Wednesday, May 18, 2011

These fuck-me-boots are made for walking

The recent wave of controversially/cleverly titled 'SlutWalk', anti-rape, anti victim-blame protests have, predictably, proved once again that the ingrained societal opinion is that the way women dress is about communicating something to men.

Even academics are jumping on this train of thought, Gail Dines told the Sydney Morning herald, "by having a slutwalk, you have turned the focus on to what women are wearing. The men who are responding to this message are not getting the irony at all."

Which may well be because, aside from using a hateful word in a non hateful context, there is very little irony. This protest, though performative, is literal. What SlutWalk says is this: There is no garment I can wear (or not wear) which would invite you to harass, belittle, patronize, sexualize or rape me.

Critiques which say this is a western, liberal message are probably right. I'm not involved on an organisational level but it seems to me in my reading that SlutWalk does not claim to be a radical, anti-capitalist movement. Being able to walk down the street without being blamed for violence is about living within capitalism. Most likely, some of the participants will be anti-capitalist and engaged in other actions with a broader focus. Some will not.

That the word slut is employed is, of course, strategic and the way it has garnered publicity for the event and for feminist conversations in general has given it one positive new meaning. 'Slut' is a provocative word, that it is provoking essays, debate and media attention is a vast improvement on its usual reactions of tears, shame, fear and self consciousness.

Luckily for me, my encounters with the word 'slut', have, in general, not been associated with the sex I am having, but with the sex I am not having. For example, I am not having sex with men who feel compelled to yell 'slut' at women walking down the street. I am not having sex with men who look me up and down as though I am a menu of violent hors d'oeuvres. Also, I am not having sex with patronising, middle-aged nostalgics who must have their out-of-mint, copper two-cents on everything.

Which brings me back to what journalists are saying.

Guy Rundle on Crikey made my blood boil with an exceptionally patronising and didactic analysis in which the only 'victims' he mentions are the poor, bankrupt 'porno sinemas,' victims of the ubiquity of net-porn. He goes on to argue that feminists have lost site of their historical continuity by not referencing the Reclaim the Night protests in reference to SlutWalk. He sighs his back-in-the-day sigh, lamenting that Reclaim the Night, seems to have "fallen down the memory hole that everything before the invention of the web appears to have been consigned to".

Not so, Guy. Many women still participate in RTN. Some will be at SlutWalk. Some will choose not to attend for whatever reason they hold. Young women who are not drawn to the format of RTN, might well be drawn to SlutWalk, as new generations come up, protest movements come up with them. We are allowed to have more than one protest.

This seems to be an issue in most critique I have read. That SlutWalk is a protest 'instead of' rather than in 'addition to' others. Writers focus on how SlutWalk is a simplistic conversation about one issue instead of a more complex dialogue about sexism. In my mind these kind of arguments are no more than reinforced dichotomies that seek to group all feminist concerns under one banner and then split the pole-bearers into 'good' and 'bad' or, 'silly' and 'serious'.

This is not limited to feminists. As long as I've been protesting I've been reading articles about how the left is becoming 'silly', about how theatrics and spectacle fail to be meaningful responses to oppression. I find this logic oppressive in itself. Each individual has a right to respond in whatever form they find meaningful and appropriate. If a whole bunch of folk find meaning in one way of responding then you have a movement. The presence of one movement does not nullify other modes of response. In fact movements arise in reaction to others. This is healthy, not divisive. To say 'If you can't speak for everyone, don't speak' is a very dangerous directive, especially in disenfranchised groups where there is a great deal of diversity and a complex array of different issues.

Anyhow, most feminists are having 'serious' conversations about sexism and misogyny. We can't avoid it. We talk to our friends, our lovers, our colleagues, our bosses, our parents, and, when we can be bothered with the headache, we try to talk to misogynist men. We are constantly struggling to illustrate to non-feminists of all genders the different ways that entrenched patriarchal interests affects their lives. Every feminist knows what it's like to have someone she cares about belittle her and scoff, 'that's not a gender issue'.

That's only the out-loud part of the fight, the most painful blows are swung in our own minds as we struggle to untangle the internalized oppression that censors us, makes us fearful or ashamed. The oppression that has an affect on what we eat, how we dress, who we love and everything in between. It is horrible to hear people say that this struggle is not meaningful but 'silly'.

The Crikey post also makes dubious use of Houellebecq to argue that SlutWalk is anti-woman because the way the protesters plan to dress is an attack on older women by younger women. Assuming of course, that when older women look at younger women, especially 'sluts', all they feel is envy over the male gaze, which is obviously completely sexist.

This argument brings us back to young women's clothing as a 'text' which is saying something to someone, and following this, the notion that the onus to not say something objectionable (provoking responses such as envy, hatred and sexual violence) is on the woman.

Does this means you need an advanced degree in semiotics to get dressed in the morning?

In hyper-capitalism, identity is performed and interchangeable. To say that signifiers have been stripped of their real-world referents is to rehash old news. For me, an outfit that may be perceived as 'slutty' is NEVER about letting a man know that I enjoy sex or that I want to have it with him but rather an instance of cos-play, a carefully nuanced collage of influence from the history of cinema, music and fashion.

As humans we can appreciate or not appreciate each others style, but violence and even, in most contexts, ethical condemnations are totally inappropriate responses to an outfit. So inappropriate that they verge on ridiculous highlighting the fact that clothes don't objectify women, other people do. Clothes don't cause rape, rapists do.

I don't feel as though I am denigrating myself with the clothes I wear. I feel creative. I feel attractive in a way that has nothing to do with sex. I want to be able to feel this way without being blamed or shamed.

This is probably one of the big reasons that SlutWalk is so popular, especially with women who would not necessarily attend workshops or conferences. At SlutWalk you will be dressing up with your friends and then rallying in the streets, in high spirits, stepping forward with purpose, impervious to judgement and mistreatment for at least ten minutes - Tally Ho, Sluts!

Will it change the way that men use the word to denigrate women? Probably not. Will it give individual participants a wry smile at the memory of the march when next they have 'slut' thrown at them? Perhaps. Does it mean that victim-blaming is getting the attention it deserves? Fuck yeah!

It's my hope that the dialogue surrounding SlutWalk will be extended beyond the wardrobe, beyond the events themselves, and that we can, with debate, spectacle, protest, writing and mouthing off, bring the issue of tackling misogyny, in all its guises, into the popular media.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Eat bugs! Lest ye be poofs and ladies

Bear Grylls is here to save our souls. He will lead us on a perilous journey to the golden kingdom, and on the way he will make us eat bugs.

Man V Wild is just a rehearsal. It's like church where a vision is given to the people by a holy man

See? Watch and listen. This is how we must travel.

On sofas across the globe we slouch intently, absorbing the teachings, searching our souls for the strength which proves that yes, when the time comes Bear, I will be ready. I will drink pee and suck the marrow from scorpians. I will do whatever it takes.

Like the pseudo-messiahs of the middle ages, Bear Grylls wonders the globe performing the miracle of survival. He demonstrates his ability to operate outside of the conveniences of modern capitalism as a kind of 'voluntary poverty', in the tradition exercised by monks and millenarians of old. And, like these historical prophets, Gryll's tricks are constantly being exposed. He is accused of checking into motels when he is supposed to be sleeping on a hammock made from weeds and lizard skin, the faithless claim that someone is waving a mars bar just out of shot.

But still we watch. Because we need someone to show us how it's done. Because we need to believe that Bear is the real deal in order to maintain hope. In this way, watching Man V Wild is an act of faith.

The message of survivalist texts is universal. Modern life, removed from nature is godless and emasculating. City folk are soft. To camp with your chums in the wilds is to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of which part of the plant has big fat balls.

My favourite survivalist story is Deliverance. I've seen the movie version many times but I only recently read the book, which was not only beautifully written but utterly gripping despite my knowledge of what was coming.

In Deliverance, our city-softy protagonist is a complacent graphic designer named Ed. He and a couple other softies follow their biceps-of-steel, leather clad survivalist buddy Lewis (who will always be Burt Reynolds in my mind, even in the book) on a canoe trip, inspired by his survivalist preaching and the promise of a glimpse at another, more 'honest' way of living, free from the pencil pushing of their city lives. This promise is intoxicating because it appeals to the nostalgia of machismo, it provides a mythical space where men can be men. It puts the flabby, useless, city man's body back in a position of action and intention. As they drive into the mountains, Ed ponders the origin of this intoxicating appeal.

"What kind of fantasy led to this? Did Lewis have long dreams of atomic holocaust in which he had to raise himself and his family out of the debris of less strong folk and head toward the same blue hills we were approaching?"

In the beginning the adventurers experience the invigoration of spirit and communion with nature that Lewis described. The rushing river carries them backwards to a simpler time, they find themselves released from the cares of the modern world.

But things go terribly wrong and that sweet banjo refrain we heard not so long ago turns quickly to a sinister dirge that sends shivers down the spine.

You know the one: dadalungdungdungdungdungdungdung.

The group are attacked by some nasty hillbillies. The softy called Bobby is raped. The softy named Drew is shot and Lewis, the natural salvation for the group is badly injured, leaving Ed to prove his stripes and leave his softy identity and fearful heart behind him in order to save their souls.

Ed has a smattering of knowledge about how to survive. Bits picked up from magazines. Pieces garnered from half-forgotten advice. Ed is us at the end of the world, the wind whispering in his ear with the voice of Bear Grylls:

"Remember my teachings. You are on your own now".

Ed embarks upon a holy journey, culminating in his transformation from city softy who favours the path of least resistance to a survivalist who scales cliffs and knows what it is to kill to protect your own life. And in this journey he is spiritually reborn, privy to the romantic truth of life: we live or die by the wild currents of the river. We have only prayer and cajones.

