Archive for the Ramblings Category

Coffee!

Posted in Ramblings, Recipes with tags , , , , , , , on January 6, 2015 by KarenElizabeth

I’m trying to get back into the habit of blogging a bit more regularly, so in that interest, here’s a more lighthearted post than I am sometimes wont to share:  Coffee!  A bit about the history, science, and serving of one of my favourite beverages.

coffeebeans2

The History

According to the International Coffee Organization, coffee trees first originated in the Ethiopian region of Kaffa, where the “coffee cherries” (as the beans were called) were eaten by slaves.  The name “Kaffa” means “drink made from berries”, so it’s obvious that coffee was an important regional drink.  Once the beverage started to become known & spread through the Arab world (originally as a part of religious ceremonies, then later entering secular culture), their traders tried to gain a monopoly by imposing strict bans on the trading of fertile beans, but this couldn’t last forever:  in the early 17th century the Dutch brought live plants to India and Java for cultivation (although an alternate story has an Arabic holy man strapping fertile beans to his chest and smuggling them to India, which I must admit is a more romantic tale), and the coffee plant began to spread worldwide.  One particularly interesting story is that of how coffee came to the island of Martinique:

In 1720 a French naval officer named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, while on leave in Paris from his post in Martinique, acquired a coffee tree with the intention of taking it with him on the return voyage. With the plant secured in a glass case on deck to keep it warm and prevent damage from salt water, the journey proved eventful. As recorded in de Clieu’s own journal, the ship was threatened by Tunisian pirates. There was a violent storm, during which the plant had to be tied down. A jealous fellow officer tried to sabotage the plant, resulting in a branch being torn off. When the ship was becalmed and drinking water rationed, De Clieu ensured the plant’s survival by giving it most of his precious water. Finally, the ship arrived in Martinique and the coffee tree was re-planted at Preebear. It grew, and multiplied, and by 1726 the first harvest was ready. It is recorded that, by 1777, there were between 18 and 19 million coffee trees on Martinique, and the model for a new cash crop that could be grown in the New World was in place.
– International Coffee Organization

In Europe during the 17th century, coffee was widely believed to have medicinal properties (not entirely untrue, since coffee has been shown in various studies to prevent Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and liver diseases, as well as decreasing the risk of depression), and it quickly became a part of the mainstream.  Coffee houses soon became a place for political groups to gather & discuss their plans (most famously, the Boston Tea Party was planned in a coffee house in 1773), and many coffee houses evolved into major financial institutions (including Lloyds of London, the New York Stock Exchange, and the Bank of New York).

In 1884, an important innovation in coffee technology came along:  Angelo Moriondo’s steam-driven instantaneous coffee-making machine (patent no. 33/256).  In 1902, Luigi Bezzera patented his improvements to the device, and then in 1905, the patent was purchased by Desiderio Pavoni, who began to produce the world’s first commercially available espresso machines.  The espresso machine was further refined in 1932 by Achille Gaggia, whose higher-pressure models produced what we would recognize as espresso today:  thick, syrupy coffee topped with a golden foam that Gaggia dubbed “caffe crema”.  The first Faema machine, introduced in the 60s, replaced the manual power required to pull a shot from the Gaggia machines with a motorized pump, but otherwise espresso has remained largely unchanged since WWII.

 

Types of Coffee Makers

The way your coffee tastes depends largely on the way it is made, and to that end there are a variety of different coffee brewing methods available.  Each method has its benefits and downsides, and of course each camp has its vehement defenders.

choose-coffee-makerProbably the most familiar (to a North American, anyway) is the inexpensive drip coffee maker.  There are a few variations available — basket vs. cone filters, glass vs. thermal carafes, and of course there are all the added features like clocks, timers, radios, automatic shut-off, etc.  Most of us grew up with one of these in our kitchens, and the gurgle-sputter noise as the last drips finish brewing is a friendly, homey, nostalgic sort of sound.

Drip coffee is unquestionably the simplest to make.  No worries about timing, or even careful measuring — just scoop out a few heaping tablespoons of ground coffee into the filter, pour in water, and turn on.  A few minutes later, you’ll have fresh coffee — no fuss, no muss.  And most machines will turn off all by themselves, so you don’t need to worry about whether you forgot to hit the button — some even turn on by themselves, only needing to have the timer set the night before so that you can wake up to pre-made coffee before your early morning shift.  Drip coffee is also the most convenient for serving a crowd — easily make enough for the whole family all at once, without having to stand there monitoring it.  Unfortunately, drip coffee is also the least flavourful method — the water in these machines doesn’t get as hot as when brewing by other methods, and thus less flavour is pulled out of the beans.  You can improve the flavour you get by purchasing better quality whole beans & grinding them fresh each day, but this does somewhat defeat the “easy & no fuss” factor that makes drip machines appealing in the first place.

espresso machineEspresso machines (mentioned earlier in the “history” section) are at the opposite end of the spectrum, in many regards.  Expensive — a good one can easily set you back a thousand dollars — and fussy — the temperature and pressure need to be adjusted to account for humidity and barometric pressure on a regular basis in order to maintain quality — espresso drinks are something that many people leave to the professional baristas at their favourite coffee shop.  But all of that fuss means a lot more control over your final cup of coffee, and in a house with coffee drinkers who have widely varying tastes, this can be a big plus, because each person can prepare their individual coffee to their individual liking.  Espresso machines are also useful when you have just one or two coffee drinkers, and don’t want to make & waste full pots.

Just like with drip coffee, you can use absolutely any beans in an espresso machine, but lower quality beans will show more starkly:  espresso machines, with their high pressures, actually emulsify the oils in the coffee beans, so older or cheaper beans will result in very bitter espresso.  Most espresso machines come with a “steam wand” attachment so that you can easily prepare beverages such as lattes and cappuccinos by steaming the milk, which greatly expands the usefulness of this counter-space hog.

Aluminium_Espresso_Coffee_MakerThe stovetop espresso pot, or “Moka Pot” as they are commonly known, brews an espresso-like coffee under less pressure (usually about 2 bars), thus emulsifying less of the oils and producing less “crema”.  It is not actually a “true” espresso, which is defined by the 9 bars of pressure used in standard machines, but it tastes similarly & can be used for making a delicious latte, americano, or cafe-au-lait.  Moka Pots are actually one of my personal favourite home-brewing methods, as they are great for making coffee for only one or two people (although you can get larger pots designed for making up to 6 cups at a time), and result in a stronger, richer flavour than you get with a drip coffee maker, without the sediment problems of French press coffee (see below).  It tastes very similarly to coffee made in a percolator, without the risk of over-extracting the beans by recirculating the coffee through them.  Moka Pots are often confused with percolators by people who are not familiar with them.

