This is not justice

It has been two weeks since Jeronimo Yanez was found not guilty in the death of Philando Castile.

He had been charged with second-degree manslaughter (specifically meaning the defendant caused a death through recklessness) and endangering safety by discharging a firearm.

And I repeat: Yanez was cleared on all charges.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when an officer uses a weapon and it results in somebody’s death, it seems like that somebody’s safety has definitely been ‘endangered’.

We should be enraged at the implication that the court did not even consider Philando a somebody.  He worked at a school.  People knew him.  People loved him.  I was teaching in Minnesota when the shooting took place, and some of my kids had had many interactions with him.  They lived just blocks from where all this took place.

But this is the thing with black bodies: the state does all it can to avoid recognizing them as human.  Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was in the car when the officer shot him, and began livestreaming immediately afterwards.  You can hear her, sitting next to her boyfriend’s bloody body, saying, “You shot four bullets into him, sir.”  She says ‘sir‘.  She says ‘sir’ at the end of every one of her sentences.  In the midst of this traumatic and horrific moment, Diamond Reynolds had the presence of mind to use to term of respect and deference to the man who had just shot her boyfriend.  This shows both great strength on her part, and the depth to which people of color know that their survival depends on successful and defused interactions with the police.  You find this lesson again and again in black history.  To be considered even barely human, people of color must follow all of the rules of white society better than perfectly.  At the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, black students wore their Sunday best to sit-ins.  Women got their hair done each time.  And still, for all this ‘civilized’ behavior, they were spit on and attacked and screamed at.

Perhaps Philando had a gun in the car (which, under the 2nd Amendment, mind you, is perfectly legal).  Perhaps he had marijuana.  These ought to be irrelevant details, because had Philando Castile been white, they would not have gotten him killed.  At worst, he would have been fined.

A few months after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I remember having a conversation with my mother about the officer, Darren Wilson.  He claimed that he had been frightened for his own safety when he shot Brown.  We sat in a Panda Express watching him speak on Fox News, and discussed how this murder was racially motivated even while from his own perspective, Wilson was likely telling the absolute truth about being afraid.  The stereotype of black men as dangerous and violent is so deep and so ingrained in the American imagination, that when Wilson encountered Michael Brown, all of these unconscious alarms started going off in his head.  I do not doubt his fear was real.  But its basis is a lie constructed on centuries of oppression.  As wrong, as terrible as his actions were, I could follow the logic that had motivated Darren Wilson.

I feel no such empathy now.

There have been too many acquittals, too many repetitions.  The precedent is now that police officers that kill people of color face no repercussions.  They are overwhelmingly found innocent and sent on their way, and nothing changes, and black people keep dying.  They’re often not even charged of murder.

Yanez faced the charge of second-degree manslaughter.  Recklessness resulting in death.  But keep in mind, Yanez shot Castile not once, not twice, but four times.  How can recklessness possibly explain pulling the trigger four times?  It can hardly be considered an accident.

I feel no such empathy, because we cannot keep explaining away individual cop’s motivations, their trains of logic.  The fact that this keeps happening, despite media coverage, despite protests, despite literal footage of cops shooting African Americans with zero justification, and that they keep getting away with it, is indicative of a far, far, far larger problem systemic in America’s policing and judicial institutions.  They are by nature, racially biased.

Philando Castile was guilty of nothing.  He was reaching for his wallet, like he was asked by Jeronimo Yanez, like you are supposed to do when you get pulled over by a cop.  For that, he was killed, and for that there has been no justice.  These are murders, straight up.  The longer we deny that, the closer we get each day to court-excused genocide.

 

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Film Thoughts: The Shining and Shelley Duvall

I want to start by getting the Stanley Kubrick hagiography out of the way, because this post is not about him: The Shining is a brilliantly realized film, the use of colors, angles, and space are all innovative and smart, and it succeeds at being very creepy.

Okay, done.  Enough of that.

If you’re not familiar with The Shining, here’s a quick recap: based on Stephan King’s bestselling novel, the film is about a family of three – Jack, Wendy, and their young son Danny- who move into an old Colorado hotel for the winter, where Jack has been hired as caretaker.  They are completely isolated, which isn’t so great, because the hotel is kind of evil, Danny is kind of psychic, and Jack, a kinda recovering alcoholic with anger issues, slowly descends into murderous insanity.  You might notice that Wendy is nowhere to be found in that last sentence.  Keep it in mind.

