Dude, huh?

Hey Daniel Michael Satele,

I’ve read your piece on Billy Apple few times now and I’m confused. On one hand, the title ‘Can I live?’ in reference to the Billy Apple piece “The Artist has to Live like Everybody Else” seems to be about the way Pacific/ PoC artists/ writers are marginalised within sites of institutionalised whiteness, like art galleries. But there’s a few links in your argument that I’m not following:

Name-dropping, personal branding, exposing the commodification of the artwork within the work itself … OK … so what? This is old hat today. Rihanna is on the radio singing “turn up to Rihanna” in a song called “Bitch Better Have My Money.”

The point for me isn’t the self-referentiality of self as commodity. What’s more interesting is that Rihanna is referring to herself as a commodity and it has absolutely no impact on our consumption of her. There is very explicit depiction of wealth in that video and a lots of pornified/ strip club imagery, and  it doesn’t repulse us, even though the depictions of Black women’s bodies in that clip evoke slavery. How is it that we are so lulled into capitalism-apathy by that music videos like that? Isn’t it that we accept it as part of the bargain we have with the music industry? Commodification is okay – as long as it’s slick – because we are expecting to be entertained.

So Billy Apple’s work doesn’t work like that. It refers to itself and as art as a commodity, but we are uneasy. We don’t accept the argument that it operates on the same-as-usual basis. Having it in a gallery or named as art disrupts the historicity and the familiarity of the object.

So I watched Christina Barton’s video on Youtube about the Billy Apple Retrospective, and I liked it. I liked that she addressed the self-portraiture running through the works. I liked that she reached out to engage with you about your words. Calling her out didn’t sit well with me. What was that about?

Tulia

 

Pasifika, Political, and Proud: Three Reasons Pasifika People Should Vote Out Key

So Three News had a story today June 10th on “Pacific voters” turning out for John Key in Mangere. They included a quote by National candidate Misa-Fia Turner, saying that Gay Marriage is one of the main reasons for Pasifika voters turning from Labour to National. Misa-Fia Turner says

“that’s important to us because that’s really against our moral values”.

For a start, the same-sex marriage bill has already passed in April last year. It was a conscience vote, meaning MPs could vote as they saw fit, not along party lines. It passed by 77 votes to 44, which included 27 National MPs voting for it. John Key voted for it. Misa-Fia Turner was really misrepresenting her own party.

Secondly, when National candidate Misa-Fia Turner says gay marriage is “against our moral values”, I wonder how she has managed to miss out on so much Pasifika gay and fa’afafine awesomeness, like this incredible art and cultural project.

I am a Pasifika voter. I am queer/ bisexual. I am accepted by my family and community. My past partners have been accepted by my family. Get over it. It’s certainly not a voting issue.

Pasifika peoples are pretty diverse, and of course you can’t really presume we have the same values and beliefs. But there are some issues that are significant to Pasifika peoples. Here are my top three reasons for Pasifika people to vote out National by voting Labour or left of Labour (Greens party, Mana and Internet party) based on actual issues facing Pasifika communities, and the things we collectively value.

1) We love our kids. Pasifika people know that we are all responsible for the next generation. We think in terms of our communities. Pasifika peoples in New Zealand are a youthful population, meaning that we have a lot of young people. Under the National government, child poverty has increased. We’ve seen how the children of beneficiaries have been made to suffer through Paula Bennett’s approach to welfare. We’ve seen how many young families are not meeting the cost of living even when there is a full-time earner, because wages are too low and the cost of living is too high.

Labour has policies aimed at increasing employment and minimum wage. Both the Greens and Mana/ the Internet party go even further towards stopping child poverty, by having policy aimed at better supporting beneficiary families. The current government is making things worse. It’s a no brainer.

2) We care about the health and well-being of our communities. Our communities are facing a lot of chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. After adjusting for inflation, the National government is spending less on health across 2015. In real terms, that means cutting services and probably increasing waiting times.

Both Labour and the Greens have health policy aimed at improving health by spending more. The Greens have policy specifically aimed at improving the health of populations with low health status, like Pasifika peoples. Mana is focusing on tobacco restrictions, and would introduce free after-hours medical care for children under 16 years and for senior citizens.

