Caroline Picard, my friend and publisher (of Hip Hop Apsara), has been working on a novel for a while called Death of An Animatronic Band, which you can read about (and see video based on!) in her Next Big Thing interview here. The Next Big Thing is an ever-unfolding series of self-interviews (Caroline had been tapped by Mairead Case, and you can follow the chain backwards to discover a pretty diverse and amazing wealth of upcoming books and projects), so I’ve used the opportunity to clarify some things about my pending book New Girl Law, and asked MariNaomi and Melissa Gira Grant to write about their upcoming projects next.
The book’s called New Girl Law: Drafting a Future for Cambodia. It’s probably too late to change it, since the book comes out at the end of the month (March 31!), and it’s already been printed, so I expect this title will stay. If I wanted to change it at this point I’d probably have to do a mass recall from the distributor and buy a shit-ton of Sharpies, which is the kind of thing I would have been willing to do twenty years ago and now couldn’t possibly make time for.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I spent several years travelling to and doing work in Cambodia around women’s issues—freedom of expression, labor—it’s a very intense place. I’ve talked about it in interviews quite a bit here, here, here, here, and here. I kept a blog while I was there called Camblogdia, and it was quite popular. Then sometime during these years I published a short-run print version of some of the blog posts that together formed a cohesive narrative. This was on a press I started, Pressing Concern, that very very occasionally publishes material relevant to global women’s issues. That little booklet got some attention, and Cantankerous Titles offered to published a more fleshed out version called Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh, and I agreed to a four-book series, only the first two of which were under immediate contract. So New Girl Law is the second in this series. The first one talked about the zines we all made together, and what it was like to teach zines in a culture that doesn’t really value women’s public participation, or literacy, or media. This one is about some deeper issues that impact traditional American notions of freedom, and how truly difficult transnational gender issues can be. That’s an incredibly hard thing to write about, but when you stumble across a good way to address it, I think you owe it to folks to try.
What genre does your book fall under?
It’s creative non-fiction, in the memoir/journalistic mode. I don’t really do any writing that isn’t, basically, creative non-fiction. But it is interesting, with this book, that I had to lean more toward “creative” than “non-fiction” for a couple reasons: first, to protect the young Khmer women I wrote about. And second, to more accurately tell a story that hinges on various acts of censorship and self-censorship. Because—and this will make more sense if you’ve read the book—there’s information I just didn’t have access to, like why censorship happens, so I had to find creative ways of presenting options for why it happens to the reader. The truth is that folks who aim to silence rarely articulate why. That is what real censorship is about: not needing to explain silence, just to enforce it. A book, however, requires a why, or at least a series of maybe becauses. It was a challenge to do, as someone who values the tenets of journalism and the notion of truth quite a bit.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Oh man, I know a lot of people are tired of this question, but for me it’s a really exciting prospect, because there’s only one white American in the story, and obviously that would be played by Anne Hathaway, or Anne Heche, or Ann Magnuson, or Anne Bancroft, because of realism. Or, to get conceptual on you, maybe Quvenzhane Wallis, who by the time this film would be cast, is likely to really have gotten her young mind around the concept of playing people named Anne, plus is awesome, and only an idiot would not put her on the short list to play them in a movie, even if the skin tones and ages and heights don’t match up. Anyway, it’s acting. She could do it. But everyone else—32 young Cambodian women—that’s a wide-open field. So we’d go to Cambodia, do an open casting call, bring in a couple seasoned actresses there maybe, but really provide young women who have few job options besides the garment and sex industries an interesting opportunity. For the most part we’d be starting from scratch, but Cambodia used to have a really thriving film industry before the Khmer Rouge. What a great excuse to help foster and strengthen a revival: a film about a group of young women just getting comfortable but still meeting barriers while making their own media in an emerging democracy. Probably the biggest question, really, would be which emerging female Cambodian director would I hire to run the thing? I’m happy to start looking at CVs now, in case the funding gets dropped in my lap.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A group of young women in Cambodia create an imaginary set of policy for a country they love, while grappling with the very real conditions of uneven economic and social development. Plus giggling. Two sentences, sorry; I am pretty good at math.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
On this series, I’ve been working with Cantankerous Titles, an independent publisher in the Pacific Northwest, so I don’t have to go either route. They’re a small enough team and we go back far enough in history that we have a flexibility usually only available to self-publishers, but don’t have to bring an agent in to siphon off dollars from a budget. I like agents, for sure, and am bummed that modern publishing seems more and more to leave them out of the publishing equation, but this work is really intersectional—gender and race and international politics and economic factors and and and and and—and in a publishing world dominated by BS like Lean In, what I do takes more than the easy sales pitch. I find agents make projects with the easy sales pitch work better. Self publishing is great when you want to test out ideas or communicate directly to an established group of people—especially those without economic means. And small-press publishing has historically been best suited to teasing out complex political issues.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Well the very first draft took a year, because it was kept as a journal during the year-long course of events that I describe in the book. But then I transcribed interviews with some of the young women I worked with, to allow them to tell heir own stories, and that took some time. And shaping it all into the structure it eventually became took a few months as well.
