Hoochie Mama – The Other White Meat and Razor Wire Pubic Hair: Books as Stranger Repellent

A version of this entry appeared previously on Snarky’s Machine

As a person who does not particularly enjoy unsolicited social engagement, I find myself locked in an epic battle to protect my precious SAUs (social attention units). I am constantly road testing strategies to ensure this adorable and accessible looking face doesn’t start interactions this adorable and inaccessible mind is unable to sustain. If this is not your experience, I’m happy for you, but I can probably do without hearing all the ways in which this makes me “lucky”. I don’t feel lucky and if I don’t moderate my time I’m exhausted when it’s over and disappointed with myself I didn’t fake labor in order to secure my escape.

One strategy I employ involves heavy use of my cellphone. Seriously, I will not leave my house without my phone and will always call someone and talk to them. People often try to talk to me in public places, asking for suggestions or making nice nice. Now, when I’m in the south, all this goes out the window cause it’s real bad manners not to offer your opinion on the heat when asked by a southerner. Besides, they know when the conversation has run its course and are more than happy to mosey along their merry way.

The other strategy I employ is carrying around books. I read them in line and just about any place where there are a collection of strangers waiting for something to happen.

Here is Snarky’s Trust me I’ve done the legwork approved list of books that guarantee your personal space bubble will not be breached.* Inclusion on the list does not constitute a recommendation – though nearly all were enjoyable to me – rather it simply means the title provided effective protection of SAUs.

Airports and such

  • This would probably strike most as counterintuitive, but AIRPORT LIT is the best choice to avoid AIRPORT bubble breachers. I’m talking about pulling out the big guns: Crichton, Grisham, Balducci, Grafton and Cook. People often romanticize air travel believing anyone flying has the potential to be enthralling.

    It’s a great time to pick up a copy of A Time to Kill This Close Talking Assclown or S is for STEP OFF BUBBLE BREACHER.** The key here is the copy should be totally brand new, preferably purchased from the gift shop. Extra points for using the receipt as a bookmark. Additional note: obscure titles are generally less effective and tend to welcome rather than discourage conversation.

Waiting Rooms – Medical

  • Since there is often a paucity of anything worth reading if you’re not say a parent, gun enthusiast or a card carrying member of AARP, the selection of periodicals provided offer no immunity from bubble breachers whose first comment will involve noting the vintage of the magazines. If you ARE a parent, gun enthusiast or a card carrying member of AARP certainly your lived experiences are probably a lot more exciting than what could be found in those stale periodicals.

    Books with provocative titles casting medical professionals or the profession in general in a rather unflattering light are the most effective. Your Dentist might not have read Marathon Man but it’s likely they will know what is meant by the phrase “Marathon Man Dentistry”. If this is the first time you’re hearing this phrase, google is definitely your friend. I’ll let you do the legwork on that one.

Waiting Rooms – Other

  • A diverse range of subjects are suitable for SAUs protection. I lean towards books overtly sexual in nature, though best selling “female” focused self help and astrology titles are useful as well. Car Dealerships are good places to bring out the feminist non fiction or a “Clown Horn” feminist work like Fear of Flying. There is something about a book exploring a woman’s sexual awakening that will make people scoot away and redirect their attention to The Price is Right faster than you can utter “zipless fuck”.

Coffeehouses, Bookstores and other “enlightened” spaces

  • Since folks often venture to these establishments for the express purposes of imposing themselves on strangers Young Adult fiction is often the best bet. Nothing thwarts this particular strain of breacher like the idea that you just might not be very well read.


  • “Offensive” titles are the strongest weapon in the bubble breach protection arsenal. Think of them as broad spectrum antibiotics to be used judiciously.

* offer void where prohibited. some restrictions may apply.
** actual titles may vary. check local outlets for similar products available in your area.

Quote of the day: On fullness

I’m currently reading Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog),” the bloggiest book of the 19th century. Since it concerns the adventures of three 19th-century bachelors and a dog rowing a small skiff down the Thames and camping along the way, there is unsurprisingly a lot of emphasis on the procurement, enjoyment, storage and preparation of food. This isn’t by any means the funniest bit in the book, but I found it resonant:

How good one feels when one is full — how satisfied with ourselves and with the world! People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper, and more easily obtained. One feels so forgiving and generous after a substantial and well-digested meal — so noble-minded, so kindly-hearted.

It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think, unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon, it says, “Work!” After beefsteak and porter, it says, “Sleep!” … After hot muffins, it says, “Be dull and soulless, like a beast of the field — a brainless animal, with listless eye, unlit by any ray of fancy, or of hope, or fear, or love, or life.” And after brandy, taken in sufficient quantity, it says, “Now come, fool, grin and tumble, that your fellow-men may laugh — driven in folly, and splutter in senseless sounds, and show what a helpless ninny is poor man whose wit and will are drowned, like kittens, side by side, in half an inch of alcohol.”

We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach. Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach, and diet it with care and judgment. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart, unsought by any effort of your own; and you will be a good citizen, a loving husband, and a tender father — a noble, pious man.

Now, as it happens I do not react to either muffins or steak in quite the way Jerome describes, nor do I have any wish to be a tender father. But of course those specifics aren’t the point. The point is that this sort of normal, attentive, joyful, purposeful eating is a real and tragic casualty of our cultural quest for thinness. It’s terrible the way mini-mania erodes the self-esteem of all sizes of women, but it’s also terrible that it makes us unable to enjoy food qua food.The idea that food of different kinds can feed your body and mind in different and necessary ways, that you can’t be functional or kind without it (Jerome goes on to describe his normally cantankerous compatriots’ changed countenances after a good meal), that eating “with care” can mean eating as well and as mindfully as possible instead of as little as possible — these concepts seem as archaic as a boating holiday on the Thames.

