narrative came together to offer a coherent description of black masculinity. Chapter five presents Richardson’s analysis of modern “southern rap” as it engages with the types present throughout all of black masculinity. In the beginning of the chapter, Richardson raises the question: Does the popularity of southern rap (rap being an inherently urban and masculine art) gained in recent years through the success of groups like No Limit records and Cash Money Millionaires, represent an elevation of black southern masculinity in the hierarchy of black masculinity itself? Richardson’s analysis would seem to say no. Richardson’s southern rappers are not freeing themselves through their rise in popular rap culture; they are only binding themselves again to the oppressive types of southern masculinity originally propagated by white supremacists.
Richardson shows how young black rappers claiming to “gangstas” and “playas” is just a re-casting of the bad negro and black rapist types initiated by white supremacists in the beginning of the formation of black masculine identity in the south. Southern rap has thrived playing with the stereotypes of which it is all-too conscious. Southern rappers have “turned southern stereotypes into a commodity.” Yet, it appeared to me that the black southern rappers of Richardson’s final
chapter fell into just the same traps as the novelists in the chapters before them; calling out southern stereotypes only reinforces them, and secures the idea of a urban and northern masculine identity. At one point, Richardson analyzes Joe Blakk’s “Way Down South” and comes to the same conclusions as I did: “While it confronts the condescending attitudes of Northerners, the message of “Way Down South,” which at bottom, says that “we are just like you” in some ways concedes the superiority and exemplariness of northern models of black masculinity. The South emerges as a mere simulacrum by its logic.”
The South emerges as a mere simulacrum… Richardson’s own words critique her work, for after reading Black Masculinity, I can see the southern black masculine identity as nothing but a simulacrum. The problem with Black Masculinity is its inherent suggestion that the nature of black masculine identity is the shadow of the reflection of white supremacist thought. After finishing Richardson’s book I was left wondering, what is the true nature of black southern masculinity? It has been cast as the uncle tom, or the bad negro, or the black rapist. It has been subjugated below violent urban masculinity by non-southern black men’s appropriation of white supremacist types of black masculinity. If southern black masculinity really is the root of so much of universal black masculinity (as Richardson claims), why can she not offer a concrete definition of black masculinity apart from the ghost of white supremacism? Throughout her whole work, Richardson never once suggests a definition for black masculinity.
And maybe, just maybe, a definition of the essence of southern black masculinity was not the goal for which Richardson was aiming. Black Masculinity and the U.S. South is a strong examination of the historical treatment of the black male identity as evidenced through cultural artifacts. Richardson’s use of texts and film is engaging, and effective when in each chapter she pairs the cultural artifact with a historical or current event. When discussing The Birth of a Nation, for example, Richardson displayed the relevance of her argument by connecting her theory of the film to O.J. Simpson’s trial. After reading Black Masculinity, I am convinced of the need for a geographical analysis of identity categories, especially when it comes to race. Richardson’s argument that much of universal black masculinity finds its roots in the south is compelling, as is her argument that southern black masculinity is subjugated through the use of historical types. In light of this subjugation, asking for a historical definition of southern black masculinity may be beside the point. The most important part of investigating black masculinity in the U.S. south may be the way it engages historically, not its essence. Maybe all Richardson’s work needs is a new title : Cultural Reactions to Black Masculinity and the U.S. South, or something along those lines. Of course, if only for the sake of my own interest, she’ll have to keep “gangsta” in the title.
 Richardson, Black Masculinity and the U.S. South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007), 11.
Image from NPR: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/03/284006424/e-cigarette-critics-worry-new-ads-will-make-vaping-cool-for-kids
Blu Electronic Cigarettes markets themselves as a healthier, cooler alternative to tobacco cigarettes. To that end, in 2014 the company released a full page advertisement featuring the body of a woman in order to attract primarily young, white consumers. This advertisement is in a format that is suited to magazines, webpages, and billboards. It was found in Sports Illustrated magazine and on Sports Illustrated’s website, which suggests that the advertisement is intended to target men. However, the images and text in this advertisement are strongly in line with historical strategies intended to market cigarettes to women, which suggests that women are also an intended target. Either way, Blu’s advertisement relies on and perpetuates images of sexualized femininity in order to sell their product, and in doing so finds a place in the continuing relationship between women and cigarette marketing.
Instead of burning tobacco, electronic cigarettes heat and vaporize liquids that contain nicotine, which the user then inhales[i]. In this advertisement, Blu ignores promoting the supposed comparative health benefits of electronic cigarettes or their ‘cool’ factor, and instead opts for the lowest common denominator of advertising – sex sells! The advertisement is dominated by the body of a young, thin, white woman at a beach in a bikini bottom labeled ‘Blu Electronic Cigarettes’. She is only shown from just below the rib cage to halfway down her thighs, centered on her groin. An image of the product itself occupies a small space in the lower right corner of the page, opposite the slogan ‘Slim. Charged. Ready to Go.’, directions to the company’s website, and health disclaimers in the smallest of small print.
