Dropping the F-Bomb: Reflections on Feminism

A reflection on my own experience with feminism, with a healthy dose of sci-fi

As I write this, I’ve just returned from a screening of the acclaimed documentary Miss Representation. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it (actually, I think everyone in the country should watch it); it made me laugh, it made me cry, but most of all, it made me question how I conduct my life. It’s the kind of film that takes such a clear-eyed perspective on the world that you can’t help but come to all sorts of revelations.

For many years, I’ve identified as a feminist. Do I think women and men are equal? Yes. Therefore, I am a feminist. Yes, it’s really that simple. I’ll be completely honest, though: sometimes, being a feminist is exhausting. It’s hard to stand against the societal structures that systematically oppress women, mainly because those structures are incredibly insidious. They’re so engrained in the fabric of our culture that sometimes, you don’t even see them. Not even a 22-year-old well-educated self-proclaimed feminist does.

As the aforementioned documentary discusses in 90 brilliantly crafted minutes, you need look no further than the media to catch a glimpse—a skin-exposed, perfectly airbrushed glimpse—of how American society tacitly accepts female inferiority. God, just look at advertising. Alcohol ads, perfume ads, jewelry ads, even cleaning ads (for fuck’s sake, the 50s were SIXTY YEARS AGO, we do not have to look sexy when or if we clean): everywhere we look, sex sells. But beyond that, it’s what we don’t see that hurts us the most. We don’t see women in strong film roles. We don’t see intelligent, ambitious women receiving praise for their accomplishments. We don’t see some of the strongest real women in America gain recognition for their strength. One of the strongest quotes in the film: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Think about it.

Until tonight, I thought myself pretty well aware of the media’s reduction of women to ultra-sexualized man-craving lustful creatures. I considered myself a critical consumer of media; hell, I can barely even stand to watch television, it’s so infuriating. I’m a reader of Virginia Woolf; I’m one of relatively few women Economics majors at my university; I love Hillary and Wendy and smashing the patriarchy. But tonight, I realized that—in spite of all that—I’ve fallen into the same trap as so many other women. I see myself as inferior.

I’m actually going to digress with one example of how clearly I’ve begun to understand my application of feminism to daily life, using one of my favorite shows. It’s going to hurt, because I love this show and it has so much to offer. But if I’m being honest, the last season of Doctor Who has left me uneasy—which is unsettling, because it’s an incredible show with so many other fabulously progressive aspects (hello, River Song). Anyway, the most disturbing thing about the most recent season is the way in which Clara, the Doctor’s companion, is defined against the men in her life. She is no longer quite the same motivated, driven, slightly rebellious, incredibly empowered woman that she had been with Matt Smith. But with the introduction of Peter Capaldi as a new Doctor and the appearance of a romantic interest, Clara became all about the men; look no further than the finale for that. And that change had some really powerful messages about love and so on, but it got a bit…tired, after awhile. And a bit too familiar. Because Clara began to focus her life on a man instead of on herself—something with which, I think, many women struggle. I know I do.

One of the beauties about storytelling is that you can put yourself in another’s life for a short time. Tonight’s biggest revelation about this show: I cannot see myself as the Doctor. I can only see myself as Clara, or Rose, or Donna, or Martha. I can only see myself as the perennial helper, always trying to save the world but unable to do so without the help of someone more “powerful.” Problematically, this is painfully accurate in how I live my life. I like to do leader-ish things, but I’m always desperate for approval, for guidance, for acknowledgement that yes, I’m doing the right thing, keep up the good work. I think I’m uncomfortable leading because I have subconsciously internalized the message that women can’t lead. Men are powerful. Women take supporting roles. Men get the credit.

How is this acceptable? When I realized that even I buy into it, I was kind of shocked at myself. I’m an intelligent woman who can certainly surpass many of her male peers in matters of intellect; why do I lower my eyes and defer to them when we’re at odds? I’m ambitious, talented, and sensible, so why do I apologize in almost every single one of my interactions with men, as if I’ve overstepped my bounds by coming toe-to-toe with them? The women of America have been burdened with an inferiority complex that the media has perpetuated for decades. It’s high time that ended. Change will be slow, but as we use our voices—as voters and as consumers—we will assert that it is unacceptable to hold women back. It’s unacceptable for women to hold themselves back. We should be able to hop into the TARDIS and wheel through time and space to save the universe, just like the Doctor. Fight the good fight, ladies—and gents—and stand against the discourse that perpetuates gender inequality. It will improve lives all around. We should all be feminists. Feminists, like bow-ties, are cool.

