Monday, 31 August 2009

Threats and abuse are not my culture

When I live elsewhere, one of the things that I never miss about Barbados is the cat-calling. Of course, there's cat-calling everywhere. But I think a variety of factors combine to influence the amount a Black woman experiences in countries where she exists as part of a minority: the fact that Black bodies are so often othered and invisible (although this sometimes works with opposite effect, because though othered, Black women's bodies are often only visible long enough to be used for sexual consumption; aren't we lucky?); the notion that Black women are angry and crazy so who knows how they'll respond if you piss them off; urban vs. suburban vs. rural location; and the habits of the groups and societies in which we operate.

In the American suburb where I lived, there was hardly any, but it increased as I got closer to the city. In London, there was slightly more. In Santo Domingo, most of the interaction with strange men involved them taking your hand to help you on and off the sidewalk and then continuing on their way, a habit which was at once charming and really bizarre. But once the paranoid Bajan in me was sure they weren't carrying anthrax or hidden razor blades, I deduced that this was times better than cat-calling any day of the week. Leaving the city and getting closer to the coast meant more unsolicited remarks, though. And in Suriname, I had a particularly scary experience where some young men who had been shouting me down for some time got angry that I didn't respond to their questions - apparently it never occurred to them that people might be hearing impaired or, you know, not speak Sranan - and started following me. At that point, I started yelling in English to no one in particular, and they seemed satisfied that I had a legitimate reason for ignoring them - the fact that they were strange men hanging around a street corner in the dark clearly would not suffice - and moved along.

But every time I come back home, it seems like we've taken cat-calling to new levels of misogyny and lewdness. Growing up, men hissed at women; it was some version of 'psst', although not quite that. That soon developed into a sucking noise, the way you might call a dog, although I've always thought my pets too good for generic, non-specific sounds (imagine that) and always used word and noises they would associate with only me. Then by high school we were hearing what sounded like random bird calls, real 'In the Jungle' types of noises, and by this time we're not even trying to pretend that this dynamic is not one of predator versus prey. Men seemed to find it funny because the idea of women as prey, you know, ha ha etc. Then there came all kinds of references to women - and to strange women in particular: 'meat', 'food', I'm sure you get where I'm going with this. There was even a song called "Looka (Look at) The Food", filled with lyrics describing how women's bodies are gratifying to men.

Throughout, there continues to be no limit to what a man will tell a strange woman. Nothing is too intimate or lewd. And I mean nothing. Think of the vilest utterance you can imagine from the lips of a man and I have probably heard it addressed to some woman on the street. And, in accordance with the formula, failure to respond brings a barrage of verbal abuse, and in some scenarios, assault.

It's the kind of thing we learn to live with, although I don't believe we should. We're relieved when all we get is a 'hi, beautiful', and even though we may not feel like responding, we do, because we know it could be much worse and a part of us is grateful that it's not. We go out of our way to say 'thanks' to 'that dress fits you real nice, sweetie', almost as a reward for the fact that no body parts were mentioned, even though we hear the lechery in every word uttered. And we learn to ignore the rest of it, carrying on stepping high, as we say, as we're pelted alternately with 'flattery' and insults, sometimes all at once by several men, so that even if we wanted to, we couldn't respond to this gang assault, organized to intimidate us.

But as accustomed as we get to it, we should remember this: cat-calling has a clear purpose; it is to establish in women's minds that we exist for men's consumption, and there's nothing we can do about it, lest we get too uppity. It is a way for men who feel inadequate and threatened by the collective success and independence of women to keep us in our place, and have us believe that no matter how many degrees or homes we have or how big our salaries are, we are the property of any and all men - even and especially the ones with whom we might not choose to associate - and are subject to their whim.

There is a new weapon in the cat-calling arsenal it seems, and I experienced it the other day. It is not a call, but a silent action. I was standing in the corridor of a shopping center with a friend of mine as we decided on our next stop. Three men came around the corner, all in varying stages of undress and/or general dishevelment. They said nothing, but instead came right up to me so that our faces were almost touching, and looked me up and down, slowly and deliberately, each in turn. I could tell they were waiting for a response, perhaps anger or outrage, so they could have a reason to manifest whatever latent criminal pathology was there lurking. I don't imagine they could expect me to be flattered by such an assault. It was clearly threatening behaviour, meant to convey the fact that they need not even talk to me if they don't want to; they can act in some way that forces me to talk to them, since if I wanted to get away, I would have had to ask them to move. I ignored them, wholly and completely. Any verbal response would have been what they wanted, so with their faces and bodies inches from mine, I carried on talking to my friend, who even in her dismay and confusion followed my lead, and they slithered off.

