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Missed opportunities in Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

Missed opportunities in Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck published on No Comments on Missed opportunities in Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

This year, Adam Cohen came out with Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Buck, a white, working-class Virginian, was raped by the nephew of the Dobbses, the bourgeois couple in whose house she was working. The Dobbses thus had her categorized as “feebleminded” and institutionalized in the Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. There she attracted the attention of various assholes [Albert Priddy, director of the Colony, Aubrey Strode, the lawyer who drafted the Virginia law, and Harry Laughlin, veritable Nazi who served as expert witness for the prosecution] who wanted to use her as a test case to secure the constitutionality of Virginia’s recently passed eugenics law.

Like many other states at the time, Virginia was caught up in the burgeoning enthusiasm over eugenics. Ostensibly about improving the human race through selective breeding, eugenics was actually about breeding more straight, white, cis, able-bodied, rich, smart virtuous WASPs like us and keeping those defective, vicious, disabled, vacuous, non-white people out. Anyway, Virginia’s law allowed state-sponsored sterilization of people with various “mental defects.” Despite the evidence being made up entirely of unscientific, sexist, racist, ableist, classist lies, the Amherst County Supreme Court upheld it.

The assholes, however, wanted their law to be ratified by even higher authorities. Buck’s “defense” lawyer, who was so in cahoots with the opposing counsel that his picture appears in the dictionary under the definition of moral bankruptcy, appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The higher court upheld the appeal in 1925, and still the assholes carried bravely on. In 1927, Buck v. Bell went before the United States Supreme Court. The highest court in the land ruled in favor of state-sponsored rape, with a ringing endorsement coming from Chief Justice Asshole Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Three generations of imbeciles [Buck’s mother, also institutionalized at the same colony, and Buck’s daughter included, though no one had really tested Buck’s daughter’s mental abilities] are enough!”

Buck was re-institutionalized, given a nonconsensual salpingectomy, and not at all informed about the consequences of the operation. She was also deprived of the chance to form a relationship with her kid, who, for some reason, was being raised by the Dobbses, who institutionalized Buck in the first place. She was eventually released from the institution; she then worked intermittently as a household cleaner and seasonal orchard picker, married twice, apparently loved her husbands, and, when she heard about what the salpingectomy had done to her, always grieved her inability to have kids.

Laws such as the one tested in Buck v. Bell gained popularity, peaking in the late 1920s. The stock market crash of 1929 drew attention away from “mental defectives” and toward a horrendously tanking economy. It also didn’t help that the guy who served as eugenics expert witness in Buck v. Bell, Harry Laughlin, enthusiastically sucked up to the rising Nazi regime. Despite these factors and the expose of eugenics as junk science, legal eugenic sterilization persisted in the United States till at least 1983, when Oregon finally dissolved its Board of Institutionalized Bigotry Social Protection. In fact, Buck v. Bell remains “good law,” according to Cohen, and courts continue to cite it, even in this millennium, as justification for sterilization of disabled people. Indeed, the current fetishization of the genome and the rising popularity of genetic testing for disease markers both raise the unsettling possibility that the eugenics movement will pop up again.

Anyway, not only is reproductive rights a timely topic, but Buck’s story is a dramatic one, so Cohen has potent, pertinent material here. In measured, well-documented prose, he tells the story of Buck v. Bell with two chapters each on Priddy, Laughlin, Strode, and Holmes, bookended on either side by a chapter on Buck. He applies keen analysis to some aspects of the story, but totally misses other significant opportunities. Thus it’s an uneven book.

Cohen excels at his treatment of socioeconomic class, his analysis of Strode, and his takedown of Holmes. In terms of class, he is always attentive to the ways in which class pressures and expectations shape the players’ lives. He observes that the Dobbses’ push for middle-class respectability required the disposal of their working-class servant in a “colony” for the “feebleminded” when she had the audacity to be raped by the Dobbses’ nephew. He also demonstrates the influence of class in Holmes’ life; born among the socially conservative, neo-Puritan snobs of the Boston Brahmin class, he owed every single advancement in his life to the behind-the-scenes connections fostered by this good ol’ boys’ club. With details like these, Cohen ably proves that Buck v. Bell exemplified contemporary concerns about social class — in particular, the nasty poor people, with all their vices and feeble minds, becoming too numerous and steamrolling the awesome rich people, who were naturally smart and good.