Miss Representation is on Netflix. You should watch it. Also, look up The Representation Project, the group behind the documentary, because gender equality isn’t just about women. It’s an issue for all of us at any locus on the gender spectrum.

“It’s Not Enough Just to Stand and Stare”: A Reflection on the Hong Kong Protests

As I write this, I should be finishing my Fulbright application. It’s due in 48 hours, I think. Probably less. But sometimes—and I hope you know this feeling—sometimes I feel so compelled to write about something that I have to write immediately. The words just come pouring out.

While browsing the Internets (as I am wont to do), I encountered plenty of coverage on the Hong Kong protests. I’d been staying casually updated, but I haven’t had the time to browse photos and articles properly (see first sentence; also, midterms). For once, I paused for a moment to investigate something unrelated to coursework.

And God, it was heartbreaking. Hong Kong was my favorite stop on my Asian travels last summer; it’s a stunningly bright city with green parks and pristine beaches and glistening skyscrapers and a top-notch metro system. It retains a sort of vitality I found relatively absent in Beijing or Shanghai; these people are proud of their city. As I meandered through photos of the recent protests, I was shocked—okay, I teared up a bit—to realise that I knew precisely where some images were taken. I had walked along that very street in the Central district trying to reach the bus station; it had been packed to the brim with people. The scene has changed since July. It’s still packed to the brim, but this time with protesters and riot police; a haze of tear gas smudges the air.

Protests are nothing new in Hong Kong. The violence, however, is abnormal. People in Hong Kong usually enjoy the freedom to protest peacefully, one of the proud capacities of a democracy standing against the Communism of mainland China. Now, though, they’re protesting passionately against the potential restriction of those democratic rights; the Chinese government has issued a plan for Hong Kong’s 2017 elections, and it involves running only Beijing-approved candidates. Doesn’t sound very democratic, eh? It’s not. And the people know that. And those protesting want no part of it.

During my time in China, I had never felt so very American. That wasn’t merely due to my inability to speak Mandarin or to constant requests for my photograph. Rather, nothing made me appreciate my home like being so far away from it; indeed, I even discovered a bit of a patriotic streak. It was the little things. Things like going on road trips and seeing only one company’s petrol stations—Sinopec—along the highway, because it’s a state-owned enterprise. Things like coughing nonstop in Beijing because the air scraped through my throat with its 150+ Air Quality Index rating (100 is considered unhealthy). Things like crossing the border into Hong Kong on Independence Day and almost crying when I realized that I was, in fact, freer than I had been on the other side. Things like the recent arrest of an Uighur advocate for human rights for his discourse on the issue of Xinjiang province. Things that make me realize that, while the American government does a lot of things wrong, it has a pretty great foundation.

I’m incredibly fortunate to live in a democracy. I thrive on voicing my own strong opinions. I, however, can do so with ballot or speech, unlike those elsewhere who must take to the streets to fight for the same right. And I absolutely take that right for granted—just see how moved I was by those small standouts in China—but I also exercise it whenever possible. I have to admit, though, that it makes me sick to realise that while people across the world fight for the powerful right to democracy, many of my fellow Americans dismiss their own right to the very same.

This bit is going to seem tangential, but bear with me. For the past week or so, I’ve been helping out with a campaign to register voters on my university’s campus. Surprisingly, people can be pretty reluctant. “My vote won’t matter,” they say. “I don’t have time,” they say. You don’t have time for democracy? Do you realize how valuable that is? Talk about misplaced valuation. You don’t have time to sign a few pieces of paper, drive down to the polling station in a month, and cast your vote? Hell, you can even vote early by mail now. And while countless organizations try to make voting easier for you, the general American public, people in Hong Kong are fighting for the same right by defying riot police who carry tear gas and rubber bullets. They’re fighting to remain distinct from the same China that brought out my inner patriot. Similar and worse things have happened elsewhere; Hong Kong is now, but let us not forget Tahrir Square or even the Prague Spring of the sixties. People have been fighting for democracy for a long time. We might have declared our rights in 1776, but that doesn’t mean we can allow ourselves to become complacent in our perceived security. Complacency is a precarious point; let us not tip over the edge. Some might argue that we already have. We must realize the value of the democratic principles we claim to hold in such high regard; we must live up to the dream of democracy, for it can be demolished so easily.