Horror films are infamous for their poor treatment of women, including weak characterization, sexualization and objectification, and subsequent bloody deaths.  The tropes are so standard in the film industry that Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods, a parody of the teen horror genre, specifically lampshades the virgin/slut, life/death dichotomy.

Of course, The Shining is not a teen horror film, and Kubrick’s approach to the film was specifically to break the molds of horror movies that were cementing even in 1980.  However, misogyny plagues the film, from its making to its characterization, to its reception even today in the viewing public.

In the book, Wendy is, yes, a mother and wife, doing her best to deal with the issues of a tenuous marriage while taking care of her son.  She stays with Jack through his anger and alcoholism, not because she’s stupid, but because she legitimately has nowhere else to go.  She stands up to her husband and keeps an eye out for the return of reasons for divorce, although she simultaneously hopes for the best, trying to ignore the discomfort of potential dangers ahead.  She is allowed significant chunks of narration, and we know she doesn’t simply just follow her increasingly abusive partner around unthinkingly.

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In the movie, Wendy is played by Shelley Duvall.  Kubruck characterizes Wendy as indecisive, jittery, and weak, and I get the sense he blames her for just being in a bad relationship.  She stays because she’s impossibly fragile.  What’s more, Kubrick centers the blame on her lack of ultimatums toward Jack, as opposed to, oh I don’t know, Jack’s abusive behavior itself?  Even as Jack becomes more and more violent, we don’t hate him, whereas it’s easy to condescend to the pathetic and sometimes blandly frightened reactions of Wendy.

Stephen King, who famously hates the popular 1980 adaption of his book, has said of Kubrick’s Wendy that she is “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.”

Watch practically any YouTube video about The Shining, and you will see plenty of hate directed at Wendy/Shelley Duvall.  Some people out there like Kubrick’s Wendy and Duvall’s performance; however there’s no lack of viewers that consider Wendy to be weepy, overplayed, and boring, and they tend to blame this on Duvall as an actress.

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It has come out over the years that during the filming of The Shining, Kubrick terrorized, verbally abused, and isolated Duvall.  He refused to give her any praise for her acting, ordering other not to “sympathize with Shelley”, constantly criticized her performances, ideas, and suggestions, and condoned her when she didn’t have the latest version of the constantly changing script.  Duvall told Roger Ebert that their were periods where she spent ’12 hours a day crying’, and she can be seen on behind-the-scenes footage showing Kubrick and Jack Nicholson tufts of hair she was losing due to the stress of filming.  And that’s not even mentioning the scene where Wendy confronts Jack on the stairs with a baseball bat, which Kubrick forced Duvall and Nicholson to do 127 times.

By contrast, Nicholson described Kubrick as “warm”.

Do I even have to say it?

It honestly enrages me that people have the gall to critique Shelley Duvall.  If her acting is indeed weak, it’s because she was being terrorized by a misogynistic director for months on end.  If her character is weak, it’s because Kubrick wrote her that way.

In the meantime, the brilliance of the film has been accredited to, (who else?), two men.  Praise is lavished on Kubrick for his control and style.  Fans say that it is Nicholson’s impeccable acting that make it so frightening and exciting.  Duvall sits through all of the adoration of the men around her (she actually calls it sycophantic) and demurely says only, “Of course, I get a little jealous.”  Kubrick and Nicholson have monopolized the narrative surrounding the making of the film.  The months of intense work Duvall put into The Shining have been washed over, or worse, labeled lazy, bad acting, annoying.

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And even worse than that is the posthumous adulation that Kubrick receives, while Duvall’s mental illness is exploited on daytime TV, like her recent appearance on Dr. Phil.  Did filming The Shining cause Duvall’s mental illness?  No, probably not entirely.  But was there an underlying condition she had that was gravely aggravated by Kubrick’s enforced ‘method acting’?   I don’t doubt it.

One of Kubrick’s daughters has sought to raise money on Duvall’s behalf, speaking out against her Dr. Phil appearance.  I may be wrong, but in this I see an act of repentance.

Just one more thing: while researching for this post, I stumbled across a short essay by Danielle R. Pearce (you can find it on her Tumblr).  In this essay, she argues that Kubrick’s “complex use of misogyny can be attributed to his authorial signature – one of using cinema to explore and develop understandings of humanity and the self.”  Pardon my french, but this is bullshit.  Kubrick’s ‘understandings of humanity and the self’ are not about humanity, they’re about men.  And believe it or not, you can make movies about men and misogyny without making them misogynistic.  Rather, Kubrick uses women across his canon as mainly objects and plot points for his male protagonists (in The Shining, we have only Wendy, who’s there as helpless audience surrogate, the female doctor, and if you really want to stretch it, the woman in the bathtub).  This isn’t a complex use of misogyny.  It’s just plain ol’ misogyny.  The fact that he has been lionized and enshrined by the academy does not make this acceptable.

Shelley Duvall deserves far better.

On Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and Laverne Cox

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Laverne Cox at Paley Fest for Orange is the New Black – Wikipedia Commons

I was really disappointed to hear about the controversy facing Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche surrounding her comments on the place of trans women within feminism.

I read Adiche’s Americanah earlier this year and thought she wrote brilliantly about race and nationality, I have heard her TED Talk about diversity in literature, you might remember her collaboration with Beyonce and her famed talk about feminism.

The source of the controversy is this: Adiche claimed that trans women experience male privilege because they are not assigned female at birth.

I’ve spent some time thinking about this.  As a cis-woman, assigned female at birth and still identifying that way, I understand what Adiche says and I will admit, the question has crossed my mind – do trans women experience male privilege?

However, embedded in this question is the very heart of the oppression that trans people face.  By asking if a trans woman (who doesn’t try to pass, who has not yet transitioned if they plan to, who was assigned male at birth) if she/they has experienced male privilege, we are revoking the idea that this person is a legitimate woman.  That they are not naturally and fundamentally a woman.  It says that once you were a man, and so you are not completely in league with ‘us’ who have been women our whole lives (who are ‘actually’) women.

TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminism) is an ideology that has its own system of logic, even if it’s oppressive (and we must remember that systems of oppression do operate on a certain kind of logic, even though that logic depends on a perverted and flawed worldview).  In resisting misogyny and patriarchal oppression, cis-women have pulled back into their own community, one that says this is us, women, and that is them, men.  In creating that distinction cis-women defaulted to the biological ‘origins’ of gender, the difference upon which we see our oppression as having been built  on.  Holding onto this makes it nearly impossible to be trans-inclusive, because no matter how ‘womanly’ a trans woman is, she was one of them at some point.  Cis-women want to guard their community from the oppressors.  This is understandable.

But it’s wrong.

TERF ideology posits that trans women experience male privilege, but this ignores the reality that gender oppression hurts everyone because it is based on a rigid binary that everyone is expected to adhere to.  This means that cis men, despite the power they hold, are also dehumanized because they are expected to be unerringly masculine, unemotional, etc., and when they or anyone else assigned male at birth fail to exhibit these traits, they are subjected to a range of oppression meant to bring them back in line with the binary.

Trans women never get to experience male privilege because they are constantly critically evaluated by society’s gender binary, seen as not masculine enough, and punished for it.  Laverne Cox addressed this in a series of tweets recently that I’ll link below.  She writes that in her childhood, when she was considered a boy by society, she was never masculine enough, and now, ironically, cis-feminists struggle to consider her feminine enough, even though she is a woman.

TERF ideology is damaging to women.

Trans women are women.  Period.  It’s not up to me or any other cis woman to decide that.  We are not the gatekeepers of ‘actual’ womanhood, deciding who gets to be in the club.  When we do so, we become the oppressors.  Defining gender from reproductive organs is already arbitrary – who says one is male and one is female?  They’re just body parts.  Trans women don’t have to pass as ‘female’ because they already are.

Trans women are women.

I don’t like the recent uptick in articles that say “if you’re not ___, you’re doing it wrong” because I think it’s negative and prohibits the growth and learning of potential allies and communication between sides, but I will say this: if you are not at the very least trying to understand that trans women have every right and every place within feminism (as difficult an idea as that may be for you to wrap your head around), your feminism contributes to a system of oppression.  If you are not reaching out and trying to learn, there’s a good chance your feminism only serves yourself.  It may be uncomfortable to rearrange your definitions of gender, but all of us suffer when we continue to live under the old ones.

To read more, follow the links below:

Laverne Cox’s tweets about her experiences growing up: https://twitter.com/Lavernecox/status/840711779948740608 

Huff Post’s coverage of Adiche’s comments w/ video of Adiche’s interview & tweets from transgender activist Raquel Willishttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-transgender-women-feminism_us_58c40324e4b0d1078ca7180b

If you want to learn more about the experiences and history of trans women start with these links: