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.

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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.

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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.

Recipes: Asian-Inspired Deconstructed Cabbage Roll

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

I’ve probably mentioned it many times before, but I am not a fan of summer.  The sweltering heat, the choking humidity and poor air quality, the burning sunlight — it all makes me pretty unhappy.

One of the many things that annoys me about summer is the difficulty of cooking decent meals.  Living in an apartment building, barbecue and outdoor cookery is not much of an option for me.  But being in the kitchen for any length of time heats up the entire apartment and just adds to the general discomfort of the season.  As a solution to this, I’ve developed a lot of recipes that take less than 20 minutes to prepare.  The less time spent in the kitchen, and the less time spent with the stove or oven running, the more comfortable I am with this whole “summer” thing.

Today’s recipe was a bit of a make-it-up-as-you-go affair, and it came out beautifully.

deconstructed cabbage roll

Feeling headachey and gross from a combination of heat and tiredness and depression, I was craving some sort of homey comfort-food.  Lasagna.  Meatloaf.  Cabbage rolls.  But all of those things take a lot of oven-time, which was obviously not an option in this weather.  A dig through the cupboards, though, revealed a package of rice noodles — what could I possibly do with those?  Some ground beef, Asian spices, and veggies later, I’d created something delicious.

The Ingredients

  • 1 medium-sized yellow onion, diced.
  • 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped.
  • A thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger root, diced small or grated.
  • 1lb ground beef (or other ground meat or meat alternative — pork, chicken, or turkey would work just fine here, or go with tofu for a veggie option).
  • A splash of sesame oil.
  • A couple tablespoons of olive oil.
  • 1 small zucchini, chopped into bite-sized pieces.
  • 1/4 of a large cabbage, roughly chopped.
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce.
  • 1/3 cup lime juice.
  • A splash of fish sauce (omit for vegetarians).
  • Asian 5-spice blend of your choice (I make my own with cinnamon, dried chilis, anise, ginger, and tumeric — and I go heavy on the ginger and chili.  You can buy a pre-made mix or combine your own flavours).
  • Rice noodles (any style)

The Method

Heat up the olive oil and sesame oil in a large pan or wok, at medium-high heat.  Add in your onion, garlic, ginger, and beef.  Lightly brown these ingredients, then turn down the temperature to medium-low.  Add your soy sauce, lime juice, fish sauce, and spices.

At the same time, bring water to a boil in a separate pot.  The rice noodles only need to cook for about three minutes; as soon as the water is boiling you can drop them in, but don’t forget about them or they’ll turn to mush!  Rescue & plate them as soon as they’ve gone soft.

Cook your meat mixture for about 5 minutes to combine all of the flavours, then toss in your cabbage and zucchini (alternatively, you can use other veggies like eggplant, bell peppers, bok choy — whatever catches your fancy).  Stir the mix so that the veggies cook evenly, and as soon as they start to get nice and soft, it’s ready.  Spoon the meat mix over your rice noodles, and serve immediately (garnish with more chilis and a slice of lime if you want to get fancy).

This makes about 3-4 servings, depending on how hungry you are.  And it only takes about 15 minutes to prepare!

 

Any leftover meat mixture can be wrapped up in cabbage leaves and kept in the fridge to snack on cold the next day.  But this stuff is so delicious that you might not have any leftovers.

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.

real-beauty

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.

Recipes: Creamy Broccoli & Cheddar Soup

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

This soup is a favourite food of mine — and it’s incredibly easy to make.  If you’re intimidated by cream soups, or just don’t tend to like the commercially available ones (I know I don’t — I find they’re always way too thick & the texture is off-putting), this is a great place to start.  You can use this same basic method to make any sort of cream soup — cream of mushroom, cream of celery, whatever catches your fancy.

You can also make this soup lactose-free and vegan-friendly by omitting the cream & cheese — it’s a delicious soup without those things, too.

Broccoli_bunches

Total prep time is about an hour and a half, although most of that is just cooking.  The actual work involved takes about 10-15 minutes.

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch broccoli, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup half and half cream (can be omitted or replaced with soy milk for lactose-free)
  • 3 cups stock (chicken or vegetable)
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 or 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • a few tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 1/2 cup flour (or a flour substitute like corn starch, if going for gluten-free)
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • a pinch of paprika
  • cheddar or other cheese (I happen to like mixing 1/2 and 1/2 cheddar and swiss) (can be omitted if desired)

Prep

Start by pre-heating a large pot and melting your butter or margarine over medium-high heat.  Add your diced onion & garlic, and sautee until you start getting some nice brown colour going on (should just take a couple of minutes).  At this point, add your flour — this will absorb the butter and the liquid from the onions to make a roux, which will thicken your soup.  Keep stirring until all the liquid is absorbed, so that the flour doesn’t burn & stick to the bottom of the pot.

Add your stock & 3 cups of water to the pot, as well as your broccoli.  You can add a bit more water if the broccoli is not completely submerged.  Bring everything to a boil, and then turn down the heat to a very low level and let it simmer until the broccoli is thoroughly cooked & quite soft.

At this point you want to blend your soup to crush up the broccoli.  If you have an immersion blender, this is the perfect tool — or if not, you can pour your soup into a blender or food processor, and then return it to the pot once blended.  I like to only blend a little, to leave some chunks of broccoli and give the soup a better texture, but you can make it as creamy as you wish.

Once everything is blended together, add your cream & spices.  Careful with the salt, especially if you used a commercially made stock as your base — go lightly, and you can always add more later.  Remember that you’ll be adding cheese to this, and cheese has salt in it too.  Pepper, on the other hand, I encourage using a heavy hand with.  Paprika rounds out the flavour and compliments the garlic, as well as adding a little pop of colour (you can also sprinkle the bowl with paprika before serving, to add extra visual interest).

Return the soup to a simmer, and leave for 20 minutes or longer (to thoroughly merge all of the flavours).

Grated cheese should be added to the bowl right before serving — this means that the cheese will still be visible when the bowl hits the table, and also means that you don’t end up with cheesey goo stuck permanently to the bottom of your pot (makes for easier washing up).

And that’s all there is to it!

Changing it Up

This soup is super easy, so don’t be afraid to change it up with your own touches and ingredients.  Switch up the vegetables, or add meat to the pot (after you’re done blending things) for a heartier meal — I like adding bits of chicken or sausage (cooked in a frying pan with a bit of oil to give them some nice browned edges), or you can’t go wrong with bacon.  Try different types of cheese to add a different flavour (smoked gouda is delicious, or a creamy goat cheese for richness).  Try adding curry when you’re making your roux (curry likes to be cooked with oil, or it tastes “raw”), or a blend of Italian spices when you add your cream.  Or add some roasted tomatoes and/or red peppers to give it a really different flavour and colour.  Be adventurous!  And share your experimentations in the comments.