I am filled with nothing but admiration for the brave Hong Kong protesters who demand their rights in the face of adversity. Stand strong!

*If you want to catch up on the goings-on in Hong Kong, the BBC provides a nice little summary.

**This post’s title came from Pink Floyd’s fabulous “On the Turning Away.” Highly recommended.

Here, have a picture of Hong Kong sans protests.

Here, have a picture of Hong Kong sans protests.

Forget Political Correctness; Give Me Grammar

I’m devoted to the English language. I study it; I work with it; I teach others of its nuances. Indeed, among my friends, I am the resident editor—I like to think they put up with my highly opinionated comments and my propensity for bloodying their papers with red ink because they think I truly improve their writing. It goes both ways, though. I enjoy receiving criticism of my own writing, because—while I am confident in my style—I can always improve. Skillful writing is an invaluable tool for expression, for persuasion, for description. When employed correctly, language is perhaps the most important key to success in almost any field. Regardless of whether or not you love language as much as I do, you should approach it with the same precision. It’s just professional.

Now, a close friend of mine just posted an article that inflamed my passions more than usual (which is surprising, as I get fired up rather frequently). The piece, Troy Camplin’s “Microaggression and Neglect,” discusses a recent phenomenon that has progressed beyond the already-tragic lack of concern for clear, correct, proper English—we’ll call it Standard American English. Now, evidently, grammar correction is an attack on a student’s culture, a blatant attempt to quell the cultural idiosyncrasies that may distinguish that student from “Standard Americans.” Camplin describes a recent incident at UCLA as a case in point of the retaliation against grammar correction. Apparently, graduate students in a “Students of Color” class protested the correction of minority students’ grammar and spelling as microaggressions against their minority culture. To be completely honest, I was incredulous at the resistance of graduate students to academic improvement, but perhaps my standards are too high.

I am not initiating an academic discussion. Rather, I am expressing my anger at the hypersensitivity of the extremists of political correctness. I’m all about cultural relativism; language is an especially distinctive component of culture, and quelling linguistic distinctions would be to quell culture in turn. But it is unacceptable for minority students to cry racism when they face grammatical correction in an academic setting. Context is certainly an essential component of grammatical accuracy; were these students being corrected in casual conversation on the streets, their anger would be justified. Even this blog post, with its informal style, leaves aspects of grammar and syntax to be desired (passive voice, my apologies). When it comes to academic English, though—the language of American professionalism—students should welcome the enhancement of a skill that will ultimately ease their paths to success.

I firmly believe that we must know the rules before we break them. When I tutor younger students, I’m incredibly strict about rules of grammar and syntax; as they grow to understand and practice those rules, though, I encourage them to experiment with style, to play with language to tailor it to their own preferences. One thing I am careful to avoid—as is any good teacher, as is almost every teacher from whom I’ve had the pleasure of learning—is the restriction of ideas. Correcting grammar does not stifle freedom of expression; it merely provides a structure for that freedom, enhancing its clarity and effectiveness. I am frequently ashamed by others’ disregard for grammatical correctness. We must hold ourselves to the standards of professional English; to do anything else indicates an apathy towards professionalism. Trivial though it may seem, the distinction between semicolons and colons matters. The distinctions between academic and conversational language matter. There is no room for sensitivities to so-called microaggressions. If students are unwilling to hold themselves accountable for their linguistic skills, let grammatical Darwinism weed them out.

Speaking Up: #NoKXL

I suppose the time has come for my first politically oriented post (it had to happen eventually, right?). I’ve held off because I don’t necessarily like broadcasting my views for the Internet to see; I prefer acting to talking in this regard. But the controversy surrounding the potential approval of the Keystone pipeline has fired up my environmentalist sensibilities, and I simply must speak up. As a leader of a campus social-activism group, I conveniently have the capacity to bring such concerns to the forefront of my campus community–which I did. As a student of the environment, an activist, and especially as a Texan, I devoutly hope that President Obama will decline to approve Keystone XL. My concerns include the environmental, of course–let’s preserve our groundwater, shall we? Innumerable Texas communities rely on aquifers to provide drinking water; these sources will be put at risk of contamination by a pipeline that is likely to leak, and the result would certainly be devastating. Texas already faces water shortages. This problem must not be compounded by a threat to the water we do have. Also, the nation’s willingness to throw itself behind a new source of oil only highlights its relative unwillingness to move to renewable energy. We need to expend resources on enhancing our access to sustainable energy sources, not on perpetuating old habits that are not only environmentally threatening, but are also unsustainable. This resource will run out; perhaps not in the short term, but certainly in the long term. I have a host of other concerns with the pipeline–not restricted to environmental fears, either–but these are my main worries.

Are we going to keep naively draining our resources, hurtling down a path of destruction thanks to a lack of foresight? Or are we going to assume responsibility for shifting our habits and improving not just our own nation, but the world? By this time, it is not enough to rely on policymakers to do the work for us. As a people, we must commit to shifting our habits; it’s the only way to successfully foment change. Enough with the complacency.

I voted for a president who promised change I could believe in. I did not think he promised climate change that I could believe in. This moment could define the future of our nation’s stance on the environment; kindly keep your promise, Mr. President, and help us change.

Members of Trinity Progressives and the San Antonio community at a candlelight vigil protesting Keystone XL

Members of Trinity Progressives and the San Antonio community at a candlelight vigil protesting Keystone XL. (photo credit: Anh-Viet Dinh)

A Summer of Ice and Fire

Early this summer, upon the recommendation of several trusted friends, I threw myself into HBO’s TV adaptation of Game of Thrones. I’m not much of a TV follower, but Game of Thrones delighted me; I devoured each episode, finishing all three seasons in as many weeks. It was far more sophisticated than I expected, considering that any fragments I had seen before starting the show consisted mainly of beheadings and a lot of sex, which led me to the condescending conclusion that the show would have little substantiality. Well, while there were still a lot of beheadings and even more sex, the intricacies of plot and the impressively complex characters more than made up for it; I quickly changed my tune. After racing through the television series, I decided I simply hadn’t had enough of the Game of Thrones storyline; obviously it was time to read A Song of Ice and Fire. I’ve always loved the fantasy genre, so I relished the thought of digging into another series. The more I read, though, the more critical I became. The only thing keeping the books going is the plotline; the characters are insufficiently developed, the writing is wholly unexceptional, and there are so many glaring rip offs of other fantasy series that I actually became rather incensed. Also, I’m sorry, but Mr. Martin: your incorrect use of semicolons is not a stylistic innovation. It’s just plain wrong. For a grammar freak like me, it immediately began to discredit your writing abilities. Of course, semicolons are the least of his problems.

When I saw the cover of A Dance with Dragons touting TIME’s praise of George R.R. Martin as the “American Tolkien,” I viewed it as an insult to the fantasy trope. Tolkien established far greater depth of world, plot, and characters in only three books (plus The Hobbit); Martin has taken 5 so far, and he has by no means accomplished such feats as creating a new language or even fully developing his fantasy world. And what about Robert Jordan, the late and great author of the Wheel of Time cycle, one of the most complex works of fantasy to grace this earth? Martin’s vaguely defined Westeros/Essos world simply pales beside Robert Jordan’s complexly crafted world, full of distinct nations with idiosyncratic cultures. Also, is that another pudgy, loyal Sam I see? Are you giving me another man who can run with wolves? Instead of bucking convention, Martin shamelessly pulls directly from other great fantasy writers, to whom he is often shockingly inferior. While each has his shortcomings, Martin fails to measure up on most counts. A good writer he may be; a great writer he is not.

I truly mourn the misguided placement of acclaim on a writer whose books have become famous on the basis of their TV adaptation. Honestly? HBO’s modification of the novels is far more impressive than the novels themselves, a rare phenomenon in book-to-screen adaptations. Its characters display far more depth than the ones Martin writes, especially the women; as a friend of mine so neatly put it, Martin is obviously a fanboy at heart, and he fails to contain that fanboy nature when writing his female characters. Also, while the TV series’ plot sometimes seems to dabble in events for far too long (er…how long is Khaleesi going to be in the Red Waste, exactly?), such dabbling never lasts as long as it would in Martin’s novels. Besides, HBO’s plot divergences from the novel often provide interesting, insightful tangents; for instance, we understand more of Lord Petyr Baelish, the infamous Littlefinger, on the screen than we do on the page. Small additions to Littlefinger’s character work wonders for his development. It has much to do in the way the character is written, with emphasis placed on both his unctuous manipulations and his unsurpassed ambitions. At the end of the episode “The Climb,” Littlefinger’s chilling yet highly compelling monologue on the opportunities to be found in the midst of chaos—“chaos is only a ladder…the climb is all there is”—is certainly a departure from the book, yet it is the perfect embodiment of his character. There are few, if any, such concise moments of character realization in Martin’s novels; instead, they are vaguely drawn out or—at their very worst—painfully one-dimensional.