The focus on the model’s sexual appeal instead of the product being sold reinforces the sexualization of femininity in American culture. The model’s genitalia, figure, and race are all highlighted as elements of her physical attractiveness. The viewer’s gaze is drawn directly to the model’s crotch, where the company’s name is stamped across her bikini bottom. Thus, the Blu Electronic Cigarettes brand is literally attached to the vagina. The image is constructed so that you can’t miss that association. If, by some chance, the viewer missed the model’s groin on the first look, all the lines of focus direct the gaze back to the model’s vagina. The model’s fingers, the insides of her thighs, the packaging of the cigarette recharge kit and the jewelry in the model’s belly button all act as arrows pointing the viewer’s attention straight back to her vagina. The focus on the model’s genitalia sexualizes her femininity. When one recalls the phallic shape of a cigarette itself, the sexual overtones of the image are overwhelming. In this context, the words in the slogan ‘Charged’ and ‘Ready to Go’ take on a sexual connotation, suggesting the primary importance of the female body is its sexual potential. For the purpose of this advertisement, the model’s function is entirely for her sex appeal. A further examination of the model shows that she is thin around the waist, and her impossibly photo-shopped ‘thigh gap’ is prominently displayed. An implicit comparison between the slimness of the model and the slimness of the cigarettes is drawn by word ‘Slim’ in the slogan. According to Blu, sexy women must be thin. Men viewing this advertisement internalize that thin women are sexy women, and women themselves learn that they must slim down for men to find them physically attractive. Thus, this advertisement reinforces the notion that thinness is required for sexual attractiveness in women. Finally, the model is a white woman, which perpetuates the default of whiteness as the sexual ideal in American culture.
Unfortunately, Blu’s advertising strategy appears effective, as young people are exposed to electronic cigarette advertisements and are using electronic cigarettes is larger and larger numbers. Even though tobacco cigarettes cannot be advertised to minors, those restrictions do not yet apply to electronic cigarettes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 69% of middle school and high school students in America viewed electronic cigarette advertisements in 2014[ii]. All this advertising is having an effect. Again from the CDC, from 2013 to 2014 the usage of electronic cigarettes among American middle school and high school students tripled, increasing to 3.9% of middle school students and 13.4% of high school students[iii]. Aside from the well-known adverse effects of youth nicotine use, these numbers show that the next generation of Americans are still witnessing and likely internalizing outrageously sexualized images of women as the norm of glamorous, sexy and cool.
This advertisement fits comfortably in the long history of cigarette advertisements aimed at women. In 1928, Edward Bernays orchestrated an Easter Day parade featuring “a number of genteel women” publicly smoking in a New York City on Fifth Avenue. He then ran a series of advertisements for Lucky Strike cigarettes aimed at women, knowing that women were an untapped, potentially lucrative client base. Thus began the co-opting of women smoking as a sign of defiance by cigarette companies and advertising agencies. Early slogans included “You’ve come a long way, baby” from Lucky Strike, referencing the women’s liberation movement of the 1920s[iv]. In the 1930s, A Chesterfield advertisement suggested that, “Women started to vote… just about the time they began to smoke”. Philip Morris followed suit, exclaiming “Believe in Yourself!” above the image of a glamorous smoking woman. These advertisements also capitalized on sexual norms, suggesting that smoking would keep women skinny with the slogan “Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet”[v]. Much later, Camel released a brand called Camel No. 9, designed to evoke the glamor and sex appeal of perfumes and pop songs. Of course, all of the women shown in the advertisements were thin white women. The advertising succeeded in changing cultural norms. Women began smoking in larger numbers as they saw smoking as a glamorous, independent act. The effects carry over to this day. Twenty percent of modern women smoke[vi], and in modern culture, smoking can give women an air of power and eloquence, as seen in the television show Mad Men and the feature length movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Blu Electronic Cigarette’s advertisement fits in the pattern of previous cigarette ads aimed at women. It markets its product to women with vague allusions to women’s sexual liberation, promises of thinness, and the allure of the white sexual ideal.
The advertisement promoting Blu Electronic Cigarettes perpetuates the social norm of white sexualized femininity. The product is advertised solely by an attractive, thin, white model, or more precisely, the model’s barely concealed vagina. In doing so, Blu finds a comfortable place in the tradition of marketing cigarettes to women by co-opting women’s liberation and promising that their product will make women sexier, skinnier, and cooler.
[i] “How VaporFi E-Cigarettes and Vaporizers Work.” How VaporFi E-Cigarettes and Vaporizers Work. VaporFi, Inc., International Vapor Group, Inc., n.d. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http://www.vaporfi.com/how-it-works/>.
[ii] “E-cigarette Ads Reach Nearly 7 in 10 Middle and High-school Students.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 05 Jan. 2016. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http:www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0416-e-cigarette-use.html>
[iii] “E-cigarette Use Triples among Middle and High School Students in Just One Year.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2015/p0416-e-cigarette-use.html>.
[iv] Lee, Jennifer 8. “Big Tobacco’s Spin on Women’s Liberation.” City Room Big Tobaccos Spin on Women’s Liberation Comments. The New York Times Company, 10 Oct. 2008. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/10/big-tobaccos-spin-on-womens-liberation/?_r=0>.
[v] Christian, Wendy. “Torches of Freedom: Women and Smoking Propaganda – Sociological Images.” Sociological Images Torches of Freedom Women and Smoking Propaganda Comments. W. W. Norton & Company, 27 Feb. 2007. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/02/27/torches-of-freedom-women-and-smoking-propaganda/>.
[vi] “Women and Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 Aug. 2002. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5112a4.htm>.