But then something happened.
The publisher of Cambodian Grrrl (and now, New Girl Law) started getting some flak from some self-proclaimed young feminists in the field of independent publishing who adopted what they called the riot grrrl tradition. Working from a long-ago rumor that I haven’t been able to verify—so I’m not sure how anyone else would—they decided to ban him from an event in supposed support of freedom of expression where I was a featured speaker, leaving me in a very awkward position. I was told at various times that I didn’t understand, that these people knew riot grrrl, and I didn’t—all sorts of weird, dumb stuff that didn’t address the basic problem, that an organization supposedly in support of independent publishing and diverse participation and freedom of expression had just banned someone from participating. And not just any participant, but the publisher of a book on fostering diverse voices and freedom of expression in a hostile environment, the writer of which was being asked to talk about that work at the event.
Aside from the short-sightedness of such a decision, the denigration of my work, and the personal attacks that emerged from it, the incident came at a really bad moment for me, when I was trying to write a book that offered a fair and even-handed look at other incidents of censorship and self-censorship of young Cambodian women’s voices. I think people who strive to shut others up don’t realize how truly and totally damaging their actions are—a problem worsened significantly by the belief that such parties are being protective. It turns out, when you believe yourself to be right, you stop listening. And not listening, I have come to believe, is the root of all evil.
Anyway, I couldn’t do it. It was another nine months before I could look at the manuscript again. And what made me pick it up again, actually, was maybe even more significant. I met one of my heroes, May Summer Farnsworth, who is probably the person that had the most impact on the way that I thought about gender and social and media justice when I was actually doing riot grrrl-stuff in the 1990s. Now, I have no stock in the riot grrrl mythos and for perhaps obvious reasons am apt to distrust anyone who tries to get me to conform to it, but the conversation I had with May about how she navigated and experienced the end of a movement that she had helped foster, and the kinds of silencing that occurred within it—it became really important to me to find a way to articulate my own silence in the face of so many acts of silencing.
What other books would you compare this story to in its genre?
Three Cups of Tea and Reading Lolita in Tehran have both been comparative titles to this series, and people often come to it when, for example, they want to find a work that describes the global economic condition of women that’s actually by and about women to replace Half the Sky in a college curriculum. But those books all advocate for something; a course of action, an organization, Half the Sky: The Movement. I actually don’t want folks to do what I did in Cambodia, as I’ve made clear in other interviews. Don’t follow my path. Let curiosity and engagement and listening forge one for you.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The amazing young women of Cambodia. Why anyone would write about anyone else, ever, is beyond me.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
My publisher has placed one gazillion dollar bill in each physical copy of the book, so there’s a really big financial incentive to buy it at only $9.95. You make, like, whatever a gazillion minus 9.95 is, not to mention that gazillion dollar bills are very rare. Of course, it might have fallen out, or a bookstore browser or disreputable distributor or bookseller may have pocketed it, so we can’t guarantee you that money. But it’s a pretty nice gesture, you gotta admit.
There has been some feminist analysis of copyright law, and this is obviously worth looking at closely.
Our legal framework is assumed to work from and support a neutral (read: diverse) human base of access to resources, when in fact it does not. We know this already, when we think about it: family law is almost wholly gendered, by design; employment law less explicitly so. Copyright, at least according to Ann Bartow (in “Fair Use and the Fairer Sex,” published in The Journal of Social Policy and the Law, Vol 14:3, pp 551-583) would be similar to the latter variety of laws—containing language that may not be explicitly gendered, but fostering outcomes that affect men, women, and transfolk differently. (The Copyright Act of 1976, she points out, goes so far as to use gender-neutral language, including references to a creator’s “children” and this gender-neutral substitute for widow or widower: “the author’s surviving spouse under the law of the author’s domicile at the time of his or her death, whether or not the spouse has later remarried” [p 555].)
Yet to Bartow, “Copyright laws were written by men to embody a male vision of the ways in which creativity and commerce should intersect” (p. 557).