Coffee_Percolator_Cutaway_Diagram.svgPercolators are distinct from stovetop pots because there is not a separate chamber for the coffee after brewing — it simply drips back down into the main body, where water was poured in at first.  Percolators have gone out of fashion since the advent of the drip coffee maker, but were once the worldwide standard for brewing — and they are fairly simple, as long as you keep an eye on the time.  They do tend to make better tasting coffee than drip coffee makers as long as you don’t over-extract the beans by leaving it on the heat for too long (which results in bitterness), because the water can get to a higher temperature, allowing for more flavour extraction.  Unfortunately, their drop in popularity has meant that finding filters for them is almost impossible — percolator purists tend to have to buy online (although there are some “permanent filters” available these days, which can mitigate that problem).  People who enjoy camping often swear by perk coffee (and incidentally, the percolator is where the phrase “the coffee is perking” comes from), because it’s easily prepared over an open fire or on a camp stove.

french-press-basic-mThe French Press has seen a surge in popularity recently, especially among singles and apartment-dwellers (like the Moka Pot, it takes up very little in the way of counter space, and doesn’t require a devoted outlet).  Devotees of the French Press declare that the slower brewing method produces a fuller flavour, but I personally tend to find it bitter.  There is also a distinct likelihood that French Press coffee will have large chunks of coffee grounds still floating in it after filtering, which is what really turned me away from the method — I don’t like grit in my teeth after drinking.

The French Press is an old-fashioned and simple method of brewing, and highly portable, so its popularity makes sense.  Like with percolators, you do need to keep an eye on the time — the longer you brew, the more likely those bitter flavours will come out, so you have to find the right balancing point for your taste buds.  High quality, freshly ground beans will also mitigate the bitter-factor.

best-coffee-maker-k-cup-from-keuringA new innovation in home coffee brewing technology is the single-cup brewer, popularized by brands like Keurig and Tassimo.  Also popular among the singles-and-apartment-dwellers crowd, these machines are quite versatile, but also represent the most expensive method of getting your daily caffeine-fix short of actually going to a coffee shop and paying someone else to do it.  Many of the brand-specific “k-cups” and “pods” can run well over a dollar apiece, and then there’s also the start-up cost (usually several hundred dollars) to be considered.  Most of the “pods” available are low-quality coffee brands, too, so you’re not getting the best tasting coffee, even if it’s costing you the most money.  They’re ridiculously simple, though:  just pop in a pod and whatever drink you wanted magically appears in your cup, just for you.  And with the advent of refillable, reusable “pods” that you can fill with whatever type of coffee you like, the cost can be brought down with a little effort.  I’ll admit to having enjoyed the novelty of them when staying at hotels or working in buildings where there was a single-cup brewer available for use.  And some of the smaller ones are quite portable — a woman I work with brings her little Tassimo brewer to work with her, even when we’re on set, so that she can always have fresh coffee.  But to be honest, if I was going to spend that kind of money on home-brewed coffee, I’d get a proper espresso machine and skip all the single-cup nonsense.

cold_brew_coffee_06While there are dozens of other little “niche” methods of making coffee (one of the coffee shops that I regularly frequent has a whole mad-science laboratory full of contraptions for roasting, grinding & brewing), the only other one that I think is necessary to mention here is cold-brewing (follow the link for more detail).  Perfect for making iced coffee beverages in the summer (or, let’s face it, any time of year at all, because iced coffee is delicious), cold-brewing produces an incredibly smooth-flavoured coffee with very little bitterness or acid.  You can get whole fancy contraptions for doing it (the “Toddy” system is very popular & works well; we used it at a coffee shop where I used to work), but all that’s really needed is 2 mason jars, a large funnel, and a filter (just buy a box of the cone-filters designed for drip coffee makers, or use cheesecloth).  In one mason jar, put coarse-ground coffee beans & cold water.  Leave it in the fridge for 12 hours, then pour through the funnel (using the filter to strain out the grounds) into the second mason jar.  Pop the lid on and you’ve got cold-brewed coffee to last you for the whole week.  Getting the exact amount of coffee beans, the grind, and the amount of time correct can take a bit of trial-and-error, but it’s an experiment worth doing if you enjoy iced coffee drinks.  Never again will you just pour hot coffee over ice, watering it down & resulting in high-acid bitterness.

 

Cappuccino, Latte, Cafe-au-Lait?  Whaa?

When I had a part-time job as a barista, this was one of the questions that got asked literally every day, so I’ll go through a few of the most common coffee and espresso beverages that you’ll see on the menus at various cafes.  There might be a few on here you’ve never heard of — feel free to try to stump your local barista with an offbeat one, but remember to tip well for the inconvenience.

Cafe Americano (or just “americano” to many) is a shot of espresso, topped up with hot water to “lengthen” it.  The story goes that American soldiers in Italy during WWII found that they couldn’t find the perk coffee they were accustomed to, because espresso machines had exploded on to the scene.  They didn’t enjoy the thick, strong, tiny drinks that were so popular, and would dilute them with water to closer approximate the coffee they knew and loved.  Americano coffee has a different flavour from your standard drip or perk coffee, due to the different extraction method, and many people prefer it for that reason.

A Long Black is virtually identical to an americano, but instead of adding the water to the espresso, you add the espresso to the water.  Purists claim that this maintains more of the espresso’s natural “crema”, and there is a slight visual difference, but I can’t say that it alters the flavour (to my tastes, anyway).

The Red Eye (also known as the “shot in the dark”) is a single shot of espresso added to a cup of dark roast coffee — the point being to increase the boldness, flavour, and caffeine content of the drip coffee.  If you want to add 2 shots instead of just one, it’s called a Black Eye, and 3 shots is a Green Eye.

Cappuccino is a shot of espresso topped with hot steamed milk & foam.  Traditionally, you want about equal amounts of milk & foam (the ideal cappuccino is 1/3 espresso, 1/3 milk, 1/3 foam), but you can ask for your cappuccino “wet” (more milk) or “dry” (more foam) to adjust the flavour, or have extra shots of espresso added for boldness.  The foam on any espresso drink should be made up of very tiny bubbles (commonly called “microfoam”), visually resembling the medium-density upholstery foam you might find in a couch cushion.  Big bubbles are a sign of an inexperienced or lazy barista.

Latte is very similar to cappuccino, but uses almost all hot milk, with just a little bit of foam at the very top.  Because there is more milk, lattes are less strong in flavour than a cappuccino — and they’re also ideal for adding extra flavours to (ie. vanilla, hazelnut, pumpkin spice, etc).  A mocha latte (or just “mocha”) is a latte made with chocolate.  Lattes are often scoffed at by coffee purists as a drink for people who lack taste, but hey, sometimes we all just want something sweet & simple.

