sexism

Forced Sterilization, Black Widow and Disability

!Spoiler Alert! Avengers- Age of Ultron

The overwhelming outrage Marvel studios felt after the release of Avengers- Age of Ultron from feminists across North America largely focused on the demeaning nature that Black Widow was portrayed as representative of the sexist problems riddling Marvel’s comics and movies. Yet, while as a character Black Widow was perhaps written into the script using cheap, obvious jokes, is no one going to talk about the revelation that she was forcibly sterilized? Furthermore, that she believes she is a monster because of it?

As a Marvel fan I was shocked at the scene between Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) and Bruce Banner (The Hulk) where they are playing with the idea of running off together and Banner flips and reveals that he cannot have children and thus there is no future with him. Romanoff then reveals that as a part of the graduation ceremony in the Red Room where she was trained as an assassin/ spy, she was sterilized. It is implied that she tried to avoid it but could not and was strapped to a table for the procedure. Then the line…

“You know what my final test was in the Red Room? They sterilized me, said it was one less thing to worry about. You think you’re the only monster on the team?”blackwidow2

 

Before I lose my feminist shit, lets take a moment to clarify and look to the back-story of Black Widow. Firstly, while this article is critiquing the way that sterilization is casually tossed into the mix, that does not mean that I am criticizing the entire movie, nor all of Marvel comics-nobodies perfect. Now, looking at the back-story of Black Widow we see that there was two main ways that the Marvel big guys could have taken her character. In 1964, Natasha Romanoff was introduced as the villain Black Widow in the Tale of Suspense Vol 1. and in later comics it was revealed that she was orphaned by a Nazi attack and was then adopted by a Russian solider. Her skills developed under his training and caught the eye of the KGB, eventually making her the best assassin/spy and later coming into contact with the avengers and joining them. However, it was when her back-story was revisited in the Ultimate Avengers that this sterilization business comes in. Again orphaned by Nazis, adapted by Russian solider, she was tricked into thinking that she was training as a ballerina. Instead, the Red Room was a KGB training facility where they brainwashed, experimented, enhanced and trained young Romanoff among others to become KGB assassins/spies. Pregnancy was thought to be a weakness and family was considered the only thing that could get in the way of following orders. Thus, it became the graduation ceremony to sterilize these women. I want to clarify why this is a forced sterilization. Regardless if you think that the flash-back scene in the movie showed that Romanoff was forced or not, all of the women in this program were brainwashed, thus there is inherently a drastic power imbalance and a lack of choice.

To see all of her Back-story check out this                                                       Check out an article on Choice at HitFix

So Marvel writers chose to go with the sterilization/ Red Room route regardless that there was no real mention of this back-story in any of the previous movies. I’m not a mind-reader so I don’t know why they chose this but I would argue it is partially to make her character more human. Romanoff is kind of robot in her efficient, militaristic attitude and what Age of Ultron does, is bring her into being a soft squishy, womanly character that is deeply flawed and you can feel bad for.

We have to acknowledge the use of sterilization to further demonize the Russians as the greatest gift and job a woman can have is motherhood (note some sarcasm). Yet, looking at the history of comics in helping people to identify the “real” enemies in throughout history (Nazis, Russians, machines), using sterilization is an old hat in the comic world. Stay tuned for a blog about this!

Yet what can we say about the monster quote? I argue that this scene in particular is a struggle with ableism. It is fairly easy to see how Bruce Banner/ The Hulk has a disability- his split personality, uncontrollable anger, not to mention the infantilizing done in Age of Ultron when they use a lullaby to calm him down. Whether you believe that sterilization specifically is a disability, most can agree with a rather simple definition of disability as not being able to function at the level of “normal” (please note that this definition is problematic in many ways). What is the most “normal” thing about being a woman? To have children and Romanoff cannot do that. io9 noted that they wanted more from the back-story and character development of Black Widow then a sad story about how she can’t have kids and must adopt The Hulk as a giant baby to make up for it and I partially agree. Yet I think looking at this interaction between these characters as the interaction between two individuals who struggle consistently with a disability is a more powerful possibility. In fact, many people were stunned, including hardcore comic fans at the romance that blossomed between Banner and Romanoff as that is not in the comics. Perhaps their kind of companionship is more a companionship of those in similar communities, feeling similar feelings of Otherness and difference rather than because a guy and a girl must fall in love in Hollywood. While this idea gives me a warm, happy feeling in my belly, we cannot deny Romanoff’s statement about both of them being monsters in light of her sterilization reveal. Is she a monster because she can kill without emotion or because she can do this due to being sterilized. The statement is a little vague but still alarming. Perhaps, Banner and Romanoff’s characters will understand one day that being disabled is not a monstrosity but is instead another way of living. Navigating ableism is the bitch, not disability itself.

Lilith Out

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Defining the British Self Through the Racial Other in Greene & Fleming

Defining the British Self Through the Racial Other

in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana and The Human Factor, and Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die

(A Submitted Essay)

Identity building is an especially hard task and cultures of whiteness and constructions of Otherness impose much of its own perceptions about who one should and should not be to further complicate this process. Within British spy fiction, Britain’s colonial history saturates how white characters interact with racialized characters. These racialized characters become Others within the language of whiteness as they are constructed as completely opposite to the more respectable and “Enlightened” English men in these novels. Using stereotypes and binaries of difference, these Others are portrayed as criminal, sexually perverse and pitiful within British spy fiction. Ian Fleming in his 1954 novel Live and Let Die features James Bond as a symbol of white Britishness against the Other crime-lord Mr. Big. In Graham Greene’s novels Our Man in Havana (1958) and The Human Factor (1978), the Other is used to highlight what British white men are not by comparison with racialized Others and the constructed “natural” difference between them. Fleming and Greene’s novels display how in a culture of whiteness the binary of difference created between the Other who is beastly, depraved and pathetic are used to construct the British man as intelligent, powerful and heroic.

