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Posts Tagged ‘privilege’

by Julia

NOTE: When I watch SATC, I’m not trying to focus on the whiteness, thinness, richness, heterosexualness. That is all a given. So if you’re looking for that in a post, look elsewhere – there’s plenty on that. Or talk to me. Just don’t critique me for my hypocrisy. thanks 🙂

Last evening, I went to see Sex and the City 2 with my mom in Baltimore. Mom and I have shared Sex and the City as one of our girly guilty pleasure shows since I was in high school. Like Grey’s Anatomy, SATC always exists for me when I’m in the mood for semi-self reflection/semi-escapism from a television.  Naturally, the story lines within are familiar, and Mom and I were both interested to see where the lives of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha would go next. In that respect, I was pleasantly surprised (with one major exception). The characters’s modern-day and materialistic existences are clearly not fulfilling them, and it takes a week away with the girls – of course – to remind them of their individual voices and needs.

*Spoilers ahead*

The film begins – where else? – in Manhattan, with the girls reuniting at Bergdorf Goodman to shop the registry for Stanford and Anthony’s GAY wedding. Some critics said these first few scenes were the best in the film, but I’ve never been a big Liza Minnelli fan (nor of overtly gay generalizations), so I’ll leave it to y’all to see the extravagance for yourselves. What I did enjoy about the first half of the film was the peek inside the lives of these women.

Charlotte is still with Harry and her adorable daughters Rose and Lily are proving quite taxing on the couple. Obviously, they’ve hired a gorgeous Irish nanny, Erin, who helps Charlotte out but also raises fears that Harry might cheat with the nanny. DRAMA. Samantha is 52, single, and going through menopause. Fortunately, she has the help of 44 hormones and supplements to maintain her notorious libido. Carrie is entering her third year of marriage with Big, and she worries that they are settling into a “normal” couple routine of nights in with TV and carry out. She also worries that any semblance of asserting herself would render her a “bitch wife who nags,” so she usually acquiesces to Big.

That brings us to Miranda. Miranda has always been my favorite character – probably because she leads the most realistic romantic life, contributes snarky remarks to conversations, and boasts a successful (if tiring) balance between her position as a partner in a law firm and a mother. Miranda’s home life is going well – Brady’s in second grade! – but she is being literally silenced at work by the new senior partner. One boardroom scene reveals the dynamics – all board members are white males, except for one black man and Miranda, a white female. The senior partner, also a white male, consistently puts his hand up to Miranda’s face when she speaks. I was really interested to see where this story line went, and really hoped it wouldn’t turn out that Miranda would quit and become a stay at home mom to avoid losing her voice at work.

Enter Abu Dhabi. I’ll take a few lines from Andrew O’ Hehir’s brilliant (if cynical) review of SATC2 to explain the transition:

“Do you really want me to reconstruct how this movie gets from a gay wedding in Connecticut through the lugubrious scenes of Carrie and Big’s vampire-like existence and onward somehow to a girls-only, all-expenses-paid luxury getaway to Abu Dhabi? Because I can’t.”

So the girls end up in the United Arab Emirates. Suspend your doubts, stifle your cringes with Carrie’s Alaadin analogies, and just roll with it. To keep this post from being too long, I’ll give you my take on the relatively plotless movie: it took a trip to the Middle East to help the women rediscover themselves – the women that I came to know inside and out throughout the series. I think this film would have taken a different turn had the women escaped to, say, Dubai. In a parallel world of excess, it is unlikely that the opportunity for cinematic self-reflection would have manifested. However inaccurate the cultural portrayals were (and they were pretty egregious – more on that in a minute), the comparison between the niqabi women of the UAE and the silenced SATC women was too hard to ignore. Observing one veiled woman being sheltered by her husband in the presence of Samantha’s antics, the girls remark that these women symbolically lack voices, and it is in this revelatory moment that Miranda and Charlotte rediscover themselves.

