Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Feminism--or gender justice?

As the semester draws to a close, I'm left considering how feminism fits into a wider legal worldview, how feminism has shaped that world, and finally, where I fit into the world of feminism.

As I read the various viewpoints and opinions of feminist legal theorists this semester, I was also studying family law, estate law, and legal history. The overwhelming lesson I gained from the synthesis of these classes is how far we, as women, have come in the realm of law over the last few hundred years. It wasn't so long ago that Blackstone declared that women have no separate legal identity from their husbands and Lord Hale ruled that husbands could not be guilty of marital rape because "the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract." In that light, the feminist movement has accomplished incredible things, transforming the institution of marriage into a relationship of equals and securing unprecedented rights for women.

As I sit in King Hall's computer lounge and look around at my fellow students, these victories are not merely theoretical. There are just as many women here who aspire to be lawyers as there are men. We only have to struggle with the law insofar as we struggle to understand its complexities--there are no outright barriers, as there once was in this country, and we do not lose our legal status if we choose to marry.

Nonetheless, I am deeply aware of the inequalities still pervasive both within the legal communities and in our wider culture. Violence, sexism, wage inequalities, lack of adequate health care, and many other factors still disproportionally impact women. As I type this, our supposedly liberal Congress is pushing a health care reform bill that stigmatizes reproductive choice. Once again, women's rights are being sacrificed for a so-called common good that's starting to look like it's best for--who else?--insurance companies and rich stockholders.

Yet my studies of feminist legal theory this semester have only reaffirmed my feeling that feminism often suffers from tunnel vision. As a reproductive justice advocate, I'm often frustrated by the level of focus that pro-choice groups give abortion rights while ignoring other issues that impact the reproductive health and rights of LGBT people, people of color, and people with disabilities. Similarly, I believe that it is crucial for feminism to shift its focus from relatively privileged women to groups historically marginalized within or outright excluded from the feminist movement, such as trans women and sex workers.

To that end, I've found myself questioning not the basic tenets of feminism, but the way we talk about it. As a student of political language and issue framing, I believe that the way we frame ideas is crucial to the success of an ideological movement. For example, conservatives have attacked our system of civil law by framing limitations on recovery as "tort reform," and bolstered tax cuts for the richest Americans as "tax relief"--linguistic choices that have fueled their political success.

Recently, I've been playing with how framing might apply to the feminist movement, to help re-energize and re-focus a movement which has been subject to severe political backlash in recent years. In doing so, I've started to wonder if "feminism" is the best word for my personal political identity. What I consider my "feminism" blends with my allegiance to other social justice movements--anti-racism, disability rights, LGBT rights: human rights. Furthermore, when it comes to gender, I feel that one of the areas where change is most needed in our culture today concerns the rights of transgender, intersex, and genderqueer people--those who don't fit with the traditional gender binary that our culture still brutally enforces. I also think that the same gender intolerance that catastrophically impacts transgender people affects everyone negatively--male, female, and in between--limiting our individual freedoms to express our unique identities.

With all this in mind, and influenced by my background with the reproductive justice movement, I find the term "gender justice" intriguing. Without the gendered root "fem" in the term, I think that "gender justice" provides room for a wider-reaching and more inclusive movement, based like the RJ movement on a human rights model. Its use would emphasize that gender justice is not just about women (with the question that follows of what we mean when we say 'woman') but about everyone, regardless of what gender we identify as, are born as, or are seen as. The inclusion of "justice" in the term also makes the ideas more difficult to demonize--it's hard to make a stand against justice, or alter the term to a derogatory like "feminazi." While some feminists might feel that "gender justice" might dilute a necessary focus on women, I believe that framing issues of gender equality in this way would allow both activists and those who do not identify as feminists to view the issues in a new light.

I'd be interested to hear from others on this topic. Do you think it might be worthwhile to reframe feminism in the new millennium? Or would a shift to a gender justice model merely serve to confuse the issues of gender equality we still face?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Avatar": new technology, same old story

As a fan of science fiction and action movies, I was excited by the preview of James Cameron's new blockbuster Avatar. The movie looks amazing--a fascinating alien world and alien culture, a clever science fiction gimmick in the use of the "avatars" to allow the human main character to infiltrate the aliens. It appeared pretty revolutionary in its themes, with its protagonist joining forces with the aliens (the blue-skinned, cat-eyed, tribal Na'avi) to stop his fellow human's attempt to destroy the Na'avi's homeland in search of mineral resources. Anti-military, pro-environment, and anti-colonial--not your average Christmas blockbuster fare. Or so I thought.

After my initial impressed reaction to the trailer, however, I started to read more about the movie, and my excitement quickly died away. In "Avatar," the Repentant White Marine leads the Noble Savages to victory, marries the native princess, and becomes their chief, effectively appropriating their culture. Progressive? Hardly. It may challenge colonialism and champion the cause of environmentalism, but when it comes to race and gender, it fails on multiple levels. The story I wish this movie told was the story of Zoe Saldana's character, the Na'avi princess. Why does the movie assume she and her people needed a white Marine to save them? Is the story of a colonized people's resistance and a woman's leadership not interesting enough? Who makes these decisions, and why? When will white people stop making movies like this?

My frustration with this phenomenon was reinforced while trying to relax from intense finals studying the other day. I decided I wanted to watch a movie, but as I looked through my DVD collection, I discovered that very few of the movies I own are about women. Almost every cover features the faces of white men as the central focus. Many of the movies did have at least one major female character, but most of those had ONLY one such character (I call this the "only woman in the world" syndrome), preemptively failing the Bechdel Test.

Obviously I need to update my movie collection. But even if I did, how many movies are actually being made today about women? Particularly the kind of action/suspense/adventure movies that I love, as opposed to the terrible, formulaic romantic comedies that are made to appeal to my demographic?

I was discussing this with a friend of mine, a writer and director of independent films, and she pointed out, rightly, that all of her films feature female protagonists. I responded, "Well, that makes sense--you're a woman, so of course it makes sense that your work would reflect your experience." The problem with Hollywood is that there are still very few female directors or writers working on big films. My friend and I concluded that this happens because, for the most part, the producers who put their money into blockbuster films are wealthy white males who don't feel that stories by or about women are interesting enough to invest in. They look for films that appeal to them, that are about people like them. And the result is movies like "Avatar," which attempts to address the problems of colonization of native cultures and environmental exploitation, but only succeeds in being a flashy paean to white guilt and marginalizing the truly interesting story of a woman of color standing up against violent oppression.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Is this the long-sought connection between the environment and women?

Don't miss Leslie Kaufman's story in the New York Times about Mustang Ranch, the brothel in northern Nevada, and the restoration of the Truckee River.