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?



Feminist Failures and Feminist Bargaining: Negotiating Hetero-patriarchal Culture while being Feminist

I’m reflecting on ‘s piece in The Guardian yesterday about how she experiences serious self-loathing about her body and has a disordered relationship with food while simultaneously being feminist and promoting body love amongst her peers. Cosslett talks to Susie Orbach, who of course points out how incredibly pervasive distorted representations of women’s bodies are within patriarchal culture that feeds huge industries aimed at changing women’s bodies. Orbach questions Cosslett about whether she’ll continue to put up with it. Cosslett writes:

This question stuns me. I wasn’t aware that not putting up with it was even an option. “Become a refusenik!” she says, and I want to: I really want to.

Part of the complexity of Cosslett’s issue is that it feels shaming amongst her feminist, educated peers to admit that that eating is so problematic for her.  She says:

I was embarrassed, and furious, that I couldn’t seem to escape the cycle of self-loathing that I have railed against so often as a writer and editor.

The complexity of striving to adopt a feminist positionality in a context of both a subculture of feminist peers and pervasive messaging within hetero-patriarchial culture stuck a chord with me. There are a multitude of behaviours and heavily compromised “choices’ that we negotiate everyday in-between the poles of patriarchal subjectivity and what might be an idealised feminist subjectivity. All of which do not contain actual, equal, possible choices, because the social terrain we fight them on is so uneven. Should we have children? If so, can we raise them with pro-feminist consciousness but still have them invited to birthday parties? Should we ‘choose’ to be married, de facto, monogamous, same-sex monogamous, polyamorous or single? Should you shave your legs or not shave your legs? Can you ‘choose’ whether to lead in a male-dominated profession or fiercely advocate in a feminised profession; or stay-at-home doing hard nurturing labour with your pro-feminist genderqueer child; or not work within the capitalist system? Do you only fuck feminist-identified women; or only fuck feminist-identified men; or try to change the misogynist ideas of the man you end up fucking? I mean, none of these are really, in practice, experienced as “choices” because often our decision-making is so compromised by the plethora of intervening factors. And yet, they can induce self-judgment. There are many, many times when I’ve felt like I have failed at being a ‘good’ feminist.

Feminism is probably at it’s least useful when it becomes another means for women to police their own behaviour or other women’s behaviour in relation to a group ‘ideal’.

To draw on West and Zimmerman’s (1987) well-known paradigm of ‘doing gender’, it’s worth pointing out that the heteropatriarchial gender system works in part through ‘accountability’. The concept of ‘accountability’ is that when we make decisions about how we ‘do’ gender we know we are being held accountable to gender norms. There are privileges or ‘rewards’ for doing gender in a normative way. There are punishments when we don’t. Wanting to be ‘a good girl’ – or be valued in our culture – goes to right to the heart of ‘being’ a girl. Our early gender ‘interpellations‘ where we take on what it means to be gendered are often really about a desire to be good or loved.

So what happens if Cosslett takes on Orbach’s advise and becomes a ‘body image’ refusnik? It might mean she loses the some of the rewards she currently experiences for being thin. She might not experience the same level of praise, attention, desirability, be invited to the same parties, be able to wear the same clothes, or have the same sexual and romantic relationship options. She is likely to experience social policing and punishment for being fat. She might have friends, family and even strangers commenting on her body. She might be seen as less professional, not be promoted or not be employed. None of these outcomes are fair. All of these possible outcomes are misogynist. But they are realistic outcomes of not being compliant with body norms.

When I was in my early twenties I had disordered eating. Not because of adopting normative body ideas, but because the impact of non-consensual sexual acts in my teenage years made putting anything inside my mouth feel physically repulsive. I struggled with self-loathing, but I experienced an ongoing stream of praise from friends and family members and lovers about how good I looked. Thin meant beautiful. As I went through recovery and my body finally settled on being about a size 14 instead of a size 10, I stopped getting praised for my attractiveness. In my case, being on the other side of the terror I felt around eating was worth it but there was still a social cost for me.