We — all of us, but especially women — attach moral value to hunger in modern society. It’s virtuous to go without; it’s sinful or decadent to indulge. What if we turned this idea on its head? What if the compassion and goodwill and contentment that come from a full stomach were more morally valuable than privation? What if we recognized that allowing food to be a valuable — but not paramount — part of our lives made us kinder to others and to ourselves?

One to chew on, if you’ll excuse me. Meanwhile, I think I’ll have that whiskey now.

Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners: A Very Belated Review

As you probably also know by now, the Boston Globe’s etiquette columnist Miss Conduct, also known as Robin Abrahams, is a good friend of the blog. I did not, however, get an advance copy of her new book by promising to review it; instead, I had to win my galley fair and square via superior history of science knowledge. So I feel slightly less bad about the fact that the book has been out for months now and I’m only just getting around to reviewing it. My excuse is, um, I only just got around to finishing it? I generally have two books going, one by the bed and one in the pocketbook, and Robin’s book had the misfortune of being the bed book during a period when I wasn’t reading much in bed. Once it migrated to the pocketbook it went really, really fast.

Because people, this book is funny. Sure, it’s nominally an etiquette book, so you’d think (if you weren’t a Miss Manners, or for that matter a Miss Conduct, fan) that it might be really starchy and dry. But, as anyone who reads Robin’s blog might have guessed, this is hardly a “which fork goes where” kind of volume. It’s about etiquette in a more meta sense — about why etiquette is necessary, what it does for us, and how you can make everyone around you as comfortable as possible without actually memorizing a lot of rules about which one’s the shrimp fork and how people should be addressed on wedding invitations. It’s really less about what you might think of as “etiquette” and more about humane behavior, common courtesy, and treating people with dignity. Plus jokes. (Robin has experience in improv and stand-up comedy, and she uses humor to great effect to get her points across — I finished the book on a plane and disturbed my seatmate with my constant giggling.)

To that end, there are chapters on some of the main sources of interpersonal discord and tension: food, money, religion, sex and relationships, children, health, pets. Of particular interest for this blog is the health chapter, which deals expertly with issues surrounding illness, disability, and fat (not, Robin mentions, because fat people are unhealthy, but because they are often treated as though they are). The section on fat is a small one, only a couple of pages, but it’s very nicely done:

There’s an increasing amount of research suggesting that weight might not be under a person’s control, and that the dangers of obesity may be overstated. There’s an overwhelming amount of research showing that diets don’t work. But from the point of view of courtesy, it’s irrelevant whether fat people can “help it.” Tanning is clearly bad for your health and entirely a matter of choice, but we don’t mock and shame the tanned, or yell, “Hey, leatherface!” at them from a car window.

Here’s another bit I really love, which nicely highlights the way that Robin uses her psychology researcher expertise to inform her ideas about interpersonal interaction and etiquette. From the section on how to be a gracious able-bodied/well person:

Acknowledging that [being able-bodied is a temporary condition] can be very, very hard. Prejudice against the sick or disabled is wrong but understandable: most people are terrified of pain, illness, disability, and death, and our profound lack of control over all of the above. We want to believe that it can’t happen to us. One of the ways we do this is by subscribing to what social psychologists call “just world theory” — the belief that the world is just, that people get what they deserve. Just-world theory is comforting — it lets you believe that you won’t get cancer because you don’t smoke, that you won’t get raped because you don’t wear short skirts, that you won’t go bankrupt because you work hard and save. Comforting — and wrong, both factually and morally. It’s natural to look at someone who has suffered misfortune and immediately try to figure out why the misfortune happened and why, therefore, it could never happen to you. But remind yourself, after your monkey mind does that little self-serving exercise, that random bad things happen to people. It’ll make you kinder to others and also much kinder to yourself when the bad things eventually come.

If I were writing the book I’d preface this with a long discussion of the social model of disability and how “disabled” really means “disabled in the context of a society that treats certain bodies as normative” — I would probably not get into evolutionary reasoning about how we react to people when we perceive something wrong with them without a long treatise on what “wrong” means. But Robin’s job is not to explain to people why it’s wrong to feel prejudice — it’s to tell them why they’re feeling it, what to do about it, and how to behave in spite of it. The paragraph on “just world theory,” I think, makes it clear that she can do that well.

I don’t agree with everything Robin writes — and as a side note, isn’t that a weird little compulsive caveat? People use it a lot when they link to us — I think even Robin has — and I always think “who agrees with everything someone else says?” I mean, I understand that it’s a kind of social indemnity, but for fuck’s sake, SM’s been my bestie for half our lives and I still don’t agree with everything she says. Anyway, but I’ll defend to the death her right to say it because it is so fucking entertaining. And in fact, I disagree with very little. My one main criticism is that there’s a bit much evolutionary psychology, a carryover from Robin’s day job as a psych researcher — but just about when I start getting really sick of it, she pulls out this gem:

People who write about evolutionary psychology as though we are trapped in the Pleistocene, and like to use the word “hardwired” a lot, conveniently forget one fact: the main thing we humans evolved to do is to learn and adapt. That’s our major strength as a species: we evolved the capacity to overcome our evolutionary heritage! There’s a party trick for you.