This is the type of behaviour that exists even as male activists and legislators contend that we do not have a problem with sexual harassment in the workplace or on the streets. This is the type of violation that they would have us believe is a harmless part of our culture, and instead of being so uptight, we should embrace. It is the reason women are physically attacked for having the temerity to refuse to have strangers grind up against them in a party. What's wrong with me, you ask? Do I think I'm too good for you? Why yes, as a matter of fact, I am, at least insofar as I understand boundaries and personal choice, and you appear to be on the verge of criminal behaviour. I am not going to embrace this appropriation of my body, my space and my sanity. The personal action that I take every day will be a rejection of this institutionalized abusiveness, and the professional action that I take as part of a policy-focused, activist network will be towards the enactment of legislation that makes this type of harassment a prosecutable offence. I have no problem being engaged by anyone as a human being and an equal, but I will not be threatened and cower in response. This is not a part of my culture.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Why can't you be more like Cinderella?

The Nation newspaper has (in this past Sunday's edition) solicited the wisdom, such as it is, of writer Chris Brodber in a feature vomitously called "Being right for Mr. Right", aimed at setting us lady folk on the right path of behaviour for bagging us a prince before we all shrivel up and die, bringing to nought our sole purpose here on this planet. I'm sorry I don't have a link to share, because really, the entire thing is worth a read. Chris seems to be of the "behave like a lady" school of thought, which, given the inclusions of the words 'behave' and 'lady', I tend to find problematic. I think 'lady' is the term men use for women who behave to their satisfaction, and it's rarely a part of my lexicon. But by no means should you take my word for it. I've quoted some of Chris's words for you below. No cut and paste here. Purely by the sweat of my brow do I bring you these little kernels of truth, nuggets of wisdom, and other metaphors featuring objects that, ironically, are associated with poo:

Many women will settle for just being a 'woman'. Here's news for you! Men need much more than just a woman. We need refined, we need elegant, gentle, confident, captivating, intelligent.

So if you thought you were going to get by on merely being a woman, Chris has news for you (!!!). You need to be more than just a lowly woman. To wit, the above qualities. Because we all know that mere women are by default unrefined, boorish, insecure and stupid. I'd like to think that Chris is just having some language and semantics problems here, but reading further leads me to think otherwise. And notice the fixation with elegance and refinement, usually read: 'women who skulk around in satin negligee, bat their eyelashes till their eyes bleed and never have much to say about anything'. I exaggerate of course, but I'm wary of men who place too much importance on being 'elegant'. No one ever asks men to be elegant. We should all treat each other and ourselves with respect, but the notion that women in particular should be all soft and conciliatory is one that has for years impeded our equal access to jobs, athletic competition, economic security and basic human rights. 'Elegant' is great, but often what it really means is 'well-behaved and nice to look at.'

And P.S. seductive is overrated. 'Ms. Right Now' usually is seeking to appear 'voluptuous', and often she's promiscuous. Remember: hot and sexy is never Cinderella.

And herein lies Chris's problem: the blonde, blue-eyed, docile, enslaved but obliging Cinderella is his model for female behaviour. Cinderella, who scurried back home and waited for some man to come and put a shoe on her foot so he could claim her as his own. God forbid she had her period that day and was retaining some water. Because that fairy tale would have had a whole different ending. Let me hit you with some knowledge, Chris, of the kind best expressed in non-Standard English: ain't nobody round here trying to be no Cinderella, ok? Cinderella had a fairy godmother and a whole side-street dumpster worth of miscellaneous vermin to fix her up, and even then, she had to sit on her Size 0 behind and wait for a man wielding a shoe. We're self-rescuing princesses around here, and we're hot and sexy. (Chris seems to think 'hot' and 'sexy' synonymous with 'whore of Babylon'.) And if meeting Mr. Right requires that we get dressed by birds to transform our perfectly acceptable selves into something that only appears more 'regal', trip over gourds and submit to random, unannounced shoe fittings, then Mr. Right can get the hell on because we've got shit doing. How about you leave your shoe and when I have some time I'll send someone to check your foot out?

And I left the best part for last. Voluptuous = promiscuous. If you have some curves, you're sleeping around. This is clearly science.

Even by the broader definition of the term, it's a judgment: a woman who seems to enjoy the sensual (I'm not so sure how a woman seems that way except by a very narrow-minded definition) is probably sleeping around. This is a hop, skip and a jump away from the 'she wanted it' rape defence. Women are allowed to be sexual beings, and to 'appear' to enjoy sex, and are even allowed to sleep with more than one man in a lifetime. True story.

A good man wants a gem. You know the saying.. "Behind every successful man is a good woman." A man needs a woman that makes him feel alive, relevant and like he has won the greatest prize. She must be capable, knowing how to suggest, 'Honey, probably we could do it this way'.

