Sunday, May 31, 2009

"Quintessentially Chinese": Kung Fu Panda? Really? Edition

So, if you're a nerd like me, you've probably seen Mirrormask, and if you're even more of a nerd, you'd have noted the conversation Nan was having on the phone as Helena was entering the living room, where she's talking on the phone, and she says, "Something quintessentially French."

The word "quintessentially" repeats a while later, but somehow, the phrase "quintessentially Chinese" popped into my head. And I had no idea what it meant. I googled the phrase, and I got reviews of Kung Fu Panda. Which is apparently quintessentially Chinese. I don't know how quintessentially Chinese something like that can get when its main character is voiced by a white man starring a hero that has a problem with eating. I mean, come the fuck on. All the awesome Chinese heroes available and you guys wrote a fucking panda? And some moron writers have the gumption to ask why "such a quintessentially Chinese movie was made in Hollywood"?

If you wanted "quintessentially Chinese" movies, Stephen Chow has made a whole fucking slew of them, thank you very much! Also, A Chinese Tall Story, which somehow has made NO FUCKING IMPACT ON THE GLOBAL MOVIE-WATCHING MARKET, despite its insane digital graphics effects. You can't even IMDB that shit for anything! Yet it was amazingly cheesy and wonderful and starred quintessentially Chinese heroes with quintessentially Chinese themes (duty vs. love, sacrifice) and didn't have a shitty ending. (OK, shitty endings are also apparently quintessentially Chinese. See House of Flying Daggers, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, AND Curse of the Golden Flower or whatever it's called. Fucking blockbusters. They always pick the shitty endings.)

Not this trash about a fucking panda that apparently eats a shitload of stuff other than bloody bamboo! And has a problem with that! Look, give pandas a fucking break! They can't help their metabolism! How can that be used to factor into a story about conquering fat hatred?

Anyways. I'll end this post with a link to something that's not quintessentially Chinese, but has elements which are, and then some. It sort of passes the Bechdel test, too. Be prepared to suspend a lot of disbelief.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Love Is Rational: Goodness Edition

I've been having this thought for a while. And it's a line of reasoning that works even if you believe that humans are ultimately self-serving creatures. Heck, it's a line of reasoning that works especially if you believe that humans are ultimately self-serving.

Let's just say that each person always has a choice between two kinds of actions, one which is "good", that is to say, extends a benefit to a fellow human being, and one which is "evil", that is to say, harms a fellow human being.


Under what circumstance is it self-serving to do the "evil" action of hurting someone else?

And if it is not self-serving, is it a rational decision?

Let's just say Bob is a greedy-ass fuck. Aight? He'll do anything he can to get what he wants. Does it benefit him more to extend goodwill in his efforts to collect stuff, or does it benefit him to alienate others in his quest?

Now, common sense says that it would probably do Bob a world of good if he could also extend stuff to others in his quest to acquire more stuff.

To be self-serving or self-preserving is, from what I've seen so far of people, pretty normal! Even among crazy people on the outskirts of society! So wouldn't it make more sense to do good than not?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Turning Away From Religion: The Frog Bit

So on some of my identification papers, my religion is listed - Agama: Buddha (Religion: Buddhist)

In secondary school, I was a regular attendant of the Friday meetings of the Buddhist Association at school. Partly because I HAD to be part of some extra-curricular activity, partly because I genuinely did believe I was a Buddhist then, partly because we had a prayer session where we recited pali prayers, followed by a session of singing. Partly also because Chinese culture is somewhat saturated with Buddhistic references, but not what we learnt at those association meetings - our brand of Buddhism was Theravadan, which is the oldest school of Buddhism, and thus rather devoid of all Chinese myth funness.

I was part of this Association from Form 1 until Form 4 and I tended to skip meetings only twice a year.

I was feeling rather lukewarm about the whole idea by the time I hit Form 5, and discovered Wicca. (Which I don't practise either. I'm a horrible heathen like that.) But it was earlier than that that I found some holes in the karmic logic that occurred in Buddhistic lore told to me that I didn't understand, and I thought I would understand it when I grew older.

There was this frog.

This is one of the stories told about the Buddha Sidharta's sermons.

There was this frog, and while the Buddha was preaching, it had jumped out of the pond, and listened to a few words. It was stepped on a few minutes after listening, and because it had listened to the Buddha, it was reborn into a higher state of being.

This was meant to illustrate just how powerful the Buddha's words were, that it could raise a lowly frog into a being higher than a human. Being young and superstitious that I was, I thought that this was really fucking awesome.

Except, of course, that it's not, once I thought about it further. A frog jumps out of the pond just in time to hear a sermon and suddenly it's been reborn into a higher plane than humanity? What the devil is all that self-perfecting stuff that the monks do for then?

Although, apparently, only humans on this plane can achieve Nirvana.

Wait, why? Never found an answer. But apparently there's something special about the state of humanity which offers this much promise to people seeking a way out of Suffering.

But still, it seemed so against the grain of karma, so filled with coincidence, and yet coincidence s richly rewarded. A lot of talk is done about karma and cancelling out one's past sins and whatnot and how karma is so wonderfully intertwined with life that everyone gets their due for stuff they've done in the past eventually - which sounds a suspicious lot like the argument for intelligent design.

I quit buying it. Mostly because if someone wronged me in this life, I don't want justice in another life. Probably because I don't think holding grudges that long is healthy. Probably because I'll get over it by the time I'm dead (I hope) and getting ready to be reborn.

Maybe I got cynical - a frog is just a frog, and a spirit is just a spirit (yes, I believe in these, we have some nasty-ass ones in Malaysia, and I'm so not taking my chances with them), and words wouldn't - or rather, shouldn't, elevate or lower one or the other just by their hearing them.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Lately I've become more uncomfortable with this term.

The way I've always used it is how I imagine many of my Malaysian peers do - a person's skin colour (and attendent racial and cultural baggage) doesn't have an impact on their productivity, potential and personhood.

Part of this is that we can't get away with trying to hide our race - it's on our birth certificates, on our identity cards, our job applications, surveys, and lots of other things. It's something that's there. It doesn't stop us from bonding over similar things, and it doesn't stop us from going over to each other's open houses on cultural holidays. If we're racist, it's just 'cos we're just that genuinely hateful.

So I thought, anyway.

Lately, I've been hearing the idea that these racial / cultural differences are just another schism that keep us apart and we should do away with race altogether.

At first I thought this was a pretty good idea. Give us a few centuries, inter-breed, and we'd have a more homogenous race, right? Race and skin colour wouldn't be an issue then.

So I sat on that for a while and gradually, despite Russell Peter's predictions that someday "everyone's going to be some hybrid of Indian and Chinese" I began to wonder if we ever really could do away with the concept of race, and if so, is that a good thing?

Which is a weird question for me to ask since I've never really identified as Chinese, and left Malaysia because I felt I couldn't fit in there, either.

But even here, among this sea of white people, we still ask, "what's in you?" and most everyone's happy to discuss it - grandfather from Germany, grandmother from Italy, some ancestor from Croatia, great-grandfather from Poland, bla bla bla. (In comparison, I'm a bit boring: Hainanese on my dad's side, and I'm still not sure about the mum's side, but both are Chinese!)

For the longest while, I just thought that that was a fun question to ask, because it's really quite the icebreaker conversation sometimes! A lot of people love to talk about heritage. It's fascinating. It's great to know your roots like that.

And in another way, it's quite a thought to imagine all these people from different geographical, cultural origins somehow making this one individual. It's a bit like that calculator thing where you keep hitting "multiply by two" just to see how many people it took to make you, one individual.

The attendent racial/cultural baggage is important, for some, because it helps us get some context on where we come from, how it's affected us today. For others, it may not be of such great interest because we don't feel it affects us, but because other people feel it does.

Part of the danger of being colourblind is this erasure of our histories, our cultures, which may or may not have had any impact on our identities. And even if I as a Chinese don't feel any impact of being Chinese upon my personhood, there may be someone else who does. Going colourblind is not going to help either of us any, because firstly, it wouldn't make a difference for me, and secondly, it might hurt the other person to deny them a part of their identity, and thirdly, any action which ends up hurting others is... probably not a good idea. (Kinda like the death penalty. I like the idea, but it's been pointed out to me time and again that it's not perfect.)