Also particularly strong is Cohen’s portrayal of Strode, the lawyer who drafted the original Virginia bill and followed it all the way up to the Supreme Court. Scion of one of Virginia’s elite families and avowed Confederate sympathizer, Strode might at first glance seem to be a garden variety Southern bigot, especially with his hand in having nonconsensual sterilization enshrined as the law of the land. However, Cohen shows Strode as a complex figure, progressive in the areas of women’s rights and higher education, who probably didn’t even support eugenics at all. He purposely drafted the initial law to be as narrow and restrictive as possible, and, unlike Holmes, who wouldn’t shut up about his magnificent majority opinion, barely mentioned the whole subject of eugenics in his life afterward. Cohen makes these points not to garner sympathy for Strode, since Strode clearly chose to draft the bill and serve as prosecutor for the case, all the way up to the Supreme Court. Instead, Cohen’s portrayal of Strode’s ambivalence neatly encapsulates the country’s own ambivalence on the subject of eugenics.

Finally, Cohen does a masterful job of replacing the saintly ideal of Holmes with a more accurate picture of the man’s full character and motivations. While Holmes may be remembered for his aphorisms on free speech, Cohen argues that his upbringing as a member of the hierarchical, ancestry-obsessed, self-important Boston Brahmins largely shaped his political views. He was actually more of a pro-business, anti-civil rights conservative who regularly struck down or dissented on cases of reducing work hours for laborers or improving working conditions. He had an essentially passive, reactive view of the law, which was basically that it shouldn’t be socially activist in a way that changed policy, but that it should just execute whatever was passed until someone stepped forward to challenge it. This passive, socially disengaged perspective extended throughout his life; for example, he bragged about never reading newspapers and seemed to make a virtue of being clueless to events and trends occurring beyond the tip of his nose [except for eugenics]. Enamored with his self-concept as a brilliant, eloquent, accomplished genius, he chose to ignore the fact that his brilliance was completely untempered by compassion and social consciousness, his eloquence called into service for arrogant, venomous, mean-spirited opinions attacks, and his accomplishments largely the result of the socioeconomic class in which he was born. Cohen uses both close analysis of Holmes’ opinions and a close reading of Holmes’ private letters to effectively puncture the myth of Holmes as practically perfect. It’s very satisfying.

All this said, Cohen only tells part of the story. He fails to include material that would make his book even stronger and more convincing. His treatment of Buck, disability, and race are ultimately unsatisfying. In terms of Buck, though she has two chapters, just like all other major players, they are ultimately scant. For example, though Cohen refers to Buck’s elementary school report cards as evidence of her average mental capacity, he quotes them only once. Even more egregiously, when he has the chance to use Buck’s own words, he doesn’t take it. He uses the most direct quotes in the final chapter, describing Buck’s later years, including her efforts to have her mom de-institutionalized. Yet he also refers to Buck’s letters in general, commenting on the neat penmanship and only sporadic grammar mistakes. This leaves the impression that Buck produced a lot of firsthand documentation of her post-trial years that Cohen omitted, except for a superficial comment on Buck’s ability to hold a pen. For someone so insistent that Buck’s voice was never heard at all in these cases [beyond her statement at the initial trial “that her people” would “take care” of her, which suggests that she had no clue what was going on], Cohen certainly devalues Buck and her experiences.

My close reading of Cohen himself reveals telling details about why he silences Buck. He wants to depict her as a pathetic, innocent victim who did nothing wrong whatsoever and was totally betrayed by mean, rich men. To this end, he is obsessed with the adjective “helpless,” one of his most-used descriptors for Buck. Indeed, Buck was helpless before the straight, white, rich, cis, WASPy men who used their privilege to rape her, but she also had agency in other areas of her life. I understand that this book focuses more narrowly on the Buck v. Bell case, but Cohen’s exaggeration of Buck’s supposed helplessness turns her into a bit player in her own life.

Cohen not only fails Buck personally, but he also fails in his portrayal of eugenics in general by inadequately addressing the ableism and racism at work in its rise. Yes, I am aware that Cohen is telling the story of a white woman, Buck, who has no intellectual or physical disabilities. That doesn’t excuse, however, his omission of the ableist and racist implications of eugenics, as well as the ableist and racist purposes to which the United States put eugenics laws.

