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Embracing Hypocrisy: Why I Liked Charlie's Angels

off our backs, December 2000, V.30; N.11 p. 11, Word Count: 1426

Jenn Smith

So I bought into it. The media waged a vicious and successful campaign on a usually socially conscious radical feminist. Maybe it was the big bus-stop billboards with butt-kicking babes plastered all around the city, maybe it was nostalgia, the desire to reminisce about the days when I used to devotedly watch Farah, Jacquline, and Kate work for a faceless man named Charlie and solve criminal mysteries, maybe it was just the obscene amount of money and effort poured into a Hollywood extravaganza that made me traipse out of my warm home into the cold November air to see the new glammed out version of Charlie's Angels--twice. Yes, I saw it twice. And here's the even scarier part: I enjoyed it.

On the surface, Charlie's Angels looks like an empowering "girls kick ass" kinda film. Three beautiful, smart women were introduced as being able to do what "no man can" and they proved throughout the movie that they were able to physically defend themselves, use teamwork and intelligence and their sexuality to fool the boys and beat the bad guys.

Girls Kick Ass

The bottom line is that I left the movie feeling empowered because I'd just watched two hours of women kicking ass--specifically men's asses who were attempting to attack them. The women were over-sexualized, but they also combined their femininity with some vicious and powerful fighting. They contradicted stereotypes because they were attractive, ultra-feminine and at the same time took care of each other and took down the bad guys without the interference of men. All too often, women who are seen as attractive, sexy and feminine fulfill their movie role by screaming whenever they're scared and waiting for the true hero of the movie to come rescue them.

Charlie's Feminist Faux-Pas

But alas, it would be tough as a feminist to leave the critique of the movie at that and not look at more insidious messages as well as scenes that could possibly be reclaimed as feminist.

There is no doubt, as many of my cohorts have pointed out that there was much in this film to be offended by. There are your basic feminist no-no's throughout. Women portrayed as objects of male desire and fantasy, two scenes of women pitted against each other, infantalizing of the Angels in the company of their "father figure" Charlie, physical violence against women, and exoticism of women of color.

The underlying message of the film remained far from radical. Despite their kung-fu moves and sharp crime-solving skills, the Angels clearly were valued more for their good looks and bodacious bods. Their physical power, even when they were kicking some poor schmuck's ass, was eroticized to the point that I had a sneaking suspicion that men who loved a good dominatrix would really love this film.

What's A Feminist To Do?

So how could I walk out of the movie without feeling disgusted, disappointed, or even indifferent about another Hollywood movie reinforcing sexist, violent, patriarchal stereotypes such as these? The first answer to that would be that I didn't expect anything feminist or empowering walking into it. In fact, I expected to be offended, but knowing that, I made a conscious decision to try and avoid using my finely honed analytic skills while watching the movie.

It has taken me years to even be able to do this. There was a period in my life where every movie, TV show, or advertisement left me outraged--all with good reason. But I've recently discovered that I much prefer using my righteous anger for protests and activism rather than waste it on a Hollywood film that is sure to disappoint. That's not to say that I won't speak out about horribly offensive media images and tactics, but there are days when I want to be able to detach myself from my politics and watch a movie like anyone else.

A Generational Difference?

On a deeper level, this movie made me see a barrel full of contradictions as a young feminist. I saw my reaction to the movie as generationally based and indicative of the influence of third wave theorizing in my life. I can identify with other young women's critiques of popular culture. I have lived a similar experience to other women my age. In fact every woman I have spoken to who is in her 20's loved this movie.

Yet at the very same time, I am very uncomfortable and critical of third wave theories, and often think that young feminists do not dig deep enough or look honestly enough at oppression of women.

I am disconcerted that more young women do not see the negative aspects of the film, and I don't understand how I, like many others, can set my politics aside and enjoy a film such as this.

This internal struggle has brought me an understanding of how all feminists have to live with contradictions and hypocrisies. If it isn't a movie like Charlie's Angels that we enjoy despite the sexism, then we may enjoy the country music songs that talk about little ladies and making some woman a fine wife and mother some day or the hip hop song glamorizing womanizing.

Reclaiming a Feminist Moment

Despite all the misogyny and silliness of the movie, there was one scene in particular that I thought could be legitimately classified as having a feminist undertone. In this scene, Drew Barrymore has been held hostage by a gang of bad guys. She is tied to a wooden chair and her arms tied behind her back. She is seemingly defenseless. As one of the bad guys is walking out of the room, he offers Drew up by asking the other six men in the room if they like "angel cake." This definitely feels like a creepy gang rape reference. But when the men go to attack Drew, she holds out her legs wide open in a V position and yells stop. She then proceeds to tell them how she will get out of this precarious situation by fighting all of them with her hands tied behind her back. The men advance towards her and she single-handedly knocks all of them to the ground escaping without a scratch.

Now there are a few points that are really important in this scene. One is that Drew is not dressed in sexy, revealing clothes. She is wearing pants, a T-shirt and combat boots. Second she is directly addressing the issue of rape and vulnerability by holding her legs out in a V to actually stop the men from attacking. And third, when she delivers dialogue to the men, she does not speak in a sexy soft tone, she tells them (albeit with a smirk on her face) directly and clearly how she will defend herself against all of them and win. And finally, she does exactly that, no apologies, no hesitation.

Obviously I wish for and work for a world where the threat of violence and actual violence against women was not a norm. Charlie's Angels did nothing to present another world-view where this did not exist. But what it did do, was portray scenes where women were able to physically defend themselves against the violent attacks of men. I think these scenes are very important for women to see, especially heterosexual women who often live, work, and interact intimately with men.

The Issue of Violence

I'm a gal who is pretty damn sensitive to watching violence on the big screen. There have been plenty of times where I have felt physically ill and psychologically saddened by the bloodbaths that have become common in Hollywood features. I've never been a big action film fan, but Charlie's Angels was different. The fight scenes were done Matrix style as the actors flipped around in the air and achieved inhuman speed, height and power as they battled their opponent. There was virtually no blood in the entire movie and to me the violence was not as hard to watch because of the space age feel that the fighting scenes possessed.

Charlie's Angels was no feminist manifesto. But I had a good time watching the film, even though I could see the problems and hear the feminist analysis running through my head like a freight train. Ultimately I made choices as to how I would see and feel about the film. I chose to see the women as powerful--even with the knowledge that women's power was being packaged and sold to me like a case of Spam on special at the Piggly Wiggly, and I chose to reclaim parts of the movie as feminist. Most importantly, I have learned to embrace my own contradictions and know that we all, as feminists, have our hypocrisies to live with.

 

Charlie's Angels: Free-Market Feminism

off our backs December 2000, V.30; N.11 p. 10, Word Count: 1347

Angie Manzano

The depictions of women in Charlie's Angels were no better or worse than those in any other action-adventure film. Charlie's Angels was no more or less misogynistic than most of the other top-selling movies. So why am I picking on Charlie's Angels instead of, say, some Schwarzenegger movie? Well, Terminator II doesn't try to appeal to women, and it doesn't pretend to be a movie about strong, empowered women. And there's something much uglier, more insidious, and more demoralizing about a movie that packages misogyny and sells it as liberation.

Some reviewers spotted a few "feminist" messages in Charlie's Angels. For example, although they all worked for Charlie, the Angels were depicted as free, independent women, capable of caring for themselves. Two of the Angels lived by themselves. All three were involved in romantic relationships with men, but maintained an "easy-come, easy-go" attitude towards them. The Angels could be coy and cutesy, but they could also be confident, tough, and resilient. The Angels don't let anyone get in their way. They do whatever they can to get what they want. Whether they're kicking ass, kissing ass, or shaking ass doesn't really matter; these are simply different techniques the Angels use to obtain power.

Most of the techniques used by the Angels to attain power involve treating people like shit, being competitive, being manipulative, and being violent. Here are a few examples:

Lucy Liu's character is at a party, working undercover, looking for a certain man. Another man tries to start a conversation with her, distracting her from her job. She glares at the man trying to talk to her, snaps some rude comment at him, then ignores him. The guy leaves and the Angel gets back to scoping out the room.

In another scene, that same Angel dresses up like a dominatrix to attract the attention of men in an office. She does this to get the all-male office staff to follow her out of the office and into a lecture room, where they will listen and respond to her questions. In order to get the men to follow her, the Angel must compete with a female manager for control of the office. The Angel undermines the manager's authority by ignoring her words and walking right past the woman as if she didn't even exist. Because the manager is not young, thin, or dressed like a dominatrix, she is unable to keep her employees from leaving the office.

All of the Charlie's Angels betray, trick, and manipulate men. Drew Barrymore's character unzips her top and licks a car steering wheel in order to distract the man in the driver's seat. Lucy Liu's character, working undercover in a massage parlor--and dressed, this time, in "exotic geisha girl" costume--performs some trick with her hands that makes her male customer lose consciousness.

All of the Charlie's Angels fight. This is, after all, an action-adventure movie. They kick men and hit women, they break things and blow things up.

Popular movies, music, and TV shows often promote the idea that there's something feminist about being cruel, manipulative, violent and competitive. It seems like every country song you hear by a woman espouses some version of "guys treat us like commodities or crap, so let's do the same to them and we'll be even."

But how will adopting some of the worst aspects associated with masculinity, like selfishness and hostility, lead to our liberation? What's so emancipating about using people, using our bodies, and using our sexuality as a means to an end, to get what we want? Such stereotypical, socially acceptable, gender-appropriate tricks are counterproductive to the feminist vision of egalitarianism. They reflect and encourage a debased conception of ourselves and others. They allow individual women to achieve upward mobility and advancement on a personal level, in a limited domain, but they leave the overarching system of unequal access to wealth, power and prestige based on gender intact. Licking steering wheels and flashing tits flatters, rather than challenges, authority. Bending over a lot might get you a job, but it won't threaten the power structure of a male-dominated workplace.

If pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps won't abolish sexism, how did rugged individualism become associated with feminism? It's not just a coincidence that the marketable, media-friendly, Third-Wave feminist emphasis on individual action dovetails nicely with our capitalist economy's prescription for success. We live and work within an economy that rewards greed. If you want to succeed in this economy, you have to be selfish. You benefit only at the expense of others. If you can't or won't compete, you won't survive. When feminism is disseminated by and interpreted through capitalist-controlled institutions, you get a clash of ideologies and interests. Something's gotta give.

In the case of Charlie's Angels, what we end up with is a "free-market feminism," the kind you see in the Spice Girls and Ally McBeal. Free-market feminism focuses on personal freedoms instead of women's rights, personal maneuvering instead of structural oppression, and personal choices instead of collective action. Under the lens of free-market feminism, "independence" doesn't mean liberation and self-actualization. The free-market feminist spin on "independence" emphasizes detachment and equanimity. It's a dehumanizing interpretation. Not needing other people is exalted as a virtue. People are like replaceable, interchangeable commodities.