More importantly, even if you don’t agree with Miss Conduct on particulars — if you’d throw a different sort of party, draw the line somewhere else, phrase something differently, whatever — you’re still likely to get something out of her general approach to social interaction. The book is equal parts common-sense wisdom, scientific citations, and humor, so even if the advice is a “duh” or a “huh?” for you (and personally, I consider myself reasonably skilled at interpersonal shit and I still found plenty of food for thought), you can still get a giggle or learn about an interesting study. (I’ve made many references, since finishing the book, to the one about how people like articulate well-groomed folks better than grungy mumblers, but like articulate well-groomed people who spill something on themselves best of all.)

I really recommend this one, and I’m not just saying that because Robin’s a friend. I’ve never even met her in real life! I’m saying it because I like etiquette columns and I still never expected to have this much fun with an etiquette book — and also because in general I think that all of us, even the most compassionate, can benefit from seeing someone break down clearly what it means to be considerate and kind. Go get it. And if you’re intrigued, Robin’s also going to be on the Today Show tomorrow, July 21, in the 10-11 segment, wearing a hotly debated outfit!

Yes Means Yes! Virtual Tour: Q&A with Kimberly Springer

OK, so nobody who reads this blog can be unaware that Yes Means Yes! is out, and I’m in it, and you should buy it, and I FELL DOWN FOUR TIMES FOR YOU PEOPLE. But we haven’t talked much about the other contributors so far. Because, you know, I really like to talk about myself.

Today, I would like you all to give a warm Shapeling welcome to Kimberly Springer, author of the essay “Queering Black Female Heterosexuality,” who was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her contribution below. Huge thanks to Kimberly for sharing her time, wisdom, and awesome with us.

Commenters, a few extra notes for today:

  1. Please pay special attention to rules number 10 and 11 in the comments policy.
  2. Although we do get into comparing depictions of fat white women and both fat and thin black women onscreen (and I got rather long-winded on the subject, not suprisingly), I would like to keep such comparisons in the background of this discussion as much as possible. When in doubt, please keep in mind that today’s topic is what Kimberly has to say about black female sexuality, not (for once) what white fat women think about being white fat women.
  3. If you’re commenting for the first time, welcome, but please be aware that all first-time comments automatically go into moderation — and Fillyjonk, Sweet Machine and I might not be able to check the queue and release them right away. Please be patient with us.

One last note before we get to it: Don’t forget to check out the next stop on the tour, Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman guest-blogging at Bitch Ph.D. this coming Monday, Feb. 16!

Kate Harding: I’d like to give the readers a bit of 101 on some of the terms you use — specifically, the “Jezebel,” “Mammy” and “black lady” stereotypes, as well as “queer” as a political stance and a verb.

Kimberly Springer: What’s important to note about stereotypes is that, as some people maintain, there may be a grain of truth in them. But also key is to observe the historical continuity. In other words, the more representations change, the more they stay the same. While the icon of the Mammy may be rooted in slavery and the role of black women as caregivers to white families, that role is replicated in popular culture endlessly with black women caring for or teaching white folks something about themselves. Jennifer Hudson, bless her beautiful, talented soul, was relegated to a Mammy role in the Sex and the City film. Usually the Mammy is asexual, so while Hudson’s character did find love for herself, that’s different than being a well-rounded person who’s romantically and sexually fulfilled. Would I have rather not seen any black faces in that film? Absolutely. Carrie Bradshaw can wipe her own damn nose and get Miranda to straighten out her dayplanner.

The Jezebel would be the other end of the spectrum. Why do I always return to Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball? Because this Academy Award-winning performance was so bloody offensive. Is it Berry’s fault that all the YouTube clips are of her “sex scene” in the film? Not entirely. But this fact is indicative of how the general public views black women’s sexuality. It is Jezebel cinema 101: needy, groveling, desperate for white cock, no self-worth.

Patricia Hill Collins, in Black Sexual Politics, does a much better and more exhaustive outlining of the evolution of these stereotypes. I’d really recommend checking out her book for her take on how these stereotypes are updated and reverberate in characters like the black female TV judge, i.e. the black lady. Black women are allowed to enter the frame as judge, teacher, or Oracle carrying out the dominant culture’s laws and edicts as if those are determined ahistorically.

The stereotypes raise the question, can we ever win? Will there ever be representations of black women that outruns these specters of history? For example, in the new trailer for He’s Just Not That Into You, L.A.-based comedy team Frangela (Frances Collier and Angela Shelton) are featured sitting on a park bench dispensing wisdom, ostensibly, to the film’s white female protagonists. Latoya Peterson (also featured in Yes Means Yes) blogged about the spot for Racialicious and her friend nailed the exasperation with this particular representation of black women perfectly, “They always do that to us, don’t they?” Yes, cripes, they really do! But what struck me were the comments to the post about “fat black women.” What demands do we make on Hollywood to give us depictions we can get with? Let’s examine our uncritical pegging of the “fat black woman”. Can she speak her mind without being the Mammy or, yet another stereotype, the black bitch/Sapphire?

