Category Archives: Books

“Secrets Proven to Achieve Results and Move the World”

Read my review of Caryn Ginsberg’s book “Animal Impact” at http://www.ourhenhouse.org/2012/03/book-review-animal-impact-secrets-proven-to-achieve-results-and-move-the-world-by-caryn-ginsberg/. She explains how to use marketing strategies to improve political advocacy and activism.

 

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The Black Woman In My Closet

I just read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a book about relationships between white women and their black domestic “help” in 1950’s Mississippi.  http://www.kathrynstockett.com/.  The book is an excellent read, thought-provoking and compelling.  I was appalled anew by the casual injustices, the ignorance, the segregation, and the day-to-day racism prevalent in that culture.   And then I discovered that the black woman who cleans my apartment eats her lunch in my coat closet.

In The Help, the black employees don’t sit down to eat with their employers in order to preserve the social hierarchy and avoid creating even the illusion of equality or friendship.  They don’t use the same bathrooms, ostensibly because of white fear of contamination from black cooties, but also as one more means of reinforcing the message that blacks are inferior servants in whites’ homes.  At first the book reads like a missive from a long-ago though still poignant time, a shameful history that thousands and thousands of people have worked hard to put behind us.   But it’s closer than we like to think.

Nearly every person who has ever been paid to clean my home, starting from my childhood, was a black woman (the others were immigrant women).  Right now I use a service that sends Amanda (not her real name) to my apartment every other week to spend a day cleaning my bathtub, emptying my garbage, changing the sheets on my bed.  My white guilt has kept me uncomfortable with the relationship and its reminder of Jim Crow and “domestics” who tended to white women’s houses all day.  But I treat her with dignity and pay her well, and since I was always away at work when she was at my apartment, I wasn’t often confronted with the unpleasantly familiar dynamic.

Now I work from home, which is how I found Amanda eating her lunch in the coat closet.  Feeling a little sick to my stomach, I asked her if she wouldn’t prefer to eat at the dining room table.  She said she wouldn’t because she just cleaned it and she didn’t want to dirty it up again.  I told her she could eat at the desk, on the couch, anywhere she was comfortable, but I have a bad feeling that she is most comfortable in that closet with the door closed, where she doesn’t have to confront us and vice versa. 

My employment relationship with Amanda is a common one in my neighborhood.  On a weekday there are gobs of strollers on the sidewalks carrying white children pushed by dark-skinned women.  Many of them likely have their own children whom they have left alone or in the care of a family member or friend so they could get paid to watch white people’s children.  The sheer number of these mismatched stroller duos is unsettling.

It’s no big news that although we have a black president, racism and economic inequalities persist.  It’s another thing to realize that each of us contributes to them.  I don’t know what to do about it on an individual level: it won’t help anybody for me not to employ Amanda or for my neighbors to fire their black or Hispanic nannies.  But as long as these economic relationships continue, the ghosts of Jim Crow walk among us.  They bring new meaning to the phrase “service economy”: the less privileged serve the more privileged and the colors of each remind us that poverty disproportionately afflicts minorities, while whites monopolize the best-paying jobs. 

The persistence of these patterns is disturbing, but it helps to remember that they are patterns and not universal rules – many blacks are successful professionals.  Nevertheless, blacks are still clustered on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, he was turning his focus from civil rights to economic rights, particularly the Poor People’s Campaign.  He was in Memphis to boost the sanitation workers’ strike and to raise awareness of the link between racial oppression and economic oppression, about the impossibility of eradicating one while the other remained.  Our failure to recognize or act on that truth is the reason blacks remain disproportionately poor. 

The next step is to pick up where Dr. King left off and fight for economic justice.  Get it on the national radar, remember it in the voting booths.  The minimum wage is nowhere near a living wage, not even half of it, so many people are struggling to hold down two minimum-wage jobs in a doomed effort to support their families.  The jobs in which minorities are concentrated, like childcare, tend to pay less than living wages and thus perpetuate black poverty and the old racial relationships without the need for anything as overt as Jim Crow laws and separate bathrooms.  It is time for Americans to ease up on the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mythology and accept the reality that it takes a whole society to eradicate poverty.  And if that is what we really want, we can do it.

The Girl Who Wasn’t One

Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of the three-volume Dragon Tattoo series, is a remarkable person by any standard: with no formal training she is a brilliant chess player, one of the top international hackers, a genius mathematician, and a cunning and effective hand-to-hand fighter.  Many commentators have debated whether the descriptions of barbaric violence against women in the books are misogynistic or a welcome examination of a real threat facing women.  But reviewers seem to agree that Salander is a feminist role model.  By my reading, however, the books’ depiction of Salander is the most sexist thing about them.