It would definitely be an excellent world in which we none of us were discriminated against because of skin colour, race, culture, ethnicity. But the more and more I listen, the more I think that erasing the concepts entirely isn't a good idea.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Star Trekking In Search of More Representation

Anybody with half an ear to pop culture will know why Star Trek's original series was so revolutionary for its time: it had the most racially diverse cast, what with Sulu and Uhura, and then there was Chekov on the bridge during the Cold War.

So when I went out to see the new movie, I kept my eyes peeled to see what the racial representation was like. After the white-washing in Avatar, I needed to see proof that yes, Asians and other PoC are still valuable persons in how we envision the future. I wasn't disappointed. Yes, I was slightly disappointed when Sulu whipped out the sword and it looked vaguely like a katana - he used a fencing foil in TOS, despite the director's suggestion he use a katana, and I really liked the idea better. (Also, my father fenced in school. I sort of wish he'd made me take fencing lessons instead of piano lessons.)

So I like Star Trek for giving me Sulu and Uhura. I like Voyager for giving me Chakotay and Harry Kim. (And have I mentioned that I watched Voyager during a time when I told my friends, "I've never met an Asian man I'd like to date, so that's why I don't date Asians", and it was a half-lie because there was an Asian man I wanted to date except he was a fictional character in a scifi show. Sorta burned.)

There have been very few other shows since then that attracted me for its diversity except Star Gate SG-1. I was drawn to the Goa'uld Yu, who didn't pose as a god, but as an emperor. Also, the concept of creation myths being at the hands of aliens was also very well handled. (This is where I'd ask myself, is this cultural appropriation? And I say no.) On one planet which is a free Jaffa village, I noted that most of the background characters were PoC, starkly contrasted against the background characters at the Cheyenne Mountain base who were white. As a TV series, it certainly did its best to bring the greatest variety of ethnicities to the small screen as possible, even though you could still tell that majority = white. I appreciated that.

But by and large? There hasn't been many good scifi/fantasy shows out there which, to my knowledge, seriously does the concept of racial diversity any justice.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I Write White People

Let me introduce [info]foc_u to you. I'll shamelessly rip stuff from the Redux edition for the next few paragraphs:

"It's where PoC all over speak up about how they feel about their fandoms, science fiction and fantasy, speculative or any other form of imaginative fiction which we love, but don't really see any parallels for ourselves within (because most of them are written by white people, with white characters). Yes, even Firefly, with its Chinese-speaking future, doesn't have a lot of Chinese people. We kind of fall short that way. Even I write white characters, because that's all I'm familiar with within my reading. I never came across a great science fiction story with an Asian character in it. You kidding me? The closest I got was Final Fantasy, and I never even played those games. Closer to home there was wuxia novels (fabulous fantastical martial arts stuff), and I couldn't read those because I can't read Chinese.

When you are a young PoC reading the mainstreadm scifi/fantasy culture, the first thing you learn is that big heroics and adventures and quests are for white people, and we're only sidekicks or mentors or prizes (I could say love interests, but "prizes" is a hella lot more appropriate word). That's not right."

And I do write a majority of white characters. I've only ever attempted to write characters closer to me in heritage three times: 1) a supernatural vigilante Malaysian girl who wore a pinafore (because that's the school uniform in Malaysian schools, and I found it easy and amusing to draw a superheroine who wore that while kicking villainy in the butt), 2) a brother-sister pair who were the only survivors of a village massacre, and 3) an embarrassing first attempt at NaNoWriMo (embarrassing not because I failed NaNo, but the subject matter itself was ridiculously angsty).

Oh, and then there was the one story I wrote for a CW class, about a graduating student returning home and finding herself alienated from her childhood home which had changed. This was because genre fiction isn't really liked in CW. So I didn't actually write stuff I wanted to write.

My current project is a Princess Series (yes, and actually I think it is brilliant) and she's white too. I angsted about it for a while; shouldn't she be of some other ethnicity? Aren't white princess over-represented already? Does she even need to be blond? Why is she blond? Can't I write a princess whose ethnic identity I don't even pinpoint with any kind of physical description of her?

I worried and wondered about this for a long while, then finally, I said (to no one in particular), "frig this. She's a natural blond, tans badly, and dyes her hair to disguise herself on a regular basis. She's been a white girl in my head ever since I first thought of her and I can always write another character with another ethnicity."

And whenever I do think about writing a character who's, you know, not pasty-white, my mind immediately thinks of cultural cues I can write in to indicate this. WTF? Why do I feel the need to make a distinction between any of my characters? Why do I immediately think "martial arts" when I think of an Asian character, and why do I think about "arid desert" when I think about a black character? And even if I do, are these bad ideas to attach to the character's skin colour? What's wrong with imagining these attendant cultural luggage alongside these characters?

This is how deeply we internalize cultural ideas about colour and race - white is mainstream and even if I were to imagine a PoC character, I'd still want them "mainstream" and somehow "accessible".

It's a frustrating conversation to have with myself.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Steampunking: What the "Punk" Means To Me Edition

I was thinking about my observations of the local punk scene and that how I understand the punk genre is alienating to me. When I first read the term "gaslamp fantasy" to replace the term "steampunk", it seemed to make enough sense to me in the context of the literary genre.

But the more I looked at examples of steampunk'd work, the less satisfied I became with the term. It seemed dismissive of the amount of effort and thought put into making something which is both functional and beautiful, which is borne from the loving DIY ethic of punk.

If "punk" means anti-establishment, then how does "steampunk" roll? After all, it plays on established aesthetics as a method of visual expression (Steampunk Scholar Gotthammer talks about it here), so where does the rebellion come in?

In my correspondence to Ay-Leen, I said, "Steampunk - leading into gaslamp fantasy - gives us more leeway to explore methods of anti-establishment while playing into established norms. We
steampunkers are out experimenting with MAD SCIENCE and exploring in dirigibles and blowing up local geography with hand cannons and building analog computers and twirling our pocketwatches in a dastardly way..."

"Frills and lace," I continued, "CAN be subversive," because the steampunk adventurer not only has a handy toolkit and weapons arsenal on her person, she can also have a lace handkerchief, and that makes perfect sense.

Steampunk, informed by the cultural artefacts of the past, gives us a chance to engage with the future in a way that is appealing, visually with gold and lace, politically with the fight against imperialism, which has its roots in racism, colonialism, cultural appropriation, and the White Man's Burden.

Steampunk, for me as a minority (whether in Canada or in Malaysia), becomes even more of an investment. Whilst I never felt my ethnic identity to be really threatened in Malaysia, I understood that I was very "Westernized", and this made me an outlier. In Canada, engaged with anti-racism, I see more and more how North America exports its culture to the rest of the world, and everyone else takes their cue from NA. I have no doubt that something similar happened during the era of Empire, except possibly slower because, you know, back in those days there was no Internet, television and reading wasn't really done by the masses.

Steampunk, while certainly deriving some of its appeal from the nostalgia for the past, is politically appealing for the history revisionist aspect of it, from which we imagine better presents. It's appealing to those of us who feel our heritages don't get enough attention by giving us a means to express the race bit of who we are while having a lot of fun at the same time in more "mainstream" ways.

Looking back at that history, I can start to put together a vision of how I want the future to look like, a future that isn't informed by the imperialism and colonialism of the past, a future informed by the anti-racist activism of the present, a future that can hark back to elements of the past and turn to other cultures for inspiration without the attendant societal ills.

Trying to transform the world? Yeah, yanno, that's pretty fucking punk, ya'll.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cultural Appropriation: Preliminary Edition

It's been a few really tough days, with Shatter the Silence, MammothFail and the start of a discussion on cultural appropriation. I'm having trouble parsing it, and so are many other people, thankfully.

