Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

Cosplay: Widening the Range

Debbie says:

I was struck by this article by Phaedra Cook on All That’s Cosplay.

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Not surprisingly, cosplay (“costume play”) tends, like most cultural activities, to be primarily thought of as being for the young and conventionally pretty. Cook did not discover cosplay until she was well over the stereotypical target age for cosplayers:

Cosplay wasn’t a “thing” when I was in my 20s and 30s—at least as far as I knew. For that matter, I was far too busy raising three kids, running my own graphic design and IT businesses and maintaining a marriage to have much in the way of hobbies. The first pop culture convention I ever attended was San Diego Comic-Con in 2009. Talk about starting big! …

The first year, I was in awe of the cosplayers running around in elaborate costumes and, quite frankly, a little jealous. …

The second year, I didn’t want to be left out. I did a half-assed “cosplay” of Death from Sandman which consisted of a black tank top, black jeans and the appropriate squiggle drawn out to the side of my right eye. I thought I looked okay until I saw someone who put some real effort into it and looked 100% better than I did. My ego, at that point, was crushed.

One of the things I personally like about cosplay is the range of costume quality–everything from the kind of “half-assed” costume that Cook describes through very complex, extremely representational efforts can be seen in cosplay venues. Everyone involved (even if their egos are crushed) is getting some kind of pleasure out of the effort.

Again unsurprisingly, how much effort you put into your costume isn’t the major factor in how much attention you get:

 I realized that most professional photographers didn’t have much interest in taking photos of my cosplays, and that hurt. My husband did, of course, and he is an excellent photographer. So did Andreas Schneider, who is absolutely amazing and I was so incredibly flattered when he chose two of my photos for the Cosplayers Canada SDCC magazine that he produces and sells. (Get a copy of the 2014 one for yourself. …)

On the other hand, one photographer half-heartedly snapped off a few shots and made it quite clear that he was only interested in shooting hot chicks. Most other photographers didn’t even look at me twice. I was never even up for consideration. They’re looking for young, thin women and I just don’t qualify.

Cook describes her journey from feeling over-age, inappropriate, and unappreciated to finding out what her efforts are all about:

It stings, but something else happened along the way: I was getting an incredible amount of support and positive feedback from women my own age, as well as many younger people, even those who do not cosplay themselves. …

Why go through all this time and expense at my age? Why not just grow up?

Well, being a grown-up is highly overrated, first of all. Grown ups don’t have enough fun, frankly.

Second, cosplay encourages me to work out and take good care of my skin, nails and teeth. I look good for 46 and many people think I’m in my 30s when we first meet.

Third, despite some of the snubs, cosplay has helped me build my self-confidence. It takes a whole lot of guts to stride confidently down a public street to a convention center in costume. The cat calls and jokes I hear along the way aren’t “fun,” but I’ve learned to handle them with grace.

Fourth, I never feel more vital, energetic and young than when I’m in costume. It’s an act of rebellion. There’s a segment of society that discards older women and thinks they should be relegated to a role of caring for others. If you’re a sexy older woman, you’re denigrated as a “cougar,” like there must be some inherent immorality surrounding it. Cosplay is my way of giving the finger to those people.

She leaves out one reason that I think is very important. She describes in the article that because of cosplay, she has taught herself to design costumes, to sew (” who knew that sewing an inset ‘V’ was a geometry exercise?”), to work with unfamiliar materials. In a time when so few of us work with our hands, and make actual physical things, this is a huge advantage to any hobby that calls for these skills.

Readers of Body Impolitic may be frustrated with Cook’s body image issues — I know I am. Despite her efforts to appreciate herself as she is, she still feels unhappy about her weight, and is already planning more “age-appropriate” costumes when she is over 50. I would rather see her celebrating her size, and plannign her 60+ Catwoman, or Princess Mononoke. At the same time, I see in her article the trajectory toward even more self-acceptance. And I love how she’s getting there.

It’s not just older women who need to get the message of being vital and caring for themselves. I want younger women to know that there should be no fear about getting older. Whether or not you feel confident and sexy has everything to do with how you take care of yourself and whether you assert your right to be the person you want to be.

Thanks to Geek Feminism for the pointer.

#iftheygunnedmedown: What We See and What We Believe

Laurie and Debbie say:

In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, a young black man named Tyler Atkins posted these two pictures on Twitter:

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He used the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown, which is now a 25-page Tumblr and shows up in well over 150,000 tweets.

First, we have to honor the pure political power of these photographs … and all the young people killed by police whose tragic deaths have generated this power.

What does this project tell us?

“One picture is worth a thousand words” is a cliche so basic that we hardly even hear it when we say it. In fact, if you ask most people, they’ll tell you that in these days of Photoshop, pictures aren’t real, and can’t be trusted.

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But still, we react to what we see, and we especially react to what we see first. The first image we see of someone in a story (tragic story or otherwise) will create the story. We are primates; this is probably hard-wired into the connection between our eyes and our brains. Thus, the media’s habit of choosing a specific photograph to repeat and repeat with a particular story is a method of controlling not just our reactions, but the story itself.

In the case of Michael Brown, we are supposed to see the stereotypical “he was a black thug” photograph, which carries the message, “So it was okay for the cops to shoot him.” (Of course, that’s vicious racism; we’re just saying what message is being conveyed.) In a few cases, the family gets a clean-cut shot into the media before they get their hands on a “thug shot,” and that changes the story. “Saintly victim” stories work the same way: images of thin blonde girls with blood on their faces send just as clear a message as images of tough black youths.

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In #iftheygunnedmedown, African-American young people, starting with Tyler Atkins, are taking control of their own images. This kind of response is important and rare and, like the app recording police encounters (also created by African-American youth), it has some potential to change the story, especially when (like this hashtag) it shows up as a front page story in the New York Times. When the victims and targets take control and expose the mainstream culture’s lies for us, something important can shift in us.

#iftheygunnedmedown comments on human complexity. No one is just a saxophonist or just a street kid, just a college graduate or just a club dancer. No one — no one — is just a black thug.

Links Re-Appear Without Warning

Debbie says:

Singer Meghan Trainor has a song called “All About that Bass” which is catchy, and sends a strong message:

Chloe at Feministing loves it and deconstructs it:

loving yourself because dudes like what you’ve got going on is a pretty flimsy form of self-acceptance. In fact, it’s not really self-acceptance at all if it depends on other people thinking you’re hot. Most of us want to be attractive in the eyes of the people we find attractive — I sure as hell do — and I don’t want to downplay how great that can feel. But the point of loving yourself no matter what is that you love yourself no matter what boys, or anyone else, thinks about your booty. And there’s certainly something to be said for reiterating the idea that there are some men who prefer curvy women, especially when the vision of female beauty we see in popular media is almost uniformly slender, white, able-bodied, and so incredibly specific that a tiny percentage of the population can ever live up to it.

Chloe goes on to say “it’s like it’s scientifically impossible to write a song about how great it is to have curves that doesn’t insult people who don’t.” Laurie and I struggled with this so much when we were working on Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes. We learned that there are ways to talk about one kind of beauty without dissing another, but it’s hard work, because people are so ready to hear that building up one thing is automatically dissing another. I feel confident that it can be done in song lyrics, short and punchy as they are. Meghan Trainor, are you up to the task?

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Every feminist blog I read linked to this one, and no wonder …

As one YouTube commenter points out, a disproportionate number of the men in the video are men of color, which (to say the least) I think was a bad decision. Nonetheless, the point is well taken, as long as you remember that telling women to smile is by no means limited to men of color.

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Sesali Bowen at Feministing talks about a little-examined aspect of female sexuality:

so much of what we (Americans) think about sex is caught in limited, male-dominated, and frankly, fictional perceptions of how our bodies should work (because… porn). Our incompetent approach to sex education has done nothing to address one of the most widespread misconceptions, and consequences have been dire. But today I am willing to go where few feminists have gone in examining this important and widely-felt issue through a critical feminist lens. Today I am going to share the truth about lube! …

the notion that vaginas should always be wet is another way of suggesting that women’s bodies should be constantly available and ready for sexual consumption, specifically penetration. Because out here in the wild west, sex just happens. 

More importantly, because of this myth that a normal vagina always gets wet on cue, lube has really gotten a bad reputation. Pushed to fringes of our sexual consciousness, so many people view these amazing concoctions as only necessary when having anal sex or doing something especially adventurous, like double penetration or nuru body slides. This simply isn’t true! Lube is great for so many reasons. It adds another sensation that can enhance pleasure, even if you are already wet. It also improves the function of condoms, especially latex ones which can dry out the wettest of vajayjays. It can also provide taste, heating, cooling, and tingling sensations that all work to make sex more pleasurable. And better sex = more relevant feminism. This very scientific formula is the reason why using lube makes you a better feminist.

And she goes on to share excellent technical information about kinds of lube, how to use it, and more.

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I’m seeing a lot of centenary posts about World War I, but here’s something I didn’t know. World War I marks the shift (in the United States) from corsets to bras. Melissa Pandika at NPR has the story

since corset frames were mostly made of metal, which was needed for ammunition and other military supplies, the U.S. War Industries Board asked American women in 1917 to stop buying them. Around the same time, the modern-day bra emerged, freeing up wartime steel and women alike. …

the War Industries Board’s corset ban, which freed women to work at physically demanding factory jobs — and 28,000 pounds of steel, enough to build two battleships. By the time the war ended in 1918, corsets were fading fast.

Pandika’s article also includes the history of the bra, which (in its modern form) was invented and later marketed by Caresse Crosby in 1914.

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Speaking of bras, or at least of removing them, Jay Livingston  is musing about topless sunbathing (with graphs, because it’s Sociological Images):

Americans are much more likely to feel uncomfortable at a topless beach. But they are also much less likely to have been to one. (Northern Europeans – those from the Scandinavian countries and Germany – are even more likely than the French to have gone topless.) (Data are from a 2013 Harris survey done for Expedia.) …

{There is an]other way of thinking about the relation between fashion and ideas: exposing your body changes how you think about bodies.  If people take off their clothes, they’ll become more comfortable with nudity. That is, whatever a woman’s original motivation, once she did try going topless, she would develop ideas that made sense of the experiences, especially since the body already carries such a heavy symbolism. She would not have to invent these topless-is-OK ideas all by herself. They would be available in the conversations of others. So unless her experiences were negative, these new ideas would add to and reinforce the thoughts that led to the original behavior.

Livingston makes some interesting connections here, based on some 2009 and current very similar articles about the end of topless sunbathing in France.

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And finally, photographer Cameron Drake’s anatomical x-ray gifs, for the beauty inside bodies …

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Sources: Feministing, io9, and Sociological Images, plus assorted other blogs I read.

Beth Gwinn: Dream Project

Laurie says:

My friend Beth Gwinn has spent her professional life taking superb photographs of writers and performers. Now she has a portrait book project, and she’s doing a kickstarter.

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Science Fiction and Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman
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I’m Beth Gwinn and I have been a professional photographer since 1980.  My life has been a unique photographic journey, passion directing where my lens pointed. Photography, music, and Science Fiction/Fantasy have been my principal Interests.  In 2000 I published a book called “DARK DREAMERS” about influential people in the Horror genre, which consisted of exclusive large-format photos taken by yours truly and original interviews by Stanley Wiater.  Now my dream is to produce a similar book, about significant people in the area of the Fantastic- authors, artists, producers, directors and others.

Publishing has changed quite a bit since 2000.  That is why I am launching a kickstarter.  I have spoken to three publishers about this project, but publishers today, although interested, none is able to afford the funding needed to get it off the ground. That is why I am launching a kickstarter.
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Science fiction writer Fred Pohl
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……This is a dream project for me.  Literally years in the making.  Ever since I first read comics and Fantasy stories I have had a deep love for the richness of the field’s visions, for its imaginative depth.  I see Science Fiction as Dreaming of the Future; we dream,we move into the future, and dream again.  My goal is to raise $35,000 to fund the travel needed to take new photographs, and to assemble and edit any originals from my files, and pay the writer who will conduct the interviews with today’s visionaries of the fantastic.  Contributions of all sizes will make a difference.  Please help me to dream this dream

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MacArthur award winning science fiction writer Octavia Butler
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Science fiction writer Pat Cadigan

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Beth will make a stunning book.

#NMOS2014 : Vigils For Michael Brown

Laurie says:

Michael Brown, 18, a recent high-school graduate who was to begin college today, was found guilty of one crime this past weekend: walking while Black.
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Ezell Ford was beaten and shot by police in South LA Monday night.

I was 13 when Emmet Till was beaten and shot to death. He was 14. I was 15 when I went to my first anti-racism demonstration.

In 2012 I was at a vigil for Trayvon Martin’s murder and a TV reporter asked me what I thought. I said I was 72, I’d been doing social justice work for much of my life, and this was the tragedy that never changes. I was angry then and now I am so angry I can hardly write.

Kirsten West Savali says all of this far better then I can (all quotes are from her):

Sometimes at night, when my three sons are asleep, I run my fingers through their soft curls, and touch their warm skin. Then I recoil as the horrific vision of bullets piercing their innocent bodies invades my thoughts. I picture them screaming, “Mommy!” and not being there to save them. So I hold them tighter and attempt to quell the paralyzing fear that comes with knowing that they will be viewed as potential threats to be neutralized before they are viewed as human beings to be respected. I trace their faces and wish that I can always hold their hands when they cross the street and that they can stay forever within the cocoon of my embrace.

But I cannot. They cannot.

And one day, I will have to tell them that we brought them into a world that they were never meant to survive.

From #NMOS2014: “In reaction to the brutal killings of Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Dontre Hamilton and several other innocent Men and Women, we will hold a vigil honoring and remembering the fallen victims of police brutality. Join us in the National Moment of Silence to show support for the victims’ families.

I’ll be at the vigil for tomorrow at Civic Center at 4 in San Francisco. Check for #NMOS2014 location in your city.

In her 2010 poem, “My Son Runs In Riots,” Christy Namee Eriksen wrote of a boy who:


met men with gray hearts and silver badges
and he has
bullets in his back,
he has
bullets in his front,
he has 56 baton blows, six kicks in his ribs and
when you watch the video
it’s tough to tell whose son it is
.

Thanks to Chupoo for pointing at Kristen’s post.

A Transgender Woman Fights Back: Julia Serano’s Open Letter to the New Yorker

Debbie says:

This blog has long been a fan of Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, and Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.

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Laurie and I were both especially impressed with Serano’s “Open Letter to the New Yorker,” written in response to Michelle Goldberg’s article, “What Is a Woman? The Dispute between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism,” and published in The Advocate (but not, apparently, in the New Yorker). Goldberg approached Serano while she was writing the article, and Serano is–well, unhappy is a mild term–for how her responses to Goldberg were included.

Serano starts by dissecting the premise:

I have found that mainstream publications seem to enjoy portraying these debates under a false transgender-people-versus-radical-feminists dichotomy. (“Hey, two groups of gender-freaks just so happen to hate one another — let’s publish that!”) In reality, many transgender activists are also feminists, and TERFs* tend to be antagonistic toward many other feminists and gender/sexual minorities, including sex-positive feminists, femme/feminine people, bisexuals, and other non-lesbian-identified queer people, and sex workers, just to name a few. Really, a more accurate framework for the article would be “the dispute between radical feminists and the vast majority of feminists and LGBTQ activists who disagree with them,” but that isn’t so sexy and probably wouldn’t generate quite as many page views.

*Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists

Serano then gets into Goldberg’s initial (and final) position in the article:

Goldberg also expressed her concern about TERFs being silenced by trans folks (e.g., their events being protested or boycotted, or venues pulling out after trans people and allies complained). I explained to her that, while I believe that TERFs should be free to assemble and hold their own events if they wish, some of these situations are far more complicated than that. For instance, if an explicitly LGBTQ organization (which sports a “T” for transgender in its acronym) holds an event, wouldn’t it be somewhat hypocritical for it to host performers who tacitly support or outright advocate for trans woman-exclusion policies? Or if a college has a policy protecting students and staff from discrimination based on gender identity, and Sheila Jeffreys comes by to give a talk about her new book in which she describes trans men as “women” and trans women as “men,” and insists that the latter group are merely sexually deviant men who are trying to take over feminism (we’ll get to that in a moment), well then, there is a serious conflict of interest here!

If I say I am fat (or old or disabled or …), and you look at me and say, “You’re not fat (or old, or disabled, or …)!” you are overriding my sense of myself and my lived identity with whatever your personal definition of “fat” (or your personal aversion to the word) might be. Serano is making the very same point about gender.

And then it gets personal …

When The New Yorker fact checker contacted me to verify the parts of the article that involved me, it became clear that several passages from my book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity in which I discussed certain aspects of my sexual history were going to be included in Goldberg’s article. I got the impression that they were intended to show “my side” of the story in relation to Jeffreys depicting me as an “autogynephile.” Being naturally horrified by the possibility of having my sexual history litigated within the pages of a national magazine, I sent another email to Goldberg expressing my concerns about the inclusion of this material (I have subsequently made this and another related email publicly available here), and she told me that those passages had subsequently been removed from the final piece.

Last Monday the article came out. And I was rather dismayed to see its final form. While (thankfully) Goldberg was truthful when she said that the passages of my sexual history would be removed, she hadn’t mentioned that the article was going to include Jeffreys’s and Blanchard’s views about “autogynephilia” without any mention that the theory has been scientifically disproven. And if that weren’t bad enough, Goldberg casually mentions that Jeffreys (who is depicted as a sympathetic, if eccentric, character in the article) considers me to be an “autogynephile” without mentioning any of my arguments against the theory and Jeffreys’s hypocritical appropriation of it.

(See the link to Serano’s whole letter for a long discussion of “autogynephilia” and why it is, to be overly kind, not a reasonable descriptor of anyone.)

And then it gets even more real:

Oh, and one last thing: In the last week since you published Goldberg’s article, a teenager was stabbed in Washington D.C., because of the fact that she is transgender. Also, in the last six weeks, two trans women of color have been found brutally murdered in Baltimore, and some suspect it may be the work of a serial killer who is targeting trans women. So here’s an idea: Why don’t you publish articles about these more serious matters rather than faux journalism pieces about trans activists purportedly “oppressing” radical feminists? Oh yeah, I almost forgot: You wouldn’t get nearly as many page views…

If you haven’t read Goldberg’s article, don’t. But if you haven’t read Serano, either this essay (there’s lots more, and it’s all good!) or her books, you have a treat in store.

Visit to Sojourner Truth Archive

Laurie says:

I wrote about discovering Sojourner Truth’s cartes-de-visite in my post ” Sojourner Truth: I Sell The Shadow To Support The Substance.”

I came across the first mention of the cartes-de-visite in a video interview with Nell Painter, who has written a superb biography of Truth which I highly recommend.

Painter mentioned on the video that Sojourner Truth had used photography.  Of course, that immediately registered with me and I had to find out more. As a photographer I immediately assumed that she had taken photographs.  But when I did some reading, I learned about the cartes-devisite that she created.  Because she was not literate this was the only medium where she had complete control of her presentation.

Sojourner Truth was perhaps the most famous African-American woman in 19th century America. For over forty years she traveled the country as a forceful and passionate advocate for the dispossessed, using her quick wit and fearless tongue to fight for human rights.

Nell Painter says:  No other woman who had gone through the ordeal of slavery managed to survive with sufficient strength, poise and self-confidence to become a public presence over the long term.

… Sojourner Truth, according to the Willis/Krauthamer book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans And the End of Slavery, understood the power of photography, and actively distributed photographs of herself:

“Those pictures were meant to affirm her status as a sophisticated and respectable “free woman and as a woman in control of her image.” The public’s fascination with small and collectible card-mounted photographs, allowed her to advance her abolitionist cause to a huge audience and earn a living through their sale. “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance,” proclaimed the famous slogan for these pictures.”

Quotes are from the previous post.

As I read her biography I was reminded again and again what is lost in the simplified potted histories of social change and reform that most of us learn.  She was born in slavery in up-state New York, grew up speaking Dutch, was emancipated when New York ended slavery, and spent as much of her life promoting religion and spiritualism as abolition and suffrage.  She is stereotypically depicted as saying  “Ain’t I a Woman” with a southern accent.  (She never said it.) Her life, and 19th century America, were complicated.

Serendipitously, my friend Geri Sullivan read my post and wrote that she would be in Detroit at the same time I planned to be there in July.  And she was going to her home town of Battle Creek on the trip.  She knew Mary Butler at the Sojourner Truth Archive  in Battle Creek and we could go there.  I was amazed and delighted!  (The archive is in Battle Creek because Truth lived there in the latter part of her life.)

The archive was planning to reframe their carte-de-visite’s of Sojourner Truth.  Because I was coming they very thoughtfully kept them unframed until I visited.  I was able to (carefully) hold them and photograph them.  I looked at them in my hands and realized I was holding something that she might have held. I’m surprised my hands didn’t shake.

We spent several hours at the archive.  Mary Butler is profoundly knowledgeable about Truth and the radical political 19th century history of Battle Creek. She was very generous with her time and her knowledge. We talked and I was able to look at a number of both documents and copies of documents that give a shape to what I know about her life.  It was a memorable afternoon and I’m grateful to both Mary and Geri.

These are the photographs I took of the cards.

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I love this photograph.   The portrait feels like I can see her face across  time.

I’ll be posting again about Battle Creek, Detroit, a remarkable sculpture of Truth, the Kimball House Museum and undoubtedly more.

Full Frontal Nudity, Gender, and the Penis

[warning: contains images that may not be comfortable for workplace or other public computer constraints]

Debbie and Laurie say:

We missed Sezin Koehler’s Sociological Images post about full frontal nudity on HBO back in June. Koehler analyzes the frequent use of full frontal female nudity and the extremely rare use of full frontal male nudity on True Blood, Hung, and Game of Thrones. 

Koehler’s conclusion is:

Ultimately, nudity is rarely necessary to further a storyline.  Women’s nudity isn’t about plot, it’s about treating women as objects and men as human beings.  The problem is systemic. Women’s bodies exist in many of HBO’s varied worlds to serve men, circling us back to a culture of male entitlement that, in the case of [Elliott] Rodgers at least, led directly to violence.

We agree with Koehler’s article, and our more-or-less unique experience of photographing, writing about, and talking to and about naked men in extensive detail, when we were working on Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes makes us want to take the conversation in another direction.

Of course, not all bodies are male or female and not all penises belong to men. This post relates specifically to commercial television and movies, where trans and genderqueer bodies are extremely rare, and nearly always objectified on a different axis than we discuss here.

Here’s the thing. Women are objectified whether or not  we are depicted in the nude. Men are physically objectified more than they used to be twenty or thirty years ago (read Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male for a treatment of this issue), but the vast majority of television and movies, are made with the tacit assumption that men are the watchers and women are the watched. In academic language, these programs are made with the “male gaze.” Shows that never show a naked woman still constantly objectify women’s bodies.

This is why an image of a small portion of a woman’s unclothed body is a nude

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but only a full frontal picture of a man is a nude.
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Men’s full frontal nudity isn’t shown for lots of reasons. It’s still a real taboo (and women’s full frontal nudity is not, but showing labia is). Penises (especially relaxed penises) show the natural experience of being a male human. Once again, we quote Jonathan D. Katz from his piece in the Familiar Men keynote essay:

Female nudity can be ubiquitous, but to present the male body threatens to give the lie to the rich meanings we associate with it. All of which may explain why it’s so rare to see naked or near-naked men in art, advertising, popular media, or that host of other venues in which the female body is now coin of the realm. … I think novelist Dorothy Allison said it best when she remarked that she thought the penis was the original source of the literary concept of irony, that something so small and vulnerable could be accorded such impressive powers. To see a penis is to know that it couldn’t possibly be a phallus.

As for the show Hung, which is specifically about a man with a large penis, Koehler points out that “we only get one brief glimpse of it — and not even the whole.”

The very existence of a TV show which makes the invisible central, which builds its entire plot on that-which-cannot-be-revealed says a lot about how women’s bodies–however objectified–are real to the television/movie creative world and the audience, while the essentially male feature of men’s bodies is, in our current cultural context, purely metaphorical. The show is not — it can’t be — about Ray Drecker’s penis; it’s about how we imagine, and create, our own imagery of Ray Drecker’s penis. In contrast, a show about a woman’s body is about the character’s actual body.

All pictures of bodies, clothed and nude, are laden with the gender-specific, deeply embedded overtones that have been placed there by the tens or hundreds of thousands of images of bodies we’ve seen before. The embedded message about women’s bodies is “see all of me,” and the embedded message about men’s bodies is “I get to control what you get to look at.”

Gender Neutral Toilet, Not Sideshow Attraction

Debbie says:

Lisa Wade at Sociological Images has a brief post about the sign problem for gender-neutral bathrooms. (I always thought they could just say “Everyone,” but of course there’s an argument for icons rather than words.) In case anyone hasn’t thought it out, gender-neutral bathrooms are an important safety feature for trans and gender nonconforming people who are all too frequently threatened and attacked for using the “wrong” binary gender public toilet.

She quotes Sam Killermann, a social justice comedian, who has a perfectly sensible iconic solution:

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But what struck me was the option that Killermann rightly objects to, which is in use at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

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Killermann and I object to this because, as he says, “the literal interpretation of this image (a half ‘man’ half ‘woman’) is a disconcerting representation of ‘gender neutral.’” Not to mention the infantilization that happens just from choosing that size for the wheelchair user. Yes, I know, it’s approximately the “accurate” height of a person in a chair next to a standing person. It’s still infantilizing.

What struck me most about the “half man/half woman” image is how it harks back to a very common performance at carnival sideshows and vaudeville performances, where a performer (most famously Josephine Joseph) would shave, cream, and soften one side of their body, growing hair long on that side and building up a false breast, while buffing up their muscles on the other side, with short hair and perhaps a half mustache. Split clothing enhanced the effect. The highlight of this performance was usually the performer dancing alone in low light, arms around waist, creating the illusion of two people dancing.

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Audiences found this fascinating and often titillating. Gender transgressive, yes. Gender nonconforming, yes. Gender neutral, hardly! Recreating this in bathroom door icons in 2014 is way less constructive than putting up a picture of a toilet. And I just don’t want restroom signs to start dancing at me, especially if I’m sleepy.

(I still love this post on bathroom door signs which  I wrote several years ago.)

At the Will of the Body, Part 3b: Doctors as Patients

Lisa Freitag says:

Dr. Lisa Freitag is a former pediatrician in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  She wrote some guest posts for us in 2013, and we are delighted to have more of her insightful presence here. This is the second half of the third (and last) part: Part 3a is here; Part 2 is here; and Part 1 is here. Part 3b has been reposted from its original posting due to technical problems.

According to Arthur Frank, whose academic theories on the doctor-patient relationship began to crystallize in his book about his own illnesses, At the Will of the Body, doctors are not really caregivers. This seems counter-intuitive, since medicine is supposed to be the most caring of professions. However, doctors do not know how to act towards their patients as persons. Frank states “I reserve the name “caregivers” for the people who are willing to listen to ill persons and respond to their individual experience.” (48) His own doctors, he says, rarely did this, instead dealing with him merely as a malfunctioning body in need of repairs. If doctors relate only superficially with others in illness, they seem unlikely to have a template for dealing with themselves as patients either.

These misconceptions are perhaps ultimately destructive to the formation of a human relationship between doctor and patient, no matter which side of the relationship he finds himself on. This is demonstrated well in the opening chapter of Sherwin Nuland’s famous book, How We Die, where he reports his first encounter with death. The patient was a middle-aged man who died of a massive heart attack while the young Dr Nuland was examining him. Nuland goes to great lengths to convince the reader and himself that it wasn’t his fault. He does this, not by grieving at human mortality, but by transferring the blame to the patient. Nuland’s description of the dead man and the destructive life style that brought him to his early death, borders on hatred. Nuland describes the man’s “flabbiness,” his “gluttony,” his laziness at taking a sedentary desk job, and compares this “high pressure boss of large, tough men” to his own 22 year old “boyishness.” Though he admits that these were not known risk factors at the time, these are disdainful words that imply a sinful life. The man was ultimately responsible for his own demise, not because he is mortal, just as Dr Nuland is, but because he lived in wrongness.

Arthur Frank sees illness as a chance to witness the mortality which we all share. Instead of  recognizing, and perhaps mourning, their common humanity, Dr Nuland distances himself by describing the man’s shameful life-style. One can assume that Nuland himself does not do all those naughty things, and can therefor believe he himself is safe from such a death. He spends the rest of the chapter, and indeed the book, describing in detail the ways in which the body can betray its owner, always with the idea that this knowledge, applied scientifically, will prevent death. I suspect that Dr Nuland’s own death will come (came?) as quite a surprise to him.

It is far easier to blame the wrongheaded patient rather than mourn the fact of death. Indeed, we were taught in medical school that mourning is out of place. We were supposed to create an emotional distance between ourselves and our patients. This was called maintaining objectivity, and is, we understood, a necessity, if one is to be a rational scientist. As Frank has recognized in At The Will of the Body, this distancing leads to thinking of patients as merely broken engines in need of repair. The person inside is largely ignored, except as the means which medical instructions will be carried out. The person, submitting to the will of the medical system, becomes a compliant body.

So what is a doctor to do when his own body escapes control and betrays him to illness? He must resent not only the sudden possession of a now-defective body, but also struggle to find a place to shift the blame for its failure. He must either accept that, like his patients, he might be mortal, or work to forget that medicine is not infallible. At the same time, he must willingly subject himself to becoming a body in the eyes of his peers.

All of these things are in operation when I become a patient, though I have, so far, not had a fatal one. I am surprised to find myself unprotected from sickness, and feel angry because I can’t think what I might have done to deserve it. Having at times seen illness as Dr Nuland does, as a sign of weakness in others, I find it nearly impossible to forgive it in myself. At the very least, I have failed to exert proper control over my body. It doesn’t help that I know precisely what has gone wrong, what that failure might lead to, and how painful it is likely to be to attempt to correct it.

Which is why, at the six week follow-up visit after surgery to fix my broken arm–which I honestly considered skipping altogether–I was completely inappropriate. I was annoyed that I was there, reluctantly complying with an unnecessary recommendation. My fractures were healing quite well, due to hard exercise and the help of some very good physical therapists. The orthopedic surgeon seemed inordinately pleased at his success with my operation, as though he still considered my arm partly his possession.

At one point, he told me, as though imparting a special confidence to a fellow doctor, that he liked the outcome so much that he was going to use the same “surgical approach” more often. It seems that he had put the incision on my shoulder in a different spot than usual. This was because he didn’t want to bother moving my unresponsive body between the surgery on my elbow and shoulder. I managed, just barely, to avoid saying what I was thinking, which was that this seemed terribly lazy to me. He looked, briefly, a bit confused by my horrified silence. Then he relaxed. He didn’t say anything, but he might have been thinking, Oh, right! Doctors are terrible patients. There was a small, indulgent chuckle.

I guess I was supposed to display more gratefulness. Or less implied skepticism at his talents. I feel kinda bad about this, but not bad enough to come back, as he wants me to, in another six weeks, so he can further admire his handiwork.

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