Whiteness and the binary construction of the Self and the Other in Western society is largely facilitated by the historical events and ideologies of imperialism and colonialism. British spy novels act as a cultural indicator of the anxieties within these cultures of whiteness. To understand how whiteness and Otherness functions within Greene and Fleming’s novels, one must first explore what these terms are and how they create a culture of binary difference. Whiteness itself is a flexible state of being which is neither explicitly nor solely connected to white skin but is instead a way of performing racial superiority in “a position of social dominance” (Levine-Rasky). Whiteness allows for a privileged access to “power, resources, rewards, meaning, status and futures,” which is used to further solidify superiority (Levine-Rasky, 18). As Tim Christensen notes: “the limitations of essentialist notions of identity from a performative notion of identity becomes the exclusive privilege of whites” (11). Western culture in many ways exists on differences within a system of binaries, which essentially limits identity and social interaction, for example: male and female, black and white. Whiteness and Otherness are constructed as complete opposites and each identity must rely on each other to exist; however, within cultures of whiteness, there is massive power imbalances which leads to the perception that whiteness is in fact better than Otherness. Stereotyping is a pervasive tool of whiteness which allows for institutionalization of discriminatory practices of difference while also normalizing it. Tim Christensen writes that:

The stereotype therefore sets a process of misrecognition into motion, through which the racial self is uneasily and re-iteratively created in opposition to the racial or colonial other, whose imagined characteristics conceal the lack of self-consistent being at the centre of the white, or English, self. (12)

The stereotype thus becomes a tool of self-identification and Otherness-naming while functioning as acceptable and in some cases true. Whiteness then becomes a symbol of normality, and being natural, along with being “identified with cleanliness, an idea that penetrates to behaviour, progress and morality” (Levine-Rasky, 46). Whiteness has the power in many ways to refuse to be “named and arrogates to itself the power of the norm and the universal” (Tsou, 585). Otherness and its stereotyping relies on exoticism, infantilism, and hypersexualization, while whiteness is connected with power, rationality and enlightenment (Levine-Rasky, 46). Creating a disproportionate power dynamic dictated by difference facilitates exploitation, conquest and discrimination. As Levine-Rasky argues, “whiteness and Englishness became conflated in London popular culture and in elite discourse of religion, politics, science, and philosophy” (27). England’s colonial history specifically saturates the British spy genre and the binary of difference between the British self and the Other is based on whiteness and the power inherent in being able to define who is the Other.

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming depicts the black Other as a fundamentally unintelligent criminal in opposition to the constructed wit and heroics of James Bond. The Bond series is extremely important as a cultural indicator, as it explores the anxieties created by “social, cultural, and political changes Britain underwent in the 1950s and 1960s” (Bererich, 14). Mr. Big is the main antagonist who “is probably the most powerful negro criminal in the world,” regardless that “they don’t seem to take to big business” (Fleming, 16). Mr. Big is a powerful, intelligent and wholly unique black Other within Bond’s world and his black attributes largely outweigh his white heritage which allows for him to operate intelligently. How Mr. Big is described by Bond’s first person narrative in dehumanizing terms where he is melted down to a beastly “it” creature who has “a great football of a head, twice the normal size and very nearly round… it was hairless” (60). Furthermore, Bond must remind himself of Mr. Big’s human existence when he reflects that “he had heard its heart pumping in its chest, had heard it breath, had seen sweat on the grey skin” (209). Mr. Big’s appearance groups him with the “clumsy black apes,” according to Bond, as Mr. Big cannot escape his black heritage. Likewise, Mr. Big uses his Otherness to his advantage as he employments “the fear of Voodoo and the supernatural, still deeply, primitively ingrained in the negro subconscious,” to control his employees (20). Mr. Big is further dehumanized as the dangerous black Other when rumours establish him as the “zombie or living corpse of Baron Samedi himself, the dreaded Prince of Darkness” (19). Mr. Big uses stereotyping and the anxieties about the black and specifically male Other to further his criminal objectives. The characterization of Mr. Big relies on many perceptions of the specifically black Other, yet his intelligence and visibly grey skin positions him as partially white and illustrates what an aspect of whiteness is.

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In Fleming’s book, he portrays Mr. Big as a legitimate challenge for Bond and Britain to overcome as he is far more intelligent then constructions of the Other should allow, and this is because he is partially white. Firstly, Bond is the image of the British self and his “strait-laced, stiff-upper-lipped Englishness can be upheld only by comparison with his enemies, who, mostly and emblematically, are not English” (Bererich, 26). Throughout the novel, readers are struck by the “black” language Fleming uses to show difference and ultimately stupidity as “guess ah jist nacherlly gits tahd listenin’ at yuh,” is highlighted as black Otherness speech (43). All of the distinctly black characters other than Mr. Big and Solitaire speak this kind of broken English; whereas Bond and his partner Leiter speak flawless English in opposition to the Other. The reason why Mr. Big is such a threat to Bond and he is able to communicate in sophisticated and flawless English is because he is not entirely black. Mr. Big has a grey muddled complexion and his “nose was wide without being particularly negroid, the nostrils did not gape at you” (60). Mr. Big’s ethnic and racial heritage also complicates his Otherness as “he’s not pure negro. Born in Haiti. Good Dose of French Blood,” which is why he is intelligent regardless of his blackness (16). In essence, it is Mr. Big’s small amount of whiteness which allows him to become a more realistic and challenging opponent for Bond, as Bond is above dealing with petty and unintelligent criminal Others as equals. Bond’s character attempts to solidify British superiority and “advocate British dominance over the rest of the world,” as he ultimately overcomes all foes, Others or not (Bererich, 24). Mr. Big and Solitaire both act as racially complicated characters which highlight both the blackness of the Other and the whiteness of Bond.

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Solitaire in Fleming’s novel exists within a space of anxiety where she is the black Other through her supernatural abilities steeped in Voodoo, and her white appearance. Fleming and Bond both use Solitaire to illustrate and understand the black Other without allowing for an intimate and dangerously sexual relationship to develop with that black Other, as she is ultimately white in her loyalties and appearance. She is described as being pale, blue-eyed “with the pallor of white families that have lived long in the tropics” (Fleming, 66). Kissing “her white throat,” Bond is instantly sexually attracted to Solitaire, and while he reads about Voodoo and Mr. Big from files and books, Solitaire attempts to act as a safe interpreter of Otherness (105). Her instant trust and attraction to Bond as well as her white appearance allows her to identify within a space of whiteness, and thus she can be an appropriate sexual companion for Bond. She looks to Bond as a protector and saviour as he had saved her from being Mr. Big’s captured fiance as: “I’ve been shut up with him and his nigger gangsters for nearly a year” (92). She is much more white than her captor, Mr. Big, as her allegiance is solely with Bond and “she felt indifferent to the fate of those she judged to be evil, very few of them were white” (114). Bond in fact re-imagines Solitaire’s connection with whiteness as steeped in colonial history as he sees her face as “the face of the daughter of a French Colonial slave-owner” (66). He even recognizes his “romantic picture,” of Solitaire’s past and yet adheres to the idea that she has been in a position of power through her white colonial past and thus is like Bond himself (95). Yet Solitaire is not entirely white which gives her the ability to function within both white and Other spaces. Being born in Haiti already places her as not entirely white, but it is her relationship with the supernatural and Voodoo aspects of the black Other which further identifies her as different. Mr. Big finds her “doing a telepathic act,” just as Bond encounters her doing a visceral Voodoo dance to drums (65). As she can act as grateful interpreter for Bond, she attempts to “explain to someone with that certainty of spirit, with that background of common sense, brought up with clothes and shoes,” what the black Other thinks and will do (101). In fact, Solitaire has a great amount of difficulty in explaining the Other to Bond as “what could this man know of these things (Voodoo) or of her half-belief in them,” as he is so entirely white and functions within a space of whiteness (102). Solitaire and Mr. Big illustrate through their racial difference and likeness to Bond how whiteness and Otherness functions within Fleming’s story and how they are not mutually exclusive identity traits.

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In Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, the racialized Other is stereotypically homogenized as a beastly sexual being, where Havana is featured as the space of the Other and sex as the currency. The prerogative of whiteness is to label Otherness according to what one does not want to be and in Our Man in Havana, the main protagonist Wormold appears to be almost asexual; whereas the ethnically unspecific Others around him are hypersexual as a sign of both their difference and Wormold’s status as a white man in Havana. The economy of Havana, according to Wormold, is largely run by uncouth or sinful occupations and hobbies such as prostitution, pornography, gambling, alcoholism and the lottery which “was a serious trade uncorrupted by tourists” (Havana, 34). Greene writes that “the sexual exchange was not only the chief commerce of the city, but the whole raison d’etre of a man’s life, one sold sex or one bought it,” and those who do not partake are essentially outsiders within the Other’s space (Havana, 56). While the Other’s space is portrayed as functioning on sinful activities, the white or more specifically British space is ran on bureaucracy, extravagance and “appropriate” activities, so much so that explaining free drinks to Londoners would be “tedious, if not impossible” (Havana, 153). Wormold recognizes the “English snobbery,” and the “kinship and security the word English implied to him,” as he is ultimately an English man in the Other’s space (Havana, 173). For no matter how long Wormold has been a part of the Havana community the “pimps accosted him automatically… they had never got used to him, in their eyes he never became a resident; he remained a permanent tourist” (Havana, 32). Wormold, along with his obvious white skin, is further shunned by the Other community because he does not partake in the economy of Havana and this is confusing to the locals. When Wormold is offered a packet of pornographic postcards he rejects them and in response, the unnamed Other draws out another packet of pornographic cards in the hoping of please him (Havana, 124) Likewise, Greene implies that Wormold is too good for the usual product that the Other enjoys as Raul notes that “for an Englishman in your position places like the San Francisco are unsuitable, even the Mamba Club,” to get prostitutes from (Havana, 56). In fact, the type of prostitutes that Englishmen supposedly look for is also different than the Others as “you are not a Cuban: for you the shape of a girl’s bottom is less important than a certain gentleness of behaviour” (Havana, 56). The economy of Havana simply does not translate between British whiteness and racialized Otherness as “a notice in Spanish and bad English forbade the audience to molest the dancers” (Havana, 124). Even in the context of simple language translating, English and the Other simply do not function or communicate in the same way. By highlighting the difference between Wormold and the racialized Others around him, it illustrates the complex binary relationship that whiteness along with its opposite creates. While the Other is distinctly defined within its own space as depraved through their economy of sex, the British self represented through Wormold is also constructed through perceptions of whiteness and privilege.

While the Other in Havana and the space that it occupies is clearly set and is not explored as explicitly constructed according to the author, the identity of the white British self is questioned and consistently re-imagined, not necessarily for truth but is a necessity. Greene explores the anxiety of white British identity as distinctly malleable yet essential when being confronted by political and racial Others, especially within the space of the Other. By constituting and solidifying what a British man looks and acts like, the dangers of being in the space of the Other seems less threatening. Firstly, one has to consistently verify their allegiance with Britain and the white values that come with that. Wormold is asked repeatedly if he is a legitimate British man with a passport to confirm his trustworthiness as “one likes to do business with a British firm, one knows where one is, if you see what I mean” (Havana, 8). Being a recognizable British and white ally gives Wormold capital within cultures of whiteness and gives him access to the British world of spies. The label of Britishness in itself is cultural capital and allows for a certain level of white privilege as a female Other points out to Beatrice that “we Britishers have to stick together,” yet Beatrice has a name and the woman is called a Negress (Havana, 99). In this case, Britishness as a label does carry cultural capital but the Other can only access the privileges of that in small ways, as visibly racialized individuals cannot truly be British. What British means is complicated and as Greene describes the formulation of Wormold as a British subject according to his superiors, we see the depth of re-imagining and the links with colonial history. Wormold is described as:

Our man in Havana belongs—you might say—to the Kipling age. Walking with Kings—how does it go? –and keeping your virtue, crowds and the common touch. I expect somewhere in that ink-stained desk of his there’s an old penny note-book of black wash-leather in which he kept his first accounts (Havana, 46)

While ultimately, Our Man in Havana is a satire, Greene explicitly connects Wormold with real legendary Imperialist writer Rudyard Kipling. Regarding the formation of Wormold as a good British citizen, connecting him with Kipling, highlights colonial ideologies of difference and Wormold’s place within whiteness. Wormold’s superior takes a limited amount of information about Wormold and creates a romantic image of him, and understands the fictitious nature of his creation and notes that “details don’t matter,” as he is speaking in metaphors to communicate an idea (Havana, 46). While being identified as a British man and thus having access to privileges of whiteness, Wormold is still not beyond constructions of identity. He is expected to be a “patriotic Englishman,” (Havana, 26). By adhering to binary conceptions of whiteness and Otherness, Greene illustrates the problematic nature of racial and ethnic identity as constructions of opposites. Where the Other is positioned in their own space in Our Man in Havana, Greene explores how racial difference and ethnic awareness outside of one’s space affects racial identity in The Human Factor.

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In The Human Factor, Greene depicts the African Other as an object of pity as being an Other and being impoverished according to stereotypes. The book is set during the South African apartheid and much of the plot and characters have personal experiences of the apartheid. The focus on the racialized Other is largely who the Africa Other is and how being African is an all-consuming identity. This African Other is a constructed identity of difference, where Britishness is conflated with comfort, abundance and saviour-hood, the African Other is poverty, political injustice and pitiful. Africa in itself is a constructed place where white British men can dictate what Africa was as: “my Africa was a sentimental Africa… How easy it was in the old days when we dealt with chiefs and witch doctors and bush schools and devils and rain queens” (Human, 65). The imagining of Africa is just as fictitious as the poverty-stricken Africa as “my Africa was still a little like the Africa of Rider Haggard. It wasn’t a bad place,” before (Human, 65). A distinct image which appears repeatedly in Greene’s text is “the memory of a famine photograph… a small corpse spread-eagle on desert sand, watched by a vulture” (Human, 27). Africa becomes a romantic image of “the bush” where “the cook would now be plucking a chicken behind the rest-house and the pie-dogs would be gathering in the hope of scraps” (Human, 241). This Africa is a place where a black mistress dies from blackwater fever and where poverty is idealized as an authentic African experience (Human, 248). Just as Fleming had dehumanized Mr. Big, Greene dehumanizes the African Other by creating an object of pity steeped in homogenized perceptions of poverty, which ultimately overrule any other experiences of the African self. The “little black babies,” are always in danger within Africa because they are African, and being a racialized Other living in poverty is perceived as being especially victimizing and in need of a white saviour (Human, 116). Those few who can escape the inevitability of the poverty-stricken African Other are portrayed as incredibly unique as if a man “picked out one piece of achieved sculpture from the all the hack carvings littering the steps of an hotel for white tourists” (Human, 22). Yet ultimately, portraying the African Other as an object of pity or a victim of their own racial identity is dehumanizing. It reinforces a binary of difference where the British white self is superior and feels pity for the Other, while also in a position of power to be a saviour.

The anxieties about political allegiances and how white guilt and sympathy makes the British self untrustworthy is at the core of the Greene’s novel. In The Human Factor, allegiances and ideological position is extremely important and while Castle should be trustworthy as a longstanding white colonial-steeped British man, his supposed romantic and sympathetic feelings for the plight of South African Others marks him as questionable. While Castle “daydreamed of complete conformity,” within the British Intelligence Agency and within the domestic sphere, his relationship with his wife Sarah and her son Sam disrupts that vision (Human, 15). Sarah as an African Other unintentionally corrupts Castle’s whiteness and white image as Castle notes: “I became a naturalized black when I fell in love with Sarah” (Human, 151). Ultimately, it is Castle’s relationship with Sarah that calls his loyalty into question and leads to his discovery as the leak (Human, 247). Whether Castle would betray his country for Sarah, and “her people,” is questioned in terms of romantic sympathy where “the romantic idea of breaking what they think is an unjust law [] attracts them just as much as a black bottom” (Human, 127). Even Sarah questions Castle’s motives and loyalties, as: “I wonder whether you love me only because of my colour,” she highlights the uncertainty and untrustworthy nature of a romantic and sympathetic man (Human, 223). Castle deceived both BOSS and his agents in South Africa posing as a writer of a sympathetic book on the apartheid and he was perceived as “one of those idealistic types who want to change the nature of human beings” (Human, 128). Those around Castle fear he will seek “validation of his actions by empathy with an oppressed race,” rather than upholding his duties as a British white citizen (Snyder, 33). This novel is arguably a “cautionary tale demonstrating how a compunction fuelled by guilt (or sympathy) can lead to morally ambivalent outcomes” (Snyder, 29). While pitying the impoverished African Other is a sign of white superiority, sympathizing and possibly acting against your country in the name of injustice is not acceptable British white behaviour. The white man can only be a saviour in so far as helping the Other in minor ways; however, the white man can not help to make the Other equal within the culture of whiteness. There must remain an imbalance of power for whiteness to still be a privileged and sought after identity.

