Friday, May 25, 2007

A Daycare Called Cuba: Iberia Ad More Than "Sexist"

“It was completely trivial” said a spokeswoman for Iberia Airlines’ new ad. I suppose that should be expected, but it never ceases to amaze me that some people consider the degradation of historically oppressed groups as “trivial,” “fun,” or “just a joke.” Maybe that’s because our society has a history of accepting stereotypes as truths, so veiling them in humor is its feeble attempt to disguise the simple fact that it can’t distinguish between one or the other. It may also be a result of the belief some hold that we are all equals and treated fairly. If this condition of equality is a given, then debasing one group or another is not expected to cause harm, embarrassment, or any real long-term affects. Maybe Spain’s national airline felt that they were engaging in harmless fun, simply teasing their colonial little brother Cuba, but not everyone shared Iberia’s interpretation. Ruben Sanchez, a spokesperson for Facua, a Spanish consumer rights group, found the commercial to be sexist and generally offensive to Cubans. Facua called for the advertisement, which is part of a set of commercials for Iberia’s website, to be pulled. Iberia complied. They apologized, stating that the ad was not meant to offend anyone, and removed it from television on May 16th. But considering that someone had thought up the commercial and allowed it to air in the first place, the damage had already been done.

When I saw the ad for the first time, I thought beyond sexism. Before me was a representation of women of African descent that has somehow lasted for more than three centuries. I saw an animated articulation of the remnants of European colonial dominance over a Caribbean nation and its women. There was so much to take in from such a short clip that I wanted to slow down and think about it in parts. I watched the video again, this time in silence. After muting the volume, I began to mentally catalogue the images I saw. Before the clip commenced, a tableau appeared of a fair-skinned baby in a rocking chair surrounded by two brown-skinned, dark haired, large lipped women frozen mid-dance, holding maracas and wearing bikini tops with Daisy Duke cutoff shorts. Once the video unfolded, it seemed. . . fairly harmless, but three things stood out to me:

1. The color contrast between the baby and his adult playmates.
Both women featured in the commercial have brown skin, one a shade slightly darker than the other, and the men who provide musical accompaniment for the commercial are also varying shades of brown, from light to dark. This contrast is common in tourism advertisements, particularly those in Europe and the United States (with the exception of the recent Bahamas vacation ads). The tourist is almost always white and the “natives” are always brown, black, or yellow. Last time I checked, people of color also go on vacation, but maybe advertising executives don’t want to confuse the consumer audience by featuring them as tourists alongside people who look just like them. Funny enough, this never seems to be a problem in white-on-white ads encouraging people to go to European countries.

2. The caricatured bodies and faces of the women in the ad.
Given, it’s a cartoon. Illustrators are known to utilize exaggeration as a way of adding humor to a piece or simply demonstrating the breadth of their artistic abilities. The women’s bodies and faces, however, stood out to me because they were somewhat reminiscent of blackface imagery. The “mulatas” have large red lips and eyes, and emphasis was added to showcase their rotund bottoms and wide-set hips. I have lost count of how many times I have seen the image of a black and/or Latina woman with exaggerated body parts, particularly those that signify fertility and sexual prowess (i.e. hips, butt, breasts, lips), in advertising, film, and television. Another image that stuck with me is the women’s body language in some scenes. They are shown more than once with their hands on their hips, another commonly featured image of brown women but usually one that alludes to domination or anger. It’s an interesting choice to have animated the women with arms akimbo, particularly because the stance usually evokes cultural meaning that runs somewhat counter to the subservient actions of the women throughout the commercial. Their positioning seems to convey, at times, a message of surrogate motherhood, an ironically Oedipal statement considering the sexualization of the women. Yet considering slave-master relationships of yore, when rape of women and the female offspring that resulted from such forced liaisons was common, maybe this image isn’t so ironic.

3. Images of the women dancing for the baby’s entertainment and providing for his every need to secure his comfort while on their island playground.
The women’s smiling faces while dancing, feeding, fanning, and massaging the child throughout the commercial resonated with me. The image was hauntingly reminiscent of the “happy darky” representations of blacks before and after slavery and even the abolitionist ads that portrayed blacks as passive and harmless in hopes to quell fears that freed slaves would pose a threat to whites. Because of Cuba’s highly politicized global position in addition to the fact that it was once one of Spain’s colonial possessions, it comes as no surprise that the ad's creators used women, and passive women at that, to demonstrate that Cuba was safe, an optimal travel destination.