Queering, as a verb, is meant to encourage us to take risks in how we identify and interact with our sexuality as black women. My basic point is that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain in looking at how queer theory questions gender categories and applying that to questioning racial and gender categories as they intersect. I’m also thinking about black women and our sexuality as always “queer,” already “queer” whether we want that or not. Back to my Frangela example, I’ve got some personal connection to them and so know that, for instance, they made a pilot of a too-smart-for-television sitcom. I also know that they, like everyone else, have to pay the bills. But, yet, I always question black folks who take roles that make me cringe. So, are there ways to queer these representations? To make them something other than capitulations to mass culture? Is it self-delusion to try and see subversiveness when there may not be any? What kind of queering can we do, if allowed the space and resources, of stale stereotypes? Professor Rebecca Wanzo (Ohio State) put a concept to the questions I’ve been contemplating with her notion of “complex personhood.”

KH: Queen Latifah is an icon in the fat acceptance community (or was, before she started shilling for Jenny Craig), and it never really occurred to me before  reading your essay that most of her roles are so asexual. I was just so happy for the crumb of seeing a fat leading lady whose body is not (always) an object of derision — seeing a fat woman’s sexuality played for something other than laughs almost seems like too much to hope for. But as you discuss in the essay, taking those representational crumbs is not enough — we need to recognize that even superficially positive stereotypes, e.g., the “black lady,” are still dangerously reductive. Can you expand on this here?

KS: At this stage, in 2009, I remain uncharacteristically optimistic that we could hope for something more than crumbs from the big house table in terms of how black women are represented. And that word is key: re-presented. I don’t want yet another presentation of a black female stereotype that we’ve already seen a million times before.

So, while I’m all for calling Hollywood on their lack of creativity, I would agree with you that we should highlight positive stereotypes…and then demand complexity in that so-called positive view. I mean, dang, the very idea that Queen Latifah isn’t getting play left and right is absurd. And the default to depicting her sexually in a film would have to be played for laughs or related to assumed insecurities she has about her body. Can you imagine the number of scripts she turns down that do just that?

But, then, maybe we need to do a 360 critique. You say that Latifah is/was an icon in the fat acceptance community, but does her mere presence make her deserving of icon status? It’s probably best to make this more general than about Queen Latifah in particular, but I would question our impulse to uncritically embrace those who, really, only see us a potential audience. Most celebs lose me when they go out of their way to deny feminism as a factor in their art or who they’ve achieved success.

KH: One thing that really resonated with me as a fat, white woman was the false dichotomy of hypersexuality/asexuality. Though fat women who aren’t black don’t have the Jezebel/Mammy history driving that, I think all fat women are subjected to a version of the same stereotypes. We’re portrayed as either insatiably horny (which of course goes along with the stereotype of fat women as insatiable, period), or as the best friends/secretaries/teachers/etc. with no apparent romantic lives of our own. Horny fat women are portrayed as clowns, not temptresses — a fat woman’s sexual desire is seen as intrinsically humorous, and 99 times out of 100, she’ll be shown pursuing a guy who’s disgusted by her, with absolutely no clue that he feels that way. And asexual fat white women are usually portrayed as pathetic and lonely because of the fat, even if they’re simply in a supporting role with no romantic storyline — gratuitous shots of these women eating junk food at their desks or looking forlornly/jealously at a happy couple invite assumptions about the characters’ romantic lives. Whereas (at least this is my impression — please tell me if I’m missing something) the asexual black woman on screen isn’t meant to be seen as lonely or having any desire at all — she’s just a 2-dimensional human being who doesn’t “need” that aspect to her character, because her primary function is to further the white people’s story.

Writing it out like that makes me realize that, as profoundly offensive as I find that portrayal (implicit or explicit) of fat white women as lonely and unlovable, it’s still humanizing — in a really crude way — as compared to black women’s on-screen asexuality. The fat woman might actually have desires, we’re just meant to understand that she can never meet them as long as she’s fat. The black woman doesn’t even have enough humanity to feel loneliness. And please note that I’m deliberately separating the categories of “fat woman” and “black woman” here not because I’ve forgotten fat, black women exist, but because I think blackness trumps* fatness in this case: a fat black woman in that asexual role is still primarily defined by her relationship/usefulness to the white characters, rather than by her own body.

Going back to the other stereotype, though, I guess I’d say fatness more often trumps blackness, turning the Jezebel/”ho” from a desirable-in-a-dirty-way figure into a clown. (Especially when that fat, black “woman” is played by a man, which adds a whole other level.)

*”Trumps” is obviously a simplistic way to put it, and I certainly don’t mean the person’s fatness or blackness is obscured in either case. But it seems to me there are two different but related hypersexual/asexual dichotomies here, and whether fat black women are defined first by fat stereotypes or black stereotypes onscreen depends on which half of the dichotomy we’re talking about.

So, uh, got anything to say about all that? :)

KS: Yes, I get you! And, if I can use a UK-based example here: on Eastenders, the long-running English soap opera about the working class, they’ve featured for a while now a fat white women named “Heather.” It’s been on my mind to start a campaign about her depiction which is, as you note, insatiably horny, always eating, a failure in love, and just generally pathetic. She does have an abiding love for George Michael, but we might question the motives of having Heather lust after George who is out and proud about his gayness.

I bring Heather up because, again, heavens forfend, she should be a multi-facted character, someone not just in scenes for comic relief. Yet, it’s that question of desire that you raise so cogently in the distinctions you draw between a hypersexual, fat white femininity and an asexual black femininity. I think we can make the further distinction that at the root of the white woman’s sexuality is that she’s insatiable because she’s never had sex before and, unless she loses weight, will forever be horny. There is a solution to her “problem,” according to the dominant neo-liberal narrative and it is one rooted in self-help and willpower.