Chai lattes or tea lattes are not made with espresso, but rather with very strong tea (or in some cases, a boxed tea concentrate — most mainstream chains like Starbucks will use something from a box or bottle in order to maintain consistent flavour from shop to shop).  These boxed concentrates are often pre-sweetened, so be aware when ordering that you should taste it before adding sugar.  Matcha lattes are made with a powdered form of green tea, and the milk will actually turn a fairly bright green (it looks kinda disgusting, but tastes delicious).

Cafe-au-lait is sometimes used to mean the same as “latte”, but actually refers to a strong dark-roast coffee (not espresso) mixed 1:1 with hot milk & no foam.  Check with the barista before ordering to make sure you know what you’re getting.

Macchiato is my personal favourite espresso drink.  Resembling a small cappuccino, it consists of a shot of espresso either poured into or topped with approximately an equal amount of foam.  Espresso shots for macchiato are usually pulled “long” (a bit more hot water added to the shot), but the method of preparation can vary from place to place.  When I make them for myself, I just pull a single shot & top with foam, no extra fuss.  It should be noted that the Starbucks “caramel macchiato” drink in no way resembles what an actual macchiato is; it’s just an example of corporate marketing people taking a random Italian-sounding word and slapping it on a drink.

A flat white is 1:1 espresso and steamed milk, no foam (that’s what the “flat” refers to).  They are usually served in glass cups with wire handles, for no particular reason other than “it’s traditional”.  The flat white has become a very competitive art, and people who drink them regularly are often very devoted to their particular way of having it.

Caffe Leche is espresso served with sweetened condensed milk.  It’s basically like drinking a coffee-caramel.

Viennese coffee (or “cafe Vienna”) is espresso topped with whipped cream (and often sprinkles or chocolate shavings).

Turkish coffee is not espresso at all, but rather coffee served in a very primitive/traditional fashion.  Coffee grounds, pounded completely to dust, and sugar are put directly into water & the water is boiled to extract the coffee.  The pot has to be removed from the heat as soon as it starts to boil, or the coffee will taste “burnt”, so this is a method that requires some patience and attention.  There is a flair to pouring, too, so that the foam from the coffee is divided evenly between the cups.  Drinking coffee with the grounds in it is a bit of an acquired taste, and can leave you with an unpleasant “gritty” feeling on your tongue if the coffee was not pounded fine enough.

A frappe is also not actually an espresso drink; it’s made with instant coffee, water, and condensed milk, and shaken until very foamy.

Espresso Cubano (or just “Cubano”) is a shot of espresso pulled directly over demarara or raw brown sugar.  Put the sugar into the cup before pulling the espresso on top of it, so that the two will meld while the espresso pours.

Espresso Romano (or just “Romano”) is a shot of espresso served with a slice of fresh lemon — and it is drunk by running the lemon over the rim of the cup before you sip.

Doppio usually refers to a simple double-shot of espresso, but the name is actually derived from the double-spouted filter head used on most commercial espresso machines.  In barista competitions, the doppio is the “standard” measure of espresso used in a drink.

Ristretto refers to a shot that is “restricted” — pulled for a shorter amount of time.  This truncated pull results in a shot that is sweeter and has more crema than a standard single-shot or doppio.

Affogato is espresso served over a dessert — often an ice cream or pudding, but occasionally a cake.  Some dessert menus at Italian restaurants will offer the option to have your dessert “affogato style”.

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Why Saying “I’m Not a Feminist” is NEVER an Okay Thing To Do

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

There are a lot of misconceptions about feminism in the world.

There are many different reasons for this, of course.  Feminism is a complicated topic.  It’s hard to look at approximately 50% of the world’s population — women of all races, all nationalities, all ages, all sexual orientations, all income brackets, all political affiliations, all education levels, etc — and define a simple, clear message that everyone can agree upon.  Especially since the advent of 3rd wave feminism, there are countless splinter and “niche” groups working under the greater feminist umbrella, and often working directly at cross-purposes to one another, or talking about completely different topics.  In an age where information is readily accessed with the click of a mouse, we’re faced with an overwhelming glut of information regarding feminism, and very little of it is concise or clear or speaks with a single voice representing all of us.

But when it’s stripped back to the bare essentials, feminism *does* have one simple, easily expressed goal:  gender equality, and the elimination of sexism.  We disagree (sometimes vehemently) on how best to *achieve* that goal, of course, but the goal remains the same for all.  And when you strip it back to that — when you say, “gender equality” instead of “feminism” — there are very few people who’ll argue against it.

And this is why the way we express ourselves about feminism, and the way we self-identify, needs to see some serious change.

If you believe that sexism is a bad thing, and that a person’s gender does not determine their worth, then you’re a feminist.  You may not agree with *every* feminist group (no one does — there are simply too many of them out there) — but you’re a feminist, of some description.  That’s all there is to it.  Saying “I’m not a feminist”, then, is a lie — and worse, it’s hurting feminists (and people) everywhere.

When most people say “I’m not a feminist”, it’s because they’re misguided about what feminism means.  They’ve bought in to a harmful stereotype — the man-hating, (often) lesbian, radical feminist who burns bras, thinks men should be slaves, and considers all penetrative sex to be rape.  This is a stereotype that was created by (and has been largely perpetuated by) the oppressing class, as a way of discrediting the perfectly logical claim that women are people and should be treated as such.  It’s a caricature, designed to make feminists look laughable and ridiculous and unfeminine, and unsexy, and unlovable, and criminal.  So when you characterize all feminists this way, it’s no different than characterizing all Scots as “cheap”, or all Irishmen as “drunks”.  You’re buying in to a bigoted stereotype, rather than learning about the individual people.

And when you buy in to that bigoted stereotype, and say “I’m not a feminist”, you’re also lumping yourself in with the people who actually ARE bigots.  You’re aligning yourself with the people who believe that women’s rights should be taken away so we can go back to the “good old days”.  You’re aligning yourself with sexual predators and rapists who don’t want their victims to have rights or be treated as people.  You’re aligning yourself with the Taliban who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head for wanting an education.

Do you really want to be on the same side as those people?

I’m not saying that you should blindly help any cause that identifies itself as “feminist”.  There’s no “supreme guiding council of feminist elders”, and no peer-review process, to determine the validity of any particular group’s claim to feminism.  There are plenty of self-identified “feminist” groups out there who have views that may not, in fact, be particularly helpful ones.  There are radfem groups who call themselves feminist but believe in the subjugation of men (I happen to strongly dispute their use of the term “feminist”, since by definition any group that advocates sexism is not, in fact, feminist — but that’s an issue that’s still considered up for debate in the broader feminist community).  There are feminist groups who are anti-choice, or who align themselves with religious organizations, or who are sex-worker exclusionary, or trans-exclusionary, or classist/racist/etc in their aims, and I disagree vehemently with all of those things.  And there are many feminist groups advocating for very specific, niche causes that may or may not be relevant to a particular person’s life — for example, a group dedicated to eliminating sexism in the medical profession might have a very good point, but not be relevant to me personally, as I’m an arts worker, not a doctor (dammit, Jim!).  So just calling yourself “feminist” doesn’t make you right, and it’s still important to research the motivations and background of any group you’re looking to join up with or support.