3) We care about the Pacific, the Pacific ocean, and its peoples. Where we come from is so important to us. We are connected to vanua. We are connected to the sea around us. The islands of Kiribati are facing potentially becoming uninhabitable in the next 30-60 years because of the impact of climate change, which is already causing salt water contamination of fresh water and crop soil. People having been talking about being ‘climate voters’ which is bipartisan, but from my perspective the only party significantly engaged with climate change is the Greens.

 

Primitivism, Poetry and the Representation of Pasifika peoples.

Michael Botur recently wrote an article on The Big Idea about Pasifika poetry called ‘Mouths from the South’. He focuses mostly on the spoken word poetry associated with South Auckland Poets Collective, but also draws in notable Pasifika poets including Karlo Mila and Selina Tusitala Marsh. Throughout the article, Botur maintains a tone of mild condescension, stating:

 [Writers like Mila and Marsh] set the scene for several NZ poets who wouldn’t be in print at all were it not for Pacific publishers, leaving old fashioned scribes behind.

Hang on, who we are leaving behind?

The article has already been challenged through a response piece on Facebook by poet Grace Taylor, and poetry heavyweights Tusiata Avia and Hinemoana Baker have left stunning responses in the comment section (you can read them by scrolling down from Botur’s article).

What I want to explore here is how Botur draws unwittingly on a discourse of primitivism, that shapes his condescending interpretation of Pasifika poets. Primitivism is a discourse that originated from Europe during the colonial period. Most basically, it was a means of describing Indigenous peoples as ‘primitive’ in comparison to so-called ‘civilised’ people in the West. Primitivism is associated with a series of binary oppositions that prop up the authority of West in relation to ‘the Rest’, who were seen as ‘lesser than’. So the so-called ‘civilised’ were associated with the mind, rationality, and progress, whereas the “primitive” were linked with the body, ‘myth’ and the past.  Primitivism wasn’t a benign misunderstanding of Indigenous cultures. It has legitimised over a century of political, military, economic, social and educational interventions into the lives and lands of Indigenous peoples.

Botur’s article draws on primitivism by casting Pasifika poets as naive and uneducated in comparison to Pakeha poets and the Western canon of poetry. He says:

Few SAPC poems utilise stanza, metre or stress. Gushing torrents of unstructured personal commentary full of I, me and myself are commonplace, punctuated by dramatic pauses and breaks for laughter. MIT’s creative writing teachers may well be inventing their own rules for poetry; then again, the internet seems to be the predominant teacher of creative writing out south.

There is a sly, derogatory tone in “inventing their own rules” here that conveniently forgets that the Western canon also tells a story of innovation. Ironically, the SAPC poets I have heard utilise metre and stress far more than contemporary Pakeha poets, because the Western canon has shifted towards free verse, which is purposefully unstructured. A critic who criticised Pakeha poets for not utilising stanza, metre or stress would be a laughing stock.

Botur makes repeated reference to the lack of alcohol at some SAPC events. Again, this hints at the colonial, historical depictions of Pasifika people as naive, or childlike. He says  “The February SUP reading I attended was a sea of backwards caps in a well-lit café serving non-alcoholic drinks” and later, “Alcohol is embedded in almost any poetry event in Auckland – except out south, where the poets get high on life.” I think Botur’s target here maybe what he describes as a distinctive theme in Pasifika poetry, our so-called “non-threatening puritanism”. Again, what is noticeable is that Pasifika people are being associated with religiosity – not as a statement of fact – but as a way of signalling our backwardness, compared to imagined, sophisticated Pakeha poets. Using alcohol consumption as a marker of poetic sophistication is a strange one. What was missing was the immediate context (the event Botur attended was for all ages).

Botur’s article is concerned with inherited knowledge. On one hand, he casts Pacific poets as aping their American counterparts, rather than innovating a particular spoken word art form, by saying “Stand Up Poetry (SUP) typically features poets emulating Def Poetry Jam performers, whether they realise it or not”. But then, later on, he seems concerned that Pacific poets have not sufficiently inherited the knowledge of the Western canon:

“None of the influential poets Worley and Pale list are long-dead British blokes; instead, most influence comes from digital age people on the South Auckland circuit who can be viewed on YouTube.”