In Charlie's Angels, Drew Barrymore's character dumps guy number one, falls in love with guy number two, falls out of love with guy number two when he tries to kill her, then gets back with guy number one. All this takes place in a matter of days, yet none of this shakes her composure.

Likewise, the Angels laugh off attempted murders, beatings, and an attempted rape moments after these violations take place. The characters in Charlie's Angels are atomized, alienated, hollow, cut off emotionally from each other and from themselves. And these are characters that Hollywood offers as role models for young girls!

The problem is not that women need to be more tough and callous or less kind and nurturing. The problem is that we live in a society that values competition over cooperation, selfishness over solidarity, aggression over compassion. We don't need to discard our ideals, replacing them with the antisocial attitudes extolled by our economic, social, political and cultural institutions. We need to transform these institutions so that they will better reflect our life-affirming values. We need to promote a kind of feminism that's about interdependence, not fierce individualism. We should not be using sexuality to demean or degrade, but to inspire and enliven. We need to advocate not for individual maneuvering within the system, but to recognize that real, lasting power comes from collective action to challenge the system.

If the mainstream media is right--if feminism really is about rugged individualism, kicking men's asses, and looking out for number one--then Charlie's Angels is an excellent example of a feminist film. As Susan Faludi writes of some women, "what they want to break off and call feminism is their own personal advancement, their own personal freedoms, their own personal choices, so feminism must be about what I want to wear, about fashion and beauty and flirting at the office. Here's our new brand of feminism. Tastes good, less filling."

And if Susan Faludi is right when she says that "there's this disconnect ...between what feminism is about and what it became once it was mediated through TV screens," then Charlie's Angels is just another example of what Faludi has dubbed the "new brand of feminism" that "tastes good, less filling." It's watered down, it's easy to sell, and it leaves you feeling empty.


 

Man Bites Dog! How the mainstream media obscures the fact of male violence

off our backs, December 2000, V.30; N.11 p. 12, Word Count: 1617

Jennie Ruby

I was watching "Law & Order," a television show about a law firm, the other night, and a familiar feeling of confusion came over me. The show was about topics of concern to feminists: sexual harassment, violent reprisal for the breakup of an affair, women working in jobs that used to be men-only domains. But there was something wrong. And I began to realize that I got a similar feeling reading the newspaper, watching the news, and going to movies. Something has been happening in popular culture: the sexism that is so obvious in everyday life plays differently in the media.

The media and popular culture have a lot of power to influence what people both know and think about things, so it matters who or what controls them. The powerful media machines of pop culture are controlled primarily by men--white men--and by the need to make a profit. These two facts mean that the general public in the U.S. can easily be misinformed and confused about issues that directly affect all women's lives as well as the lives of people of color and people living in poverty.

When a clear message about a women's issue is in the news, great progress can be made. When the Anita Hill hearings were being held, the issue of sexual harassment received a lot of attention, and many women learned about their legal rights to a workplace free of this kind of coercion.

But hard-won progress and carefully researched and proven facts can be erased from people's minds by one high-budget pop culture movie: think what Fatal Attraction did to people's recognition that by far it is women--not men--who in reality need to fear stalking and violent reprisal when they get involved with the wrong man and then try to break up with him.

Why do the news and (popular) media end up fostering misperceptions? Of course, one reason is that a basic premise of journalism is that if it is not news, it's not worth printing. Why? Because if it is not news, it will not sell. Stories that go contrary to expectations are news. The expected is not news.

A dog bites a man? That is not news. Man bites dog? That is news. If a man beats his wife, it is not news, but if a woman beats a man, it's news. Likewise, men rape about 500,000 women per year, some with foreign objects that cause severe damage to the woman's vagina. That is not news. Clitoral mutilations occur perhaps every day. That is not news. One woman severs a man's penis. That's news.

In routine news reporting in the United States, male violence towards women is not news. Like a fender-bender in a large city's commuter traffic, it's not nothing, but it's the kind of news not reported as an individual story. It is saved up and reported as statistics. Although it's bad, it's not uncommon, and therefore not newsworthy. There was a domestic disturbance and a man broke his wife's arm?--not a front-page story, just a statistic (572,032 women per year are attacked by their intimate partner). But a woman broke a man's arm? I see a TV miniseries coming.

Women's violence is seen as more sensational, more unusual, and more surprising than men's violence, and thus is over reported on or overemphasized in the news media. For example, the Washington Post recently featured a front-page story about a group of women who ganged up on and murdered another woman. The story received extensive treatment, written like a novel and jumping to a full half page of text with photos. The article acknowledged that this kind of murder--several women knifing another woman to death--was rare (it only occurs in 0.036 percent, that is, 36 hundredths of one percent, of murders in the United States). But the extent of the coverage served to give this murder more notice than would be given to a similar murder committed by a group of men.

A violent crime committed by a woman is remarkable just because a female committed it. Violent crimes by males are viewed as generic, so that news stories often neglect to even mention specifically that males committed them. Thus, for example, the Columbine and other school shootings were said to have been committed by "children" or "students," obscuring the fact that these were crimes committed by males.

The cumulative effect all this has on the reader is that it fosters a dramatic overestimate of women's violence compared with men's. Psychological research tells us that repetition has a strong effect on memory. It only takes three times driving to work a certain way before it becomes "your way." So let's say it only takes three full-blown stories about women's violence to make us have a sense that "it happens all the time," just like three trips to work become "I always go that way." Yet the same week we see three stories on women's violence, hundreds of worse crimes perpetrated by men go unreported, or are reported only in the form of statistics. The result is a skewed sense of how much female violence there is in comparison to male violence. The result is that even in feminist discussions I hear people say things like "women are just as violent as men."

Unfortunately, the news media are only part of the problem. Popular culture outlets such as TV shows and movies contribute even more to these skewed perceptions. As with the news media, the male-dominated pop culture outlets seem markedly drawn to stories that misrepresent the material realities of women's and men's lives in a way that hides male culpability and confuses issues that feminists have worked hard for a generation to clarify. The story lines commonly revolve around reversals of reality: first portray a typically male behavior or crime as having been done by a woman, then generate a lot of confusion about what it all means. Or portray a reality of women's lives as something experienced by a man instead. Look at the themes of some popular shows:

In a "Law & Order" episode a woman is jilted, stalks and murders the man who dumped her, then tries to use a false accusation of sexual harassment to excuse her crime.

In another "Law & Order" episode, a man has trouble finding daycare and combining work and parenting.

On "Ally McBeal," the law firm defends a reverse sex discrimination case.

On VH1, a show on porn stars becoming rock stars implies that female porn stars freely choose that career the same way male rock stars choose their careers.

In "Boogie Nights," a movie that has now reached cable TV, the exploitation of a male porn star is sympathetically portrayed, while the movie itself continues to demean and exploit female porn stars.

Reversal and confusion is a recurrent, if not the only, theme on "Ally McBeal": I can just imagine the charmingly befuddled star saying, in a plaintive, mystified voice: "Well, women can be sexist too, can't they?" and I can just hear her ask, "Women are also violent, aren't they?" and I can easily imagine her saying, "I used the think that sexual harassment was what men did to guard their position of power in the workplace, but mixing sex and office politics also happens between two women now, doesn't it?...Oh it's just all so confusing! I give up."

Are there any TV shows about real people's lives? In fact there are TV dramas about men abusing women, men leaving their children, women surviving as single moms and holding down two jobs. But these shows are ghettoized on the Lifetime TV network--TV for women. They are popularly regarded as sappy tearjerkers not to be taken seriously, much like daytime soap operas. These are not the stuff of mass network TV seen by millions.

Pop culture is busy gender-neutralizing away such realities as that men commit significantly far more murders against both men and women than women do, that sexual harassment by men of women far exceeds cases of the opposite, that "spouse" abuse is a crime committed by men over 90% of the time, and that anywhere from 80% to 97% of violent crimes from simple assault, to armed robbery, to sexual assault, are committed by men (data from Department of Justice statistics for 1998).

But in stark contrast to factual reality, pop culture makes it appear we are living in postfeminism: Where both women and men routinely break people's arms in anger. Where just as many women sexually harass men in the workplace as vice versa. Where prostitutes choose their career as freely as brain surgeons do, without coercion or a web of abuse, poverty and drug addiction.

A key question to ask is whom does this confusion benefit? It benefits the system of male domination by not challenging men to take responsibility for the ways they use violence and sexism to maintain power over others. Men will go to great lengths to prevent feminists from pointing out the faults of men and masculinity. It serves men's comfort level to keep popular culture male-centric and to label any truth-telling about men's violence as male-bashing. And men are well positioned to control how issues are addressed in popular culture: it is by far men who control the networks, the news media, and the decision-making about what goes on TV.

When viewing pop culture, the caveat is: don't be fooled by anecdotal evidence or by melodramatic stories trying to confuse the issue. It is simple: men commit the overwhelming majority of violent crimes. Men wage war. Men beat, murder, stalk women significantly more often than women commit these behaviors, and when men do it, it is more severe.

Ally McBeal may be confused, but we're not.

off our backs 1/31/2000 V.30; N.1 p. 24Word Count: 1690

A Radical Dyke Experiment for the Next Century: 5 Things to work for Instead of Same-Sex MarriageAuthorBrown, BetsyArticle

It was 1965. I was in the fourth grade in Philadelphia. My teacher asked the class to write about what life might be like in the year 2000. I don't remember what I wrote. By I do remember that the turn of the century seemed very far away--and that I couldn't imagine what it might be like to be 43 years old. I didn't fit into the world I lived in, and I couldn't imagine fitting into the world of the future.

As I sat in that classroom, I suppose I looked like any normal middle-class white girl--although my hair was shorter. But my life was rather strange. My father had died before I was old enough to remember him, and my big sister had died when I was eight. My mother was a civilian scientist for the Army. All of this was weird, but the weirdest thing was, I didn't want to be a girl, and I didn't want to grow up to be a woman.

I didn't want to be weak and stupid and controlled by men. Sure, my mother wasn't like that, but I watched television and listened to my Aunt Libby talk, and I knew what women were supposed to be like. It seemed extremely awful. I wanted to be a boy.

Someday, the grownups said, some special man would come along and marry me. Then I would be magically transformed into a brainless, submissive housewife. Worse yet, they insisted I would be happy. The thought of being brainwashed in this fashion made my stomach turn.

it saved my life

When I was 13, administrators at my junior high school wanted to send me to a psychiatrist. (My mother wouldn't let them.) On my way home from school on the subway, sometimes I got beat up, and sometimes groups of high school boys would corner me and threaten to rape me to find out whether I was a boy or a girl. (I always escaped.)

