Tag Archives: gender

What Are We Afraid Of?

Roxie is afraid of stairs, especially the open-backed variety, which must look peculiar from where she stands, as if the whole apparatus is floating in the air with nothing to hold it up. Like one of those Escher paintings. She’s afraid going up and afraid going down. But she does it anyway because upstairs is where we sleep and downstairs is the way to breakfast in the morning.

Sometimes she reaches out a paw to test the stair and then takes it back, making little cries in her throat, but sooner or later she figures out a way to get herself up or down.

Some days are easier than others, but, still, it is with bravery that she begins and ends each and every day.

I admire her for that, but also wonder about myself and our society and our version of Roxie’s stairs and what difference does it make if we go up or down or just stay where we are.

I also wonder how we are shaped by what we fear, and, even more, our response, do we allow ourselves to know that fear is what it is, or does it masquerade as something else. Anger comes to mind.

And if fear is seen as weakness and anger strength, then what do we call it when anger is masking fear.

Fear is a thread woven in the history of this place, sometimes in plain sight, as when the pious hanged accused witches in Puritan New England. The colonists were afraid of the forest where they imagined Satan lurking in the darkness, and of Indians whose ‘savagery’ consisted mostly of how much they enjoyed living free and in their bodies, without shame. They were frightened by temptation and longing for ways of living buried far back in their cultural memory, replaced by the fear of offending a vengeful God.

They were afraid of those who came after and did not share their faith, banishing Quakers and Baptists, among others.

These are among our Founding Fears, and, ever since, in a nation where almost everyone is from somewhere else, there are always those marked as foreigners, outsiders, strangers, invaders, to be suspected, feared, blamed, and driven out when things go wrong.

This is why there has never been a self-proclaimed ‘American people’ that does not exclude large portions of the population.

Insecurity and fear are what haunt a nation founded on stealing a continent from its inhabitants, declaring by example to the world that it’s all right to take what you can, that competition and struggle against one another is a fitting way to decide the outcome of our lives. And, of course, the world takes notice of this open invitation to come and do the same.

I suppose it’s no surprise that we are one of the most heavily armed populations in the world.

Fear is at the heart of our national story—fear of government and fear of anarchy, fear of criminals and fear of police, fear of workers and fear of bosses, of the masses and the elite; fear of terrorists and fascists, subversives and traitors; fear of the left, fear of the right; fear of atheists and fundamentalists and papists and Muslims and religious deniers and the religiously indifferent. Fear of needing help, of not being able to stand alone, of abandonment, failure, loneliness, and loss. And, of course, fear of black people and white people and brown people and all ‘those people’ yet to be named who are taking over, or about to, come to take what ‘we’ have, as soon as they get the chance and we let down our guard.

Fear can keep us up at night, searching the internet for confirmation of who we think ‘those people’ are and what they’re up to now. Watch how Democrats and Republicans make each other up, or whites and people of color, immigrants and the native born, city people and country folk, the one percent and the ninety-nine.

I don’t want to give the impression that fear cannot be useful. A friend of mine used to be a champion parachute jumper, and while I have a certain admiration for her, there is no way you’re getting me to leave a plane that isn’t on the ground. It is a fear I intend to keep.

Where I get into trouble is when I’m afraid and don’t know fear is what it is. It inclines me to make bad choices, like the man jumping from the plane out of fear of what other men will think of him if he does not. Or he picks the fight, starts the argument, turns against a neighbor, goes to war.

Or gets angry, and stays angry all the time.

There is enough anger in this country to float a boat from one coast to the other. No doubt some of it is useful, there being things to be angry about as a way to focus our attention on what needs to be changed. I have no problem being angry about a system that makes it almost impossible for millions of people to earn a decent living. Or where women are assaulted and harassed. Or a black or Latino sounding same is enough to put you out of the running for a job.

But I suspect that beneath much of that anger is a mass of old fear that we dare not acknowledge because it would scare us even more. The fear of discovering that ‘America is a white country’ has always been a temporary and exclusive state of mind. That there is no American ethnicity to tell us who we are and where and with whom we belong. That we really are in the same boat together, all of us, and that we always were. That we have grown up, generation after generation, without knowing the whole of the history that got us here and what it costs. That the so-called middle class is mostly smoke and mirrors and the American Dream comes true just often enough to make everyone else believe the lie that it’s possible for all. That we are not the best country in the world, and that it doesn’t really matter.