In the two books available in English so far, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire, Salander has a complicated relationship with femininity.  It is as though no normal woman could achieve Salander’s feats of intellectual and combat prowess, precluding Salander from being a normal woman – and perhaps even a normal human.  This smacks of the misogynistic bromide that women are not as good as men at [insert any activity here].  On the other hand, Salander may embody the feminist theory that society rejects extraordinary women like her, forcing them beyond traditional gender roles and perhaps even normal social roles into an ambiguous outsider status.

Stieg Larsson, the author of the series, constantly refers to Salander, a 24-year-old woman, as “the girl” (witness the titles of the books), which is temptation enough to conclude that he did not intend to champion feminist theory.  Further, the two books together offer evidence both that Salander is not a normal human, and not a normal woman.  Perhaps she chose her outsider status in reaction to male violence against women that she witnessed from childhood on, which explains why she risks all to avenge women wronged by men.  Or maybe the trauma of her upbringing and its aftermath rob her of femininity against her will.  After all, the only things she yearns for are bigger breasts and the love of a good man.

Salander is unsocialized, like a wild animal (her boss thinks of her as a stray cat).  Her boss considers her “an outsider” and “weird.  She’s really weird.”  Salander’s colleagues consider her “a hopeless case.”  When she was a child “[h]er classmates thought she was crazy”; when she left one middle school for another, she did not have “a single friend to say goodbye to.  An unloved girl with odd behavior.”  She appears “to have no sense of humor at all.  Or the ability to carry on a normal conversation.”  Her boss describes her as making progress in her “socialization process,” classifying her as a child – or possibly an alien – who is not fully socialized into normal adult society.  Other indications that Salander is something other than human include the observation that she is “not like any normal person” (emphasis added), and a description of her eyes as “raven black” – the color of a monster’s eyes, not a human’s.  Salander herself doesn’t feel human, wearing a t-shirt that reads “I AM ALSO AN ALIEN” and describing herself more than once as a freak.

Salander’s confused gender identity sets her strikingly apart from other people.  Larsson leaves no doubt that Salander is not feminine, even in her girlhood: “Much stronger boys in her class soon learned that it could be quite unpleasant to fight with that skinny girl.  Unlike the other girls in the class, she never backed down.”  She isn’t like other girls when she is a girl, but once she grows into womanhood, she finally becomes “girlish,” “with slender bones[,] small hands, narrow wrists, and childlike breasts.”  Others perceive her as a fifteen-year-old girl when she is twenty-four.  But at the same time she is still boyish, a “flat-chested girl[] who might be mistaken for [a] skinny boy[] at a distance.”  At every age Salander does not fit into the socially accepted parameters of femininity.

Just to look like a woman, the adult Salander must don elaborate “camouflage,” including a multi-layered outfit and make-up, while removing the usual jewelry from her facial piercings.  Only once she is costumed does she look “like any other woman.”

Salander believes that she is not womanly.  She is “convinced that her skinny body was repulsive.  Her breasts were pathetic.  She had no hips to speak of.  She did not have much to offer,” discounting entirely her remarkable intellect and courage and valuing only female sexual characteristics.  When she looks in the mirror to see the bustline she creates with fake latex breasts, this jaded, violent, unemotional woman “catch[es] her breath”; later she enthusiastically gets breast implant surgery, trying to artificially capture some of the femininity she lacks.  Salander’s womanhood is a mere technicality; practically speaking, she is without feminine attributes other than the false ones she buys to stuff her bra.

But Salander does have some traditionally masculine attributes.  Her surprisingly (given her small stature) effective violence is one of the attributes that sets Salander apart from other girls and women.  Salander is notably “violent, without a doubt.”  She tasers men, beats them with golf clubs, ties them up, rapes them, firebombs them, chops at them with an axe.  But she is violent only towards men who are violent towards women.

However just, her violence is condemned.  Violence is masculine, celebrated or at least expected in men whether justified or not, while Salander, a violent female, is ostracized and even institutionalized.  Her friend and former guardian calls her violence, even though it is limited to those who have earned it, “appalling” – this in a series brimming with descriptions of men sexually attacking and murdering women in much more gruesome, disturbing, and pathological ways.  But when men are violent they are just being men.  When one male character can’t wait to beat up a wrong-doing man, he considers it just being “pissed off.”  Others might consider him “a macho cowboy” – violence makes him all the more masculine.

Larsson’s leading female character is too impressive for her to be feminine or even female.  A male character with her abilities would be uber-masculine, an action hero.  But as a “girl” Salander is entirely abnormal.  As a child she acts like a boy, then as an adult she looks like a boy and acts like a lunatic.  Whether or not these books are feminist in some ways, their heroine is a warning to women not to over-achieve.

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