I swear to you I am not making this up. So here we are again with this 'woman behind a man' dynamic. I know the word 'behind' here means '(at) the source of', but I don't think people get that. How I really think it should read is 'Next to many successful people are partners who have worked equally hard right alongside them', which, when you consider it, isn't really earth-shattering news. The notion that the indicator of a couple's or a family's success is the success of the man is one that gives me hives. And Chris's perfect woman, like Cinderella, is some prize to be won, like a pig in a raffle. She's there to make him feel lucky.

And the writer defines 'capable', that is the capability of that woman, in terms of her man: how good is she at making suggestions to him? Someone should have told me that my man-convincing skills were the ultimate test of capability. I would have worked on that every day and twice on Sundays.

But that was just the preamble. I haven't even gotten to the actual instructions. (Yes, instructions.) Here are a few:

Don't bleed his pocket
Don't request the yacht and the anchor too. If you go out, you can offer to foot the bill sometimes. We men have antennae up for these things. A woman who is using a man may herself end up being used.

Since by nature women are gold-digging she-beasts, right out of the gates, we have to be cautioned against giving into our baser nature of 'bleeding' a man dry. Don't foot the bill because you're actually concerned with equity and independence. Do so because if you don't, his gold-digger radar will go crazy and he'll run off, leaving you alone and manless. I'm going to leave the 'end up being used' thing alone because I'm assuming that's not the old 'fair exchange, money for sex' argument. That is way too cheap even for this.

Avoid early marriage discussions.
Don't bring up marriage after the first few dates. [...] Let us guys bring up the issue. [...](Keep in mind it's not a good sign if it hasn't been mentioned after a year of dating.)

I keep resisting the urge to type LAWL all through this entry. Yes, it is a bad idea for anyone, man or woman, to come on too strong at the start of a relationship: it may smell of desperation, depending on who the two people involved are. Some people are both perfectly happy with marrying within weeks of meeting, although it's nothing I would advocate. But desperation is not, as Chris would have us believe, a uniquely female characteristic. In fact, I'd wager that of all the dangerous, glorified stalking that is depicted as comedy in films, and all the actual stalking that takes place in real life, most of the stalkers are men, and the victims women. And no, women do not have to hand over control of a significant life decision by waiting for men to bring up marriage. (What's with all the waiting, again? Oh right. Cinderella. Slipper. Got it.) And again, no, if your partner hasn't brought up marriage after a year it doesn't mean he's going to slip out in the night and never return. Some women like the surprise proposal, and that's fine. But your goals as a woman are important too. I see so many women caught in that purgatory between refusing to bring up marriage lest the man startle and scurry off, and really wanting to get on with the business of career timing and family and reproduction and these small matters. Having a vagina does not condemn you to having important decisions made for you. 'Equal partner' means something, it's not just PC gibberish.

Don't disrespect him.
Strong doesn't mean rude and crude. Strong actually is calm and collected. If you're tearing him down with outbursts and criticisms, you really aren't helping, most of all not yourself.

Or, "resist the natural urge to be a screaming, nagging banshee. Men's egos are delicate." Listen, ordinarily I would agree that no one should be disrespecting anyone in a relationship. Constant criticism is oppressive and exhausting, and the language and tone we use to communicate dissatisfaction in a relationship are key. However, I'm wary of the word 'disrespect' when used in terms of male/female relationships. It usually connotes the idea that the man is in a position that is by default to be respected, and that the woman is in a (lesser) position that is by default to be respectful. I hear it applied to all kinds of perceived slights as the reason for unacceptable behaviour, e.g. "she was talking to another man right in front of me, disrespecting me", or "she disrespecting me asking me to wear a condom, as if I got something". The masculinity we have created in the Caribbean is one where a man is, at all costs, to be shielded from any harsh word or injury to his maleness. When a man expresses dissatisfaction frankly, it is directness. When a woman does the same, she is being harsh, critical, disrespectful, emasculating. Stop the madness. It's possible that the woman you're involved with is in fact being unkind and needs to take a step back and reframe her position. And it's also possible that your vision is blocked by the large ego staring back at you, and you need to get over yourself, embrace some humility, and meet in the middle.

