25 September 2009

I Am Person; Hear Me Roar

My professor asked me bluntly the other day if I was a feminist. His tone seemed rather neutral, but the tone in my head associated with that word—“feminist”— was not. “Maaybe,” I said sheepishly, but with certain “yes” undertones. He laughed an awkward laugh, as did I, and we continued on to discuss the film Killing Us Softly (1979).

Although I have not seen the original film, our class watched Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly 3 from 1999. Kilbourne’s lecture focuses on advertising’s image of women, particularly in American society. Kilbourne critically analyzes the objectification and compartmentalization of the woman’s body in popular culture through various visual media. In class, the reactions ranged from epiphany to cynicism, from humorless stares to humorous disbelief. “I think she overreacted,” said one girl. “Some of these images are just ‘artsy’” (referring to a sexualized, emaciated, battered woman photo narrative in some magazine).

In the same class earlier that week, our professor asked us to construct the typology of an “ideal wife.” Traits such as honesty, faithfulness, attractiveness, wealth, patience, and intelligence were suggested and marked on the board. Before we were able to deconstruct the notion of “ideal culture”—beliefs and practices infused with cultural values that are not actually “natural” nor easily achieved—a young man shouted out, “She doesn’t have to be smart!” He threw his head back as people around him chuckled over such obvious guile.

I am a feminist, and the bad rep the word has somehow acquired is just another reason for me to support and flaunt its significance. I sheepishly regret my sheepish admittance to “maaybe” being a feminist. Actually, I’m a full-fledged individual with a stanch belief in feminism. If believing in the equality of all persons, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., is seen negatively, and the fight for that equality seems melodramatic, then I am still living in a time when women’s rights aren’t being taken seriously. I am not talking about U.S. legal rights per se, but about the intellectual and social equity rights of individuals in the midst of their gendered, mediated paradigms.

A hyper-sexualized or hyper-compartmentalized ad about how to improve my body is disrespectful to my personhood. The new Special K campaign “Jeans Don’t Lie” discloses, “The best way to tell how you look great is in your jeans. Drop a jean size in 2 weeks.” it commands. There isn’t even an exclamation point after the statement, to lighten the blow of the fact that my jeans are telling me something depressing. There is a period at the end of this sentence; it is very matter of fact and very isolated. It is saying my ass can be helped; therefore, I as a woman (not person) can be helped. I am reduced to a lump of cellulite far from that other, more productive lump, my brain.

When recurring carbon copies of “nice” figures, or just severed-off parts of those figures, saturate our media, they saturate the socializing process. Moreover, categories of different (yet narrow) “womanhoods” are formed and imbued with self-deprecating text to complement the carbon copies. In the October issue of Cosmopolitan, the feature “Don’t Get Bitten by the Office Bitch” eloquently confirms that my gender in fact possesses the “bitches” of humanity. “A new survey found that 1 in 4 workers is willing to sink their fangs into you to get ahead. Even worse, more research shows it’s likely to be an office gal pal—not one of the guys. We help you spot the conniver…and muzzle her” (italics mine). There are 5 bitch categories Cosmopolitan demarcates for me so I know how to successfully silence other women, no matter their class of bitchiness, and silence them like the dogs that, via association, we are. Although the magazine probably hopes to empower female pushovers by targeting our gender’s “delinquents,” it instead reinforces the reckless mutt condition of which we are (most) capable AND the condition of our other half—helpless and vulnerable women in the workplace.

Intragender (Office Bitches) conflict does not empower; it solidifies a regimented defining system that still caters to a patriarchical and dualistic structure. Intrapersonal conflict (Special K Challenge) does not empower; it redefines (often in a sexist, dehumanizing way) measurements of value and self-worth. What empower are individuals realizing personhood, and through that, the right to equality in all areas of life, not just in policy handbooks and rhetoric.

I am a person who is female by nature, and feminist by conviction. So next time I’m asked whether or not I’m a feminist, I will purposefully respond ‘Yes’ – knowing fully the risk of meeting judgment from others, but knowing also the greater risk of stifling a personhood, and ultimately, fellow personhoods seeking change.

08 September 2009

Mimesis Sale

The colorful flurry that is the Annual Poster Sale at Messiah College ends today. I bought 3 posters for my blank, tack-compliant walls: two are Andy Warhol prints with wistful quotes, the other, a very artsy brown collage of triangles and swirls that form a center ascending swirly tree. I realize this means nothing to you (yet), but I still dished out $24 for these three pieces of paper, rashly spoiled by tiny corner tack holes.

If the poster sale was year-round, I would petition to change my senior thesis to examine this public phenomenon. But I suppose the rush of transience is something that makes this 2 DAY ONLY sale at least partially so appealing. But what makes the rest of it so darn appealing? Students from all years, all majors, and all styles meet in the commons to flip through awkward and robust poster books—the cheapest and smallest of these priced at $6. The commons in Eisenhower transforms from open lounge space to a space for visual and material consumption for the purpose of filling one’s own space with right imagery. From James Dean and Jamaica to Buddha and The Godfather, images of many shapes and sizes envelop a rectangle of tables by the mailboxes. The two cashiers have thick exotic accents; each year they do. But each year, I still have no idea who they are, where this business was started, and how it got affiliated with our Human Development and Family Sciences Department sponsoring the sale. But none of this seems to matter.

What matters is the magical usage these images have for people. I picked out three flat material posters, and it took some time, more than one trip, to decide on the right images. The images do something more than resonate with my life; they capture an elusive power gained by entering into them. Michael Taussig writes in his book, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, about an “active yielding of the perceiver in the perceived—the perceiver trying to enter into the picture and become one with it, so that the self is moved by the representation into the represented.”

Maybe this concept is a bit too harebrained and imaginary for the annual poster sale. Maybe anthropologist Michael Taussig, both fanatically worshiped and fervently hated depending on the group, is generally a bit too harebrained himself. But I believe my image browsing yesterday and today was shaped by cultural notions of individualism and representation. In turn, my decision to actually consume the images was shaped by the “original” (or perceived original) power captured by them, by entering into them. These posters are faithful “copies” of me, not because of their physical likenesses (there are none), but because of their self-extending faculties. We extend ourselves beyond our physical selves via other products too: Facebook, Blogs, wardrobes, cars, even majors (e.g. a student of Sociology and Anthropology). All of these production technologies provide powerful means for self-extension.

So whether you have “found” yourself in Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp, or the products of Salvador Dali, more power to ya. I could shame us all for being so shallow and consuming culture so irresponsibly. I could deconstruct the poster consumption chain or unpack the cultural logic behind my indulgences, if I had time. But instead, I'll just hang my posters, empowered by their sentiments and character with which I identify.