Certainly, this claim is delegitimising. It speaks to an expectation that poets should be influenced by the Western literary canon, and conflates it with a technophobic and generational concern that young people will be influenced by people on YouTube, instead of by the written (and presumably non-electronic) written word. A central aspect of primitivism as a discourse has been the privileging of the written word over spoken language. A belief that spoken language is less civilised, that spoken language is less considered and therefore less eloquent then written text. Botur forgets that Shakespeare was also writing to works to be performed to crowds. I have no doubt that if Shakespeare was alive today, he would also be producing works and sharing them by YouTube.

Finally, Botur describes South Auckland poetry as having “an obsession with ethnicity and otherness”. His use of the word ‘obsession’ is an attempt to trivialise racial politics and Otherness as a significant theme. Botur’s article highlights – through it’s banal reproduction of primitivist discourses about the Pasifika Other – why Pasifika poets and critical thinkers have to stay on theme. Young Pasifika poets write and speak about their experiences of Otherness because they are continually experiencing marginalisation. So often, depictions of Pasifika peoples are coloured by historical, racist tropes.  I see the work done by Grace Taylor, Daren Kamali and others from South Auckland Poet’s Collective as providing a much needed space for telling our own stories.  Botur’s article did not tell us much about mouths from the South. An alternative title might have been “Words from the West”.

4 Ways To Really Push Back Against Your Privilege

Mia McKenzie is a fab QPOC writer, but her post on “4 Ways to Push Back Against Your Privilege” totally irked me. The premise was great. She explains that privileged folks sometimes get as far as acknowledging their own privilege, but then think that is all they need to do. What was more difficult for me was that the strategies she outlines are very self-focused, they focus on reducing your privilege as if it is a private stash of social capital, instead of actually dismantling the structural systems of oppression we actually need to dismantle in order for things to change. The problem with seeing your own privilege as a guilty stash of opportunities that just need to turned down is that a whole lot of well-meaning, academically-educated, left leaning folk can do exactly that and the only tangible effect will be that they feel less guilty. The systems that bring about structural inequalities will still be in place. So here is my poor Pacific queer woman version of how you can really push back against your privilege.

1. Fight The Power

McKenzie’s first method to push back against privilege is to “Relinquish Power”, which on the surface seems quite good. I’m all for white, able-bodied, straight, cis-people thinking about the ways that the social ease they are given produces rewards they don’t really deserve, and then figuring out ways to redistribute them. My problem with McKenzie’s explanation is that it shifts privilege too simply into something which can be given up by an individual. She gives an example of a white manager “pushing back” by taking on the opinions of her POC workers. My problem with this is that even when white managers take on the opinions of POC workers, the structural inequalities that so often hierarchically position white workers above POC workers are intact. There is no real challenge to structural racism, or to global capitalism as a system that produces racialized hierarchies. If you really want to push back, you can’t just turn down the advantages that forms of privilege give you and think that you are doing enough. Why? Because structural inequalities (via gender, race, class, ability, sexuality or gender identity) reproduce forms of violence and harm for some at the same time as they reproduce privilege for others. The real issue is recognizing that when you are being privileged someone else is being harmed. And even when you are privileged by a system, that doesn’t mean you are the only winner. Class privileges middle-class, first world kids, but the real winner is capitalism. You can turn down your labelled clothing or your entry ticket to a top-notch university, but unless you are doing more to protest against multinational corporations, trade deals, the pervasive spread of neoliberalism or poverty, you are still part of reproducing the status quo.

2. Speak Out.

McKenzie’s second point is that when you have access to something that others do not, just don’t go. She gives the examples of not going to an event which isn’t wheel-chair accessible when you are able-bodied, or to a woman’s event that excludes transwomen. She’s pointing out that privileged people need to sacrifice things that they are used to being given automatically. And this is a fair call. But really, it’s not going to undermine privilege in any way because privilege is often institutionalised, and reproduced through long histories of exclusion. And while you might have the luxury of not going and therefore feeling good about your cis-privileged and able-bodied self, people who are marginalized don’t have the same opportunities to be heard. So instead, complain loudly to everyone who will listen about how such-and-such event is unjust. If an event you are interested in doesn’t have disability access, email the organisers and complain. Don’t just leave it to people with disabilities to have to fight for their own right to be included. Exclusion is about everyone.