It is the fear of things falling apart, inside and out, of nothing to hold on to, a loss of identity and worth, leaving us trapped in our individualism and the freedom that it grants us to be lonely, unattached, and lost.

It is a lot to be afraid of. And as with all fear, in our response to it, we find out who we are.

All my life I have watched Americans attack one another, focusing their fear into anger directed at the imagined cause—the enemy, the “anything-but,” as if all would be well if only those people could be made to disappear.

This is where countries can become monstrous, or fall apart, making war on others or themselves. Look around. It happens all the time. It has happened here.

But it doesn’t have to, not again, if we can investigate our fear long enough to see what it’s about, and what it’s not. That what is happening now is the latest version of insecurity and conflict that have been endemic to this nation from before its beginning. That we find ourselves, all of us—through birth or immigration—landed in a strange place full of contradiction and pain and dark secrets, that has depended on generations of forgetting and denial.

And generations of anger and fear directed at one another, distracting us from the one thing with the power to bring us together—if only we will take hold and let it—which is our common fate of having inherited a society that is designed to drive us apart.

The entire arc of our history has brought us to this place, primed to turn on one another rather than face the legacy of a country we did not create but that belongs to us now. And will become no more or less than what we make of what we have been given.

Power & Privilege at the Movies

There is a story about a Native American elder and a white man visiting the reservation.

“I notice,” says the white man, “that your songs are almost always about water. Not having enough of it must be a real problem for your people.”

“That’s true,” says the elder. “And I notice that your songs are all about love.”

You can tell a lot about a society from its songs and stories, both what they’re about and what they’re not. Since movies are our most popular form of storytelling, it’s worth noting which get singled out as being more important than the rest.

Like any story, a movie plot is told through the lives of characters, which raises the question of not only what is the story about, but whose lives are used to tell it. Who are the human beings having these human experiences? And who, in being left out and made invisible, are not?

In a society organized around various forms of privilege—white, male, nondisabled, and heterosexual—with rare exceptions, the dominant stories are told through the lives of dominant groups. When subordinate groups are featured, the story will be about their subordination, not being allowed to be just human beings in the throes of being human. They will be marked by their subordinate status—the black woman, the gay man—unlike the straight white nondisabled man who gets to be just a human being.

As a feature of systems of privilege, all of this has consequences. For subordinate groups, it underscores their social invisibility and their status as outsiders. For dominant groups—men, in particular, and especially white men—it sets them up to expect to always be at the center of attention and to be larger than life, a standard that the vast majority are unable to meet. The effects of this are all around us, especially in violence toward others and themselves, whether it’s domestic violence, suicide, the mass murder of children, or the readiness for war.

Here are the Best Picture winners from almost fifty years of Oscars, with occasional notes as needed for clarity. In all that time, there has not been a single Oscar winner that has told the story of a person of color or someone with a disability where the story has not been about race (Twelve Years a Slave, Crash, Driving Miss Daisey, In the Heat of the Night), or disability (The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, Rain Man). The occasional film that violates the whites-only rule is often set in another country and another time, which keeps it from challenging or upsetting U.S. audiences by reminding them of their own society today.

No winning film has told the story of someone who is LGBTQ, whether the story is about that or not.

Straight white women without disabilities fare somewhat better (Million Dollar Baby, Chicago, Out of Africa, Terms of Endearment, The Sound of Music), but not by much when you consider they account for more than half the population.