Brodber also mentions persistent phone calls, crowding and appearing untrustworthy as kisses of death in 'being right for Mr. Right', and he's not necessarily wrong in these, but he is wrong in presenting them as behaviour peculiar to women. The article is insulting, condescending, and frankly, tired. I find it difficult to believe that the Nation could come up with nothing more edgy or pioneering than 'how to get a man'. Haven't we been rewriting this same article for the last twenty years? And yes, there's a lot that's assumed here: the focus is on male/female heterosexual relationships whose goal is marriage, but I suspect the writer might be a reverend with traditionally Christian views, and even if he weren't, I wouldn't hold my breath expecting a major newspaper in Barbados to include anything other than cis-gendered, heteronormative perspectives. At least not without waving a big flag that says "Look at us! We're talking about the gayness!" But I do expect us to at least begin the long trek away from these narrow, unexplored representations of men, women and relationships, ones that reinforce the same harmful norms and roles we're meant to be discouraging.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Of pears and potatoes

Last week, reader GenderBender slapped me with a fish (figuratively, I mean) and demanded that I write about Caster Semenya. Even though I did end up writing a few words, at the time that she asked, I hadn't planned to cover the issue(s), because so many people already had. So I invited her to channel all her outrage here as our second in a distinguished line of guest bloggers. With a flourish and small marching band, I give you GenderBender:

When the Mongoose asked me to guest blog in this space, my first reaction was “Who me?” I’m neither a recognized blogger nor do I consider myself as having anything noteworthy to say. But that instinctual modesty was immediately replaced by the fiery, indignant “And why not me?” I’m female and enraged on behalf of another female whom I’ve never even met.The case of Caster Semenya, the South African runner who obliterated her competition to win gold in the 800metres at the World Athletic Championships in Berlin, has worried me, haunted my thoughts and upset my equilibrium. The socio-political levels upon which the issue has been pathetically mishandled by the International Amateur Athletics Association pale in comparison to the emotional and psychological impact it must have and will continue to have on the 18-year old Caster for many years to come

For those of you who have not followed the World Championships, allow me to bring you up to speed. Caster Semenya grew up in relative obscurity in the tiny, bush-ringed village of Masehlong. A sporty young woman who ran, played soccer and was a member of the wrestling team at the Nthema Secondary School, Semenya is now a first-year sports science student at Pretoria University. Nothing in her life training on dirt tracks and sharing meals with her four sisters and one brother could have prepared her for the catapulting into the international media spotlight after her gender was questioned. Yes, you read right. On July 31st at the African Junior Championships, Caster shaved a phenomenal four seconds off her 800 metre time (1:56:72 from her previous personal best of 2:00:58). That, coupled with her muscular build and alleged facial hair (I’ve seen close up pictures, she’s got no more of a moustache than the rest of us who run to the salon to have ours waxed every fortnight) led the IAAF to start a series of complicated, invasive and above all embarrassing ‘gender verification tests’. In short: she’s not a 34 DD, she’s got the arms and abs of a hard-working athlete (how strange!) and she’s suddenly running faster than her peers so naturally, she must be a dude! And while the egg continues to drip off the IAAF’s face there’s more: this decision was made public virtually on the eve of Caster’s final race in Berlin.

By its own admission, the IAAF started the testing process before Berlin but because of their complex nature (legal, physical, psychological, bio-medical), it simply ‘ran out of time’ to get conclusive results before she was due to run in the final. My issue with that is two fold: if an athlete’s winning time is drastically improved over a short and allegedly infeasible period of time, would the obvious first test not be performance enhancing drugs? And if that is the case, what does it have to do with her gender? The IAAF is using pears to justify the testing of potatoes. And it just plain stinks. Second, (again by its own admission) the Athletics Federation said it began its investigations based also on a murmur of rumour about her gender that became too loud to ignore. Ok, just so we’re clear: you’re an international sporting organization whose rules have become so strict that a second false start in any race leads to automatic disqualification, yet you start an investigation of this magnitude based on locker room gossip?

Needless to say, the roar of protest and righteous indignation from every corner of South Africa has been nothing short of deafening. The country’s Amateur Athletics body, Caster’s high school friends, her siblings and her adoring parents have also been catapulted into the media spotlight by the inept and often condescending international media, trying to get a fresh angle on a story that will surely idle in neutral until the results of the gender test are returned. At which point it will be determined if she (yes we’ve seen copies of her birth certificate but the IAAF hasn’t got the memo) will be stripped of her medal because of an unnatural level of testosterone or if she will join the inglorious band of athletes in history who have "ambiguous genitalia" (like Polish American Olympic champion Stella Walsh) or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome [AIS] (like Indian middle distance runner Santhi Soundarajan). AIS includes the existence of a 'Y' chromosome in phenotypic females (typically only associated with a male genotype) and results in an inability to respond to androgens. This unresponsiveness leads to a physiologically female-typical body without female internal sex organs. Although the body produces testosterone, it does not react to the hormone.

But enough of the bio-babble. The point is this (and there are many): when the IAAF has finished employing overpriced public relations and marketing specialists to clean up its image after this absurd bungling (which, I might add, would surely never have happened if the athlete in question was, let’s say a Russian female shot putter, weighing in at 250 lbs), Caster Semenya must return to South Africa with a distasteful finger pointed at her and a nasty smudge of bigoted bureaucracy on her glistening gold medal. When will it end?