There’s an interesting, complicated, old-fashioned feminist idea called ‘patriarchal bargaining‘ that seems useful to play with here. Patriarchal bargaining was a term coined by Kandiyoti (1988) when women fit in with a patriarchal norm – accepting a norm that disadvantages women overall – in order to increase their own individual power. So in this case, women might adopt beauty practices that continue to promote the hierarchialisation of women based on their bodies, because in reality it gives them more access to wealth or desirability on an individual basis.

It’s a useful idea, but it seems a little harsh when we consider what our options are. Isn’t that really what we are all having to do most of the time? Sometimes gaining status through privileged femininity might feel like ‘any means necessary’ when you are still socially devalued because of your gender, class and race.

So I propose the concept of ‘feminist bargaining‘. Feminist bargaining could be when you have feminist beliefs but also know you have to survive in hetero-patriarchal culture. So you make decisions about where you can live your feminist beliefs, and make decisions about how to survive when you can’t. And really this looks like a series of compromising negotiations with hetero-patriarchy, where most of the time hetero-patriarchy wins because it’s a powerful system of meaning-making supported by global capitalism, not just your high-school dean or your mother. In fact, some of the feminist bargaining you do in some areas of your life probably make it possible to fly the feminist flag in others.

You have to think about whether you are adopting particular practices to survive hetero-patriarchy, or whether you are adopting them to keep thriving while others experience violence or extreme marginalisation on the same scale. I think wealth is a good example here. Are female CEO’s of multinational corporations good feminists? I would say no. Even though they might be using masculinist tactics to swim within the corporate system; it is still too abhorrently unethical. They cause too much harm towards poor, working women, the environment, and other marginalised people.

If nothing else this issue reveals how limited the terrain of individual feminist decision-making is. When we think of feminist actions as the decisions we make in our individual lives, we are clearly facing an impossible tide. We need to move beyond neoliberal versions of feminism focused on the transformation of the ‘self’ – where feminism becomes just another way to govern your own body – to collective actions and goals.

Protest Challenges Police Handling of ‘Roast Busters’ Case.

puudae7Three young women wearing black chained themselves outside Auckland Central Police Station in a direct action against the police’s decision not to prosecute in the Roast Busters case. Their spokeswomen Genevieve Wilson explained that they were seeking accountability from the police, and recognition that the actions of the police have supported rape culture.

They called for a formal inquiry into the handling of the case, including the treatment of the female complainants by police. Their message to the female victims of the “Roast Busters” was that “We support you. We think you are really brave”.

The protest, that used the hashtag #silentVigil, was a powerful challenge to the New Zealand Police to be accountable for their inaction, and to be responsive in changing police culture and handling of sexual violence cases.

The protest of these three young women speaks to a much larger sentiment amongst New Zealand women that the New Zealand Police are failing us when it comes to sexual violence cases.

There’s a few complex and linked issues we could unpack about Police handling of the Roast Busters case. We need to ask questions about police actions, their knowledge about sexual violence and non-consent, and their handling of the case in respect to the kinds of messages they gave complainants and suspects.

Institutional sexism occurs through both overt mechanisms (like policies) and more obliquely through commonly held stereotypical beliefs. In this case, we need to think about whether the police culture is susceptible to some of the broader, pervasive sexist thinking that supports ‘rape culture’. Research by Shannon Chan (2013) points out that women are a minority in the New Zealand Police force, particularly at senior ranks. Shannon Chan’s research with female officers suggested that while they enjoyed the positive aspects of the force – like camaraderie – they tended to downplay sexual harassment and unwanted banter in order to ‘fit in’ and ‘be one of the boys’ within police culture. So, with a force where even female police officers need to ‘fit in’ with misogynist attitudes toward women, we have a problem.

Going forward, the key issue for the New Zealand Police is trust. Do the Police handle interviews and interactions with young women sensitively, and in a way that encourages them to make complaints and trust that their testimonies will be taken seriously? Can we trust them with our painful stories? Can we trust them to understand that liking a boy or going to a party or underage drinking is not the same thing as wanting sex?

The issue now is that the inability of the NZ Police to prosecute – when this was such a well publicised case, and when images of the boys and their Facebook messaging has been seen by most of the country – sends a far more damaging message to future victims and future perpetrators of unwanted sexual contact.