Here’s the list, by the year in which the film was made:

2015   Spotlight
2014   Birdman
2013   Twelve Years a Slave
2012   Argo
2011   The Artist
2010   The King’s Speech
2009   The Hurt Locker.
2008   Slumdog Millionaire
2007   No Country for Old Men
2006   The Departed
2005   Crash
2004   Million Dollar Baby (the main character is female, but a boxer, no less, who is ‘managed’ by none other than macho Clint Eastwood)
2003   The Lord of the Rings
2002   Chicago (women, yes, serious story, no)
2001   A Beautiful Mind
2000   Gladiator
1999   American Beauty
1998   Shakespeare in Love
1997   Titanic (a film about a ship that was conceived, built, controlled, and sunk by men)
1996   The English Patient
1995   Braveheart
1994   Forrest Gump
1993   Schindler’s List
1992   The Unforgiven
1991   Silence of the Lambs (The FBI agent is a white woman, but whose name comes first to mind, Hannibal Lecter, the white man who eats white people, or . . . what is her name?)
1990   Dances with Wolves (most of the characters are Native American, but the story is about the title character, a white soldier ‘going native’)
1989   Driving Miss Daisy
1988   Rain Man
1987   The Last Emperor (an exception to the whites-only rule, but set in China, a long time ago and far far away)
1986   Platoon
1985   Out of Africa (a rare woman-centered story, but also about white people colonizing and exploiting Africa with not a hint of doubt. Note the irony that in the same year The Color Purple was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won not a single one)
1984   Amadeus
1983   Terms of Endearment
1982   Gandhi (another exception to the whites-only rule, but, again, set in India in the past and about no less a figure than Gandhi. And, of course, it’s about race)
1981   Chariots of Fire
1980   Ordinary People
1979   Kramer vs. Kramer
1978   The Deer Hunter
1977   Annie Hall (Annie Hall may be the title character, but, like all Woody Allen films, it’s really about Woody Allen)
1976   Rocky
1975   One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest (in the novel on which the film is based, the point of view belongs to Chief, a Native American, unlike the film in which it’s all about Jack Nicholson’s white character, McMurphy)
1974   The Godfather, Part II
1973   The Sting
1972   The Godfather, Part I
1971   The French Connection
1970   Patton
1969   Midnight Cowboy
1968   Oliver!
1967   In the Heat of the Night
1966   A Man for All Seasons
1965   The Sound of Music
1964   My Fair Lady (emphasis on the subject of the ‘my,’ being a man betting another man he can turn a cockney speaking Eliza Doolittle into a proper lady)
1963   Tom Jones

If we compare the most recent ten year period (2005-2014) with the ten years that begin this series (1963-1972), we could simply reverse the two with the same result. We have had a black man as president for five years, and his successor may be a white woman, but in the stories we tell about who we are and what it means to be a human being, privilege and power still call the tune. A UCLA study released just last week found that although men make up less than half the population, they account for 75% of lead actors, 95% of directors, 87% of script writers, and almost 100% of those who head major movie studios.*

Eons from now, an archeologist from another planet would have no trouble concluding from this record that the ‘real’ human story in this society was about straight, white, nondisabled males, with everyone else being little more than bit players in supporting roles whose stories were not worth the telling.


If you liked this post, you also might want to read “So Yesterday” and “What Is a System of Privilege?

*To access the full UCLA report, click here.

Can a Good Man Rape?

A recent headline wants to know, “Can We Save Cliff Huxtable from Bill Cosby?” In other words, can we find a way to separate in our minds the ‘bad’ man who rapes from the ‘good’ man who never would?

The question has some urgency because for so long it seemed that Bill Cosby was Cliff Huxtable, the lovable all-American sitcom dad, and now it turns out that we may have gone all those years not knowing who he really was. Cosby was only pretending to be the friendly face behind Jello pudding pops, the wonderful father, the playful observer of children and parents and married life, and now, old age. It has to be so, we think, because it isn’t possible for both to be true. A good man, by definition, does not rape. And so, the good man who was embraced is now the bad man to be shunned.

But how can this happen? How could we be so mistaken? And if it can be true of Bill Cosby, recipient of so much public affection and prestigious awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for whom could it not be true? Is there a public figure widely regarded as a ‘good man’ for whom such accusations would simply be impossible to believe? I have tried to think of one, but cannot.

Which is why, I think, there is a lack of surprise alongside the shock whenever a man is outed in this way. It doesn’t seem to take us long to adopt a very different view of him, because, I think, somewhere in ourselves we expect these things to happen—not about this one in particular, but some man, sooner or later—and part of our chagrin is having that expectation borne out yet again.

And then there is the rush to put it all behind us, which makes me want to pause and ask what that’s about, what Cosby’s story might have to tell us about ourselves that we would rather not know.