Daenerys, you like like you’re getting a little weary of that wasteland…

When I watched the series, I adored Ygritte: strong, sassy, and charismatic, with just a hint of sexy. Our first glimpses of Jon Snow’s interactions with her revealed a many-faceted character, on one level a warrior who resents her captor and taunts him relentlessly, on another level a woman with a clear sense of her own desires and how to satisfy them. In the show, Ygritte practically comes to embody the free folk: rules do not matter and oaths may be broken, because freedom is the only force governing a man. In this sense, Jon Snow truly knows nothing of the savage wildlings, at least not until Ygritte gives him an education in freedom. Our last glimpse of John and Ygritte together on screen was truly heartbreaking yet still so classically Ygritte: she is hurt by his betrayal, weeping as she peppers him with arrows, but her love does not stop her from taking revenge, indicating her powerful reconciliation of warrior and woman. This moment is almost completely passed over in the novel; Jon gallops away from the melee with an arrow in his leg, realizing only hours later that the arrow is Ygritte’s. Martin provides us with no indication of the complexity of Ygritte’s feelings in this moment, which should be a simple feat even through Jon’s perspective. Honestly, Ygritte on the page is far more boring than Ygritte on the screen. After seeing the phrase “You know nothing, Jon Snow” three times on the same page—and the next, and the one after that—it loses its charm as a casual humiliation of a character who thinks he knows more than enough, becoming instead, perhaps, an indication of how little Ygritte herself knows. Doesn’t she have anything else to say? Martin’s Ygritte is a one-dimensional character who only seems to serve to belittle Jon. She might also teach him some things, but Martin discounts the importance of Ygritte as educator by skimming over those moments, preferring to portray Ygritte as little more than contrary-wildling-woman-turned-sex-object. He even denies her the chance to display the simultaneous triumph and heartbreak of her revenge, and she becomes little more than an arrow stuck in Jon’s thigh (which admittedly has some interesting implications—read: penetration, blood, Ygritte’s earlier “lessons” to Jon—but Martin doesn’t investigate those in the least). Martin’s use of Ygritte’s character was one of the most disappointing shortcomings of the written series, as limited and one-dimensional as it was compared to the fascinatingly well-rounded Ygritte of the screen. It’s apparently a common problem; the reader gains only a shallow sense at best of most of the characters, which is frustrating. If so many pages must be spent dragging out the story, I expect some damn good character development. Martin constantly denied me that pleasure, not only with Ygritte but also with many other characters, especially women.

Really? Just a sex object? I think not.

Martin has been regaled as a convention-smasher, an innovative writer who has renovated the fantasy genre. I will not deny that he makes some interesting innovations: the lack of any clearly defined presence of good and evil was somewhat of a surprise, and the sheer amount of plot threads was impressive. But good innovations and good writing are not mutually inclusive. The series begins with what seems to be a distinctive purpose—navigating the treacherous Game of Thrones—but it steadily begins to lose that sense of purpose while Martin drags out the playing of that game and expands his focus beyond the scope of the main players. Yes, the conflict in the Iron Islands is interesting, but do we really need to continually revisit it? Yes, I love the chapters written in Jon Snow’s perspective, but can we save them for when things actually happen, instead of dragging us through tedious episodes with essentially the same story? Martin could certainly spend more words creating deep, well-rounded characters and investigating their respective psyches; instead of droning on about how Arya carries out day after day of her lengthy subterfuge at Harrenhal, or how Tyrion humiliates Joffrey in some small way once again, or how Cersei uses sex to subdue yet another man, he could tell us why they do these things, not simply that these things happen. Martin’s novels are all breadth with little depth. While this may suffice for shallow entertainment, it gets extremely dull over the course of five books; I found myself slogging through page after page, wondering why I bothered but feeling that I might as well finish the job. The books are entertaining enough, but they by no means deserve the massive acclaim they have received. Direct that to the HBO series, which created something truly brilliant from something rather mediocre. Now that I have hauled myself through books four and five, I am eager to see how the show will move into the fourth season; I expect great things, yet I highly doubt that the show will follow the meandering track of the novels. Winter is finally coming, and HBO promises to make it far more interesting than George R.R. Martin did.