I would state this differently, and this is one reason I find feminist analysis important, but not always correct. In my experience men tend not to gender their expressions, ideas, or plans at all. In fact, for four years of teaching on gender and cultural production (in my SAIC course Ladydrawers) I have begun each semester with the writing assignment “describe a time you felt gendered.” Women and trans folk come back with a variety of answers: when I was very very young, on my way to school this morning when someone harassed me in the street, whenever I shop for clothes, etc. But only one cismale that has ever taken this course has ever had a first response substantially different from: “I have never been gendered and have no idea what you’re talking about.” (A black cismale student once implied that he had been raced, but never gendered, to which I had to explain that unless someone had asked him to state a pronoun preference, then he had always clearly been gendered male.)
My point is not to be overly generous by clarifying this point, but to open up a potential avenue for change: Our current congress is 82% male (an improvement over the 96% male congress that passed the Copyright Act of 1976) and I choose to believe that our elected representatives create legislation around what they believe to be a universal (or “American universal”) vision of the ways in which creativity and commerce should intersect, but that they are often wrong. This is a nuanced way of describing how self-interest influences policy, but I think it’s a more realistic one. No one ever believes themselves to be corrupt; still, corruption happens.
I would also argue that our political economy comes heavily into play here. The imagined environment we inhabit is constantly and heavily influenced by capitalism, by the idea that a person’s right is to create and profit as much as possible from, a system that requires loudness and physicality and dominance. These are, of course, part and parcel of intellectual property rights laws, if not also the undergirders thereof, but I believe it’s important to realize that cismen don’t always enter a field to win; but they do tend not to question whether or not that’s why the field is there.
The end result, however, is the same. Copyright laws were divided along a fault line that breaks up around traditional notions of gender. These laws have therefore not only offered protection to traditionally masculine forms of cultural production, but have embedded a values system deep within our culture that primarily prizes masculine forms of cultural production.
“The current model of U.S. copyright law, within which the copyrights in creative works can be characterized as pieces of saleable ‘property,’ is a masculine construct,” Bartow continues. “Certain kinds of works, those best suited for industrialized commoditization, have been heavily propertized through a symbiotic blend of copyright and contract law precepts, while other forms of arts and crafts, those that have been relegated to the domestic realm, are less often the subject of rigorous copyright protections or restrictions” (p 559).
More commercial works tend to be described in more detail, she continues, the notion of protection being one that is most called upon to prevent unwanted commercial exploitation. This in turn, because “protection” after “misuse” usually involves infringement litigation, promotes the notion that commercial value of a work is seen to be intrinsically connected to copyright protectability. (This, too, I have seen come up over and over in talks around the country on notions of intellectual property rights laws and labor issues. Even lawyers sometimes overlook or forget that commercial value is not a primary precept of copyright eligibility, partially because, in effect, the economic reality of infringement trials is that they are too expensive to pursue for many solely for ideological purposes.)
Of course, the fair use doctrine does reestablish copyright as potentially non-monetarily rewarding, and Bartow argues that this, too, could be construed as gendered:
“To the extent that women and men may construe fairness differently,” she writes, “the definition of fair use is susceptible to gendered shadings. Fair use determinations invoke ethical and moral considerations, which many observers believe are influenced by gender. The cultural gendering of fair use is observable when, for example, a representative of the Recording Industry of America asserts about peer-to-peer music uploading and downloading: ‘I don’t think your mother had in mind this kind of sharing.’ (Brock Read, Industry Executives and Copyright Activists Debate File Sharing at a Cornell U. Colloquium, Chronicle of Higher Education., Apr. 29, 2005) (p 560).
“Mothers” in this example are presented at arbiters of right and wrong, Bartow notes (p 561). What she doesn’t go on to identify is the subtle implication that that may be the prescribed feminine role: that women may not also, on top of that, be assumed to be infringers. Indeed, this plays out in occasional big media stories when, for example, the Girl Scouts of America were asked to pay royalties to Ascap in 1996 for doing the Macarena, or when a nine-year-old girl had her laptop confiscated in Finland last year for trying to download a popstar’s album illegally (although with the popstar’s permission.) Repeated descriptions of folks targeted as not only young but girls—a word that appears frequently in headlines—is a type of distinction missing entirely from, for example, this story, where the infringer is not gendered at all until the third paragraph. (Note also the frequency of stories where “mothers” are asked to pay fines over illegal downloads but “fathers” appear not to be.)
So this is one way a values system embedded in copyright law plays out in our daily (if mediated) lives: female actors tend to be described as inherently just or mere victims of larger injustice, while male actors are always active players, responsible for their own decisions.
Now this also seems to play out in other areas of intellectual property rights law, too.
Jennifer E. Rothman writes, in “Sex Exceptionalism in Intellectual Property” published in Stanford Law and Policy Review, 119 2012, “Gender and sex discrimination also seep into USPTO adjudications. [R]eferences to male genitalia seem to fare better than those to female anatomy. For example, Big Pecker for t-shirts was registered, but Bearded Clam for a restaurant was not because of its purported reference to female genitalia. Pussy for a drink was denied registration, while Cocktales for entertainment services was registered after an initial denial.” (124)
But. But. Here is the thing. This doesn’t play out the way we expect it might.