On the other hand, the fat black woman doesn’t need sex. Taking care of others fulfills her needs and desires. That said, the fat black woman as portrayed by black men in drag is, basically, an insatiable freak that plays into heterosexist male fantasies of a hypersexual jezebel who is “two tons of fun” and is definitely insatiable because she has had lots of sex and can’t get enough. This man in drag portrays fat black women as unending appetite and just like they might eat up everything in the kitchen, they will eat up a man—mama dentata.

In both cases, for black and white fat women, we might want to look a bit deeper into the representation of insatiability and key into the roots of their desire. We’re going wayyy beyond the script here, but if we consider that most actors create a life for their characters other than what we see on screen, we can track the nuances and better critique both motivation and consequences.

All that said, I’d ask readers to comment on Sherri Shepherd’s character Angie in “30 Rock.” Is this another stereotype that gives a larger black woman some sexual agency since a running gag on the show is how she and Tracy Jordan like to roleplay? Is there some dimensionality to Angie—though we pretty much only see her in relationship to sex and Tracy’s fears of not meeting her demands for sex and money?

KH: Can you talk more about how that dichotomy is “a huge obstacle in getting to yes” — how when women are painted as either insatiable or asexual, either way, there’s no aspect of choice or (specific)desire in their romantic lives. In both cases, you’re left taking “what you can get,” whether that’s every willing man you find or no men at all.

KS: It’s a bit like cable TV: tons of channels, but nothing on worth watching. What would a real choice look like? Like the recognition that people, in general, and black women, in particular, are not all one way or the other all the time. No one’s easily pegged as Samantha or Charlotte. That’s why I came to enjoy the show “Girlfriends.” All of the characters had their quirks or were annoying in their own way (read: Joan), but I thought they did have some dimensionality over the run of the show, which was unusual for a sitcom where the genre demands that its characters never learn their lessons. If we try to live our lives according to the scripts of pop culture, we, too, will never learn and simply feel like we’re stuck between Mammy and Jezebel or whatever current incarnations of those stereotypes are.

I know it sounds really corny, and Margaret Cho actually says it quite nicely in the Yes Means Yes intro, but I’ve gotta be able to say yes to me. And that’s not a one-time deal, but an on-going process.

KH: What are some of the steps you think black women can take toward queering their sexuality, in both the short and long term?

KS: What I’m suggesting, initially doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, which is a request to over-think sex. Yes, sex should be something that has spontaneity and is enjoyable—by all mean, engage in the freak-a-deak! Yet, in flirting, masturbating, moving through the streets, writing a dating profile on line, who are you as a black woman? What are you putting out there?

This isn’t a 19th century call for respectability, but just the idea that one might think while in the process of being a sexual black woman, “what stereotypes am I playing into? Why? Does this feel like me? Am I enjoying this?” I think that we, as black women, spend a lot of time running away from representations that, frankly, suck and that we don’t want to be associated with. The result is a lot of silence and reading trash novels like Zane’s where we live vicariously sexual lives through fiction and self-help books that tells us that our end goal in monogamy.

Yet, there may be times that you want to play with ideas about black women as exotic and be that sexy jezebel with tricks your partner’s never seen. Just be aware of when it’s play, when it’s not, and how that play reverberates in your daily life. If we all live in the panopticon and surveil ourselves, I would vote for doing that in ways that raise awareness of our inner sexual lives, improve our enjoyment, and create pleasure for our outer lives.

KH: You write about the need for both individual and community attitude shifts. Will you talk more about getting the message out both in terms of personal empowerment and broader reaching awareness-raising?

KS: The individual and societal/community transformation go hand in hand. I think it’s great if individual black women can find their sexual pleasure and security in who they are on their own terms, but let’s not forget our tradition of racial uplift. Does this mean changing what we think of as “good for the race”? Absolutely. To my knowledge, black women in the 19th century who were advocating for anti-lynching campaigns and suffrage weren’t necessarily also advocating sexual freedom (though there were definitely feminists of the era doing so), but they paved the way for us to continue to push forward a progressive agenda for individual freedoms, as well as nation building.

Ultimately, seeking and embracing black women’s sexuality in ways that are beneficial to black women is uncharted territory and will have to take place at all levels simultaneously. For those black women who are involved in the church, challenging dispersions cast on other women’s sexuality are moments of intervention, as are discussing popular religious, male-centered sermons that continue to place the all the responsibility for sexuality onto women.

Sexism in hip hop and how we’re portrayed isn’t a one-time battle and we have to be consistent in calling people out on their shit. But, at the same time, we seriously need to give more credit to people and artists that are advocating for a new way of envisioning and enacting black sexuality in popular culture and in the bedroom.

And the last step I’d recommend is: don’t have sex with anyone who says, “I’ve never had sex with a black girl before.” There’s a reason why they haven’t: ‘cause they’re an idiot who says shit like, “I’ve never had sex with a [insert race] girl before.” [Sorry, pet peeve. Had to get that out there!]

KH: Will you talk about some of the obstacles you see standing in the way of black women having open and honest conversations about sexuality?

KS: Our mommas. Yeah, I said it: our mommas are a big obstacle in talking openly about sexuality. And before anyone wants to go off about blaming mothers and scapegoating the matriarch, tell me this, “when was the last time you talked to your mother about sex, black girlchild?” Yesterday? Good for you. You are in the minority. Of course, the inability to talk about sexuality across generations outside of sex ed classes is endemic to all races, but while we’re telling one another what not to do, we need to recognize the times and talk about what to.