Miranda quits the big firm and joins what appears to be a public interest firm with an incredibly diverse group of attorneys. Yay! Charlotte takes time to herself and frees herself from the daily mommy routine. Erin, the nanny, is a lesbian – phew, no threat to the marriage there! And Samantha remains fabulously sexually active. Woo! Carrie, on the other hand…ugh. Throughout the series and this movie, she had been the proponent “making your own rules” and disregarding dating scripts. Yet she ends up in the most oppressive relationship of the film. I can only chalk it up to mediocre writing on Michael Patrick King’s part. That, or, you know, hegemonic monogamy or something, but I told myself I’d stay away from that in this blog post…

Much more disturbing than Carrie’s story line was the portrayal of “the other” in this film. Sadly, this includes the women and men of Abu Dhabi. I do not claim to be an expert on orientalism,  but even a cursory analysis of the film unveils obvious mischaracterizations. Just as the film portrays the SATC women in a overly materialistic, immature, and shallow light, so MPK paints Muslim women as universally silenced by aggressive men and their religions. This type of cultural misunderstanding is painfully accurate of Western perspectives on Islam of late (see: Sarkozy.) Muslim culture is exploited by the film in order to liberate the oppressed women of SATC. As Salon’s Wajahat Ali notes, this only results in further isolation of Muslim women – they are cast as intriguing, mysterious, and…silent. Our girls could have engaged with local women – at one point, I thought they were going to lead a feminist uprising of sorts! But, alas, the only cultural immersion consists of Carrie purchasing shoes for all of the ladies from a local vendor. In this way, our Manhattan visitors repeat the time-honored tradition of exploiting the natives in order to liberate themselves. (Ali also notes that the SATC women never exchange a word with any veiled women. I propose the creation of a new cultural Bechdel test.)

A greater message could certainly have included an anti-materialistic spin. For certain, “the ugly smell of unexamined privilege hangs over this film like the smoke from cheap incense.” It would seem that a materialistic existence in NYC hasn’t proven to be everything to everyone, but let’s not go too far, America. Could it be that MPK perhaps put feminism first, and in the next installment the girls will kick capitalism to the curb (with thrift store Louboutins!)? Nahh, probably not. Because, let’s be real, the clothes were fabulous. With the exception of  this film’s Ms. Exception, Carrie Bradshaw. Seriously, that skirt in the market? wtf.

No, what we’re left with is exactly what we expected: an escape into a world of material excess and personal strife. And, like all good “chick flicks,” this one made me pretty damn happy to be where I am.

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by Julia

I’m reblogging this post from the SdS Womyn’s Caucus Blog. It is written by a fellow student at UMD, Aliya Mann, who also happens to be a member of our new Women’s Collective. Aliya and I share a lot of the same feelings on polyamory within activist communities and concerns about how to reconcile existing relationship models with feminism. Feel free to comment!

By Aliya, College Park

* This is not meant to be offensive to anyone who is involved in or supports monogamous or polyamorous relationships- it is just my thoughts on the potential issues of both relationship models and my opinion that they leave little room for the existence of an alternative. I am speaking as a hetero-privileged cis-gendered woman involved primarily in heterosexual relationships.

That being said…

As feminists, we can effortlessly recite the laundry list of reasons why monogamy can be problematic- it is based on heteronormative ideals of relationships, it features marriage/children/establishment of home and family as the culminating events of the relationship (and marriage is a patriarchal, misogynistic, homophobic, and religious institution, while we’re at it), and it leaves little room for sexuality/sexual exploration outside of the confines of the relationship. So polyamory shines in comparison as the progressive, feminist, sex-positive alternative to monogamy, right? But indeed, polyamory has its issues, although it may provide more wiggle room than monogamy, and ideal polyamory has the notion of sexual liberation, choice, and defiance of gender roles and expectations built into it. But yet it often does not work, even within communities of progressive activists and radicals- so why is this the case? If everyone is open, honest, sex-positive, and most importantly consenting, then what is the issue? Why, if someone is not wanting a serious relationship, is into casual sex and dating, and supports alternative relationship models, does polyamory still feel uncomfortable at times?

