There's an odd and disturbing trend I've noticed recently in my preferred form of brain candy; e.g.: smart female protagonists within the genre of urban fantasy. From what I can tell, when the author wishes to demonstrate via emotional shorthand just how repugnant a villainous group is, or needs to hastily add a bit of tension in the background for the protagonist… a generalized and sneering misogyny is added.

Invariably this is not a genteelly over-protective patronization, either – no, this is misogyny so pointlessly widespread, so two-dimensionally vile, as to be worthy of a group of mustachio-twirling Snidely Whiplashs. I find this disturbing because I do not like my social group becoming not only the accepted victim du jour in modern fiction of this type, but also the preferred group – rather like the Russians were in all the early James Bond movies.

I first noticed this "effect" in a movie, oddly enough: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Set in an alternate world in about 1900, where characters from our literary classics are real people, we see Mina Harker treated repeatedly like crap because she's a woman… but despite the world ostensibly being in the Victorian age, men of color are treated as peers of white men. What a great message: all men should have the right to treat women like dirty laundry! Read the rest of this entry »

Some years ago a friend asked me why I didn't like pulp — why, in fact, I pretty much loathed it.

It gets stuck in your teeth, and makes the orange juice too thick, I replied. Admittedly, I can now confess my sense of humor still needed work at that time. What can I say… I was younger then.

Haha, very funny; you know I mean pulp fiction, my friend said. Why do you despise the genre so?

At the time I simply said it was because there were no good action roles for women, and the fortuitous events which occurred to the protagonist went well beyond coincidence, instead being more a cruel destruction of one's suspension of disbelief. As an example of this stupidity (which, alas, was not unique), in the book I'd just read the protagonist just happened to arrive at the unpassable mountain pass on the one single day per year that it was even remotely passable. Further, upon learning that special suits would still be required to forge through the pass, the protagonist was delighted to discover just enough suits waiting there for he and his small group of companions — and look! What a coincidence — they all fit perfectly too!

Okay, my friend said, that does push the boundaries a bit. But was there anything else that was bothering me about pulp fiction?

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Blurred Millenium Falcon

A very blurred shot of the Millenium Falcon — as it flies by at warp speed… :)

In exchange for a huge honkin' load of electronics recycling, my household received four free tickets to the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation's current exhibit: "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination." So we invited a friend and went to see it last weekend. It will still be around until March 23rd, so catch it while you can if it interests you. Honestly, after wandering through the very nice series of displays, I'd have to conclude there wasn't really much in the way of science in Star Wars… but then that's not why we went to see the movies either. :)

There were several of the ship models there, which were fascinating to compare and contrast. Shape gave clues as to whose side each ship belonged to. Also, because the camera would be traveling quite close to the models in some cases, the detail on those was amazing. Interestingly, there was no correlation between model size in this world, and the comparable size of the ships in the movie world. For example, the Millennium Falcon's model was much larger than those of the triangular Imperial Star Destroyers — and was much more battered and weather-beaten in appearance… if you can call a space ship weather-beaten.

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Today has been an extremely fruitful day so far! Not only did I tremendously enjoy my first American Tribal System belly dancing class with a new teacher, but she's willing to barter with me for the training! That means I can actually take the class, thank goodness — especially considering my tightly budgeted finances as a doctoral student. Further, during the class I had a small mental revelation which explains a few things I'd wondered about for a while now. Any day where I have a fun, lightning-bolt mental moment is a good day!

I'd actually taken one ATS class years ago, which was quite interesting, but not as fun as this class. There were a couple of reasons why, which I realized after the class when I had a moment to think about it. For one, the class this time was smaller, which allowed for more personal attention and encouragement from the instructor. Unsurprisingly, I consequently also never felt lost or left behind — a big win! For another, I have no idea what quality of dancers the two instructors were… but without question, for a rank beginner like me, this teacher today was far more helpful, friendly, personable, encouraging, and… well, instructive.