I know that I was both privileged and lucky, and that other wimmin have had it much worse than I have. But I can tell you that I was frightened and baffled.

Then, on a bulletin board at school, I found a flyer about women's liberation. (This was in 1969 or 1970, during the same period that off our backs was founded.) It was pretty tame, really. All it said was that sex roles were not natural or necessary. This simple idea opened to me the possibility that I could be female and still be myself.

Sometimes I say that the combination of feminism and Girl Scout camp saved my life. It may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Today it is fashionable to make fun of the lesbian feminist liberation movement of the 1970s and '80s. But that movement made it possible for my life to be much freer than it would have been otherwise, and I am not willing to let it die. We did not merely seek equal participation in the warped institutions of an oppressive society. We worked to create alternatives to those institutions. Even our personal relationships were part of a larger movement to remake the world, to rid it of sexism, racism, and economic exploitation.

the future is now

The future is here, and sometimes it's just so disgusting I don't have adequate words for it. Within the United States, the continuing reality of (hetero)sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, anti-Semitism, environmental destruction and economic exploitation is denied by an official pretense of prosperity and equal opportunity.

Worldwide, the Bush/Cinton New World Order protects and promotes the globalization of capital. This means transnational corporations can freely move jobs to wherever wages are lowest and environmental protection is most lax. The abuses of this system of industrial production seem to be reaching their logical extreme. But every time global capitalism seems ready to collapse from its own excesses, it regains its feet and keeps on stomping us.

I talk with lots of dykes, both where I live in western Oregon, and over the Internet on a dykefeminism electronic mailing list. It's my observation that there are plenty of dyke feminists and dyke separatists, wimmin with radical understandings of the ways the world could be. But it often seems to me that we're demoralized and disorganized. Considering what we're facing, that's not so surprising. At least within the U.S., the visible public movements that expect our allegiance are entirely disappointing.

Frozen by panic and lack of imagination, mainstream feminist groups have supported the rapist in the White House simply because he's not a rightwing Republican. Nevertheless, Bill Clinton carries out right-wing policies such as the war on poor wimmin known as welfare reform.

Meanwhile, the gaylesbianbisexualtransgender movement works for such bizarre reforms as same-sex marriage. This issue is a particular sore spot for me, since one of the greatest gifts feminism gave me was help in escaping that institution.

At least within Western Civilization, marriage evolved as a way for men to assert ownership of their wives and children. It allowed rich men to perpetuate their power by passing their wealth to their male descendants. It also gave rise to the nuclear family, with its deadly fallout of battery, marital rape, and incest. To see a movement that expects my participation supporting the idea of marriage sometimes drives me to the edge of despair.

what is to be done?

Global patriarchy is a very large problem. I can't answer the invitation of off our backs to predict or suggest what the global feminist movement might look like over the next 1000 years. But when it comes to same-sex marriage, I do have some ideas for some alternatives.

I want to offer real help to all of us dykes who have no wish to imitate the Ozzie-and-Harriet stereotype. Many of us are single. Some of us have more than one lover. Some lesbians have coparenting arrangements with people who are not romantic partners. Most dykes I know are sustained by a complicated web of friends and ex-lovers--even those of us who are on good terms with our biological families. The current legal structure makes our lives much harder than they have to be.

Here's what I have in mind for some ways to change that:

(1) Everyone should have a guaranteed right to medical care. Universal health insurance would make the debate over partner benefits entirely unnecessary.

(2) Immigration laws should be abolished. Same-sex partners of U.S. citizens could then enter the country with no difficulty. The persecution of undocumented workers would also end.

(3) Laws that limit the number of "unrelated" people who live in one household should also be abolished.

(4) We should develop the concept of designated next-of-kin (DNOK). This would be like domestic partnership, except more inclusive. You could name any number of people as DNOKs--friends as well as lovers. You would have the right to include--or exclude--any of your biological relatives. Your DNOKs would have automatic rights to visit you in the hospital, make medical decisions for you if you were incapacitated, assume custody of your children when you die, and inherit from you in equal shares. (If you're really rich, some of your estate should be appropriated to finance item number one.)

(5) Finally, marriage is best understood as a religious sacrament. The government has no more business determining who may marry than it has deciding who is a member in good standing of the Baptist church. Under the principle of separation of church and state, the government should not recognize marriage for anyone of any sexual orientation.

If you wish the right to marry, that should be an issue between you, your betrothed, and the duly appointed representatives of whatever faith you practice. If you don't like any of the available religions, feel free to start your own, with or without a god or goddess. For instance, you could start the Universal Church of Queer Matrimony.

a question of strategy

Having played around with these ideas for more than a year, I have some very mixed feelings about them. First, some things I like:

It seems to me that many lesbians support the mainstream gay movement, not because they like it much, but because it's the only thing they're aware of that offers a specific, concrete agenda they can work on. I think I've come up with some specific proposals that might draw more lesbians into a dyke-identified movement, and I think that's a good thing.

Furthermore, these proposals might have a real chance of being enacted. They're no more controversial than gay marriage, and because they would actually benefit lots of heterosexuals, they might gain more widespread backing.

Now, here's what makes me uneasy:

I'm a lesbian separatist. That means I work for autonomous lesbian alternatives to patriarchal society. It doesn't bother me if the work I do for lesbians also benefits non-lesbian wimmin. If the work I am doing has some side-effect that benefits men without hurting wimmin, I don't even mind that. What I do mind is that two of my proposals require positive government support. Universal health insurance and designated next-of-kin seem to depend on the continued existence of the patriarchal government structure. Telling the government to stop doing things doesn't bother me. If various levels of government abolish immigration laws or zoning laws or recognition of marriage, that brings us that much closer to a world without government. But if we ask the government for help, there's a very big risk of giving a set of patriarchal institutions that much more power to oppress us.

So, I'd like to hear what dykes and wimmin think about my ideas. Does the good in them outweigh the possible harm? And if we're going to demand something from the government, should we go ahead and ask for a guaranteed survival income for everyone? Creating a feminist future is not only a big task, but a complicated one. Maybe if we try lots of different experiments we'll discover some strategies that work.

 

 

A Radical Dyke Experiment for the Next Century: 5 Things to work for Instead of Same-Sex Marriage

off our backs, January 2000 V.30; N.1 p. 24, Word Count: 1690

Betsy Brown

It was 1965. I was in the fourth grade in Philadelphia. My teacher asked the class to write about what life might be like in the year 2000. I don't remember what I wrote. By I do remember that the turn of the century seemed very far away--and that I couldn't imagine what it might be like to be 43 years old. I didn't fit into the world I lived in, and I couldn't imagine fitting into the world of the future.

As I sat in that classroom, I suppose I looked like any normal middle-class white girl--although my hair was shorter. But my life was rather strange. My father had died before I was old enough to remember him, and my big sister had died when I was eight. My mother was a civilian scientist for the Army. All of this was weird, but the weirdest thing was, I didn't want to be a girl, and I didn't want to grow up to be a woman.

I didn't want to be weak and stupid and controlled by men. Sure, my mother wasn't like that, but I watched television and listened to my Aunt Libby talk, and I knew what women were supposed to be like. It seemed extremely awful. I wanted to be a boy.

Someday, the grownups said, some special man would come along and marry me. Then I would be magically transformed into a brainless, submissive housewife. Worse yet, they insisted I would be happy. The thought of being brainwashed in this fashion made my stomach turn.

it saved my life

When I was 13, administrators at my junior high school wanted to send me to a psychiatrist. (My mother wouldn't let them.) On my way home from school on the subway, sometimes I got beat up, and sometimes groups of high school boys would corner me and threaten to rape me to find out whether I was a boy or a girl. (I always escaped.)

I know that I was both privileged and lucky, and that other wimmin have had it much worse than I have. But I can tell you that I was frightened and baffled.

Then, on a bulletin board at school, I found a flyer about women's liberation. (This was in 1969 or 1970, during the same period that off our backs was founded.) It was pretty tame, really. All it said was that sex roles were not natural or necessary. This simple idea opened to me the possibility that I could be female and still be myself.

Sometimes I say that the combination of feminism and Girl Scout camp saved my life. It may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Today it is fashionable to make fun of the lesbian feminist liberation movement of the 1970s and '80s. But that movement made it possible for my life to be much freer than it would have been otherwise, and I am not willing to let it die. We did not merely seek equal participation in the warped institutions of an oppressive society. We worked to create alternatives to those institutions. Even our personal relationships were part of a larger movement to remake the world, to rid it of sexism, racism, and economic exploitation.

the future is now

The future is here, and sometimes it's just so disgusting I don't have adequate words for it. Within the United States, the continuing reality of (hetero)sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, anti-Semitism, environmental destruction and economic exploitation is denied by an official pretense of prosperity and equal opportunity.

Worldwide, the Bush/Cinton New World Order protects and promotes the globalization of capital. This means transnational corporations can freely move jobs to wherever wages are lowest and environmental protection is most lax. The abuses of this system of industrial production seem to be reaching their logical extreme. But every time global capitalism seems ready to collapse from its own excesses, it regains its feet and keeps on stomping us.

I talk with lots of dykes, both where I live in western Oregon, and over the Internet on a dykefeminism electronic mailing list. It's my observation that there are plenty of dyke feminists and dyke separatists, wimmin with radical understandings of the ways the world could be. But it often seems to me that we're demoralized and disorganized. Considering what we're facing, that's not so surprising. At least within the U.S., the visible public movements that expect our allegiance are entirely disappointing.

Frozen by panic and lack of imagination, mainstream feminist groups have supported the rapist in the White House simply because he's not a rightwing Republican. Nevertheless, Bill Clinton carries out right-wing policies such as the war on poor wimmin known as welfare reform.

Meanwhile, the gaylesbianbisexualtransgender movement works for such bizarre reforms as same-sex marriage. This issue is a particular sore spot for me, since one of the greatest gifts feminism gave me was help in escaping that institution.

At least within Western Civilization, marriage evolved as a way for men to assert ownership of their wives and children. It allowed rich men to perpetuate their power by passing their wealth to their male descendants. It also gave rise to the nuclear family, with its deadly fallout of battery, marital rape, and incest. To see a movement that expects my participation supporting the idea of marriage sometimes drives me to the edge of despair.

what is to be done?

Global patriarchy is a very large problem. I can't answer the invitation of off our backs to predict or suggest what the global feminist movement might look like over the next 1000 years. But when it comes to same-sex marriage, I do have some ideas for some alternatives.