Just as always pointing out the stereotypes can be no fun and tiring, isn’t it just as exhausting elaborating a list of don’ts without ever getting to the do’s? Albeit, standards of acceptability around sexual practices change over time (i.e. I will never discuss anal sex with my mum), but I hear a lot of women claiming a close relationship with their daughters, but it’s close on the mother’s terms and not the daughter’s.

Returning to the black church, I would say this is a huge obstacle in discussing sexuality openly. If sex is discussed at all, it’s in terms of negative consequences. It would be amazing to see black church congregations decide that it’s time to approach new millennium problems with new millennium solutions and attitudes. Otherwise, we’re destined to repeat the same mistakes from generation to generation.

KH: What would you like to elaborate on that didn’t make it into the essay?

KS: Less than what didn’t make it into the essay, I’d like to raise how this essay made it into a Seal Press book. Before the Yes Means Yes call went out, I’d pitched a book idea to Seal about black women’s sexuality. Having taught Seal books for years in women’s studies courses, I thought they would be the right publisher for a book that wanted to point out the ways that black women could both challenge racialized sexism and highlight the work of people like Sarah Jones, Renee Cox, and even Janet Jackson in bringing to the fore new expressions of black female sexuality.

Seal’s response was that the topic, black women’s sexuality, was too narrowly defined. Huh. Interesting coming from a publisher that purports to publish books about the wide spectrum of women’s experiences. Presumably, books about weight loss, one’s cleaning habits, infertility, etc. are concerns of Everywoman?

Far from sour grapes, and glad that the chapter I wrote is included in Yes Means Yes, I question when the tokenizing of women of color experience ends? The assumption that women of different races, particularly those adhering to feminist principles, wouldn’t be interested or learn anything from the experiences of women unlike themselves undercuts the forward advancement of a feminist agenda. How is the assumption that books about women, that are actually about white women’s experiences and attempt to make whiteness as race invisible, any different than not making films about diverse audiences and claiming that white people (the only moviegoers?) would never go to see films that feature black characters? Unfortunately, it seems that the only perspectives allowed are ones that blame sexist and racist portrayals of black women on hip hop, painting the entire genre with the same brush, and only seeing black women as oppressed and lacking agency. The result is a limit on opportunities to talk about efforts to expand depictions of black women’s sexuality.

KH: Are there any other essays in YMY that struck a chord with you? Recommendations, criticism, thoughts?

KS: (I thought our essays worked well together, situated as they are one after another. I’m really into manifestos. We need more of them. I DEMAND MORE MANIFESTOS. That was my meta-manifesto.)

There are a couple of things about the volume that make it a deeply moving experience. First, I love the thematic set-up. Maybe I’m a mere tool of The Man, but I actually needed permission to jump around with the order of reading, to choose my own Yes Mean Yes adventure. Being ensconced in academia, despite teaching about new media and new ways of thinking, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to approach the book from a non-linear perspective. As such, it’s made me see how many ways we can concretely transform rape culture.

One of those ways that transformation can happen, and perhaps this has been happening in the U.S. for a while, is through the idea of enthusiastic consent. Some of the essays use this concept as a given, but I think it’s worth picking out and defining more forcefully. My rudimentary Googling reveals raging debates about it, which is a good thing. So, I’m trying to figure out how enthusiastic consent to sexual contact might translate to issues of consent around representation. This is another iteration of not only critiquing the stereotypes, but also recognizing what works practice.

On Twilight, romance, and antifeminist ideas

The other day, Sweet Machine alerted me to a new study about the influence of media on relationship ideals. According to BBC News, the study found that people who watch a lot of romantic comedies have unrealistic and harmful ideas about relationships — they were more likely to believe in destiny when it comes to love, and less likely to communicate effectively with their partners (or, the researchers hazard, to think communication is important). To be sure, I’ve ranted about rom-coms for the same reason, and also from a general feminist perspective — the way they devalue both partners in a relationship, reinforce absurd gender roles, associate femininity with pablum — though to be honest I’m most likely to complain about them simply because they’re awful. But like so many of the studies we examine here, I think these researchers are confused about causation. In this case, I think they have it backwards.

I’ve always hated romantic comedies (with a very few exceptions) and never really suffered from the misconceptions being examined. So to elaborate on this thought, let me move away from rom-com to generic rom, or actually rom-vamp. Dan’s young cousin, who is now my cousin too, is a big fan of the Twilight series. She told me all about it at a time when I didn’t know anything about the books except that they involved vampires and were very popular. (Remember those innocent times before you learned that vampires sparkle and play baseball?) I listened politely as she explained the mystique of Bella and Edward’s relationship: that, as she described it, he loves her because he wants to kill her and can’t read her mind. It didn’t sound like a particularly feminist tome, but neither were the vampire books I read when I was her age, and I just didn’t know enough about the series to say “wow, that shit ain’t right.” (Also I try not to swear in front of those cousins, believe it or not!)