One of the biggest groups who commonly say “I’m not a feminist” are, unfortunately, men.  They’ll say, “I believe in women’s rights and equality, but I can’t be a feminist ’cause I’m a guy”.  And that’s just ridiculously misguided.  Not only is it perfectly possible for a guy to believe in gender equality (thus making him a feminist), it’s supremely important for people who are NOT women, who are NOT a part of the oppressed class, to take up the banner of feminism and make a conscious choice to support feminist aims.  Because it’s the oppressing class (in this case, males) who has the majority of the power — and thus, it’s males who have the most power to change things.  It’s been proven time and again that it’s easier for men (and especially white men) to get top positions at most jobs — they’re the bosses, the ones in charge of salaries, the ones in charge of hiring, and the ones in charge of policy.  They’re the majority of the politicians.  They’re the educators at universities.  They’re the police and the lawyers and the judges who enforce and influence the laws.  So if they’re working with feminist aims in mind (ie, a CEO who implements fair hiring policies, or a politician who fights for women’s reproductive rights), they’re in a position to do much more to help the cause than almost anyone else would be capable of.  They’re the ones who, by and large, have the ability to tip the scales and start the workings of a fair society.

Another group that commonly denies feminism is people of colour.  This is a more problematic issue — people of colour are already a part of an oppressed class, whether they are female or male or anything in-between.  They’re already fighting for fair wages, fair representation, and fair application of the law.  And many feminist groups are, unfortunately, very whitewashed.  Because it’s white people who have traditionally had more education & wealth, it’s white women who largely spearheaded the early feminist movements, and it’s white women who have remained at the forefront.  Many feminist groups are blatantly racist (or at least racially insensitive), and when you bring religion into the equation (people of colour are traditionally more attached to their faith, for a variety of reasons not worth going into here), it gets even more difficult — many feminist groups actively attack religious organizations, without regard to the people who worship that particular god, and this can be a massive turn-off for otherwise pro-gender-equality types.  And because feminism has historically been white, it’s difficult for people of colour to break that barrier — too many, already exhausted from spending a lifetime being oppressed for the colour of their skin, walk into a feminist meeting only to see a sea of white faces and no one who looks remotely like themselves, and they feel automatically excluded.  It’s hard to blame people for feeling that way.  In the end, though, we’ll never be able to make feminism more POC-friendly without having some people of colour standing in those rooms.  Some are going to have to break down those barriers, and walk into those rooms full of white faces, and decide they’re going to stay.  And those of us who *are* white need to recognize this difficulty, and welcome such people with open arms, so that more of them will feel comfortable saying “I’m a feminist”.

What I find, personally, the most painful, are those women who believe that identifying as feminist will make them seem unattractive.  They’re victims of fear — fear of being hated, fear of being spurned, fear of being alone.  These are the people who media depictions of feminists are directly attacking, and directly oppressing.  I just want to take those women and say, “It’s okay! What they said on TV was a lie — you can be a feminist and still be beautiful, and feminine, and a stay-at-home-mom, and people will still love you”.  And they tell me that they’re “not as strong” as I am, or that they “don’t belong”.  And that’s so wrong, because you don’t have to be an exception — or an exceptional person — to be a feminist.  You just have to believe in equality.

In most media depictions, it’s the loudest and most strident voices who get the most airtime.  These are the people who are easy to pick out of a crowd, and they give entertainment and good sound bites.  They’re also the people who are easiest to ridicule and discredit.  So we need more of the “normal” people, the ones with perfectly rational and moderate views (the ones that the majority of us espouse) to stand up and say clearly, “I’m a feminist”.  We need to drown out those radical voices, and get voices of reason to be standing at the forefront.  Because until we can “normalize” feminism, it’s never going to be fully successful.

And it really should be perfectly “normal” to believe that all people should have equal rights, right?

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: The Psychology of Being an Enabler, and Why “Awareness” Isn’t Enough

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

It often surprises people to learn that I’ve been in not just one, but several different unhealthy and abusive relationships (and not just in my personal life — I’ve had abusive work situations, too).  As an outspoken feminist, an accomplished martial artist, a highly intelligent and university-educated person, and coming from a privileged childhood (so, no poverty-related issues to overcome), it seems on the surface that I’d be the last person to put myself in a position to be abused.  But my situation isn’t a unique one, and there are a lot of women out there who come across as strong, confident, and goal-oriented, who wind up in unhealthy relationships — serially.  Over and over again.  And the question that always comes up when these relationships fall apart and the abuse is exposed to the world is, “why would you ever put up with that?”  Because we know that we were being treated wrong.  We can identify and discuss the ways in which we were abused.  But we stayed anyway, and that’s an incredibly confusing thing — often, even to us.  Why did we put up with it?

But we don’t have to look far to see a plethora of examples of just these sorts of unhealthy relationships in media.  A popular sitcom trope is that of the beautiful, intelligent, capable woman who is in a relationship with (and continually forgives) a borderline-abusive jerk.  Look at Marge & Homer, Peter & Lois, Wilma & Fred, Spike & Buffy, Barney & Robin, Shrek & Fiona, Belle & Prince Adam … you get the idea.  The idea of a strong woman supporting and forgiving a weak man (often because he’s “just a man” and doesn’t know any better) is well-established.

simpson-24-610x457

The problem is that, like many other women, I’m a fixer.  I like to take things that are broken, and make them better.  And I don’t give up easily on a “project” I’ve taken on.  The traits that make me a fixer are generally considered positive traits, and many of them are traditionally considered “feminine”:  I’m a care-giver, a nurturer, a teacher, a healer.  I’m also stubborn and independent, which in  the context of an abusive relationship means that when trouble comes along, I tend to batten down the hatches and isolate myself while I fix whatever is going on, rather than seeking help from friends or family.  I self-isolate, which makes me the perfect target for an abuser.

Another factor that enters in to this equation is a sense of shame.  Because I am intelligent enough to recognize what’s going on, I will see the abuse — and try to hide it.  I don’t want my intelligent, feminist friends and family to realize that I’ve fucked up and attached myself to another abusive, controlling, life-draining, soul-destroying human being.  So when I see abusive behaviours, I’ll recognize in my brain “he’s gaslighting me”, or “he’s telling me how I should feel instead of acknowledging my emotions”, or “did he really just try to bully me into doing that?” … and I’ll hide it.  Ashamed that I’ve gotten myself into another such situation, I’ll laugh it off, keep it secret, and try to deal with it behind closed doors, because I know that one of the first questions out of anyone else’s mouth is going to be, “why would you put up with that?” — and I don’t have a good answer.