I want to offer real help to all of us dykes who have no wish to imitate the Ozzie-and-Harriet stereotype. Many of us are single. Some of us have more than one lover. Some lesbians have coparenting arrangements with people who are not romantic partners. Most dykes I know are sustained by a complicated web of friends and ex-lovers--even those of us who are on good terms with our biological families. The current legal structure makes our lives much harder than they have to be.

Here's what I have in mind for some ways to change that:

(1) Everyone should have a guaranteed right to medical care. Universal health insurance would make the debate over partner benefits entirely unnecessary.

(2) Immigration laws should be abolished. Same-sex partners of U.S. citizens could then enter the country with no difficulty. The persecution of undocumented workers would also end.

(3) Laws that limit the number of "unrelated" people who live in one household should also be abolished.

(4) We should develop the concept of designated next-of-kin (DNOK). This would be like domestic partnership, except more inclusive. You could name any number of people as DNOKs--friends as well as lovers. You would have the right to include--or exclude--any of your biological relatives. Your DNOKs would have automatic rights to visit you in the hospital, make medical decisions for you if you were incapacitated, assume custody of your children when you die, and inherit from you in equal shares. (If you're really rich, some of your estate should be appropriated to finance item number one.)

(5) Finally, marriage is best understood as a religious sacrament. The government has no more business determining who may marry than it has deciding who is a member in good standing of the Baptist church. Under the principle of separation of church and state, the government should not recognize marriage for anyone of any sexual orientation.

If you wish the right to marry, that should be an issue between you, your betrothed, and the duly appointed representatives of whatever faith you practice. If you don't like any of the available religions, feel free to start your own, with or without a god or goddess. For instance, you could start the Universal Church of Queer Matrimony.

a question of strategy

Having played around with these ideas for more than a year, I have some very mixed feelings about them. First, some things I like:

It seems to me that many lesbians support the mainstream gay movement, not because they like it much, but because it's the only thing they're aware of that offers a specific, concrete agenda they can work on. I think I've come up with some specific proposals that might draw more lesbians into a dyke-identified movement, and I think that's a good thing.

Furthermore, these proposals might have a real chance of being enacted. They're no more controversial than gay marriage, and because they would actually benefit lots of heterosexuals, they might gain more widespread backing.

Now, here's what makes me uneasy:

I'm a lesbian separatist. That means I work for autonomous lesbian alternatives to patriarchal society. It doesn't bother me if the work I do for lesbians also benefits non-lesbian wimmin. If the work I am doing has some side-effect that benefits men without hurting wimmin, I don't even mind that. What I do mind is that two of my proposals require positive government support. Universal health insurance and designated next-of-kin seem to depend on the continued existence of the patriarchal government structure. Telling the government to stop doing things doesn't bother me. If various levels of government abolish immigration laws or zoning laws or recognition of marriage, that brings us that much closer to a world without government. But if we ask the government for help, there's a very big risk of giving a set of patriarchal institutions that much more power to oppress us.

So, I'd like to hear what dykes and wimmin think about my ideas. Does the good in them outweigh the possible harm? And if we're going to demand something from the government, should we go ahead and ask for a guaranteed survival income for everyone? Creating a feminist future is not only a big task, but a complicated one. Maybe if we try lots of different experiments we'll discover some strategies that work.

 

 

Why Divorce/Patriarchy is Bad for Kids

off our backs, November 2000 V.30; N.10 p. 1, Word Count: 5719

Karla Mantilla

Now that woman is coming into her own, now that she is actually growing aware of herself as being outside of the master's grace, the sacred institution of marriage is gradually being undermined, and no amount of sentimental lamentation can stay it.

--Emma Goldman, 1917

The book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce is the new darling of the mainstream media--it has been featured as the cover story in Time Magazine and the New York Times Book Review. Perhaps you've heard of this book which claims to show new evidence that divorce really is bad for children after all. The primary author, Judith Wallerstein, has been giving interviews all over the country. It is no coincidence that this book--like nearly all antifeminist works, no matter how poorly executed--has been catapulted into the limelight, while carefully documented, clearly articulated, thoughtful feminist works are given little to no attention.

The main premise of the book is that there are long-term negative effects of divorce on children. Wallerstein finds, through a 25-year study of "children of divorce," that they suffer in innumerable ways decades after their parents' divorces. Some of the problems Wallerstein cites are lowered college attendance, unhappiness over rigid visitation schedules, high conflict during and after divorce, neglect by fathers, loss of time with mothers due to overwork, difficulty finding happy marriages as adults, and increased likelihood of getting divorced themselves.

A thorough reading of the book, however, finds its author woefully blind to the power inequalities and male privilege that structure marriage, divorce, and the lives of children. Furthermore, there are grave methodological problems with the study as a whole. As mainstream culture absorbs the message that divorce is really a terrible thing for children and should be avoided at all costs, I think it is vital for feminists to know precisely how and why Wallerstein's conclusions are flawed, wrong, and inaccurate.

The legacy of selfish fathers, not divorce

One of the most striking flaws in this study is that almost all of the problems that Wallerstein attributes to divorce actually arise from the selfishness and irresponsibility of fathers in the study. Over and over, Wallerstein cites terrible things fathers have done, and then attributes them to divorce, not to the fathers themselves. In an era of mania about "personal responsibility," it is astounding how little that concept is applied to male behavior.

One of the more outrageous findings of the study is that less than 30% of "children of divorce" received consistent full or partial support for attending college from their parents, while almost 90% of children of "intact" families received such help. While Wallerstein masks that it is fathers and not mothers who don't help out with college by the use of the term "parents" in her data, quotes from study subjects reveal the real situation:

When I enrolled [in college], Mom told me that she would pay for half the year and that Dad would pay for the other half--tuition and board. So I go to register for the second semester and I couldn't because Dad hadn't sent the tuition check. Then the dorm told me I had to move out because the money hadn't been sent. He sent me money from time to time. But he never really helped with tuition. My mom had to mortgage our house.

Wallerstein explains,

As I talked to these fathers, I confess I that I was shocked by the fact that no one seemed aware of or expressed concern over the hardships being endured by their children...not being supported in higher education and the serious consequences for their future economic well-being. Mothers for the most part were worried about the future and tried to contribute money for college. But only a few made the kind of incomes where they could really help.... Others took second or third mortgages on their homes to pay tuition.... When I asked these fathers about their failure to support their children at this juncture, none pleaded poverty or even temporary financial reverses.... "I did all that was required" was the recurrent theme.

Unfortunately, rather than call for fathers to take full responsibility for their children, Wallerstein instead holds divorce as the problem. Apparently, to her thinking, it is not these men who are responsible for their stingy, selfish behavior, but it is the institution of divorce that should be indicted. Never mind that women are capable of continuing to care about and provide for their children after divorce, and often under much more stringent conditions than men face. Rather than hold men accountable for their behavior as fathers, she prefers to blame divorce.

The legacy of violent fathers

Although Wallerstein again masks male culpability with the fashionable gender-neutral parlance of violent "parents," she writes that "a quarter of the fathers [in her study] were physically violent toward their spouses [i.e. wives] some or much of the time in years leading up to the divorce." She tries to gender-neutralize even this finding by adding in parentheses, "Although women can be violent--giving as good as they get or taking the lead in abusive acts--none of the mothers from this group were violent." Assuming that this finding is some sort of fluke rather than interpreting it as significant, she gender-neutralizes it away.

But even more significant than her erasure of men's violence toward their wives is her reframing of the aftereffects of children's witnessing and living with violence as the effect of divorce and not of violence. She writes of one study subject, Larry, whose father was physically and verbally abusive toward his mother. Larry began to act aggressively after his mother left the father. His father continued to belittle and demean his mother during visits with Larry and pressured the boy to join in criticizing his mother. Larry's father "taught Larry how to insult his mother in Russian and brushed off his daughter." Wallerstein reports that

Shortly after the divorce, he [Larry] told me that his father always said that women and girls were stupid and worthless. In his view he had been left with an inferior being. Whenever Larry's father visited, he told the boy, "You are my favorite." He pointedly ignored his little daughter who tagged behind hoping, as she later told me, that she would be at least allowed to pet her father's dog, Ivan.

Wallerstein describes Larry's behavior: "After the separation, Larry donned his father's tie and marched around the house shouting obscene insults at this mother." Remarkably, Wallerstein interprets this aggressive behavior on Larry's part toward his mother as "Larry's anger at his mother for the divorce." She interprets,

The divorce terrified Larry and his sister....They were preoccupied with the fear of being abandoned...This fear is the key to understanding the initial changes in Larry's behavior....The true driving force was the child's own campaign to restore the family that was breaking apart.

This is not only pure speculation as to the reasons for his behavior; it is a phenomenally unlikely and improbable interpretation. Isn't it much more likely that Larry behaved that way because he was emulating his father's treatment of women? Isn't it more likely that the cause of Larry's behavior was his father's abusiveness and had nothing, or at the most, very little, to do with divorce itself? Recent research has shown that just witnessing abuse of a parent is as damaging for children as being a victim of physical or sexual abuse themselves.

And if witnessing abuse is the cause of Larry's aggressive behavior, divorcing this man and diminishing or eliminating his contact altogether with his children would be the best possible thing a mother could do to help her children. Divorce would be a positive thing for this child--the exact opposite of the conclusion that Wallerstein draws.

Which interpretation is true--whether divorce or abuse is the cause of the children's problems--is a question of vital importance to the children involved. But Wallerstein, so prejudiced against divorce as to ignore the obvious, finds a way to blame the children's problems on divorce rather than on their father's abuse. She concludes, "Larry's experiences reveal that divorce is not the quick solution to a bad marriage that many people understand it to be. High-conflict marriages often lead to high-conflict families after divorce." Somehow she finds a way to criticize divorce itself instead of seeing the need to strengthen women's economic and legal power when divorcing abusive men so that they can establish a safe place for themselves and their children, protecting both from continued abuse.

The legacy of forced visitation

Another way in which male behavior had a negative impact on "children of divorce" was on the topic of visitation. Apparently fathers often treated their children like property over whom they had won the legal right for visitation without regard for the children's own schedules, needs, or lives. Wallerstein argues that it was very hard on children to be forced into rigid visitation schedules at times that did not work with their activities. Children forced into such visitation ended up feeling resentful of their fathers as revealed in the following comments from study participants:

How old do I have to be before I can refuse to visit my father?

He doesn't love me. People who love people respect them. He never asks me whether I want to come or what I want to do. He never gives me permission not to come....He won't let me change. I tried. He says that's his time.

Although Wallerstein again blurs her findings by using the word "parent" when she is in fact describing fathers, she explains that,

When they reached adulthood, all of the children in this study who had been court ordered or mediated to visit a parent on a schedule that remained rigidly fixed and unmodified were angry at one or both parents. Most were very angry at the parent they had been ordered to visit. All rejected the parent whom they were forced to visit when they got older. They said things like, "I don't care if I ever see him again," or "We have nothing in common because we never really talked in all those years." Sometimes they said, "I feel sorry for my father but that's all I feel."