For women it reinforces the sense that we will not be taken seriously by the New Zealand Police, and that the experiences of women and girls are not as respected or valued. For boys and men it sends a message that the words of women and girls are not taken seriously. A message that some act of opportunistic, unwanted sexual contact with a girl is a risk that you can probably take.

To understand ‘rape culture’ we need to make sense of what beliefs and ideas allow rape to occur. To my mind, it’s really ways of thinking about girls and women where our lives and bodies are less valuable than the lives and bodies of men. So when the young men involved in the ‘Roast busters’ could put the esteem of their mates ahead of the feelings of the young women in front of them, that’s a rape-supportive culture. When young women don’t make statements because they are afraid of the reactions of their peers and families, that’s a rape-supportive culture. And when the New Zealand Police can lead a year-long investigation into the ‘Roast Busters’ and fail to hold the perpetrators to account, that’s a rape-supportive culture.

Meanwhile, bravo to the courageous young women that protested outside the Auckland Central Police Station today. It was an unsettling visual image to see young women with black gaffer tape across their mouths, an image that brought the silencing of young women to the fore. One woman held a sign that simply read “You failed us”.

A mass protest against rape culture and calling for police accountability is planned for the 22 November outside of the High Court at 1 pm.

Red Post-Election Blues.

There was a kind of depressed lull after the Sept 20 election, none of us on the left had much to say. I was overtaken with post-election blues; a kind of energy-sapping disappointment, frustration and despair. One of my friends posted a fb note saying that he was still processing, so could we please not talk to him about the election. I got together with a group of friends that week to provide mutual solace, and ended up kissing an environmental activist who walked me to my bus-stop. So clearly, there are always silver linings.

But overall I’ve felt that there is more to say –

We are facing an emerging picture of the impact a third National term will have. John Key has come out backing the so-called ‘child poverty’ advice of the Ministry of Social Development, even though MSD officials disregarded the main recommendations of the report. Ignoring research-based findings in favour of right-wing discourse smacks of arrogance, but clearly Key’s government feel they have a clear mandate from the election to keep rolling out quasi austerity policies.

I’ve felt disappointed by the election summations of the left. Chris Trotter gnashed his teeth about the gender quota issue in the Labour party, complaining that less than 1/5 New Zealand men gave their Party Vote to Labour. It’s interesting that even amongst the left, scapegoating marginalised groups – like women – who are more exploited for their labour is an acceptable practice. The failure of New Zealand men to vote Left speaks to the uneven distribution of  emotional labour and nurturing in our culture (i.e. that women are more often responsible for children and elderly) not the failure of feminism. It means New Zealand men largely voted in their own self-interest, rather than voting for the good of dependents. It also reflects New Zealand men’s greater earning power.

Labour is facing a four-way Leadership race between Nanaia Mahuta, David Parker, Andrew Little and Grant Robertson. I’ve felt really irritated by social media calls for people to vote on merit rather than ‘special interests’ or ‘political correctness’. It’s just really embarrassing that left-wing commentators have such a poor understanding of how structural inequalities work. Even if you are a die-hard old-school Marxist who puts the exploitation of the worker at the centre of your analysis, you should know that capitalism effects different groups of people differently, i.e. some workers are more exploited and exploitable than others. Because of the impact of structural racism (in education and the justice system for example) Maori and Pasifika peoples are more vulnerable to exploitation as low-paid workers. Even without that level of analysis, Maori and Pasifika voters did turn out for Labour, and deserve party accountability. That’s not even going near the politics of indigeneity, and what I would want to say about colonisation and Te Tiriti. So pull your heads in.

So is there a better way to theorise National’s landslide win? What stands out to me is the level of saturation of neoliberal discourse after the previous two National terms, and in a global context of ongoing austerity measures. Chomksy’s recent comments about the business classes in America fighting a ‘class war’ to challenge opposition, and discussion of the decimation of the union movement, have made reflect me on the impact on growing income inequality in New Zealand.

What if the failure of Labour to secure voters was less about political claims-making along a mutable political spectrum, and more about the division of haves and have-nots without the buffering “middle-class” we’ve generally seen?  Marx argued that we act in our own self-interest. The interests of the wealthy elite is far removed from the social and economic needs of New Zealand’s working class; perhaps why Cunliffe’s gesture towards raising the minimum wage didn’t make a dent in political consciousness.

What does it mean if New Zealand’s political process has come to represent the interests of the business classes?  We are already in a global environment where corporations have more power than individual governments. The only solutions I can think of lie with mobilising globally across different disenfranchised groups (like the global poor), and directly challenging corporations instead of simply channelling our efforts through government.

I’m really interested in hearing other people’s views on how we can create meaningful social change. Do we need to get radical?

Rape Complaints and Dating Apps: Time to Talk to the Boys

Three New Zealand women have reported being raped after meeting with men via the dating app Tinder (See NZ Herald article by Anna Leask). The Herald article quotes a warning from Detective Sergeant James Watson, Head of the Adult Sexual Assault Team, about in-person meet-ups with people you meet on-line:

“Women need to be very aware of who they are meeting when they are alone and without their friends.”

Really? Huh. I’m fairly sure Detective Sergeant Watson has just described the plot of every b-grade horror flick since the 1980’s. It’s roughly the plot of Little Red Riding Hood. Girl, be aware! Don’t go alone! You may have guessed I have some problems with this advice.

Why didn’t Detective Sergeant Watson have a warning for men who use dating apps like Tinder? You know, like don’t rape! Or even, men need to be very aware when using Tinder that sexual coercion is a crime. Sexual contact that is non-consensual is rape, regardless of whether the woman has agreed to meet with you. The Police’s safety message to women reflects a culture where we are still loading women with the responsibility to avoid rape, instead of telling boys and men not to rape.

Sociologist Jaclyn Friedman has argued that these kinds of messages are linked to our understanding of women as ‘sexual gatekeepers’. That is, we portray men as having sexual desire (which is difficult to control), while women are held responsible for whether or not sex happens. In 2011, Constable Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto Police officer, said “women should avoid dressing like sluts” to avoid unwanted sexual attention. This comment was what motivated the transnational movement ‘Slut Walk’, which protests against blaming rape victims, particularly excusing rape because of women’s clothing.

After the ‘Roast Busters’ saga last year, there is no doubt of the prevalence of rape culture, or that new social media has produced different possibilities for sexual violence. The prevalence of smart phones amongst young people simply means that of course loads of young women are going to meet people via dating apps or social networking. Telling girls not to go alone on dates seems pretty unhelpful, because it goes against the social logic of what a date is, i.e. an opportunity to get to know someone with the prospect of developing romantic feelings. This means by default that you aren’t going to know the person well, and that you are going to be alone.

Stopping rape means changing the context of heterosexual intimacy where men often engage in non-consensual sex with women they are dating, as social psychologist Nicky Gavey points out in her book ‘Just Sex: The Sexual Scaffolding of Rape’. Preventing rape means changing the ideas that boys and men have about themselves ( e.g. that they are entitled, that everyone else is getting it, that they are powerful or that they should be, that horniness is uncontrollable), and the ideas that they have about girls and women (e.g. that we are inferior or weaker, that our thoughts and feelings matter less, that our bodies are for their viewing pleasure). They need to know that a date does not mean she owes you.

It is already difficult for young women to come forward to police, and make complaints about sexual violence. The message the police should be giving women is that unwanted or coerced sex is never acceptable, and that if this occurs, they can talk to the police and be treated with respect and understanding.

Dear Lesbian

Dear Generic Lesbian,  Standing-in-for-all-lesbians Lesbian, Capital “L” Lesbian, Lesbian Captain Sir,

as a bisexual/ femme/ queer woman

via Facebook when I stumble across lesbian sites and lesbian events like http://www.lowdown.org.nz that extend an invitation to me as an afterthought “lesbians and their friends (of both genders)…” (and believe me this is not a new phenomenon)

I wonder if you have noticed that I have been out as long as you, marched on the same parades as you, danced at the same parties,  and fought the same fights. We have been lovers for a long time now, long-term friends, and once I even married you. There is no running away from this.

When I am invited, but the event or site is not “for me”, it is not “us”, I know that you do not see me as equal to you. A lover certainly. Perhaps even a partner. But not some-one that you need to recognise or give space too. Not “one of the team” in the same way you see your butch mates. That you see me as circumspect, able to slip away, able to “pass”, not someone who is worth investing in.

I am angry and I am over being polite. I have spent 20 years speaking queer politics out loud. I am femme and feminist and I have done my own work and I am not going to carry your butch insecurities for you.

So let’s get real clear about where this lies:

1.The fact that you forget me because I am not “the same” as you makes you the worst kind of lazy, egotistical lover.

2. The fact that I lose queer credibility because you are afraid that I might leave you for a man  is outdated, possessive and misogynist. We do not own our lovers. Who else I love is nobody’s business but my own.

3. If your sense of butchness/ masculinity is not enough for you regardless of who else I love or have loved, then that is your problem. And also the problem with butchness/ masculinity.

I respect and value myself enough not to invest in intimate relationships with people I can’t trust. That goes for political alliances too.  Until you can treat me as an equal, not as second-best, you can go your way and I will go mine.

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.

Yeah, Nah: On Satire, Survival and Why Good Allies Sometimes get it Wrong.

So social media is abuzz with Metro’s unfunny joke, and their explanation that it was satire aimed at drawing attention to the unjust way women and girls are blamed and shamed for rape, see: http://metromag.co.nz/editors-blog/on-satire-and-rape/#comment-1393.

So we asked, in our regular 20 Questions column: “After the Roast Busters saga, should there be a new criminal charge: ‘Drunk in charge of a vagina?’”

 I believe Simon about the intent. I found the previous editorial on rape culture perceptive and interesting (apart from the Taliban line, but that’s a whole different issue). In social justice speak, I definitely see Simon Wilson and Metro as an ally. I get that the intention was to satirize the conservative voices of those that victim-blame.

Here’s a deconstruction what left me uncomfortable. As a person with a vagina.

1. The humor relies on the shock factor of the word “vagina”. Most humor relies in someway on the unexpected, or an unusual juxtaposition. The phrasing “Drunk in charge of..” cues a vehicle, and the funny bit is vagina. Except, you now, vaginas aren’t so funny if you have one, because you are used to it being a part of your body. And you are used to misogynist culture where vaginas are seen as funny. And you know how funny vagina sounds to some people is probably because vaginas are often represented as being a bit gross.

2. You are used to the way mainstream popular culture has linked cars and women’s bodies, which are both represented as play things for men.

3. You notice “Drunk in charge of a vagina” has a disembodied woman in it. A woman who is just a vagina. You are tired of just being a vagina.

4. You know the joke is partially at police culture. You have heard the stupid stuff the police here and elsewhere have said that perpetuates victim-blaming. But it sticks in your throat when you have experienced it first-hand.

5. And if like me, you are actually a rape survivor, you might imagine someone else chuckling “Ha! Drunk in charge of a vagina. Good one, mate.” But the line seems to reverberate in your body. It echoes with the other things people say about rape, and the things that have been said to you. When am I going to get a sense of humor about rape? Yeah, probably not in this lifetime. Not when I live with the effects of trauma in my daily every day life.

What this issue highlights for me is the gap between being an ally, and being a woman or rape survivor on the receiving end of rape culture. Metro was well-intentioned, definitely not one of the bad guys. But the joke was still blinkered by the routine experience of male privilege, that is – men’s experience often stands in for what is considered “normal” or universal, and women’s experience is bracketed. He just didn’t anticipate that others might experience the joke differently, or have valid reasons for finding it uncomfortable.

It feels really hard to criticize the good guys, which is partially what prompted me to write this. Because rape culture is perpetuated by everyday sexism, and lot of it is not intentional or malicious. It’s just underpinned by gendered discourses that have different effects on men’s and women’s lives. We need to get more comfortable talking about how good folk do stupid stuff. And allies need to start asking how they can be good allies.

Pacific Communities and Rape Culture: 5 Things that Make it Hard to Speak Out about Rape.