3. Name it and Figure out how to Change it. Dialogue.

Okay, so this is really reiterating the last points. McKenzie suggests that people with privilege “Shut up” in those spaces where their privileged voices carry more weight. And I think that’s a great start. But so often what I find really challenging is when power dynamics are at play and one person or groups systematic advantage is not named. It’s not enough to be quiet. Here’s why. The way I’ve really witnessed male privilege being reproduced is when “nice, average guys” stay quiet and don’t name the way sexism or misogyny is playing out. Staying quiet can work covertly with the way privilege is made invisible. Recently in Aotearoa, there has been a lot of ongoing public dialogue about rape culture. It’s frustrating to me that women have been having to bear the brunt of this by talking out about our experiences of rape culture as survivors, while men have stayed relatively silent about the impact of rape discourses on their own actions.

4. Be careful about what ideas and structures you reproduce.

McKenzie’s final point is to “Be careful what identities you claim”, arguing that you shouldn’t claim a marginalized identity if you don’t have a marginalized experience. She uses this unjustly to challenge “white-presenting” POC who apparently:

” claim POC but by their own admission don’t experience oppression based on race”

This statement is scary enough to me that I’m considering writing a whole blog-post about oppression and being a fairly pale POC (admittedly as a Pacific woman in Aotearoa we are discussing very different contexts), but what I want to focus on here is the way that making sense of racial or ethnic identity as solely based on skin-color buys into the system of imperialism, colonization and racism that we are trying to undo. Like McKenzie, I think attending to marginalized experience is really important. But sometimes even in well-meaning activist talk, categories of people get reproduced in very binary, rigid and stereotypical ways. We need to be careful that we are not reproducing violence through perpetuating a system of meaning that was created by the oppressors. I get really frustrated with how well-meaning Pakeha (white New Zealanders) sometimes talk about the negative social indicators connected to “Pacific peoples” in ways that seem to reinforce messages of social futility. Likewise when middle-class people talk about people living with poverty, or when straight cis-privileged people talk about diverse gender expression in ways that naturalize heteropatriarchy. For example, it’s not ” respecting gender diversity” to give a masculine-identified trans-kid a toy gun. It’s reinforcing the heteropatriarchal ideas that masculinity is about the ability to use violence, and that force is a valid way to solve conflict.

Finally, challenging oppressive structures takes a lot of hard work over time, often for small gains. So often what we really need to do is to build a critical counter-public, and it’s hard to know how to work together. I’d love to get some feedback about these ideas and how to practically challenge privilege and the systems that produce them.

Gaga meets R.Kelly: Why Gaga Feminism is White Feminism

Near the end of last year, Clementine Ford called out Lady Gaga’s collaboration with R.Kelly as another example of when a celebrity woman who is seen as “fierce” and “fearless” collaborates with a man known for his (sexual) violence against women. Clementine points to a broader misogynistic celebrity culture, where violent men have been repeatedly excused for their behaviour. I think it’s also important to think about Gaga’s collaboration with R. Kelly in relation to the intersections of the institutional privileging of whiteness, the commodification of Black bodies, and in particular the devaluation of Black girls and women. More than anything, Gaga’s collaboration with R.Kelly speaks to me about how a Gaga-centric version of feminism is white feminism, a narrative that calls for recognition of white women’s sexual agency (and the sexual agency of gays and lesbians) but which continues to promote the privileging of whiteness and the degradation of women of color.

