Forcing Tradition

Recently on Netflix I watched an interesting episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (“Producer’s Backend,” season 16 episode 3, which originally aired 8 October 2014). The narrative in the episode focused on a movie producer named Brubeck who used his power over young actresses — i.e., girls under the age of consent — to force them into sexual quid pro quos. Throughout the episode, the SVU detectives uncovered a number of victims, but in each case their hands were tied insofar as the assaults took place so far in the past that the incidents were past the statute of limitations.

As they investigated victims coerced more recently, they found that the movie producer had learned to cleverly skirt age of consent laws:

Detective #1: In the last nine years, all of Brubeck’s movies have been shot in Pennsylvania, Washington, or Montana.
Detective #2: All states with an age of consent of sixteen, and a mistake of age defense.
Prosecutor: Meaning, the guy can have sex with a fourteen-year-old and claim that he thought she was sixteen.

Despite this, the captain insists on moving forward with the investigation: “We’re not giving up. … There has got to be a way to stop him.” Continue reading “Forcing Tradition”

Embarrassment and Naturalizing a Gender Binary

When we go to a new doctor’s office or meet someone new, most people identify my younger son as female. He has let his straight, black hair grow longer, reaching a bit past his shoulders now. He is also small for his age, quiet (in public), and generally shy, and his name (being Chinese) does not suggest a gender for most people in the United States. These markers, it seems, lead people to mislabel him.

While he seems unfazed by this, others are not. When people discover their error, they suddenly become extremely apologetic and embarrassed. But why? It is an understandable mistake, and neither he nor my wife or I take offense at the mistake. Of course, they do not know that it is not a big deal to him, so the common assumption/fear may be that someone will be hurt or angry over the error, but that does not seem to be the whole situation.

We all assume that we can identify a person’s gender. The 1990’s Saturday Night Live skit “It’s Pat” (see one example here) featured a gender ambiguous, nerdy character and highlighted how uncomfortable others are if they cannot identify someone’s gender. Ambiguity about such an “obvious” binary is unsettling for many. While we assume that the difference of gender is naturally significant and readily identifiable, the assumption that everyone easily falls into one of two genders is inaccurate, as the recent posts on social media about the different chromosomal combinations of X and Y highlights. We have similar issues about ethnicity and race, assuming that we should be able to visually identify someone’s heritage, which creates problems for multi-ethnic people and makes the discovery that someone is “passing” as a member of a race/ethnic group when their ancestry does not conform to the social construction of that group into a newsworthy event. Continue reading “Embarrassment and Naturalizing a Gender Binary”

Building Broad Support (or the Appearance of it)

event_347A New Jersey fundraiser last weekend titled “Humanity United Against Terror” provides an excellent example of one of the tricks of building cooperation. The Republican Hindu Coalition organized the event that featured Bollywood stars and an address by Donald Trump. The event had a range of interesting incongruities, including signs suggesting that Trump would ease speed up immigration  and images depicting Hillary Clinton and Sonia Gandhi (leader of the Congress Party in India) as demonic. My focus, however, is the framing of the event, contrasting the title and general purpose to its content, which in large part served as a political rally for Trump’s campaign. Continue reading “Building Broad Support (or the Appearance of it)”

Miss Japan and the Structures We Inhabit

dig13623-230The recent selection of Miss World Japan has created a stir. The BBC headline “Miss Japan Won By Half-Indian Priyanka Yoshikawa” forefronted only the aspect of her heritage that some found problematic because they do not see Yoshikawa as “pure” Japanese. Last year’s crowning of Ariana Miyamoto as Miss Japan (in the Miss Universe franchise) faced similar responses, as Miyamoto’s parents are Japanese and African-American. While it is easy to see these controversies as signs of the insularity and even xenophobia of some Japanese (which ironically reinforces particular stereotypes of Japan as foreign), that designation is unfair in two ways. First, these two Japanese women and their supporters have challenged such attitudes in Japan, thus refuting the generalizability of the stereotype. Second, such preferences for ethnic purity among some in Japan are not as different from common attitudes in the United States. Continue reading “Miss Japan and the Structures We Inhabit”

Making the Arbitrary Natural

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Despite the rhetoric about the Olympics bringing the world together peacefully to celebrate athletic achievement, the competition is oddly divided according to “their genitalia and the patch of land on which they were born” (as colleague Craig Martin put it on Facebook). We see some wonderful examples of international goodwill, certainly (some listed here), but the arbitrary divisions dominate, both through the flag-waving spectators in the stands and the daily medal counts according to nation in the media. Whether it is people in India cheering P.V. Sindhu, who reached the Badminton women’s individual finals last Friday, or people in the United States cheering for Simone Biles’ five medal performance in gymnastics, the division into nationalities takes on the appearance of being a natural description.