Beyond being a way for rich people to try to literally cut poor people out of existence, sterilization — and indeed the whole eugenics movement — was also against people with mental and physical disabilities. Cohen gestures toward this when he follows the history of sterilization laws, in which blind, deaf, and or “crippled” people were sometimes included as eligible populations. For the most part, though, he strenuously avoids a disability rights analysis. For example, his preoccupation with arguing that Buck wasn’t “feebleminded” seems particularly wrong-headed. Her mental capacity is important insofar as all the pro-eugenics people flat out lied in their claims that she, her mom, and her daughter had intellectual disabilities. But even if Buck and her family members were intellectually disabled, re-raping her via salpingectomy would be morally repugnant as a breach of her right to bodily integrity. Again, Cohen alludes to such ableist violations when quoting some anti-eugenics rulings, but he doesn’t face the infantilization and objectification of disabled people head-on. He seems more interested in stoking reader outrage by harping on Buck’s average intelligence, the implication being that institutionalization and forced sterilization of a person without disabilities is worse than the same fate for a disabled person. I smell ableism — and not just in the historical record, but in the historiography itself.

Finally, the whole concept of eugenics is a racist fallacy, pitting white/Anglo-Saxon/Aryan proponents against people of other colors with other racial identities. Cohen illustrates this well in his discussion of Laughlin’s sucking up to the Nazis, who, inspired by eugenics work in the United States, expanded the racism to genocidal proportions. Strangely enough, however, Cohen leaves out the racist practices fostered by Buck v. Bell that occurred in the U.S. As Nancy Gallagher capably shows in Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State, eugenics/sterilization laws disproportionately burdened not just poor people and/or people with [real or imagined] disabilities, but also people who weren’t white. In Vermont, the Abenaki Indians were seen as the racial undesireables and so particularly pursued for sterilization, but, in other states, other populations were victimized. Lack of attention to the racial minorities in the U.S. who were persecuted gives the unfounded impression that eugenic racism only happened over there in Germany, with those evil Nazis. No, it happened here too, and it’s vital to emphasize that it happened in the U.S. — indeed, pretty much started in the U.S. — because part of Cohen’s conclusion warns that the currents of eugenics may be at an ebb right now, but could easily swell again.

P.S. Cohen’s title, Imbeciles, also really rankled me. As I mentioned earlier, Buck was never categorized as an “imbecile,” but as a “moron,” both of which were official categories back then referring to putative mental age and ability. I assume that Cohen’s title derives from Holmes’ “three generations of imbeciles” bullshit and also the fact that “morons” just doesn’t flow off the tongue like the slightly longer “imbeciles.” Still, it’s a rhetorical flourish that’s factually incorrect. Furthermore, the placement of “the Supreme Court,” a group of individuals, right after the colon transfers connotations of “imbecility,” along with contempt and negative judgment, to the justices. Thus Cohen uses the tired ableist tactic of turning a term of intellectual disability, albeit outmoded, into an insult. In conjunction with Cohen’s problematic treatment of Buck’s intelligence and his general omission of eugenics’ ableist consequences, the title exemplifies Cohen’s own problematic perspective on disability.

“Door & windows — divorced, just like Mommy and Daddy”: the educated snark of Worst of McMansions

“Door & windows — divorced, just like Mommy and Daddy”: the educated snark of Worst of McMansions published on No Comments on “Door & windows — divorced, just like Mommy and Daddy”: the educated snark of Worst of McMansions

Worst of McMansions, which recently debuted on the Tumblr scene, unites architectural savvy with humorous sarcasm to devastating effect. Kate’s clever potshots at the bloated houses built during the real estate bubble of the 1990s through mid 2000s are comedy gold; check out her photo annotations on this Mclean, Virginia monstrosity. I’d love to link to her autobiography, but I can’t find it.

EDIT: I found it.

Straight white cis dude writes sexist, racist, classist, ageist jeremaid.

Straight white cis dude writes sexist, racist, classist, ageist jeremaid. published on No Comments on Straight white cis dude writes sexist, racist, classist, ageist jeremaid.