My feelings on this issue so far have been the same as my feelings about racist actions: I can't say exactly what about any one incident is racist, but I do feel disrespected, and trodden upon due to my race / nationality / appearance / what-have-i. It's a form of micro-aggression that doesn't scream -ism! in one's face until one thinks about it much later on in light of other systematic micro-aggressions that happen.

Similarly, I wouldn't necessarily see a person who's not from my own cultural group (whether Chinese or Malaysian) using something that can be considered a cultural artefact as being an appropriater - they aren't necessarily being disrespectful to me.

I've very thankfully never come across this feeling very often in the past. Perhaps because I was just not aware of it. Perhaps because there's no real parallel to it in Malaysian culture, because it truly is a culture of fusion and exporting as it is of importing (for example, the practice of "loh meen", which is us Chinese people tossing a mixed plate of food up and the higher we toss, the more prosperous the new year, originated in Ipoh, Malaysia, and exported to Hong Kong, or so I've been told).

This conversation is starting around the blogosphere, and there're no clear-cut answers, but I'm quite certain a few things come into play here: racism, colonialism / imperialism, and cultural exchange.

For some starter reading, here's the discussion at Racialicious and the Angry Black Woman's.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Here's a Picture of a Wall

(I kid you not, there is an entire website dedicated to pictures of walls with various kinda of grafitti on it. Some of the graffiti is, certainly, some form of -ist, but the truly wonderful ones are glorious and wonderful and thought-provoking and I'd love to live in a town with such walls.)

This is not my primary reason for resisting the status quo. My primary reason is that the status quo stinks, not just for myself, but for a lot of other people. It's unfair, it's based on stupidity, it runs on selfishness, and it stops at nothing to make sure only a few people are rewarded for existing.

Part of what drew me to feminism, though, is the idea that by breaking the boundaries caused by the -isms we fight, we can transform the status quo. We can make a better world. While the jury's still out on whether the master's tools can be used to dismantle the master's shed, we do recognize that we need to reach out and transform the master's shed.

An act of change can also be an act of creation. A moment of transformation is still the birth of something new and different from what was there before.

The gift of creation is certainly a good one, because acts of creations have the opportunity to bring joy and happiness, as opposed to acts of wholesale destruction which do little but bring misery and discontent.

Anyways, I just wanted to share.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Language Disconnect

I can't speak Chinese, you know.

Which may or may not be a surprise to people who see me. After all, I look pretty fuckin' Chinese. Like, yellow skin, and almond eyes, and brown eyes and black hair and those odd features which couldn't be mistaken for anything other than Asian. And then I open my mouth and some people are surprised at my facility with the English language.

I'm still not entirely sure whose fault it is, but I'm sure I share in it. I've never been able to grasp the mechanics of Chinese grammar. That the Chinese characters have to be memorized, rather than their meanings guessed at based on their root words, has always been a source of frustration for me. That a word's meaning can be changed from one thing to something else completely different (ma - mother; ma - horse; me - WTF?) has been a source of bemusement. I fear to open my mouth in case I say something completely wrong and stupid and it doesn't help that the people I grew up around are very quick to share in the mocking. Given enough immersion within a Cantonese-speaking or Hokkien-speaking environment, I think I could reasonably pick up enough to understand what's going on.

But I've never been in one of those environments. There are family reunions which happen once a year. There's the night market. The hawker centers. None of which engage me critically. I even had a Cantonese-speaking nanny, for God's sake, from whom I learnt a little, but still, not enough to carry me through, and she left when I'd obviously grown old enough to not need her anymore.

I took a class in Mandarin once. I had fun learning how to write. I loved copying Chinese characters (the same way I copied Arabic script in tasawwur Islam classes, and the uztaza saw and she was so pleased) but can't read anything that's not my name. I had trouble memorizing the characters without the roamanized words to help me. And this was a beginner's class.

I thought it was just me being shitty with language, except that in my fifth year, I took Arabic (second choice for a language credit for my degree, first choice was Latin) and I did very well. Perhaps because Arabic was so close to Malay, the national language I grew up with (with rules I understood - this word is derived from here, which means that, and can be used to mean this and that). Perhaps too, because Arabic had an actual alphabet I could relate to, rather than seemingly random lines that make up a word.

The Malaysian education system is based on memorization of facts, shoveled into us without any real practical value. Some of our teachers understood the challenge and gave us the shortcut of understanding that A led to B, so on so forth. Most didn't and we were stuck mouthing facts and figures and numbers and other ridiculous things. Learning Chinese was that sort of fight - just mouthing stuff and remembering that this goes here and that goes there without understanding why. At least in English we learnt grammatical rules as a kind of math - which is kind of weird, really, if you consider that I really don't like math.

Tussling with the Chinese language was like forcing myself to fight a battle I knew I couldn't win because I didn't have the proper tools to. Not only was I not physically strong enough, I was possibly missing two sets of ballista, naphta, and an accompanying fortress of understanding.

So I quit fighting and stuck with learning how to express myself better in English, ranging through all the English literatures I could pull myself through in my degree. I figured I was simply too damn stupid to understand Chinese, and besides which, English was a much easier language to express one's self in. I took a Teaching ESL class under the misguided notion that I wanted to teach those poor unfortunate TESL students how to speak better English, except that in the end, there wasn't much I could do for them that they couldn't do for themselves and I felt a bit superfluous, especially since, if you think about it, there's not really a "correct" way of speaking English - it's just a matter of understanding what you're being told and being understood when you're speaking.

Because language is one of the invisible forces that shapes our understanding, so if an ESL speaker has trouble understanding English or expressing hirself in English, it may not be that they're having trouble with the rules of the language, but having trouble with the concepts of the language.

Recently, I've been reconsidering why I had trouble with Chinese. What was it that I had trouble with? I went on a movie binge and youtubed Kung Fu Hustle and King of Beggars. (Like always, the original Chinese felt superior... even though you can tell the actors all speak different dialects.) I felt a craving for the language, especially the Cantonese dialect. I found I understood more than I thought I did. I also found that I wasn't agreeing with what the subtitles said, but culturally, the subtitles did okay.

I could bloody get it. Well, some of it. So what was stopping my brain back then from really getting it?

Maybe it's the Mandarin. Chinese is neat in that there's one standard form of writing and several ways of speaking the same thing. I've never been able to figure out how to introduce myself with my Chinese name as a result of this. But I do know that while Mandarin sounds melodious, I don't quite relate to it very well. Maybe it's a class thing.

Maybe it was the memorizing involved. I hate rote memorization. I think that's the worst way to learn. It's not even learning.

Whatever other reasons there were, I do know that English was so firmly entrenched in my consciousness that whatever I was trying to learn, it was from the perspective of the English language: there had to be grammatical rules that made sense (and to be fair, my Mandarin teacher never taught me the grammatical rules), there had to be linguistic rules which enabled the understanding of the words I used (even if Arabic word meanings tend to be a bit circular than linear, it was still better than nothing) and I had to be able to understand the stories being told.

Growing up, there was English literature (small 'l' literature) all over my house. My dad, brother and I bonded over reading Asterix comics in English. Later, my dad would teach me the beauty of the iamb sounds by reading me Poe's Annabel Lee. We moved to Singapore where the educational medium is in English. I was doomed there. Moving back, Malay started to become a struggle, and continued so until my schooldays were over. The Englishness was pervasive, and I wasn't even English.

Looking at a wider picture within which my life is a microcosm, that's really just an after-effect of British colonialism. When the British left, they didn't leave entirely. They left behind their language, their systems of education, ways of thinking, power structures. They indoctrinated half a generation through their missionary schools to believe that English was more important to learn, and mother tongues can be picked up later (my parents' reasoning to not speak to me in Chinese whilst I was growing up). The result is that many middle-class children, like myself, feel the disconnect of not being able to speak a language that's supposed to be ours.

It's not anybody's fault in this day and age, and had I time and resources, I could possibly hunker down, find a really good teacher who'll teach me not just official Mandarin, but my favourite dialects. But I don't, and I'm stuck with this disconnection from my own culture which I should very much like to participate in completely, and can't because of this language barrier.

It kind of really fucking sucks. Nonetheless, it's a condition of life and a consequence of history which affects me, and others, personally.