The organization of the Olympics, demonstrated from the Opening Ceremony Parade of Nations, and the media coverage that focuses on the nation’s athletes make the nation appear to be a natural division, an obvious identifier (a la Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities). We often cheer for people from our own country because their victory brings us status, even though we have little if anything in common with the athletes, potentially being from different regions, living within different social networks, holding different commitments, etc. Continue reading “Making the Arbitrary Natural”

The Reality of the Civil War

3715221018_907932a4cd_zSitting in a hotel meeting room in downtown Atlanta the weekend before Thanksgiving, I watched a professor ask one of my colleagues if the Civil War really happened. This question reflected an effort to challenge the approach that sees scholars and language creating the world. (For an example of this approach to history, see Vaia Touna’s posts here and here.) The questioner here also emphasized a distinction between history (stuff that really happened in the past) and historiography (the writing about the stuff that happened), suggesting that a focus on analyzing historiography ignores the reality of the events themselves. Continue reading “The Reality of the Civil War”

The Harm of World Religions

World_religions_ENGWhile discussions of “World Religions” often attempt to encourage appreciation of human diversity, these presentations have become the focus of scholarly critiques because of the harm that they cause. Such presentations appear to provide a clear way of describing the world (as illustrated in the map above), but the assumptions behind them often serve to promote European dominance that people present as simple descriptions. A recent animated presentation on Business Insider illustrating the spread of the five major world religions becomes the object of a range of critiques. Continue reading “The Harm of World Religions”

The Moves We Make

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Prompted by the discussion surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s NAACP resignation, this series of posts is about how and when we take performativity seriously… and when it bows to interests in historical or experiential specificity.

If I’m counting, I’ve read exactly one smart thing about Rachel Dolezal on the internet—Adolph Reed Jr.’s “From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much” (thanks, Craig Martin, for directing my attention to it). In the piece, Reed says, among other things, that the distinction between trans people’s “involuntary” decision and Dolezal’s “active choice” where self-identification is concerned “is mind-bogglingly wrong-headed, but it is at the same time thus deeply revealing of the contradictoriness and irrationality that undergird so much self-righteous identitarian twaddle.” But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to explain why I think we should still even be talking about Rachel Dolezal, right? Continue reading “The Moves We Make”

Look How Tall You Are!

Picture1The ease with which identity is presumed to be an inner trait projected outward is pretty easy to document, which makes critiquing it something less than a challenge. For example, I thought about writing a post on the new film “Inside Out” and the popular folk understanding of identity as being an internal quality only subsequently expressed outwardly, such that the social interaction is the effect of a prior and private sentiments.

But that just seemed too easy.

And, besides, the film seems kind’a fun. Continue reading “Look How Tall You Are!”

Meet Me in St. Louis: The Simpler Side of Identity Politics

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When I was a young child, I lived in the third largest city in Missouri – Springfield – and I hadn’t really traveled much outside of the region. At the time I loved to look at atlases and read maps, and I distinctly remember the day that I came across a factoid indicating that the largest city in Missouri was Kansas City (a city I’d never seen), with St. Louis a close second.

I was livid, convinced there was a mistake, for as we all know, being bigger is better, and St. Louis was clearly superior because I’d a) been there, and b) had fun there. In other words, my positive affiliations with St. Louis, while founded on nothing more than visiting some tourist draws and swimming in a motel pool, were enough for me to align my own identity with the city and therefore create strong positive, and in the context, illogical opinions about it. (Ironically, I now live in Kansas City). Continue reading “Meet Me in St. Louis: The Simpler Side of Identity Politics”