Male privilege and patriarchy: It seems like a lot of problems can be blamed on patriarchy, but for good reason, because it kind of throws a monkey wrench into everything. As much as men who are in polyamorous situations don’t want to admit it, they have privilege as males that needs to be recognized, openly communicated with to their partners and other people in their lives, closely examined, and checked. No matter if a man thinks a woman has the power in the relationship because- A: she can withhold sex from them/break up with them at any time, B: there are more women than men involved in a particular polyamorous situation, or C: the man has done everything possible to make the situation peachy keen- recognize that women wouldn’t be totally wrong for feeling powerless in poly situations. Women have been socialized to believe they are the weaker sex, have been told that their sexual liberation and freedom is wrong (or slutty, or whorish, or what have you), there continues to be a double standard for women who date and/or have sex with multiple partners, and many women have been taught since youth that they should aspire for only heterosexual, monogamous relationships inevitably leading to marriage and children.

Exploitation: Men and the patriarchy often make it their aim to define and exploit female sexuality for their own gain. By equating polyamory with female sexual liberation and equating anything else (whether it be monogamy or something in between monogamy and polyamory) with being anti-sexuality and sex-negative, exploiters continue to define female sexuality for their own purposes and benefit. Women are often not taught that it is okay to be sexual and to explore alternative sex/dating/relationship models, and thus often do not have the words or ideas to define their sexuality in a manner that is easily understood or accepted by society. It is important for all individuals to be given the resources and opportunity to define and understand their sexuality for themselves, and their partners should only facilitate and encourage that learning process.

Exclusion (this doesn’t directly apply just to poly relationships but to relationships in general): Women are often underrepresented within activist and radical communities and often feel unwelcome, so they may look for companionship with a more veteran member of the community. Sometimes this companionship/friendship can turn into a dating and/or sex situation, but even if this occurs with consent from both partners, it can still be damaging to the newer member if they feel like their only link to the group is through their partner (and this may be the case, depending on how exclusionary the group is).

Sexism and misogyny: We know it goes on in purportedly progressive and radical communities, but are folks in the community, especially men, actively fighting and speaking out against it? It might not be said in the presence of women, but if hateful comments or rhetoric aren’t explicitly revealed in one form or another, they manifest themselves through other more subtle behaviors and actions that make women and other traditionally unrepresented or marginalized groups feel unwelcome, uncomfortable, and unwanted. An organization such as SDS, while not making women’s rights the focal point of its activism and work, would be wise to address issues such as sexism and misogyny in terms of how they apply to the larger scheme of its organization’s mission and how these can effect the inner workings of the organization itself. Capitalism largely operates by exploiting all marginalized groups, including women, and by maintaining societal power inequalities that continue male privilege and female oppression. If sexism and misogyny are not addressed by the community and/or the organization where it happens, then women cannot be faulted for feeling uneasy in poly situations that already have within them male privilege and the fear of exploitation.

Consent: Verbalized, enthusiastic, open, honest, and non-judgmental consent is essential to any relationship, and especially so in a poly relationship, so this shit needs to be acknowledged and discussed on a reoccurring basis with partners. Women who participate in a poly relationship are not open or up for anything, but that is often the perception of outsiders who observe the situation (if they’re okay with that, they must be okay with anything!), although consent is never negotiable in any situation. If a community does not address the importance of consent and establishing boundaries, they do not put in place a framework to make women feel comfortable enough to engage in alternative and/or poly relationships. They also fail to develop resources and a foundation for dealing with instances where folks feel like their boundaries have been violated in any way or they have been mistreated by someone within the community.

So then, where does all of this leave those of us who don’t conform to either traditional monogamy or polyamory relationship models? I really have no clue, so I pose this question to anyone reading who has an idea. Why don’t we allow for as much exploration and openness with relationship models as we do (at least within activist and radical communities) with gender, sexuality, etc.? And if we do, we certainly don’t devote as much time to discussion about or exploration of these issues as with other important aspects of identity.

H/t to this piece for some great thoughts on the subject.

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by Julia

I spent the first week of winter break devouring Carole Seymour-Jones’s A Dangerous Liaison, a “revelatory new biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.” I ordered this book in September, but wanted the time to fully devote to its 540+ pages. Relative isolation in south Florida with my parents, iPod, and beach chair seemed an ideal setting for reading about the infamous 50-year polyamorous relationship between two of the most influential theorists of the 20th century. As a self-described theory nerd, though, I was most looking forward to accounts of Beauvoir and Sartre’s pillow talk discussions of philosophy and a comprehensive account of their individual development as existentialist thinkers. In this effort, the biography falls short. Instead, the detailed portrayal illuminates the complex arrangement of  ‘essential love’ that Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre entered into in the fall of 1929 in the Tuilerie Gardens of Paris.

