Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Magic Mike, Same Old Tricks

[Original post was written on August 2nd for Powered By Girl and can be seen on SPARK a Movement's website.]

After my eyes adjusted to the deluge of perfect pecs and smooth bodies gyrating in athletic finesse, I saw past the blinding stage lights, past the penis pump, past the sleaze-ball that is Matthew McConaughey — and was left with a sorry representation of the male stripper industry.
I suppose it was my inherent curiosity for all things “stripper” that led me to the ticket booth to spend almost ten dollars on a movie whose only selling point was a trailer showing bodacious dance moves by artisanally sculpted bodies. After finishing the first stage of my documentary on high-end strip clubs in Pittsburgh, I became very interested in how Hollywood portrays the industry for both females and males. So when this unbelievably enticing trailer hit previews, I leapt at the chance to expand my knowledge.
My independent project, “It’s All Play,” began the moment I realized I had so many scathing opinions and assumptions about female exotic dancers but had never stepped foot inside a strip club – let alone ever have a conversation with a dancer. I embarked on a journey to see how female dancers view themselves, and how their work makes them feel at the end of the day (one described her job as being a “dressed-up, sexier counselor”).  I wanted people to recognize their own assumptions of the industry by hearing from the dancers themselves. (Side note: For those of you interested in finding out more about this project, a website is in the works, and the final, full-length documentary is expected to be finished in the summer of 2013).
I expected Magic Mike would take a similar approach to my own investigation by examining how male dancers respond to being objectified.  I expected humility and grace, maybe with a dose of resentment. Instead, I was delivered a steaming pile of chauvinism with only an afterthought of introspection worthy of empathy.
Within the first two minutes of the film, we’re introduced to Mike Martingano’s (Channing Tatum) naked butt, and then immediately to a topless Joanna (Olivia Munn), Mike’s recurring booty call. Then the camera panned down towards the third party in the room, a sleeping naked woman, one whose name neither Mike nor Joanna could remember. Mike dismisses their blunder with the flippant remark, “Well, she was a good time, anyway.”
The movie continues in this vein. Shortly after leaving his heavenly ménage-a-trois, Mike meets Adam, our secondary hero who is eventually deemed “The Kid,” played by chiseled-face Alex Pettyfer. Adam is responsible for introducing Mike to his sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), the woman Mike chases–quite pathetically if I may add–for the entire movie.
Adam is the lost little boy who allows drugs and destructive women to persuade him away from Mike’s big-brotherly wing, while Brooke is the only “strong” female character (out of two featured actresses), where “strong” translates into angry pouts and nagging comments that went against what every other drooling woman thought of Mike.  Even her convictions were shallow, for in the end her determined refusal of Magic Mike’s flirty charms is eventually won over …by (*SPOILER*) his flirty charms.
For all intents and purposes, this movie was made for the stereotypical male mind but for the stereotypical female’s eyes. It reserves itself from fully expressing emotion, yet tries to pass itself off as compassionate to the empathetic women. As if all we needed to sway us to see their point of view is a few bare derrières and sappy pick-up lines!
Well, apparently it’s enough for some people. NY Times’ film critic, Manohla Dargus, couldn’t praise the movie enough.  In the similar fashion as I began this post, she blushes,
“Those cheeks, smooth as a hairless Chihuahua, will receive considerable attention, as will the rippling muscles, thrusting pelvises and the dancing, by turns snaky and acrobatic that are on generous display in ‘Magic Mike.’”
She continues by highlighting the movie’s swapped gender roles:
“In one school of thought Hollywood movies are always organized for the visual pleasure of the male spectator, which pretty much leaves the female spectator sidelined. There’s no leaving her out any longer — or the gay or confident heterosexual male spectator, either…. it’s clear the director is out to maximize everyone’s pleasure.”
She does have a point. How many movies can you think of where the male gaze is directed at the men? You know, scenes that have the slow, panning-up of a semi-naked man coming out of the water, or thoughtfully turning his face towards the sky so it glows like Zeus in the sunlight? For straight women and gay men, Magic Mike is a voyeuristic feast fit for royalty. But it can’t shake the irresistible urge to cater to straight men’s fantasies.
In almost every dance number, a woman from the audience is whisked out of her chair and is literally tossed around to eventually land in a sexually compromising position underneath (or splayed across) the dancer. The argument for “The Kid” to start dancing was that he could be “the husband they never had! You are that dreamboat guy that never came along!” Magic Mike is as every bit of a guidebook to the “masculine” as he is an ideal sexual partner.
But perhaps I am turning mole hills into mountains and making an actually progressive movie to sound tirelessly sexist. If I am projecting my own presuppositions on a story that is clearly novel in what it represents, tell me! These are difficult concepts for anyone to wrap their minds around, and conversation is a must if we are to get to the bottom of these concepts.
I’m sure if we had Channing Tatum and Steven Soderbergh on the phone we could gain more insight. But until I make best friends with them to invite them to talk stripping and sexuality (don’t worry, it’s a work in progress), we’ll have to resign to the comment section below.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