As a result of the way men interacted with their children--either treating them like property, or being financially stingy, or generally being unresponsive and uncaring--such children ultimately showed little interest in or rejected their fathers when they became adults. According to Wallerstein,

Most fathers in the study...are regarded by their children as selfish and insensitive to the consequences of their failures as fathers. "My Dad loves life but has no heart for others," said one young man....Only eight men and women in the entire group said they would seek their father's advice about any aspect of a personal relationship or a family problem. A large national study reports that young adults in divorced families, very much in accord with my findings here, are angry at their fathers and are unlikely to be helpful to them as they grow old.

Yet, despite her own data and all the commentary from study subjects, she steadfastly refuses to comment negatively on the behavior of fathers, choosing to indict divorce itself instead. If these men act so badly, how can she think the solution is for millions of hapless women to stay married to them? And how can she think that children would benefit by more contact with men of such low character? Her analysis is reminiscent of George Gilder's argument that men do indeed act badly on their own, therefore it is women's job to civilize them. His theory, in other words, is that it is women's duty to marry and sleep with these horrible men, somehow reforming them, or barring that (since women have less power than men), saving society from men's bad behavior by absorbing its effects themselves--allowing themselves and their children to be beaten, bullied, and brutalized.

The "poor man" syndrome

Even more than not holding fathers in her study accountable for their appalling negligence, irresponsibility, and selfishness, Wallerstein somehow seems to feel sympathy towards these men. She uncritically, even sympathetically, writes one father, "Like so many other men who are physically ill or psychologically depressed during and immediately after the divorce, he was uncomfortable about visiting [his children]." [italics added].

She recounts the situation of a father who didn't see his children for a long period of time, saying "He didn't ask and no one helped him [italics added] catch up with the important years of growth that he had missed....[he] fully expected that they [the children] would conform to his life [italics in original]." And "this father didn't have a clue of what to do with young girls and no one helped him [italics in original]." At a later point, she again suggests that the father is helpless: "No one thought to help the man or the daughters figure out ways to get to know one another after such a long absence."

Another time, when speaking of fathers in the study, she writes "Men are also depressed and lonely at this time. They need help setting up a home for themselves and to be reassured that their children want to see them."

Over and over in her writing, Wallerstein sees men as needing help, as being unable on their own to take adult responsibility for their lives and their children. In her view, it is men who need help setting up a home. It is men who need someone to help them with their children. On the other hand, she does not mention single mothers as needing help--women who work full time, making much less money than men, and still take full responsibility for their kids day in day out, not just for visits.

In yet another instance of portraying men as needing help, she writes

In many intact families, the mother serves as intermediary between father and child, interpreting the needs of each to the other in ways that sustain their connection. Thousands of women say to their tired husbands, "It would mean so much to the child if you could set aside some time for him over the weekend."

Apparently, Wallerstein sees men and fathers as half-wits who need the help and support of someone (I wonder whom she could mean) to do one-tenth of what she expects women to do on their own. It is remarkable how many times in discussing men and their failures as fathers, she writes with such sympathy and compassion for the men, yet when writing of the difficulties the women faced, she seems unmoved. Her misplaced sympathy even goes so far that in talking about families where there is a disabled child, she writes that "the major burden of care usually falls on the mother, which can set up serious resentments [if you think she's seeing that a mother might be resentful, guess again]...many [family members--read fathers] can't help but resent her preoccupation with the needy child." It seems that no matter how unfair or burdensome a situation is to the mother, the father's feelings are Wallerstein's overriding concern.

Overburdened mothers

While Wallerstein waxes poetic about how hard it is for the poor fathers who need to be helped, she mentions the incredible burdens single mothers contend with every day of their lives only in the context of their failures to meet their children's needs adequately. I did not find one instance of her suggesting that these overworked, exhausted women need help from someone.

She describes one situation where

In the space of a just a few months, this cheerful, chatty, always available young mother...was transformed into a strained, quiet, driven, desperately tired stranger who came home only to scream at her daughters and the babysitter for not cleaning up the mess in the house and to sit, silent and resentful, eating the TV dinners that had replaced home-cooked meals.

Wallerstein laments that "nearly all [children of divorce] lost their mothers to the workplace and the stresses of single parenthood." Even though she acknowledges that there is "an army of mothers for whom divorce brings economic nightmares," and "as Paula and every other young child of divorce told me, the biggest loss they faced was the loss of their mother," she shows little sympathy for these heroically struggling women who do their level best to raise their children under such difficult circumstances. She even wrote of one mother so overwhelmed with too much to do that she simply decided to forgo sleep so she could work, spend time with her kids, and get the housework, errands and cooking all done. The woman made it through three nights with no sleep before she collapsed. My heart goes out to mothers like these long before I can feel bad for a man who is so self-involved and self-pitying that he needs encouragement to even visit his children.

Rather than showing sympathy for these mothers, however, Wallerstein instead dwells on how difficult this was for their children that these mothers were so overburdened. I am not arguing that it is not difficult for these children, nor do I wish to downplay, dismiss, or deny these children's experiences of neglect and loneliness. Yet isn't it odd that not a single one of Wallerstein's conclusions or recommendations calls for massive increases in child support for single mothers, for economic equity for women, for laws that mandate flextime and reduced working hours for single mothers, for changing workplace culture to affirm children's needs for parental (mother's) time, etc.? The best way to help these children would be to help these mothers who want so desperately to be there for their kids but are unable to, not to fawn all over the men who have the time and the money, but little or no inclination to be there for their kids.

Nostalgia for Ozzie and Harriet

The other grave flaw in Wallerstein's work is a lapse of logic that underlies her entire study--the fantasy that children of "intact" families have experiences drastically different from children of divorced families. Here again, Wallerstein contradicts herself over and over. On the one hand, she writes of the comparison group that "most of the young adults who were raised in intact families in our study described their parents' marriages the same way--not very happy," and that the group "where parents are very unhappy in the marriage but want to protect their children, is the largest of all." She acknowledges that the "largest group" of "intact" families is made up of families where there are "many serious problems--loneliness, infidelity, chronic illness, depression, sexual deprivation, and countless other woes--but the marriage stays intact."

Yet she engages in wild fantasizing as she romanticizes what life is like in "intact" families: that the parents "keep a close eye on what their children are doing," mutually engage in "ongoing dialogues, held after the children are asleep," and then, "Later, at the dinner table, both adults present a united front to the children." She bemoans the fact that for "children of divorce," "the psychological scaffolding that they need to construct a happy marriage has been badly damaged by the two people they depended on while growing up." This even while she states that the overwhelming majority of "intact" marriages are far from happy. But, undaunted by the facts, she continues, mourning that for "children of divorce," unlike children from "intact" families, "the image of [their parents] together as a loving couple is forever lost."

In stark contradiction to her own data, she continues to formulate a baseless psychological theory that children in "intact" families have a "good internal image of the parents as a couple," that "men and women from intact families...brought a confidence [to their own relationships] that they had seen it [marriage] work," that children from "intact" families learn a "template" for a happy marriage, and learn how to work out conflict.

None of her assertions that children from "intact" families have seen good marriages at home is borne out by her data. None of her psychological theories that children from "intact" families acquire a healthy "template" for a happy marriage is consistent with her report that hardly any "intact" marriages are happy. At no point does she scrutinize the lives of the children of "intact" marriages for psychological scarring, problems with their lives and relationships, or inner torment in the way she does for her "children of divorce" study participants.

She simply assumes that couples who are married are happy--a conclusion unwarranted even by her own admission, yet she forgets it in her grand theorizing. And she goes on, oblivious to her own data, oblivious to sexism, oblivious to the reality that most "intact" marriages are not happy, cooperative, and loving. She dreams up some loss that "children of divorce" experience, that they, unlike children of "intact" families, didn't grow up with Ozzie and Harriet for parents, with caring attentive parents who loved and respected each other, who modeled healthy ways of working through conflict and problems, and who had relationships based on equality and mutual respect.

Wallerstein is not so stone-aged that she misses the fact that many married mothers work full time and also don't have much more time than divorced mothers do to spend with their children. But she overcomes this discrepancy by explaining that "they have a husband to help them with the job of parenting when both return home in the evening....This joint support is critical." Too bad married women rarely get such support from their husbands. Arlie Hochschild and a plethora of other researchers and writers have abundantly documented that women face a second shift when they come home from work while their husbands take it easy or tinker in the basement or garage on some hobby.

Yet, again remarkably unaware of the contradictions, on the next page, she writes that

In our comparison group of intact families, most of the women reduced their work hours when their first child was very young. If they had more children, more than half dropped out of the workforce for a few years and went back when the youngest entered grade school.

If these women had so much help from their husbands, why did they need to cut back on paid work so drastically? And if the ability to work less and so spend more time with kids is such a good thing for children, then isn't the logical conclusion that we should make it possible for single mothers to do the same thing, say, through drastically increased funding for a far more extensive welfare system? From Wallerstein's own observations, it appears that it is not marriage itself which benefits children, but access to their husband's salary that allows married women to work less and so spend more time with their children. For her to then advocate that women should stay in unhappy relationships for this reason--to have access to men's financial resources--is, plainly put, to advocate prostitution.

Divorce--a good thing?

Ironically, one of the effects of divorce on "children of divorce" that Wallerstein cites is that they are more likely to get divorced themselves later in life. Of course, from a feminist analysis, divorce may actually be a good thing. Perhaps children (especially girls) who have seen their parents divorce are not so likely to put up with oppressive or unhappy marriages. Wallerstein even unwittingly confirms this view when she states,

One subtle difference between the two groups is that girls raised in violent intact families are often trapped by their overwhelming need for parental love. It's something they can't relinquish, whereas girls from divorced families are more able as adults to walk away from destructive relationship once they recognize how dangerous they are. They have a model to exit their plight.

Unfortunately she fails to notice the implications of or draw appropriate conclusions from what she writes. At another point in the books she writes,

These young women [girl children of divorce] were motivated by a frank vengeance against men that was startling in its passion. Such behavior seems hard to understand in attractive, intelligent young women, including some who were in graduate programs and professional schools.

Women's anger at men is hard to understand? Only if you live in a world without rape, domestic violence, and every day garden variety sexism. And,

They gave many reasons that mostly boiled down to a distrust of men. They felt safer without legal marriage to keep them tied.

Maybe women whose parents divorced are more able to see sexism than women who saw their mother put up with it and stay married. Maybe seeing their mothers leave their fathers gave them high enough self-esteem to be angry at sexism instead of accepting it as inevitable.