There’s always a reason why we stay, of course.  Love, often.  It’s hard to walk away from a person you love — and abusers are master manipulators.  They often set it up so that you’ll feel that if you leave, their life will be ruined.  It’s hard to take responsibility for destroying someone you care about, and that romantic sense that “you complete me” can quickly become a terrifying trap.  But there are more subtle tactics, too.  Mental illness, for example, is often used as an excuse for bad behaviours.  We tell ourselves things like, “he’s lashing out at me because he can’t cope with his own depression”, instead of recognizing the attacks for what they really are.  We tell ourselves that we can’t leave someone who’s mentally ill, that leaving someone who’s sick would be just as bad as leaving someone because they have cancer.  But bad behaviour is bad behaviour, and we have to learn eventually to escape from it.

So many campaigns against abuse, these days, are about “awareness”.  About teaching us to recognize abuse.  But the problem is that simple “awareness” isn’t enough.  I knew last November that one of my relationships had turned abusive — it took until the spring before I stopped sleeping with him, and until the end of summer before the shit really hit the fan and I stopped publicly defending his behaviour.   I was aware that he was continually gaslighting me, negging me, telling me how I should be feeling, manipulating and controlling my emotions — and when I would try to call him out on it, he’d have a “mental breakdown” and beg me for comfort, beg me to tell him it was okay and that I still loved him.  When friends and loved ones told me, “he shouldn’t be treating you like that,” I shrugged it off, even as I mentally agreed with them.  But I couldn’t give up on it and live with the consequences of another public, humiliating failure.

We need, as a society, to stop treating abuse victims like they’re stupid.  We aren’t stupid.  We know what’s going on, and we know it isn’t right.  We just don’t know how to end these relationships without being stigmatized.  Being cast as a “victim” is bad enough — being cast as a stupid victim who didn’t know what was happening?  Is intolerable.  The discussion needs to change, because “awareness” is only the first step.  After that there’s actually getting out, and getting on with your life, which is where you really need the support.

In Defense of the Marilyns

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

215px-LegallyBlondeTheMusicalIn my glamorous life as a contract techie (haha), I’ve been spending the past couple of weeks working backstage as a sound tech on a production of “Legally Blonde, The Musical”.  Based on the 2001 movie, the plot is pretty familiar:  blonde sorority babe Elle Woods pursues a law degree at Harvard in an attempt to win back her ex-boyfriend, and along the way discovers that she’s actually pretty good at this “law” thing when she wins a case by catching two witnesses perjuring themselves:  the first by claiming he’s not gay (but clearly he was, since he didn’t respond to Elle’s cheerleader dancing), and the second by lying about taking a shower after getting a perm (and Elle, of course, knows everything about hair care).  Elle ends up deciding that she’s better off without said ex-boyfriend in her life, getting her law degree, and marrying her T.A. instead.  The show is, of course, plagued by sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia.  If I were to go into all of the problems with the show, this would be a VERY long blog post, so I’m going to stick to just the one that is, in my opinion, the most insidious:  the “Marilyn vs. Jackie” problem.

Something that’s probably very easily overlooked in a casual viewing of this musical is the fact that Elle dropped everything to follow her ex to law school.  She moved across the country, abandoning her dreams of a film career and leaving friends and family behind.  The fact that her dreams changed through the course of the action is all well and good — but  the judgmental attitude towards the life she left behind is something incredibly problematic.  Throughout the musical, her ex refers insultingly to Elle as a “Marilyn” (a reference to a line in the song “Serious”, when he breaks up with her and says that he needs a girlfriend who’s “less of a Marilyn more of a Jackie”, meaning of course Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy).  Others also heap insults on her liking for hair products, fashionable clothing, and hedonistic pleasures, and at the end of the musical it is joked about that Warner (the ex) dropped out of school and pursued a career as a male model instead.  Elle’s blondeness and her fashion sense are a constant focus, and even when she turns this knowledge to her advantage (most notably, when she uses her knowledge of hair care to catch a lying murderer), it gains her no respect from her superiors (her boss initially compliments her, but then makes sexual advances to her and fires her when she refuses him).  And even Elle herself, and the friends & family she left behind in L.A., comment on how she is able to do “more” with her life when she pursues law.

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All of this raises the question:  what’s wrong with being a “Marilyn”?  Elle is clearly a highly intelligent woman.  Combined with her privileged position in life (she comes from money and her parents were able to just casually pay her way through law school — it’s clear she’s never had to work in her life), Elle would likely have found success in any career she chose to put her mind to.  Had she stayed in L.A. and pursued that film career, she’d probably have done well at it (as Marilyn Monroe did).  Who’s to say that her life as a lawyer will truly be more fulfilling than her original plans would have been?  That’s quite a judgment to cast on those who elect to become actors or models or other “superficial” things.

While I think it’s important to support people (of all genders) who pursue non-traditional careers and lives, I think it’s VERY key that we not do so at the expense of those who choose a more straightforwards path.  And yes, it can be a difficult balancing act.  I don’t personally choose to wear makeup in my day-to-day life, but I don’t judge women who do wear makeup in a harsh manner.  I don’t personally want to have kids or a traditional, heteronormative family, but I have to be careful not to treat others badly for wanting those things.  I don’t personally work a traditionally “womanly” job, but I don’t have anything against those women who do (or against women who are homemakers or stay-at-home moms instead of staying in the workforce after marriage).

The important thing to remember about feminism is that women have fought for the past hundred years for the right to choose what to do with our lives.  We can choose to go into traditionally male-centric careers — or not.  And men can choose the same.  We can choose to be Marilyns, knowing that there are other options available to us.  We can decide what is best for us, and what is going to make us happiest and most fulfilled.

Saying that any one choice is not as good as the others, that “manly” jobs are better than “womanly” ones, is just subscribing to the same old problematic set of assumptions that we’ve been trying to shake off in the first place.

Rape Fantasies: Why Consent Isn’t Sexy, and Why You’re Not a Bad Feminist for Enjoying It

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

TRIGGER WARNING – obviously.  Don’t read this post if you’re upset by analytical discussions of rape.

 

I’ll admit it:  I’m a fan of smutty literature.  Romance novels, Internet slash-fiction, even just regular old books with well-written sex scenes thrown in there.  I started swiping my mom’s Harlequin romances in my early teens, keeping favourite ones hidden in between the mattress and the bedframe for late-night reading.  Female friends and I would find books at the library with good sex scenes and share them, often reading the steamiest passages aloud and giggling at our own fascination with sex.  As I got older and became sexually active, those books served as guides — how to touch, how to talk, what to expect.  They taught me the words for what I wanted, how to ask my partners for things, and how to enjoy myself doing it.  In many ways, romance novels were what taught me to be a feminist, because it was from them that I learned the sex-positive and body-positive attitudes that my adolescence would not otherwise have provided.