First Month's Reflection

Today marks the one-month anniversary of kissing Pittsburgh goodbye and making the physical transition down to Hendersonville, NC to begin a year-long stint as an Americorps VISTA service worker. The settling in was seamless, thanks to the many generous donations provided by my organization's staff, board members, and friends. And the stereotyped social graciousness of people in the South cannot be understated - people truly have welcomed us into their homes and hearts as though we were old friends. The decision to migrate out of the city I've affectionately deemed my sibling (you grow up together, you don't always get along, but you know you will never stop loving each other) was an easy one in the midst of a fitful Spring, fighting to preserve a sense of "normalcy" when life was clearly trying to carry me down a completely different path. I still wonder if I wasn't acting on a fight-or-flight impulse, but regardless of the deep-seeded reasons, I'm here, and I'm happy. 

...But just not as present as I should be. One eye is focused on my new job and feeding new relationships, but the other is still fixated on the treasures I left in da 'Burgh. Of course, this is natural. It's one month in North Carolina versus 19 years living up north. However I'm not satisfied with this. After all, the goal was to uproot myself from my comfort zone so I could really begin to see. But at the end of the day, my concerns and thoughts are still with those who are no longer physically around me. I'm terrified of losing connections to who I am, who I came from, of being forgotten. Do I have to alienate myself from one place to feel genuinely connected to the other? What does that balance look like?

Dissecting Earth and sky
"...somewhere between
the earth and the sky."
It should be stated that I do not sit at home pining to be included in the lives of those I miss back home.  Ooooh no no no. I do stuff! Just yesterday I swam in the Broad River, watching turtles peak their heads out of the water and older vacationers reliving their hey-days at a tiki bar's karaoke night. I visit Asheville whenever I can to satiate my addiction for a bustling downtown environment. I started attending services at the local Unitarian Universalist congregation. I mean, I'm even learning how to play the fiddle! (Expect to be impressed in the months to come :-).)  I have all the nature and breweries I could wish for within a half hour of where I live, in every direction; there is little reason for me to reject this new environment.  In fact, part of me believes that most of my anxieties come from the fear that I might not ever want to return for good. But who could possibly make that decision at this juncture? Anyway, I digress...

In this month's issue of Yoga Journal Lisa Walford's article set out to explain the dynamic pose of Anantasana, and instead identified the need for us to lose our balance for our own healthful gain: (I took editorial ownership and removed any pose-specific words.)
"...finding your balance is a constant, dynamic process. It's a dance that changes from moment to moment. By staying sensitive, clear, and courageous, you can become more aware of the tiny adjustments that you need to make in order to stay stable. Losing your balance is not a bad thing; it brings the edges of extremes to light and shows you where you need more physical or mental support."
Rereading this passage, I replaced the word "balance" with "way," and felt more at peace with easing my white-knuckled stronghold on Pittsburgh.  I view loved ones from home to be static representations of where I come from. And if ever I lose my footing, I just reach for those connections to bring me back on track. It's an exciting prospect, if not a vulnerable one, for sure.  Losing ground will be the best thing to happen to me. I just need to first accept the invitation to fall.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