Jessica Hopper’s excellent interview with Jim DeRogatis, the journalist who has been responsible for trying to bring R. Kelly’s sexual violence against young Black women to the public eye, gives a profoundly disturbing account of the multiple accusations against R.Kelly. It’s worth reading in it’s entirety, so there are really two aspects that I want to draw on here. Firstly, that the ongoing accusations by young girls as meant that there has been an ongoing celebrity climate of suspected knowledge about this, which has been tolerated within the celebrity and music industries. It’s not that Lady Gaga wouldn’t be aware of the accusations against R.Kelly. Derogatis discusses the ‘vicarious thrill’ available to listeners who are aware of the accusations when R.Kelly’s lyrics repeatedly refer to sexual violence.

Secondly, Jim DeRogatis poignantly sums up what is at the heart of the music and media industries continued dismissal of the considerable evidence against R.Kelly. DeRogatis says:

The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody. They have any complaint about the way they are treated: They are “bitches, hos, and gold-diggers,” plain and simple.

So how is it possible that a celebrity like Gaga – who is largely read by a white feminist audience as someone who if not self-consciously at least conspicuously troubles dominant representations of gender and femininity – can collaborate with R.Kelly? Certainly, feminist and queer attention has preoccupied with our ability to give feminist readings of her visual aesthetics and at times, have offered ambivalent readings of aesthetic acts of cultural reappropriation. There is a broader need to bring deconstructive analyses more closely into conversation with analyses of media industry within contemporary global capitalism.

But what I want to focus on here is how Lady Gaga’s collaboration with R.Kelly, in the song and video for “Do What U Want” gives us insight into how whiteness continues to function as a privileged system of meaning-making that can be invoked in white women’s sexual agency, but that simultaneously continues to promote the exploitation of black women and girls. I’m deliberately not going to include a link to the song and video – obviously you can google it – but it would be too at odds with my stance to drive people to it.My contention is that in a media context where there has been ongoing speculation about R.Kelly’s sexual violence against young Black women, Gaga’s lyrics “Do what you want, what you want with my body” needs to be read in the context of a politics of differential consent. In the black and white video clip, Gaga is straddling R.Kelly who is standing. Gaga wears a black bikini, R.Kelly is fully clothed (including black leather pants and a kilt). The context of “Do what you want..” looks erotic, where the most obvious reading is Gaga giving permission to Kelly to enact his sexualized agency over her body-as-object.

Through the lens of white feminism, Gaga’s actions and phrasing can be read as a call for sexual agency. It almost slightly invokes a popularized bdsm narrative (think Fifty Shades) where Gaga is self-consciously occupying submission. It looks like Gaga is laying claim to sexual pleasure from the passive subject position that women are subscribed to in a way that subverts its imagined lack of agency.  At it’s most liberatory, the lyrics can be interpreted as a deliberate wink at the media’s representation of women’s bodies, her negotiation with the industry, and her perhaps less evidenced claim that “you can’t have my heart and you won’t have my mind”.

But we need to be able to read this as a racialized narrative. Recall bell hooks famous argument about the commodification of black bodies for white consumption, as bodies which as able to create a salient, edgy cultural capital for white people. Bell hooks points out that this ‘edgy’ representation is links to historical representations of black bodies as slaves. That is, black bodies are still made available as bodies-to-be consumed for white pleasure.

My reading of “Do what U Want” is that the extent to which a video where Gaga appears to be giving sexual permission to R. Kelly looks edgy and sexually liberating rests on  America’s social history of anti-miscegenation (which included anti-miscegenation laws in various states between 1913-1948) and white fears of Black masculinity as “hyper-masculinity”. The pervasive fear of Black men raping White women was invoked in the 1915 film Birth of a Nation and has been used to bolster white supremacy, and ongoing acts of institutional and direct violence against Black men. So at first glance, Gaga seems to be taking back white women’s sexual agency and decision-making from white men, and explicitly invoking the possibility of white women’s sexual desire for Black men. Yet this sexual desire is still transfigured through a rape story, that both the phrasing “Do what you want..” and the video positions Gaga and R. Kelly’s bodies as if his body were more powerful. The pleasure of the video then, for consumption by Gaga’s fan base, might be simultaneously in the consumption of R. Kelly’s body as a site of eroticized Black masculinity, and in the slippage between imagined desire/ sex between R.Kelly and Gaga as boundary crossing or rape fantasy.