Of course, the more I found out about Twilight, the more horrified I was at its retrogressive approach to romance. For those of you who live under a mercifully insulating rock, a recap: To the best of my understanding, and I haven’t read the books, Bella has no stated interests outside of her devotion to Edward. The two are forcibly abstinent, because his passions would rupture her (or because vampire bun + human oven = death, I’m not totally clear on this point). Edward is obsessively in love with Bella, because she smells like tasty food, except his mood swings make Ian Curtis look like Stuart Smalley so sometimes he acts like he hates her. (The rest of the time he jealously imprisons her, abandons her, or stalks her “for her own good.”) Bella is obsessively in love with Edward and completely subsumes her personality and choices to him. Bella’s mind is opaque to Edward, who is usually psychic, which I gather from my cousin makes her seem mysterious and fascinating to him even though she’s impossibly bland (particularly after committing herself entirely to pleasing Edward). As the books go on, shit only gets worse — Edward’s controlling habits become more active (sabotaging Bella’s car, for instance, rather than just watching her sleep), Bella starts grasping for Edward’s attention by endangering herself, Bella is tormented by Edward’s refusal to make her a vampire (either so they can fucking have some sex already or so they can be together forever etc. — I’d be thinking the former but it’s probably the latter), and finally she nearly dies giving birth to his child, which breaks her back and has to be chewed out of her womb. I guess vampire law doesn’t have a “health of the mother” exemption.

Bear with me for a second, because I’m about to get a little more autobiographical than usual. (I’ll try to keep it short, but I think personal perspective may be more useful than speaking theoretically.) There are basically four relationships that have defined my romantic history and, to a disheartening extent, my personality. The last one, you all know about — through a combination of good timing and the influence of friends, I lucked into not only one of the healthiest, happiest, sanest relationships I’ve ever been in, but really one of the healthiest and happiest and sanest relationships it’s possible to have. (Reader, I married him — no mystery why.) The other defining relationships: Ages 15-18, obsessive teen thing; his fits of rage and frustration weren’t usually directed at me, but he got progressively more controlling and jealous. Ages 20-21, chronic nogoodnik emotional abuser; I supported him financially while he by turns doted on me and punished me for imagined infractions. Ages 21-25, protracted non-relationship with a profound power dynamic; he was intermittently affectionate, scolding, and indifferent, and had me scrambling to learn his rules and his preferences and what he thought I ought to do to improve and fix myself, which seemed to change based on what he wanted from me at that moment. (Sweet Machine, did I get those basically right?) Salient common denominators: learned helplessness on my part, and on theirs, a conviction that I was fucked up and needed to be fixed, or at least contained. It’s important to note that at no point did I completely stop being, in my non-relationship life, a mouthy, stubborn, prickly punk-ass. But I still rolled right over for these men who thought they knew what was best for me.

The point is, I would have fucking LOVED Twilight if it had come out when I was a young teen. The central relationship that I described up there with so much deserved disdain would have resonated so hard for me, my whole body would have rung with it. I would have fantasized obsessively about being fragile, irresistible Bella and deserving to have an Edward of my own, as I’m told millions of teenage girls and grown-ass women do. Twilight horrifies me, but it mystifies me not at all; I know exactly what the appeal is, not just intellectually but viscerally. When I was the age of Twilight’s target audience, I hadn’t had any of those defining relationships, of course, but clearly I had the capacity to find disdain, paternalism, and misused power attractive.

But I didn’t read it, because it didn’t exist. In point of fact I read pretty much everything that did exist, or at least everything that ended up in my line of sight, up until age 12 or so, because I was socially and psychologically awkward. So I probably read some stuff that was just as objectionable — but I also read the delightfully feminist Song of the Lioness series, for instance, and observed the growing partnership and understanding that preceded the marriage of Meg Murry and Calvin O’Keefe [1], not to mention consuming great swaths of YA-and-otherwise fiction that had fuckall to do with relationships, misogyny, or self-respect. Wherever my fascination with muting my personality to try to please undeserving men came from, it wasn’t from my reading. (And it wasn’t from my TV watching, which was and is mostly cartoons.) But if I’d found a book that catered so perfectly to that fascination, I would have eaten it up.

The rom-com study’s conclusions could suggest a simple plan of action: Keep impressionable minds away from “romance” media. I don’t think it’s remotely so simple. It’s not a mistake that romantic comedies, and romantic horrors like Twilight, play on models of romantic interaction that rely on patriarchal gender roles. Women are flighty and adorable or fragile and damaged, or all four; men are at best protectors, at worst superiors whose attention and emotions are a prize to be gained. These tropes predate modern media, and rooting that out promises to be — has proven to be — a lot more difficult than flipping the channel from Dharma and Greg to Buffy, or (say) giving your cousin a box set of the Rebecca Rabinowitz-approved series Uglies.

Because those of us for whom these unhealthy messages are going to resonate? We seek them out, because they represent existing beliefs and desires. Regardless of your opinions on nature and nurture, by the time we’re consciously consuming non-Teletubby media, young women are not empty vessels in danger of being filled with bad ideas. We already got the bad ideas, from the input we get every day, from years of media we might not even have paid attention to, from offhand comments that seemed innocent at the time. We worry about giving kids good models in what they watch and what they read, and I do think that’s an important concern — sure, the bad models are usually more fun, but I believe in making sure kids have access to positive messages (I wouldn’t have asked Rebecca to guest post if I didn’t!). But we absolutely can’t stop there — and we can’t just start there, either. Bad feminist role models aren’t responsible for bad feminists. Bad role models germinate in a society that devalues women, condones misogyny, and elevates unrealistic and regressive relationship roles.

It’s easy for us to shake fingers at Twilight or roll our eyes at Maid in Manhattan, but even poisonous plants need fertilizer to thrive. It’s a feminist act to protest antifeminist media. It’s feminism’s goal to create a society where nobody wants it in the first place.