No one told me I was smart when I was a child; they only said I was pretty.  At 10, I never read books with strong female leads like Junie B. Jones or Stargirl; I was too busy learning the best ab work-outs and how to apply mascara from the articles in Seventeen. I’m turning 23 in one week and to this day, I wake up every morning to see how my belly juts out against my pants. I still feel like a failure every time my cravings concede to a piece of chocolate. But I know the beast that made me. I dedicated my academic career to studying gender behavior and media theory to help destroy it. And I will continue to do everything in my power not to let this mental condition get the best of another girl.  Because we are more than our waist line, our bust size, our skin tone, or our curves. Our aspirations are greater than wanting to be thin, wanting a boyfriend, or coveting to have all the attention in the school. Deep within every girl is gumption and drive, yet at such formative ages those amazing qualities are too easily snuffed out of existence by glitzy media saying “Who you think you are isn’t who you should be.”

Recently I worked as a site leader for a youth group coming in to help fix up a home for someone in need. The ice-breaker question I posed was “What did you want to be when you were a child?” There were 9 people in the group, 6 of them girls. One girl named Jeannie said, “Astronaut.” One girl named Katie said, “cake decorator.” And another girl, Lauren, said, “Concert pianist.”  Later in the day, I asked some of the girls what their life aspirations were. Katie said, “To get a boyfriend.” Jeannie said, “To be a supermodel.” When I prodded them some more, it was revealed that Katie wants to travel to Italy and that secretly she still wanted to open her own cake-decorating business.

It compels me to tears thinking about how much energy and attention I devoted to complying to the rules laid out for me in those early issues of Cosmo Girl and Seventeen. And to see girls openly changing their goals to match the roles they see their idols filling in magazines and TV shows shallows my breath. If ad agencies and magazine editors and TV scriptwriters do not start realizing the immense impact they have on young minds, and how damaging it is to them and in return, our nation, our society, our world will never change. It’s time to keep it real, people. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What a Man, What a Man, What a Mighty Confused Man.

The pattern couldn't have been more obvious if it were featured on Good Morning America as a breaking trend.  A few days ago BBC listed two reports back-to-back on their US & Canada headline stream (coincidentally?) that featured a common theme among adult males in combat and on the football field:


The manliest men on the Masculine Persona spectrum (not a real spectrum, don't look it up.) are choosing more and more to take their lives. Or are we just finally paying attention to it now? And if so, what happened to make our consciousness more aware of the trend?
The first of these headlines needed no further description to understand the severity of the issue: "US military suicide rates hits one per day". BBC cited an increase of 20% in the number of deaths reported were reported this time last year.  The Pentagon referred to the issue as "one of the most urgent problems" they faced.  PTSD is ubiquitous among veterans returning home from combat, but these cases of suicide are cropping up among members currently deployed or are about to be deployed.  And rather than receiving unanimous support, stories of men taking their lives receive chastising remarks from their higher-ups.
The subsequent article begged the viewer to read on beyond the headline. Titled, "NFL players join forces to sue league over concussion," the article detailed components in the lawsuit as saying the NFL has "glorified violence" via media marketing ploys.  At the end of the article, Mary Ann Easterling , the wife of late Atlanta Falcolns' safety, Ray Easterling, cites the tragedy of her husband's suicide as a result of his deep-seeded behavioral problems due to persistent head trauma.

So what exactly are we seeing here? Well, think of all the stereotypes you might use to describe a typical GI Joe or first-draft linebacker: muscular, dumb jock, heroic, hard-headed, proud, master of their jurisdiction, capable of fixing anything.  Any association that implies a correlation to physical aptitude and worth to society, basically.  Notice how any adjective describing vulnerability is completely absent.  Just as stereotypes assume women to be weak, defensive cry-babies, the "masculine" man is expected to be exactly the opposite.

But the times, they have been a-changing - we are shattering these definitions left and right, on both sides of the gender divide.  We are seeing a spike in the number of women who volunteer for combat, raising consciousness over the unhealthy practice of Photoshopping, and sloooowly but surely voting more women into public office. And studies repeatedly show how boys are being left in the lurch next girls' progress in the American education system. This is a huge testament to immeasurable work women throughout the century completed to achieve gender equality in schools. However... while one side is working full-time to level the playing field, the other is left eating their dust.  