The thing is this: when copyright laws were constructed, they were intended to protect external modes of expression and creation, but failed in all ways to define internal processes as jurisdictional. This may seem at first a set of criteria both neutral and logical, but this division also broke along traditional gender lines, and notions of the “internal” encompassed the “domestic” which of course more often than not means “traditionally feminine/invisible labor.” Slightly more troubling is that the apparent neutrality of laws that protect certain forms of cultural production but not others has embedded in our culture a values system we no longer question. It is my aim today to point to that values system, and start to tease out the shape of its impact.
The Copyright Act of 1976 defines the following as works of authorship, therefore worthy of protection:
- literary works
- musical works, including any accompanying words
- dramatic works, including any accompanying music
- pantomimes and choreographic works
- pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
- motion pictures and other audiovisual works
- sound recordings
- architectural works
To drive the significance of externality home, the article continues: “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”
If you’re at all familiar with IP law, this won’t be shocking. (Still, many aren’t.) Expressions of ideas are said to be eligible for copyright protection, but the ideas themselves are not. This is thought to be the bedrock principle at work, although it is something of a movable one. If you look carefully at the above list and really trace back the cultural products you may have consumed, admired, considered, utilized, or otherwise come across today, for example, you may notice that items of clothing, food, and bedding are missing—cooking, sewing, and quilting not by definition being eligible for protection. Looking back over your day, some of these uncopyrightable cultural products may have been particularly creative and others may not have been. Maybe your sandwich was amazing but your t-shirt thrifted. Then again, when’s the last time you heard a genuinely innovative song on the radio? And we know how stridently that’s protected.
So the list of protected modes of expression seems a little ambiguously constructed. Why would cooking be a process but not a piece of music? Does this mean I can just rip off Nick Cave’s Sound Suits or H&M’s latest collection? Of course not, and as a thinking person I would not want to, but I’m doing some research right now into when cooking, sewing, and quilting have been or become eligible for copyright (and in the latter case, trademark and possibly patent) protection. My suspicion is that this may also be gendered, but we will see.
One argument for this accidently gendered division goes that ineligible works were not traditionally works of sole or joint authors, but works created by group process, and this has a contemporary resonance, around the mode of art creation considered social practices. (I find this a little specious, having seen multiple-piece orchestras live and made quilts on my own, but I can perceive a logic.) Another is that cooking, sewing, and quilting were intended to create products exclusively for domestic use, and thus would not necessarily require protection. (This argument strikes me as weird and potentially self-serving of the 94th congress that passed the law, a 96% male group of legislators, who appear not to have foreseen the pending embrace of the free market and the inevitable commercialization of all goods, all the time, but whatevs.) There’s the whole relevant issue of “published works,” although that becomes a little complicated as regards sculpture. We could also argue that notions of authorship themselves, and related notions of genius and ownership and access to resources and material goods are all themselves already gendered, and contribute to a very lopsided view of who has access to making culture, and who just plain old does not, and eventually we will.
But the thing right now is this: copyright law offered protection to traditionally masculine modes of cultural production, and offered none to traditionally feminine modes of cultural production. And however that shakes out in terms of actual ownership over individual cultural products—whoever makes them, men or women or other—I believe that establishing a legal framework for protecting one set of labor practices but not others contributes to ongoing gender inequities. Which is a nice way of saying: copyright law upholds misogyny and transphobia.
It is difficult to imagine any system, however, that does not uphold misogyny and transphobia. Still I believe we must try, particularly as it has been clear for decades that copyright law just does not work and desperately needs to change anyway. So let’s start here: What if internal processes were eligible for copyright protection? Not just objects used or made inside the home but those created and conceptualized inside the body? If ideas and antibodies and babies had been eligible for copyright protection since 1976, I strongly believe the global economic condition of people who are not cismen right now would look completely different.
Let’s start on April 10, 1710. It will not surprise you to know if you know me that the British Statute of Anne was the first government-enforced copyright act, named for the reigning Queen. It was presented as “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning” and stipulated a 14-year period of protection over published texts, during which time the author or whoever the author had granted rights to, but no one else, could reprint books. Prior to this period, private licenses and agreements had supposedly guaranteed these same rights, but privatization (as it does) had led to rampant piracy and censorship.