I then turned on the volume and watched the commercial again. Here are excerpts from what I heard (all to a reggaeton beat, mind you):

“me marche huyendo de panales y papillas (I’m fleeing diapers and baby food) /volando, llegue hasta estas calidas orillas (after flying, I arrived on
these warm beaches) he venido aqui por la cara (slang: I’ve come here for fun)”

The meaning here is pretty obvious. The baby needs a vacation, and quick! But what exactly would he do for “fun” and why would his “fun” involve two women? Hmm. . . He quickly explains:

. . . “mulatas dan me de comer y dan me de beber” (the mulatas (women of black/Spanish mixed racial origin) feed me and give me things to drink)/
ingrese, ya no quiero volver! (I typed in "" and I
don't ever want to go back!)

So let’s re-cap. The baby wins a vacation and is whisked away to Cuba where he is waited on hand and food by two brown-skinned multiracial women who give him whatever he wants. Then he brings it home with a few lines from the chorus:

mulatas: Esta chupao, esta chupao! (It’s easy! It’s easy!)/
baby: vengan mamitas (come here, mamitas)/
mulatas: Esta chupao, esta chupao! (It’s easy! It’s easy!)/
baby: Lleven me a la cuna (Take me to my crib)

Iberia swears it didn’t mean to offend anyone. If that were the case, however, I question why they opted to feature only brown-skinned women as the baby’s sexy caretakers? Cuba has an incredibly diverse population, after all, with many of its citizens tracing their ancestry back to Africa, Asia, Europe, and indigenous groups. Is it that brown “mulata” women are the first ones who come to mind when one thinks of Cuba? Possibly. But when you compound some of the commercial’s content with history, you end up with heavy results. For example, consider the commercial’s sly sexual references like “take me to my crib” and the fact that the baby refers to the women with the flirty term “mamitas.” These lines are framed by the lyrics “esta chupao,” a shortened, European Spanish version of a longer phrase “esta chupado,” which means something is “easy.” In English, the adjective “easy,” when used to refer to women and girls, signifies promiscuity. In Spanish, this is also the case (“mujer/chica fácil”). Combine the aforementioned with the women’s subservience, their national origin, and their physical image in the commercial. Also consider Cuba's reliance on tourism as a major source of revenue following its political separation from the USSR in the 1980s. This shift catalyzed a significant increase in prostitution, making Cuba no stranger to sex tourism, many of its customers coming from wealthier nations, including Spain. Finally, add in a few thoughts about the term “mulata,” which, though commonly used in Spanish and not in necessarily an offensive way, nevertheless has a loaded meaning and comes with its own stereotypes in Spanish and Latino history. Iberia had created a recipe for disaster.

One would think that Iberia would have re-thought the creation and airing of this ad, particularly in light of the public condemnation of racism and discriminatory behavior in Spain. After several soccer players of African descent were verbally assaulted at games by fans alike, an anti-racism group called Kick It Out was formed and Nike launched a campaign called Stand Up Speak Up in hopes of countering racism within international football. Groups like SOS Racismo and Amnesty International have criticized Spain’s handling of illegal immigration by way of a border fence and trigger-happy border patrollers.

Yet despite all this, the people at Iberia didn’t get the memo.

-Wendi Muse


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

steve biko (stir it up)

Sometimes you just don't have the strength to go on. And by on I mean writing another piece about how the mighty have fallen. An oversimplified, historically inaccurate, but nonetheless poignant video timeline/ visual emetic for your viewing pleasure/ outrage:

Pimp My Riiiiide

South Africa has big problems with guns, HIV, and rape. Nelly promotes awareness of lesser known social ills like wack cars and a dearth of bitches in bikinis. Seriously, in a lot of ways- especially vis a vis other countries on the continent, South Africa is doing ok. And far be it from me to say that there needs to be more reporting of Africa's problems at the expense of news that doesn't fit in with the view of Africa as an AIDS/ corruption/ violence-ridden continent that white people need to save ASAP. I'm just saying- Pimp My Ride?

Oh, and more stuff to file under oh my Jesus is it the schools?