The construction of the British self with the culture of whiteness is dependent on the likewise construction of the Other. Both identities are intimately linked, as it is through the representation of both the white and Other self that difference and privilege can be analyzed. In Fleming’s novel Live and Let Die, the Other is depicted as beastly, unintelligent and superstitious while the British white man is sophisticated, intelligent and logical. The characters of Mr. Big and Solitaire each carry significant traits of the white and black Other and it is ultimately through these characters that the binary of difference is established within the novel. In Greene’s Our Man in Havana, the Other within its own space deals in sex as an intimate part of its culture, where the British white self cannot fully participate nor fully understand. The main protagonist Wormold highlights the constructed British white self as he is re-imagined to fit an appropriate character of whiteness. In Greene’s other novel The Human Factor, the African Other is explicitly connected and constituted by the perceived poverty of both Africa and the African self. While creating a dehumanizing culture of pity, the British self is restricted in the amount of sympathy and help it can offer the African Other, as the imbalance of power must be maintained. Each novel discussed illustrates the various ways that both the British self and the Other are constructed and how those constructions are dependent on a binary relationship of difference.

Bibliography

Berberich, Christine. “Putting England Back on Top? Ian Fleming, James Bond, and the Question of England.” The Yearbook of English Studies 42 (2012): 13-29. Web. JSTOR.

Christensen, Tim. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Misrecognition, Pleasure, and White Identity in Kipling’s Kim”. Collage Literature 39.2 (2012): 9-30. Web. Project Muse.

Fleming, Ian. Live and Let Die. Las Vegas: Thomas & Mercer, 2012. Print

Greene, Graham. Our Man in Havana. London: Vintage, 2004. Print

Greene, Graham. The Human Factor. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1978. Print

Levine-Rasky, Cynthia. Whiteness Fractured. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013. Print.

Snyder, Lance Roberts. “’He Who Forms a Tie Is Lost’” Loyalty, Betrayal, and Deception in The Human Factor.” South Atlantic Review 73.3 (2008): 23-43. Web. JSTOR

Tsou, Elda E. “‘This Doesn’t Mean What You’ll Think’: Native Speaker, Allegory, Race.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 128.3 (2013): 575-589, 855-856. Web. MLA International Bibliography

Anonymous Writer, Published with Permission.

(Note) This essay is open for all to read however, plagiarism still counts- if individuals are caught using this essay as their own they can face consequences.

Oracle- Sexy and Disabled? A Cultural Analysis

An Essay for a Disability and Sexuality Course at Carleton University

Description:

My Cultural Artefact is a comic stripe featuring a disabled character named Oracle, entering the shower in three panels. Oracle, also known as Barbara Gordon and formerly the superhero Batgirl was paralysed in the 1988 comic The Killing Joke and from that point was established as the technological, strategic genius, Oracle. This character became a disability champion to many readers craving alternative superheros in comics and her popularity grew dramatically after 1988. In this specific artefact, Oracle is featured as stripping away her clothing and entering the shower in hopes of being on time for dinner plans. I choose this piece of a comic stripe because the representation or lack thereof of superheroes with disabilities allows for a unique analysis of both the visibility of the disabled community and the objectification and de-sexualization which comics have largely been criticized for.

Context:

In regards to the context and impact the creators had on my artefact, we must explore the very first appearance of Barbara Gordon in DC comic and the consequent plot-point which saw her being disabled later on. The original creators of Barbara Gordon and her super, alter-ego Batgirl were Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, and later Alan Moore took the mantle. Batgirl was used periodically in the comics, so when Alan Moore wrote The Killing Joke in 1988, he and editor Len Wein felt that her character was disposable enough to end her crime fighting career permanently. Moore and Wein were critiqued by many for their treatment of the Barbara Gordon character as excessively violent and lacking female perspective. Furthermore, the creators of the Oracle character: Kim Yale and John Ostrander noted the use of Batgirl as an example of the “Women in Refrigerators Syndrome” within comicbooks and videogame storytelling where: “severe injury or death of a female character [occurs] as a means to antagonize a male superhero.” Later on, Yale and Ostrander took the depressed Barbara Gordon and turned her into the techno-genuis Oracle. In this context, the origin of Oracle as a disabled character lies in the laziness of ableist and sexist storytelling but was then reclaimed and embraced as a symbol of alternative heroes and a champion of disability representation within comics.

Critical Analysis

My initial analysis of this cultural artefact is one of mixed feelings, where the visibility of this disabled female superhero is a positive example of progress and yet there are issues of ableism and sexism in the objectification of Oracle within this particular three panel excerpt. Upon viewing the panels themselves, one sees a disabled woman provocatively undressing to enter the shower. The symbol of her disability, the wheelchair, is prominent within the first two frames but increasing the chair becomes invisible as her sexual appeal becomes more emphasized. She embodies the stereotypical sex symbol as she is soapy and wet from the shower and her privacy becomes invaded by the voyeuristic male gaze. Interestingly, she becomes objectified completely, after her wheelchair has disappeared from the frame. The sexism which pervades comicbooks is evident here as Oracle, a powerful, intelligent and independent woman is reduced to her sexual appeal, yet it is the intersection of her disability which is truly engaging.

This grouping of panels shows how ableism and sexism can interact in interesting ways, as the objectification of Oracle is counter to the stereotypical idea that those with disabilities do not have a sexuality and do not feel desire, nor are desirable. In Kattari’s article, she notes that “sexuality… love and [expression of] various desires is not usually recognized as a valid expression for people with disabilities” (501). Therefore, society sends messages of normality and abnormality in regards to sexual identity and expression, where those with disabilities “should be viewed as, asexual and/or deviant, lacking a capacity to be sexual and desirable” (501). Often times, those with disabilities are labelled by damaging stereotypes which hinder their participation in society, including within sexual cultures, such as: objects of pity, curiosity or violence, the “Super-Crip”, as a tool to create atmosphere or laughter, as non-sexual or sexual deviant and a burden on friends, family, society and themselves. Many of these stereotypes are damaging because they create a culture of dis-humanizing and Othering based on ableism that many argue is “natural” due to the construction of physical or intellectual disabilities. Yet, in this representation of Oracle, she is both sexual and disabled. I argue that she is able retain her sexual identity and appeal because she was physically disabled later in her life. As apposed to those who are born disabled, Oracle can be sexual because she was not born “abnormal”, but was instead disabled by an external factor. In essence, she can legitimately keep ties to her femininity and sexual accessibility because she is not a representation of the “horrifying erotic,” but is instead a symbol of the “Super-Crip” (Titchkosky, 78). As a “Super-Crip”, Oracle was physically disabled by an external factor and was able to excel despite her disability. A disability happened to her, and it was entirely out of her or her parent’s control, unlike the perceptions around those born with disabilities where the blame of entire Otherness can be placed on a lack of effort or poor parenting. Oracle was shot at the age of 18, and while she can be an example of an object of pity, her ability to overcome her disability and excel despite her body creates a sexual accessibility to the viewer, as she is different, but only to an extent. Furthermore, because she is extraordinary in her ability to overcome her disability, she gets back to the bar of normality, as her place in society (if she were a “normal” disabled individual) is lower but her “super” status regains some of her lost status as an able-bodied woman. Yet, how to negotiate her ability to retain her sexuality and sex appeal and the obvious disappearance of her wheelchair from the frame within my cultural artefact? While her disability is acceptable to able-bodied readers, the chair is still a symbol of difference. Titchkosky sees the universal sign of accessibility in public spaces as an indicator that for “a sign to point towards access, there must be an assumption of a general lack of access,” and her statement also applies to the wheelchair in the sense of sexual access. Oracle’s wheelchair is a sign of sexual inaccessibility and the increasing disappearance of it in her showering scene, shows the points of sexual access to her body, as if the chair is the embodying of sexual barriers. In this scene, Oracle is not exempted from the sexism which sees “normal” female comicbook characters objectified because her status as a “Super-Crip” and her increasing disappearance of the wheelchair makes her an object of sexual accessibility.

It is also important to note the triumph of having a female super-hero who is disabled within comics and how this cultural artefact may be a positive representation of disability. Oracle herself is a character which has a complex and wonderfully deep, real story as her struggle with depression, identity and a want for revenge after being shot and disabled is refreshing as a counter to the use of disabled individuals as atmosphere or tools for laughter. Furthermore, Oracle is portrayed as still incredibly independent and intelligent, where her disability takes her from being the sidekick of Batman to a super-hero in her own right. As a representation of the disabled community, Oracle is wonderfully empowering. It is important to note that Oracle as a character runs the risk of being tokenized as the sole representation of the disabled community and what other characters and people with disabilities should be considered by. Yet, even within this cultural artefact she is portrayed as living a full and interactive life as an independent woman, even to the point where she is contemplating modding her bathroom to be more wheelchair accessible. Even the consumers of comics have had a largely positive reaction to Oracle as a disabled super-hero as there is many blogs speaking to the positive inclusion of disabled bodies with the creation of Oracle.

My analysis of this cultural artefact is highly informed by a conflict of sexism and ableism as Oracle is a complex object of the male gaze in her objectification and yet is physically disabled and thus counters the construction of disabled individuals as non-sexual or deviant. Her role as a disability role-model or representation within comics is important and yet her ability to “Super-Crip” her way to sexual accessibility shows the progress still left to be made.

Bibliography

Kattari, Shanna. “Sexual Experiences of Adults with Physical Disabilities: Negotiating with Sexual Partners.” Sexuality and Disability 32.4 (2014): 499-513. Web. 12 Feb. 2015

Titchkosky, Tanya. “Disability Images and the Art of Theorizing Normality.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 22.1 (2009): 75-84. Web. 12 Feb. 2015

Sexism in the Depiction of Female Superheroes

I love comics in a lot of ways. The beauty of story-telling is wonderfully alive within the medium and the art form continually gets more and more beautiful. Yet, there are problems with it. Sexism, racism, ableism, and homophobia have been issues in comics for a long time. This is not to say that all story lines, characters or publishing houses consistently struggle with these issues. Overtime there has been much progress in expanding who is represented in comics: from women, to disabled individuals, to racialized and sexually marginalized groups. Yet the issue of sexist depictions of female superheroes is still an issue, especially when looking at the angles and male gaze which objectify some characters. The gallery shown below is not a full representation of the progress eliminating sexism and the ways it still needs some work. There is arguably no way to compile a full list as comics have such a rich and full history that is continually growing. As a feminist, I will always love comics, which doesn’t mean I can’t critique them.

Lilith Out!

Unwanted Male Attention: Catcalling, and Why I feel Uncomfortable with “Politeness”

By now, we have all seen the Catcalling video that went viral a few months back as a woman walked around New York for 10 hrs with a hidden camera. She received over one hundred instances of unwanted male attention. Yes, I am calling it unwanted male attention and not catcalling because one of the largest criticisms of the video is the idea that most of the men in it, were simply being “nice”. Some were most definitely instances of catcalling as I would define it: pointing out a woman’s features in a sexual or derogatory way “God Bless you mami… Damn!”. Catcalling can also mean an obvious attempt at objectifying: “I just saw a thousand dollars” (as she walks by). Others were simply a form of intimidation and possible minor stalking as one man followed her for more than 5 minutes.

Unwanted male attention is something which many women live with everyday and I do want to acknowledge the inherently cis-gendered and heteronormative aspects of this post and this subject. But what does unwanted male attention mean to me? Not only is it the obvious inappropriate comments, the catcalling out of cars but more commonly and some times more problematic is when these men are “nice” and “polite”. By no means do I believe that you cannot trust the actions of all men as they inherently bad or that all men are just acting polite to get laid. Furthermore, I want to stress that not all men participate and do unwanted male attention and that some women are just as guilty as some men for dis-empowering women and men around them through things like catcalling. What I am saying is, there is a difference between being polite and wishing someone a good morning when entering an elevator or what have you and ending with that, and when a stranger who happens to be a man goes out of their way to call attention to you (read: a woman) or be intrusive. The worst part of this kind of unwanted male attention is the thought that women should be grateful for it and that women ultimately want to be complimented. Our sexist world says it is okay to make a woman feel incredibly uncomfortable because of unwanted male attention then expect her to not only acknowledge your “compliment” but to say thank you. Even in the catcalling video, one man points this out clearly: “What’s up, beautiful. Somebodies acknowledging you for being beautiful, you should say thank you more!”. Thank you for further making a woman feel uncomfortable while just walking down the street? Of course, some critics of the video have voiced the prevailing thought that all women love to be called beautiful. Sure, women like to be called beautiful, also intelligent, independent, funny, charming but don’t men like to be called that too? Ohhh, sorry I mean handsome because guess what? Our gender system means that beautiful and handsome are highly gendered terms which mean very different things. Men do not get catcalled nearly as much as women because men enjoy a certain privilege within systems of patriarchy. Men don’t feel the need to catcall other men and most women don’t feel the need to catcall men. It’s a difference of power, not biological difference.

Catcalling is not the only instance of unwanted male attention that women experience daily. I myself experienced two different kinds of unwanted male attention in one night recently. I write these experiences in this post because I want to illustrate why women feel so uncomfortable with unwanted male attention in multiple ways and why being a “polite” man is simply not appropriate sometimes.

1) I was at a friend’s housewarming party and the night was going well. I didn’t know a lot of people there but I was making friends and all was well. Eventually, some people were starting to have a little too much to drink (as is their prerogative). I end up with a group of people in my friends bedroom just chatting and hanging out (read: there was nothing sexual at all happening) when a man I had just met that night grabbed my wrists and started to pull me to the bed. He was drunk. Yet, his vise-grip on my wrists and me saying no and resisting being pulled to the bed made him pull harder. There were people there and I was sober enough to be able to out maneuver him. His friend justified the action by simply saying he’s drunk… it happens. This level of unwanted male attention is rare but not as rare as we think and that is something which women are constantly reminded of. The fear of rape is huge because it happens all of the time.

2) At the end of the night I took a taxi home by myself. When the taxi arrived, the man driving took many opportunities to dis-empower me by consistently calling me Girl. Lets be clear, if you are in a friend group and there is an spoken or unspoken agreement that Girl is appropriate to call each other, cool, all the power to you. Between absolute strangers, who’s power imbalance is incredibly different, it’s not appropriate. The constant use of Girl made my vulnerability even more prominent as I was alone with a strange men, taking a taxi (which he was driving) alone at 3 am. Let alone he kept saying things like: “Hey Girl, it’s okay, trust me Girl, I’ll take care of you Girl”. At one point he called me sweetheart while he was asking some pretty invasive questions. I felt so dis-empowered and vulnerable that I was kinda afraid to tell him to stop calling me Girl and I was afraid of not answering his questions. This is an instance of “politeness” which is wrong because whether intentionally or not, this stranger made me feel incredibly powerless. He also forced me to take his number: “if you need anything at all, Girl”.

I bring up these examples to show how unwanted male attention is not about women being ungrateful or not know what they want but its a issue of power imbalance. It’s a way for women to feel more objectified, powerless and vulnerable in a world which already shoves in our faces that we could be raped or murdered any minute by a stranger or someone we know. There is a line between being polite and courteous in public, which does not include physical force, intimidation or unwanted male attention.