“Do teens read seriously anymore?” asks the title of David Denby’s New Yorker screed. Of course not! answers the author, blaming “most of all, screens (TV, Internet, games, texting, Instagramming).” “Screens” have killed teens’ interest in self-development through “serious” reading, turning them into superficial shlubs with no attention span. I’m dying to know how Denby deduced this, since he’s so out of touch with the under-21 set that he refers to them as “teen-agers.” Why should anyone listen to this irrelevant person?

I also can’t help but notice that Denby’s idea of “serious reading” is gendered, racialized, and classed. He cites “Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Stevenson, Orwell, Vonnegut” as exemplars of the genres that today’s “teen-agers” putatively avoid. Elsewhere in his word vomit, J.D. Salinger, Charlotte Bronte, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Joseph Heller, and Allen Ginsburg appear as sadly neglected greats. “Wilde, Nabokov, Updike, Vidal” also garner mentions as “sophisticated” author-critics of the 20th century.

Of these 18 authors, all are from the United States or Great Britain, and 16 are white cis dudes, 2 white cis women. There are 2 gay dudes [whoop de fucking doo] and 0 queer women. There are no non-honkies or people of color. All of this “literature” issues from the privileged socioeconomic classes. By contrast, the fantasy, dystopian, vampire romance, and graphic novel genres that he shits on feature a much larger representation of women and/or POC and/or various socioeconomic classes and/or national origins. And Denby hates it.

Shorter Denby: “Waaaaah, my straight cis white dude privilege is being threatened!”

Oh shut up and go hang out with Simon Doonan, another rich old cis white dude master of ageist, sexist, racist vituperation.

Hat tip to Katy Waldman for her criticism of Denby’s crap on Slate.

Amandla Stenberg talks cultural appropriation…

Amandla Stenberg talks cultural appropriation… published on No Comments on Amandla Stenberg talks cultural appropriation…

…in the context of dreads, grills, and other items coopted by white haute couture. She explains the process of cultural appropriation: Black people active in the hip-hop scene start wearing dreads, and the white mainstream culture contemns them. Then white people start wearing dreads, for which they receive universal accolades as super cool trendsetters. So basically cultural appropriation occurs when a cultural group that’s looked down upon at large does something, which is then deracinated from its origin, decontextualized, and celebrated in the dominant culture without serious reference to its source.


With this in mind, I’m thinking that cultural appropriation necessitates hegemonic contempt and steamrolling for the marginalized group that is being imitated. Thus people of color straightening their hair in the U.S. does not constitute cultural appropriation, even though some ill-informed commenters on Stenberg’s video think it is. That’s because the hair straightening is not motivated by disgust and a desire for decontextualized absorption. Hair straightening, rather, is a way in which marginalized POC are negotiating the beauty standards of dominant white culture, in which straight, controlled, smooth hair is valued. Hair straightening by POC is born of an acute knowledge of the hegemonic beauty standards and the value placed thereon, while dreads on famous white people represent a fantasy of ahistorical, ameoboid cultural engulfment.

Cards Against Humanity and the insidious trap of hipster prejudice

Cards Against Humanity and the insidious trap of hipster prejudice published on 1 Comment on Cards Against Humanity and the insidious trap of hipster prejudice

For those of you not up on the latest hip party game for people in their 20s and 30s, let me introduce you to Cards Against Humanity. Essentially a group form of multiple choice Mad Libs, this game features a bunch of black cards, which contain sentences with key nouns left out, and a bunch of white cards, which contain nouns or noun phrases. Each player draws a hand of 10 white cards, and then everyone gets a chance to read a black card aloud. After a card is read, players choose from their hand the white card that they think best completes the sentence. These cards are distributed to the reader anonymously. The reader reads the selections aloud and selects the one they like best. The player whose white card is chosen wins the black card. All players draw another white card to keep their hand up to 10, and the role of reading black cards passes to the next player.

In concept, Cards Against Humanity is the sort of game I love. There’s no competition and no real winning or losing. The game emphasizes creativity and amusement instead of points and strategy. It’s the type of game that grows exponentially more hilarious with more and more players, and it sparks very interesting side conversations when people ask or joke about each other’s choices.

In practice, however, I find Cards Against Humanity very problematic in terms of content and framing. The black cards, with their framing sentences, feature mostly topical references familiar to people in their 20s and 30s. Examples include: "What does Prince insist on being included in his dressing room?" and "What does Obama do to unwind?" Fine, no big deal.