When Gaga says “Do want you want…with my body” who is she speaking for? What kinds of permission-giving is she invoking? For white women, it certainly looks like increased sexual agency. But for women of color, non-white female bodies have repeatedly been invoked as a site of hypersexuality on one hand, and on the other have been subjected to ongoing bodily interventions by the state and it’s privileged players (forced sterilizations, genocide, slavery and so on). The consequences of “Do what you want..” are very different for white women and women of color.  What if we imagine the “you” invoked as a powerful you, as the narrative suggests, as a “you” we would rebel against?

Perhaps cynically, we can read Gaga’s collaboration with R.Kelly as a form of public permission-giving. It functions in celebrity-land as a means of signalling that despite the testimonies of the young Black women raped by him, that R.Kelly is okay and is respectable as an artist. It is effective because the testimonies of young Black women are worth so much less than the public consent granted by Gaga as a white celebrity.

Finally, as DeRogatis points out public speculation about sex with underage girl feeds into the subtext of R.Kelly’s songs and is part of what makes his lyrics that implicitly seem to refer underage sex more real, edgy and exciting. Gaga’s call to “Do what you want..to my body” reads like privileged sexual permission-giving that invokes other instances of (real and imagined) differential consent. Gaga can give consent to R.Kelly precisely because her ability to consent has not been impuned; she is white, over age, and economically powerful. Not so the young Black women that R.Kelly usually has non-consensual sex with, as per their testimonies. So Gaga can appear edgy and contentious precisely because of the sexual exploitation of young Black women, in context that further silences Black women’s experiences of sexual violence.

What should we say about Bevan Chuang? An Intersectional Feminist Analysis

 

Auckland Mayor Len Brown’s two year affair with Bevan Chuang has evoked inevitable furore, including media speculations about the future of his political career. But amidst the fallout, I’m beginning to notice some uncomfortable, misogynist threads in how we are thinking and talking about his lover, Bevan Chuang. There has been tabloid-like coverage that has seizeed on her burlesque-style photos and that seems to pathologise her desire for public attention. There’s a satirical open letter by blogger Inside Flat3, calling Bevan Chuang out about her publicity seeking, and criticising her actons for perpetuating sexist and racist stereotypes about Asian women:

Thank you also for representing women of Asian-ness on the Ethic People’s Advisory Panel. We now know that we can count on you for bringing our issues to the fore, particularly the sordid hypersexualisation of our kind.

Hang on. Let’s just stop and unpack some of the misogyny.

Firstly, it’s worth remembering that within neoliberal capitalist conditions and amidst the neverending onslaught of media images, sex sells. Media representations of women are highly sexualised. There is a paradoxical cultural requirement for young women to be sexy, and at the same time act as moral gatekeepers to stop sex deemed inappropriate from happening. The whole Miley Cyrus Sinead vs. Amanda issue seems to me to revolve around how much we see young women’s public sexuality as a site of potential agency and empowerment, or as a site of exploitation and degradation. But I digress. My point is that it’s worth remembering that Len Brown and Bevan Chuang aren’t likely to be equally tarnished by this, and that this is because women are more likely to be held responsible in the public imagination.

Media criticism of Chuang as “publicity-seeking” rests fairly heavily on our delineation of what we deem as significant within the public sphere, and what issues we deem frivolous or lightweight. Seeking public attention as a political candidate is clearly politically-savvy. The difference with Chuang is that she has sought attention for matters deemed “private”; sex and relationship status, and so on.  What we find problematic about Chuang’s “publicity-seeking” is that it troubles the distinction between public and private spheres, and is linked to what we consider feminine and therefore not newsworthy.

I’m really uncomfortable with the suggestion that Chuang should somehow be held responsible for how the media is evoking racialised and sexualised representations of Asian women. Certainly, Inside Flat 3 are right on to refer to the  dominant, exotified representations of Asian women as seductive, erotic Others. The problem with their analysis is that they blame and shame Chuang for this representation, instead of noticing that Chuang’s representation has been excessively racialised, while Len Brown’s representation has not been racialised at all. I have not seen any media including mention that he is Pakeha, or asking the Pakeha community whether they feel let down by him. That’s called white privilege.

