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It’s not about the sex

Courtesy of http://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/miley-cyrus-sexual-exploitation-vma-2228134 (this was the least offensive photo I could find)

While some people are busy fretting over how they can’t let their kids watch the VMAs because of performances like Miley Cyrus’, I’m shaking my head and wondering how it’s gotten boiled down to arguments about whether her parents did their job or whether she’s just acting foolish because of her age/fame.  There are problems with her performance (which I didn’t watch live; I saw the video this morning).  None of them have to do with what she wore, whether or not she’s trying to be “sexy,” or whether or not she has gone from wholesome to trashy.

I didn’t find her performance sexy (and what was wrong with her tongue?  Does she have a condition?), but I’d be happy to chalk that up to personal preference.  That is, if not for two glaring problems:

  1. It was racist.
  2. It wasn’t empowering for female sexuality.

I’m not the best person to explain what was racist about it.  You should just go read this (and the several articles linked therein).  It explains perfectly what was wrong with Miley’s performance from an intersectional feminism perspective.  I was glad to read that; I’m not always sure that I’m on the right track, so I was happy to have confirmation that my initial reaction wasn’t off-base.  There is obviously more wrong than this, but my first question after watching was, “Why are all the back-up dancers black?”  It didn’t seem right, so I dug a little deeper.  I’m glad I did.

I can speak a little better to the second point.  Other women have performed in less clothing than Miley wore and have had equally sexual dance moves.  Why is hers somehow worse?  The short answer is that by itself, it’s not.  If it were just Miley up there (preferably minus the objectification of black women), it would have been less of an issue.  In one sense, Miley is trying to find out who she is apart from her family and her childhood.  When other child stars do the same, they are often shamed for their mistakes because they can’t screw up in private.  But there’s a special kind of venom reserved for “wholesome” girls who grow up into women with sexuality.  For some reason, the finger-wagging always seems to crop up around things like the VMAs, with parents lamenting, “What about the chiiiiiildren????”

Young men don’t seem to have this problem.  One of my friends was kind enough to point out that Daniel Radcliffe didn’t get the same treatment when he was naked.  On stage.  With a horse.  I mean, I guess parents probably figured that wasn’t something to take the kids to see, but still–he got more flak when people thought he was gay than for his performance in Equus.  Right there, that says volumes about people’s priorities.

The real problem with Miley’s performance is adding Robin Thicke into the mix.  A few years ago, I had a grad school professor who mentioned in class that he’d done some research on pornography (yes, that’s actual research, people).  He evaluated pictures in magazines based on several criteria–pose, facial expression, etc.  He discovered that in many photos of women, they were pouting and passive, and there was often a fully clothed man in the photograph.  This was in sharp contrast with photos of men, who were mostly smiling, active, and alone.  It was the last one that surprised me (and bothered me) most.

As it turns out, I wasn’t wrong about that.  The presence of a fully-clothed man feeds into the idea that women are bodies that exist solely for men’s pleasure.  Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke played that out on national television.  The excuses were strange, too–that this is his “thing” and he’s never been a Disney star are hardly important when he’s perpetuating a degrading view of women with someone half his age who’s barely an adult.  His sexual freedom and aggression are celebrated; she’s shamed for not living up to her status as a role model (which, by the way, she is not obligated to do).

The two problems (racism and misogyny) that I mentioned are linked by the fact that Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke have intentionally joined them.  This is their view of what it means to be sexual, and it hinges on exploitation and the blatant appropriation of a subset of black culture–along with a host of horrible assumptions about black women.  Combine Miley’s own admission that she wants to try on “black culture” with a man singing about “blurred” consent while a woman mimes sexually pleasuring him and you should get a good idea why this is so disgusting.

The whole thing made me feel sick, and many of the reactions have made me feel sicker still.  It was gross, and it was wrong, and we need to ask ourselves why we’re more concerned with the fact of Miley’s attempts at being sexy than how she’s trying to achieve it or why it’s so wrong.  It’s not about teaching our daughters about what’s “appropriate” when it comes to clothing or dance moves.  It’s not about another former child star “gone wrong.”  It’s about how we’ve failed as a society to stop exploiting people for profit and how we’ve failed as a society to teach our children that growing up means knowing the difference between empowering people and continuing to subjugate them, even when the line seems thin.

What justice looks like

Murder Victim’s National Memorial Ribbon, by 23USNRETE7 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

This morning, I read this fantastic piece by Shawn Smucker over at A Deeper Story.  What makes it good is not that Shawn’s bragging about being more noble and being the perfect white ally.  It’s good because he’s confronted his own thinking and made real change.

This is what justice looks like.