We must make do with the words we do have at our command.

Someday, I'll speak Chinese. It's just not today.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

How Things Have Changed

We've come a long way: it used to be that men were the beings of higher reason, and women were animals. Hundreds of years we were told this, and men carved spaces for themselves in places of power where women were not allowed to reach. If a woman did, she was beaten down by those above, clawed at by those below, and to further punish her, stripped of what little dignity was afforded to her.

And now, when we ask for men to be accountable for their actions, men claim that women are the pretty perfect beings that must be protected, and men simply cannot help their nature to be beasts that would destroy a woman's precious [whatever it is] given half a chance.

If men are so damned dangerous, why are they even allowed to walk the streets? Why sequester women and tell them to take all sorts of precautions in their daily lives that men are never asked to take? Why don't we just make life safer for these precious precious women and just lock men up?

No wait... that would be making too much sense.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

If Male = Default...

Inspired by this piece on Pandagon, and previous discussions at the Hathor Legacy.

Judging by the mass media, the language we use, it would seem that male = the default experience. Anybody doing gender analysis in media knows this. Male = default, female = specific. That's where there are flicks, and then there are chick flicks which presumably cater to the very special female audience. And men are not expected to go because they'd have to imagine themselves in the female protagonist's position and that's alienating to men (despite the fact that women have to stretch their imagination and put themselves in male protagonists' shoes all the time).

But if masculinity is so natural, being manly is so natural, being male is so default, then why do some men spend so much time differentiating themselves from women? Why this investment in the gender binary for a sense of identity? Why all these how-to books on masculinity? Why did the Spartans take their sons away from their mothers in order for the sons to become manly men?

And if part of being a man means being an animal who cannot help but destroy and rape, well, this is the baffling bit - why would a man want to be a man, knowing that this will become part of his nature?

If male is the default nature, why must sons be taught how to be men?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"Instead Of Eating Just ONE Hamburger, You Can Eat - Two!"

That was a quote from Megarace, during a bonus prize sequence in which the prize is.... "an extra pair of arms!"

It did occur to me back then just how awesome having extra appendages would be. For example, Davy Jones of Pirates of the Caribbean does amazing things with his extra appendages:

I won't lie: whereas a lot of my peers that I've spoken to think Davy Jones is awesome because he's just so damn charistmatic, my interest in him is a lot less, uh, prosaic. My BFF and I would look at the fingers of boys of interest, and agree that "he has nice hands". I don't know what she was thinking, but I know what I was thinking, and the piano-playing was just a bonus.

The "tentacle rape" genre is obnoxious most of the time, purely because of the way the female characters are depicted (in that genre and pretty much any other genre in which women are objects without sexual agency, therefore any sexual encounter will inevitably end up with pain for said females). Perhaps I'm not looking hard enough, but seriously, there must be such erotica available for the Female Gaze.

It really is too bad that Davy Jones only used his appendages to kill, but it's no different from the tragedy that many of us have tools that could be used for such great good, but instead use it for pain.

What're you using your hands for?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Steampunking: Fuck You, 29th Century Time-Cops!

So, I've been corresponding with Ay-Leen the Peacemaker about our rather specialized interest of Asian steampunking, wherein I latched onto something that truly draws me in about the steampunk genre: re-writing history.

For all intents and purposes, I could imagine a world in which I have no British colonial residue on my heritage (not that I hate it that much), where Asia isn't exoticized as the place where the girls are either meek dolls or dragon ladies, the men are squinty-eyed villains, or the opium is plentiful. A timeline in which Asia is not some mysterious, untraversed area because we, as in We From the Far East, LIVE THERE!!!

And a place where I could, as blithely as the Japanese do but hopefully with less of the problems, take elements of whatever I want from whatever culture I please, and reshape it and innovate it into my own culture's image, and it would be a hodge-podge that fits beautifully together, with the Hodge on the Podge side and the Podge side on the Hodge side, and if you got that reference, HAIL ERIS!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Transplanting: What're Roots For?


You know what that means if you're Malaysian - it means that race doesn't matter, and that nationality comes first before the racial qualifier. In fact, some of us are all for dropping the racial qualifier entirely, because nationhood comes first before our skin colour. This is what I used to like to tell myself - I will not identify with this other culture that comes appended to my skin colour but divorce myself from it in order to identify even more strongly with my nationhood's culture within which I wish to gain more rights and privileges.

(OK, I used less refined language, but the point remains.)

This didn't mean I was ignorant of where my father's family is from, originally. My family that I know of is mostly descended from two sons: one rich, one poor. (Incidentally, I'm from the "poorer" branch, though you wouldn't know that to see us.) I'm fuzzy on the details, but the family hails from Hainan island. We still have some land there, even. My father's gone there to meet relatives, which I think is an infinitely neat idea.

I can't speak Hainanese, much less the more commonly spoken Hokkien, or even more commonly spoken Cantonese, or the official Mandarin.

However, I do meet Chinese mainlanders from time to time, and I do like asking them, "where are you from?" A bit of an internal survey of mine, I'm afraid. I asked this question a lot to students who came to the writing center I worked at. Not all of them, of course. Just those friendly ones.

Sometimes, they ask me back, and I say, "from Malaysia."

And then, sometimes, as if I needed further common ground with these strangers in a strange land, to let them know they're not completely alone, or something, I further qualify myself, "but my family came from Hainan!"

And they say, "Hainan! I know where that is..."

But I don't mention Hainan island when I'm in Malaysia, because where I come from is moot there - I'm born and bred in Malaysia, I carry a Malaysian Identity Card, I have a Malaysian passport (which allows me to travel everywhere but Israel!! another topic for another day), I have a birth certificate that says I was born there.

It's pretty much a given that I'm Malaysian.

Except, of course, I'm clearly Chinese. You know, yellow-skinned and it's in all those aforementioned documents. I'm not sure what the point of the racial profiling is (there's also religious profiling too! again, another topic for another day), but it is a pointed reminder that apparently I'm not allowed to truly forget where my lineage is originally from: China.

But I'm Malaysian.

It's true, I cannot speak Malay very well, if at all. And it's also true that I'll mock a fuckton of stupid things that Malaysians do/say. It's true that I'm in Canada precisely because I couldn't fit in with my Malaysian peers. I was too loud. I was too proud. I was too opinionated. I was too critical of all the wrong things.

So I came to Canada and met white people that I could actually talk to. I couldn't actually identify as Canadian, so I grandiosely labelled myself a "child of the world", especially seeing how my privileged self had managed to get some traveling done on pretty much all the continents.

I love where I am, and I love the people I meet. This little city I live in now is filled with wonderful, friendly people. Too small to be overrun by too many idiots, and yet too large to be boring.

Even so, the longer I am here, the more I look forward to going "home": Malaysia. I crave the sounds of the pasar malam, the unique Malaysian accent, the hawkers shouting at each other. I crave the smells of open-air hawker stalls frying in the open next to drains, the buttery saltiness of roti canai, the scents of so many different kinds of food clinging to the humid air and assaulting you all at once. I crave the sight of the Petronas Twin Towers, of the hordes of devotees and monks at Kek Lok Sii temple, of people milling around everywhere - hundreds and thousands of people crowded into small spaces! (And people here complain about public transit.)

Even more complicatedly, when I am at "home", I'm reminded of all the reasons I left - family problems (a case of personality incompatibility between myself and various other members of my family), ridiculous politics, a strange oversight of what I feel to be important issues. And, of course, the growing conservative streak that never used to be there.

Conundrum. This Malaysian-Chinese with a strong affection for her adopted Canadian city wants to feel at home, but it's rather hard, you know, when you're still told your race somehow doesn't matter (except when it does, often during those times when you think race actually doesn't matter), that you're being obfuscating when you use words with more than three syllables or sentences with more than one subject and one predicate, or just trying to stir shit up when you just want an honest discussion.

Driven in further by people who think they have a sense of humour and sarcastically tell me I'm no longer Asian, simply for expressing a viewpoint that is not an Asiatic norm.

At this point, Hainan drops away into the distance, and so does the Chinese bit, and I'm caught between Malaysia and my Western sensibilities, unwilling (not unable) to pick just one, because, well, fuck, why the hell should I have to choose?

I am descended from a family that lives in a little village on Hainan island in China (which is a pretty big place, you gotta admit). Made, born, bred in a suburb of Malaysia, thirty minutes from the capital-state. Attended university and living in a small city in Canada. Reading literature, current and classic, from all over the world.

I don't need to declare any loyalty to where I am, or come from, or even descend from. I like to acknowledge them, because the past shapes the present and informs the future. They're as much a part of me as other non-stereotypical aspects of my identity.

But for convenience's sake? "Where are you from?"

"Malaysia," I say.

My pretty-fucking-unmistakably-light-skinned-Asian face can speak for the Chinese bit.

Today Is International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia

Each year, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (the “IDAHO”, as it is usually called), will see actions and initiatives take place in many countries and contexts and on many different issues.

All these activities and initiatives are a very strong signal to all, decisions makers, public opinion, civil rights movements, human rights defenders, etc. throughout the world that our fights for our Rights as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, intersex, etc… is vibrant!

The Day provides all different kind of actors with a very powerful opportunity to express their demands and to advocate for their case. Each year also, the IDAHO aims at using the extra public, political and media attention that it provides at all levels to highlight one specific aspect of the struggle for sexual rights.

This year, we chose to highlight the often neglected but important issue of Transphobia.

Here's the appeal for the rights of trans people all over the world in PDF format.

And here's where you can sign the appeal. This is an international initiative, so anybody can sign.

And yes, the acronym, IDAHO, has an invisible T. I've said it before, transpeople tend to be the ones least thought of among the alternatives to the heterosexual norm. Even those identifying as homosexual will quite easily fall into the trap of discriminating, in some form or manner, or just plain insulting, denigrating, or dehumanizing, transfolks.

The issue of transphobia is a feminist issue. The bottomline of transphobia is a very subtle kind of misogyny, and even ciswomen will gladly participate in hatefulness against transwomen (just as women will gladly participate in hammering in patriarchal norms against other women). Let me outline it for you:

- Transgenderism itself is seen as an act of "transgressing", crossing between boundaries which many societies teach should not be crossed.

- These gender boundaries should not be crossed because
a) women should never aspire to be higher than what they are (i.e., men),
b) men should never aspire to be lower than what they are (i.e., women) and
c) it is notoriously difficult to socially control people who will not fit into neat little boxes and follow the rules of their own sandbox.

In order to maintain this social control, we are given the narrative that men are men and women are women (plus all accompanying myths, such as men are animals who cannot control themselves, or women are less capable of leadership positions, and to be something other than what you are is an act against God and thus, unnatural), with implicit social consequences if we do not follow prescribed rules of behaviour.

- Thus, when a woman wishes to transform into a man, it's quite understood why, because the Big Boys' Club gives one lots of perks, and she is despised for having a vagina and finagling her way in there.

On the flip side, when a man wishes to transform into a woman, he is despised by men because women are a lower lifeform, objects to be consumed, whereas men are active do-ers. He is also mistrusted by women who hold any man's wishes to enter the female realm as suspect.

You'll note that this reasoning, too, ties in with the reasoning behind homophobia:

- woman, passive vessel, bottom, lower.

- man, active agent, top, higher.

Keep in mind these other points:

- Sexually anxious people are neurotic about their position in society and easily manipulated. e.g. hypermasculine young men who're constantly trying to outdo each other with sexual exploits even at the cost of loving relationships with women.

- Sex is a commodity. See: common ideas of sexual purity (female virginity is a rose she gives to her husband on their wedding night), sluttiness (if she'll sleep with one guy, she'll obviously sleep with just anybody), marital exchange (you owe your partner sex when you're married to them, even if you don't want it).

- A woman, as passive vessel, submits to sex / takes it.
- A man, as an active agent, penetrates / invade / conquers.

(I know, you might think, "this is all very archaic", but your next-door neighbour / family members / friends / partner might believe this, shocking eh!)

So when a man consents to being penetrated, he takes the position of the woman in the relationship. And because our society has run so long on the idea that woman = inferior not-quite-human, any man who would submit to that is lesser than a man, and every man should reject being asked to submit to being penetrated.

In fact, a man should show his rejection to being the 'lower' by proving that he is the 'higher', more powerful agent within this interaction, and the best way to prove is by doling out violence.

Homophobia and transphobia are feminist issues, because their roots lie within the ever-pervasive misogyny that drive our society's interactions with gender.

And like misogyny, transphobia is pervasive - it lies in our inquisitiveness on any transgendered person's motives to change their sex, in our disregard for their opinions on gender. It lies in our willingness to express transgenderism as unnatural and wrong. It lies in our mistrust of transwomen and in our calling them "men" despite how they identify themselves, and in our insistence to call transfolk by their "real" names, identifying them by their biological sex rather than chosen gender, or using insulting words like "tranny", "fake", "liars".

The flip side of actively hating them is our objectification of them - finding them sooooo exciting because they're, like, totally two genders, and so daring, and so unnatural, and so different, so transgressive. Instead of seeing them as full human beings, they become our idols for the Other, the Difference that we want to participate in so we, too, can rebel against the Establishment. We project our desire to be different onto them, all the while ignoring their efforts to be normal human beings.

If we neither hate nor lurve them, then we dismiss them, think they're less important, or "too much" for mainstream society. We saw this when an LGBT group removed items from a Bill regarding transfolk, with the excuse that "if we put in transpeople's rights in there, this document will be rejected outright. Let's work on homosexual rights first. We can't ask for everything upfront."

Even when we try to support them, very often we're so damn busy trying to speak for them and advocate for them, we ignore their true needs which may be very different from what we think their needs are. A ciswoman can never speak for a transwoman, because being cis will NEVER amount to being trans, and being cis is having privilege over a transwoman. And when we are called out on our lack of awareness for their needs, we get defensive, resentful that they're not appreciative of our efforts, because dammit, we deserve that cookie for even giving a shit.

And then there're some of us who're just plain ambivalent about it, who just don't think about it, that trangender politics don't matter to anyone who's not trans. This is a logical fallacy. Transgender politics is about the right to be recognized as human, a right that everyone deserves. If you give one group that right but not another, it stops being a right.

We can't all be perfect, and I've used terms I never realized was transphobic before and been called out on it. Being called out on ignorance and privilege is not an attack nor a reason to stay silent when it comes to issues as important as human rights.

Today is International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Other reading:
From Questioning Transphobia:
On Questioning Transphobia
How To Check Your Cis Privilege

From Shakesville:
Life As A Transwoman Ain't Easy by Guest Blogger GallingGalla
Take My Arm, My Love by PortlyDyke
There's No Good Way To Use "Fag" by Melissa McEwan

Little light's essay on fairness. A repost, sure, but good for the soul.

Excerpts of Beyond Inclusion, an essay by Cedar (you can get the whole essay with a donation! It's a 26-pager and still in progress, because transphobia still exists.)

Feel free to leave links you've got on the issue as well.

Cross-posted to the Redux Edition

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Sometimes I get these weird anxious moments, especially when I take in the likes Latoya Peterson and Jessica Valenti and Jill Filipovic, who are only a few years older than I am, and yet have accomplished more than what I've ever dreamt of being able to do. This is not to say I never dreamt of accomplishing as much, but I just never thought of myself as capable of doing so.

It kind of really fucking sucks to feel that way sometimes, to wish I had more of a voice, more of a driving sort of personality, more charisma to draw people to my cause.

Learning that feminism is more than just conferences and rallies, more than Take Back the Night and the Vagina Monologues, more than articles at RHReality Check or Bitch magazine, helped alleviate it somewhat.

After all, it's about the little daily things one does, too - calling out someone on racist / sexist language, or pointing out micro-aggressions. Buying from small bookstores and organic food. Donating to charities and small volunteering at other helpful causes.