It’s the white noun cards, though, that drive me up the wall. If they contained only generically amusing phrases such as "murder most foul," "inappropriate yodeling" and "licking things to claim them as your own," I wouldn’t object. But no, those cards are a distinct minority. The white cards focus heavily on topics apparently considered taboo or difficult to discuss by the white, straight, cis, male, bourgeois creator, including people of color ["brown people," "the hard-working Mexican"], people with disabilities ["amputees," "Stephen Hawking talking dirty," "a robust Mongoloid," "a spastic nerd," "the profoundly handicapped"], queer people ["the gays," "praying the gay away"], fat people ["feeding Rosie O’Donnell," "the morbidly obese," "home video of Oprah sobbing into a Lean Cuisine"], gender-nonconforming people ["passable transvestites"], genocide ["inappropriately timed Holocaust jokes," "helplessly giggling at the mention of Hutus and Tutsis"], Muslims ["Allah [praise be unto him!]," "72 virgins"], poor people ["poor people," "homeless people"], old people ["Grandma," "hospice care"], child abuse ["child abuse"], rape ["surprise sex"], paraphilias ["German dungeon porn"] and crap ["fiery poops"]. I could go on, but then I’d be quoting the entire suite of white cards.

Cards Against Humanity glancingly acknowledges the problematic structure of its game by billing its audience as "horrible people." "It’s as despicable and awkward as you and your friends," crows the main page of the game’s Web site. Of course, below this description are various cool publications and people praising the game, so clearly the game’s creators see being "despicable and awkward" as a coveted, desirable status. They quote condemnations from the Chicago Tribune ["absurd"], The Economist ["unforgivable"] and NPR ["bad"] in contrast with praise from INC ["hilarious"] and Boing Boing ["funny"]. Thus they associate criticism with old-fashioned, conservative, humorless media outlets full of old people and appreciation with the young, hip, cool crowd. To be "despicable and awkward," then, is ultimately to be cool. 

What does Cards Against Humanity’s concept of coolness — that is, their idea of rebranded despicability qua awesomeness — entail? Basically it means laughing at anyone who’s not a straight, white, cis, bourgeois, hipster dude [like the creator]. Don’t try to tell me that, because the game has white cards like "white privilege," it actually critiques those who are discomfited by the concept. No, it doesn’t, not when the majority of cards make marginalized people who lack privilege into punchline after punchline after punchline.

If you’re still not convinced, let me break it down to you with a single example: the white card that has the phrase "passable transvestites." There is so much wrong with this card that it’s hard to know where to start. Well, to begin with, clearly someone thought this phrase worthy of inclusion into the deck of white cards, meaning that someone perceived it as shocking, racy, funny and potentially ridiculous. So what’s shocking, racy and entertaining about "passable transvestites?" Yeah, a gender nonconforming person who goes out in public en femme so that they avoid being clocked always makes me laugh. The stats on trans and other gender nonconforming people being harassed, assaulted and killed provide comic relief every time I read them. The outdated language on this white card — the vexed concept of "passable," coupled with the no-longer-used, clinical-sounding "transvestite" — signals that the game’s creators are hung up on old-fashioned binaries of gender presentation, the transgression of which they find hilarious and pathetic, instead of a matter of life and death.

I can make the same points about Cards Against Humanity’s treatment of people with disabilities, the prejudice against whom can be summed up in a single white card: "Stephen Hawking talking dirty." Yup, yup, of course, people who are neuroatypical, emotionally atypical and physically atypical to the extent that society doesn’t really know how to accommodate them — they’re comedy gold! I mean, really — can you imagine a man with paralysis talking dirty? First of all, he’d be doing it with the help of his computer, which is inherently hilarious, you know, because he can’t really talk. Second of all, it would imply that he, despite being unable to move parts of his body, has active sexual desires and interests, which is a shock, because no paralyzed person has ever had sexual interests and agency before — ever! They’re just…like… wheelchair-bound automatons. Yeah, "the profoundly handicapped" are a gas all right. Yet again, Cards Against Humanity’s decision to employee the passe and offensive term "handicapped" shows that they’re not interested in mocking prejudice, but in perpetuating it.