The “Bust Rape Culture” marches throughout Aotearoa on Saturday 16 November showed public outrage about the actions of the “Roast Busters”, sexual violence, and the insufficient responses of police and government services. I’ve been avoiding writing about this issue because it is personally challenging for me. I am a survivor of sexual violence. However, in the dialogue about rape cultures that has emerged, there are a few voices I want to tautoko. New Zealand-born Samoan poet, Leilani Tamu has bravely spoken out on her blog Cultural Diplomacy about the experience of being raped as a teenager as part of the #I am Someone campaign: http://www.IamSomeonenz.wordpress.com. Then Carmel Sepuloni questioned on Facebook why more Pacific people weren’t involved in the Auckland march. She asked:

“…perhaps the messaging wasn’t right for our community….perhaps this just isn’t a priority????? The one sure thing is that rape culture affects the Pacific community like every other community. It is something that we as a community need to have a better understanding of and something that we need to talk more about”

So this is my list of five things that make it hard to speak out about rape. It is easier for men and boys to rape when they can trust that women and girls will not tell. When women and girls are afraid of the social consequences of telling, rape culture is perpetuated. Rape culture follows a broader cultural logic. It is connected to the devaluing of women and girls.

Please take this list as merely a starting point for a more diverse conversation, I am wary of generalising across Pacific communities. This list is not unique to Pacific communities, nor is it exhaustive.

  1. If it is difficult to talk about sex or genitalia, it is too difficult to talk about non-consensual sex.

       Many Pacific communities are faith-based communities. A lot of us have grown up in churches and families where we have been    taught that sex is inherently linked to sin, and that bodies are sinful. And our response to this is not to talk about sex or body parts at all. I hope that this is changing with the younger generation, but when I was growing up, all I had was vague understanding that an unnamed female part of my body was rude or dirty. So there is no way as a kid I would have said “Someone touched my vagina”. Firstly, I didn’t know I had one. Secondly, I would have thought that was a naughty, rude thing to say.

  2. We are afraid to shame our families.

My father brought us up with a strong sense of family loyalty and obligation, and the belief that I would always put my family before myself was so ingrained that it felt like air to me. And as a young woman, I can remember the deep fear I had of doing anything that might be shaming. And simultaneously, we are taught that being ‘a good girl’ means being like the Virgin Mary. So when I was raped as a teenager, I knew there was no way I could tell my Dad. For a start, I was raped by a boy I had been dating and I didn’t know how to start that conversation. I can remember thinking that Dad wouldn’t cope with knowing I wasn’t a virgin. It’s really vital that our young women feel they can speak out without being blamed and shamed, or fearing that their family might be shamed.

3. Girls need to know their lives and well-being are as important – not less important – than the family overall.

This is linked to the previous point. As a teenager I felt that it was more important to protect my parents from knowing I had been raped, than to get support about it. I don’t think that is an particularly unusual feeling. Young women can have a really invisible place within Pacific communities. Pacific kids are often taught to be respectful of elders, and not necessarily that their own body beings are deserving of respect. It’s important that young women know that their own lives and well-being is as important as anybody else’s.

4. Our communities sometimes normalise intimate and family violence.

This is a really difficult one to say, so let me clarify a bit. Firstly, Pacific communities like other minority communities are subjected to a lot of structural and institutional violence from outside. Within the Fijian community, we have to varying degrees taken up the colonial and missionary believe that sparing the rod spoils the child. I have had many bitter sweet conversations with other Pacific people where we joke about the hidings we had as kids. I can honestly tell you that corporal punishment I experienced as routine as a kid made violence feel ordinary to me. When I was raped, I believed on some level I deserved it by “provoking” a disagreement – I was trying to break up with my boyfriend. If we teach kids that might is right, then they will come to expect that physical force or hurt is a legitimate means of exerting will.

5. Our communities are understandably afraid of institutional racism.

Pacific people have a troubled historical relationship with New Zealand. Many of us have family experiences of the Dawn Raids during the 1970’s. We are used to Pacific people being represented as criminals. We are used to the negative statistics. And we are used to the lack of cultural awareness we experience within educational, medical and legal settings. So when we are raped, we are understandably afraid of how we might be treated by doctors and other health professionals, or by the police. I am even wary of how young Pacific men who have perpetrated sexual violence might be treated by police. This does not make it safe for women and girls to speak out.