Fourteen years seemed a reasonable term, and modern narratives about copyright tend to focus on it as clear-headed and fair. It could be extended for another 14-year term, but the “Encouragement of Learning” part really only came into effect at the end of that term: when it was over, so was authorial control over the publication of those materials. It’s also important to note that technology at the time was limited, as were lifespans. Fourteen years of control over a text, which could only move through certain social strata anyway—when average life expectancy was in the thirties, and literary education less easy to accrue—started to approach the life of the artist, as well as the physical distance a creator might be expected to travel in that time. In other words, the law was human-scale.
What’s also remarkable about the statute, however, was that it identified the clear and present danger, that less scrupulous types had—and this was written into the law itself—“of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing, or causing to be Printed, Reprinted, and Published Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings, to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families.”
It is the establishment of that clear and present danger that has me so charmed.
Laws should do that. They should clearly lay out why they exist, what they intend to protect against, the punishment at stake for violators, and the rights and privileges they aim to support for those who feel or can prove they have been violated against. Laws should appear in plain, immediately comprehensible language and of course there should not be very many of them and the entire community affected by them should be supported by the governing system aiming to uphold them in acquiring the skills necessary to read, grasp, and change them.
I realize that somewhere in the middle of that last paragraph we all packed up and moved to crazytown, but this is really how I believe governing systems should operate, at whatever scale they are implemented. And although you could fairly easily discern my beliefs on these matters for yourself, I want to be very clear in these texts about laying out my own presumptions and desires about legislation and government, because I believe what isn’t stated—and what becomes, through a lack of clarity, the clear and present danger in effect—is a matter of grave concern.
There’s a pretty great piece by feminist legal scholar Ann Bartow called “Fair Use and the Fairer Sex: Gender, Feminism, and Copyright Law” that, even though it doesn’t focus exclusively on women’s fair use claims (an article I would very much like to read), does set up an understanding of women’s potential disengagement from intellectual property rights issues in toto.
Bartow rightly establishes the crossover area, between gender and IP law, as a largely ignored one, unaddressed by most of the popular or big-name speakers, writers, scholars, and theorists on this issue. Who are, for the most part, men. (White and straight, to boot, although we’re concentrating on gender for now.)
Why this erasure happens is almost impossible to discern. My own book Unmarketable looks at IP struggles in the context of labor rights, but is rarely listed among the required texts for classes to which it is directly relevant—not to mention IP theory. Is it because it isn’t IP-focused enough? Not punk enough? Not good enough? Or is it that the teacher is misogynist, or my enemy, or not very well read? Or that the larger systems that list would be situated in—academia, culture, society, the US, North America, America, the world—are misogynist, or capitalist, or just plain lame?
The questions get overwhelming fast, and our disinterest in dismantling this particular behemoth Goliath during a lifetime of fighting regular-sized Goliaths is understandable. I can’t answer them for you, but Bartow argues effectively that the oppression of women has some identifiable legislative underpinnings in copyright legislation. Specifically, she writes, “the copyright infrastructure plays a role, largely unexamined by legal scholars, in helping to sustain the material and economic inequality between women and men.” (Bartow, 1)
I’ll get back to Bartow’s work later, but here’s a not irrelevant anecdote: A few weeks ago I posted on LinkedIn that I was coming to DC to look at the crossover between gender and IP law, on a research residency. I don’t believe I gave any further information, although I may have. I’m not going to log back in to check. I look at my account every four or five months, usually when someone (like a family member) has tried to connect with me, and I am convinced that if I fail to respond to their “invitation” they will think me dead and then, I don’t know what. Claim all my stuff or something. At which point I just click through: Accept, Accept, Accept. Who cares. Then I log off for another four or five months.
This time, within a couple of hours, I got an email. It was from the director of a state-funded museum whom I had apparently just connected with. It was not sent from his work email address, which would have been available to me online, but he had included it in the text of his email, alongside his official title and a link to his bio, suggesting I verify his identity, and otherwise situating him in a professional context, etc., etc. Prompted, he said, by my stated interest in gender and IP law—but without having inquired about it—he had taken it upon himself to send along eight full-color, deliberately pornographic, digital images of paintings of people engaging in explicit and taboo sex acts, himself included. He also described the scenario in which he created them, in some detail. I haven’t mentioned it to anyone yet who doesn’t find it offensive, including men, including folks who do sex work, and including those who make interesting porn, which this wasn’t. But I was more than offended, I think: I was unsure what to do.
A man in power who works in my field (and who apparently I am somehow socially affiliated with, or could be, or might be soon) during an economic recession, in an extremely competitive field, had forced me to respond to an expression of his sexuality, on his own terms. He happens to also make a living off of my tax dollars, which he chose to use to legitimate what I would have to term here sexual harassment (instead of the more appropriate response, to be concerned that I would have him fired). I am no wuss, and I am no prude. But the appearance of a series of unsolicited penises inside my home in America 2013, all things considered, was momentarily paralyzing.
