Monthly Archives: November 2012

The iPhone 5 and the Latest Technology: Why We Consume at the Expense of Others

Just a few months ago, the new iPhone 5 was officially released. Featuring all of the coolest new gadgets and the ‘thinnest, lightest design,’ it sold out in stores in an impressive three days. The commercial for the new phone is so cool, it practically renders all iPhone 4 users as irrelevant in one 30-second swoop. But as I wrote in a recent post on the textile fire in Pakistan that killed 300 people the same week that models were walking down the runway in beautiful designs for New York Fashion Week, sometimes the most glamorous things are a facade for tragedy.

As this brilliant article revealed, the iPhone 5 has been made in China by exploited workers in FoxConn sweatshops. Many of these “underpaid, underaged, and overworked staff” have gone on strike, only for their complaints to be denied and downplayed by Foxconn. As the author notes, our constant complaints and expectations for more ‘perfect’ technology is what drives this labor machine to move faster, to demand more from their workers than is humanely possible. Saturday Night Live recently aired a clever skit that contrasted the ‘first world’ complaints of American tech experts (the phone is too light, I can barely feel it!) with the retorts of the Chinese sweatshop workers. My favorite line? “Oh, twitter’s too slow, you can’t read about Kardashian’s handbag? My brother has a handbag too. He has hand. Keeps in bag. Until he can afford to re-attach!”

While the article continues to lend fresh insight into the labor advocacy that is surrounding this issue, I want to focus here on a simple question: what drives us to buy, and why we are never satisfied with what we have? Is there a certain satisfaction that people in the West gain by being able to whine about trivial things, knowing that the people who are making these technologies are unable to complain half as much over issues that are far more important?

Left: the first person in line to buy an iPhone 5 in England preens with his loot. Right: the family of a young laborer who killed himself at Foxconn (photo courtesy of “Is it Immoral to Own an iPhone 5?”)

Technology has always connoted progress and development in the West. Because technology isn’t available to everybody, those who do not have access to it are often viewed as ‘backwards,’ as ‘behind,’ as ‘less-developed,’ as ‘Third-World.’ For many, technology is a word that refers to the inaccessible, the things they would like to have but cannot afford. It allows those in the West to establish meanings of progress for the world, and to view poorer countries as less capable.

That is not to say that technology does not have cultural and social benefits. It obviously does. The technologies we use can facilitate social movements, create a greater amount of information, help us realize our goals as a ‘global village,’ and forge a “two-way” connection between disparate groups of people. Who can dismiss the important (though arguably overblown) role of new media networks like Facebook in the Arab revolutions last spring? Or how in Afghanistan, entrepreneurs like Roya Mahboob are using software companies to empower women?

Technology can have real positive social and economic effects, but it seems that in the West, it is more often being reduced to its ‘thing-ness,’ to the idea that this conspicuous consumption of more things that may have no tangible impact on one’s life is a symbol of our wealth and privilege. We spend big money on a cool color, on a slightly lighter phone, on marginally faster internet connection. We are obsessed with this notion of newness, with this idea that buying an iPad Mini will make us seem ahead of the curve in some way, when, let’s face it, it is really a slighter bigger iPhone.

And then of course, there is the technological waste that is left behind by our unconscious consumption. Three million tons a year, to be exact. The technology that is dumped in the backyards of people’s homes in China, India, and Africa, ruining both the environment and their lives. How better to reiterate this notion that those in the ‘Third World’ are behind when for many, their primary means of access to technology is the waste tossed out by those in the West?

Electronic Waste dumped in parts of Africa (photo courtesy of DanWatch and Consumers International)

Is that how we are measuring progress now? Not just by what we have, but by how much we can throw away?

We often think of poorer countries as constantly needing to ‘catch up’ with our modes of consumption for the sake of development. I believe however, that the people in these countries who use technology as a means of transforming communities and even resisting oppressive regimes, are actually more progressive than those in the West who have reduced technological innovations to just ‘stuff.’ Take, as another example, the four African girls who created a urine-powered generator that produces six hours of electricity using a single liter of urine as fuel. Unveiled at the Maker Faire in Nigeria, the girls and their ‘pee-generator’ created buzz at an event that was instituted to highlight innovations that actually solve “immediate challenges and problems in society,” rather than, as Next Web put it, “a bunch of rich people talking about how their apps are going to change the world.”

Three of the four inventors of the urine-powered generator (photo courtesy ofEric Hersman)

This holiday season, perhaps we should look to, and start adopting, the slower and more sustainable modes of consumption of so-called developing countries. Why not give a hand-made gift, or practice more conscious consumption if we do not want to abstain completely from purchasing presents for ourselves and our family. What does it mean to be a conscious consumer? Well, perhaps these two examples of different iPhone buyers will help clarify the difference:

Consumer 1: “So I’m going to buy the iPhone 5 today. It just seemed…cool. I mean there’s nothing wrong with my iPhone 4, but my bromance bro got the new one, and it’s so light I just thought it would be dope to see which one we could toss higher. I’ll just trade it in at Apple for a 10% discount. Whatever. When’s the iPhone 6 coming out?”

Consumer 2: I’ve been holding out buying the iPhone, because I don’t really need it. But then my iPod broke, and my cell phone is several years old, so I wanted to get the new iPhone. I heard about all the strikes in China though, so I didn’t want to get the iPhone 5. I’d feel too guilty. So I traded the iPhone 4 for a ton of my DVDs I don’t watch any more. And then I sold my old iPod and cell phone to a green company called YouRenew, which recycles your old technologies without filling up landfills! I love my new iPhone and I plan on keeping it for a loooong time.

I think we all can guess which one is the conscious consumer, peeps.

I know that being socially responsible about our purchases takes a little more time, a little more thought. But if the holiday season is when we give thanks by spending time with our loved ones and sharing gifts, perhaps we should also take the extra time to consider the people behind these gifts, whether it is the workers who make them, or those in the  ‘Third World’ who have to live with them as unrecognizable litter in their backyards.

Want to learn more about the global trade of electronic waste? Check out this amazing twenty minute documentary that won an Emmy for its investigative reporting:

Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground:

Louis CK on why we’re never satisfied with what we have:

Further Reading:

This is the first article of a series that focuses on issues of sustainability and conscious consumerism – stay tuned for more on the subject, including an upcoming interview with eco-fashion founder Marci Zaroff!

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The Real Housewives, Part I: A Queer Critique of Marriage?

Ok peeps, it’s time.  I know I have been teasing this for awhile, but I have decided to finally write a post on one of my favorite guilty pleasures, the Real Housewives franchise.  It was in my first post on why I blog about gender that I revealed my addiction to the show, and how it could be argued that engaging with such a problematic text contradicts my feminism. After all, this is a program that features women of um, privilege, who routinely get in vicious cat fights with each other and display uncontrolled materialism in their consumption of all things designer, birthday cakes, and Botox. It is, at first glance, misogyny on a stick.

So here is the thing. I am picky with my Housewives (I do have standards, after all). I personally find the OC women to be too boring (and I can’t tell them apart). The New York women come off as strong and independent, so I should love them, but their voices grate on my nerves (Ramona’s walk down the runway though? Classic). The Atlanta wives come off as too staged to me, though Kim and Sheree’s wig fight was a true media event that rivaled, in my opinion, the best hot-mess moments of Jersey Shore, Being Bobby Brown, and Hey Paula, combined. For me, those three franchises are like Nestle, while the flava’ of the fiery Miami ladies, heavily-filled lips and ostentatious wealth of the Beverly Hills women, and family drama and table-flipping of New Jersey, are organic, fairly traded, dark-chocolate bars.

Yeah, I’m a culture snob. Deal with it. 😉

‘These Straights be Cra-Cra!” (photo courtesy of Perez Hilton)

I was actually inspired to write about the series during the latest reunion episodes of the Jersey Housewives, in which the entire cast of women came together to rehash the events of the season. These reunion shows usually lead to emotional outbursts of anger that Andy Cohen, the host and only man on the stage, is often forced to subdue. The sexist implications of having a male voice of reason in between all of these unhinged women has always made me uncomfortable (hey, I have to insert my feminist objections somewhere!). But this past season, the husbands of each of the women came on the show, and as the couples hurled their accusations of divorces, debt, and foreclosures at each other, I found myself watching an openly gay Andy Cohen and thinking, “Ok homie, are you seriously trying to insert a scathing critique of traditional heteronormative marriage in a reality show? You mean, I can’t just zone out while posting my latest ‘Even More Fierceness!’ album up on Facebook? I’m going to have to write a two-part series on a show that everyone mocks and that I actually feel guilty about watching? You’re really doing this to me?”

Yup, he is. So get ready peeps, get ready.

Heteronormativity is the ideology that privileges heterosexuality as the norm and holds that people fall into distinct binary gender roles. The idea that men and women are ‘naturally’ more capable of doing certain things has historically been ingrained in our societal, educational, and religious institutions and reiterated in our media in countless ways. Most notable is the idealization of the  traditional family model in television that centers the working dad,  domestic wife, and two children on the one end, and erases from mainstream media visibility people within the LGBTQ community on the other. Queer is a term that refers to people or institutions that do not subscribe to these dominant cultural ideologies of gender and sexuality.

Jack and his Cher Doll. The infantilization of the feminine male.

While the media landscape has changed somewhat in recent years, it should be noted that even these seemingly progressive shows that offer more queer representations of gender and sexuality, such as Will & Grace, Modern Family, and even The Mindy Project, still must work within these dominant frameworks. In Will & Grace, the stereotypically feminine Jack was always contrasted with the more masculine Will as less competent, smart and successful, thus demeaning femininity. While Modern Family‘s gay male couple is in many ways a progressive example of mainstream queer visibility, they still seem to be working within heteronormative constructs that demand marriage as a legitimization of one’s romantic relationship, and the assigning of traditional binary roles when assigning tasks for raising their child. And Mindy Kaling’s smart, successful character at the heart of The Mindy Project is 31 and refreshingly single, but always talking about how she is single while fantasizing to Rom-Coms. But that’s for another blog post (I do actually really love her show and am already a Mindy/Danny shipper – so I’m totes part of the problem, girlfriends!).

This privileging of heteronormativity would lead one to assume that the heterosexual marriage in which men and women subscribe to traditional gender roles is what is truly ‘natural,’ but in fact, we know that this is not the case. Many heterosexual marriages end up in divorce, countless children are abused and neglected by their straight parents, and domestic abuse is all too rampant. If heteronormative practices were truly intrinsically right, then why are they often so flawed?

Theresa’s husband Joe is caught off-camera calling his wife their ‘pet’ names.

This point is driven home during the Housewives series again and again. While we are introduced at the beginning of each program to characters who seemingly live a fantasy life in their mansions and designer closets, the show slowly unravels the numerous ways in which this domestic bliss is just a mirage. Subverting the image of the ‘happy housewife,’ we are instead introduced to a wide range of characters navigating through, and often leaving, truly dysfunctional relationships. There’s Taylor from the Beverly Hills housewives, who alleged that she was abused by her husband and “didn’t feel safe” until he committed suicide a few days before the second season aired. There is Sheree, the Atlanta housewife whose messy foreclosure and custody battle was covered by numerous national media outlets.  And how can I not mention Theresa, who, kept out of the loop of her husband’s business dealings, is now dealing with bankruptcy and her ‘Juicy Joe’s’ pending jail sentence due to financial fraud? Of course, children are not left unscathed from their parents’ evictions and family drama. Who can forget Theresa’s daughter Gia crying while singing a poem to her mother and uncle, pleading with them to make peace? (yeah I know you forgot, but I didn’t, ok?)

A woman’s duty to shop! (1950s advertisement)

What is so interesting about the Housewives series is the way in which it seems to really provide a pointed critique (or at least, examination) of the role that many American women adopted after World War II, that of the domestic shopper. Although during the war women took on different professions that were left behind by their husbands, society then encouraged women to abandon these jobs and return to the domestic sphere once the war ended, while advertisers targeted them as professional homemakers whose jobs were to shop not just for their family, but for national economic prosperity.  Excessive consumption is never more apparent than on the Housewives, where the women spend thousands on designer shoes, lip fillers, and birthday parties for their children. Furthermore, this crass consumerism could also be attributed to these women’s flawed assumptions that they are ‘secure’ in their spending, either because they trust the personal and economic stability of their relationship, or because they believe that they will be protected financially if the marriage does end.

A foreclosure is just a bump in the road for Theresa, and she’ll need these high heels to jump over it!

However, as Leslie Bennetts’ excellent book The Feminist Mistake addresses, dependency can often jeopardize the lives of women and their children, as the newest alimony laws have made the futures of stay-at-home mothers increasingly tenuous after a divorce. This is what Theresa Guidice, who famously boasted in the first season of being able to buy expensive furniture in cash, discovered in the wake of her husband’s failed financial dealings which left her family bankrupt.

Is it any coincidence then that amidst the foreclosure accusations and stripper allegations hurled among these heterosexual couples and family members during the recent season of the Housewives of New Jersey, there was a beautiful civil union ceremony between Caroline’s brother and his spouse? Or that one of the most touching moments came from Rosie, Kathy’s lesbian sister, when she came out to her niece and nephew and discussed with them how difficult it was to accept herself in a society that made her feel like an outcast? Or how about when Andy Cohen actually inserted himself into one of the episodes to explain why Joe Guidice’s repeated use of gay slurs was hateful and wrong? By revealing the dysfunction of these heteronormative institutions, is the show more easily able to legitimize, and perhaps even center, queer issues and relationships?

Seriously, leave it to us gays to get it right! (Caroline’s brother and spouse, newly married)

For me, the most interesting conversation around gay rights was on the now defunct Real Housewives of DC, where a couple of the wives and their husbands were talking about the issue of marriage equality. One of the gay ‘sidekicks’ on the show, celebrity stylist Paul Wharton, was also in attendance, and he explained his belief that when you give one group of people rights and deny them to others, it makes it that much easier for day-to-day discrimination to happen. When one of the couples said that they “weren’t homophobic, but were against gay marriage,”  Wharton quickly retorted, “it does make you homophobic, you just don’t want the label.” SNAP.

Ok, let’s be honest here. How often in the mainstream media do you see this kind of discussion that really digs deep into the complexities of bigotry and how it can be manifested in more subtle ways? The absence of this kind of dialogue in mainstream news outlets can perhaps be attributed to the more masculine space of the public sphere that tends to view issues like gay rights through the lens of policy. Very rarely are we allowed insight into the more personal, but still very important, conversations that take place in the domestic, private sphere of our daily lives.

Ok seriously, are you kidding me straights? (Wharton with the DC housewives and husbands)

Many critics have lambasted the Housewives as a show that is regressive for women, and I certainly understand why many of the characters’ adolescent behavior should not be held up as role models for young girls. And while the gay characters on the show are often depicted positively, they are still one-dimensional personalities who are not really central to the series. Furthermore, the gay men in both the Housewives and other shows on Bravo are usually limited to stereotypical professions (hair stylists, fashion designers) and fall into what I refer to as the “Gay Helper” trope, meaning that their central role as a ‘gay sidekick’ is to constantly support the straight characters in their lives without question and to reassure them of their fabulousness, despite their many flaws (I’m looking at you, Rachel Zoe).

But then, to focus solely on these critiques is missing the point. While I hesitate to offer the Real Housewives as a progressive text, that does not mean that it isn’t saying something interesting. The show’s main concern is with marriage, and given that the franchise does feature some successful marriages and a gay civil union, it doesn’t seem to be necessarily arguing against marriage, but rather for a more egalitarian vision of marriage that empowers women and includes the gay community. This notion that gender and queer rights are not mutually exclusive is reflected in both the societal shift in favor of marriage equality, and the lower divorce rates among the younger generation that can be attributed to the greater acceptance of the two-income mold for couples, as well as the sharing of housework.

The purpose of the Housewives series then is not to demean women but to reveal how ridiculous women behave when they are tied to archaic and power-based institutions of marriage, which privilege men over women. Take Camille Grammar of the Beverly Hills Housewives, whose messy divorce to Kelsey Grammar was on display during the first season, following the revelation that Kelsey had cheated on her with a much younger woman. Now dating a younger man who she adores but is reserved about marrying, she notes in her second-season intro, “Diamonds aren’t a girl’s best friend, Freedom is.”

You go, girl. And thank you for giving me an intellectual reason to write about you and your friends, in all of your botox-ed glory.

Does Alexis Bellino from the OC Housewives really have the right to speak out against marriage equality when she has been divorced already? These bloggers don’t think so:

Stay tuned for part TWO of this series, which will focus on the show’s centering of female spaces!

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Can We Really Label Racist Teens as Racist?

A few days ago, online feminist magazine Jezebel decided to publish an article for their racism column that exposed all of the tweets sent by high-schoolers across the country that used the n-word after Obama’s re-election. Jezebel followed-up by contacting these teenagers’ high schools to determine whether they had a policy about hate speech, and decided to out these kids by publishing their full names online. So, done. We’ve got a black president, and we can move on knowing that racism is solved, right?

I know my peeps are with me when I say, ummm. NO.

Is this really how we have resorted to addressing racism in our country? By simplifying such a complex institution into the use of a single racial slur? By slandering the names of kids whose life experiences might not have given them the opportunity to understand the consequences of their actions, or in this case, hashtags?

Of course I am not condoning the behavior of these students, but I’m going to keep it real here. We, as a culture, do not know how to talk about systems of oppression. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why, despite teaching some exceptionally bright and compassionate college students in my years of teaching, I have been surprised to find that many are pretty ill-equipped to discuss issues of race. Very few come into the classroom well-versed on the racial history of this country. They may know about Martin Luther King, but struggle to understand the larger Civil Rights movement for which he fought. When we discuss the racist implications of using cultural artifacts like feathers and headdresses as a guise for multi-culturalism, many grow defensive and protest that this is a form of cultural celebration. Yet, very few have ever been exposed to voices from these ethnic communities who make these protests.

Is this completely their fault?

It is true that Americans value the individual, but is it fair to imbue even young people with a foresight that is supposed to overcome their institutional limitations? Granted, I do think that some people are naturally a little more sensitive, a little more thoughtful, a little more critical and self-aware of their privilege than others. But I also know that one of my good friends, who is an exceptionally sensitive person and an advocate for human rights, grew up in a tiny, segregated, rural community where racial slurs were commonly spoken, and it wasn’t until he left his small town and interacted with different groups of people did he gain full awareness of just how much these words hurt.

I remember reading another post on Jez last year titled the “complete guide to hipster racism” that lambasted white kids for wearing ‘Indian headdresses.’ While I agreed with the sentiment, I had an issue with the paternalistic tone and the focus on individual behavior that seemed to imply that these ‘hipsters’ should know better because well, they’re hipsters, and that means they’re ahead of the curve, right? As I wrote in myrecent post on fashion’s problematic relationship with race:

“For me, the issue isn’t so black and white, in part because we have not allowed for an inclusion of American Indian voices into the dialogue about this issue until very recently, leaving many truly ignorant about why these supposedly ‘harmless’ statements are indeed very harmful. It is difficult for me to point fingers at teenagers who, dressed up as ‘Indians’ for  Thanksgiving when they were five by their parents and teachers, are now expected to understand the complex meanings behind the hipster headdress they choose to rock to signify their escape from the rigid conformity of suburbia.”

When it comes to issues of oppression, we need to start shifting our focus, and subsequent criticism, from individuals to institutions. To the parents who fail to have these important conversations with their children (you’re a mom who grew up in the 70s and can’t talk to your kids about a movement that gave you rights? I’m sorry, but that’s one big struggle). To our educational system that fails to incorporate these important conversations in our mainstream history texts, instead relegating them to the dusty bookshelves that are only taken out during ‘African-American history’ and ‘Women’s history’ months. To our culture that celebrates Columbus day as a day in which Columbus ‘discovered’ a country that had been inhabited by indigenous people for years, but focuses little on the suffering caused by European colonialism. To our neighborhoods that have become increasingly segregated thanks in part to ‘white-flight,’ making it almost impossible for so many American kids to go to school with and live near people of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. To the public policies that have increased the gap in wealth between middle-class white and black Americans, thanks in large part to the limiting of value property in these racially segregated neighborhoods. To our media institutions that marginalizes the voices of women and people of color in the newsroom on one end, while depicting them as looters and welfare queens on the other.

I believe that we as a society need to focus on these larger, more important issues of oppression, instead of a few ignorant tweets. And rather than pointing our fingers solely at these teenagers, it would serve us better to also address the societal problems and institutional policies that helped shape their behavior, and in which we are all implicated.

White Flight, defined.

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Political Apathy and why I’m SO not feeling it.

So I’ve had a few readers ask me why I haven’t really blogged about the election, and I think I need to clarify that I am absolutely NOT apathetic about politics. I follow the news, subscribe to the Economist, as stressful as that is (one issue a week is a bit of an overkill, just sayin’), and generally try to stay as informed as possible. I’m just not a political blogger. There are already a ton of policy wonks writing about politics and doing it way better than I ever could. My interest is in culture and media, and when I have written about politics on this blog, it’s always through a critical cultural-media lens. That is why when I interviewed a woman on development in Afghanistan a few weeks ago, I focused on media coverage and gender issues. And when I addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I didn’t really take a side on the issue but instead critiqued the erasure of such an important topic in our public space. And I did attempt to tackle an election debate by questioning the narrow scope of the corporate media’s coverage and arguing for why we need independent media and third-party candidates.

As I wrote in my first post,  I’m uncomfortable with the divisive nature of partisan politics, the Bill O’Reilly vs. Chris Matthews screaming matches that our news media has fostered, and the corporatization of our culture that is diminishing our public space. I agree with rapper Killer Mike that our country tends to think in ‘teams,’ and ultimately, I believe that change comes from the people. That’s one of the reasons why I was behind so much of what the Occupy movement did. It’s also why I absolutely loved this article on how a performance-poetry group who have cared for their children through extreme poverty are now working with the Occupy movement and other advocacy groups to teach people about poverty. It makes sense that poor people would actually have the best anti-poverty ideas. If only policy-makers and politicians would listen to the people more, and if only the news media would represent these groups instead of constantly interviewing elites with the same recycled opinions. It’s frustrating, and it needs to change.

But here’s the thing. I DO think elections matter, and very few things annoy me more than apathy. And this is where I’m going to abandon all of my Kumbaya inclinations of always wanting to bring people together by avoiding divisive talk, and I’m just going to BUST. Because I have come to the realization that people who make arguments like ‘the president is just a figurehead’ or “Obama did nothing these past four years, he’s no different than Bush,” are really annoying and need to be called out. Honestly, I don’t care who you vote for. But if you’re a liberal who is ‘disappointed’ with Obama’s presidency because he didn’t get as much done as they wanted, well…he ended up with a Republican Congress!! What did you expect him to do?? The government got gridlocked because of that. That’s the way politics works in this country people. Did you miss the massive health care bill he passed? Or how he ended torture? He bailed out the auto industry (I have friends and family who live in Ohio and Detroit who have seen real effects from this…ie, no economic meltdown). He protected women’s reproductive rights and passed the historic Lilly Ledbetter bill that protects women from discriminatory pay. He got rid of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and vouched his support for marriage equality. Oh, and he got us out of Iraq and caught Bin Laden. So people are pissed because he didn’t do every little thing he wanted to do. They wanted public health care. They’re mad that he cracked down so hard on immigrants. I get these concerns, but here’s the thing, change doesn’t happen overnight. I think a lot of people in my generation were raised on these ridiculous expectations a la Veruca Salt of “I want the world to change overnight NOW DADDY!” And that’s not how the world works. How many years did it take for women to achieve the right to vote? For the Civil Rights movement to win their demands?

I’m going to argue that Obama was effective in planting the progressive seeds that, if given the opportunity, he and other presidents afterwards will help shape. Whether you agree with those politics is neither here or there, but for everyone who says crap like ‘The president is just a figurehead…” PLEASE SPARE ME. Maybe you should check out this link from ‘On the Media’ that discusses Kennedy’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. You know, like how it was basically him against his cabinet. How he won out. How a president DOES shape policy.

I am done with apathy and cynicism. DONE. And I’ve never bought it. Your cynicism does not make you superior to me because I actually fucking care and am fighting to make this world a better place. It just means you aren’t informed. Yeah that’s right, I said it. You’re LAZY. You haven’t done your research. You’re using your holier-than-thou attitude as a guise for your ignorance. And your apathy insults me. Yes, this is what a Nadia bust looks like. I’m sorry, but as someone who has lived and voted in swing states for the last decade, who realizes the importance of every little vote, I am really losing patience for this kind of attitude.

Do I believe that change comes from the people? YES. Am I frustrated with the two-party system, with the gross amount of money that is pumped into political ads when there are so many people living in poverty? YES. But that doesn’t take away from my belief that politicians and elections matter. Don’t kid yourself by believing that your vote doesn’t make a difference. Do you really think a Bush presidency was identical to an Obama one?! Really?? If so, then maybe you should stay home and not vote. Yup, now I’m being rude. Again, I don’t care who you vote for, as long as you stay engaged and realize that your engagement matters. And there really is no excuse anymore to not stay engaged. I’m going to end with Saturday Night Live‘s brilliant parody on ‘the undecided voter.’ Because I’m done. I’ll be back tomorrow blogging about all things culture and engaging with peeps who actually give a damn and have some faith in the power of their voices.