* You know, Marvin
Gaye peed on minors too.
No big.
* And Huey Newton and Che loved Cam from the
top of his head to the soles of his feet too.
Actually, my mistake, they haven't spoken in like a year. Stop snitchin!
* Greatest thing Martin did for the people? $30,000
, standard.

-anika assassinationday READ MORE

Friday, May 18, 2007

Why Michelle Obama Can't Just "Be Herself"

“Are Americans threatened by working wives?” is the closing question posed by Leslie Morgan Steiner in her Washington Post article “Michelle Obama’s Front Page Move.” Over the past week, a lot of news has popped up about the Obama family, particularly with regard to Barack Obama’s stance on affirmative action, and Michelle Obama’s recent decision to leave her job in order to devote more time to her husband’s presidential campaign. Steiner’s piece compared the role of Ms. Obama to that of Hillary Clinton when her husband Bill held presidential office, and criticized the mainstream press for focusing so much attention on Ms. Obama’s recent career move. The piece, however, was completely devoid of race. For some, mentioning race with regard to the Obamas is a bit like beating a dead horse, race being something so many liberals who sing the song of a colorblind nation would like for us to forget. But the undeniable intersection of race and gender that occurs in the minds of observers each time Ms. Obama enters a room is one that should not be ignored, especially considering that the press has certainly not been shy about making headlines of studies, one co-authored by Steiner herself, and media representations of black women as of late.

According to what has been dubbed as “the first national survey exploring how life, love, work, motherhood, money, sex, religion and relationships differ for black and white American women” by its authors Steiner, a Washington Post columnist, and Paula Penn-Narbit, who wrote Morning by Morning, a book about her experiences homeschooling her three sons, black women are more likely to possess financial independence than their white female counterparts. In their study “Women in Black and White,” Steiner and Penn-Narbit noted that 90% of the black women interviewed had a savings account as compared to 83% of the white survey respondents. In addition, the same percentage of black women indicated that they worked outside of the home, as opposed to only 78% of white women. Though these figures seem positive, there are several underlying factors that call for a reconsideration of such a quick judgment.

For one, the black women interviewed noted that they felt burdened by the prevalence of racism, feared that their daughters would be objectified as a result of their race, and considered financial independence more of a necessity than a choice. Secondly, considering that black women are “less than half as likely [as white women] to be married” and/or have supplemental financial backing from their families and spouses (if applicable), their financial “freedom” clearly comes at a cost. Finally, statistics such as these only provide further fuel to the gift and curse known as the “Strong Black Woman” (SBW)syndrome. The syndrome, explored in depth in an 1997 Ebony Magazine piece by Laura B. Randolph, is the aftershock of a stereotype of the same name that characterizes black women as unflinching bearers of all the weight that comes with blackness in addition to the balls and chains (a la Jacob Marley from the Christmas Carol) of single parenthood, emotional pain, and economic instability. The SBW, despite being heavily laden with hardships, manages to maintain balance, her arms akimbo on her large brown hips, and never breaks a sweat lest she ruin her freshly “done” coif. The SBW is a cultural myth and superhero that, while empowering on the one hand, places an immense amount of pressure on black women while simultaneously emasculating black men. It is a myth that harkens back to Victorian class and gender norms that portrayed working class women as rugged and masculine and wealthy housewives as human porcelain dolls, voiceless “Angels of the House.” It is a myth that is, without a doubt, meant to frighten those who wish for black women to remain in “their place.”

Michelle Obama, for the American press, is the quintessential SBW. She was raised in a working class family, yet attended Princeton University for college and Harvard University for law school. She held a well-paying, high powered job, yet somehow still managed to serve as a dutiful wife and mother. Though for some, Ms. Obama was still not enough. In line with the predictable sexism and racism that still haunts black women, critics picked apart her every move. On the one hand, she was not soft enough on American eyes. Michelle Obama, to this day, is often photographed mid-sentence, her eyes intense and her mouth set to form a word, yet mistaken as forming a scowl. She is characterized as “blunt,” “competitive,” and “irreverent,” even by the most liberal of mainstream newspapers. Worst of all, she has been recently chastised for even the slightest of joking while accompanying her husband on the campaign trail. In a San Jose Mercury News article entitled “Michelle Obama’s Just a Bit Too Quick to Deflate Hype,” author Maureen Dowd expresses her outrage at Ms. Obama for attempting to be funny, “I wince a bit when Michelle Obama chides her husband as a mere mortal.” She further criticizes Ms. Obama for not having given her husband advice prior to his having made a real estate deal with someone whose ethical background was questionable, mockingly begging the question, “isn’t that where a dazzling, touch, smart, and connected wife could come in handy?” After reading the article, one wonders whether a woman like Michelle Obama can ever just be herself.

She can’t be funny. She probably shouldn’t work. After all, if she wants to counter the SBW stereotype and make her husband appear to be in charge, she cannot have a career. But when she quits her job, her motivation and commitment are called into question, and she risks losing credibility in the eyes of feminists. She can never have a hair out of place, appear aggressive, or ever be shown working out (one of her favorite activities), lest she characterized by someone as a “nappy headed ho.” In light of this constant and very public criticism, Michelle Obama can never quite be herself without being stereotyped as the aforementioned SBW—a categorization that could potentially destroy her husband’s presidential campaign. While Ms. Obama is (and would be considered even more so if she were to become First Lady) an incredible role model for black women and girls everywhere, it is rather disappointing that her personality and achievements must be scaled back in order to make her more appealing to Americans who are afraid to think beyond their comfort zones and recognize that a black woman can be an equal without being a threat.

-Wendi Muse READ MORE

Live from Death Row,,, READ MORE

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

open your mouth wide let me show you what it's made for/ thanks for saving hip-hop white people!

David Banner's joining the Adult Swim roster with a cartoon that's pretty much about him. Replete with a small-town MS setting, an old white family that's extremely resistant to change, and a young restaurant owner cum controversial rapper voiced by Banner himself (naturally), the cartoon, The Crook'd 'Sipp, seems a bit out of place among Adult Swim's snarky, eccentric, and overwhelmingly white programming. It really doesn't matter though, because the entire thing seems like a thinly veiled vehicle for Banner's character's rap group anyway. If you didn't click/read through that link, Banner says that The Sweet Tea Monsters (you know after pulling this ish you can get away with just about anything/I swear to Jesus I'm not hating) are going to be releasing a real album and Pimp C is slated to be the show's first guest star.

Adult Swim has sorta been in the business of promoting hipster rap for a while now. I haven't had access to non-youtubed TV for a minute, but I remember recognizing Peanut Butter Wolf instrumentals back when they had those black-screen/ white text interstitial bumps. Eventually, I guess, enough people got to asking about the background noise, and Adult Swim took the next logical step and started releasing full-length albums. Adult Swim got Chock Klosterman's FAVORITE BLACK PERSON EVER to team up with MF Doom to do DangerDoom in 2005, and it proved enough of a success to spawn a second album, as well as a clutch of other collaborations/sponsorships with other artists and labels. They later teamed up with Stone's Throw to do Chrome Children in 2006 (which also has its own follow-up), and Definitive Jux warmed up the internet to El-P's second solo LP with Definitive Swim, which came out this year. Turns out that they also did an album with Chocolate Industries, which is kinda messed up because I really like that label and I didn't even find out about this record until I was boning up on the Adult Swim website for this piece.

Anyway, I think it's safe to assume that David Banner's/ The Sweet Tea Monsters' album is going to be the next semi-decent hip-hop album that is (at first glance, at least) inexplicably bankrolled and promoted by Cartoon Network. Despite my perhaps quasi-hostile wording so far, I don't really think that's a bad thing. While none have blown my mind, I've genuinely liked most of the Adult Swim albums, and I've been jockriding a lot of these artists and Adult Swim's quirky programming since high school. G-d knows that if I were some miraculous combination of rich, influential, and not lazy, I'd be pouring a decent chunk of the resources at my disposal into music I like too. I'm just a little confused about what it means, exactly, when a corporate-backed cartoon series is pretty much developing its own indie hip-hop record label at the same time that we're eulogizing the entire genre.