Whatever he believed the intent was, it was clear to me: he wanted me to view these sexualized images, without having sought my consent, in a deliberate abuse of professional power. And while he would likely have been prompted by any specious reasoning he could have mustered at the time, the one he chose happened to be the one that, for me, conceptually underpins the very notion of who it is believed owns culture and who it is believed does not.
Yet this guy, despite that his art is shitty, he is clearly an ass with a narcissistic personality disorder, and he here displayed the deductive reasoning of a forgotten sock—this guy accidently provided a solid metaphor for women claiming an interest in gender and IP law: penis.
I’m in DC. And I am here, it feels like, after a long absence. Not from DC but from trying to write openly and frankly about something that is very distressing, from a very personal point of view and on the Internet. Although truth be told it has been several years since I was in DC. Not that you care, you are on the Internet. You don’t care where I am.
Actually I suspect that might not be true. I think my readers like it when I travel and they like hearing about how things work elsewhere and they like it when I get all annesplainey about other cultures, and I admit that I like that too and I am good at it and it is important. But the follow-up to Cambodian Grrrl, New Girl Law, just went to press (like almost exactly three minutes ago) and I end it with the assertion that maybe we need to concentrate a bit more on domestic women’s issues and WHAT IS THE DEAL WITH THOSE ANYWAY, which I have been doing for the last year regardless, but which I also think is a good point that I made in that book you can’t read yet, sorry: that US women’s issues are a mess.
We know that they’re a mess, or at least those that are paying attention know that they’re a mess, and a lot of us are paying attention and there are a lot of reasons they’re a mess, for sure. But some of them are very deeply embedded in the way we think about culture and it is really getting to be time to root them out.
I’m here in DC to do that, or to start to do that and offer a model for how to think about doing that, and because a lot of what I am reading and thinking about and pondering isn’t widely known or comprehended, and there are a lot of dots left to connect, I thought I would blog about it. I know you people like when I blog about things. Also, as a Research Resident a Provisions Library’s Copy Rights program, I’m sort of charged with creating a public project. There’s also something about the Internet that conceptually fits with questions of intellectual property rights laws and women’s issues and silencing and voice and democracy. I’ll get to that in a future post.
But this is a personal decision, too. I’ve felt really burned by writing personal-ish things on the Internet lately, or expressing myself in any way on any Internet platform, and sometimes also by appearing in public, and in general just by being a woman who is a cultural producer and has a lesser amount of fear than most. I’ve been feeling a little punished for that.
So what I’m going to do, basically, is read to you for the next few weeks, or for you, and translate this exotic world of intellectual property rights law and maybe you’re saying oh boring but you are wrong. As usual, I welcome your interesting and engaged feedback and ideas and will very clearly not stand for bullshit because I don’t have time for it.
You know what I do have time for? Pies. If you want to bring me one here in DC I promise to eat it all.
by Melissa Gira Grant and Anne Elizabeth Moore
Nick Kristof is a big fan of workplace evaluation for teachers—so we hope he won’t mind if we gather and share the following by way of conducting a performance review of our own.
The occasion? This week Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half The Sky premieres on PBS as a two-part mini series, providing an opportunity for his audience to step into his well-worn white savior shoes. From this unique vantage point, viewers will survey the lives of young women whom Kristof and WuDunn have chosen as the best ciphers for their agenda, to, as the subtitle of their book puts it, “turn oppression into opportunity.”
Yet even linguistically, something nags about that title: one does not go from being oppressed to being opportuned—or do they? Perhaps a better question to ask is: for whom does Kristof’s particular mode of humanitarianism provide opportunity? Some young women may benefit, certainly. But NGOs, private-public partnerships, and other enterprising (and entrepreneurial) young do-gooders are jumping into the fray, too. All turning oppression into opportunity—but ultimately not doing much about eradicating the oppression in the first place.
When Kristof is not proposing dubious schemes for advancing women’s rights—like arresting sex workers in order to “rescue” them from prostitution, or enthusiastically supporting the creation of “sweatshops” to accommodate sex workers and other women in the global south—he is marshalling support for such “solutions,” enlisting folks from George Clooney to President Obama, and from evangelical youth missionaries to the United Nations. Everyone seems to love that he’s created simple solutions (Video games! Donating money! Building schools!) but few note that such “solutions” fail to address the deeply embedded, long-standing, structural problems that cause poverty and gender inequity in the first place.
Let’s not forget that although Kristof may position himself like a walking, talking, reporting NGO, Kristof is not himself a charitable venture. He is a media-maker: his job is to talk and get talked about. Each young woman’s story that he tells bolsters up his own brand; each solution he offers casts himself in a prime-time starring role.
Nicholas Kristof: A Collective Evaluation
The Soft Side of Imperialism (Laura Agustín)
Here he is beaming down at obedient-looking Cambodian girls, or smiling broadly beside a dour, unclothed black man with a spear, whilst there he is with Ashton and Demi, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. He professes humility, but his approach to journalistic advocacy makes himself a celebrity. He is the news story: Kristof is visiting, Kristof is doing something.
In interviews, he refers to the need to protect his humanitarian image, and he got one Pulitzer Prize because he “gave voice to the voiceless”. Can there be a more presumptuous claim? Educated at both Harvard and Oxford, he nevertheless appears ignorant of critiques of Empire and grassroots women’s movements alike. Instead, Kristof purports to speak forgirls and women and then shows us how grateful they are.
The White Savior Industrial Complex (Teju Cole)
I want to tread carefully here: I do not accuse Kristof of racism nor do I believe he is in any way racist. I have no doubt that he has a good heart. Listening to him on the radio, I began to think we could iron the whole thing out over a couple of beers. But that, precisely, is what worries me. That is what made me compare American sentimentality to a “wounded hippo.” His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated “disasters.” All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.
Be Aware: Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics (Elliott Prasse-Freeman)
Kristof’s ability to frame and deliver the world’s horrors to millions—in a way that keeps those millions coming back for more—seemingly should make him worthy of the hero worship that has attended his rise. Indeed, what is worse than a privileged bourgeois population that knows nothing of the way the other half (or rather the other 99 percent) lives? And yet the devil as always remains in the details—or in Kristof’s case, the lack of details. For, when exploring why Kristof has become a high priest of liberal opinion in America (arrogating the right to speak on almost any sociopolitical phenomenon, provided it involves an easily identifiable victim), we crash into what can be called Kristof’s anti-politics: the way his method and style directly dehumanize his subjects, expelling them from the realm of the analytical by refusing to connect them to systems and structures that animate their challenges.
Mr. Kristof, I Presume? (Kathryn Mathers)
All of the copies of Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky were checked out of the libraries of nearby universities last summer. My students know that there are problems with the development and aid industries and can even offer biting critiques of celebrity interventions in aid programs in Africa. But they believe that they can do it better, that their generation understands the failures and can solve them, and that their intentions are pure enough to overcome the cynics. Their confidence is made possible in part by the examples of individual young Americans just like them establishing and running educational, health, and technological programs in Africa trumpeted by a serious journalist like Kristof in a serious newspaper like the New York Times. Kristof’s writing about humanitarianism in Africa makes possible a very limited but accessible form of aid by asking his readers to focus on what they can do and the importance of one individual saving another. So, no, I do not want to write about Nicolas Kristof. But I must, because he has claimed such an authoritative voice in conversations about Americans’ relationship to Africans that he has somehow made the act of writing about them an actual intervention in the lives of poor people in the world.
You need Nicholas Kristof (Dan Moshenberg)
If you’re an African girl in trouble, there are only two things you can rely on. Your courage … and Nicholas Kristof. At least, that’s what Kristof would have us believe.
The story Kristof tells is the story he’s told before. This time he’s in Sierra Leone. A 15-year-old girl named Fulamatu is raped by her neighbor. This happens repeatedly, and Fulamatu remains in terrified and terrorized silence. She loses weight, becomes sick. Finally, when two girls report that the pastor had tried to rape them, Fulamatu’s parents put two and two together, and asked their daughter, who reports the whole series of events. They take her to the doctor, where she is found to have gonorrhea. Fulamatu lays charges against the pastor, who flees.
That’s where Kristof comes in… He argues for US Congressional passage for the International Violence Against Women Act, but his story suggests a more important line of action. The story says, if you’re Black and a girl, in `a place like Sierra Leone’, you better have the phone number of a prominent White American Male. You need Nicholas Kristof.
Obama, Please Ignore Kristof For Now (Melissa Gira Grant)
Nicholas Kristof has been issuing ad-hoc Presidential guidance on the sex trade for years now. The archive of his editorial column in the New York Times serves as a record of his proposals. In 2004, he “bought the freedom” of two women working in brothels in Poipet, Cambodia with the intention of returning them to their villages. Kristof wasn’t prosecuted under US law for the purchase of sex slaves — he wrote of this sale as an “emancipation,” and in 2005, he was back in Poipet to check up on the women. One had returned to prostitution, prompting Kristof to offer another round of recommendations to President Bush, pleading with him to commit the United States to a New Abolitionism. Now he’s back with his 2009 agenda, delivered like the others, as a kicker to his column. In it, he asks that the Obama administration pressure the Cambodian government to bust more brothels, on the premise that the risk of going to jail for selling sex will hurt brothel owners’ profits and will protect more women from abuse and violence. Yet such stings and raids are already the centerpiece of a disastrous crackdown on Cambodian prostitution.
Nick Kristof to the rescue! (Irin Carmon)
The narrative proceeded in a familiar fashion: There were villains, even some with military ties; then there is a rescue. Kristof tweeted, “Girls are rescued, but still very scared Youngest looks about 13, trafficked from Vietnam.” And then, “Social workers comforting the girls, telling them they are free, won’t be punished, rapes are over.” He was accompanied by Cambodian anti-trafficking activist and forced-prostitution survivor Somaly Mam. Post-presidential niece Lauren Bush chimed in perkily, “Awesome reporting by @NickKristof as the (sic) raided a brothel in Cambodia with @SomalyMam this morning!” The trouble is, nothing involving sex work is ever quite as cut-and-dried as a sweeping rescue.
The Rescue Industry (Paper Bird)
During the Egyptian Revolution, when the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof was wandering Midan Tahrir giving the uprising his ponderous approval, I told friends that if Mubarak wanted to get at least one pesky journalist off his back, he need only give Nick directions to Clotbey Street — the capital’s ancient red-light district — and tell him there were girls who needed saving. Such is Kristof’s passion to rescue misused and trafficked women that he would have dropped everything to head there. And given that Nick permits no struggle for human freedom to go on without him, the revolt would surely have been suspended, and Mubarak would still be in charge.
A human trafficker defends Cambodian sweatshops (Erik W Davis)
Kristof suggests that an expansion of bad sweatshop conditions (and despite relatively better conditions, Cambodian factories are largely sweatshops) is a solution to poverty. He’s full of it. His heart might be in the right place, but he’s stopped using his reason. The factories are not doing the job that development economists expected it to do from the beginning, which was to industrialize the country and expand the off-farm job base (and therefore, reduce poverty). Today, 91% of Cambodian heads of households still list agriculture as their primary employment, and at least 80% still live in the impoverished provinces. The factories won’t expand (indeed, as I point out, they are rapidly shrinking) just because Kristof thinks that the scavengers at Stung Meanchey dump could use a better form of subsistence.
FarmVille (Maggie McNeill)
If Kristof had ever demonstrated some actual regard for the complex and often contradictory desires, needs and behaviors of real women I might not read this subtext into his silly game, but he hasn’t; females of every age are simply props to him, little game-pieces whose function is the aggrandizement of Nicholas Kristof. He treats the real lives of sex workers as FarmVille players treat the existence of their virtual creatures: as things to be manipulated for profit and “points”. He uses the stories of girls to build up his own reputation, exaggerating their lurid details and reworking them into enslavement porn from which he reaps the profit while condemning others as “pimps” (talk about pot calling kettle black…) He participates in Hollywood cowboy “brothel raids”, then never stops to wonder what happened to the women he “rescued” afterward. And he no more bothers to consider what the girls he “rescues” and writes about might want than a FarmVille player considers the desires of his digital farm animals. To Kristof, individual women are as interchangeable and passive as endlessly-duplicated digital beasts, and our function is to stay wherever he puts us and earn him money and status.
Cross-posted from POSTWHOREAMERICA, where Melissa put it up earlier this morning.
Melissa Gira Grant writes on gender, sexuality, politics, and more often than she would like, on badvocacy like Half The Sky. She is indebted to the sex worker rights’ activists around the world and in Cambodia in particular for their firsthand accounts of the damage this dude has wrought.
Anne Elizabeth Moore has been working in and around young women’s issues in Cambodia for five years. Her book Cambodian Grrrl has been suggested as a Half The Sky alternative, for folks made reasonably uncomfortable with white neoliberal portrayals of feminism.
I received this ballsy email this morning, the third invitation I’d received in two days to “cover,” “donate to” or “help out” an all- or mostly-male comics event:
I thought I’d post my response here in case it proved helpful to folks:
Hi,My name’s Anne Elizabeth Moore. I’m a cultural critic, and I used to run The Comics Journal, Punk Planet, and the Best American Comics. Comics-wise, I’m currently working with a collective based here in Chicago called Ladydrawers that researches and makes comics about the comics industry. You can read a story about what we do, here.According to our most recent findings, which you can read here, women, trans, and non-binary gender creators make up 46% of the comics-creating industry, and men make up only 54%. Yet I see your list of invited guests currently far exceeds 54% men. We would be happy to come to, or even consider supporting your event, should you choose to more closely reflect the world of comics as it exists and invite more women and trans people.It’s not actually that hard. CAKE did it.Good luck!aem