If every single one of us did what Shawn did–examine our own motivations and actions–we could alter the whole system.  We could make a place that’s safe for everyone.  It doesn’t take much, really, to begin.  We don’t have to start with protest marches.  If you’re at that point, then by all means, go ahead and join in the activism.  That’s needed too.  But maybe you are someone who needs to start smaller.  Maybe you just need to start by noticing.  Shawn writes,

I probably wouldn’t have noticed these boys before. Probably would have just drove [sic] on by. But it will be a long time before I see a young black man walking down the street and don’t notice, a long time before I don’t think of Trayvon Martin.

That’s one thing that has changed for me, too.  When I was at the store the other day, I was in a long line.  Ahead of me was a grandmother and a five-year-old boy.  As we waited, I chatted with his grandma about little boys and girls and how wonderful they are.  The little boy was sitting in the cart behind a giant box.  He peeked around it and grinned at me.  I told him I thought the box was the best part, and he agreed.  Then he showed me his teeth and said he had two brand-new ones; he asked if I liked them, and I assured him that I did.  Like many kids his age, he was completely irresistible in his cuteness, concerned only with being a “big kid” and as yet untainted by the world.  He wasn’t yet worried that a white lady might not like him, might not be a safe person for him to talk to in the store, might judge him or avoid him based on the color of his skin.  To him, I was just the nice woman who liked his grown-up teeth.  After they left, I couldn’t help thinking about the young man he will one day become and the survival skills he will need.

That’s not the world he should have to live in.

Little boys should be able to grow into men without worrying that the clothes they wear could brand them as being “suspicious” or “hiding something.”  They should be able to walk home from the store or a friend’s house without being stopped and questioned by police.  They should be able to express their grief over a court ruling without people assuming the next step is rioting and violence.

Like Shawn, I notice more now.  I’ve had a tendency to believe that as long as I was doing my best to not be a jerk, I was doing okay.  It’s not quite enough, though, because avoidance of negative behaviors and beliefs isn’t the same as exhibiting positive ones.  My interactions with the little boy at the store made me consider that.  Engaging him in conversation, looking into his eyes, I saw him; I understood a little bit about what he likes (being big and talking and making boxes into hiding spaces).  I don’t want to forget that moment, because the minute I forget, I allow myself not to notice people.  I allow myself to go back to not being a jerk instead of actively being kind and loving.  I fail to ask what it’s like to live in someone else’s shoes.

I don’t want to forget about Trayvon Martin, either.

What would it take for you to really notice people and to think about them differently from the way you did before?  Would it take talking to them and learning about what they like, what they know, and what they hope for?  Would it take seeing their potential to do amazing things?  Shawn recounts the story of a local young man making a heroic rescue.  His closing paragraph contains the following sentence:

I’ve never driven past a young black man on the street and thought, He could be a hero.

What about you?  Have you ever had that thought pass through your mind?  I can’t help wondering how the world would be different if every time we saw a young person–any young person, regardless of who that person is–we saw that person’s capacity for goodness and heroism.

When that day comes, surely we will see true justice.

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This week’s post is part of the Creative Buzz Hop at http://penpaperpad.com and http://gettingliteral.com.  The theme this week is “justice.”  Go visit either of the links above to read more.

The violence of assumptions

We don’t live in a “post-racial” society.

I was saddened and disappointed by the verdict in George Zimmerman’s case; I wasn’t surprised.  It makes me angry that I wasn’t surprised.  That says to me that we white people who are upset (and there are a lot of us) haven’t done enough to be allies.  We haven’t done enough to effect real change.  We haven’t listened well enough.

That said, I was also disappointed by the response I saw from a number of people.  Oh, of course there was the usual racist garbage, usually followed by “but I’m not racist!”  That was to be expected as well.  What bothered me was the reaction from my fellow Christians who typically don’t spout that kind of crap.

There’s this thing in a lot of Christian spheres where grace is reinterpreted to mean “don’t get too angry.”  I was shocked and appalled by the number of Christians exercising this principle and fretting about angry mobs and people going ape-shit over the verdict, rioting and burning things to the ground.  This is disturbing on a number of fronts.

First, it’s racist.  Yes, really.  The assumption that Black people who were justifiably upset and angry were at high risk for violence is a cornerstone of racist thinking.  It reduces people to savages who can’t control themselves in the face of bad news.  Naturally, white Christians, with all the talk of grace and mercy, are precisely the people to be the saviors of the barbaric brown world.  You know, even if the thought occurred to you that there might be riots, it’s probably best to keep it to yourself instead of jumping all over people who express their anger.  That is, if you don’t want to be considered racist, anyway.

Second, I have no idea why anyone thinks angry tweets and Facebook statuses are some indication that riots are imminent.  Seriously?  Ask yourself this: Are you personally capable of being angry about something without rioting?  If you answered yes to that, then perhaps you should give others the benefit of the doubt.  It’s the same slippery slope argument that logically fails to win arguments.  One thing does not necessarily lead to another.

Third, posting pictures of protests is not the same as posting pictures of riots.  Again, protests are not equivalent to riots.  This third thing probably falls into both of the other two categories, but I decided it deserved its own space, given the sheer volume of tweets and statuses referring to the peaceful demonstrators as “mobs” and claiming they’re seeking vengeance.

Fourth, things like “No matter what side you’re on, let’s exercise grace” and “But we don’t know what really happened!” are not helpful.  They don’t further the dialogue, they don’t express compassion for those who are hurting, and they don’t serve any purpose except to make the people writing them feel like they’ve done something.  Honestly, if you’re worried that people might become violent, is tweeting, “Don’t be violent!” actually going to stop them?  It may not be intended to silence the oppressed (though that’s debatable), but it sure does come across that way.  The first thing to say to a person who is angry about racism (or sexism, ableism, classism, etc.) is not, “Don’t do something you’ll regret!”; it’s “What can I do to help stop this oppression?”

I feel the need to say something here about the anger people are expressing.  It’s relevant not only to this situation but to any time people talk about oppression.  This is not the same as being angry because someone ate the food you were saving or borrowed something without asking and put it back in the wrong spot.  This is not the same as being angry with your kid for getting in trouble at school or your spouse for totaling the car by rear-ending someone.  This is not the anger of misunderstanding between friends or of unmet expectations at work.  Anger over oppression does not need to be monitored on the Internet because of some bizarre urge on the part of certain Christians to play Sin Police.  In fact, anger over oppression is the very thing we Christians should be angry about right alongside the oppressed.

I am not condoning violence, though I do understand where it comes from.  I just want to make it clear that it isn’t our job to keep tabs on Twitter hashtags to make sure that everyone knows that violence is wrong.  Sometimes, when we don’t have anything to contribute, it’s just better to stay back and allow people with a vested interest to express their grief and anger.  It’s not necessary to preemptively chastise people because you’re afraid of what might happen in the future.

This is a time to mourn with those who mourn.  If you can’t muster righteous indignation, then at least have the decency to pour your energy into compassion for Trayvon Martin’s family.  That’s a more productive use of your time than chasing strangers on the Internet to tell them you’re worried they might do some unspecified wrong or violent thing out of anger.  And if you can’t even manage that much, then just stay away from the subject.  That’s what the block button is for.

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If you’re thinking of coming on here and tone-policing or word-policing me or anyone else, please restrain yourself.

 

Blast to the Past

Every so often, I hear people say (or I read in print) that they wish we could return to the values of fifty or sixty years ago.  On the surface, to many people that may seem like some kind of ideal world.  Children were respectful and had manners, families remained intact, faith in God was publicly acknowledged, and moral principles were upheld.

On the other hand, black people went to separate schools and drank from separate water fountains.  Women didn’t go to college or compete in the job market.  Adopted kids often either didn’t know they weren’t their parents biological children or were introduced as such, implying they were somehow less “real.”  Pregnant girls might be sent away to hide, then be manipulated into allowing someone else to making choices for them.  People were persecuted for unorthodox political views.  Families built fallout shelters and television ads showed children what to do in the event of a bombing (duck and cover, anyone?).

When we wax nostalgic about decades gone by, we fail to admit that we’re still living in ignorance.  “We want to return to an era when values were taught!”  Translation: We want to pretend that racism, misogyny, and homophobia don’t exist.  Brown people are okay, as long as they mix with other brown people and don’t cause us tax burden with their laziness.  Women can work outside the home, as long as it isn’t as a preaching pastor and as long as her husband is okay with it and as long as her man doesn’t take her place staying home.  And for God’s sake, those gay people ought to just go back in their closets where we don’t have to see or speak to them.

With every form of positive social change comes greater responsibility of the people to see it through.  By refusing to admit our own part in racism, we perpetuate it, despite the gains of the last sixty years.  By holding women back in the workplace, in ministry, and at home, we foster the very culture women have spent the last fifty years battling.  By denying basic rights to the GLBT community, we stubbornly turn our backs on the work of the last forty years.

When will we stop believing that life was idyllic in the past?  It reminds me of yet another wonderful quote from CS Lewis.  At the end of “The Last Battle,” when the Seven Friends of Narnia are discussing Susan’s defection, he puts in this gem:

“Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

That is exactly what we’ve done.  We’ve decided that 1950s America is the pinnacle of existence.  After all, the major wars were over, we had technology to make everyone’s life easier, and these pesky [insert your favorite race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation] people kept to themselves.  We could live in our middle-class, white, heterosexual bubbles, enjoying the finest life had to offer.

I don’t want to live in a bubble.

I want messy, complicated craziness, of the kind that only comes from embracing people unlike myself.  I want to understand the hardships faced by other people.  I want to work together for change, making a safe place for everyone to be exactly the people God intended them to be.  I want our churches to be safe havens, unsegregated by any kind of prejudice.  I want my kids to know a world where people respect one another, even when we are different.