It took years and a fantastic professor to open my eyes on the problem that young men in America are facing today.  Men are not getting the appropriate attention needed to facilitate a seamless transition away from rigid, archaic stereotypes, let alone enough support to back them up in the roles they are responsible for upholding now.  The need for a transition from "macho" to "human" is one that is absolutely vital in achieving gender equity in every facet of society. Yet at every turn, organizations and major establishments such as the NFL and Hollywood (I could write a whole separate seething film review of the movie, What to Expect When Expecting, don't get me started.) take the most lucrative road and buy into furthering these disastrous stereotypes while trying to promote the gender they're glorifying.  The more pressure men receive to sustain the one-dimensional role of being physically-impressive, the more there will be pressure building up against their repressed emotions of living in a world that is paying more attention to women. 

This is not to say that there is still not an immense burden placed on the Western Woman to adhere to strict physical and emotional confines. Nor is my specific aim to blur the roles between men and women.  For the vast majority of people in this country, guidelines, on some level, are necessary in sustaining sanity.  However, in order for women to break free from dangerous structures surrounding how they act professionally, sexually, emotionally, etc, men need to be shown guidance as they navigate their reassessed roles (i.e. one who is not an abuser, emotionally vacant, or solely focused on physical prowess) in a redirected society.

BUT. There is hope. It has just been announced that the Veterans Affairs council has taken note of the demographic with the lowest rates of suicide to aid them in their attempt to quell the number of suicide attempts in the military:  "[They] hope to re-create elements of black female culture that may help stop military veterans from killing themselves."

The jury is still in discussing the sociological implications of this idea.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Thai Government needs a Makeover

At this point, less than two months before elections, there is still no guarantee that the outcome will not result in massive-scale of protests, violent or otherwise - this cycle of political instability stirring unrest after close-call elections will repeat itself over and over again, unless Thailand recognizes the missing element needed to form an actual democracy: women.

In Thailand's upcoming elections culminating in June (we hope), the contending parties are once again cookie-cutter contenders of their power-hungry, money-squandering predecessors.  The Thai-Cambodian border dispute distanced royalist-supporters, PAD, from the Prime Minister Abhisit due to his lack of decisive tactics to end the conflict.  Since the shift in loyality, a division of PAD attached itself with smaller coalitions that polls estimate will increase the Democrat party chances of winning over their opposition, Phuah Thai Party, in the southern and central Thai provinces.  However, a separate sect of PAD is petitioning to boycott the elections altogether due to the Red Shirts calling for national reconciliation.

The Red Shirt's Phuah Thai Party, on the other hand, is receiving emotional and monetary support from former billionaire PM, Thaksin Shinawatra, who vocalized that if PTP wins, he will come back from exile to fulfill his grandiose pro-poor policies.  Inevitably, if carried out, this promise would end in disastrous rebellion from the anti-Thaksin half of the nation.

Despite Thailand being one of the first countries to grant women the right to vote, their learning curve has been dramatically slow since.  The collective voice of women in parliament is nothing if not ambient noise next to the corrupt cacophony of that of their male counterparts.  Women average around 5 percent of the members in each committee of Parliament; they make up 15 percent of Parliament as a whole, and the same percentage in the senate.  Women's groups in Thailand have tried their hand at pipelining women directly into central administration, but the flow stops at gender-sensitive committees, such as tourism agencies or ministries overseeing children and parental development, that keep women in peripheral spheres of power.  When their influence is confined to mere subsets of government, then the process to define policy has unequal representation from members of society, and therefore cannot be considered a true democracy.

Yet, paradoxically, women hold more responsibility in the village sphere. Nong Wang is a slum community in Khon Kaen Province who recently received the deed to a new legal plot of land after years of dedicated protest.  The community's voice, their cheerleader, and organizer is Meh Joi.  A mother of two and grandmother of 2, and a leader of 86 families. Her role in leading the community was directly related to the success the village had in getting the lease to their land.  