Let’s come back to the issue of agency, because culpability -and whether this is linked to character – is really being evoked in the media coverage.  Lots of people on the left are saying that this matter should be left out of news and politics. The idea is that Brown’s affair is a private matter that has nothing to do with his capacity to lead, or his integrity. It’s an understandable position. But on the flipside of this defense of Brown, is the sly suggestion that Chuang has acted inappropriately – that she has spoken to the media to gain publicity. Perhaps what stirs this idea is a sense that she has wielded her intimate relationship with Brown for her own gain.

So let’s talk frankly about power. Media have rather viciously reported that Chuang was attracted to Brown’s power and influence. I am reminded that we live in a culture where men are still routinely given access to power and privilege, and where being a woman (or linked to the feminine) is still routinely linked to a lack of power. And within this context, sexuality is often seen as a site of women’s “power over” men. The heterosexist narrative of attraction typically casts women as alluring and men as active agents with an inability to resist. And yet, feminist commentators have pointed out that if sexuality yields a form of gendered agency for women, it is remarkably limited. So yes, maybe Chuang is a young woman who used her sexuality to gain very marginal public prominence. Maybe that makes sense in a world where migrant women have limited avenues for accessing the public spotlight. What is more obvious to me is that being powerful increased Brown’s sex appeal. And that because of this, Brown used his access to power and influence to gain access to sex.

As feminists, I think we need to be able to think critically about how men use power to gain sex as part of how men “do” masculinity. Chuang was right to point out the obvious parallel to Lewinsky. We need to see the sex scandals of powerful men as part of a broader narrative about heterosexuality and power, and the way powerful masculinities are incredibly salient.

 

 

 

Love Radically: Some words about trans/ cis romantic and intimate relationships and intersecting axes of difference.

Okay, so I just read Mia McKenzie’s interesting and challenging list on 8 Ways Not to be An Ally. Mia is a writer I hugely respect. But the item on dating sat uncomfortably with me, and awoke some tensions I’ve been trying to work through in my own thinking and politics – not because I don’t think that fetishism and exotification are important – but instead because I think we need to make sense of relationships in even more complicated ways, and make sense of the way intersecting axes of difference can operate differently across different aspects of relationships. Mia McKenzie writes:

 Some folks seem to think that the quickest way to lifelong allyship status is to just date all the people who resemble those that one claims to exist in solidarity with. Anti-racist? Date all the POC! And be sure to do so exclusively and with no analysis whatsoever about fetishism, exotification, or the ways your white body might be interrupting POC space! Cuz, hey, you’re an ally and stuff. Right? Ew.

I want to discuss some aspects of my long-term relationship with my ex-partner as a means of extrapolating what I mean by intersecting axes of difference and power, and the way these complex intersections play out in relationships. And simultaneously, I want to use an intersectional feminist analysis to deconstruct some of the uneasy assumptions about what it means to be a partner and ally, and raise important questions about how we think about partners – as either allies, limited term allies, or as non-allies (because of the potential for exotification or fetishization).

Firstly, Mia’s statement is about making sense of people who don’t just have one relationship with someone from an Othered or marginalised category (i.e. a POC or a trans person say), but who continually date people from that group. Is that fair enough? Is that just a reasonable means of identifying people who may be threats, who fetishize a particular group? Here’s where it gets more complicated for me.

I am a Kailoma (mixed-race) Fijian/ Tongan/ Pakeha queer femme genderqueer cis woman from a poor background. My ex-partner is a white middle-class bisexual trans woman. While we were together, I sometimes experienced hostility from other white trans women who felt that I was ‘cis privileged’ and didn’t like my participation in trans events. I was also called a “tranny chaser”, and when I spoke to other lesbian cis women who were partnered with trans women, I found that they had also been called “tranny chasers”.

So my then-partner and I had a big talk about how we saw privilege and power operating in our relationship, and between us. We agreed that while there were a small handful of situations where my cis privilege meant that I experienced more social ease than my love, by and large her whiteness and class privilege trumped my cis privilege in most areas of our lives together. This doesn’t mean that the social ease given to cis people wasn’t real or relevant in our lives. It means that class and race are such forceful social mechanisms that in most situations being non-white and from a poor background made me relatively disadvantaged in relation to her.

We need to think carefully about how axes of difference play out in intimate relationships. It’s not much that one person holds privilege and that necessarily extends to “power over” the other person. It’s often more that privilege creates access to wealth or resources that the other person might not have to hand. And that, in an intimate relationship, if one person continuously experiences less access to resources, that may amount to a relative lack of power. This relative lack of power might play out as a diminished ability to make decisions in the relationship that effects both people.

But of course, what happens in a relationship like mine where a couple are negotiating multiple differences is that you experience privilege differently in different sites. So in lesbian nightclubs or queer events that were more multicultural, my status as cis would mean that I would experience more social ease than my partner (women might exotify me, but my identity as a woman wouldn’t be questioned). But at university, my partner’s whiteness and class background created an pervasive ease and sense of belonging that I didn’t have. Her whiteness acted as a buffer in an educated academic setting. And because under capitalism, work and education have more impact on our overall lives than social relationships do, she was relatively privileged in relation to me.

But what does this mean when a couple might – like us – negotiate different cultures and classes alongside different gender identities or sexualities? Does it mean that her whiteness acted as the most powerful lens and I was racially exoticized? Does it mean that my cis status acted as the most powerful lens and she was fetishized? What if I told you that her previous partner was also non-white? What if I told you that another former partner of mine is currently exploring their gender identity? Are we both freaky perverts for daring to border-cross? Or were we delusional for imagining that we could find genuine love, intimacy and fairness across differences?

It’s worth recalling Braidotti’s claim that in the West, difference is colonized to denote relative power –  so our delineations of ‘self’ and ‘other’ become a means of creating and reinforcing social hierarchies. Difference outside of this context of meaning-making might be neutral. So we can question the ways in which we view ourselves and others in light of the cultural value we assign, and how this produces power relations.

One of the biggest problems I have with the “tranny-chaser” perception of trans-partners is that perpetuates another binary between the “good” trans-partner/ally and the “bad” “tranny-chaser” that doesn’t speak to the complexities of relationships and ongoing need for dialogue between partners. In the first year of our relationship, I probably unequivocally saw myself as the “good” trans-partner/ ally. That’s because we hadn’t been together long enough for me to know that we would eventually need to have hundreds of difficult and painful conversations about gender. Not because I wasn’t entirely on her side, whatever that might be. But because over time we realized that we understood gender entirely differently, and we had different perceptions of what ‘woman’ meant, which was as much about our different racial backgrounds as it was about our cis/ trans status. My belief that I was an ally – on the basis that I believe trans women are women who should have equal access to rights and dignity as cis woman – didn’t necessarily amount to a shared understanding of my partner thought was important about her gender. And as much as I wanted to truly recognize my partner the way that she saw herself – because I wanted her to feel recognized and validated in our relationship – I couldn’t always understand gender in the way that she did. Equally, we have had hundreds of difficult conversations about cultural appropriation, classism and racism.

Hundreds of conversations about differences probably sounds exhausting, and it definitely could be. But I actually think that overall it is something we did pretty well. It’s hard to have to constantly be trying to put your own preconceptions to one side, and listen wholeheartedly to someone else. It takes a lot of love and compassion to carry you across that gap in worldviews. And strength of character to hold on to different perceptions where they are important for your own sense of authenticity and self. You need to talk heaps about gender and race, and at the same time hold on those feelings of love and connection that make relationships worthwhile.

I like how Sandoval has talked about love as creating radical possibilities for alliance across differences. I guess if I were talking to a trans and cis queer couple contemplating a relationship despite differences in culture and class background, my advice would be to love radically. Fetishization happens when someone views another person as less than who they are, because their viewpoint is obscured by a cultural stereotype. They classify the person as an erotic Other. I loved my ex-partner as a whole, complex and unique person. I wasn’t afraid to love her trans-ness, but I also loved the complexity of her story, her ideas and insight beyond being trans. I loved her enough to listen carefully, and ask questions, and disagree and try again. You need love, mutual respect, and a commitment to ongoing dialogue about how salient social differences impact on your ability to relate to each other.