Renee of Womanist Musings points out that many of us can't do it all, especially those at some form of disadvantage. But everyday actions can stand for something, and as Melissa McEwan says, is a teaspoon. Renee writes words of truth:

Small everyday acts disturb the norm. It can be as simple as calling out someone when they use racist/sexist/transphobic etc., language. Each person we touch is an opportunity to make change. One need not lobby on Capitol Hill to take on the label of activist, you simply need to live your stated beliefs to the best of your abilities.


Each time you demand the right to take up space, you disturb our dissonance in worth in value. I matter, you matter, we all matter, we just have to believe it.
Yes, Ma'am.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Low Expectations

I've been told time and again, when things are at their lowest point, we as humans revert to animalistic urges to want to inflict pain on each other, to clamber on top of each other to reach the highest branches.

No, seriously? 10k+ years of civilization and that's the best you can come up with? We're animals?

This middle-class university-educated introspective egghead biped who lives in a one-bedroom apartment that has heat, hot water, electricity, and the Internet would like to say that "humans are animals" is a horribly, horribly lazy way of considering the state of humanity, and horribly, horribly dismissive of the 10k+ years of civilization we've been through.

I understand that reverting back to the animalistic argument is a form of Occam's Razor, because to believe that it's not our animal selves but how we teach our children, interact with each other in our daily lives, internalize cultural memes, absorb messages from the media blindly - look, I get it: it's a lot of fucking hard work to change all that.

We can harness electricity, we can speak to other people from different parts of the world, perform heart-bypass surgery, transport people through various means on land, over water and through the air - and "we're animals" is the best we can do to explain our societal failings?

Do we want to be animals? Do we want other people to be animals? Of what benefit can there be in relegating humanity as a form of animal?

Why isn't it worthwhile to expect a high level of human decency and humanity from another person?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Macho Sue's Appeal

Kit Whitfield has this incredible essay up on the "Macho Sue" character type - similar to the Gary/Mary Stu, except that rather than being an idealized image of the fanfic authour, the Macho Sue is an image of idealized macho hypermasculinity. The essay is unbelievably awesome.

The bit that particularly resonates with me is this:

Macho Sue is nothing if not powerful. He may not always be granted full powers by circumstance (he may, for instance, have a commanding officer, at least at first) - but it's clear that the force of his personality grants to him an authority in the eyes of the audience. He is the hero, he is the one whose decisions will most influence this narrative, and consequently is intended to exercise the greatest power over the reader/viewer's imagination. Hence, to an audience member who has a tendency to value power, it's easy to fall into the trap of judging Macho Sue over-charitably, when the same behaviour, displayed by another, lesser man, or even worse, a woman, would draw condemnation.
Emphasis mine. Certainly this is one of Marilyn French's trajectories - that we as a society tend to value power, and when we do, we let these overpowered fucknecks get away with being as irresponsible as they like. It's why we have a ton of movies who feature Goldenboy Asshole Heroes That Never Catch Shit For Their Fuck-Ups.

Why do people fall for these types?

We value power so much when it's clear from our histories that we should fear holding power, because with it, we can wield the ability to cause so much pain with just the slightest fuck-up. Why do we value this ability to cause so much ill? Why do we shudder at the responsibility of using this power? We see from favourite superheroes who have the according power and yet angst with it - don't we learn from their trials? Don't we see that Uncle Ben was right, and that power in itself is not a reward but a burden?

This value we place on having authourity, having the ability to influence and control other people, is not only seriously overrated, but it also seriously undermines our ability to come together as a society and work together towards a better future. Because part of the burden of having power is that everyone somehow expects you to deliver that better future.

And so your mind goes ping, and you become an asshole.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Quote

'Reasonable men adjust themselves to their environment. Unreasonable men attempt to change their environment to suit themselves. Therefore, all progress is the work of unreasonable men.'

—George Bernard Shaw

Obviously Mr. Shaw has never lived life as a woman, much less a woman who is a member of various other marginalized minority groups.

Under such circumstances, changing the environment, not just to suit themselves but to better the lives of everybody else around them, is a perfectly reasonable, logical, and morally defensible thing to do.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It Could All Stand For A Little Improvement

There's a neat review of Star Trek over at Incertus, and this quote is still making me laugh after several days of it being up:

Captain Janeway, of Voyager, never met a timeline she thought was above a little improvement.

Alternate timelines were huge in Voyager, and throughout the seasons I watched, I think I saw the alternate timeline theme no less than three times, if even that low a number. Even the last episode dealt with an alternate timeline, with Janeway going back in time to fix some shit she thought could have gone better.

I'm admittedly utterly fascinated about could-have-beens, even as I'm someone who lives in the present and apologizing for past-fuckups forever isn't my forte. In my head, I'm always re-visiting past scenarios where I think of what I could have said, or should have said, and how it would have played out. My life isn't the only thing that undergoes theoretical re-writings - ANYTHING can: current politics, stuff I see on TV, stuff I read, conversations I overhear... they're all subject to a little re-visiting so I can figure out what Could Have Gone Better.

History lessons, in particular, are subject to revisioning as I figure out what Could Have Gone Better so that the world is a Little Less Fucked Up.

I do think these re-imaginings are important. Unlike Captain Janeway, I'll probably never go back in time to fix that shit (I wonder if those guys from the 29th century ever held her accountable for it?), but at the very least, I'll have a definite opinion about How Shit Should Go Down in the future.

Monday, May 11, 2009


At a summit recently for sales and marketing people in my company, the CEO discussed stuff we would do for customers, and stuff we wouldn't do.

We sell emergency patient care reporting software, and whilst each EMS agency has its different needs, we try to make the software as all-encompassing as possible. We'll do some custom work if it's necessary or not too out of our way, and we tend to release any one fix or patch originally for one customer out to the rest of the customer base as part of the support/maintenance contract. I imagine this is standard issue for most software companies.

What I liked most was that if there's a feature developed for one customer that could be used by other customers, we'll do our best to make it part of the product. It's simply being aware of the user base's needs - the people using the product are in the best position to tell us what should be done to improve it. Hence we have a User Group once a year for all the existing customers to get together not just to tell us what to do with our product, but to share with each other how they use the product in their own daily operations.

There is never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution, and any good company recognizes that immediately. (Which is why I hate pushy salespeople who don't know when to shut up and realize that the only reason I'm not buying this product is because I have no reason to.) But it behooves us all to get together and discuss, like rational people who want to share a good thing, how we make what we have work for ourselves. Doodad's method may not work perfectly for Widget's world, but Widget can still take some of what Doodad did, and vice versa.

Sharing is caring!

Would that our world leaders had the same sense. Of course, world peace is not a product that can be sold, nor improved upon, and it's sad that it's because we'd have to pay with monies that we'd discuss what could be more efficiently done to get our money's worth, not because it's a good thing to buy into such a line of thought.

Sadness =(

Star Trekking In Search of a Strong Female Character

So I went to see Star Trek the day it opened. I'm a bit of a Trekkie, yes I am. Not so much of a Trekkie that I can tell you timelines and star systems and all the planets that are in the Federation, nor am I that much of a Trekkie that I get into frequent fights re: Picard Vs. Kirk.

My vote's for neither, anyway. My captain is Janeway. I know, I know, plenty of people think Voyager is an inferior series compared to others, and in many ways, it is. Part of it is because, like so many other series, it is dependent on network whims. I believe another part of it is because a woman was in charge and nobody knew how to freaking write her. As the Hathor Legacy regularly points out: male = default, female = particular. Yeah, whatever.

In a lot of these kinds of shows, women die with alarming regularity. It goes way back when to the two choices a woman has: get married or die. That's generally the ultimate fates that women tend to have.

So I wasn't surprised when in Star Trek, based on the ensemble cast of the Original Series, had only one woman worth talking about: Lt. Uhura.

Plenty has been discussed about the problems with Lt. Uhura and Star Trek, at Shakesville, Racialicious, the Hathor Legacy being just a few places which have open threads on the movie, where we bitch about canon details and the stupid women's uniforms and how much Kirk was an asshole.