Upon meeting Sartre at the École Normale in Paris, Beauvoir established an immediate intellectual connection with the young student of Gide and Hegel. Simone de Beauvoir became the youngest woman (twenty-one) to ever pass her final oral examination in philosophy, and the ninth woman to ever pass. When the rankings came out, in fact, only one student ranked higher: Jean-Paul Sartre, three years her senior. The educational hierarchy between Beauvoir and Sartre foreshadowed the subordination Simone would experience in all facets of their relationship. Seymour-Jones writes that “for the rest of her life, Simone de Beauvoir would consider herself second to Sartre.”

From childhood observations of her mother’s monotonous routine, Beauvoir vowed to never sacrifice her freedom for bourgeois domesticity. Sartre, too, maintained that “‘he was not inclined to be monogamous by nature’” and condemned marriage as a “‘despicable bourgeois institution.’”  One can imagine how confused Beauvoir must have been, therefore, when Sartre proposed marriage to her three times in the span of a few weeks. She vehemently refused, and critiqued Sartre for going against their philosophical ideals of individuality and freedom – what would later be called Existentialism. “The balance of power at this point lay with Beauvoir,” yet it was actually Sartre who proposed the idea of a “pact of ‘essential love’ which allowed for secondary affairs and was intended to guarantee their ‘reciprocal liberty’” – a pact which would become the template for a polyamorous relationship enshrined in existential history.

In Beauvoir’s mind, entering into this pact of essential love with Sartre was the most realistic embodiment of the philosophies which they professed in academia. Yet the realities of the relationship (which I will not bore you with) left Simone as the clear victim of patriarchal domination at the hands of a power-hungry celebrity. Going into this biography, I had an idea of the types of affairs in which Beauvoir and Sartre engaged; I did not predict the sheer number of simultaneous affairs, nor the heartbreaking effects of these relationships on Beauvoir. Even though the couple maintained complete honesty with one another (in a far more detailed manner than any person I know could stomach), jealousy and manipulation reigned for over four decades.

I want to focus this post on the mind-blowing contradictions between Beauvoir’s brilliant feminist theory and her polyamorous relationship with Sartre. Essentially, Simone fully bought into the idea that “whoever wants the ends – equality between the sexes – must want the means,” and she let those ‘means’ be defined by Sartre’s incredibly patriarchal interpretation of their pact of essential love. In retrospect, there were abundant signs of Sartre’s misogyny – his theoretical assertions practically drip with it. Though Sartre later delved into praxis, most notably in his affinity for the USSR and the student demonstrations of Mai 1968 (to be discussed later), his existential theories epitomize the danger of the male gaze.

“Sartre gives the example of a woman who goes out with a man for the first time; halfway through the evening he takes her hand. To leave the hand there is to consent to flirt; to withdraw it is to break the harmony of the moment. Her intention is postpone a decision, and so she leaves her hand ‘between the warm  hands of her companion – neither consenting nor resisting – a thing. We shall say that this woman is in bad faith.'”

Sartre likens this female “deception” to the actions of the bourgeoisie, and in Beauvoir’s shared goal of exposing hypocrisy within capitalist society, she agreed with her partner. The complete denial of female agency is exemplified countless times in Sartre’s violation of desperate young women (many of whom were cultivated first by Beauvoir in lesbian relationships). What Beauvoir and Sartre failed to realize was that their observations on the comportment of the bourgeoisie stemmed solely from their privileged position as academics and products of the petit bourgeois.

The same perspective of privilege led Simone and Sartre to develop a flawed affinity for the Soviet Union. When questioned by fellow existentialist Albert Camus on how he could possibly reconcile the murder of millions in Soviet gulags, Sartre responded that the camps are no more inadmissible than French colonialism in Africa or the state violence towards French workers. Sartre claimed that “the Iron Curtain is only a mirror, in which half of the world reflects the other. Each turn of the screw here corresponds with a twist there, and finally, both here and there, we are both the screwers and the screwed.”

It was not until the 1960s and the Mai 1968 student revolutions that a marked division developed between Sartre and Beauvoir in terms of their acknowledgement of their privileged (and flawed) perspective. Both theorists realized that in order “to merit the right to influence men who are struggling, one must first participate in their struggle.” This realization led Sartre and Beauvoir to express their solidarity with the movements and occupations both through their writings and physical presence in the Latin Quarter.

Sartre: “‘These young people don’t want the future of our fathers – our future – a future which has proved we were cowardly, worn out, weary…Violence is the only thing that remains, whatever the regime, for students who have not yet entered into their fathers’ system. The only relationship they can have to the university is to smash it.'”

Unlike Sartre, however, Simone de Beauvoir recognized much sooner the misogynistic realities of both the Soviet model that the worshipped and of the Mai 68 student occupations. “Beauvoir expected socialism to deliver sexual equality. It had not.  Even the gauchiste men of the 68 demonstrations did not treat women as equals.”  This crucial realization led to revisions of Beauvoir’s watershed work of feminist theory, The Second Sex. The basic tenet of The Second Sex is that all male ideologies are directed at justifying the oppression of women, and that women are so conditioned by society that they consent to this oppression. Instead of Sartre’s interpretation of this “consent” as “bad faith,” Simone removes blame from women and stands by her most famous statement: On ne naĂŽt pas femme: on le devient.

Regarding the 68 occupations, Simone remarked:

“’Men made the speeches, but women typed them. Men were on the soap boxes and on the podiums, but women were in the kitchens making coffee. So they got fed up with this because they were intelligent women…I finally understood that women could not expect their emancipation to come from the general revolution but would have to create their own. Men were always telling them that the needs of the revolution came first and their turn as women came later…'”

This quotation is heavily underlined and starred in my book not only because it was a turning point in Beauvoir’s feminist consciousness, but also because I can relate strongly to it. I know I’m not alone in having been encouraged to subordinate  female revolution “for the cause.” Once one realizes that the general revolution – be it state communism or campus activism – does not exist to serve the purposes of women, true liberation from the patriarchy is achievable.

Seymour-Jones correctly states that “there could be no more glaring contradiction than that between the principles enshrined in The Second Sex and her past practices with Sartre.” These contradictions frustrate me to no end. As a feminist and political theorist, I, too, struggle with the application of my academic passions to reality, particularly romantic relationships. Simone de Beauvoir undeniably maintained a relationship with Sartre which, with the exception of the first year, was driven completely by his desires. Though they experienced relatively equal acclaim in their professional lives, Beauvoir and Sartre’s personal life was clearly dominated by misogyny and overwhelmingly skewed power dynamics. Beauvoir had tried to avoid domesticity and patriarchy through her pact of essential love with Sartre, yet the reality of their relationship and the incredible despair that Simone experienced at times (she developed a collapsed lung from one particular incident of jealousy), makes it clear that she was no more liberated in her personal life then her stay-at-home mother was in the early 20th century. Misogyny – not equality – ruled in their relationship and in society.

My question to you, readers, is this: does this contradiction make Simone de Beauvoir any less important as the foremost Marxist-feminist? And, perhaps more relevant, can we, as women, ever truly escape the power of misogyny? Is there such a thing as a relationship with truly equal power dynamics? Even today in the 21st century, most women will argue that an open relationship benefits the man more than the woman. I will save the diatribe on polyamory vs. monogamy for another post, but suffice it say that what Simone de Beauvoir experienced in her relationship with Sartre did not result in the equality of the sexes which she strives for in her feminist texts. Can Beauvoir really be blamed for “talking the talk” of feminism and not “walking the walk” in her romantic encounters, given the underlying hegemony of misogyny in relationships?

I will leave you with our all-time favorite quotation of Beauvoir’s, from The Second Sex:

“The most sympathetic of men never fully comprehend women’s concrete situation. And there is no reason to put much trust in the men when they rush to the defense of privileges whose full extent they can hardly measure.”

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