Part of what seems amiss here is the fact that a lot of this stuff seems like hip-hop for white people who don't really listen to hip-hop. I cringe when I think about the Oprah's Book Clubbishness of the entire endeavor- stamping relatively harmless stuff (the downloads on the Adult Swim site are all clean versions, and they skirt issues that may be disturbing, even when it's coming from someone like El-P or Mr. Lif) with your seal of approval, and watching the hordes come to devour it. I'm not mad at people getting introduced to good music in any way, but I think Adult Swim may be presenting a narrow and increasingly lightened (see: Definitive Jux, the tracklisting of Chocolate Swim vs. the track listing of any older Chocolate Industries comp) version of rap music that its consumers may not be motivated to move beyond. And of course, there's the entire possibility/issue of inserting television programming and/or advertising into places where I don't want to hear it. David Banner's a smart dude who's totally able to take the reins of unfavorable situations, but still, I don't know that this bodes well for him. At the end of the day, I think I'm most disturbed that a bunch of white folks at the Cartoon Network, talented, funny, and inventive as they may be, are suddenly wielding so much power in the world of non-commercialal hip-hop. When old white record label heads can spin a Fiddy/Cam beef into media domination and a gazillion records/mixtapes sold, the idea of balance being brought about by the purveyors of Aqua Teen Hunger Force isn't that comforting.

- anika assassinationday READ MORE

Monday, May 14, 2007

Complicated Questions: A Look at Cultural Relativism

On March 31st of this year, Eritrea became one of several African nations to enact a ban on female circumcision, presenting a statement to its people that the physical harm of women for the sake of cultural normativity was unacceptable in the eyes of the law. Eritrea now joins Ghana, the Cote D’Ivoire, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Tanzania, and Tago as a nation vowing to challenge customs for the sake of protecting a significant portion of its population: women and girls.

While the case against female circumcision as a common practice seems strong, bearing in mind that it inflicts physical harm on the women who undergo the procedure, some by force and some by choice, there are those who find laws that ban such practices to be a violation of their rights to express traditions that have a long history in their respective ethnic and/or religious groups. There are others, still, who suggest that the act of interfering with such cultural practices is a direct result of Westernization. They consider criticizing such practices to involve viewing them through a colonial lens. On an even deeper level, some accuse opponents of female circumcision of asserting white, Christian, upper class concepts of morality on nations full of the pigmented, “pagan” poor and of assuming that the women and girls at the center of the debate are all victims.

Clearly there are challenges in attempting to serve as a referee between cultural relativism and rights. One feels obligated to help one group without stepping on the toes of another, and in the meantime must take on the weighty task of finding the very line that divides them. As of late, the American press has been taking on the job for us, gradually designating predominately Muslim countries as target zones. “Look at the women! They are oppressed!” screams almost every headline and accompanying photograph regarding nations like Iran, Saudia Arabia, Indonesia, and prior to September 11, 2001, Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Ironically enough, many such public notices of the conditions of women of color on a global level precede wars with the countries in question that further jeopardize their livelihood, and are so common that they bombard us with ideas of oppression elsewhere, but make us ignore our own status levels domestically.

In a recent article in the New York Times entitled "Enforcing a Single Hue for Islamic Fashion in Iran: Black," which focused on Iran’s “fashion police" (who dole out warnings to women who do not wear their hijab tightly enough to cover all of their hair or whose coats dangerously border immodesty), the reader was encouraged to question the fairness of such policies, particularly as women are presently its only targets. Yet as an American audience read with eyes wide and mouths agape that one could be fined for wearing eyeliner or pants that grazed the ankles, it was temporarily distracted from the freak show known as Hollywood, where an extra pound could mean the end of a career or the circus known as Capitol Hill, where a wrinkle or a bad haircut makes front page news as opposed to ones voting record.

Exactly what is it about the cultural “other” that makes them susceptible to criticism that we hardly apply to ourselves? It is as if our national vanity has grown to such a degree that we assume that women in other countries, particularly those that are more socially conservative, to be jealous of our exposed, heavily criticized, overly adorned American sense of physical self. To turn the tables, however, women who must cover their bodies are not plagued with the same fear of cellulite. Women who wear head-covering may not share our shame from a bad hair day. If anything the modesty achieved in the covering of ones body could potentially leave room for the exposure of ones intellect, an affinity for interesting discussion, and give new meaning to the term “body language” as it would depend on less obvious gesturing for success.