 

But there was always one thing that puzzled me.  Why did so many of these books contain — and even romanticize — rape?

 

 

It’s a question that’s come up a lot in recent years, especially with the popularization of Twilight, Game of Thrones, and 50 Shades.  These are things marketed to women, popular among women, and yet they show women accepting, and even sometimes enjoying, being raped and abused.  It’s not a new phenomenon — I can remember Game of Thrones being among those books my friends and I found at the library, and heck, even 3onguochildhood fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty contain questionable ideas about consent — but it leaves a lot of us conflicted.  At least 50% of women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives.  I’m certainly not the only one of my friends who has experienced sexual assault and rape.  And yet many of us still find something attractive, something undeniably sexy, about scenes like the ones between Danerys and Drogo in GoT.  While the reality of rape is abhorrent and terrifying, there is still something about the fantasy that has the power to turn us on.

 

What really got me thinking about it, though, was when one of my friends called herself a “bad feminist” for enjoying that fantasy.  And I immediately felt like she was wrong.  But it took me some time to define exactly why I feel that rape fantasies are not, inherently, an “unfeminist” thing to have.

 

Why We Enjoy the Fantasy

The first thing that I had to question, of course, was where this fantasy comes from, and why we have it.  In the end, I decided that there are a multitude of factors in play, here — and that’s really not surprising.  Culturally, we are pretty obsessed with sex, and both sex and gender play a huge role in almost every aspect of our society.  These are deeply ingrained things that we’re dealing with, here.  And there are likely more reasons than just the ones that I’m listing (feel free to bring up others in the comments, if you like).

  1. Puritanical attitudes towards sex.  If we believe that sex is bad or “dirty”, as many of us have been raised to think, then saying “yes” is an impure act.  This is especially true when you’re talking about premarital sex, casual sex, or pretty much any sex that is not purely for the purposes of procreation.  Women, especially, are often told that good girls don’t have (or at least, don’t enjoy) sex, and that we must always be careful to not act “slutty”.  Women who do openly enjoy sex are often punished by society for doing so.  As a result, saying “no” seems like a virtuous, positive thing to do.  The rape fantasy then becomes, somewhat perversely, a way of indulging in a sexual fantasy wherein you don’t have to say “yes” (thus becoming a “slut” and damning yourself).  In such a fantasy, you can maintain your “purity” while still engaging in the act.  Of course, such a fantasy is problematic — and it doesn’t line up with reality.  Victim-blaming and the idea that rape victims somehow “asked for it” means that in reality, a woman who has gone through rape is usually stigmatized as a “slut” anyhow.  But a fantasy world where you can escape from such stigmatization and abuse, and enjoy sex without feeling guilt about it, is actually a pretty sex-positive thing, when you get right down to it.  Especially for younger women or those from particularly sheltered, puritanical upbringings, the rape fantasy may actually be an avenue towards more sex-positive attitudes in their lives in general.
  2. Conventional ideals of “manliness”.   The knight in shining armor.  The dashing pirate/outlaw.  The lone wolf, or the rebel who plays by his own rules.  The millionaire playboy.  The mystery, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a vest.  What do all of these “romantic ideals” have in common?  Power.  Whether it be money, fame, good looks, the power of the unknown, or just raw muscle and steel, men are expected by society to wield power if they want to be attractive.  And that, of course, is what rape is all about:  it’s about power.  This is why rape occurs across all demographics, and doesn’t depend on a victim’s attractiveness or age or place within society.  And so for women, having been raised being told that the best man to have is the most powerful one — well, what’s more powerful than a rapist?
  3. The other side of power and control.  Jumping off from #2, we come to the other side of power:  being powerless.  A lack of control.  It’s something that many of us seek out quite actively, as a form of escape from our daily lives and the demands of mature adulthood.  We enjoy getting “swept up in the moment” and being able to just go along with things, no decision-making required.  We escape into books and media, into drunken nights with friends, into cruise vacations where the biggest choice you have to make is “chicken or fish?”.  Sex can be a terrifying thing to be in control of, especially if you’re inexperienced or not confident in your abilities.  The rape fantasy takes away the need to be “good” at what you’re doing.  It takes away the responsibility of pleasing your partner.  It allows you to simply receive, without having to give anything back.  For the neophyte, this sort of fantasy can take away some of the anxieties surrounding sex, actually encouraging more sex-positive attitudes because it frees them up to simply enjoy, without worrying about their skill level.
  4. A female sort of power.  There is another way to interpret the power relationship in rape fantasies:  in the concept of the male as a stupid, insatiable animal, unable to resist a woman’s sexy wiles.  This particular fantasy stems from right-wing, conservative attitudes towards rape, which are unfortunately quite pervasive in our society.  When victims are blamed for being raped because they were “acting slutty” or “dressed inappropriately”, and when rapists are excused because “boys will be boys”, it’s an incredibly sexist and sex-negative thing.  But if you take that particular fantasy, and examine it purely as fantasy, it becomes the victim who holds the power.  For women, raised in a society where power tends to be tied to male privilege, the idea of being able to drive a man to unspeakable acts just by looking really, really good?  That’s a pretty cool power fantasy right there.  And it’s also a body-positive sort of fantasy, too, because it requires that the victim be not just desirable, but VERY desirable.  It lets you feel wanted, and in a world where the media regularly tells us that our body is not good enough just as it is?  That can be a very positive feeling.
  5. Exposure.  Like me, many women had some of their first encounters with the concept of enjoyable sex through romance novels.  And a lot of romance novels contain depictions of rape — maybe as many as half of them.  Most such depictions aren’t terribly realistic (usually the men involved are ridiculously good looking and are experienced sexual gods capable of giving multiple, mind-blowing orgasms, and the sex itself isn’t in any way violent or taboo — just non-consensual, because the woman is protesting even as she enjoys it).  We also see depictions of rape in plenty of other media — mainstream TV, movies, books, and porn all contain it with some frequency.  With such fuel for our imaginations, it’s not surprising that our fantasy lives also contain depictions of rape.
  6. Fear.  There’s a fine line between fear and excitement.  It’s why we enjoy roller coasters, horror movies, and skydiving.  Fear gets your heart pumping and your adrenaline rushing.  It does, in some sense, turn you on.  The fear associated with the idea of rape can do exactly the same thing — especially when, just like with a roller coaster or a horror movie, we know we’re in no real danger.  When it’s all a fantasy, you can experience that fear in a controlled and safe fashion.  This is also a common theory as to why some victims of actual rape may afterwards enjoy rape fantasies, while still hating and fearing what truly happened to them:  it’s a way of controlling and “taking back” the power of the experience.
  7. Exploring the taboo.  This one links back to #1 in many ways, because we live in a society with a lot of taboos — especially when it comes to sex and sexuality.  A part of figuring out your own sexuality is in exploring those various taboos, and finding out which ones are fun and which are scary.  Rape is a taboo that most people would never want to explore outside of the realm of pure fantasy, but considering it as fantasy can definitely be a part of healthy sexual exploration, because doing so can help you to define your limits and your desires.

 

Why it’s Not “Unfeminist” to Like It

I touched on a few of the reasons in my list up there — depending on the context of your particular fantasy, rape fantasies may include aspects that are decidedly sex-positive and body-positive, and they can certainly be a part of  a healthy fantasy life.

 

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More important, though, is the fact that rape fantasies are just that:  fantasies.  And fantasies, by their very nature, really can’t be non-consensual.  The one doing the fantasizing is always in control, and can stop things whenever they want to.  This is why in BDSM, “rape play” or “consensual non-consent” can be enjoyed:  because the “victim” in this case has a safe-word and can stop things at any time if it becomes too frightening or painful.  They are completely in control, even if it seems to be otherwise.  And of course, taking back control of traumatizing, terrifying things like rape is a part of what feminism is all about.  It’s about taking and enjoying your individual power as a human being.

 

Of course, finding an actual partner to engage in such fantasies with is a problematic thing in and of itself.  Fantasizing about being raped is a very different thing from fantasizing about being a rapist.  So taking this kind of a fantasy from your mind into the bedroom is something to be done with a lot of caution, and only with a partner who you very deeply trust.  Someone who’s immediately eager to try it probably isn’t the safest person to play with (better to choose someone who’s uncomfortable, but willing to do it because it’s something you want), and while it may be a very private and intimate fantasy, it’s something perhaps better kept to a public dungeon or play space, where there will be others around to ensure that your safe words are heeded if they must be used.  It wouldn’t be fun for “play rape” to turn into the actual thing.

Taking Ownership of Public Spaces

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

Today I went out to get a coffee, just to get myself out of the house for a short while.  I’d been doing work around the house all day and was beginning to feel cooped up, and figured that a ten-minute walk to the end of the street and back (and the small amount of social interaction involved in buying a drink) would do me some good.  Since I live with an anxiety disorder that often manifests itself as agoraphobia, little trips out into public space are an important thing for me.

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Because I suffer from these bouts of agoraphobia (fear of or anxiety regarding open spaces and social situations, often manifesting as an inability to leave the house), I’m a person who is very aware of the divides between private, public, and semi-private spaces.  I’m very protective of my own private space, and guarded when entering public spaces.  When in public or in others’ private spaces, I am very aware of the etiquette surrounding these spaces and make a conscious effort to be “proper”.  It can, therefore, be incredibly difficult for me to deal with anyone who I see as being “improper”.

Mr RudeThere are a lot of people, though, who don’t seem to have an understanding of where it is, and isn’t, polite to do certain things, and on my trip out of the house today I encountered one of these individuals.  As I entered the coffee shop and got in line, I could hear someone talking very loudly.  Almost yelling, in fact.  Their voice filled the entire coffee shop, like an actor projecting to reach the cheap seats at the back of the theatre.  I looked around, half expecting to see someone talking on a cell phone, oblivious to their surroundings.  We’re all familiar with this particular brand of rude person:  instead of stepping outside to get better reception, they yell their half of a one-sided conversation at top volume (often punctuated with a lot of, “sorry, could you repeat that?  Bad reception in here”).

What I saw, though, was something that I had never encountered before:  a whole new brand of rude human being.  Two women, sitting with their small children, and one of the women was reading what appeared to be a bedtime story (something vaguely racist about the difference between Italian and Chinese noodle dishes and kids being turned into pasta via magical accident).  At top volume.  Their bags, coats, and other belongings were spread out across two tables and spilling onto the floor.  One of the kids was running around and not listening to the story.  And they were being glared at (and commented on) by almost every customer in the place.

Of course a restaurant is not, strictly speaking, public space.  It is owned by someone (in this case, the owner of that particular Tim Horton’s location), and they are free to set their own rules regarding what is accepted and what is not.  The fact that no employees seemed to be bothered by this woman’s display made me timid, and I felt like I couldn’t approach them and ask them to be quieter.  I simply took my drink “to go”, and left the rudeness behind.  Still, a restaurant dining room is only semi-private, with the general public being invited to come and go and to use the space in a variety of ways.  Despite it belonging to someone else, I can’t help but think of that Tim Horton’s as “my” Timmies, as I’ve visited it several times a week for over three years now.

As I walked home, iced coffee in hand, I reflected on the fact that these rude customers obviously considered this Timmies “theirs” just as much as I considered it “mine”.  They felt entitled to use the space for their loud reading, and to take up multiple tables in an almost full coffee shop, just as they would in their own private space.

This got me to thinking about how we all take ownership of certain public and semi-private spaces.  We have “our” neighborhoods, “our” parks, “our” restaurants, and bars, and favourite places to hang out.  We feel safe in these places, and the people we share them with form a community, even if we’ve got nothing else in common.  We feel personally violated when we hear about a robbery at “our” convenience store, or vandalism at “our” park, or violence in “our” city.  We band together to support “our” community theatre, or to restore “our” historical monument.  Especially for someone like me, having public spaces that are safe and familiar is very important, because it makes it easier to get myself out of the house and not be such an agoraphobic turtle.  But communities are important to us all, because they form one of the foundational elements of a society.

It’s hard to define at what point that sense of ownership goes from being positive and community-building, to being entitled and hurtful.  Anything which denies others their enjoyment of a space could probably be considered negative — but even that isn’t a hard-and-fast line.  Protests, for example, tend to happen in public space, and are often an impediment to the daily lives of people who use those spaces, but nonviolent protest is a basic human right and can be an agent for incredibly positive change (note that I only say “can be” — there are some protests that cross the line into entitled abuse of space, such as the Occupy Toronto campers who heavily damaged a public green space with their actions … one of those times where I agree with a group in spirit, but not in methodology).  Art, too, can blur the lines between building and destroying:  a piece of graffiti may be considered vandalism by some, art by others, while a guerrilla theatre performance may be enjoyed by some, but seen as threatening or a nuisance by others.  We as artists have to be aware of the multiple lenses through which our work may be viewed, and try to limit the negative, or else we risk alienating our audiences.  And yet, not all “great” art is comfortable and friendly.  Sometimes alienation is all a part of the message.