Me, my special love for Uhura stems from the episode "The Naked Time", in which a delusional Sulu is running around the ship with a fencing foil, shouting, "Richelieu, beware!" (Which in itself is already really hilarious.) He gets to the bridge, and grabs Uhura around the waist, saying, "I'll rescue you, fair maiden!" Uhura gives him an annoyed look, pushes his arm off her, and says, "Sorry, neither!" I was dazzled by her double denial of typical damsel fare.

If you haven't watched the movie, THAR BE SPOILERS AHEAD.


I must admit I was extraordinarily pleased with the way Lt. Uhura was handled in this movie - to be honest, I was actually pretty scared that they were going to fuck up her character and relegate her to Token Love Interest, of, shudderingly, Kirk. (For those not in the know, Kirk and Uhura had a famous "first interracial" kiss on TV, which wasn't actually the first, since DesiLu had accomplished that before, but Nichols was clearly black and Shatner was clearly white, so it was more striking, imho, ymmv.) Whilst in the original series she handled little more than communications and her talents weren't really built on throughout, the fact that she was an officer on the bridge was pretty groundbreaking at the time.

What we were given in this movie is a strong, high-minded, clearly intelligent, unflappable young woman clearly professional and dedicated to her duty, even as she takes on the Token Love Interest role.

Let's start with her introduction to the movie. Kirk is being an asshole and trying to get her name, and she gives him her surname. When a few other Starfleet officers come along to help her get Kirk off her back, she calmly tells them, I can handle this. Even as Kirk starts a barfight, she doesn't want an altercation to happen (even as she is impotent to stop the fighting).

I enjoy the fact that she doesn't get involved with the fight, because too often, the idea of being "strong" is inevitably tied up to the idea that one must be physically strong, particularly wrt to female characters, because women are weaker than men by virtue of being physically weaker, after all, amirite? As Patrick Stewart says about the movie Kill Bill:

"I condemn utterly films like Kill Bill. We are told it is about empowering women. All it does is empower a woman to kill other women."

It's the same pretty much elsewhere: a woman is only strong if she can kick ass, like Ellen Ripley. I got extremely annoyed when Girl Genius fans started applauding the lead character for throwing her tantrum. While it is a definite improvement over her early simpering, losing one's cool and screaming about how one is now in a position of power is not my idea of strength. Bad-assedness is tied directly to being able to challenge other people and win. It goes back to the idealization we have for power.

So even if Uhura never did get to do any rescuing or go on missions, that's okay by me, because she's needed most on the bridge, since her talents are best utilized there, not running around on Vulcan saving people or in the Romulan ship looking for Captain Pike.

The next improvement is that the writers actually gave Uhura a first name. Which is not divulged to Our Hero Kirk because, well, he's an asshole and she's not interested in him. All the other TOS bridge members got first names except Uhura. And it's not even an Americanized first name either, which is great, because Uhura was neither made "more black" to show racial diversity, nor whitewashed. She simply was, utterly, herself.

The first time we see Uhura's uber-smartness is when Kirk is hiding under the Orion cadet's bed, and we're treated to the sight of Uhura's undressing. He overhears her discussing the signal she intercepted, and wow, really, a female character being a conduit for plot development and getting important information that everybody ignores until it's too late? Say it ain't so!

I'm sure plenty of fanboys are freaking over how hot she is, which she is. I'm pretty sure most of them are also losing sight of the equanamity with which she kicks Kirk out - no indignant screaming, no freaking out, just a calm, "OK, funtime's over, now GTFO."

Now reflecting on the movie, I realize that the first hint we got of the Uhura/Spock relationship happening was when the cadets were being assigned to their respective ships, and Uhura is assigned to another ship. She confronts Spock and tells him, firmly, "I'm assigned to the Enterprise." Spock, although initially arguing that he didn't want to be seen as performing favouritism, re-assigns her and says, "You're right, I made a mistake."

I'm a couple of minds on this. Firstly, was she actually assigned to the Enterprise originally? If she was, then possibly Spock mucked with the systems so they wouldn't be on the same ship, preventing their relationship from developing any further, and preventing them from being emotionally compromised. It brings to mind Lt. Cmdr. Nella Daren, who requested a transfer after it was clear she and Captain Picard wouldn't be able to do their jobs the best they could on the same ship.

If she wasn't, then Spock was playing favourites (or simply didn't want to argue with her), and we'd have to explore why she was so insistent on being on the same ship as him - because she wanted to be close to him? Because the Enterprise is on its maiden voyage and it's a really awesome shiney ship, goddammit? Why not both? Either way, she knew she wanted to get on that one specific ship, and she got it, with no resultant "but we'll be too distracted to do our jooobbbss" bullshit from her boyfriend.

The next neat thing about Uhura is that she doesn't second-guess herself nor play down her abilities. When Kirk's confronting Pike on the bridge, he points out that Uhura intercepted the Romulan signal, and Spock confirms Uhura's talents. Uhura herself tells Pike that she can speak three Romulan dialects, and when ordered to take the communications station, she doesn't back away from the duty or act modest or whatever - she just does the freaking job.

It's a huge step away from what women are commonly expected to do - we've all noted studies in which women are observed to phrase sentences as questions as opposed to statements, so that we don't step on the widdle men's toes by challenging them directly and confidently. We're also told not to boast of our achievements or accomplishments because somehow men are easily intimidated by this. (Apparently.)

Maybe because there just wasn't enough time in the film for Uhura to do this. Whichever. Great effect.

Admittedly, the romance between Spock and Uhura was out of the left field for me - nothing in the Original Series ever points to the remote possibility of this. The closest thing to a Spock romance is Nurse Chapel's angsting for Spock's love. The closest Spock and Uhura ever get to is in an episode where Uhura is fixing something in the communications panel (the girl can do hardware, ya'll), and Spock sits down next to her for a few moments to check on her. She's obviously stressed and concentrating, and says something to the effect of, "I haven't done this in forever" and Spock replies, "well, press on diligently, you're the best person to do this." There was also that scene where they perform together, Spock on the harp, and Uhura singing.

So the turbolift scene weirded me out as it dawned on me that yes, Uhura's been assigned Token Love Interest. Boo. But! She's Token Love Interest to the Smart Guy. And when she asks Spock what she can do for him, he tells her, primly, "I need everyone to do the best job they can under the circumstances." She lets him leave the turbolift, obviously hurting for him, but she knows that this particular rejection isn't about her, nor his flaw in being unable to show emotion. It's a marked difference from Nurse Chapel's weepiness when Spock rejects her (albiet she was under intoxication at the time). And then Uhura goes back to do her freaking job.

Then there's that makeout scene in the transporter room. I liked it, because it was a very quiet, very dignified sort of smooching and non-teary farewell. I also liked it because Kirk did a double-take and that's when it drives home for most of us that Goldenboy Hero will not Get The Girl. Spock and Uhura exchange some typical loving words, and she issues the typical "you better come home," threat alongside the typical "I'll be keeping an eye on your signal if you get in trouble" watching out as he makes the typical "I'll be back" promise.

Plenty of people have discussed this and it's split between those who like it and those who don't. I like it, obviously, because I'm a sucker for cerebral romances, which Spock and Uhura certainly have. They're both professional, but unlike many romances, honest about their feelings for each other. There's no angst happening here, no weird misunderstandings or miscommunications which so often drive messy romances and pass for comedy. Because they can connect intellectually, Spock possibly feels freer to connect emotionally with Uhura, even if he is her commanding officer so it's probably not kosher. So maybe the making out is gratuitous, and the jury's still out on whether it's in-character for Spock, but still: Uhura, our Token Love Interest, is paired with an intellectual equal, which is refreshing after a slew of movies in which physical attraction is the main driver for most "relationships".

And anyway, who cares whether or not it's canon, because that got thrown out the window.

I can live with Uhura not being a Badass. We don't all need to be Badasses and going out to Kick People's Butts and we can be strong just by being the best we can be using our respective talents. For what little the writers gave us WoC, they gave Uhura all the punches she needs to be a really recognized member on the bridge.

The movie can do better in terms of diversity and how female characters are treated. It's kind of sad that this has been the one movie in which we saw true racial diversity in a LONG, LONG while (haha, post-racial America my yellow ass!) but I'm hoping what they did right here gets continued.