Poor methodology

Finally, as though the above were not enough to discredit her work, Wallerstein's research has several serious methodological problems. First and foremost, her sample consists of 45 mostly white middle to upper middle class families living in wealthy Marin County outside San Francisco. Most of the impact of divorce on the children in this study can be accounted for by the post-divorce economic downturns of the mothers, not divorce itself. And none of her faulty findings are generalizable to nonwhite and/or working class populations.

Secondly the families were recruited at the outset of the study by offering them free counseling--a technique that tends to attract families with greater problems than those who are doing fairly well. In fact, only one-third of the families in her study were assessed as having "adequate psychological functioning" prior to the divorce, according to the appendix to her original study published in 1980.

Third, there was no control group for most of the study's duration, although Wallerstein cobbled one together for her 25-year report. But she termed her control group a "comparison group," because as Wallerstein writes, "we did not expect to find people who matched our divorced group in every way except that their parents had not divorced," showing an embarrassing misunderstanding of the concept of control groups for someone who purports to be a social science researcher.

Finally, notwithstanding all the methodological flaws in the study, Wallerstein doesn't even rely on her own data to form her conclusions. The book is full of broad generalizations not substantiated by her own or any one else's data. Furthermore, the conclusions she draws from interviews with study participants are often in stark contradiction to what the participants themselves say ("I don't think the divorce itself really affected me. What affected me was that my mom wasn't around"; "It took me a long time to see it this way but I absolutely think she [participant's mother] made the right choice in leaving....She felt it was morally wrong to divorce and to deprive her children of a proper family, so she stayed and got abused and beaten down until she couldn't take it anymore."). Yet Wallerstein concludes, "Divorce for the child is the root cause of the trouble that follows, not the solution to the troubled marriage."

Wallerstein's recommendations

Wallerstein's recommendations include strengthening marriage, providing courses on relationships to young adults, providing a "place for divorcing parents to come and make long-term plans for their children," holding groups for children of violent or high-conflict families, and instituting a variety of changes in the ways courts handle divorces. She also recommends that couples who are unhappily married "should seriously consider staying together for the sake of your children." Nowhere does she recommend that single mothers should be given increased child support or desperately needed assistance with child care. Nowhere does she recommend holding fathers accountable to provide financially and otherwise for their children.

An alternative: Support mothers

Focusing on divorce rather women's lack of resources as the cause of lonely and neglected children continues to leave children vulnerable both in "intact" or divorced families. Focusing on divorce rather than poverty as the cause of children's being shortchanged, either (or both) in terms of money or number of hours worked by women, does very little to create changes that would ameliorate the neglect of all kinds of children--middle, working class, and poor. Finally, focusing on divorce distracts us from demanding a shorter work week, flextime, quality child care programs, increases in welfare programs, universal health insurance for children, and child-friendly workplaces as the norm and not the exception.

It seems clear that if we care about children, it is imperative that we institute drastic increases in support to all mothers. These increases are especially necessary for single mothers. Most of the children in this study reported suffering when their middle to upper middle class mothers returned to work or were forced to work considerably more hours to support their children. Focusing on divorce as the cause of this ignores poor and working class women who face these constraints as an ongoing problem--not only when they divorce.

It is important to remember that children need not just financial support, but also the time of caring adults. Even when single mothers do achieve financial stability, due to the demands of the workplace, they often cannot find enough time to be there for their children. This is another kind of poverty that children experience, and it is becoming more and more common in "intact" families as well as among single parents.

Holding women hostage to staying with men just so that they can adequately provide and care for their children is clearly not in the best interest of children, nor does it even always work. Furthermore, it seems folly to inextricably link child rearing to one of the most ephemeral and precarious of human institutions--sexual relationships (unless you are trying to coerce women into relationships with men).

It seems to me that if we truly valued children's well-being, we would want to guarantee their access to an abundance of quality time with loving adults, to a good education, to comprehensive health care, and to a healthy environment without making these conditional upon the vicissitudes of adult sexual love. Rather than spending time railing against divorce because marriage is the only way women can get access to the resources--both time and money--to raise their children, we might more sensibly provide those resources directly to the mothers themselves.

Hold men accountable

In spite of the severe economic reverses and struggles with overwork that single mothers experience, women are still choosing to leave marriages in droves--2/3 of those filing for divorce are women. Clearly, their marriages must be pretty bad if women frequently pick being poor, lonely and overworked over staying married. If men are indeed behaving at least as badly in marriage as they do out of it (and all evidence points in that direction), how can they ever be held accountable for their mistreatment of women unless women have the option of divorce?

If we want to create conditions where men are forced to improve their overall behavior, then we must not allow them to continue to behave badly without consequences. If we increase the considerable guilt women already feel over leaving their marriages, more and more women will be intimidated into accepting unacceptable behavior from men in marriage. Claiming that divorce is harmful to children is aimed right at women--after all, it is women who are the ones who will make inordinate sacrifices to safeguard the well-being of their children.

The underlying message of the recent rise in anti-divorce rhetoric is: if you don't stay married, your children will suffer. Until we remove the ability of men to use coercion--in this case by holding their children's well-being hostage to their wife remaining married--men will not be forced to act responsibly and sensitively enough to attract and keep women and children in their lives through mutual respect and caring. Restigmatizing divorce only adds to the arsenal of coercive measures (restrictions on abortion, inadequate birth control, battering, women's poverty, fear of rape, etc.) at men's disposal to keep women under men's control.

Liberate divorce

It seems to me that the real path toward improving families and marriages would be to make divorce easier. Oppressive conditions flourish in situations where there is no way out. The freedom to divorce, like the freedom to quit an exploitative job, is fundamental to ensuring that staying married is a choice that is freely entered into. That way, women who stay married will only be there because it is good for them, not because they are too intimidated to leave. Removing coercion is the only way to ensure that unions between people--by marriage or any other means--are based on equality, caring, and mutual respect. Making divorce less costly for children and easier for women is the only way to liberate marriage from its oppressive and exploitative roots.


On Hating Men

off our backs, January 2001 V.31; N.1 p. 11, Word Count: 1642

Alyn Pearson

Pardon me for being so blunt.

Or don't.

Frankly I am sick of apologizing for my unfettered hatred of men. I am even sicker of other people apologizing too, whether it is in my name or in the name of the sacred patriarchy. I enjoy hating men much the same way they enjoy hating women, only instead of raping or beating them, I write nasty little pieces. Or I preach to my friends. I don't hate harmfully. Though hating harmfully happens. Unfortunately, nobody speaks of hating as a joy, but rather solely as an unfortunate societal glitch. Hating men is no glitch. It is a reaction that can either be enacted with secrecy or shame or with thrill and enjoyment. I choose the latter. You see, I guarantee you that many, many if not most women hate men, but they do so in secret. Even in secret from themselves. I am sure that these women spend sleepless nights wondering about their anger or sadness after a daily bout with the patriarchy. I just ask that these same women recognize their oppressors and learn, instead of fearing the hims, to hate the hims.

I am trying not to be political in this treatise; I am trying to be frank, honest, perhaps a bit funny. I won't speak of rape or war (though men created both). I won't speak of guns or drugs (though men employ both). I will instead speak of this "hatred" that brings me so much happiness. I would like to take this opportunity to explain the word and concept of "hate" that I evoke in this essay. Because I can see some of you now, brows furrowed, thinking what is this woman talking about? Hatred, used by an empathist, a counselor, a nurturing and loving feminist/woman inspires nothing but negativity. I am not speaking of the hatred bred by fear, anger, and ignorance employed by Hitler and the next generations of white supremacists (men), nor the hatred of African-Americans acted out in lynching, nor the hatred of women carried out through beating and raping. This is a more strategic hatred, one that exists purely in the intellectual realm as I do not now nor ever intend on eliminating men from the earth through violence or entrapment (I think they are doing just fine in that arena all by their little selves). This "hatred," a red flag word that promptly gets surrounded by negative connotations, is a productive one that involves positioning thoughts so that we can take some power. Feminists sometimes get so trapped in defending: but I like men, I swear, I have a boyfriend or a best friend...blah blah blah, that they forget that men, while occasionally nice and kind and truthful, are also a body socialized into enemies. These feminists forget that we are not here to fucking please men, make them think that we still love them though we love ourselves now too. The hatred that I speak of firmly remembers that women are women, usually wonderful, great, and grand. And men are men, often conspiring, violent, and manipulative.

Might I also choose now to tell you that my theory on hate is like a coin, circular. Hate comes out of love and vice versa. Hate is not indifference; it is smeared with implication and attachment. Hate stems from a very deep love, the other side of the coin. Whether it be love of self and hatred of what threatens that self, or perhaps love of another who disappoints and betrays what you though he/she should be, hatred does not appear without the very complex emotion of love firmly attached. Women love men as a necessity, through relationships ranging from family to mentor.

I was not so much younger than now when I first dared to hate one. He (of course) is my father. And I realized, by golly, that he was wrong. And yet his certain mistake did not allow me a word in edgewise to criticize as his booming voice overtook my frailer protests. And so I smiled, cleared the table, and went up to my room to hate his stinking guts until breakfast. I read a book. I folded my clothes and talked on the phone. And I realized that he needed to be hated, not disrespectfully as my father, but with respect to his maleness. And so, under the shining sun of morning, I reappeared. I smiled, the dutiful daughter. I listened to him speak of golf and big breasts with the tongue-biting solidarity that I know I share with most women.

Only most women don't call it hatred. And if they do recognize hatred of men they do so incorrectly. They call it feminism. Feminism, my dears, is an empowerment ideal that places the institution of men in question. Feminism itself is not even close to hating men. What feminists do is question power structures and institutions that oppress women. And these power structures and institutions just happen to be created and run by men. But it is not the men that feminists seek to "destroy," it is the legacy of patriarchal power. I am not suggesting political feminism to all women (of course I am). I am suggesting that you hate that Man who stares at you while you walk past, carrying your laundry basket, while you dare to bare an inch of flesh. I am suggesting that while you smile at the bartender who tickles your palm, you hate him too. And might I too suggest that when all the boys at your activist meeting to stop globalization interrupt you or when you and they are planning a punk rock show and they talk over your ideas, that you hate them in return. Not "them" in their individuality, their person, their named self. But in their gendered male body.

So many of my straight friends come to me (the ever-radical feminist) with complaints about their current bedfellows. Why, they ask, is he such an asshole to me? Why does he lie, cheat, manipulate? Because, my dears, he is male. It is the nature of the beast. And this is where the secret lies. As I write this now, my friend widens her eyes and asks Do You Really Hate Men? Yup. I say. I really do. But I have been in love with them, I am fathered and brothered by two of them, and I certainly take joy in interacting with many of them on a daily basis. But most men that I find myself involved with have achieved the unachievable. They have overcome maleness, in the bodily, societal sense. They accept criticism and recognize inequality. Occasionally, one will even admit privilege.