EDIT: As rosettanettle points out in a comment on my LJ crosspost, the creator of Cards Against Humanity expressed regret for the "passable transvestites" white card, which is now no longer included in decks. This does not, however, negate any of my points. If anything, it reinforces them, since the creator’s expression of "regret," which came only because he was called on his transphobia, comes across as less a regret of treasuring bigoted tenets and more a regret at getting caught. I also suspect his theatrical Tumblr photoset of him lighting the card on fire of being a self-aggrandizing performance so that he may be showered with praise about what an enlightened ally he is. Why do straight, cis, white, middle-class dudes think they deserve extra special plaudits for meeting minimum standards of decency? "Despicable," indeed.

This entry was originally posted at You can comment here, but I’d prefer it if you’d comment on my DW using OpenID.

Grimm: now with even MORE stupidity, misogyny, rape apologism and classism!

Grimm: now with even MORE stupidity, misogyny, rape apologism and classism! published on 1 Comment on Grimm: now with even MORE stupidity, misogyny, rape apologism and classism!

Grimm is back for a second season, and it's still incredibly stupid. The latest episode, Bad Moon Rising, follows our protagonist, police detective Nick, as he chases a gang of coyote Wesen [= therianthropes]. The gang leader kidnaps his teenaged niece, Carlie, who, along with her parents, left the pack when she was very young. The gang leader plans to rape Carlie, as is apparently customary for coyote Wesen to increase the numbers of their pack.

Continue reading Grimm: now with even MORE stupidity, misogyny, rape apologism and classism!

50 Shades: Ana’s “inner goddess” and class warfare

50 Shades: Ana’s “inner goddess” and class warfare published on No Comments on 50 Shades: Ana’s “inner goddess” and class warfare

I got about halfway through 50 Shades Darker [book 2 in the 50 Shades trilogy by E.L. James] last night. It picks up several days after the end of the first book, when Ana and Christian break up, for reasons that I'm not quite clear on. When Christian proposes that they try again with a non-kinky, completely vanilla relationship [hah hah hah!], they're off and running [or, rather, bonking]. There's something of a plot in there too, involving Ana's new job at Seattle Independent Press, Christian's ex-domme, one of Christian's emotionally labile ex-subs, Christian's secret past, et hoc genus omne.

I'd like to talk about Ana's "inner goddess." Introduced toward the end of book 1, she appears in pretty much every other paragraph, usually in counterpoint to Ana's "subconscious." Like Ana's "subconscious," the "inner goddess" is personified, apparently as a multi-talented Olympic athlete, given her acrobatic performances of joy whenever Ana thinks about getting kinky. Beyond that, she serves no useful function; she's just a convenient image for James to use in describing Ana's lust. So, if the "subconscious" and the "inner goddess" do nothing to advance Ana's character development or the plot, why does James insert them on every damn page?! Characters in one's head can be interesting, compelling and revelatory if done with care, purpose and depth, but these are just useless, stupid and annoying.

On another note, I'm fascinated by the tensions of class warfare as exhibited by Ana and Christian. Ana seems to have grown up [from what I can tell — she doesn't have much history] in a middle-class family; as a college student, she had little spare money [hence driving the same beat-up car for three years], and she currently earns an entry-level publishing salary [which, let me tell you, is diddly squat] in her first post-college job. At this point, I'd call her lower middle-class, aspiring to higher, and rather anxious about money.

Meanwhile, Christian has millions, maybe billions. For the first few years of his life, he grew up in poverty, but, since adoption at the age of 4, he has been surrounded by ostentatious, fabulous wealth. He uses money casually and confidently, without anxiety about it at all.

Ana and Christian clash on financial matters. Christian spends exorbitant amounts on gifts for Ana, including a set of first-edition Tess of the d'Urbervilles, a laptop, a Blackberry, an Audi, an iPad, diamond jewelry and a Saab. He doesn't understand that this makes Ana, who earns much less, feel unworthy, subordinate, bought off and kept. He explains that he wants to "give [her] everything," that this is "how [he is]" and that this is "part of [his] world." Nope, he just wants to make her his objectified possession, as evidenced by the fact that he buys the publishing company Ana works for [ostensibly because he's jealous that Ana's boss shows interest in her, which is a great reason for a takeover]. He uses his socioeconomic privilege to control Ana's communication [laptop, Blackberry, iPad], transportation [Audi, Saab] and occupation [Seattle Independent Press]. It's like the 1% overruling the 99%, but with bonus secret childhood trauma!