And don’t get me started on gender roles and how the concept of gender is performed; and how the West and its media monopolies ram what they think appropriate gender representation should be down our throats. Maybe the mongoose will invite me back to talk about that another time.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Being female: the persecution of Caster Semenya

I'm late on this, and even though a reader asked that I cover it, I wasn't going to because so many people already have. But it does not sit right with me to laud the IAAF World Championship victory of Ryan Brathwaite while 800m winner Caster Semenya cannot savour hers. Shortly before the South African teenager took the gold with the event's fifth fastest time ever, IAAF officials decided that she didn't look 'female enough' to satisfy their conceptualization of the term, and asked her to undergo gender tests to confirm that she is a woman.

As Liss over at Shakesville indicates in her open thread, there is so much misogyny, transphobia, bigotry and all-round hatefulness circulating in the fact and the coverage of the matter, that it is difficult to come to terms with all that this issue brings to light about the way that we treat and consider women athletes, black women and black women athletes. (The latter is the subject of a guest post by Transgriot's Monica over at Womanist Musings.)

Caster Semenya, biologically female from birth, is a woman who dared to do better than people think women should do, and happens to look different from the way people have deemed it proper for women to look. But what if she weren't? One of the most odious ideas surfacing in this discussion is that transgender identity in itself constitutes a fraud being perpetrated on the world, that transgendered people who opt for hormone or surgical procedures are, by their mere existence, cheating us in some way. And the fact that the exhaustive, invasive gender test includes evaluation by a psychologist makes one question whether this is purely a matter of physical fitness for her level and category of competition, as the IAAF affirms, or plain, bigoted, racist intolerance.

The -isms abound, and while Semenya's family has already produced a birth certificate proving she is female, that is really the least of everything happening here. The world of elite sports often likes to try and hold itself above the norms of regular society and plain human decency, citing scientific and physiological reasons as if we're all so stupid that high-falutin gobbledegook is going to distract us from demanding justice. So while we offer congratulations to Caster Semenya on her win, we also need to offer solidarity by fighting this type of official, organized persecution wherever we find it.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Bajan took it

I was out buying fish today when Ryan Brathwaite won the men's 110m hurdle at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics.

Ryan Brathwaite is a Barbadian. He is 21 years old, the youngest athlete ever to win gold in this event at the IAAF Worlds, and the only Barbadian ever to medal in this meet.

I had been sticking close to the car radio during the day, first for news of Ryan's performance in his semi-final, which he won. Then for news of what time Usain Bolt would clear in his 200m victory (19.19, shaving exactly 11 seconds off both his previous 200m and 100m times to set his second world record of this year's Championships), and then to see if Ryan would medal in the 110m final that afternoon.

Turns out I couldn't have missed it. Because as news came that he had won the event, I simultaneously heard loud whooping and hollering from a man in the opposite car park. He was running back and forth beside his car, yelling "We got it!" and assuring all within earshot that "when he come back [I] going at the airport!" Another man left his job, still in what looked like HAZMAT gear, and ran across the street to get the result from us. A woman who had pulled over to the side of the road to hear the result sped off, alternately grinning and yelling. My sister and I joined our car park friend in his cheering, and for the rest of the day, I felt really happy inside.

The news of Jamaica's dominance in the sprints has been fantastic. We from the Caribbean all feel like we share Usain Bolt, Shelly-ann Fraser and the rest of the team. But to have a Barbadian on that podium; to see the flag being raised highest and to hear the haunting strains of our national anthem; to hear the commentators speak with respect and authority of the island nation of Barbados; and to hear a foreign sportscaster's accent say with excitement "I think the Bajan took it!" - there can be no greater feeling of national pride and fellow feeling with one's countrywomen and men.

Barbados is uplifted today by the performance, the words, the commitment and passion, the existence of Ryan Brathwaite, this young man who improved phenomenally in a very short time, and kept us all focused along with him on this prize. Well done, Obadele, Andrea, Nicholas and all the athletes and coaches before and since who make that blue, yellow and back recognizable today; and well done, Ryan: thank you for giving us something over which to unite once again.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Nia Vardalos should blink some time

I don't have cable these days. I know. Gasp, right? But the upside of this, depending on how you look at it, is that I get to catch up on lots of films that my sister rents so that we don't have to keep watching Fun School reruns and Mark Lorde concert clips on Channel 8. However much you may love "My Country to Me", watching a man dressed in a red and white suit sing it for the 65th time would break anyone's spirit. So when my sister brought me Nia Vardalos's most recent film project I Hate Valentine's Day, I was relieved, if solely for the reprieve from horrifying red and white ensembles a film by this name would likely offer. Well, 'red and white' there was not but 'horrifying' there was by the non-blinking eyefuls. Why does Nia Vardalos not blink? Actors need to blink, right? I mean...she's blinked before. I'm sure she did it once or twice in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or maybe her supporting cast - who really carried that film if we're being honest - were so brilliant, I didn't notice that the woman is incapable of blinking.

Ok well now I've gone and said 'blink' so much it sounds like gibberish, but Vardalos's performance was cringe-worthy: straight out of the Clive Owen School of Wooden Acting and Weirdly Robotic Inflection. The character she drew was so artificial and unlikely that you felt you were watching Nia Vardalos doing a really bad impression of an insufferable, delusional, know-it-all, pretentious friend/neighbour/colleague who thinks she's fooling everyone she has it all together, but is really just a transparent mess. It's as if she watched Audrey Tautou's Amélie or Sally Hawkins's Poppy and wondered "Can I do this? Can I be this beautifully naïve, refreshing, unpredictable, sage, wisecracking, free spirit that everyone either wants to be with or wants to be?" Turns out: not at all. But hey, at least now she knows.

In I Hate Valentine's Day, the annoyingly predictable tale goes thus: Vardalos's Genevieve is a Manhattan florist who "abides by a strict five-date-limit with any man, [then] finds herself wanting more with the new restaurateur in town", played by John Corbett. I'm not sure why they cast Corbett as Vardalos's romantic interest a second time, except perhaps they thought it safe to stick with someone with whom she has chemistry; in which case they were very mistaken. Corbett's approach to romantic comedy is such a cutesy, simple(-minded), every-man style, that he needs a leading lady with some edge: someone - like Carrie Bradshaw - who will break up the monotony of his 'perfect guy' shtick. In MBFGY, the cast was so full and the pace of the film so frenzied that he worked as a romantic lead. In this vanity project of Vardalos's, in which she clearly thinks she and the ridiculous character she has fashioned are enough to thrill us all, Corbett just doesn't work. She's a contrived buffoon, and he's a natural buffoon (in his gentle giant kind of way that can be charming but so was not here), and between them, they managed to suck the chemistry clean off the screen.

Well, not just them. They have some equally ridiculous help. Genevieve has two gay sidekicks who work at the flower shop with her, prancing around like little elves with predictable questions and quips carefully (but poorly) crafted to elicit Genevieve's story, reveal her character and advance the plot. It's How Not To Write A Screenplay 101. The character of the gay best friend, tired though it may be, can work, since gay best friends do exist in real life. But perhaps it would be useful to meet some actual gay people. Because with Vardalos's flat, uninteresting, stereotypically oversexed versions of the gay man, I can't believe she actually knows any. Or maybe she just shops at the same Weak Stereotype store as the He's Just Not That Into You people.

But as if they weren't enough, Vardalos doubles up on the minions with another ragtag and completely random band of accomplices who meet in a neighbouring coffee shop at regular lunchtimes to dote on the fabulous, still unblinking Genevieve and drink from the fountain of her boundless romantic wisdom, (which, it turns out, isn't very wise. At least let the audience discover the error of the hero's ways over the length of the film. Don't make her philosophy so obviously ridiculous that it's clear she's bound to fail.) Included in this group are SNL's Rachel Dratch and 30 Rock's Judah Friedlander, both of whose comedic scope is dwarfed by the puerile dialogue. Zoe Kazan, poor thing, would be right on the doorstep of brilliant if she weren't trapped in this humourless mess, but at least we know she's one to keep watching. We have no idea whence this strange group of friends came, what they mean to the hero or, frankly, who the hell they are, and if any of them were remotely interesting, we wouldn't care. But with the little entertainment value they offer, we're left shaking our sticks at the TV, mumbling "Why are you here again? Go away!" And then it becomes apparent why they're there: without them, who would comprise the Superfriends team whose escapades would throw our stubborn lovers together? In Notting Hill, it was thrilling and hilarious. In this film, it is formulaic and irritating.

The world these people inhabit is not real, and not conceivable. It's Stars Hollow on uppers, but with a lot less wit and none of the creativity or credibility. Everyone seems forcibly happy, but it isn't infectious, as a film of this nature should be. Too much energy is spent on Vardalos's ineffective, rogue romantic Genevieve, and very little is spent on anything else. The back story - her father cheated on her mother and now she fears commitment - is laughable both in how it is revealed to the audience and in its lack of imagination. We all knew Nia Vardalos was no actor, and now we're assured that - beyond familiar subject matter as in MBFGW - she's also neither a writer nor a director.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Voices in favour of marital rape

Marital rape is still legal in the Bahamas, and now there is legislation being proposed that would make marital rape a crime, overturning the current system in which consent to sexual intercourse is presumed in a legal marriage. "Under current Bahamian law, a man can be charged with raping his wife only if the two are in divorce proceedings or living apart."