Another troubling side to the ownership of public spaces can be seen in this theory of why many mass-murderers are privileged white men.  The general idea is that public mass murders are most likely to be committed by those who believe that the public space belongs to them.  To quote from the article:

For white male murderers from “nice” families, the fact that they chose public spaces like schools, university campuses, or movie theaters as their targets suggests that they saw these places as legitimately theirs.

The suggestion here is that when we decide that a space is our own, we may begin to lose track of what it is “proper” to do in that space.  We may abuse resources, take up too much space, or just talk too loudly, ultimately denying others their enjoyment of what should be shared.

I think that this is one of those situations where a greater awareness of the problem is likely to solve it entirely.  If we are all more aware of the people around us, we’re less likely to abuse the public and semi-private spaces that we share.  If we all make an effort to ensure that our sense of ownership does not become a sense of entitlement, we’ll build strong communities on the foundation of these shared public spaces.

I kind of wish that I’d said something to the loud-reading woman and her table.  A simple, polite, “Could you please keep it down?  Others are trying to enjoy the space.”  But I’m not very good at approaching strangers, so I just took my coffee and ran away.  I sacrificed “my” coffee shop, if only temporarily.  And I’m a bit annoyed at myself for that, because my community (and my sense of belonging within it) is important to me.

What is “Real Beauty”, Anyway?

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

My social media network has been alive, these past few days, with two things:  the Boston Marathon Explosions, and Dove’s latest advertising campaign.

There’s not much I can say about Boston that hasn’t already been said.  It horrifies me that people can plan & commit such acts of violence.  It scares me that we still, a couple of days later, have no idea who did it, or where and when they might strike again.  I’m afraid of the what the political fallout will be, since if it truly was a terror attack on American soil … well, we have Afghanistan and Iraq and the past 12 years to tell us what can happen as a result of that.

So instead, I’ll talk about the other thing that’s been bugging the hell out of me for the past few days:  Dove’ “real beauty sketches” campaign.

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For those unfamiliar with the campaign (although seriously, have you been living under a rock all week?  This thing is showing up everywhere right now), Dove marketing people hired a police sketch artist to do a series of drawings.  In the sketch on the left, you see a woman as described by herself.  On the right you see the same woman as described by a random stranger.  The point of the exercise (besides selling Dove products — I’ll get into that later) is ostensibly to show women that we are our own harshest critics & that other people see more beauty in us than we do in ourselves.

Most of my issues with the campaign have been covered quite eloquently by tumblr user Jazz in her post on the subject.  Jazz’s post, too, has been making the rounds on social media, so this may not be the first you’re seeing of it (I shared it via my Facebook page yesterday).  I agree with the points that she has made, and definitely suggest that you go and read what she has to say.  I’ll reiterate a few of the main points, and add some new ones of my own.

While the idea that we need to focus less on our flaws and think more positively of ourselves is a good one, the overall message of the campaign falls far short of the mark from a feminist perspective.

As Jazz points out in her post, the majority of the participants are white women, with light hair & eyes.  They are young (probably all under 40), slim, and conform to a very conventional standard of beauty.  There are women of colour in the campaign, but in the video they see very little face time, and none of them are featured in the extra interviews available on the website.  This is the standard of beauty that we are always shown by the cosmetics industry:  young, white, and slim.  For a campaign that claims to break boundaries, it’s very much inside the box.

Why not feature some people who are NOT conventionally beautiful?  Someone significantly overweight, or in their 80s, or with very obvious scars/birthmarks/other “deformities” on their face, or with very “ethnic” features (even the women of colour shown in the video are people with relatively neutral features).  Why not show a man, or a transgendered person?  Why is beauty something only for cisgendered women?

Just as important are the descriptive words being used in the video.  The “negative” terms that women are using to describe their own features are things like “fat, rounder face”, “freckles”, “40 and starting to get crow’s feet”, “thin lips”, “tired looking”, “big jaw”.  While the sketches revealed that the majority of the participants were overly focused on these “negative” aspects, the video did nothing to destroy the perception that these are “bad” traits … and this is incredibly sad, because for the most part these are not “bad” things.  A rounder face or thinner lips or a wider jawline may not be what’s popular in the media right now,  but if it’s the shape you were born with then there’s nothing you can do about it, and you should feel beautiful even if you’re not like what you see in make-up ads, because beauty comes in all shapes.  Freckles and crows’ feet and tiredness: that’s all just life.  None of us look airbrushed; the life we’ve lived is going to show on our faces, and we should LOVE that, not feel pressured to cover it up.

While the video tries to be uplifting, it’s still delivering a hurtful message to women who don’t fit that conventional standard of beauty.  Someone who honestly looks more like the sketches on the left might come away actually feeling worse about themselves, because they’ve been reminded yet again that they’re not thin and white and young.

Perhaps the most troubling thing said in the whole video is this, though:

[Beauty] impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.

Because if you’re female, the most important thing is to be beautiful.  It doesn’t matter how skilled you are; how intelligent; how kind; how loving and giving and wonderful.  If you’re not beautiful, you’re a second-class woman.  There’s something “critical” missing from your life, and you cannot be happy without it.  You can’t even be a good person and treat others (your children, even!) right if you’re not beautiful and don’t believe that you are beautiful.

That’s right.  If you’re ugly, you’re a bad person.  If you doubt yourself, you’re going to treat other people wrong and your life will suck because of it.  Thanx, Dove.  Thanx for reminding us all that the most important part of being female is being aesthetically pleasing.

And of course, when it comes right down to it, that *is* what Dove is trying to sell you.  They want you to buy their beauty products and their moisturizers.  They want you to buy their “pro*age” lotion to get rid of those crow’s feet, and their “colour care” shampoo to keep your dye-job shiny and “natural” looking.  They want you to shave off all your body hair, smell like a flower garden, and cover up your “flaws”, just like any other cosmetics company.  So they need you to believe that you ARE flawed, and that you need products to make you better.  It is, in the end, marketing.  And advertisers discovered long ago that the way to make you buy a product, is to make you feel as though you’re not as good without it.

If I were to redo this campaign, I’d rather see them focus on things that aren’t traditionally beautiful. I want to see someone’s scars being complimented as a sign of strength, or their round “overweight” belly being loved for its soft warmth, or their adorable freckles being complimented rather than showing this constant quest for “clear” skin. I want beauty to be about more than just cisgendered women.  I want to love people for their bald patches and their places where there’s too much hair and for their stretch marks and their crooked teeth and their beautiful asymmetry.  I want people to meet up in darkened rooms where they can’t see each other at all, and can only use talk & touch without sight to tell them what they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. I want to be truly colourblind, and blind to gender, and blind to sexual orientation, and blind to traditional ideas of “beauty”. I’m kind of an idealist that way.