All survivalist tales are spiritual and most are Christian by nature.
As bear Grylls tells us: "There are no atheists on the arctic ocean"

To survive in a place where man should by logic perish is to prove that you are created as a master of the universe. Your existence is at least a tribute to God, if not proof that you are, in fact, Christ himself.

Bear Grylls' Christianity is media-dubbed as 'wild-Faith', implying that it's natural, primal, free from the constraint of the church without being explicitly heretical.

"What does it mean?" ponders Bear, before neatly tying faith and masculinity together in some essential military knot. "It's about being strengthened. It's about having a backbone run through you from the Person who made you. It's about being able to climb the biggest mountains in the world with the Person who made them. "

Here, faith is a kind of team pissing contest and next to God, Bear has the biggest cock.
Christian News summarizes neatly: 'When it comes to faith, life and survival, Grylls isn't one to complicate things. Overthinking, overanalyzing ... it's the stuff that gets you killed.'

Which is what the Christian church has been telling us for centuries, right? It's the central conceit of their doctrine: the world was created in seven days by a man in the sky whose Son came down to save our souls but we killed him, putting into place a series of pre-ordained events which will culminate in the reincarnation of the son, the reign of an evil antichrist on earth and finally the opening of a golden kingdom to people who believe all of the above and do everything they are told, no matter how conflicting, counter intuitive or downright nasty.

Look buddy, don't over-think it, OK? Just shut up and pray for salvation.

In Deliverance, Ed's journey is typically biblical and apocalyptic. During his tribulations, Lewis's teachings are revealed through lived experiences constituting a quasi-religious experience for Ed. Thus reborn he is miraculously enabled to merge minds with his enemy (the antichrist hillbilly rapist), enjoy pain, and experience super human strength.

Castrated chaff by contrast, Bobby becomes the personification of dead-weight, unable to rise to the challenges of the river or to follow directives. In this way his rape becomes a part of his 'weak', emasculated character, he is not even given the status of martyr, like Drew, who had learned to respect the wild power of the river before he was shot dead on its rapids.

Deliverance tells us that only in a fight for survival do men's minds and bodies regain centrality in the order-of-things, only after this kind of experience has occurred can man appreciate the world he has, understand the tenuous balance between society and nature, and cope with his own repression.

No less spiritual in nature, the recent survivalist flick 127 Hours differs by degree of emphasis. Here, real life hero/Katmandu-cringe canyoneer Aron (fictionalised slightly and played by James Franco) is trapped between a rock and a hard place for five long days before finally hacking through his arm with a blunt Leatherman to escape the clutches of death.

The montage of soft drink ads and busy street scenes is spliced across the thirsty mans plight, highlighting the wondrous, awe-inspiring impossibility of two such conditions existing side by side; the excess of the city and man versus the parched, uninhabitable dessert just over the horizon. The sex fantasies that Aron shelters in also highlight the excess of the city, where sex is divorced from 'real' human imperatives such as love and procreation. Stuck in the crack of the world, even daydreams about easy-blondes are guiltily replaced by memories of his inability to commit to an ex. You just know that if Aron makes it out of here alive, he'll be settling down and starting up a God-fearing family to ensure that he has something meaningful to die for next time he is touching the void.

There is no active position for women (much less queers) in these parables. They are to stay at home. To represent the innocent, naïve beauty of the world or even the slutty excess that underpins every masculine crisis. The wild messiah must tame nature and survive in order to protect the sanctity of the concept of the (good) woman and child. Only a real man understands this. If you still hanker for the easy blonde - you haven't been out in the wilds for long enough.

The ordeals that Ed, Aron and Bear face replace the ball-dropping, spartan-style coming of age ritual that western culture is somehow 'missing'. This is the moment when the boy goes out into the wild to fend for himself and become a man, outside the dictates of the feminine especially as it pertains to compromise and flexibility.

This is the challenge we ponder when we watch Man V Wild. The question beaming out of our television sets is not whether Bear Grylls is the true messiah, but rather, when the time comes, will we be ready?

Driving down to the river and to his fate Lewis answers this question without hesitation,

"I think I am. I sure am, psychologically. At times I get the feeling that I can't wait. Life is so fucked-up right now, and so complicated, that I wouldn't mind if it came down, right quick, to the bare survival or who was ready to survive."

In this statement lies the judgement that underpins survivalism as much as biblical apocalypse. Who are those ready to survive? They are not only the people who can prove that they have the balls and the know-how, but also the people who are willing to except the terms of the journey to the golden kingdom. The very idea of 'survival' is of a life stripped of moral ambiguity and the multiplicity of meanings that characterise our lives and a fervent belief in the religious values of hard work, faith, reproduction and renewal.

To preserve the nostalgic space, the river must be dammed into a recreational park in Deliverance. To preserve his complexion and muscle mass, Bear Grylls catches the helicopter out of the Moab and back to suburban London. Now we are finally alone, on the couch, remote in hand like a weapon, considering the viability of such a future.

A lone cockroach scuttles across the lounge room floor, its shell dark with provocation.