Most news articles on the story begin thus:
Lawmakers are debating a bill that would make marital rape a crime in the Bahamas...

And even though I'm aware that each piece of legislation has its process, I'm forced to wonder what the opponents of this bill could possibly have to say. But I don't have to look far:
The bill already has caused debate on radio talk shows, with some islanders saying women could file false rape charges as leverage for alimony, child support or custody. Others have said the bill contradicts traditional Christian values.

Once again, women are cast as self-serving Jezebels who abuse the legal system in order to manipulate men. Are we still perpetuating this myth that women will easily subject themselves to rape trials in order to 'get even'? Especially when we know that often, women are made victims a second time by the indignity of some of our court proceedings and the victim-blaming found both within the court and in popular discourse? False charges of rape are sometimes made, as is the case with other crimes, but this is not nearly as common a problem as people seem so eager to believe. And in any event, this is the role of due judicial process: to uncover the truth. Are the opponents of this bill suggesting that we leave thousands of women unprotected from sexual violence on the off chance that some woman gets pissed off and tells a lie? Question marks abound in this paragraph, because i am confused.

And the opposition to the bill on the grounds that it contradicts traditional Christian values just makes me weary. Perhaps if your Christian values allow a man to rape his wife, they have no place in law or society.

I'm also a bit concerned by this:
The proposed law would allow a judge to decide the penalty for marital rape. People currently convicted of rape face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Because surely the legislation must include some sentencing guidance for presiding judges. The law fairly loses its teeth if someone can be charged with raping a partner and then sentenced to six months community service. If rape in a marriage really is rape, then why the need to go softer on the sentencing? I'd say this is one to keep our eyes on, because the mere existence of legislation does not in itself translate to fair protection under the law.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Racism and cultural insensitivity: the cornerstones of any carnival

So the Crop Over festival has just come to an end, and we're all in the process of shaking off the carnival vibe and trying to appear like normal human beings again. It was a good season, although I did think for a minute there that we would be doomed to party to the brilliant stylings of the likes of Salt and Stabby all season long. But eventually, the true talent of the festival became manifest, and musically, it turned out to be quite a productive year.

I have to make the obligatory disclaimer here: I like silliness in music too. I'm a Moxy Fruvous fan, after all. And my parents bred in us a healthy appreciation for the Clown Prince part of the calypso competition. Calypso music is not just about cutting, insightful, social commentary and pioneering mixes of steel, drums and brass; it's also about the comedy of clever lyrics, and sometimes just plain tomfoolery in the style of Malik, Cubba and even Contone and Pong at their best. But there's farce and then there's plain, old offensive idiocy. Salt was toneless and unremarkable, but at least brought back in his lyrics a bit of Bajan parlance that people seemed to really respond to: "see me and don't see me" is just one example of the sweet economy and poetry of Bajan English. Infusing the song with an actual melody would have been useful, but I suspect Salt knows his limitations in that regard. Stabby was...well...the man's name is Stabby. Let's not expect too much. I wasn't a fan of the work of these two, but I suppose there's a place for it, although I'd like us to keep that place very, very, very small.

Chow Mein, on the other hand, with his song The Chinese Connection, provided a healthy dose of that offensive idiocy we just mentioned. Here is this young man, dressed as what I assume he envisions a Shaolin master to look like, or at least to have looked like in 1972 when the film the Chinese Connection was made, complete with fake beard and a ridiculously sing-songy and mocking 'Chinese accent'. Now the premise of the song itself, in terms of some of its lyrical content, is not without merit, at least on the surface. He speaks as a Chinese man (the first glaring mistake, yes, but we'll come back to this) and sings of the disdain he encounters from people who stand in contempt of Chinese people. It's not an unfamiliar dynamic here in Barbados, where starting some years ago, we've been seeing significant numbers of Chinese workers mainly in the construction sector, along with quiet - and sometimes not so quiet - anti-immigrant rumblings among those who consider themselves newly disenfranchised as a result of this immigration. So his point is that while some may claim to want nothing to do with the Chinese, we still benefit from a large majority of imported goods from their country.

But his defense of Chinese people is weak and disingenuous, and is in fact only being used to encourage listeners to point and laugh at these outsiders with the strange outfits and funny accents. Were he sincere, he would have focused on some actual issues, or at least done a better job of satirizing the absurd reasons that people ridicule the Chinese. Instead, it is these very absurd reasons on which he relies for his punchline. with lyrics like "I don't eat dog," and "everybody knows that Chinese __ real small". The word that's missing there is penis, or some approximation. Because ridiculing an entire ethnic group based on the comparative size of their genitalia is the stuff of great comedy. The song is completely lacking in irony, which I'm actually hoping it was trying to achieve and simply failed. Irony would have made the bigots - rather than the object of their bigotry - the butt of the joke. Instead, he just comes off as a simpleton making fun of the Chinese, just another version of a black-face minstrel.

