Written: July 9, 2010
Help Fight JMS
I write to you, in desperate need of assistance. There is, and has been for a long time now, a growing epidemic within our American society. And if we do not soon band together to stop it, it stands to consume us all. Though growing in numbers daily, this illness rarely receives adequate coverage in mainstream news and media outlets, except in the most extreme, horrifying cases. This illness, this disease I am referring to is called John Mayer Syndrome, or “JMS” for short.
Now, I am sure many of you are aware of John Mayer, the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter, and may be thinking, “Really, April?” And yes, friends. Really. Though named after the dubiously talented artist, the disease did not necessarily begin with him. However, the symptoms of this disease were running so rampantly through his bloodstream months ago, that it is, unfortunately, only natural that it bear his namesake. Though I do not have the exact historical timeline, I believe JMS has been among us for many, many, many years. It is only now in this age of hypermedia and technology where information spreads uncontrollably at lightning speeds, that greater awareness of JMS is being raised. Symptoms of JMS, I am sure you are so curious to find out about, can essentially be summed up as when an individual engages in a distinct display of racism, sometimes sexism, all around offensive language, either written or verbal, all in the name of humor. For those not suffering with JMS, it is unquestionably clear that the person’s words are offensive. However, due to JMS sufferers’ upbringing, racial, gender, or class privilege, celebrity (real and imagined), individual cultural mores, or just good ol’ fashioned delusion, they view themselves as humorists, and maybe even satirists. “I’m not racist! I was just making social commentary on racist people who actually think those things, using humor. You know, so we can have an intelligent conversation about the people who really think like that. I’m sorry my humor was so grossly misinterpreted!”
Considering John Mayer’s last most visible display of JMS happened months ago, you kind souls may be asking yourselves what events must have recently transpired that have willed me to raise public awareness about this disease that hurts us all. Well, that would be an essay written by Time writer, Joel Stein. His “humorous” piece, “My Own Private India” has sparked rightful outrage among many South Asian-Americans and other individuals with common sense. When confronted about his thoughtless and insensitive article, Stein quickly responded with an apology stating, “I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life […] I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town […].” And while labeling one’s offense as humor is an important signifier of JMS, essentially blaming those who you’ve offended as missing your message and you in turn become offended by their “confusion”, is the final, solidifying marker of John Mayer Syndrome. Stein finished his apology with, “If we could understand that reaction [him being uncomfortable with his ethnically-evolving hometown], we’d be better equipped to debate people on the other side of the immigration issue.” See, friends?! Again, “I’m not racist! I was just making social commentary on racist people who actually think those things, using humor. You know, so we can have an intelligent conversation about the people who really think like that. I’m sorry my humor was so grossly misinterpreted!”
Alas, do not let these examples mistake you into thinking that John Mayer Syndrome is only an affliction of the intellectual, famous white, male, and wealthy variety. JMS is actually quite prevalent among the not so intellectual, or famous, still white (though every now and again, not…but usually), most often male (although, more females are beginning to show symptoms), and the not even close to wealthy variety. So, you may be curious as to how the average, every day person may show signs of having contracted JMS. Well, as a strong advocate of ending this horrible disease, I’ve dedicated an extensive amount of time to some “field research,” if you will, and below are a few examples of my findings. If you, in the past, presently, or maybe in the future recognize any of the following situations, you have born witness to someone suffering from John Mayer Syndrome. And if you recognize yourself in any of these situations, please seek immediate assistance from an educator, a graduate student, cultural critic, psychologist, or just anyone with an ounce of common sense.
- If you are at a bar, in front of a bar, or within a five mile radius of a bar, and you see a white man suddenly bounce his shoulders, wave his arms from side to side, and recite any Top 40s rap lyrics, and then burst into a fit of giggles, all after he has made eye contact with a black woman…he suffers from JMS.
- If a man kisses a woman, that he does not know, on the neck, and simply shrugs his shoulders and smiles like, “well, you’re in public, sooooo”…he suffers from JMS.
- If you tell a man the above situation, and he responds with, “Well, you know maybe he just thought she was really pretty, and had nice skin, and he didn’t know what to say”…he too, suffers from JMS.
- If you hear a woman say, “No, no, it’s cool. I dated a Jewish guy!… See, I date different guys of different religions and races so I can always make the joke. I date the blacks, I date the Mexicans. I date ’em all for comedy.”…shesuffers from JMS.
- If a man wears a t-shirt with the words “TITS AND ASS” boldly printed across the front, and laughingly says, “Oh you know, it’s just funny!” And later adds, “Vaginas are funny!”…he suffers from JMS.
- If a man takes the time to make a Facebook ‘Causes’ page, asking for friends to “Help End Women’s Suffrage” with a National Geographic-esque photo a Sub-Saharan African woman kneeling in the desert attached to it, “as a joke”…he suffers from JMS.
So, as you can see from the above examples, the non-celebrity individuals with John Mayer Syndrome are not nearly as offensive, and hurtful as the comments made by John Mayer or Joel Stein. These common, everyday examples may elicit pity for JMS sufferers more than anything else. HOWEVER, do not let your sense of pity weaken my plea for your assistance. We are at the crossroads, friends. In this supposed multiculturalist, Obamaian age of post-racialism, post-feminism, and “post- everything else,” individuals who rarely have to reclaim their identity from unattainable societal imposed standards, or constantly reassert their worth to the masses, or fight daily for rights to all the freedoms this country so aggressively promotes, are too often allowed to say and do hurtful, ignorant, and offensive things, without any anticipated repercussions for causing harm to others unlike them.
Where privilege is the essential cause of John Mayer Syndrome, apathy allows for it to thrive. You do not have to be Indian to be offended by Joel Stein’s comments; nor do you have to be black, or a woman, to cringe or be bothered by John Mayer’s statements. Like the last song and dance number in High School Musical, “we’re all in this together.” So, I challenge you to join me in advocating against the growing number of JMS sufferers, and say, “NO! I will not accept your thinly veiled racism (sexism, ageism, classism, heterosexism, et cetera et cetera) as humor! You are ignorant and offensive! Get your life together, sir (or ma’am)!”
Thank you for your time. May peace, good sense, and decency be with us all. Viva La Revolución!
Written: May 13, 2010
Political Bodies, Shameful Minds
Disclaimer: I wrote most of this piece right after the video debuted. At the time, I was uncomfortable with how personal I felt like the essay was, and I was also not committed to the off chance of offending someone. This week, I’m working on a project analyzing what spaces are available for Black women to perform their identities, and within those spaces, which identities are digestible for the larger society. The class assignment led me to Erykah Badu’s situation, which, in turn, has led me back to a month (?) old abandoned post.
I had not planned to write anything about Erykah Badu stripping down in her latest music video, but a lovely friend/supporter of mine was curious as to what my opinion may have been regarding her actions. My buddy asked was she simply “celebrating the beautiful Black woman,” or “just trying to get publicity?” At that time having only made some loosely formed judgments after watching the video, I could not confidently speak to the artist’s decision one way or the other. However, after I began “investigating” the attentionsurrounding the video, my opinions started flowing.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, some of the main criticisms were:
- Her nudity was an exploitation of herself and other Black women, whose bodies have, historically, been subjected to sexualization, exploitation, and commodification by mainstream cultural gatekeepers. Other bloggers and writers have even gone so far as to say that Badu’s “liberation” was reminiscent of the exploitation of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman.
- Her nudity in a public place infringed upon the “rights” of her unsuspecting/involuntary audience, including children.
- She was simply looking for publicity, and basically a sell-out.
Reflecting on my initial reaction to the video, I realized my thoughts were nothing more than a reflection of the world I live in, and how I am conditioned to view particular things-even if those “things” look like me.
At the time, not having watched the Matt & Kim video, I did not know where Badu’s visual narrative was heading. Once she stripped down, I didn’t know if the video was staged, or if she was actually naked. Either way, it made me uncomfortable, ashamed for her, ashamed for myself, and left me wondering why she would expose herself that way.
I also wondered about all of the people she walked past while making the video, and then about all of the other people who were going to see it, reinforcing (or reaffirming) stereotypes about “the Black woman.” In that initial viewing, I had internalized Badu’s body, not her actual nakedness, but simply the body itself, as a secret, only to be shared with “family” (read: Black people) who already knew its meaning. How would others process a body that is rarely seen as positive, and thus conditioned to exist outside of mainstream society?
I watched the Matt and Kim video days later, and had no opinions or feelings about it. Thinking about my reaction to both videos, I realized my initial discomfort over Badu’s video manifested from an institutionalized, systemic conditioning of my mind on what bodies are allowed in a public space, and how those bodies should look. I was not uncomfortable with the actual nakedness; it was the fact that she was a naked Black woman, with a body type atypical of what I am conditioned to be comfortable seeing in magazines and on television. In a later interview, Badu admitted that she is not “in love” with her body, something that most of us can empathize with. There is obviously nothing wrong with the artist’s body, but the fact that she is Black and not a size two, makes it seem as so.
As it stands, the only noticeable space of acceptance for Black female bodies in our mainstream culture are those that are heavily commodified, sexualized, racialized, and all around exploited. There are a few times where mainstream fashion magazines like Elle or Glamour will feature a Black woman, like Beyonce or Rihanna, on their covers, but those are often reserved for the “Body Issue.” Because the only time black women are worthy of such prestige is when the dominant culture wants to talk about how women should be happy with their “curves” and other “handicaps” that prevent us from being conventionally beautiful. And the fact that it is the “Body Issue,” kind of reinforces my original concerns about Badu being naked. The Black female bodies we typically see are in music videos as props, Black men’s magazine covers, and reality television shows. None of those outlets really challenge our social system. They either reinforce a stereotype we have of Black women, as innately (hyper) sexualized beings, or completely nonsexual and non-threatening, like Oprah…or the Popeye’s Chicken lady. Outside of the rap video construct, most naked, or semi-naked bodies we see on a larger, mainstream media scale, are generally young, white, slim, and labeled as “art,” either through fashion or photography. Badu’s video was neither of those things, explicitly. Her nudity was not done in the (more) socially acceptable, traditional, sexy, commercialized sense, but it was indeed beautiful and artistic, in its simplicity and message.
I realized that my initial judgment is exactly what Badu was talking about—our willingness to discredit or assassinate what we do not understand. We are conditioned to see particular bodies, in particular ways, and from particular people. And when those bodies find a space that rests outside of those predetermined frameworks, they offend and assault us, somehow intruding upon some illusionary rights. This frame of mind exists even beyond race. (The controversy over the Lane Bryant ad is evident of this.) Badu’s nakedness unto itself is not offensive; it is her naked Blackness and womanness that creates a problem for us. And the fact that she took ownership of that (inadvertent) Blackness and womanness, without the influence of commodification or sexualization, troubles our mainstream minds.
There is a reason why I was indifferent to Matt and Kim’s “Lessons Learned” video. Their bodies do not hold any history for me, and they weren’t challenging anything. Other than their nakedness in a public place, there is nothing controversial about their actual physical bodies. The Black female body is inherently political, always making a statement, and facing some kind of resistance, even at its base level of existence. And the attention and criticism that Badu’s video has received versus Matt and Kim’s is proof of that.
Written: April 27, 2010
The Biggest Battle of 2010: Boobs versus Brains
For those of you who may have missed the memo (or my multiple Facebook posts), today is Boobquake. Essentially, to test the theory of Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, who claims, “many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes,” women all around the world have been asked to participate in Boobquake. On this day, April 26, 2010, we women were asked to wear our favorite boobielicious shirt and let the natural force of all our lovely lady lumps’ power combined shake the very ground we stand on. Not Bill Nye’s kind of science, but science nonetheless.
As is the power of the internet, Jen McCreight’s blog proposition spread like wildfire, in came Facebook fan pages, event profiles, Twitter hash tags (#boobquake), t-shirts, so on and so on. More importantly though, in came feminist critiques asking if this was “cute feminism” or “male-friendly feminism,” and why would women want to sexualize and objectify themselves when all of society does it for us on a day to day basis. And like a modern day, “meet me on the playground at 4:00” showdown, two women reacted in the best way the internet allows us to. They started their own cyber movement: Brainquake, which is also today (awww snap). In what is a brutal, oppressive reality for many Iranian women, Negar Mottahedeh and Golbarg Bashi, the creators of Brainquake, were “saddened” by McCreight’s attempt at making light of their situation. So to honor the accomplishments of Iranian women, Brainquake founders suggested that we show off our resumes, degrees, blogs, and anything else that highlights our creativity, intelligence, and ingenuity as women.
Before I continue on with my analysis, I find it important to say that I completely understand where Mottahedeh and Bashi are coming from, and I agree with them, mostly. Some westerners have the habit of trivializing socio-political issues that exist outside of their direct environment or experience. When reading McCreight’s piece, I did not interpret her to be doing this. It seemed as though she was challenging the absurdity of Sedighi’s comments by suggesting something equally absurd. (Although, it’s possible there could be some power in the boobies after all.) I digress, though. As a western feminist, I’m looking at Boobquake and Brainquake from that perspective. And here.it.is.
As an intelligent, creative, bright, and enlightened individual, I would like to show off my brain and boobs…if I feel like it. For a brief moment I was annoyed by most of the conversations surrounding Boobquake and Brainquake because many of the critiques I came across were suggesting that by participating in Boobquake, I would be objectifying myself, and participating in my own sexualization. And instead, should participate in Brainquake. First, both ideas are a little ridiculous, in my opinion. Solidarity and enlightenment are great, but I can’t imagine anyone in Iran getting anything out of this one-way or the other.
Anyway, back to boobs and brains. For me, the two are not mutually exclusive. I try to love them equally, and love them a lot, even in the face of objectification, shaming, and attempts at violence. The dueling “quakes” should give way to a larger discussion of ownership, of our minds and our bodies. All women desire that and are seeking it out on a daily basis, no matter where they are living and what oppression(s) they are facing. The real movement should be changing people’s understanding of individual rights. Women can be objectified wearing anything—clothes are often the scapegoat—but it’s really about a person’s (often men) entitlement and a perceived right to power over others (often women). Women are sexualized and objectified in all age groups, at all levels, without regard to class or race, location or situation. And, we have all have internalized those images, knowingly and subconsciously.
Individual ownership and education, gives way to confidence, which then gives women the power to speak up and act out. By individual ownership, I mean the freedom to wear and do as you please as long as it is something that you want to do, without the threat or fear of harassment and violence. Naturally, if a woman wears a low cut top, a heterosexual, cisgendered male may be inclined to look, but at the same time, if a woman is wearing jeans and an oversized hoodie, and she is street-harassed, again, by a heterosexual, cisgendered male, her clothes are obviously not the problem, nor should they ever be accused as such. As women, we should be teaching each other and ourselves, to speak up when we feel objectified and sexualized. As a society, we should be creating a space of support and safety where us women feel comfortable enough to speak up about our objectification and the sexualization of our bodies. And men should understand the need for that type of space as allies, and not be complicit in the problem by reinforcing those oppressions either through their own acts of objectification or through comments like, “ well, you do wear clothes that make you stand out.” Or, “he was just some strange guy on the train; that happens. What do you expect?”
The idea of “male-friendly feminism” isn’t inherently bad, either. There is a way to enlist men without diluting, or softening our mission. Showing off cleavage to get men to pay attention to our movement is obviously not the way to go about it, but I don’t think that was most “participants” original intention or expectation. If we’re looking for allies and partnership in our quest for fairness, equality, and respect, we are probably going to have to start using language and drafting a message that more people understand. Again, showing your cleavage (UNLESS YOU WANT TO) is not exactly the answer, but there has to be a way to gain support by approaching men, and many non-feminist identified women as potential allies, and not as probable perpetrators and offenders. We’re all a part of a patriarchal, sexist, racist, homophobic, and classist system, and the only way to deconstruct that is to talk to each other—process those images together, and give women the confidence to speak up when they don’t like a dude staring at their bodies instead of saying, “well maybe you shouldn’t have worn that shirt.” I know there are days when I feel like showing off a little cleavage because maybe I like staring at my own chest. It’s mine and I own it, as I should. It doesn’t mean that I am participating in my own objectification; it means that I am happy and proud to be a woman, and happy and proud of my body. Whether or not I am showing cleavage, my brain works the same way…I’m kind of a magician that way.
The concern over Boobquake versus Brainquake is a bit trivial and distracts us from real issues. I know there are plenty of men, and unfortunately a lot of women, who probably saw today as a chance to dress “scandalous,” or look at boobs, all in the name of feminism. And sadly, those people missed the larger message about women owning their bodies and their brains. At the end of the day, though, it’s Facebook, and if we somehow think starting a fake movement, fan page, or group is enough to challenge the world we live in, then our problems are obviously far greater than a battle of boobs and brains.