It has been ages, and the links have really built up. I have just a couple very brief links/topics to share related to women’s history in Japan and China, before devoting the rest of the post to toxic masculinity, and the place of men and men’s issues in feminist discourse. These first two don’t quite fit the theme of the lengthy latter half, but as they’re too brief to put elsewhere, I figured I would just sort of tuck them in here, too.
*First, from Collectors Weekly, one of a number of articles and reviews published this spring in conjunction with the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s exhibit “Seduction: Japan’s Floating World.” Paintings and ukiyo-e prints of the beautiful women (bijin) of the Yoshiwara – Edo’s chief licensed pleasure quarters – have formed the core of Japanese art exhibits in the West since the late 19th century, or so I would imagine. But it is in the last year or two especially that museums have begun (again?) showing shunga – the more sexually graphic/explicit subgenre of ukiyo-e – in a major way. In this respect, Seduction is just the latest iteration, following up on recent shunga shows at the British Museum and Honolulu Museum of the Arts.
To put the focus on the women of the Yoshiwara, and their rather negative and oppressive experiences as prostitutes – essentially, sex slaves – is not entirely new. Cecilia Segawa Seigle acknowledges this serious, dark, aspect of the Yoshiwara in her groundbreaking 1993 book, prior to moving on to focus on the more positive sides of the Yoshiwara as a crucible of cultural flowering and so forth.1 Amy Stanley, in her 2012 book Selling Women, which I’ll be posting a review for at some point, returns to a focus on women’s rights, women as commodities, and so forth.
So, this is not entirely new, but still a fight very much still being fought, to shift the discourse, especially in art museums and art circles otherwise, away from purely talking about the beauty of the works, and about the Yoshiwara as a center of arts and fashion, and instead towards talking about the quite harsh world the Yoshiwara was for these women. As Lisa Hix writes in this Collectors Weekly article, quoting curator Laura W. Allen,
“… The art of the floating worlds ‘ukiyo-e,’ which means ‘floating world pictures,’ usually depicts those two subjects [the Yoshiwara, and the Kabuki theatre].”
But, of course, by and large, this free-floating sensation belonged to men. Allen suggests that we, as viewers, resist indulging in the fantasies of Yoshiwara prostitutes presented in the artworks, and instead, consider the real lives of the women portrayed. …
“Don’t take these paintings at face value,” Allen says. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, yes, it’s a picture of a beautiful woman, wearing beautiful clothing.’ But it’s not a photograph. It’s some artist’s rendition, made to promote this particular world, which was driven by economics. The profiteers urged the production of more paintings, which continued to feed the frenzy for the Yoshiwara.
No matter where the discourse within particular circles – e.g. among scholars, or among Asian-American communities – may go, the broader, more general, more widespread popular discourse changes only at a very slow pace. And it is that public to which museums are, to a certain extent, in certain ways, answerable. It is that public which the museum must speak to, in order to get them in the door, and it is that public which includes donors, trustees, and certain other influential stakeholders as well, regardless of what the curators may wish to do, sometimes…
Seduction has attracted considerable controversy, of a variety quite closely related to that of the protests against the kimono event at the Boston MFA. And, indeed, there is plenty of room for constructive criticism of the Asian Art Museum, and there is this much broader conversation to be had about Orientalism in the museum world. However, for the moment, I would like to just touch upon this point – of how curators and other scholars are beginning to focus more and more on the Yoshiwara as not only a “glittering world” of cultural efflorescence, but also on the very difficult and painful lives these women endured, as well as the women’s agency and/or lack of agency as to their situation, and the nuance and complexity this brings into it. Seduction attempts to bring this more nuanced, complicated, story, this less Orientalist, less exoticizing, less essentializing story to the public, to combat the reification of old stereotypes.
An image originally from the early 20th century magazine Beiyang huabao, reproduced on the blog We Drive East.
On a somewhat related note, turning to China, the practice of footbinding is easily among one of the most prominent, most widely known (albeit misunderstood), stereotypical things about Chinese women. From the time of the Tang Dynasty (7th-9th c.) onwards, Chinese women bound their feet in order to look more elegant; it was a practice which first emerged among dancers, then among elite women, and then spread to the common women by the Song Dynasty (10th-13th c.). By the Qing (17th-19th c.), the practice was so solidly ingrained, even the Manchu government, which successfully forced all men to shave their heads and wear their remaining hair in long queues, could not root out this practice.
And yet, it would seem that all along, Chinese women were also binding their breasts, a practice I, for one, had never heard about before.
The blog We Drive East talks about the history of the practice in some depth, as does a post on the website of the the All-China Women’s Federation. Aihua Zhang has published a journal article on “Women’s Breasts and Beyond A Gendered Analysis of the Appeals for Breast-Unbinding: 1910s-1920s,” and Antonia Finnane’s book Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation addresses this as well. The practice seems to have continued as late as the 1920s, when, by 1926-1927 or so, it became a prominent issue, being discussed at length in the Beiyang Pictorial (北洋畫報) and elsewhere; an interesting time for women’s fashion, gender roles, and changing culture the world over.
Now, moving along and turning to a different subject, way back in September, when Emma Watson spoke before the United Nations about feminism, gender equality, and her “He for She” campaign, there were of course a great many responses reflecting a wide range of perspectives. A great many praised her for championing this cause, and for inviting – really, demanding – that men need to get their act together and start being part of the conversation. This, of course, was wonderful to see. And it came at a time, for me, and I think for a great many of us, in the wake of the decidedly misogynistically motivated IV shootings, and the #NotAllMen / #YesAllWomen conversations which followed, when it seemed this was all the more needed. Men need to start realizing just how serious, how real, and how widespread these issues are; it may not be “all men” who are the problem, but it absolutely is (on average, in a meaningful way, just about) all women who are the victims – of cat-calling; of unequal pay and unequal treatment otherwise in their careers; of gendered expectations in myriad aspects of their lives; of laws threatening their bodily autonomy; victims of physical harm, sexual assault, and all too often of being killed simply for being women; victims of countless other ways in which our society, our culture, is deeply founded in male dominance, and female inferiority.
One article from TIME Magazine, written by Cathy Young, and entitled “Sorry, Emma Watson, but HeForShe Is Rotten for Men,” argues, however, that “Until feminism recognizes discrimination against men, the movement for gender equality will be incomplete.” And I would have to say, I agree.
Further, Young writes:
Watson asked, “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” Truer words were never spoken. Too bad they are belied by the campaign itself, which is called “HeForShe” and asks men to pledge to “take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls” but says nothing about problems affecting men and boys.
The fundamental cause of so many – if not all – of the problems of gender inequality, sexism, and so forth, is the way our society constructs and reinforces particular notions of masculinity, of machismo. This is at the core not only of myriad problems affecting men and boys, but of those from which feminism seeks to free women and girls as well. It is for this reason, and in this way, that men need to be included into the conversation. To fight for women’s protection, and rights, power, voice, and equality, as men standing behind (and not speaking for) women. To fight against sexual harassment and sexual assault, and all the rest. But, we can only do that by addressing the fundamental issue at the core.
It is not men who are the problem: it is masculinity. We need to stop forcing one another to have to behave a certain way in order to “be a man.” We have to stop judging one another and reinforcing upon one another a need to be strong, to be unemotional, to be sexually aggressive, to be all of these things. And when those things are expunged from what it means to be a man, or when the need to “be a man” is itself expunged from how we live our lives as human beings, as members of society who just so happen to have somewhat different parts but who are otherwise 99% similar, that is key to achieving cultural, social, gender equality. It is because men are constantly pressured to need to prove themselves, to perform up to an imaginary standard, and to compete with one another in manliness, that sexist attitudes are propagated and that sexist acts are eventuated. Kill the patriarchy, kill the machismo, break down the societal constructions of masculinity and not only of femininity, and feminist goals can be achieved. That’s my personal opinion, anyway, as a man. I may not be a woman, and therefore perhaps I should not have the right to speak on feminism – if you feel that way, that’s your prerogative, I suppose. But as a man, I should hope that I should be able to speak to how I feel as a man, my relationship to masculinity, my lived experience which few women would have experience with in the same way.
Dr. Jed Diamond has written several books on the subject, and in a recent blog post, he shares the following experience:
In the book I wrote about going into a feminist book store in San Francisco because I felt that a lot of what I was reading from feminists was going to liberate me. A number of the women seemed fine with my being in the store, but others, including the person in charge seemed hostile. There was a young boy, about nine years old, in the store who was obviously the son of the person in charge. He would walk by me and “accidentally” bump into me. At first I didn’t notice how angry he was. On the third “bump through” he pushed a little hand-written note in my hand. What I read hurt my soul. “We don’t like men in here,” it said. It still pains me to remember that young boy and what he was learning about his own maleness.
Who is this boy going to grow up to be? Is he going to be banned from the shop himself at some point, purely on the basis of being a man, regardless of his character, attitudes, or intentions?
This brings us to Mad Max: Fury Road. I finally saw the film, and immediately came home to draft a post about it. But while I struggled with just what it was I wanted to say, Arthur Chu wrote a piece in the Daily Beast which pretty much says a lot of what I was going to (which is not to say I agree with everything he has to say, or necessarily how he says it, but..). What I have to add, below, is quite brief, but, SPOILERS AHEAD. LOOK AWAY NOW, if you haven’t seen the film.
Right: Much thanks to feministmadmax.tumblr.com for creating more or less precisely the image I was looking for.
I think it would be easy to mistake the conflict in Fury Road as being one in which women need to be rescued from men, and the world also needs to be rescued from men, and rebuilt. Furiosa is bad-ass, as are the Wives, and they work together to rescue themselves from the grips of the sex slaver Immortan Joe and his hyper-masculine, violence-worshipping Warboys. And the Mothers they meet towards the end of the film are also bad-ass in their own way, and help Furiosa and the ladies to take Immortan Joe’s Citadel, and to begin rebuilding the world. Tons of female badassery, lots of female characters with whom to identify. Excellent.
But, just as in real life, I don’t think this is necessarily a conflict in when men are the enemy. Who, after all, destroyed the world? If men are the enemy, then what is that boy in the feminist bookstore supposed to do? He will inevitably grow up to be a man (unless they decide to identify as non-binary or trans*), and then what? No. The enemy is masculinity: certain definitions of masculinity, certain conceptions and standards of masculinity, and of machismo, and all that comes with them. It is not only women who need to be rescued from men, but men and women both, from the world that toxic masculinity has created.
In a blog post entitled Rants of a Feminine Feminist, a graduate student at the University of Calgary eloquently attacks the notion that feminism is only for women’s benefit, or only for women’s participation.
She especially attacks the idea that feminism is the cause of men’s problems – a fight that, sadly, we still need to have, as far too many people remain terribly mistaken as to what feminism is really about. As she writes, “Feminism is not primarily concerned with women’s issues. … It is primarily concerned with the patriarch[y], i.e. the gendered system in place that (among other things) promotes unrealistic expectations and standards for masculinity and femininity.” I hope that some of the MRAs and dudebros get the fucking message.
But what was really powerful for me, what that she writes, further,
There is no such thing as a singular feminism. There are feminisms. … each person interprets feminism in a way that works for them and their unique life experience. … Feminism is not some institutionalized doctrine that has a list of rules to follow in order to be a member of the club. Feminism has no dress code, no required hairstyle, and no standard for one’s sexual frequency or preference. …
Feminism – put simply – is the call for equal social, political, and economical opportunities for all people. All. People. Not “all people except men”, not “all people except those who dress like cats on the weekend”, not “all people except misogynistic assholes.” ALL. PEOPLE. (emphasis in the original.)
I read this and I want to cheer. It’s posts like this that make me feel validated, that make me feel like I am welcome, like I am included, and that feminism does care about my problems. Regular readers will know I don’t post as regularly on gender issues as some others do… I have posted even less frequently in the last year or so on gender issues especially since certain people shunned me out, quite cruelly laughing to themselves, to their friends, to the Internet at large at how absurd it should be that a cis, het, white man should think he should be allowed to say anything within a feminist conversation. Well, this may come as a surprise, but like everything else in the world, there is nuance and complexity to sexuality and gender identity, and just because I was born into a male body, and raised as a man, and am not quite ready to say that I am “questioning” or am definitively “queer” or some other identity, and therefore am assumed to be, and present as, “cishet”, even if I don’t really identify as anything in particular, doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with my gender identity, and with my gendered place in the world. And if you don’t want me as an ally, or whatever the proper word is, then that’s fine. Fuck you too. But, with the validation and support of my friends, and of articles like this one, after a year of agonizing over it, and refraining from commenting on these issues for fear of blowback, I’ve finally come back around, that I’m just not going to let other people dictate that I cannot be a feminist, too – that I cannot have some place in the conversation, even if that place is standing behind my friends, and others, and not in front. Tempted as I am to place a big STFU gif right here, a gift to those people, instead, rather than silencing you as you wished to silence me, how about we both continue to accept one another as having some right to be in the conversation?
Finally, today, you’ve probably seen at least one of the many articles, interviews, and books, which have been floating around recently, asserting that women subordinate themselves, or present themselves as submissive, and need to act more like men – more assertive, more confident, in order to better compete with men in the workplace, in job interviews, in earning respect and promotions and so forth, and in society in general. A number of articles, actually, have come about defending the way that women talk: one in Jezebel says “let’s stop feeling anxious about feeling aware that we’re feeling our feelings. Feel me?”, while one from NY Magazine which I have seen going around a lot writes that “When we use words like so, I guess, like, actually, and I mean, we are sending signals to the listener to help them figure out what’s new, what’s important, or what’s funny. We’re connecting with them.,” and concludes that
“When women talk in ways that are common among women, and are seen as ineffective or underestimated, they’re told it’s their fault for talking that way,” the linguist Deborah Tannen, who’s written several best-selling books about gender and language, told me. “But if they talk in ways that are associated with authority, and are seen as too aggressive, then that, too, is their fault when people react negatively.” Asking women to modify their speech is just another way we are asked to internalize and compensate for sexist bias in the world. We can’t win by eliminating just from our emails and like from our conversations.
A satirical piece called Just Don’t Do It takes it a step further, in a direction I particularly enjoyed.
This week everyone’s been talking about an article in the Economist explaining how men’s use of language undermines their authority. According to the author, a senior manager at Microsoft, men have a bad habit of punctuating everything they say with sentence adverbs like ‘actually’, ‘obviously’, ‘seriously’ and ‘frankly’. This verbal tic makes them sound like pompous bullshitters, so that people switch off and stop listening to what they’re saying. If they want to be successful, this is something men need to address.
The Economist article referenced here doesn’t exist. This is a conversation that we are not, in fact, having, but perhaps we should be.
Here’s a thought – I’m sick of this “lean in” bullshit. How about instead of telling women they need to be more confident and assertive, instead we try to stem the plague of men confidently, assertively, obnoxiously, bullshitting their way through life. I show deference and apologize because it’s polite, and shows humility. It shows honesty about what I don’t know or can’t do, and it shows consideration for others. Rather than advising women, and men both, to be /more/ assertive, how about instead we take some kind of action to push our society towards a friendlier, more deferential, less obnoxiously in-your-face place. How about, instead of perpetuating the constant masculine/patriarchal pissing contests for dominance, we write articles that lambast such ideas of masculinity, such ideas of success, that point to such attitudes and make fun of them as the Neanderthalish, Mad Men bullshit that they are, and assert that here in the 21st century, the time for that rat race, dog-eat-dog, macho self-righteousness is over.
1. And as Segawa Seigle is a major, prominent scholar of women’s history, I don’t think we should see this decision as un-feminist or anything… I think we can trust Segawa Seigle to have known what she was doing, and to have made her decision knowingly.