And even then, all the irony in the world does not give one leave to get into 'costume' as a Chinese person, because that act itself assumes stereotypes and makes a caricature out of a group of people based on nothing else but ethnicity, and a limited, racist understanding of the people and culture.

The chorus of the song manages to offend on other levels, because its not-really-Chinese hero is now exacting justice for the discrimination against him, with his battle cry being "you...want Chinese in you!" followed by the typical sound of kung-fu blows. So we should respect Chinese people not because they deserve respect and fair treatment, but because if we don't, they'll kick us to death. 'Chinese in you' in this instance seems to refer to a beating. But after the second verse, which talks about being scorned by women because of the size of his penis, the threat of "you...want Chinese in you" takes on another meaning, albeit a familiar one: a woman who rejects a man can expect sexual aggression as his response. A cranky, contrary, uninterested woman can be made agreeable by at least one sure thing: a penis, whether consensually or not.

And perhaps the most horrifying part of the whole fiasco is that the Bajan public has embraced this song with squeals of delight, even obeying Chow Mein's invocation at the start of his live performance to yell 'nyong', which to him means nothing in particular, but probably sounds Chinese enough. I suppose 'nyong' is the racially insensitive man's 'yeah yeah' or 'throw your hands up'. Some of my friends - my otherwise intelligent, socially conscious, culturally sensitive, beautiful friends - have been lost to fandom of this mess, and I must confess that I don't understand it. One of them said to me: "I don't think anyone believes he's really speaking for Chinese people." Well that's hardly the point. We know the man is not an ambassador for actual people from China, but that's the selling point of his joke; that in fact is the problem. He can't speak for Chinese people, because he's not Chinese. And worse, he's revelling in this false representation and using it to reinforce and glorify stereotypes. Others have said: "but it's funny!" To which I can only blink in response, because the act is so decidedly unfunny it makes me drool from boredom, once the incredulity has passed. It's an ill-conceived, poorly-delivered, racist, toneless, not at all clever portrayal, and I think those who find it funny should question the things that amuse them, and what that says about who they are.

Now it occurred to me that Chow Mein might be of Chinese heritage, in some part, and therefore feel justified in this. But really, that would hardly make it better. In fact, it would probably make it quite a sight worse. We have had comedic calypso acts get into character as people from other cultures; there's a way to do it, and this Chinese Connection of which everyone seems so enamoured is clearly not it. It seems we've become so comfortable with our intolerance of the Chinese, Guyanese and people from African nations who live with us that we now consider it something to be celebrated, rather than eradicated, and that realization has, for me, been the saddest part of this crop Over festival.
ETA: A reader pointed out that he might be encouraging people to say 'ni hao', which is 'hello' in Mandarin. I thought that until I saw him live, and realized that (1) it doesn't really sound like 'ni hao'; (2) even if that were the case, no one in his audience understood that it means something; and (3) it still wouldn't make up for all the ching-chonging throughout the rest of the song. But yes, it could be 'ni hao'. In fact, I kinda hope it is.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Digging up Nelson

Back in January, I wrote about a plan that was afoot in Barbados to move the statue of Lord Horatio Nelson from Trafalgar Heroes Parliament Square, and the arguments it engendered on both sides. One such argument was made by local writer Richard Hoad, and my blog entry was in response to an article of his.

A version of that blog entry ran as a guest column in today's Nation newspaper, and while I do appreciate the voice, and further, the blog publicity, the editors fell asleep on the job, attributing Hoad's words to me, and leaving out an entire paragraph that would have contextualized quotes. So, anal as I am, and never content to have people think me stupid or confused (at least through the actions of another; if I'm to appear stupid, I prefer to have had something to do with it), I'm redirecting readers to the original entry. Things should make more sense now, assuming you still care seven months later.

The (triumphant) return of the mongoose!

Ok, not so triumphant. I haven't been off fighting a war or liberating meerkats in captivity or anything. But I have been getting readjusted to life in the tropics. Yes, you read true: I'm back in Barbados for the medium term, struggling to cope with the white sand beaches, the brilliant weather and all the mangoes I could ever hope to eat. It is such hard work being me.

But fear not. While I expect to be covering quite a few more local and regional issues than before, the blog will maintain its international focus. We are, after all, citizens of the world, concerned with truth and justice everywhere. Can you sense the excitement and the superhero passion in my words? It's because I'm so thrilled to be blogging again. I've missed my readers and commenters so, even the crotchety ones - that's how high my spirits are. So, without further messing about, let us onward.
Creative Commons License
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence