Monday, November 30, 2015

Penn & Teller: Social Comedy and Edutainment

This past week, I was in Las Vegas, Nevada for the National Communication Association conference. I participated in a great pre-conference on sustainable communication, saw fabulous panels in rhetoric, religion, and science, and was honored to see a former student shine at her panel on material space and architecture. In the evening, I was able to explore some of Las Vegas's shows and strip night life. I attended Penn & Teller's show at the Rio Saturday night and knew immediately that I wanted to write a post about it. In this post, I will discuss some of my favorite tricks from the show and also my thoughts about the political, social, and scientific commentary that highlighted for me the importance of educational entertainment. I do not mean to give "spoilers" or to ruin the magic for anyone, so read at your own risk.

Retrieved from this site.
My first observation of the show was how honest and open Penn & Teller were about the art of deception. Many times, they blatantly told us what they doing and yet we were still bamboozled and confused. For example, Penn gave a speech condemning "psychics" who use tactics of cold reading to make audiences think that they have supernatural powers. Penn called out John Edward and Sylvia Browne, for example, for capitalizing on people's pain and misery in giving false hope through magic masquerading as messages from people who have passed. Penn has prepped us then, that what he is doing is really a trick. But, he does the readings so quickly and so spectacularly, it's really a wonder how he does it at all. In fact, being prepped and reminded about how the show is entirely full of tricks elevates one's awe and wonder because it has a natural explanation. If the answer is supernatural, then it is the supernatural power that is impressive, not the artist.

Retrieved from this site.
One of the themes of the show was represented on a sign that Teller held up during one of the tricks: "We aren't doing the trick you think we are doing." He flat out tells the audience that deception is occurring and Penn & Teller cannot be trusted, and yet the audience still falls for the trap, time and time again. My favorite trick was relatively simple in its set-up. Teller chose a woman from the audience and gave her a coin jar. He then began picking water drops from a fish tank and turned them into pennies which he placed in the jar. Even though I was in the very back corner of the mezzanine, I could still see and understand the tricks easily as they happened. The trick ended with Teller picking up a handful of pennies and dumping them back into the water. Instead of the pennies turning back into water, however, they sank to the bottom while dozens of goldfish appeared in the tank - it was truly incredible.

Retrieved from this site.
Part of what I was not expecting was the prevalence of social and political commentary in the show. Penn & Teller are widely known as libertarians and Penn is an outspoken public atheist. One trick included a short speech by Penn about airport security using a TSA metal detector. The trick was, again, amazing, but it also gave the audience an opportunity to reflect on the sacrificing of values and the usefulness of the TSA. Penn noted that the audience member chosen to come up on stage had as much training as a real TSA agent. They also showed how inaccurate and thus unnecessary many of the practices are. My favorite part of the sketch was Penn summarizing that we should all think about how our temporary security is often valued more highly than our eternal liberty. This is the type of comedy that reminds me of Lewis Black, where the jokes are purposeful and cause us to reflect on larger social issues.
Retrieved from this site.
This activism-comedy was also apparent in Penn & Teller's card trick. Teller performed sleight of hand magic while Penn played a guitar and told a story about "The Atheist's Deck of Cards." Based on a song by Tex Ritter, Penn & Teller tell the story about an audience member (Teller) who interrupts a physics lecture by Lawrence Krauss (who helped them write the song) and then tells a story using the cards to justify having them at the lecture. I was blown away by the amount of scientific information (which my partner, who is earning his PhD in Cosmology confirmed for me was accurate) packed into the song. From the four fundamental interactions in nature, the cosmological constant, and the size of the universe, the audience were learning about physics while also being mesmerized by Teller's sleight of hand.

Retrieved from this site.
I highly recommend Penn & Teller's show at the Rio. I'm not trying to advertise for them nor am I getting any reimbursement for this review. I am simply hopeful that Penn & Teller, along with other types of "edutainment" can help everyone learn more when they are not expecting it and give audiences chances for reflection and advocacy. Entertainment has aspects of education and can be harnessed to create a more active, engaged public. In a city known for its debauchery, sinfulness, and extravagance, I felt the simplicity and insight of Penn & Teller's show a welcome change of pace.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sexual Anxieties and Horror: Crimson Peak

This is the final installment of my three series set on horror films and sexuality. My first two posts examined Teeth and It Follows. Each of these films embraces female sexuality in different ways that I think deserve scholarly attention. Teeth creates a monstrous feminine that frames female sexuality to be a tool for empowerment that is often suppressed by male domination. It Follows neutralizes sex as an equalizer between the sexes and removes the stigma of promiscuity from female sexual interactions. In this final post, I will unpack the sexual anxieties present in Crimson Peak (2015). As with the last two posts and my other posts about horror films (e.g., The Visit, The Purge: Anarchy), this post will have spoilers and detailed analysis about the film's key ideas.

Movie poster retrieved from IMDB.

To be frank, Crimson Peak was an awkward film to see with my brother. The film addresses incest and the blurred lines of familial love and familial violence. I will discuss the use of incest in the film as well as the romantic aspects of this horror film. I think Guillermo Del Toro has created another horror masterpiece. I do not know if it will stand up to the classics of Pan's Labyrinth, the Devil's Backbone, and The Orphanage, but it does embody an aesthetically pleasing and intoxicating horror story. The main character, Edith, is a timid virgin that falls hopelessly in love with Thomas marries him, and goes to live with him in England. Edith can see ghosts, namely the ghost of her mother, and writes ghost stories inspired by her supernatural abilities. This power is at first terrifying as she finds deformed, blood-soaked ghosts wandering her new home. It becomes clear, however, that these ghosts are warning Edith about her fate and imminent death at the hands of her new spouse and his sister, Lucille. It is revealed that Thomas and Lucille are lovers and have conspired to murder Edith for her father's money. Fighting and blood-stained snow occurs before Edith manages to escape the clutches of the incestuous pair. In what follows, I will bring up a few important points where I find female sexuality explored in interesting ways and sexuality's role in horror. I first briefly address the use of romance in the film, examine the taboo nature of incest, then the character of Lucille, and finally the role of women and traditional gender roles.
Lucille, Thomas, and Edith movie poster. Retrieved from this site.
In Edith's first rejection letter from a publisher, the editor laments that her ghost story does not include enough romance. This small scene was brilliantly added by Del Toro because it sets up the entire rest of the film for the audience to expect romance and not horror. Although Del Toro is the King of Horror and the film was marketed as such, this nearly throwaway line redirects the audience's attention from the ghost story to the romantic plot line. The film is really about Edith's love and, arguably more so, about Lucille's love. The two women have competing love stories that tie them together in a fight to death. Yes there are ghosts and yes there is blood, but the story's forward progress is not fear or anger, but love. Love is also an uncommon theme in horror films; more often it is lust, obsession, revenge, and sex that drives the character's actions. In this move, I think Del Toro does a great service to horror films by reminding contemporary audiences that fear and catharsis is but one aspect of a good story. Indeed, his film's often have the unique ability to incite both fear and awe, horror and hope, anger and sadness.

Del Toro immediately sets up the film so that we are suspect of Thomas and Lucille's intentions. There are secret meetings, unscrupulous attempts to raise money and to blackmail others, and an air of suggestive closeness between the two. At first, I thought perhaps they were married and were using a ruse of being siblings to attract dowries from Thomas's future spouses. The audience's mind, even though offered that they are related, first attempts other explanations to explain their lingering hugs, sideways glances, and Lucille's jealousy. When it is revealed in more explicit detail that Thomas and Lucille are sleeping together, Edith at first cannot believe it and shouts that she knew they were not brother and sister. Lucille responds, "but we are!" Confronted with the information directly before her eyes with knowledge of their deformed child, Edith still reconciles her perceptions with anything but incest. Incest becomes the twist, the plot point that was in front of our eyes the entire film, but we could not yet believe it until it is confirmed by Lucille. Incest is a sexual taboo not often addressed in horror films. It emerged in Here Comes the Devil, another film with a Spanish director, but is not a common media trope. Dysfunctional families and families undergoing trauma are often fodder for horror films, such as We Are What We Are, The Devil's Rejects, Red Dragon, The Babadook, and, of course, Psycho. Del Toro's use of incest and elevating the dysfunctional family to the level of incest draws forth interesting thoughts about how society differentiates between sexuality and love. If Lucille had simply loved her brother without having sex with him, perhaps the implications of their relationship would not be so terrifying.

Lucille taking control. Retrieved from this site.
I think that Lucille could have easily been the hero instead of the villain of the film if her sexuality had been removed from the film by either being Thomas's sister and not having sex with him, or not being his sister. Upon reflection, many of Lucille's actions are ones of pure love and adoration - she murders those who might come between her and Thomas, sacrifices her temporary satisfaction in the relationship to help the family financially, and is jealous of those that compete for Thomas's affection. For example, in Del Toro's other films, we don't fault the mother in The Orphanage for jeopardizing her relationship with her husband in her search for her son. In Mama, we don't question the actions of the lead character for protecting her boyfriends nieces. These familial relationships are honored and understandable, but we do not perceive of Lucille in the same way. Instead, Lucille is evil because her brand of love is taboo. I do not condone incest; it's presence caused me to think about the lines that all humans draw through symbols and communication that separate the sacred and profane. Mircea Eliade argued that religious thought is rooted in human separation between what is sacred and thus revered and worshiped, and what profane or filthy. Much like eating cow if you are Hindu, certain actions and rituals are deemed off limits to remain pious to a particular order. I remember talking in sociology class about how eating human flesh and incest are as close to the two most universal taboo actions in human history, and still they are not universal. Incest is close enough to it, however, that its presence in a narrative immediately defines those who are good and those who are evil. I wonder if this particular sexuality were removed from Lucille, however, that we would hate her so much for her actions. She is fighting for the wrong, most profane, most taboo type of love, whereas Edith's virginity and purity are the foil.

Brother and sister. Retrieved from this site.
These two arguments unfold what I think is the most important part of the film - it's not about Thomas. Although he does receive a good portion of screen time, the film is a war between Edith and Lucille with Thomas as merely a chess piece. You are clearly told through the plot that Thomas has been overwhelmingly influenced by his sister to act as he does and you wonder if Thomas is responsible for any of film's terrors. The audience becomes sympathetic to him as he tries to reconcile his sister with Edith, the new woman he loves. Thomas has no control over the action of the film; even in death he is only a brief distraction that Edith uses to kill Lucille. The female leads trump the "hero" doctor, Alan, who comes to save Edith and only ends up a burden to her as she slowly walks his injured self back to town. The men are ancillary characters to the epic battle between empowered and strong women. They fight for their lives and also for love and normalcy. Unlike the traditional story line of multiple men fighting over a woman like an object, it is Thomas who becomes the target of the audience's gaze as he is pushed and pulled between the two women, unable to control his own emotions and unable to act to protect himself, Alan, Lucille, or Edith. Instead it is Lucille and Edith who take strong, decisive action - they break rules to explore passages, they murder men with their bare hands, they beat and chase each other, they sacrifice their own flesh and blood for what they want.

In these three horror films, I find fascinating and interesting themes about female sexuality and how it can be used as a source of power, can be normalized in everyday life, and can be used to invert traditional roles for women. As I've mentioned in a previous post, one aspect that draws me to the horror genre is its penchant for creativity. Many genres become pigeon-holed in cliche plots that never seem to vary from the boy meets girl or person saves someone from place they aren't supposed to be narratives. In horror, however, I find innovation, inversion, and inquiry into the very aspects of what makes us human, and the different ways that people deal with reality and the supernatural. Unlike other genres, I also think horror addresses sexuality and the line between life and death in unique ways. I'm hopeful that the genre will continue to innovate and push our expectations for what we expect films to do.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sexual Anxieties and Horror: It Follows

Last week, I started a series of three posts about horror films and sexuality. The first week discussed "Teeth" and the complications of sexual purity, education, and consent. This week addresses "It Follows," a 2015 film with a unique and exciting "monster." I will first discuss the film as an innovative step forward in the horror genre. Then, I will praise the film's subtle but profound incorporation of female sexual empowerment. All three of these posts will contain detailed plot information and reflection, so those who do not want to be "spoiled" should skip these posts.

Movie poster retrieved from this site.
It Follows was simultaneously praised as an instant classic and creative horror endeavor. The plot is simple, yet immediately and strikingly unnerving. The film's "monster" is a shape-shifting, unidentified creature that slowly but adamantly walks directly towards its prey. Once caught, the person is ripped to shreds. The creature has no shape of its own; the monster is truly hidden in plain sight, hiding with the appearance of strangers, friends, or family. This set-up has the unique ability to invoke fear in the audience with scenes of people walking towards the camera in the background. What is normally considered an average part of everyday life becomes a potential and immediate threat. Without seeing the film yourself, it is hard to convey the silliness one feels at being completely terrified at a young girl or old woman walking slowly towards you. That is part of the genius of the film; the banal, everyday activities become risky, dangerous, and potentially life-ending. What actions do we participate in everyday, how many people do we cross paths with, that could alter our lives indefinitely? The film also conveys intense paranoia, where anyone approaching the main characters are met with skepticism and aggression before they can be identified. Even when the characters flee the town briefly and relax on the beach, there is an ominous aura that the creature will catch up eventually; any safety is only temporary.

I will now discuss the sexual elements of the film. The "creature" follows individuals based on their sexual partners. The origins of the creature are left quite murky, but, in short, the creature follows whoever the person it was previously following has sex with. Jay, the lead female character, has sex on a date and catches "It." Her sexual partner was kind enough to explain the creature to her and warn her to pass "It" along quickly or else it will kill her. There are certainly undertones of sexual anxiety here. Any sexual partner could result in an STD or pregnancy, which is an obvious metaphor for "It" that silently follows but has the potential to kill. This metaphor breaks down, however, when one thinks of passing the creature to others so that one could be rid of it themselves. STDs are reciprocal and cannot be erased by sex with others. Indeed, this type of thinking is indicative of myths where sex with virgins can cure AIDS. Some have called It Follows as an exercise in sexual fear and anxiety, because of the potential consequences and risks one takes when engaging in sexual activity, especially casually so. Despite these potentially shaming interpretations, I see positive and productive scenes that sexually empower women. I will discuss three of them: when Jay is originally passed "It," the discussions the main characters have about destroying the creature, and the act of following and stalking.

Still from It Follows retrieved from this site.
There is a long-lasting myth that women use sex for power, money, and ulterior motives. The stereotype is that men require sex more and women less, so women can dangle sexual relief as a bargaining chip. I feel no need to explicate why these stereotypes are just that, stereotypes with little practical application. Given this assumption and other sexual myths that circulate in popular culture, I find the scene where Jay is passed the creature by Hugh a welcome inversion. Hugh, a male, is the one using Jay and sex for a non-sexual purpose - to pass the creature along. He dates Jay and acts with a motivation unrelated to the relationship and having sex. Instead, he has sex out of the need for self-preservation, out of fear, not unlike a victim of domestic assault. Instead of the female using sex maliciously or with ulterior motives, Jay enjoys her casual, sexual encounter and we feel no animosity towards her. Instead, our scorn is directed towards Hugh, however briefly, the man who has sex to save his own skin and endangers the main character's life. Sex becomes a betrayal of her consent; Jay got far more than she expected from the encounter. Unlike current arguments about abortion and birth control, we don't feel that Jay's consent to the sexual encounter makes her somehow "deserving" of this fate.

Image retrieved from this site.
After Jay convinces her friend of the danger she is in, they discuss how to kill it. Jay decides and consents to sex with a member of the group to pass the creature along to buy them more time. There is the implication that the male may be better able to protect himself, or simply that this is Jay's sexual preference. Either way, his brutal death confirms for the group that there is no safety based on one's gender. Everyone is equally susceptible to the actions of this creature. Perhaps it is time or death itself that marches towards all of us. Later in the film, Jay has sex with another male friend, who quickly has sex with a prostitute. Sex, in the film, is removed from its traditional, romantic settings. Instead, it becomes a normal part of life that may be engaged in for many reasons besides love. Although we might condemn Hugh at first for his actions, we become accustomed quickly to the idea that if sex is the way "It" operates, sex may also be the solution to defeating it. Jay and Paul have sex from a platonic, friendship type of love, concerned for Jay's safety. This sexual act blossoms into romantic love, but this was not its roots. It Follows presents an alternative view of sex. Unlike Teeth, sex is not dangerous or shameful. There are potential consequences to its engagement, but the danger of "It" is separated and distinct from the sex itself. Sex is a more normalized, everyday activity that holds no more or no less threat than other daily activities. Sex is not given the importance that is provided in Teeth and thus removes the common sex-shaming in horror films and  the "sluts die first" mentality.

Catcalling video mentioned below.

While watching It Follows, I couldn't help but be reminded of the video where a woman filmed herself walking along in New York City for a day. The simple act of walking, of being followed, is a fear that women every day fear. As someone who has been followed from a bus to a Metro being taunted by a man, and on a separate occasion been grabbed by someone approaching from behind (in addition to numerous verbal assaults), the fear and uncertainty of being followed is well communicated in the film. Everyone may not immediately recognize the potential danger in stalkers or people following, but the film illuminates this potential danger. Anyone walking behind the main characters is noticed and understood as a threat. I don't believe that everyone is a potential threat, but it is clear that everyone has the potential to be. Unexpectedly, strangers (and sometimes even friends) can become risks to one's self-hood and safety. And it may begin with a simple act of following.

Image retrieved from this site.
It Follows quickly became one of my favorite horror films. I applaud the interesting and exciting decisions made about the actions and appearance of the creature and greatly enjoyed the sexual themes throughout the film. No film is perfect, and indeed I may have changed a few elements of the film to further its cohesion and consistency, but It Follows communicated a positive, inclusive message that I hope will be furthered in future horror films. Films have the power to influence public opinion and insert educational messages in an entertaining way. The normalization of sex and the empowerment of female sexuality are productive trends in the journey towards equality and sexual freedom.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sexual Anxieties and Horror: Teeth

Sexuality and horror films often go together. They represent the promise of new life, the pleasure of intimacy coupled with the fear of death and the terror of isolation. Beginnings and endings are ideas I am pursuing in my dissertation. I'm interested in how these concepts emerge together in many contemporary controversies. Horror films are another place where beginnings and endings are merged seamlessly. In this three-post series, I take a comparative look at three horror films, Teeth, It Follows, and Crimson Peak. I find a pattern of sexual anxiety and sexual exploration that pushes boundaries of "normal" sexual behavior. If people haven't seen these films, or don't want to be "spoiled," this is a warning that I will be talking about film details and plot elements. These films have captured my imagination because they play with and expand on the agency and power of females, which I think is a positive (and at the very least interesting) trend in contemporary film.

Post image retrieved from this website.
This poster brings up an interesting correlation between Dawn's last name, O'Keefe, and the
association between flowers and vaginas in Georgia O'Keefe's paintings.
Teeth (2007) is about Dawn, an advocacy speaker for the purity movement at her church. When she is raped by a fellow church member, she discovers that she has vagina dentata or a "toothed vagina." These teeth act on their own accord and work to protect Dawn from her rapist, castrating him in a gruesome scene. At first, she is understandably frightened and considers her plight a result of her sin. After research about herself and these teeth, Dawn has an epiphany. Her enlightenment, as indicated by her name and frequent references to the sun, comes in the form of sexual empowerment, where she can use her teeth to her advantage. Although the teeth are not under Dawn's direct control, they do not attack in a scene where Dawn is enjoying consensual sex. When the same sex scene invites Dawn's scorn and rage, the teeth attack and emasculate him. There are certainly problems in this film that disempower Dawn. Dawn does not preemptively attack or fend off potentially negative sexual encounters. For Dawn to fight back in her unique way, she must first be penetrated and submit herself to the sexual advances of men. At the end of the film, Dawn takes refuge in a man's car, who begins licking his lips and making sexual advances towards Dawn. Knowledgeable that the imminent sexual encounter will result in his castration, she smiles.

Dawn at the end of the film. Image retrieved from Rotten Tomatoes.
This film blurs lines of consent in the sense that Dawn "willingly" engages in certain sexual encounters with the knowledge that her teeth would attack her sexual partner. Despite these issues, Teeth does show a sexual empowered female who explores her own sexuality and comes to terms with her unique strength and eroticism. In Audre Lorde's "The Uses of the Erotic," she argues, "the erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plan, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling" (p. 87). The erotic is a power that is oppressed and corrupted by dominant power structures to keep women from realizing its power. For Dawn, the religious group is the source of oppression, where her sexual power is "vilified, abused, and devalued" (p. 88). Issues of purity and virginity are non-identities, where a lack of participation (such as atheism or vegetarianism) in an action indicates membership. Lorde argues that this oppression keeps women "in the service of men" as "a distant/inferior" person (p. 88). Teeth offers Dawn the opportunity to reclaim her sexuality and eroticism from men who take advantage of her and only see her as a sexual object. Dawn transforms from a meek virgin to an empowered crusader throughout the film, in part from her increased knowledge about sexuality and the body. In one scene, Dawn removes a sticker (shaped liked a golden sun) from her sex ed textbook covering the anatomy of the vagina. The film makes a strong statement that her religious upbringing and lack of accurate and complete sexual education directly leads to her vulnerable, naive condition. It is through knowledge and an enlightenment religion that Dawn becomes a more powerful female. Lorde argues that when women embrace the erotic, they "rise up empowered" (p. 88).

Image retrieved from this website.
With that empowerment, however, comes scorn. Lorde said, "women so empowered are dangerous" (p. 88). Women who claim power and dare to challenge the system, as seen in the new movie Suffragette, they receive backlash. The contemporary feminist movement is often accused of grasping for more than women are due, that attempts at "equality" are really clothed attempts at dominance. Similar to arguments about affirmative action, those that oppose feminism truly fear losing their place in the system or damaging what is deemed "normal," and thus the desired order. In a recent r/ChangeMyView post on Reddit, a female redditor claimed that "Men are superior to women." Her reasons were because of men and women's physical differences and also the presence of men in more challenging/intellectual jobs. It's clear to me that even disturbances in an order that disadvantages women receives scorn from women themselves. If everyone is equal, perhaps there is no reason other than our own shortcomings to blame on our failures. Or, if everyone is equal, then perhaps our successes are not as meaningful as others. In a powerful article by Carole Blair, Julie R. Brown, and Leslie A. Baxter, they argue that the academic review process, filled with intelligent and intellectual women, is also a biased space. They respond to an article that ranks the publication count of female communication scholars and rejection letters they received on an earlier version of the article. Their attempt to challenge the ranking article was met with scorn and rejection from both male and female reviewers. They argue that the original report "is a thematic marker of a masculinist ideology and that the anonymous reviews of our original essay are unusually explicit manifestations of the apparatuses that sustain and enable those ideological themes" (p. 384).

Teeth brings up these important issues of female agency and how sexuality can be used as a force of attraction but also creating fear. This film puts an interesting spin on how female sexuality can itself be a weapon, the monstrous female fighting back with the strength of her form. I see many movies that laud the adjusted or upgraded female, such as Aeon Flux and Ultraviolet, but less often do I see films that empower the everyday female to fight back. There are definitely a notable few which I hope to address in a later post. As recent articles have suggested, it is oftentimes females who end up surviving horror films, oftentimes with the help and intervention of others. Teeth, however, empowers the female protagonist to use not only her self, but her sexual self, to survive.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Pope Francis and the Environmental Movement: "The Pope is Pando"

On Friday, September 25th, I attended an event at the USC Caruso Catholic Center hosted by many organizations including Pando Populus. This organization takes it name from the pando tree and describes its significance on its website: "Above ground, Pando appears to be a vast grove of individual trees. Underground they are all interconnected through a single root system. Each part is affected by and nourishes the other. It has survived this way for as long as 80,000 years." The pando tree is a synecdoche for the interconnectedness of all life and an analogy for how we must work together to correct the damage done to our environment.

Image retrieved from this site.
The event was held in support of Pope Francis's visit to Washington D.C. and the release of his encyclical "Laudato Si." The event was religious-themed with the Bishop Mary Douglas Glasspool representing the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, held in a Catholic Church, with speakers from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Faith2Green, and Interfaith Power and Light. The theme, "The Pope is Pando" lauded the work of Francis as a figurehead and representative of how religion can be a uniting force for environmental activism. I've previously discussed the rhetoric of creation care as an emerging social movement with the potential power to tip the scales in favor of larger influence. While the group I studied was primarily evangelical rhetoric, it's clear that many religions are finding common ground in the spiritual to influence their view of the natural.

Logo for the Pope is Pando event. Retrieved from this site.
In Francis's encyclical, he made repeated mention of an "integral ecology" where life is integrated in a familial metaphor. Common to Catholic and Christian rhetoric, the familial metaphor connects people and faith leaders as fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers. Francis incorporates the environment in the familial metaphor as shared children in God's creation. He argued that the Earth and nature are female family members: "our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us" (p. 3). The feminization of "Mother Earth" is a phenomenon I would like to explore in a different blog post. For now, I will say that emphasizing the femininity of nature implies vulnerability in need of our protection and to motivate us to save her as one might a damsel in distress. Francis argued, "This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her" (p. 3). If we are all interconnected - a united organism - then a threat to one part of it is a threat to the whole. Faith appears to be one way that people are transcending differences in order to focus attention away from economics and politics and onto justice, morality, and the environment.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Rape Myths still Happen Here: Sexual Assault on College Campuses

It has been a few weeks since my last post. I've been hard at work at job applications and this post has been particularly difficult to write. This post is about a movie screening of "It Happened Here" held at USC. The movie addresses issues of sexual assault on college campuses and the effects on students there. "The Hunting Ground" is another recent movie that addresses these concerns and I recommend both of them to people interested in delving more into real life experiences and stories of those affected by sexual assault and rape. I will first summarize the reasons why I find films like these extremely important and the rhetorical techniques they used to communicate their message. Then, I will discuss the prevalence of rape myths and why I had to walk out of the Q&A at the movie screening.

IHH and THG tell the larger story of rape and sexual assault that plagues women across the country through the individual stories of a handful of women. The startling statistics that 1 in 5 women are victims of sexual assault during their time in college are presented through the voices of the few. These exemplars add detail, nuance, and a face to the victims of this particular crime. Statistics can often feel cold or unpersuasive - especially if people do not (think they) know anyone affected. There are many reasons why people may not want to share their story, so these crimes may appear anonymously in public discourse - or we only hear the amplified stories of the very few that are false. Kenneth Burke argued that the "circumference" of an event affects its communicative influence. The circumference is related to what counts as the event or environment for an action. For example, if we expand the circumference of "bullying" from only in person to also online and cyber-bullying, the term can take on a whole new meaning. In these films, they seem to be narrowing the circumference, and showing only a few campuses and a few women as stand-ins, or synecdoche, for all college-aged women. The audience is forced to engage and experience the narratives of each woman and, at least in part, sympathize with their situation.

Angie Epifano - one of the storytellers in IHH. Image retrieved from the IHH website.
The two films showed a variety of people affected by sexual assault and rape. There were women who had been drunk, those sober. Some women were at a party, some were victims in their own dorm rooms. Some didn't know their attacker, others were assaulted by friends and significant others. The variation in stories gave the impression that rape and sexual assault happen in many different ways to many different types of people. THG contained a few stories from men who had experienced rape or sexual assault. Overall, the individual narratives united to create a holistic view of sexual assault and college life. The films could have easily focused on the past and fetishized the experiences of the story-tellers. Both films, however, emphasized the present and even the future, choosing to spend most of the films engaged in the reactions of the college administrators and the steps the women were taking to combat future sexual assaults at their universities and across the nation. Descriptions of the assaults were left in the victim's own words and comprised very little of the movie's time. Instead, the films focused on the larger impact of these occurrences and how the women were working to reclaim their voice through campus events and protests (like Take Back the Night) and Title IX lawsuits. I have previously argued, among many others, that documentary films have an immense power to shift public discourse. These films are certainly persuasive and advance an argument, but they also provide real life examples packaged for public consumption. I hope that films like this will help to shift how people talk about sexual assault and rape.

Image retrieved from this website.
My optimism upon seeing this film and reflecting upon it and THG was almost immediately tempered during the Q&A. I first want to thank Director Lisa F. Jackson for attending the screening and handling two audiences members with aplomb and respect. It was far better than I would have done in that position. There was a couple in the back of the auditorium that dominated the Q&A session. As I told people of the event and even as I write it now, I am convinced no one will believe me. They presented a startling cliche of rape myths and expressed my greatest fear - that the film could not soften the hardened distrust of women and rape victims in the public. This is a warming that the following description of the Q&A may be triggering.

The gentleman in the back of the room raised his hand and was called on with the first question. He started his question with a preface about how he was the eldest brother of four sisters. Thinking back, this should have been an immediate red flag a la "I have a lot of black friends" before racists start talking. He asked Jackson why she didn't include any stories of false reporters and those who lied about their assault. He noted that this would have been more "fair" to share "both sides" of the story. Media representations of controversial events are often framed as debates, where there are two equally balanced sides. Similar to John Oliver's report on global warming, Jackson argued that there are so few false reports that giving them space in the film would not be reflective of the overarching narrative. Indeed, the number of false rape reports mirrors the false reports for other crimes. I groaned a bit at his question and I saw a few people shifting in their seats, but so far, it was bearable.

Image retrieved from this website.
A few other people asked questions, but my friend in the back wasn't done. He raised his hand and asked whether women don't "disassociate" themselves from the event while its happening and then "forget" in the morning that the activity was consensual. Perhaps, when reflecting on the event, women "make up" a story to make themselves feel better. It was "obvious" from the film that some of the women couldn't remember a lot of details, and that was an indicator that they were lying as opposed to those that would have a factually accurate and complete story. The women had "wanted" the attention initially, but then regretted the potential effect it would have on their "reputation" and thus cried rape afterwards. Everyone had turned to look at him, and I asked, "Are you serious?" The woman a few seats away from me said, "You're victim blaming." This person, sitting through the entire film, seeing women share their painful stories, hearing the statistics about the frequency of this crime, and learning about how the system fails victims, held fast to his beliefs that it was the victim who was at fault.

In response, a brave woman in the front of the room shared her story of assault and noted that there were probably more women like her in the audience as well. She wondered whether it was the larger culture that encouraged this type of behavior and rewarded men for aggressive behaviors. Our friend raised his hand once more and it was all I could do not to interrupt and claim the microphone back for the female voices in the room. As he received the microphone again, a handful of women left the room. The man echoed the concerns of the previous speaker and talked about the powerful force of masculinity over the mind. He argued that men are not at fault at all and it is really their sexual drives, natural to all men, that are at fault. This man was truly a sight to behold. Some of the most common rape myths that pervade our culture and insidiously undermine the stories of those brave enough to speak out. In retrospect, I'm surprised that he didn't ask what the women in the film were wearing when they were assaulted.

Lady Gaga's music video, "Til it Happens to You" about sexual assault

I mentioned that this person was a part of a couple because at this point, she spoke up. She asked Jackson why more women don't go to the cops right away to have their story verified. She said that the issue of lying and false reporting would be eliminated by lie detector tests. I applaud Jackson for ignoring the absurd part of this question and focused on the many reasons why women may not feel comfortable going to the police and how we might create changes in police protocols. The response I wanted to give, but could not muster the strength to, was to say that all women experience trauma differently. Expecting anyone to submit themselves to being tied up in a chair being asked probing questions about their assault shortly afterwards is completely illogical. Furthermore, lie detector tests measure nervousness and heart rate to detect lying, two things basically guaranteed to happen after an assault. There is a reason why they aren't used in criminal justice systems - they are not accurate enough. This woman echoed her partner's concerns that the victim should be analyzed and be on trial for being assaulted.

I was deeply hurt but this couple's comments and had to leave the audience when the man raised his hand again. He was overpowering all of our collective voices and challenging the basic tenets of what I felt was an excellent film. The Q&A experience highlighted for me that there is still a lot of work to be done to change the minds of many members of the public. This films are making important strides, but rape myths and dominating ideologies can be intractable parts of culture.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"The Visit," Race, and Disability

I recently saw a pre-screening of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Visit" at USC. I was excited to see the film because the trailer looked creepy and, as others have noted, this was potentially a epic comeback for the director. I am a fan of horror movies, so even without the hype, I probably would have gone to see it. I have to say that while it is better than many of Shyamalan's movies, I was very disappointed with the film. I am not going to "spoil" the cliché Shyamalan twist, but address the three main problems I had with the film.  First, I will address my small concerns about the flow of the movie and its stylistic choices. I also was concerned by its attempts to corner the "comedy horror" genre through racial appropriation. Finally, I find problematic the use of disability as the catalyst for shock moments. Although there are no spoilers, I will discuss some scenes of the film in detail.

The appeal of the first-person, found footage horror films has waned for me. Original uses, such as the Blair Witch Project, were pioneers in filmmaking style. Other films made great use of the medium, such as the V/H/S series. I also found that this style worked for the gritty and entertaining As Above So Below. For most movies, however, I feel that the found footage genre reduces the thrills that it tries to engage. The camera angles and the following of the drama is completely limited by one of the characters moving it or its placement in a fixed position. Thus, the camera is either a static frame or is missing a character. Because the camera reacts with the character, frightening sequences are often cut short. In The Visit, the two children often interrupt or come across their grandma in various aggressive or startling actions. The audience, however, gets barely a glimpse before the main characters run away in fear. What could be longer, thrilling scenes turn into brief "shock" moments where the music amps up and something flashes before the screen. This type of horror tricks seems quite overplayed, where there are far more intriguing moments of horror in present day films. I hope to discuss It Follows more in an upcoming post, but I will note briefly here that it makes fabulous use of every day activities and long scenes where there is immense building of terror and suspense. Another great contemporary example is The Babadook, where the female protagonist bravely encounters the ghoul in her home in long, terrifying battle, instead of a brief flash in a window or doorway.

Image retrieved from Wikipedia
Image retrieved from this site.

Now that I've indulged my pure opinions on the horror genre, I will now engage more theoretically motivated concerns. While I did find The Visit funny (Katy Perry!), the humor was mostly nested in appropriating black culture and the juxtaposition between freestyle culture and a young, white boy. The younger brother in the film, Tyler, adopts the style, mannerisms, and attitude of black culture for the purpose of comedic relief. Comedy and horror often go together. For example, the iconic Evil Dead series could seamlessly make you laugh while you were terrified and a bit uneasy. This is epitomized in the Evil Dead 2 (my favorite of the series) scene in which the items in the cabin start laughing along with Ash - frightening and yet you cannot help but laugh along. Another one of my favorite horror films, Cabin in the Woods, makes you pause for reflecting at our own fascination with horror. The office party scene epitomizes the movie's brilliant satire work (and its opening is delightfully Funny Games-esque). Instead, the comedy in The Visit is pure relief, with no purpose behind it but to distract from what we just saw (brief as it already was) or poke fun at the disabled grandparents. I will discuss more about the grandparents later, but first I want to further discuss Tyler's character.

Image of Tyler in The Visit. Retrieved from this site.
The character is quite sweet and has his vulnerable moments where he seeks his sister's comfort. More often than not, Tyler draws his strength through his impersonation of black culture. As The Wrap's review noted, scenes where Tyler raps about women and sex are "burp[s] of coarse comedy." They seem out of place and forced, as if the only thing funny about the situation is that a young white boy might imitate gangster culture. This imitation, however, appropriates a different culture and undermines its history and purpose. The scene where Tyler raps on the train next to a black men, who is a worker on the train, is truly cringe-worthy. Kenneth Burke called this "perspective by incongruity" - where a word is applied in a completely new context and given a new meaning. What was once a unique part of black culture is now applied in a different context - a juxtaposition that creates humor. The humor is crude and appropriates black culture and further distracts from what could have been intriguing horror scenes.

Terror - supposedly, from a scene in The Visit. Retrieved from this site.
More central to the plot of the film is the mental and physical condition of the grandparents. The mother, who they Skype with, frequently brush off erratic behavior as "old people problems" and nothing out of the ordinary. Incontinence, memory loss, confusion, and generally odd behaviors are boiled down to "normal" plights of the elderly. Natural, elderly bodies become a source of scorn and disgust because of there differing abilities. In one scene, Tyler follows his grandfather to a hut, where Tyler thinks he is hiding "secrets." To recall the horror of "what's in the box?" among this reveal is truly embarrassing. The hut does not contain dismembered bodies, secret writings, or clues to a great family mystery. Instead, it contains the grandfather's incontinent diapers. The thrilling sequence of entering the space and watching for the grandfather's return is let down by the "big reveal." At points, I felt quite bad for the grandparents, who were constantly pestered by the granddaughter, Rebecca's, video camera. In an interview with the grandmother, Rebecca repeatedly asked her what happened on the day Rebecca's mother left the house. The grandmother responded many times with sadness, confusion, and aggressive outbursts; this event had obviously caused her great stress and trauma. I felt pity where Shyamalan wanted me to be frightened. But, I wasn't. I wasn't frightened by the effects of aging and sometimes erratic confusion caused by people who may have Alzheimer's or another disorder.

The "evil" in the film is simply that: being old. There is no evil spirit, motivated killer, or other source of evil besides the mentally and physically disabled. And that is a horror trope I simply cannot support: that the elderly and differently-abled are a source of evil and horror. Shyamalan sets up the elderly as the "other"; the ones against which the main characters (and thus the audience) contrasts our identity. But, one day, we may all experience these same problems and I hope that we are met with comfort and appreciation instead of fear and isolation. For those who have seen the movie, I am aware that there is more going on than simple aging. Despite this fact, I believe that this film constructs a rhetorical framework that isolates the elderly and reifies ability as normal.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Food Culture and Masculinity in China: Surviving as a Vegetarian

When I went to live in China for three weeks, I knew that being a vegetarian would be hard. All of the blog posts I read warned me of the lack of options, difficulty in communicating dietary needs, and frustration with the lack of translations on menus and in stores. Only a few articles discussed China's Buddhist history and praised China's openness to vegetarians. With my handy printed copies of Chinese words and characters and pictures of animals with red X'ed circles, I went out prepared to let everyone know "wo chi su" - I eat vegetables. What I wasn't prepared for was how many of my food decisions weren't made for me - and how masculinity and food culture are intertwined in Beijing, China.

Flight into China.
Before I elaborate on the previous statement, I do want to say that I greatly enjoyed my time in China, am grateful for the opportunity, and am deeply indebted to my hosts there and the many friends that I made. This post is not about my overall experience, but about the unique difficulties I had as a lacto-ovo vegetarian (no meat, fish, or poultry, yes to eggs and dairy) in Beijing. The food I did have was delicious and I think future vegetarian travelers (and travelers in general) can benefit from learning more about Chinese food culture.

At many of the restaurants I went to in China, large groups were given private rooms with huge round tables with a rotating plate in the center. Family-style restaurants are usually a niche market in the US, but it was the standard practice for Chinese restaurants. In those settings, the communal nature of China brought me face-to-face with my own individualistic tendencies. Even in the US, family-style means taking food from communal pots and placing it on individual plates. We had personal plates in China, but more often than not, the people at the table would take food directly from the communal plates into the mouth. The most dexterous man I saw would pop individual peanuts covered in sauce from the bowl to his mouth without dropping a single one. Those who use have tried using chopsticks know how difficult this is. The avoidance of personal plates signified that the meal was everyone's. There was no "hoarding" of favorite plates or claiming ownership over food by amassing it in front of you. Instead, everyone was patient, waited for the food to rotate, and grabbed what we needed as it passed.

Picture of fermented egg on tofu, a vegetarian Chinese specialty.

For me, it could be a long wait for what I needed to come around, and a few times I felt compelled to break the personal plate rule and accumulate stray mushrooms and pieces of eggplant. At a communal table, there was no individually-owned items, so everyone took from meat dishes and vegetarian ones, even if I could only take from a few. For the Chinese, this wasn't an issue because over-ordering is the norm. No plates are ever left completely empty - it is considered rude. So instead, the staff will dump the remaining pieces on one shared plate to save space for the many more dishes to come. On many occasions, vegetable dishes that were ordered had meat sauces, chunks, or components. I completely understand the need to be flexible when traveling, but for someone who was raised vegetarian, those dishes can make me extremely sick.

My blog post promised some musings about masculinity and patriarchy - and here it comes. The Chinese food culture was communal, but the head of the table was the boss. During our first meal in China, a fellow American sat at the back seat facing the door. I think this is a common practice in the US, as it is the most difficult seat to get to, so if often taken first to avoid inconveniencing others. Our advisor, however, encouraged him to move, unless he "wanted to pick up the tab" for our table of 15. The host paid the bill for the entire table; "splitting" checks was not common, but sometimes at smaller outings we would throw money into a communal payment pot. For the three weeks I was in China, the host was female one time, when we dined with the director of the school the group was teaching at. The other nights were all male hosts who oftentimes spoke little to no English. This made communicating to them my dietary concerns quite difficult and I sometimes felt that my request was treated flippantly or as unimportant.

Picture of the Night Market in Beijing, where they sold scorpions, snakes, starfish, and many other things on a stick.
What the hosts ordered, we had to eat and drink, including alcohol when it was not desired. We were told when to take food, when to drink, and how much of what we could have. I was offered meat (usually Peking Duck) many, many times, and found it difficult to explain to my hosts why I refused their very generous offers. A few hosts got quite upset and raised their voices while my advisor tried to explain the situation and encouraged me to try "just a little bit" to appease the hosts. I don't fault anyone for the situation; it's really a classic case of cultural clash and miscommunication. It's rude for me to refuse food and drink in Chinese culture; it's rude for people to force food and drink on people who don't want it in American culture. For both cultures, it's a matter of respect, either to the hierarchy of the community, or the power of the individual.

I saw, very often, women at the table, including myself, struggling to refuse alcohol. Chinese dinners, especially business ones, were filled with alcohol. And it was no one's choice when to drink but the host, who would stand, make a speech, and demand that everyone finish their glass. To not follow the call of "gānbēi!" by downing your drink was considered a rejection of the toaster's well-wishes. Furthermore, the host and other guests would often move around the table and toast everyone individually - meaning a toaster could go through a shot of alcohol (caled baiju) for each guest present. The male hosts were often complimentary to the female guests' looks, which emphasized my and my other American female companion's "exoticness." Those hosts would often touch, hug, or try to kiss us, as complete strangers, without warning.

I greatly enjoyed my time in China, but dinners were often wrought with nerves. Would the host order something I could eat? Would this meal have "secret meat" in it? Would we do a lot of toasts? Would I be given baiju instead of something I want to drink? Would the host make advances on myself or my friend? Would the host get angry if I refused his offer of Peking duck? If there were vegetarian food, would other people eat it before I could have any?

Obligatory panda photo
My favorite foods in China were the stewed eggplant, assorted mushrooms (sometimes called tree and ground fungus), and baozi (vegetable filled and steamed buns). I greatly enjoyed their variety of fruits such as jackfruit (inspiration for Juicy Fruit gum) and trying interesting-tasting fruit like durian. It was an adventure that I will never forget and I hope to go back soon. The food culture, in particular, made me reflect on the differences between China and America and the challenges of establishing a global community.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Pedagogy Experiments: Grading in Public Speaking

In the beginning of Summer 2015, I taught COMM 204: Public Speaking to ten amazing undergraduate students. We tackled many important topics, such as logical fallacies, overcoming communication anxiety, and building sound, reasoned arguments. A few weeks before the course, one of my friends and colleagues, Kari Storla, forwarded me an article about autonomy and self-grading in the classroom. My first thought was dismay, shock, and disgust - let students....grade...themselves? It seemed like a ridiculous and pointless idea.

Image retrieved from this site.
But, after my gut reaction passed, I thought that public speaking might be the perfect course to tackle this interesting and innovative idea. I drafted a 25/25/50 rule: each student self-graded up to 25 points, the peer grades were averaged out of 25, and I provided the remaining 50. The article noted that few professors give scores below 50%. If 50% is given automatically, why not give the students some autonomy and control over that experience? I gave it a shot and this is what happened.

Overall, I found that the students were quite fair to themselves and their classmates. With the knowledge that everyone was peer-grading, there was a collective dependence on giving everyone decent scores. I averaged grades and all scores were anonymous, but the students still felt responsible for creating a supportive and welcoming environment. Even when comments were quite harsh, "This didn't really address the prompt, not sure I understood it," students (except for 1) still never graded below a 20/25. Across all speeches, there was agreement between the student self grade and the peer grade. Students, on average, gave themselves a 23.6 and the class gave them a 23.4. Even given the opportunity, only 1 student gave themselves perfect 25/25 across all 4 speeches. This same student also received the highest peer grades and the highest score in the course, despite the student having the third highest score from myself, on average.

Image retrieved from this site.
There were no statistically significant differences between grades and a student's race, but there were some interesting patterns. The top three peer graded students were Caucasian while the lowest three were students of color. Overall, though, the peer grades spanned 24.4 to 22.8, a difference of 6%, which could bump a student half a grade. The students of color were also more likely to give themselves lower peer grades. For example, the lowest average self grades, 22.25/25, 22.88/25, and 23.50/25 were all students of color (and two international students). One student (briefly mentioned above) gave consistent low scores to two students of color, averaging a 19.3/25 and 18.2/25. These discrepancies and outlying scores did not affect the overall student average nor did it vary significantly from peers. Because of the low number of students in the class, teachers may want to keep potential biases in mind (for themselves and students participating in peer grading).

Image retrieved from this site.
The self- and peer- grading was done through an app that I previously wrote a post about: Socrative. In the past, I used this app for pop quizzes and anonymous feedback, but in Public Speaking, I used it for immediate scoring of students after speeches. I did not allow technology use during speeches, but started the Socrative quiz for students to give feedback out of 25, with both positive comments and constructive criticism.

I also used Socrative to asked students how they liked the self- and peer- grading. In response to the questions, "I like the method of self and peer grading in COMM 204 this summer," all students responded "Agree" or "Strongly Agree." In response to "I felt like I had more control over my grade because of the self and peer grading policy," I only had 2 neutrals, with the rest "Agree" and "Strongly Agree." In response to "The self and peer grading makes the grading process more fair than just having a teacher grade," I had one neutral response and the rest "Agree" and "Strongly Agree." I had the same one neutral student in response to "I felt that my classmates and myself were reasonable and accurate graders." Students were more neutral towards, "I think that peer and self grading could work in other COMM classes," with four neutrals and the rest, "Agree" and "Strongly Agree." The students all marked "Agree" or "Strongly Agree" with "The self and peer grading policy has positively affected my experience in COMM 204."

Image retrieved from this site.
In the comments, the students were quite candid about how they marked themselves and others. One student admitted, "I felt that I was obviously more bias about grading myself than my peers. I tried to be as unbias[ed] as possible, but I think it was easier for me to mark someone off for something than myself." One student noted the potential risk, "It's an interesting system to implement, although it also relies on the assumption that your classmates also grade you honestly and fairly." Other students saw the process as very beneficial: "Getting to know peer and teacher feedback helps improve and motivate me and helped me boost my confidence."

Overall, I think this experiment was a success. The students responded positively to the policy, despite concerns at first. I was sure to emphasize the community aspects of the course and how important it was to be both fair and supportive. I think this helped the students see the benefit of engaging with this grading system and giving their full attention to their peers. I could imagine this process working well in other classes that might do presentations. In COMM 206: Communication and Culture in Spring 2015, I had many students mentally check out during student presentations about readings. If the students were tasked with grading, however, and knew that they would be as well, perhaps they would pay more attention to their peers. I'm happy that I experimented with this teaching experiment and would encourage students in a Public Speaking or other presentation-heavy course to try it out as well.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Research Blog Update: More to Come

This is a quick post update to explain the lack of weekly posts. My summer was filled with travel, conferences, and vacation, so I took a break from the blog.

The blog starts back up this Sunday, where I will begin writing a series of posts about things I noticed about my travels, particularly cultural differences in China, my experiences teaching, public memory in the UK, movies I've watched, and general comments on public deliberation and culture.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

I'm Blacker than Rachel Dolezal: Race, Identity, and Transracial Bodies

I meant to publish this post on Sunday, but I couldn't even remotely wrap my head around the twists and turns in the Rachel Dolezal story to make a coherent blog post. With the extra time to think, this may come closer. As a white, cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual woman - I know that I fall victim to the same privileges of Dolezal and many people commenting on this story. I hope that my voice comes across as an ally and curious academic instead of offensive.

Dolezal as a white and black woman. Retrieved from CNN.
Let's start with the facts (or as close as we can get). Dolezal's parents are Caucasian and her heritage is made up of German, Swedish, and Czech ancestry. She went to Howard University and then got a job in Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University and became a chapter leader in the NAACP in Spokane, Washington. This is a relatively uninteresting history, even for a white person. There are no rules about who is allowed to teach what type of courses and many white people have been prominent actors in the NAACP. White women have taught courses about black women and men have taught feminist theory classes. Academic knowledge about these subjects is not exclusive. Of course, there are benefits to having professors who can address these perspectives from a particular standpoint, but having allies address these topics is also beneficial.

What, then, is the issue? The issue is that Dolezal, despite being a white woman, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white woman at that, identifies and presented herself as a black woman. Dolezal's birth race did not jibe with the identity that she wished to portray, so she performed the identity of an African American. Many people believe that race, gender, and sexuality are social constructs - they are performed behaviors and identities that communicate to others who and what we are. Dolezal decided to perform and go through life (at least for those ten years) as an African American.

Prince Koyangi's first Tumblr post with profile picture. Retrieved from this site.
For those who were as confused as I was by this discovery of a potentially "transracial" person, I am going to walk through my thought process on the matter. I am aware this term traditionally refers to transracial adoption, where birth parents are of a different race than their children. The term was first brought to my attention, however, through the excellent work of friend and colleague, Alex Sastre. She discussed the transracial/transethnic Tumblr case of Prince Koyangi. For me, this term linguistically matches a similar, but different phenomenon in transgender people. I do not wish to make this comparison, at least in a fully equal sense, but I do want to explain the difficulties for people, and perhaps especially cisgender white people, to unpack the trans* identity.

One thing that I initially noted was a similarity in language between how news sites and people on Facebook were responding to Dolezal's actions. For me, terms like "impostor," "deceived," "pretended," "misleading," "lied," and others echoed claims that transgender people are somehow lying or deceiving people with impure motivations. One need only recall the disgusting words of Mike Huckabee in response to Caitlyn Jenner's announcement: "Now I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE." These accusations assume that people are deceitful in their gender identity for the purpose of advantage in some way.

People began to talk about Dolezal in this same manner - that posing as black would somehow benefit her in her job prospects and appointment in the NAACP. A poignant note here is, as others have pointed out, that Dolezal potentially took that appointment away from a woman of color. There are other reports that Dolezal faked hate crimes against her to garner sympathy. Certainly, these are negative, consequential, and deceitful actions. But does that mean that transracial people do not exist?

A friend and colleague, Kari Storla, emailed me the above video by a black, trans*female vlogger, Kat Blaque. I appreciated the link and spent a lot of time thinking about Blaque's arguments. For me, I couldn't get past the apparent hypocrisy - Blaque was telling her truth, but was denying the possibility that Dolezal was telling hers. Isn't it really a matter of personal identity that is not something that any of us can determine? How is it Blaque's or any of our responsibilities to tell Dolezal that she is in fact lying and we are the ones with truth? When Dolezal says, that she "identifies" as a black woman, why do we not take her at her word? Many trans*people discover their identities later in life and some may never transition in an aesthetically explicit way for many reasons such as safety, finances, or personal choice. Dolezal certainly identified as white when she sued Howard for racial discrimination, but perhaps she discovered her identity later in life?

Any way I sliced it, I couldn't see a tangible difference between transgender and transracial individuals, despite a gut instinct that they were different. There are many times when my personal opinion towards something (that Dolezal is crazy and this can't possibly be a thing) is offset by my intellectual musings. There must be a reason to my nagging doubts, right? A small epiphany occurred during a conversation with my partner. We discussed the idea of privilege and how men transition into women and Dolezal transitioned into a black woman. We discussed ideas of passing and that some people can transition into the other gender more easily than others, can "pass" as something they are not. We discussed how I am a Caucasian woman and would never be mistaken for something else, despite having African ancestry. We discussed how people like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, and even Stuart Hall, will never be anything but black men.

Cartoon explanation of white privilege. Retrieved from this site.
That's when it clicked - transgender people reflect a spectrum of identities. Trans*people identity as male-to-female, female-to-male, gender fluid, agender, and many other evolving labels. But, the idea of transracial-ness is distinctively a privilege of whites. Whites can "put on" and appropriate the culture of other races, and have for centuries. They are able to do this, as Richard Dyer notes, because they are the center, the normal, the non-race. If a black woman adopts a white hairstyle and bleaches her skin, she will never be anything but a black woman. But, if a white woman adopts a black hairstyle and a tan, she can be (and was) perceived as black. This lack of equality, of cross-racial mobility, solidified my opinion. Dolezal is not transracial, she is not a black woman, but a white woman who has appropriated black culture for personal reasons. There is no trans*ness about being transracial, because the privilege is reserved for those able to adopt the races of others - whites. I am still musing about this topic, but thinking through Dolezal's story has enlightened me about the different ways that white privilege functions in today's society.

This post certainly ignores other complicated aspects of this story such as historical racism, biological determinants of race, and blackface. Those are all important points as well that I do not mean to undermine. They did not, however, play a role in clarifying for me why the Dolezal story is so disturbing and yet simultaneously worthy of philosophical discussion. This story will probably engage more people as more facts are learned and I hope that it culminates in more important conversations about race and its tangible effects on life and society. It also brings attention to the unending struggle between the mind and body and the danger of not conforming with society's expectations.