One clue is that most rapes are committed by a man who knows the woman he is raping, which means at some point she feels safe enough to be with him in the first place. He hasn’t broken in to her apartment wielding a knife. He is already with her doing something else—on a date, maybe, or at work or a party— before he crosses the line from presumed good guy to not.

And when he does, I doubt that he thinks of himself as that, a rapist, a criminal, a felon, even though he must be aware that he is doing something that if he were to ask her in the cold light of day, she would refuse, which is why he has to think of clandestine ways to overcome her resistance, to turn a no into a yes, if only in his mind, and, failing that, a silence that he can interpret any way he wants.

In himself he sees no rapist, but a man like so many men he knows or a can imagine, just doing what a man—a real man—would do if it came down to that, finding a way to have sex with a woman who, to all appearances, does not want to have sex with him. The only question is, what means are acceptable to overcome her resistance?

Note that it isn’t whether to overcome, does he have the right, but how, reflecting a culture of deep ambivalence about a woman’s sovereignty and her right to live unmolested in the integrity of her own body; to not be stalked, harassed, pawed, or preyed upon, turned into an object of a man’s intention and desire; to be considered, listened to, and believed; to not know what she wants and yet still be allowed the freedom and solitude of her ambivalence, uncertainty, confusion, and doubt.

The ambivalence is reflected in the reluctance of women to tell anyone they’ve been raped, knowing all too well that if they do, how quickly they may be challenged and disbelieved, discredited and trashed, even blamed for what was done to them. Witness the now twenty women who claim to have been raped by Bill Cosby, who have lived for decades in silence. There are laws against rape, but whether and how they are enforced is another thing altogether, from college administrators who take no action and prosecutors and police who look the other way rather than confront the rich and famous, to defense attorneys skilled at arguing the varieties of ‘consent’ and the nuances of ‘force.’

Once a culture normalizes the idea of men coercing women into sex they do not want, we are in a land where men can justify to themselves getting a woman drunk or giving her drugs or pinning her to the floor or the bed, perhaps with the help of some friends, which, he will tell himself, is what she really wants anyway, to be overwhelmed, to surrender to his need and desire.

In such a world it can be difficult to pick out the men who rape from the men who don’t. I read about the epidemic of rape in college dorms and fraternities, for example, where sexual assault often takes the form of manly sport, and the federal government having to go after colleges to compel them to take it seriously. And I think, if I tried to identify which young men would rape and which would not just from the kind of person they appear to be, how well would I do? Not well at all, it turns out, since half a century of research has yet to produce a psychological profile that would allow us to distinguish men who rape from men who don’t.

Not to mention trying to pick them out thirty years later when they are married and have children and a place in the community, coaching youth soccer or Little League, professionals, perhaps, doctors and lawyers, or successful in business or politics or the arts, or just the hard-working friendly neighbor next door. Imagine all those college boys who rape, imagine them in middle age and then mix them in with all the men who don’t and could we separate the ‘good’ men from the ‘bad’. Could the people who know them best—their wives, siblings, and friends—tell us if this is the sort of man who would rape?

We would get it wrong most of the time, because when a society normalizes violence against women, the line between raping and not is a line you don’t have to be recognizably ‘bad’ to cross. ‘Good’ men do it all the time, supported by all those other ‘good’ men who are too afraid or too ambivalent to go out of their way to stop it, like the fraternity brothers who stand by and watch or take pictures on their cell phones or turn away and pretend it isn’t happening.

Not only did we not know the real Bill Cosby, but, if it’s true that only bad men can rape, then apparently we also don’t know a bad man—or a good one—when we see him. And that would include, for all we know, the Cliff Huxtable we want to save from Bill Cosby.

We want to save him because we think we know him, and it’s important that he be who we think he is, who we need him to be, the man, the father, who is unimpeachably good. But, of course, we know only what’s been shown to us, he being a television character, after all, but, also, just as we thought we knew Bill Cosby until the moment we did not. In fact, we will never know if Cliff Huxtable—in college, perhaps, or during his medical training—ever got a woman drunk or stoned or otherwise unable to say no to having sex with him.

And if he did, it’s a good bet that Clair Huxtable never knew.

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