In another part of the region, a Learning Center is developing to educate younger generations living in Rasi Salia and Hua Na villages about their culture's way of life post-Rasi Salai dam.  Leading this coalition to build an all-inclusive educational environment is Meh Paw, the communities' force to hold them all accountable.

And we can't forget about Wanita Sarawak, the bold woman who fronted the movement that led the Assembly of the Poor from their Northeast corner to Bangkok's front door to demand rights.

So what does this mean that capable, headstrong, value-oriented individuals like these women aren't seen more in office?

Probably because they are capable, headstrong, and value-oriented. 

Democracy in Thailand is a system based around who has the most money and influence over the rest of Parliament.  Even if Thai women had more of an interest to break into legislation, there would be no support to validate their honest values that are for the people.  If Thailand is ever going to tear itself away from the cycle of civic unrest, violent uprising, and corrupt government, then maybe it's time for the people leading the movements to start leading their country instead.  

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Counteracting Globalization and Development with Globalization and Development

The following was my entry to our program's blog, Human Perspective on Development and Environment.  Each of us students had to write our reflections about our past unit and what it meant in the greater picture.  Bogged down with two essays and two huge final Thai class projects, my mind has been in condition to analyze heavily as to what our actions mean in terms of development and globalization in Thailand.  So forgive me if the writing and train of thought are muddled, verbose pieces of organic cow manure. Can't win 'em every time. :)

A professor once said, "Knowledge is meaningless if you don't affect multiple levels."  What I've learned during these intense last three months is that the scope of knowledge itself is relevant.  An organic farmer will value how to make her/his own compost fertilizer over knowing how the chemical components in fertilizer help break down the soil; on the other hand, an NGO covets the skill to conduct research so that they can provide as much information to a community as possible.  What is important to know shifts relative to where a person is and what that person is doing.   Most importantly, knowledge, as a general rule, should not only serve the area where it was gained, but must transcend to higher and deeper levels to be more effectively sustained.

Like "knowledge," the words "development" and "globalization" also have very different meanings depending on a person's perspective and location.  For a company like the Puthep Mining Company, development plays into globalization when erecting a copper mine in order to give Thailand more clout as a global player in the international market.  To a community of fishermen working to preserve their wetlands after being flooded by a dam, development and globalization might look like increasing members in their movement by extending to other communities in the world dealing with the same issue.   
If knowledge is dependent on where you are, and knowledge is meaningless unless shared, then different places' knowledge-base must be shared with other people in other places.  To some, this sharing of knowledge is one method of development.  To others, this is also globalization at work:  It is spreading skills and resources to increase knowledge in other plans. But the paradox comes when the resources being shared are destroying the integrity of a place, then the resource is irrelevant to have.  As soon as infrastructure as development impedes on intellect as development, then something's gotta give. 
Just as knowledge must be shared and interpreted through different lenses in order to practically implement it, there needs to be interaction between multiple players on the global scale when discussing ideas of development.  Large-scale development schemes that have the potential of impacting hoards of people need to first reach an understanding with the people it would be affecting to weigh the pros and cons of erecting the project.  Ideally, this is what an EIA is meant to fulfill (whether or not this process is righteously carried out or not is another story). 
The daunting "project time" has begun.  Our DG group is splitting up to spread our collective knowledge on globalization, development, and human rights out among the Isaan region.  Despite our separate focuses and goals with each project, each of us are playing the role of educator in one form or another.  We are all acting in part as researchers, compiling information to enhance the fight of the effected community with which each of us will be working, based on the need of each community.  Our development is spreading our knowledge throughout multiple communities so that they may develop their organizations to become more efficient and more powerful. 


Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Survivor's Path to Leading a Movement

Mukhtar Mai, a strong women's rights advocate after
having been gang-raped back in 2002, fears for her safety after
5 of her 6 attackers were released after the Pakistani Supreme Court
upheld their 2005 decision to acquit the suspects.
(Photo source: BBC)

On Thursday, the Pakistani court upheld their 2005 statement to acquit all but one of Mukhtar Mai's 6 suspected attackers.  