Men walk around this planet with the unwavering knowledge that they rule. They rule over schools and businesses. Towns and countries. They rule over children and minorities. Men understand without ever having been told that they are right. And this is what makes them such assholes. When you have an inbred arrogance, you are undoubtedly going to appear overbearing and rude. You are undoubtedly going to alienate others and infringe upon autonomy. Which is fine (not really). But if we are going to allow for this unquestioned dominance of males, then females should certainly be allotted a bunch of hatred. Right?

There is a power dynamic between them and us. Even women who are anti-feminists (because you think we are all man-hating dykes) have to recognize the vulnerability of women as opposed to men. And as we all know by now, revolution and change are not happened upon through acceptance of status quo. Any and all major overthrows began with a hatred of sorts. The French peasants hated the monarchy and the aristocracy. The Americans the British Colonists. I am positive that dinner conversations of these eras consisted of heated commentary laced with hate-speak. And too I am sure that interactions between the peasant and the aristocrat, the American and the Tory consisted of teeth-clenched pleasantries couched in inner despisation. Such is the nature of interaction. Alternatives are created underground, but in the presence of the enemy one must be supplied with an armory of bon mot.

So what has any of this got to do with hating men? I guarantee you that there lies no complacency in the core of women. I guarantee you there is not a female gendered body in this world that would not drool over the idea of having a modicum of power and control. And hating men is only one step. I do not suggest for those more timid than I a political platform of such bitter animosity, for that will get you nowhere but personally satisfied to see men squirm at the (clearly irrational) thought of a big dyke running the world. But I do offer up the suggestion for you women out there, pushing at the glass ceiling, folding laundry, raising children all alone, shopping for your hubbie's tighti whities, teaching an insolent class, sitting in a plushly coveted government seat, to those and many more; I suggest hating the men that stroll about. I merely ask that you sample a bit of this medicine upon confronting the penis-packing menace to society. I swear to you it will give name to those fears and sparks of anger. At the most it will make you rebel at the very least make good coffee conversation. You may start to love women. And hopefully yourself.

I offer this idea as therapy to my friends who, though not self-identified feminists (for fear of offending their boyfriends/husbands/teachers/preachers), seem to benefit greatly from it. I don't suggest hating Bob, Dan, or Adam. I suggest hating the internal force that creates strife, hating it enough to recognize its adverse effects and hence creating your own modalities to subvert it. Just as women are more than rapeable, ogleable cunts, men are more than ruling, dominating phalluses. But since they so accurately posit us in our roles, why not do the same for them? At least mentally.

On hating men. I would not advise killing them, poisoning their beef, or putting super hot peppers in their underwear. Just grit your teeth, recognize, and survive.

On Dating Men

off our backs, January 2001 V.31; N.1 p. 11, Word Count: 1634

Alyn Pearson

As I just finished illustrating, there are plenty of reasons for staying away from men. The more serious being rape, sexual harassment, and abuse and the more common being their ignorance, their callousness, and their undying failure to successfully emote. But some of us are not blessed with the ability (whether it be nature or nurture is a different topic for someone else) to remain wholly unattracted to these creatures.

I am one of those.

Alas, I have tried swearing off their sweaty presence with vows and promises (usually followed by a prompt tumble with one such monster within mere hours), I have tried socializing in circles purely composed of the second sex, and I have tried this unfettered hatred which I ranted about not two pages ago. I mean everything I say and do; I am just occasionally and hypocritically full on attracted to a member of the opposition.

On dating men. Am I fully qualified to discuss this? No. I don't exactly "date" per se. I mean, what is dating? A few dinners and unathletic romps around a dorm bed? A chance meeting in a bar and an unathletic romp in a dorm bed? Or a few isolated incidents of attraction with your best friend and an unathletic...you get it.

Several schools of thought from academia to religion have attempted to posit the concept of heterosexuality in their realm through broad theory or commandment. I just don't get it. I do not consider myself a total dolt. In most cases I am wholly capable of analyzing a complex text and sifting out legitimate and promising meaning. In most cases I can write a paper, essay, or full on thesis. But in this case, though well read in the subject, I cannot find an easy answer for the seemingly unnatural compulsion to mate with men.

I date women too. Somehow, in the last 2 years of lesbian-bisexual identification (we will get to this later), this has served to make me feel more principled as a feminist. I DATE GIRLS TOO. I am totally modern and subversive. Right. So when I totally betray my principles and decide to involve myself with a boy, I feel somehow sainted.

Because it is rather hard for me to stay principled when I am engaged in a bout of interesting conversation tainted with sex and boy. When I am alone, with a woman, or just partaking in the collegiate bisexual Olympics I am on top of my feminist shit, in theory and in practice. It is in these times where I am full on, the bomb diggety, if you will, radical feminist whose conscience is commanded by no man.

But every now and then....

Like currently. My best friend (male) and I have this weird vibe between us that often ends up unathletically in a dorm bed (well a futon, but you know) we are at the point where we have stopped trying to pretend that there is no attraction and we have somehow ended up in a relationship. Though we both attempt to deny our roles as belonging to that play titled dating, there really is no other way to describe it. So I, the feminist who spells woman with a y and who plasters pussy manifestos on every blank wall, anxiously sit by the phone, and I, the vegan who refuses to eat anything from an animal, make midnight runs to Dunkin Donuts for a bacon, egg, and cheese for his procrastinating, having-to-write-a-10-page-paper-and-an-oral-presentation-in-one-night ass. I watch him like a hawk at bars and parties and wear sexy tank-tops braless when we get together to study. It is maddening. Why do I do it then?

Looking at it in theory, I think that gender roles are rigid and fixed. It takes a special pair composed of one very evolved man and one very evolved woman to accomplish the task of indulging in a straight relationship that is not fraught with everyday differences in communication and emotional styles. I have yet to enter this phase of social evolution and every time I become "involved" as such, I face problems.

First of all, we do not live in the prime time of feminism, therefore men are not fully enlightened to the movement, and if they are at all aware that women actually do believe in and fight for things like equality, respectability, and separately recognized, fully appreciated space, they tend to mock it, ignore it, or embrace it to the point that you know they just want to get into your pants. Second of all, men are still the epitome of power. They run everything from the media monster to all the nation's transportation systems, which immediately creates a serious power imbalance. And third, they are sexually allowed to do any goddamn thing they want and get away with it unless women, untrained and uneducated in most matters of sexual power, stand up for the rights of their cunts. These are three major problems that I face when I become inclined to make out with a breathing phallus.

Might I add that, clearly, the way I get through this is humor. I find it funny when I write about it, therefore it is much easier to deal with the entire web of indecision and guilt that comes along with being a radical feminist who sleeps with boys.

I am not trained in the art of self-confidence and self-appreciation. When I have dated women, we struggle through our oppressions together and end up in deep conversations about our bodies, our selves on a regular basis. It keeps the energy flowing, knowing that we are together in a very unifying sense, knowing too that we are partaking in the guilty pleasure of abnormality. But with men it is different.

First of all, there is no true common ground. There are tightly connected intellectual thought processes, and interests that are bound in place with respect to an interest in difference. But there are no similarities in the way that we view the world, simply because the lens offered by a world tainted with patriarchal values does not allow for real equality. And yes, there is the guilty pleasure of "normality."

I know what I think I should be. I know that I should always remember myself, my talents, my beauty, and my pride when interacting with ANYONE of any sex, gender, or sexuality, but am I able to translate that into dating men?

I always feel a certain performance anxiety when I date a man. Like I have to be XYZ in order to keep his interest and attention. Since I have been a dedicated student of women's oppression for years now, I understand the outside stimulus that directly combats good intention. For example, the reason I look in the mirror 800 times a day is a reaction to the media influence that commands perfection from women. I know this, friends, I know that it is badbadbadbadbadbad to fold under the male gaze and become not a subversive individual but instead a product, but there is something about the male/female dynamic that occurs during the dating/mating process that throws me into a role of WOMAN, part of MAN, subject to male power and gaze.

UGH.

Conversations normally arise amongst groups of feminists who break the 1st commandment and fall in love with a dirty man, conversations about whether or not it is fully possible to have a successful relationship with such human anomalies. Can we ever achieve actualization when engaging in banal heterosexual activity? Is the only way to achieve full on feminism that is beneficial to ourselves and the women we want to help to maintain separate space? Is the reason that many feminists become lesbians because there is no other way?

Well my answer to these questions is usually to swear off men (and then as I mentioned, make out with one not 2 hours afterward), but the older I get and the more centered I become in my beliefs, the more I realize that dating men is a function of necessity at this point. Not only is a function of necessity but quite often it is a personal desire. So why should I ward it off with principles? Why should I take the road of rejecting one half of the human race in search of some sort of personal strength?

In the long run I will always lust after boys. Whether or not my eventual commitment is to one of that anatomy, well, only time will tell. But as for dating them now, I might as well just sit back and enjoy it. I might as well admit that it is a weakness and try to work on my weakness within the relationships that I find myself in rather than avoiding the situation all together.

I need to stop anxiously waiting by the phone. I need to make him like tofu. I need to walk away with confidence when it is time to go. It is high time that feminists who date men use their personal politics to change the institution of dating to benefit members of both sexes. If there is one thing I can say for the men I date, it's that they fucking KNOW where I stand. I don't hesitate to use the word patriarchy, I don't hesitate to bring up the issue of reproductive rights and I certainly say NO when I want to. I engage these boys in conversations about women's rights fairly frequently, and though there is often some resistance, I think I am effecting change.

Many men never get to know the pleasure of dating a woman who is ensconced in the realm of gender equality on both a personal and political level. I am a woman times ten in their eyes because I seek to define this title daily, nightly, hourly. It is kinda like my thesis. So while I may overcompensate by betraying some principles, there are certain issues that will never be a problem.

Sexist jokes? Don't even go there.

Howard Stern? Turn it the fuck off.

Because as much as hating men is the best way to get through the day, loving them is a way to effect some serious change. And I'm on top baby, all the time.

 

Back to school, back to cool: How the things we do for love keep us apart

Off our backs August/September 2001 Vol. 31, No. 8.

Anitra Jones

School House Rocked

I feel like I'm back in high school, although it's not as bad. At least I'm not as gangly, though there is an awkwardness here. Here I am, on "ladies night" at a popular club, and there are plenty of women around, but they aren't mingling; rather than talk, there are short glances, distributed smiles at various anatomy parts, and other rituals that can only be associated with alcohol-and illegal stimuli. This entertainment venue has brought women together to celebrate their shared sexual orientation, forming an environment of which we all can be a part-right? Wrong. There are cliques here, in my so-called community. Every woman present is consumed with looking good, dancing well, and drinking away all reservations in an attempt to find love for a night (and not much more).