Techniques of Pleasure by Margot Weiss

Techniques of Pleasure by Margot Weiss published on 1 Comment on Techniques of Pleasure by Margot Weiss

So Margot Weiss wrote an ethnographic study of San Fran's kinky scene, Techniques of Pleasure, finding it much more conservative and less transgressive than it would like to believe itself. Weiss challenges BDSM's portrayal of itself [see review/interview in Salon], saying that:

It's not diverse. Weiss finds that, at least in San Fran, the community is boringly white in its racial homogeneity.

It's not wild. Strict rules govern scenes.

It's not transcendent. It's mired in consumerism [all those special toys!] and reproducing societal inequities.

I'm definitely interested in reading this analysis. In parting, I leave you with one of my favorite Onion articles: S&M Couple Won't Stop Droning On About Their Fetishes.

Conspicuous environmentalism pisses me off.

Conspicuous environmentalism pisses me off. published on 5 Comments on Conspicuous environmentalism pisses me off.

We frequent several grocery stores within walking distance of our apartment: a Whole Foods [for produce], a Trader Joe’s [for frozen food], a local co-op [for milk and quick trips and a Shaw’s/Star Market [for prepared foods and to recycle bottles and plastic bags]. All of these stores sell reusable cloth shopping bags, which we use about 75% of the time. But only Whole Foods sells the reusable bags that piss me off.

As shown in this online store, the annoying reusable bags are bright yellow with the following message on them: I’M SAVING THE PLANET. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

This conspicuous, confrontational environmentalism pisses me off because its point is not just to “save a tree,” but also to “look fashionable while doing it” [quote from]. I have a problem with pro forma environmentalism where the appearance of environmentalism matters more than actual actions, as is the case with this bag. The text on the bag equates “saving the planet” with using this particular bag or, by extension, making a show of one’s environmentalism. 

Furthermore and much more problematically, the implied contrast between the owner who is “saving the planet” and the audience who is being interrogated suggests that the audience is not doing anything to save the planet. The audience may be doing environmentally conscious activities in other areas of life; or the audience may have mitigating factors that prevent them from spending extra money in order to flaunt their environmentalism like white urban bourgeois hipsters. The bag will not admit of these possibilities. In the limited calculus of the bag, bag = saving the planet = cool. No bag = harming Mother Earth = evil. At first this bag seems like a minor irritant, but it’s actually an explosive mess of classist [and possibly racist] assumptions.

American Girl dolls: what do they represent?

American Girl dolls: what do they represent? published on 4 Comments on American Girl dolls: what do they represent?

Prompting by the recent theatrical release of Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl, some Slate writers have an informal discussion about the series of dolls that spawned said movie.

Pleasant Company started off with three “American Girls” in 1986. Kirsten was from 1854, Samantha from 1904 and Mollie from 1944. The dolls came with scads of historically accurate and really expensive accessories, as well as mediocrely written stories in which they demonstrated how caring, assertive and morally sound they were. The Pleasant Company line soon exploded in popularity, resulting in its inevitable buyout by Mattel and the current proliferation of American Girls in all colors from all time periods. Unfortunately, they all have the same poorly articulated bodies and scary faces, with round eyes way too far up on their heads, flat noses and teeth ready to BITE YOU!

Having read AG books and catalogs in the past and having long sustained an interest in dolls, I read with avidity said Slate discussion about the messages of the AG empire. The participants seem to agree that the AG empire promotes conspicuous consumption by showing an upper bourgeois lifestyle in its books and pricing items so that only rich people can afford them. One commenter, Nina, has the following insight:

I like the idea of teaching kids that quality and craftsmanship matter and that investing in special items can be OK. But it doesn’t just stop at the dolls—there’s the outfits, and the furniture, and the tea parties. And that makes me a little uncomfortable. It feels too much like a patina of morality masks conspicuous consumption. It’s the kind of rationalization that makes it seem OK to spend thousands of dollars on, say, a mint-condition Eames chair. 