Lilith Out!

http://mashable.com/2014/11/15/catcalling-debate/?utm_cid=mash-com-fb-main-link

Stereotyping: “I’m not racist but…” Getting Away With Discrimination

In our North American society we rely so heavily on stereotypes to justify unpopular or what we know is discriminatory opinions because it is easy and widely acknowledged. Broadly speaking, stereotypes are a generalization about a person or group of people. We rely on stereotypes because “language constitutes reality” and therefore by saying something is a stereotype you are implying that it is mostly true for an entire group of people. We have all heard and probably used stereotypes in our daily lives to justify opinions or reactions to the people around us.
“All women love jewelry”
“All Jews are cheap”
“All black men are dangerous”
“All Muslims are terrorists”

and the list goes on. But really, what are we saying when we employ these stereotypes and where are they coming from? Firstly, stereotyping itself is justified by the statement that: “there is always a kernel of truth”, or “all my experience has shown me, this is true”. I call bullshit. The world is made up of roughly half female identified persons… and they all love jewelry? Firstly, what perspective are you coming from? A North American one, one of privilege and opportunity. Yet, what about all the men who love jewelry? What? Watches don’t count? The stereotype that all women love jewelry is entirely based on a North American, privileged and sexist idea that women are inherently shallow and materialistic. This stereotype extends very clearly all the way into Medieval Europe with Sumptuous Laws and later in the Renaissance as well. These laws sought to limit and regulate consumption. This very directly looked at clothing and jewelry. These laws were classed and sexed as fine clothing and jewelry were a sign of wealth and prestige but commoners who wanted to imitate by wearing these signs of the upper-class were unbalancing the class hierarchy. At the same time, dressing and ornamenting your property was a sign of wealth and throughout much of history (and even today), women were considered prize property. The stereotype that women could put their husbands out of house and home through their unchecked spending in order to obtain fine clothing and jewels was highly at play during times of sumptuous laws. Of course, that is partially because (high-class) women were forced to stay at home and were sheltered from the indecencies of the outside. This later in the Victorian Era was termed the Public/ Private divide. This gender system saw men as public figures, going outside for work and being public personalities and women remaining inside to tend to the house and home. Women were therefore required to maintain the household and everyone in it to the utmost respectability, including having fine and respectable clothing and jewels as appropriate to their class. Thus, just like today, women are forced into this lose- lose situation where they are expected to buy yet are demonized for doing so.


Historically speaking, Jews have been one of the most ostracized groups, based on religious beliefs, in the course of recorded human history. The stereotype that all Jews are cheap (financially) are based on two things: 1) Jews have historically been well-known for money-lending and 2) they have a history of being forced out of their countries of birth/ origin that they have been forced to be conscious of money and how to make do in difficult situations. In the Middle Ages, a group of Jews were well known as money-lenders to many in the towns around them (read mostly the area that will be called Europe). Even now, one of the most profitable enterprises is money-lending. Furthermore, as a group which has repeatedly been used as scapegoats for those in power, Jews and their role with money has been turned from thrifty, and money savvy to cheap and usurers. On the second point, Jews have been exiled from various countries around the world up to 109 times since 250 AD (seriously, I’ll include the list below in a link). Any immigrant, child of an immigrant or refugee knows how difficult it is to come to a new country, especially when exiled and it is especially hard when it comes to money. So historically speaking, Jews as a group of people have had to be very conscious of money and how to transport it. It’s not cheap to care about where ones money is and where it is going.

http://www.biblebelievers.org.au/expelled.htm

I could write forever about the stereotypes involved with the Scary Black Man and the Terrorist Muslim but these topics have been beaten over the head so often that they should be a non-issue… they still are…   The dangerous black man goes back to days of early slavery in various colonies around the world and the fact that often black slaves far out numbered white owners. Of course, it is far more complicated than that as the development of the racism we know today took centuries to build including ideas about the sexual black beast that rapes white women, and the resulting lynching in America. Guess what, it is RACISM to assume that every black man walking down the street is going to rob you, rape you, or murder you. Yes, there is a ridiculous amount of black men in the prison system in America… just like there is a ridiculous amount of aboriginal men in Canadian prisons… see a pattern? Some of the most marginalized and unappreciated individuals in our society are tossed into jails for the smallest crimes (like marijuana) because it is easier to lock them up than educate or treat them properly.

After 9/11 racism and racist stereotypes intensified surrounding Muslim people, but lets be honest, this stereotype involves anyone appearing to be brown in North America. Furthermore, lets not pretend that this racism against Muslims is new… IT’S NOT. This east/ west divide has existed all the way to at least Roman times when Constantine the Great wanted to bridge this apparent divide and capitalize on it by moving Rome’s metropolis to Constantinople in 324 AD. We constitute ourselves by what we are not, thus we must create and CONSTRUCT an Other which to create ourselves by. If we are progressive, enlightened, and democratic than our Other is oppressive, backwards and communist or ruled by a dictator or has a king or… etc etc. We have constructed ourselves as the opposite of Muslim/ Eastern culture and people, and thus use stereotypes to distance ourselves from what we view is wrong with that culture. In fact, the stereotype that all Muslims are terrorists is in exact opposition to the stereotype that Canada and the United States are peace-keeps, and heroes.

By no means does this blog entry exhaust the complexity of the stereotypes discussed or of the thousands of others that exist. Yet, it is important to look at history and to challenge what is deemed normal to say and do because stereotyping is discriminatory in nature and ultimately creates a culture of mistrust and hatred. Free yourselves and be conscious of the language you use.

Lilith Out!

Literally I Can’t- Redfoo and Crew

A new truly shitty song which tells women to drink heavily, participate in girl on girl and to Shut the Fuck Up…. really?

and check out this open “apology” from a feminist critic to Redfoo after his lawyers contacted her:

http://thedwarf.com.au/news/20357/an-open-apology-to-redfoo

and now he has finally figured it out… or his PR person forced him…
http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/music/redfoo-in-x-factor-backlash-as-petition-calls-for-channel-7-to-let-judge-go/story-e6frfn09-1227121436240