Mukhtar Mai became an international superstar for human rights sympathizers after she publicized in 2002 what had happened to her in the name of "honor."  Allegedly, she was gang-raped by six men as a punishment for her younger brother's illicit fraternization with an older women of a rival tribe (later it was investigated that this allegation was a cover-up to his being molested by members from said tribe).  Adding insult to injury, to come out as a single woman saying  she was raped was an invitation to even greater danger:  Before President Pervez Musharraf changed the laws surrounding rape in 2005 (as a reaction to the uproar received from the international political and activist communities), Pakistani criminal court characterized premarital sex an act punishable by death. 

Since the initial movement to acquit the offenders in 2005, Mai has had to be weary of backlash from people in her own country who support traditional Muslim law, a law which translates today as supporting perpetrators and punishing rape survivors.  Immediately upon announcing her story to the world, her virtuous pursuit for justice was glorified in every corner of the free world, from Nikolas Kristoff's reporting on her all-girls' schools erected throughout Pakistan to educate young females about their rights as humans in Half the Sky, to Glamor magazine declaring her Woman of the Year in 2006.  Now, though, with the final ruling, her old fears have resurfaced.  (Read about the case's events here.)

President Musharraf took a lot of heat after he made a comment implying that rape was a money-ticket for Pakistani women to settle into a better life abroad (Aljazeera).  While a little progress is better than no progress in the context of Pakistan's dated gender laws, and that Musharraf's "change of heart" had much to do with the United States' firm demands, there is a lot to be said that despite Mai's celebrity status internationally, and widespread support from human rights activists and social developers alike, Lady Justice favored her attackers.  Here is an example of how progressive policy changes are ineffectual when not backed by the culture over which it sees.  Muslim supporters protested against President Musharraf's decision to amend Pakistan's rape laws.  No matter how much ballyhoo the international community makes, the world's second-largest Muslim-inhabited country ultimately has to be its own driving force.  It has to want to make a change in how it perceives and treats women. Which is why Mukhtar Mai's decision to open two schools in her region is the course of social action outsiders should be supporting the most.  

Culture encompasses and fuses a community's past and present, and its rate of change is as fast as the movements within it are growing.  Children learn about the culture in which they live, simultaneous to learning where they fit in relation to the rest of the world.  If social change must happen on a grand scale, i.e. across entire religiously-founded regions, then broadening the world view of youth on a local level is crucial to spark that movement.  The ideal and, perhaps, only way to enact sustainable change is to experiment with  models of alternative education that are grounded on one core issue, be it a civil or developmental one, and converge all other disciplines around that core while engaging students with the community they live in.  Culture is invaluable to this process as well.  When the community takes agency in what their youth or young women are learning, the discourse surrounding social action starts to become enmeshed with the status quo.  This is exactly what Mukhtar has succeeded in developing thus far. 

Although Mukhtar Mai's cases is an important milestone in marking Pakistan's civil development and should be read by anyone engaged in international women's rights, let it not go ignored the same kinds of barricades to equality seen in America today.  In truth, we are not as righteous as we let ourselves on in terms of granting fair and just treatment to rape survivors.  (A very similar story to Mukhtar Mai's was seen at Washington State just three years ago; the story is definitely worth a look.)  

So from here, where do we go?  Not far.  
For starters, check out Mukhtar Mai's Women's Organization to see the amazing accomplishments her horrific experience has bred in her community.  Ways to donate are also cleverly accessible, and their requests are modest.  From there, examine what you value most in a functioning, equitable society, and explore ways you can integrate progressive movements into your already established culture.  An example might be signing up for (or creating, even!) theater classes centered around a hot social issue happening in your community (New Orleans has one - check it out!)  
Or, in light of tomorrow's holiday, it could look like attending Easter service at a local church with a congregation of widely diverse backgrounds than your own.  There are many ways to help sustain social change that extend far beyond donating money to your most cherished organization.  Take a hint from Mukhtar: start living like you truly believe change can happen, and before you know it, everyone around you will start believing it too.