However, to make such a basic, people-are-different-but-that’s-ok! statement and simultaneously consider the form of rule in nations that resort to violence and oppression of women along with restriction of dress, movement, and speech seems naïve. In the United States, the adherence to Islamic principles of modesty before God are accompanied by voting rights, freedom of speech, and other civil liberties that come with citizenship, so the act of wearing the hijab or a chador (covering for the entire body) is a choice, one viewed by law with the same weight as wearing a mini-skirt or skinny jeans. In Saudia Arabia and Iran, however, as a result of theocratic rule, what one wears and how one is to behave are set by not only the law of the nation, but the law of God according to the Prophet Mohammed, making its legitimacy much more difficult to challenge not only within the country, but especially from an external perspective. How can one judge the conditions of women in such nations without, in turn, judging a belief system and its practices?

While what one is allowed to wear or say is entirely petty when analyzed alongside bodily harm (like female circumcision), both issues give way to complicated questions about how to navigate the struggle for women’s rights on a global level. It’s going to be a process that involves baby steps, but it’s not entirely impossible to challenge social norms for the sake of equal rights. The abolition of slavery and the subsequent struggle for civil rights provide a perfect example as they both forced people to think and exist far from their comfort level, especially in instances when hatred, enslavement, and segregation were legitimized by religious leaders and their teachings. Even with the budding amenities in oil rich regions and access to Western education, women in Saudia Arabia exist in a separated and unequal environment where they are relegated to a status that is not indicative of the progress before their eyes. That is not, however, to say that Saudi women live unfulfilled, sad, or worthless lives, but the very idea that one group of people in any society should have limited access to what is within their reach based solely on how they look or their gender seems to run counter to principles so many of us cherish, and puts a dent in using cultural relativism as an excuse to not become involved in struggles for equality.

-Wendi Muse READ MORE

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Hip Hop Made Me Do It (Hi Patrice)

Like most people, I think, I would have a hard time making the argument that people are particularly skilled at solving problems by targeting root causes. Even beyond the misinformed policies and practices of local and national governments, two of the (arguably) biggest forces shaping our world today are a "war on terror" with a split focus on poor middle eastern muslims and political dissidents, and global economic policies that purport to alleviate poverty by institutionalizing free trade. But even by these standards, I'm having a hard time writing off our most recent firestorm over hip-hop as just another misguided effort.

Everybody, it seems, has something to say about how terrible the language of hip-hop is (and has been) towards women. And, contrarian as i may be, I guess I'm going to have to concede that point. The objectification of women and general misogyny has become boilerplate in rap music, and the sins of the father (in this case, american patriarchy) in no way absolve the missteps of the progeny. As much as folks like Jimi Izrael may want to argue, that's not really up for debate. However, like terrorism and global poverty, misogyny can't really be tackled by what's currently being used to fight it.

To me, one of the most irksome parts of the current debate is how it gained so much momentum. The arguments thus far are definitely not revealing any concealed truths about collective priorities, but it still bugs me that in spite of a longstanding tradition of objectifying women in general popular music, what's bringing so much heat to hip-hop (and only hip-hop? really guys?) is Don Imus's half-assed attempt to deflect blame for his racist comments. ESSENCE magazine started its Take Back the Music Campaign in 2005, and the last decade has seen the rise of several efforts, feminist and otherwise, to interrogate the production and control of our media. That people really start to question the way sexist sentiments are bandied about only after Don Imus points his finger boggles my mind.

Secondly, inasmuch as words and ideas are damaging, I don't believe that a lot of the problematic ideas endemic to mainstream rap music are actually doing more harm than bad schools or public policy. Women may routinely be referred to as bitches and hos, but as we all know, either from every other issue of ESSENCE, or personal experience in higher-ed, black and latino women are outperforming black men in practically every area of achievement. Obviously my personal experiences don't represent any kind of hard data, but I cringe when I hear college-educated women with professional careers complaining about poor, uneducated black men tearing them down, and that appears to be the standard. It seems that what is being implied in a lot of this furor over misogynist rap lyrics, but rarely stated explicitly, is a fear that black women can't find decent black men to settle down with. And that's a totally fine, legitimate concern. However, when we frame huge national debates within such blatantly heterosexist parameters, we ignore the greater problems of reinforcing problematic gender roles, and furthermore, erase queer people from public discourse. That's the last thing black folks need.

Lastly, as my refrain always goes, I'm annoyed that rap music is getting so much scrutiny while the corporations that promote, distribute, and control it come out largely unscathed. The advent of Girls Gone Wild dvds didn't bring about such febrile discussion and hands-wringing, and neither did the mainstreaming of porn or the heavy coverage of oversexualized celebrities.

And of course, all of this is not to say that we need to completely dismiss the current debates over hip-hop. It's just painful to see such public engagement and media attention effectively wasted on problems too narrowly defined to effect real change.

-Anika Assassinationday READ MORE

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Comfort Women: Casualties of Peace

History is more than a simple set of words on a page. It exists as a shared experience for the society it influences; a compilation of thoughts on a specific moment in time as one remembers it conveyed as unwavering truth. Despite this faithful reverence we are pressed to devote to the subject, there are moments that greatly alter its high status and that challenge us to question the stories that encourage us to view America with the same eyes.

A recent review of historical documents and records by the Associated Press provides just that sort of challenge. The documents, some of which had never translated into English, are from a post-World War II Japan and show evidence that the U.S. troops stationed in Japan after the war were provided full access to brothels that housed “comfort women,” many of whom had been tricked and forced into a life of slavery initially to serve the Japanese troops' sexual appetites. During the war, the women were tortured through repeated beatings and rapes, a deprivation of basic human needs, and psychological trauma that came with an inability to communicate, as they were often conscripted from China, Korea, and other Asian territories of Japan and did not speak Japanese, a lack of positive human interaction, and a complete loss of contact with their families.

To know that the American authorities permitted their soldiers to benefit from the enslavement of women most certainly distorts any image of the men as “peacemakers” and reveals that for some members of Japanese society, the war never ended. The brothels, also known as “comfort stations,” opened exclusively to the occupation troops on August 18, 1945, a few days after Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces and World War II came to an end. Much like before, the stations were packed “elbow to elbow” with customers, arguably rapists considering the original methods used to force a majority of the women into prostitution and the inhumane conditions under which they worked. According to official documents, one witness states that the women “had some resistance to selling themselves to men who just yesterday were the enemy, and because of differences in language and race, there were a great deal of apprehensions at first.”

And while the stations were established by Japanese police officials and businessmen with the help of the interim government at the time, they found it difficult to control their new patrons despite their previous law enforcement experience. The men had trouble keeping the 500 to 600 daily brothel customers on their best behavior as there were few women and such a high demand for sex. This eventually led to the hiring of more women to work in the stations, but even then, the women serviced up to 60 men a day and for a rate equivalent to a dollar per customer. However, considering the dire economic and social situation for women immediately following the war as a result of the loss of family, limited job opportunities, and the prospect of seeking education having been rendered temporarily null and void due to the government transitioning, there was little opportunity available besides prostitution for the “Women of New Japan.” Some of the women working in the brothels were Japanese citizens with no previous experience as prostitutes who had answered the ads in order to eke a life for themselves and their families from the pay they would receive, but others, it is noted with suspicion, may have also been women (both Japanese and non-Japanese) who had been coerced or misled into the profession after the war, mirroring the previous acquisition of the comfort women for Japanese troops. In a memorandum from Lieutenant Colonel Hugh McDonald, a senior officer with the Public Health and Welfare Division of the occupations General Headquarters wrote, “The girl is impressed into contracting by the desperate financial straits of her parents and their urging, occasionally supplemented by her willingness to make such a sacrifice to help the family. It is the belief of our informants, however, that in urban districts the practice of enslaving girls . . . still exists.”

Indeed, even women and girls who had not sought jobs as sex workers were subject to similar treatment, though without pay. Incidents of rape and general sexual misconduct during the war and immediately after were not uncommon and were actually motivating factors for the Japanese to agree to provide the American troops with access to the comfort stations. One Japanese police official notes that he and his fellow policemen felt compelled to set up the stations “to create a breakwater to project regular women and girls.” The temporary legalization of prostitution, however, did not put a permanent dent in sexual assault crimes, and despite the prevalence of easily accessible prostitution, such crimes continue in the present in areas near military bases that house American troops. On September 4, 1995, three American military servicemen kidnapped, bound and gagged, and repeatedly gang raped a 12 year old Okinawan girl on her way home. On October 28, 1992, Private Kenneth Markle beat, raped, and mutilated a woman named Kum-E Yoon near a military camptown in Seoul, Korea. According to Chalmers Johnson in his book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, what is most disturbing about the accounts of crimes such as these is that despite their being frequent in number, the actual legal recourse for the victims is limited and punishment for the perpetrators of the crime are few, sending a clear message to both parties that rape and violence toward women are excusable crimes. The post-war American occupation of many Asian countries and their respective territories (including Korea, Japan, and the Philippines) has signaled not only a literal dominance geographically speaking, but a psychological one as well that reduces Asian women to sexual objects. Camptowns, or areas surrounding military bases, are often full of strip clubs and brothels with the respective nation’s women as their primary employees. As this may be some troops’ first and only contact with Asian women or even women of color at all, the connection between sexual behavior and race is inevitable, and proves to have lasting effects on both a personal and social level.

Stereotypes of Asian women as sexually available and of Asian men as emasculated and weak were arguably introduced during wartime exchanges between American troops and their Asian counterparts, and were also evident in similar exchanges between Japan and their former imperial territories (i.e. Korea). What is unfortunate about the stereotypes that emerged with the relationships that resulted from the war, however, is that unlike the war, they never saw an end. They continue to thrive in the present, not only in popular culture, but also in legal battles and historical representations. The Japanese government has wavered between two extremes regarding their role in the acquisition, use, and treatment of comfort women, at times apologizing, yet often employing silence regarding the subject and sometimes complete denial that it ever happened. Japanese history books provide a similar message as only in the 1980s did Japan admit to its role during WWII as “aggressive” and include accounts of violence toward neighboring countries. In cases regarding comfort women either seeking public apology and/or reparations, the results have been disappointing, often resulting in either a denial of the use of comfort women, despite official documentation that provides evidence to the contrary, or rendering the case moot as the incidents in question fall outside of the statute of limitations due to the time that has elapsed. In addition, many of the war crimes committed by the Japanese, including the acts of Unit 731, the research group on biological warfare that tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of people, were pardoned by the United States following WWII, signaling a legal death to the prospect of prosecuting officials for heinous acts that were committed toward women during the war.

Such cases send a frightening message regarding the future of other women of color experiencing the horrors of war, particularly in African countries like Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the Sudan, where militaries are not necessarily funded and controlled by the government, the documentation of the crimes may not exist, and women’s rights are far from government priorities. Hopefully the intervention of NGOs and human rights advocates, many of whom document their findings on war crimes, will serve a beneficial function in the instance that any women affected by the war seek to petition for resources, official apology, and a hand in history in the future.

For more information on Comfort Women, check out

-Wendi Muse READ MORE

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

We Love the Hate/ My Job is a Sinking Ship/ Dollar Day in New Orleans

There are some days when we go looking through the headlines for blog entries and we come across so many things that would be PERFECT for the day. For this entry, we’ve decided to reference a number of the things that made us twist our faces in confusion, shake our heads with disgust and one or two things that just made us smile.

This is obviously a joke, right? All the same, Crawford does bring up interesting points, and his silences bring up a couple more. Black women, as we all know, are outperforming their male counterparts in pretty much every arena of achievement. The problem with all of the misogyny in rap music, as it is being reported, is that it is hurtful to black women and warping black relationships. But what's also disturbing to me is the unquestioned heterosexist framing of the issue.

Yesterday was Loyalty Day! English teachers teaching Orwell get excited in the classroom.

Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake, but did anybody else know there’s a US Military channel on The US military hasn’t come up with such an effective way to market itself since its “Army of One” campaign. Some are arguing the DIY-nature of the videos on the site are an attempt by the military to clean up its besmirched image. I don’t know though. After watching a number of the videos on the site I’m left with even more a feeling of dissatisfaction than I get from watching FOX news reports.

And to round it out. One word, wolosso. Women in Guinea are being stripped naked and beaten for performing the wolosso dance made popular by local artist, Dollar DJ. The dance itself reminds me of many others I’ve seen since high school. I fully recognize that my subdued reaction to the dance is a direct result of my experiences and understand that some of the outrage created in Guinea is a result of the experiences and concerns there. None of that understanding though, excuses the violence.

In quantifiably more important news, The Hip Hop Project debuts May 11th to audiences who seem torn by the very existence of the film rather than the topics it covers. Produced by new film duo Bruce Willis and Queen Latifah, and directed by Matt Ruskin (think, Requiem for a Dream) the credit oddities alone seem to be enough to generate discussion. Not sure what this will do for ticket sales, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see