As class was ending, the instructor said something which really clicked for me: she mentioned that she'd been an air force brat for a while, and thus knew what it felt like to be the new kid. That was why she made an effort to welcome newcomers and make sure they were comfortable: she understood how unpleasant it can be to be the outsider.

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More thoughts while ill

28 Jan 2014 In: Ethics questions, Random

Some time ago I wrote a posting (which I've since lost track of) where I mentioned that in restaurants where you're supposed to get your own silverware and napkins and stuff, it seemed to me that men either always sat down and waited on the women to put together a place setting for them — or only got silverware and napkins for themselves. Out of curiosity I asked several friends about that, and was somewhat puzzled at the results. After all, if the one woman I asked agreed with me, but all of the handful of men disagreed… clearly there was a disjoint in how folks were seeing things. So, since I'm that way, I just watched whenever it occurred to me.

Results: two of the men I asked have changed their behavior so they deliberately make a point (to themselves — there are no trumpet fanfares or anything) to help out at restaurants by making sure they bring over the necessary silverware and napkins for partners and friends. Funnily enough, one of the men I asked still does not lift a finger to help, despite insisting that men and women both always do that sort of thing. Also funnily, the woman I asked reported to me (which is why I'm writing this now) that she started not getting the silverware and napkins, in the hopes that her partner would help out — and his reaction was to start getting the necessary utensils only for himself. ;-j

I think there's an entire category of experience, such as benefits which are believed somehow innate to the person, which the privileged simply do not see… and if it is brought to their attention, they'll indignantly deny it — and to them, what they're saying at that moment is true. I find this almost creepy. It makes me worry about what I do that takes unfair advantage of others. It also makes me wonder: how on earth do we effectively communicate this injustice to those who benefit from it — such that they either start sharing, or pulling their own weight? Almost inevitably it's been my experience (including my own experience with this sort of privilege) that the initial reaction is something along the lines of indignant denial and/or anger. That's not really helpful for creating change… but I don't now recall what precisely happened to me to wake me up, to open my eyes, to my own privilege. I can't communicate what I don't well recall, unfortunately.

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I have a nasty cold. It is no fun. I intensely dislike feeling like my head has been stuffed full of cotton wool and my brain is out vacationing in Timbuktu without me. Regardless, I'm trying to stay awake so I go to bed at a reasonable hour and don't wake up at 3 am and remain unable to go back to sleep. I also don't want more of those unpleasant dreams where something is trying to possibly kill me and in my head I say, 'Oh HELL no!' and snap myself awake breathless and with adrenaline racing through me… and then once again I can't go back to sleep for hours, as my brain obsessively fixates on the dream and how it was going and how I would have escaped and was that really what was happening and blah blah blah.

So right now my brain is still chugging along, albeit very slowly, and coughing up the occasional random thought at about the same speed as my usual coughing fits… and it occurs to me: I don't seem to like what most folks like in literature. I remember a shared-universe book series years ago called Wild Cards that had multiple authors. A friend asked me what my favorite and least favorite characters were, then played a recording of an interview with the series editor for me. It turns out the two characters I most despised — and I use that term deliberately — were the two most popular with women. I still don't understand why someone would want to, for example, become the inamorata of a space alien that treated you like a slave or pet and was willing to effectively give you a psychic lobotomy in order to protect himself… and I was equally mystified as to the popularity of the male pimp character that used both his prostitutes and other women as nothing more than sexual batteries to power up his abilities. Very odd.

I also read but was not entranced by Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn. Don't get me wrong; I'm on his mailing list and I'm thrilled to hear he's finally doing well, and that the books and movie are having a fantastic tour. However, when people talk about how much they loved the story, I don't really get it. It was interesting and somewhat mythic, true. It gave me a wonderful line that I occasionally still use ("Never run from immortal things. It just attracts their attention")… but for me the story was not entrancing; not the sort of thing I remember fondly years later.

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The apparently overwhelmingly powerful need to control women which some men appear to have is painfully expressed yet again in a form which is recorded by anthropology professor Barbara Tedlock's research for her 2005 book Woman in the Shaman's Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion & Medicine. Granddaughter of an Ojibwe midwife and herbalist, and a noted shaman in her own right, Tedlock traces the roots of twentieth century anti-feminine rhetoric in shamanistic research — from psychoanalyst Geza Roheim's disparaging descriptions of Hungarian women shamans as "witches… just pretending to be healers" (Tedlock quoting Roheim, 28), his profound influence upon religious historian Mircea Eliade's startlingly misogynist work, and the subsequent deliberate downgrading of feminine shamanic paths by ensuing (male) researchers and historians.

Indeed, Eliade's deceptive and biased language reveals a truly unscholarly distortion of empirical data in order to force it into his chosen interpretive framework: the shaman as a solitary male practitioner self-initiated into techniques of ecstasy. As Tedlock notes, Eliade worked under a number of serious self-imposed limitations: "he never met a living shaman and went out of his way to deny shamanic status to women, calling them 'sorceresses'" (Tedlock, 64). Within Eliade's biased paradigm, masculine shamanism was limited to "soul flight — which he regarded as not only transcendent but also phallic" while the "penetration" of possession was "immanent and assigned to women" (Tedlock, 72). In this misogynistic perspective we can still see the active, strong threads of ancient Greek prejudice regarding male as active penetrator, female as passive receptacle.

In contrast, Tedlock's work is remarkable for the transparency of her hermeneutics of interpretation; as she herself notes, "At the heart of shamanic practice is the active pursuit of knowledge" (Tedlock, 23). At no point does she attempt to hide behind a false objectivity to cloak her research in a more mainstream pseudo-scientism — her skillfully related personal narratives are vivid and engrossing, revealing the experiential nature of her emotion and intuition. Equally, her prodigious scholarly evidence is both fascinating and impeccably meticulous, disclosing a keen grasp of standard science's argumentative intellectual reasoning. Through discussion of modern research regarding both neuroscience and the biochemistry of healing and altered consciousness, the author smoothly links her reclamation of the feminine in both religion and medicine, to support her assertion that women are considered to have special powers which men do not. She grounds that female shamanic primacy in women's physicality, as elucidated by actual women shamans speaking on the sacrality of menstruation and its ensuing isolation.

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In the same year as Ely & Meyerson's amazing article regarding the malleability of masculinity, Euro-American columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and Asian-American lecturer and business executive Sheryl WuDunn — both also married, journalists, and Pulitzer Prize winners — publish Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. In a sweeping, journalistic writing style which leaps from story to story and continent to continent, the authors relate how, against staggering odds, women across the world struggle fiercely for autonomy, equality, and freedom — then call upon their readers to take action by sending money to fund schools and microfinance loans, in order to assist these brave women. The interviews are often heart-wrenching, and the authors are passionate in their mission to bring attention to what is likely the most pervasive and on-going human rights violation in the world: the historical and continued violence and oppression endured by women in the developing world.

Curiously, while the authors do indeed celebrate an international array of women and girls for their individual struggles against misogynistic cultural rituals such as female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, and gender-based violence and poverty, there seems to be no real call within the book for profound organizational and social change through the work of men as well as women. If anything the authors appear to have very little conception of patriarchal cultures where women's social roles are so rigidly circumscribed that women and girls are left with few viable alternatives, either socially or economically. In these situations women can often become forced by cultural circumstance to assist in atrocities against other women.

We see an example in Miré's elderly midwife and circumciser, in fact — but where Soraya Miré recognizes and respects the midwife's efforts on the part of women despite being caught in a hopeless situation, Kristof and WuDunn's highly critical analysis of women in similar situations feels disturbingly to me as if they are blaming the victims. This horrific situation is further complicated by the book's lack of effective social critique of the imperialistic behaviors on the part of Western countries which lead to still-continued damage and colonization of the developing world. Such a limited portrayal of world events creates a disturbing — and emphatically false! — impression for the reader: that the authors believe these women's rights issues are troubling only for people of color within the non-Western nations.

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Closely examining our matrifocal past and present offers a solid basis from which to theorize a possible healthier future — one not damagingly based in androcentrism. Such a future will not come about on its own, of course; if women are to regain their rightful positions as cultural creators and leaders then they will have to actively step forward and make it happen — and, just as importantly, they will have to convince men to join them in this worthy endeavor. To withstand the current heavily patriarchal cultural pressure will require remarkable strength, endurance, and wisdom, as is depicted in Audre Lorde's visionary "Poetry is Not A Luxury."

Originally published in 1977, this short but extremely powerful prose piece is a heartfelt cry for women to "cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes" (Lorde, 37). Particularly inspiring — and intensely applicable to every woman who has chosen to listen to her inner self — is Lorde's superb description of poetry as "a revelatory distillation of experience" (Lorde, 37) through which "we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized" (Lorde, 36). As Lorde notes, feelings are not wasteful luxuries — any more than is a desire for a life free of poverty, of want and fear and hunger. They are instead that whisper heard in dreams: "I feel, therefore I can be free" (Lorde, 38) that is a woman's place of power — leading to inspiration, action, and change. It is in that beautifully evocative poetry of distilled experience-made-action that I wish to powerfully ground and locate my dissertation.

Some of the questions which truly need answering in our society: why have we convinced ourselves that violence is normal — and that we must meet it with ever-escalating levels of yet more violence? Why not instead choose to believe in — and act toward — a life based in "respect and love and sharing and cooperation and harmony" (Manitonquat, 87)? These very questions are addressed in Liberian peace activist, social worker, women's rights advocate, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee's painful and brutally honest memoir, released in 2013: Mighty be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed A Nation at War. Only 17 years old and with a bright future ahead of her at the war's onset, Gbowee relates the intertwined spiral of loss and destruction suffered simultaneously by her country and she herself, as the revolution overcomes Liberia and a ruthless and corrupt dictator sets himself into power.

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Both Sanday (reviewed by me here and here) and Du are anthropologically trained ethnographers researching indigenous societies. As previously noted, their work offers explicit epistemological modifications of great benefit for a more humane, feminized science. This is not the only valid methodology available, however, to a women's spirituality scholar, as is demonstrated by the next selection: the ground-breaking 2006 book Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas. This is of particular personal interest due to Ohio Bear Clan Seneca and professor Barbara Alice Mann's successfully interweaving Western scholarly research with a powerful native perspective — the Iroquoian Story Keeper's style of oral record — to produce a book which is at once rigorously researched, deeply approachable, and fascinating reading.

Each chapter opens with a selection of Iroquoian mythic history, related as though the story were being told by an elder, and followed by more standard scholarly writing which explores a relevant aspect of women and the Iroquoian culture — though even this is richly threaded with the author's characteristic bluntness and humor, in specific denial of the Western fallacy of the disinterested, distanced researcher. From the very start Mann strongly challenges the current sources commonly accepted within Western scholarship:

I never trusted the Puritanical sermon format that engendered [the "thesis format" style of research], with its simplistic propositions marching onward, as to war. It is too easily corrupted for polemical purposes masquerading as scholarly inquiry, even as it lapses into empty cleverness. Ethics also intrude. Instead of examining all points, the thesis format outfits carefully selected points — those most useful to the author — thus impersonating a full discussion while, in fact, studiously ignoring inconvenient evidence. I much prefer the wider-ranging nature of Iroquoian discourse, which allows all points a hearing, and in the voices that raised them. (Mann, 7)

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Bestiaries depict mythical, moralizing animals, but are also potential allegorical sparks that can bloom into brilliant mental bonfires. My bestiary is this mythologizing animal's fascinated exploration of beauty & meaning in the wonder of existence -- in the hopes of inspiring yet more joyous flares of intellectual passion.

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Collie’s Bestiary