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Post-Halloween musings: Fashion, Appropriation, and Cultural Identity

Note: An abridged version of this piece is now on the Huffington Post.

Hey everyone! So I’m sorry I’ve been a bit strugglin’ with my posts … I just got back from a conference on Fair Trade, which was pretty much the chillest thing ever (umm …. inspiring panels led by Colombian banana farmers + dark chocolate covered bananas + Tagua nut bracelets made by Ecuadorian Fair Trade farmers = Can we talk girlfriends? Can we?!) I absolutely can’t wait to blog about it in a few weeks, so stay tuned for an upcoming series on sustainability and Fair Trade! (I know it will be hard to sleep at night until then, but bear with me GFs, it will be worth it ;))

So here’s the thing. I actually wasn’t planning on writing about the issue of cultural appropriation during Halloween, mainly because there are so many bloggers doing amazing work on the subject. But I have to admit that I found it difficult to ignore these links of racist Halloween costumes, or these pictures of people dressed up as ‘sexy Natives.’ And one of the reasons why I struggle so much with this level of cultural flippancy is because I can understand to some extent, why it is difficult for some people to see ‘fashion statements’ as something that can hurt. But as I’ve written before on this blog, my relationship with fashion hasn’t exactly been a harmonious one. Being engaged and critical can often suck the fun out of an industry that is supposed to be fun and based in fantasy. I remember wearing my ‘feather earrings’ that I bought at a flea market years ago and people commenting on how I looked ‘Indian.’ I remember taking that as a compliment and thinking that was pretty cool, and I’m pretty sure I wore those bright red ‘not-so-Indian’ earrings all week. Because I am ethnically ambiguous, I can float somewhat easily in that ‘Latina/mixed/other’ spectrum, and while I believe this has afforded me empathy for different groups of people, I would argue that it is also easier for me to use fashion in a way that allows me to ‘try on’ different cultural identities.’ I abused that privilege years ago with those culturally insensitive earrings, and I sucked for that. I’m sorry.

The zigzags on this ‘Navajo’ hipster panty from Urban Outfitters actually represent lightning, and are worn by the Navajos as a symbol of protection, while the star designs are taken from the ‘four sacred mountains on each corner of the sacred Navajo homeland.’ – Navajo educator Ruth Roessel

So what is cultural appropriation? In its most simplistic definition, it is the seizing of another culture without their consent. It’s taking an otherwise complex culture and turning it into a caricature. It’s the ‘Navajo’ shirts that Urban Outfitters sells that essentializes the many different American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian people in the United States into one broad ‘Native’ tribe defined as Navajo. It’s the celebration of Columbus day as a day in which Columbus ‘discovered’ a country that had been inhabited by indigenous people for years, and the erasure of the imperialist raping and enslaving from our history. It’s the Victoria’s Secret ‘Geisha’ lingerie line that featured white models in Orientalist eye makeup and outfits, which in the words of blogger Nina Jacinto, only perpetuates the stereotype of Asian women as objects of sexual fantasy, trading in ‘real humanness for access to culture.’ It’s the Vogue dance-style that was attributed to Madonna when it really originated with gay urban men of color. It’s Gwen Stefani wearing cultural and spiritual objects such as bindis as fashion, and using Asian-American dancers as props, always claiming that she is celebrating their culture.

Turning slavery into a fashion statement, and on white models, nonetheless. (Photo courtesy of Vogue Italia)

It’s also the Dolce & Gabbana ‘black busts’ earrings that commodified black bodies and were defended on the grounds that they ‘represented’ Sicilian Blackmoore pottery, ignoring the legacy of race-based slavery which influenced this tradition. And while we’re on the subject of earrings, who can forget when Vogue Italia referenced large hoop earrings as ‘slave earrings’ in their fall 2011 issue, citing the ‘women of color’ who were ‘brought’ to the United States as their fashion inspiration? Brought, not sold. Brought, not enslaved. Cultural appropriation, done.

Victoria’s Secret ‘Sexy Geisha outfit’ was part of their Go East selection and promised an ‘exotic adventure.’ The line has since been removed due to protest (photo courtesy of fashionbombdaily.com)

Because cultural appropriation is so often found in fashion, it is not taken that seriously. Fashion is fun and fantasy, wrapped up in a bright pick Victoria’s Secret bag that can then be discarded when it no longer fits. Perhaps that’s why on Halloween, a one-night event where the whole purpose is to take on another identity, we witness so much unapologetic appropriation. After all, what you wear doesn’t define you, right? I mean, just because someone is wearing a headdress doesn’t actually mean they have internalized the racism that is responsible for the eradication of tribes and their cultural practices?

For me, the issue isn’t so black and white, in part because we have not allowed for an inclusion of American Indian voices into the dialogue about this issue until very recently, leaving many truly ignorant about why these supposedly ‘harmless’ statements are indeed very harmful. It is difficult for me to point fingers at teenagers who, dressed up as ‘Indians’ for  Thanksgiving when they were five by their parents and teachers, are now expected to understand the complex meanings behind the hipster headdress they choose to rock to signify their escape from the rigid conformity of suburbia.

Furthermore, the privileging in our culture of Western fashion that emphasizes ‘newness’ as a sign of progress and change tends to view American Indian tribes as examples of more traditional cultures who use clothing for utilitarian purposes. As Dakota artist and activist Bobby Wilson put it, we’re fixated on this idea that “native people are frozen in time.” Despite the efforts of minority students from the University of Ohio last year, many Americans still view American Indians, and other minority groups, as a costume, not a culture. And because fashion is seen as so frivolous and something that goes out of trend so quickly, many argue that the industry’s fascination with exoticizing certain cultures shouldn’t be taken seriously. In fact, many counter-arguments are made to cultural appropriation that on the contrary, minority groups should feel privileged by this representation of their culture by the mainstream.

On dressing up ‘cultural’ for Halloween…

So here’s the problem. The argument that you can ‘try on’ a cultural identity for a day and then discard it speaks to the ability of being able to return to your special place of privilege. You can take off your headdress and sleep at night, knowing that you don’t have to wake up the next morning to confront a history of colonialism and genocide that has left your community living in an impoverished reservation and having to deal with segregation, racism, and gross cultural misrepresentation in the form of  films, sports mascots, and holidays. As the ‘We’re a Culture, not a Costume’ Campaign put it, “You wear the costume for one night, we wear the stigma for life.”

Americans take pride in our ‘American-ness,’ our cultural traditions that bring us together and include Independence day, apple pie, and the Star Spangled banner. But let’s face it. There have always been some people who are considered more American than others. Just think about the term ‘All-American’ and what it implies: white, blond, attractive, athletic. Are people of color then ‘partial-American?’ Are they not American enough? Does that leave them in the position of having to defend the degree of their American-ness?

And this is why it is so dangerous to ‘dress-up’ as another culture, because a white person who dresses up as a ‘Mexican’ in Arizona doesn’t have to worry that his citizenship will be questioned. He can go to a ‘ghetto’ party and wear his hoodie up in an effort to look more ‘hood’ without fearing that he will get killed like Trayvon Martin. A white person who goes to a bar dressed in blackface doesn’t have to worry about being turned away like a recent Harvard student for no reason other than the color of his skin. He doesn’t have to face the reality that when there is a hurricane, he will be wrongly labeled as a looter and then identified as a ‘refugee,’ a misplaced citizen.

And yes, I realize that there are non-white people who have been guilty of dressing up in ‘Indian’ fashions, as the pictures from Fashion’s Night Out ‘Pow-Wow’ party demonstrates. The appropriation of American Indian culture is widespread and certainly not limited to white people, especially given the fashion industry’s rampant appropriation of Native cultural objects that are spit out for ‘hipster’ consumption. However, I think we need to ask why it is that ‘cultural’ costumes are far more common to wear on Halloween and at theme parties than dressing up as say, a young white male. While people can conceive an image of a ‘ghetto’ costume, a geisha, an Arab terrorist or a ‘Cherokee princess,’ do we actually have a singular vision of what a white male looks like?

Fashion is not frivolous. Clothes, and the way in which we wear them to express our identity and who we are, can have profound meaning. If you really want to honor a culture, why not do it in a more thoughtful manner that brings to light all of its complexities? By doing it through fashion, you run the risk of treating an entire group of people as a trend, something that is in vogue one minute and out the next, easy to dispose of and forget.

From Fashion Night’s Out, ‘Pow-Wow’ party (photo courtesy of Native Appropriations)

Check out this inspiring campaign by Native Appropriations’ Adrienne K, who received not just an official apology from Paul Frank Industries for their “Pow-Wow” party, but a promise that they would remove all Native inspired designs as well as collaborate with a Native artist for future designs!

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