[1] Let us ignore, for the time being, the really problematic aspects of their relationship, mainly Meg giving up her education/career for her children. I was having trouble remembering all the stuff I used to read, so I asked Dan “what are some books with good relationships I might have read as a kid?” and he said “people don’t write books about good relationships.” Fair enough, really.

Yes Means Yes is out!

yesmeanscoverYes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti is in stores now! I contributed an essay, “How Do You Fuck a Fat Woman?” to it, and I just got my copies the other day — the book is awesome. (Even though I realize now that I said “fuck” way too many times in my essay. And I say that as someone whose typical response to “Why do you swear so much?” is “Fuck off.”) Go buy a dozen copies, please.

You should also check out the Yes Means Yes blog, to which I do not contribute, because — as you may have noticed — I can barely keep up with this blog. Lots of the fab contributors are active over there, so it deserves a spot in your Google Reader.

Finally, check out the event listings for launch party/reading dates in several American cities. I’ll be at both the Boston events (January 29) and the Chicago one (February 19), so I hope to see lots of Shapelings there!

So that weight loss book thing…

Paul and Marianne have already covered this story about a study of 9 to 13-year-old girls involved in one of Duke University’s weight loss programs, which found that girls assigned to read a book with a weight loss story line (“Lake Rescue”) lost a little bit more weight than girls who read a non-diet book, and girls assigned to read no book at all gained a little bit.

The “Lake Rescue” group decreased its BMI scores 0.71%, the group that read another book decreased its BMI scores .33%, and the group that had no intervention increased its BMI scores .05%.

(Note: Marianne says “There is no indication that the girls who read the book that was not about weight loss and the girls who didn’t read a book at all gained weight,” which is accurate in response to the WaPo article she links to, but not in response to the study itself. For some reason, that article didn’t include any numbers on the other two groups.)

Marianne, our editor, and I were discussing this over e-mail this morning, and here’s what I said (yes, I’m blockquoting myself):

What I really want to know is how many pounds we’re talking about here. The fact that I’ve read 3 or 4 different articles on this now and haven’t seen a number other than the percentage by which they decreased their BMI tells me there were probably about 2 or 3 lbs. difference, max, between the girls who lost the most and the ones who gained. I don’t think I touched on this specifically in the “train yourself to read critically” chapter, but now I wish I had. “Statistically significant” weight loss is such a red herring — in these studies, a few pounds can be significant by scientific standards without changing the subjects’ health or even appearance noticeably. And I can’t count how many times I’ve read something like this, looked up the original study, and found out that yep, the difference in question is less than 5 lbs. The classic example is Alli — over a 2-year period, people combining dieting and Alli lost an average of THREE POUNDS more than the control group that was just dieting, and that’s enough to qualify it as a weight loss aid. One that makes you crap your pants.

Also, I can’t seem to find out the exact ages of the girls in the different groups. The whole cohort is 9-13, an age group within which some big fucking bodily changes naturally occur — and the study measured the girls’ weights twice, six months apart. So okay, first, six months have passed, and you’re seriously trying to tell me you can measure the effect of reading a single YA novel, as if no confounding factors might have cropped up in that time? Second, six months for a girl between 9 and 13 can be the difference between a child’s body and a woman’s body. How do we know the girls in the no-book group — a whopping 17 of them — didn’t hit puberty during those six months, or start to, in which case, a gain of .05% of their BMI is nothing? I mean, it’s nothing anyway for growing kids, but seriously, a weight gain so tiny you won’t even tell us exactly what it is in pounds, over a period of six months, is supposed to make us think a group of girls around the age where you start to develop breasts and hips is doing something wrong? And meanwhile, a weight loss almost as tiny in a different group of girls who might skew more toward 9 than 13 for all we know, also over a period of six months, is supposed to make us think a weight-loss case study disguised as a novel is some sort of magic bullet?

The fact that this has garnered so much attention — all of it, natch, with commentary on the “childhood obesity epidemic,” even though the increase in childhood obesity, just like adult obesity, has leveled off — makes my fucking blood boil on a couple of levels. First, because they have proven exactly squat, but the media is so hungry for new angles on the always crowd-pleasing OMG FAT PEOPLE ARE FAT story, they’ll take anything. And second, because I want to cite these researchers for flagrant misuse of children’s literature. As Marianne said:

Fiction that is written in order to preach a certain course of action rarely succeeds. It winds up formulaic and awful. If a writer isn’t telling a story that they believe in – that contains truth in all the fiction – the story will fail. It becomes propaganda.

Good books can make outsidery kids feel less alone, escape their troubles for a few hours at a time, and imagine possibilities beyond what they’re offered in their own lives. Encouraging fat kids to read novels is a fabulous idea, as far as I’m concerned. But encouraging them to read goddamned weight loss propaganda completely subverts the point of reading for both pleasure and enrichment as an outsidery kid — which is to enjoy being absorbed in a world where you aren’t made to feel like shit about yourself.

Which leads me to my final thought on all this. Given that all these kids were involved in a weight-loss program to begin with, and dieting is often a trigger for eating disorders at that age, if (big if) we stipulate that “Lake Rescue” had a real effect on the group of girls who lost a tiny bit more weight than the others, how, exactly, did that happen? Were they inspired to become even more extreme in restricting their food intake or exercising? If so, is that really a good thing?