The phrase “patina of morality [masking] conspicuous consumption” is spot-on. AG empire books always end with morals that promote friendship, acceptance, kindness, bravery, loyalty — like some class-, race- and gender-blind version of the Girl Scouts. However, the books and dolls exist to reinforce each other, which is to say that the books ultimately do not wish to promote morality. The books actually subserve greater consumption of AG goods.

I noticed the problems of class and consumption in the AG empire when I was reading the Pleasant Company catalog back when I was 8 or 10. Of course, I wasn’t talking with sophistication about patinas of morality, but I did notice several things about the catalog that really pissed me off. For one thing, dolls and their accessories were sold separately. [They still are.] Since the dolls were frequently shown using their accessories, I had assumed that dolls and accessories came in one package. I regarded the separation thereof as a misleading disappointment and a way to get more money out of people.

Another example of implicit bourgeois assumption that I noticed early on appeared in the owner-sized outfits sold along with the dolls. One winter outfit inspired by the Kirsten doll included a pair of soft, moccasin-like boots. The copy described them as “perfect for apres-ski.” I was puzzled by this until I figured out that “apres-ski” meant “post-skiing,” and even then I was still puzzled. In my personal experience, I and all the other skiers I knew put on their regular, everyday boots after skiing. In my frame of reference, there was no need for specific apres-ski footwear. The advertising copy clued me in to the fact that some people somewhere did have specialized post-skiing boots, which meant that they probably had more money than I did, which meant that the advertising copy was not talking to me. I didn’t end up wishing for apres-ski boots in an aspirational sense; I just ended up annoyed. Now I can finally articulate why.

Lifestyles of the rich and vacuous

Lifestyles of the rich and vacuous published on 3 Comments on Lifestyles of the rich and vacuous

Oh, what a dreadful dilemma the aging hipster parents, in their 40s and expecting kids for the first time, face. They have spent so much time creating exquisite, exorbitant interiors, and they now must change their plans. 

Must their curtains woven from mermaid farts and moonbeams succumb to the slovenly onslaughts of partly formed humans who cannot properly wield spoons? 

Will the throne of imported unicorn horns, garnished in a tastefully pseudo-ethnic pattern with laser-etched bees’ knees, be relegated to the garage before a tiny being with the gait of a drunken landlubber trying to set up a folding chair on the deck of a ship in a typhoon careens into its corner and bumps its head?

Who gives a shit?

The New York Times Home & Garden section, with its earnest examination of the heart-wrenching dilemmas faced by 0.0000000000000000003% of the U.S. population, cannot be taken seriously.  Most people make a compromise between their new kids and the fabulously decorated, kid-unfriendly house they lived in before kids. I’m sure there’s some wailing and gnashing of teeth as certain beloved objects are discarded or removed, but it’s not a tragic turning point of life worthy of some Catholic Sacrament of Banished Knickknacks. By characterizing this compromise as some sort of undefeatable tension in the lives of new hoity-toity parents, the New York Times makes the interviewees come off as self-absorbed idiots who not-so-secretly like their Louis Quatorze chairs more than their kids. 


The Onion on This American Life

The Onion on This American Life published on 1 Comment on The Onion on This American Life

The Onion launches a barrage of zingers at the radio show This American Life. It is a very funny article. All the zingers find their mark as the piece deflates the bombastic, precious excesses of TAL. Here’s my favorite part, a fictional quote from TAL producer Alex Blumberg:

“At first, we were getting a lot of stories from recovered drug addicts and East African refugees living in the States, which had their compelling elements but came off a bit cloying…But then we realized that if we had overeducated people with voices rather unsuitable for radio narrate the stories with clever analogies and accessible morals, the whole thing would come off far less depressing.”

I love TAL because of the stories it tells and the characters it introduces, but I cannot stand how much obvious sweating effort it puts out all the time to come across as wry, insightful and significant. Many of the stories are pretty interesting and/or humorous already; they do not need haunting indie music to play up the affecting moments or repetitive use of Ira Glass’ “Let me get this straight; that was really an ironic moment, wasn’t it?” sort of questions. Beating the listener over the head with the score and format insults the listener’s intelligence. 

I think TAL could benefit from a format more like To The Best of Our Knowledge. TTBOOK has the same structure of a few stories on a theme, but doesn’t explicitly spell out the connections between all the pieces. It prefers instead to show some restraint and let the listener make connections by him/herself.

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