As a new recruit-I mean, resident-to the nation's capital, I was informed that this club is "the place" to go on Wednesday nights. I attend in the hopes of fun, a bit of dancing, and the opportunity to meet like-minded people. My mind races, hopeful for a broader and more diverse social life than a Midwestern abode offered in years past. We all, feminist or not, have to let loose from time to time.

I notice the "cool kids," wearing the latest from Banana Republic and the Gap in one section of the club. Near the bar, there are women conversing in Capital Hill garb-trying not to notice those around them (moving inadvertent eyes from time to time to women coming around for refreshments). And in the center of the dance floor are the drag kings who just performed-or, are they still performing?-speaking out on the impetus to choose artists such as George Michael, Prince, or the Backstreet Boys, for their lip sync forays to their eager followers. I sink into my chair as I watch them all, looking for some one who sees what I see. What are we doing here anyway?

There is a distinct observation I've made, as result of gallivanting here among the young lesbians in Washington, D.C. We cluster-or segregate-for a variety of reasons; and I feel not unlike "the new kid" in the neighborhood coming to the lunchroom on the first day of school, looking for someone to interact with who will make me feel at home. As with those school-days gone by, there are individuals that gather with pals because of similar tastes or interests. Taken a few steps further, young lesbians congregate with others like them, based on class, racial-ethnic, and age reasons. Why is this so, particularly for a group of young women who have seen oppression in so many ways and should recognize the harmfulness of such harsh divisions?

School's Out

The young lesbian dating scene in Washington, D.C., is classist, racist, not engaged in a radical discourse, and intent on perpetuating the negative aspects of gay male culture. All of these attributes support the patriarchal structure: Young women are primarily concerned in this community with looking desirable-i.e., dressing a certain way-and appearing socially acceptable to their peers or potential partners. This form of relations does nothing to further our causes, as feminists or as sexual minorities.

Striving for the "perfect" image reigns supreme among young women in the LGBT community. Women will pay exorbitant rates for superficial items rather than support a community organization that is trying to enlighten, inform, and restore our world. Rather than support one another, forging a community that is nurturing and vibrant, we are acting as though the capitalist system-where the glossiest, the most attractive, and most popular item will sell-is the only acceptable means of living with other human beings. I wouldn't call that a radical assumption; nor is it a scheme that will sustain our lives, the work that we do as women, or the world in which we live.

Young women seem to be following a capitalist, greed-induced social pattern. This is ravaging our community, for it tears down any semblance of an inclusive and vibrant communal space. The general principle around dating for young women is, if the appropriate attire is worn, which displays a certain level of status in the community, more women will flock to you. Thus, numerous young women will spend what they deem necessary on clothing and accessories to look suitable to other women-solely based on outer appearance. And there are clubs that are being supported monetarily, above and beyond what many of our political and social-activist organizations can dream of. Young women must consider, if they are to be successful in forging a viable community, the ways in which these actions separate them from the very women that they profess to love.

Preconceived notions-based on race, ability, age, and so forth-keep the patriarchy existing and thriving in the lesbian community. The social life of young lesbians is divided on racial-ethnic lines, the same lines that divide the larger American society. This form of segregation cripples the social, political, and economic development of the lesbian community. Saying one group is better than another minimizes our depth and beauty as women. As I see it, diversity should be our strength, a place from which we can all support and learn from one another as women. Unfortunately, what is apparent is that young women are attending certain bars on the "assigned" nights, leaving us fragmented and not joined by any political or social movement.

There is an elitist sensibility to the ways in which young women are relating to one another. Basing relationships on things such as clothing, amount of body fat, and other outward gestures is superficial and divisive. If you are fit, able-bodied, and so forth, then the current community in D.C. is acceptable. There are many women, however, that do not fit this description-nor should they have to. The lookism in our community keeps the binds of patriarchy firmly in place. Aligning one's self to the affluent, beautiful, thin, able, and so on, creates a top-down, one-form-of-living-and-being-is-better-than-another hierarchy. It is not affirming to all involved because it is not healthy, in an emotional or physical sense. If our women's movement is ever to be effective, every complexity must be addressed and embraced. Silence will equal death for every political ideal that we believe in, if there is a continuation in this behavior. If we do not include all of those in our community then we will lose a potential force that can make a difference to all of us.

Rather than seeing life from a perspective that supports patriarchy, keeping unneeded divisions all the while, there is a framework that we can develop that does welcome all thoughts, opinions and perspectives in the circle of women. This perspective recognizes that money and looks aren't everything, and that reaching out to those who are different from ourselves strengthens us. Consider the strengths of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, or the work done in the welfare rights movement in the 60s and 70s. What made these efforts successful was that groups worked in coalition to raise awareness for their cause. They were able to educate a great number of people, including those that might have a means to contribute support for their cause. How will we then, as a group of young women, further the gains made in our efforts to have an equal standing in this world? Our opposition has a platform that can be equated to divide and conquer-at all costs, keep people apart, unwilling to learn from one another. If we are to move forward as women, we must challenge this notion, using all of the skills and talents of the women of this community that are at our disposal.

Furthermore, I believe that lesbian concerns need to be differentiated from gay male concerns. Following any trend, social or political pattern without critical awareness is wrong. Gay men and lesbians have different obstacles. For instance, lesbians encounter workplace discrimination because they are women as well as because they are lesbian. Thus, there cannot be the same solutions for all of our challenges. To minimize our differences inhibits men and women in the struggle for liberation.If we diminish that, there will be more moments of political apathy in this culture, which lessens the quality of our lives.The strength of our diversity lies in the visibility of new thoughts, belief systems, and the ways of expressing our love for one another.

School's Out Forever

Lesbians need to stop attending the schools of gay male and heterosexual ways of being. Women to women relationships are the most revolutionary form of love I have ever experienced. We have the ability to teach-ourselves and those around us-the power of healing and transformation. However, rather than learn from one another and revisit the histories of women who have forged a path for our existence, we imitate stereotypes and adopt the viewpoints of those not in our community.

The ways we communicate as lesbian women are radical. Rather than a debate style of speech-a style that presumes that there must be a right and a wrong answer-our speech pattern follows more the way of consensus, or a collective approach to a discussion. Everyone's contribution builds on everyone else's, and the result is a new creation of understanding that neither person had at the outset. Also, our social conditioning as women allows for ample discussion of emotions and feelings-a level of communication that is rare in heterosexual relationships. In addition, how these feelings are expressed in an intimate setting is not the same. There is an explicit or implicit, socially defined superiority and inferiority at work in heterosexual couples that may still arise even if the individuals are struggling against it. As women, we can have an entirely different perspective on power dynamics than our heterosexual counterparts, because between two women there is no clear, socially mandated hierarchy. Thus when there are emotional needs that have to be addressed lesbians are capable of providing support in a manner that may not be presented in a heterosexual relationship, which lends itself to a confrontational or demanding format. These contrasting, and at times conflicting, systems illustrate just how profoundly different lesbian relationships can be.

Not only is the way we communicate our thoughts, desires, and hopes to our partners a radical act-for all the profound reasons just mentioned-but also the very nature of how we live our lives is revolutionary. Our take on the gender binary system, family compositions, and our social aims are nothing like-nor should they be-most heterosexual relationships. In our daily activities, we challenge and dismiss many of these notions, thereby deconstructing many of the parameters that stifle others. There is the capacity to evaluate and alter the oppressive systems in which we live, with the profound act of loving another woman.

When we love our sisters (and by love, I mean the love of self, community, and those that we share it with), we are no longer afraid to be honest and true to ourselves. That understanding, I feel, is the strongest form of visibility any individual can achieve. As young women, there is an impression in our community that such a position is simply not true. And it is that lack of awareness that keeps many women unfulfilled emotionally, following the same constrictive patterns of intimacy taught to non-lesbian young people. I do not believe that there is anything revolutionary in being just like everyone else in the social and political spectrum. Young lesbians have for too long followed preconceived notions that aren't justified with respect to women-to-women relationships-be they modeled after heterosexual relationships or informed by the lifestyles of gay men. Our love is revolutionary and powerful in and of itself, when and only when it is exposed for all it is to those that are in our world.

School Reunion

It's a beautiful, strong and courageous act to be open and honest about your sexuality-no matter how you identify. I feel that it's another matter to politicize who you are in a way that is accessible to people-providing teachable moments for you and those around you.

I offer the following suggestions in no particular order as a means to spark dialogue, create and support one another as we grow and express ourselves with continued pride and love.

Organize a benefit

This can be at a friend's home, or do some research and have it at a local restaurant, park, meeting place, etc. Charge five dollars per person, offer some form of entertainment and give the money to an organization that you believe in and care about. It won't take a lot of time, and with the assistance of friends, it can be a whole lot of fun.

Volunteer one hour of your time during the week to an organization that needs you.

All of the spaces that we support-be they a community center, a LGBT-owned shop, a political organization and so on-need and love volunteers. One hour can make a difference, helping to deliver services that many of us need and appreciate a great deal. You can go in once a week, once a month, or at the convenience of your schedule. It's a fine opportunity to learn more about organizations that matter to you, meet new people, and educate your self on the issues that face us as women on a daily basis.

Read independent sources and support their endeavors.

Far too often, mainstream publications overlook us (with respect to models and content). Spend the money that you would normally use on a beer, pack of cigarettes, etc., on a magazine such as off our backs, Ms., or other feminist publications. Share the information with friends and encourage them to do the same. The currency that we have can go a long way in the work being done on our behalf.

Start a movie and/or book club.

Make arrangements with friends to read and share the thoughts gathered on contemporary, and modern, media products (i.e., books, independent films, documentaries, and the like). It'll be thought provoking guaranteed; more often than not, we learn more from each other than any thirty-minute situation comedy on television.

Talk to, learn from, and respect your elders.

There is valuable information, in the telling of our stories. Particularly when we as women, look to gain more knowledge about the lives that we live. Our elders have insights to relationships, politics, and other topics that they are more than willing to share if we as young people are willing to listen.

Talk to your friends and ask questions about the world around you.

It's not been coincidence, as I've tried to illustrate here with these reflections, that our American culture functions as it does. What is happening amongst young women in D.C. occurs all over the country I would suspect. Why is that? And, more importantly, what can you and I do-together-to change it?

The world in which we live is volatile, oppressive and stifling. There is an opportunity available, for us as young women, to further gains made by those that have come before us. It is up to us, collectively as well as individually, whether or not there will be progress and noticeable change.

 

     
     
 
Contact us at offourbacks@cs.com