Star Trekking in search for strong female characters continues!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Punking Out: Why Punk Alienates Me

So, a couple of years back, I was going out to see local bands quite a bit. This is not the odd bit. I love local bands. I think it's very important to support local talent.

No, the weird thing is that I was going out to see punk shows.

I don't really understand the punk culture. Of course, I don't know too much about it, and I had to get a friend to explain it to me, but even explained to me, I still didn't understand it. There was a lot of energy going on at those shows - I liked that. Off-stage, the punk band members tended to be decent people, although I didn't really know how to strike up conversation with them. (Somehow, I managed to strike up conversation with the lead of the Crimson Tides and kept going back to see them, even though I didn't even like their music, just their stage presence. And the band members were really nice too.)

I didn't understand the moshing. I didn't understand the music. I didn't understand the lyrics. At best, it was unproductive. At worst, hate-filled.

"... full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

What little I could gather was that it was anti-Establishment, a way of venting frustration.

Which didn't really make sense to me either. There are better ways of venting frustration than moshing. (Which was very polite, by the way. You have a bunch of insane people knocking each other about on the floor but if someone fell down to the ground or something, everyone around stopped until it's clear nothing's wrong, and then it starts over again.)

The more I looked into what the punk movement produced, the less I understood, particularly when it came to music.

The cyberpunk genre, however, I sort of understood, but still, not really. It was literary, but it was... kind of depressing.

Sometimes it makes me wonder what kind of mindset it takes to really see the punk movement as something which really has value in the long-term. The movie SLC Punk seemed to indicate that it's really just a thing for youth, that it runs its course before its members return to participate in the Establishment or self-destruct.

Maybe I just don't get it. Maybe I got it wrong.

Whichever it was, I didn't get it.

Until I encountered steampunk.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Few Yuen

So sometime in December, my dad and I went to China, had a grand old time hiking between villages, visited some cities, bought stuff. We travelled with a backpacking travel tour group that's Malaysia-based. Nice people.

One of our stops was in Lang Shuo, and my dad and I were wandering the shopping district streets for something or another. We passed by a girl who cleared a bit of floor between two stalls, laid down a sign, and knelt down, head bowed.

I couldn't read the sign, but I'm pretty sure it was asking for money, giving the reasons why. She didn't look much older than fifteen. She didn't move at all, just knelt down and bowed her head, her hands placed neatly in her lap. She didn't call out to anyone. She didn't try to attract attention. I think her eyes were closed, too.

When we'd passed her by for the second time, I said to my dad, "we should give her something."

My dad said no, and I didn't press it for a bit. Then I asked why, and he said, because it's possible that she was sent out to beg for money, and to give her money would be supporting the cartels that do these things to orphan children, and if she got money but didn't get enough, she would be beaten.

I'm still not sure how his argument supports not giving her money. I was kind of mad, of course, that he would even bring that up. It took me a couple of blocks before I figured out what to say to him.

I finally said, "c'mon Dad. What's a few yuen to you?"

He gave me A Look. You know, the kind of look that sort of says, I know I'm middle-class and more privileged but you didn't have to bloody remind me, but he pressed a five-yuen note into my hand.

I ran over to her, and I said to her, "xiao mei, xiao mei, nah..." and held out the note.

She didn't say anything. Didn't even raise her head. She only bowed deeply to me. I had to tuck the money under the cardboard sign.

And you know, I wanted to feel good about it. That I got her a bit closer to whatever goal she needed to reach so she wouldn't get beaten. Or that whatever the money's for, maybe to feed her family, maybe to help her continue school, I'd helped her, just a bit. It's a drop of water from her sea of troubles, but at least I'd tried.

Thinking about it now makes me mad, because I was helpless to do anything. We weren't there for a long time. I didn't know of any place she could go to for support and financial aid. If she was indeed being used and abused by a cartel, there was no way I could have helped her get out.

I still think about her occasionally, especially when I pass the homeless on the streets of Halifax. I've bought coffee, sandwiches for the occasional person on the street. Thrown coins to buskers.

I hope someday, if I'm ever in the position where I could help someone the way I wanted to help that girl, I will act upon it and do so.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Puppy =! Pregnant Belly

So today I saw a tiny little puppy being walked by its owner and I had to stop and gush over it. She was only 6 pounds! I picked her up to go all woogie-woogie in its face (and also to really convince myself how light she was and that she was really a dog). As I did, I noted the owner pulling on the chain, and in a bit he'd picked the dog from my hands and put her back down on the ground, tossing a biscuit to encourage her to run.

Later, I thought to myself, maybe I shouldn't have done that. It's not my dog, so I shouldn't be picking dogs up and down like that. It sort of reminded me of some people's propensity to exclaim over a pregnant woman's belly and be all like "can I touch it??" (and sometimes they don't even ask. And, well, no, you don't get to touch it without asking first - that belly belongs to the woman, it's not public property! Why the hell should you get to put your hands on someone else's body, just because they're pregnant?

Does that rule apply to puppies, though?

Difficult questions...

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Problems With Marriage: Names Edition

So I was reading this post about how many patriarchal systems, especially here in the West, tend to assume that if a woman is a) with a man, b) clearly in a relationship to said man, and c) somewhat a spouse to the man, she must have taken his last name.

This thing about women changing their last names is, quite frankly, something I never really had much experience with until I came to Canada.

In Malaysia, a woman is called Puan [her name or surname], mostly to denote if she is married. If she is not, "Cik". Some of us use the marriage-neutral terms "cikgu" (teacher) or, for a teacher of religious studies, "uztaza" (which is really just Arabic for teacher, but it sounds so much more Islamic that way *rolls eyes*).

My mother is called Mrs. [husband's surname] by people who know her through my father on an impersonal basis. However, when she is introducing herself, she says, quite firmly, "call me S." For official documents, she chooses "Madam [her surname]". I fully expect that when I am older, I, too, will adopt this habit, this "I'll name myself, thankyouverymuch" assertiveness.

And why should she change her surname, anyway? If she changes her name, she'd have to change her name on all her documents. What a pain in the ass! She is who she is, and her name is her name. She doesn't need her husband's name. She'll use it socially, but it's not necessary to help define who she is in relation to my father - she is still my father's wife, quite, quite married to him, even if she doesn't take his name.

The only thing I've ever been able to divine about the origins about this mysterious wife-loses-her-name thing is based in the roots of women being commodities, and the name she bears would be the name of the man who owns her.

What?! If that's the case, hellz no. This is definitely one "Western tradition" that my Eastern ass does not need to buy into!

I know that if I do ever face any pressure to change my name, it won't be coming from my family. A dear friend of mine briefly visited home from Australia after having been married, and wanted to register her marriage in Malaysia as well. She also wanted her Malaysian records to register her new name, and asked my father about how to go about registering her marriage here.

He gave her a puzzled look and said, "why would you want to change your name? Big hassle only, then you have to change everything. Don't bother, especially since you won't be living here anyway."

Yeah, safe to say, neither of my parents understood the name-changing thing. And I'm pretty thankful for that. My mother has her own name. My father has his own name. I may take my father's surname, but I don't have to give it up if I don't want to.

Call me Jha.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

R.I.P. Marilyn French

Marilyn French, novelist and staunchly feminist writer, has died, aged 79.

I meant to write Marilyn French fanmail.

My first book by her was Beyond Power. I remember seeing it, and remembering a book by Nietsche of the same name. I bought it from Venus Envy, intrigued by it. I don't remember why, exactly, I picked it up, although I know I'd heard of it before then.

It took me six months to get through the book. I wasn't reading anything else. I wasn't working much that summer, either. I would read a few paragraphs (paragraphs!) and then have to stand up and pace my apartment, piqued, my mind roiling with what I'd learned in those few paragraphs, my frontal lobe parsing the information that had been dealt to me.

I had thought before then that human problems stemmed from an inability to get along, more deeply from greediness. But even then, it couldn't make sense to me. Humans were greedy, yes. But that didn't, in my mind, justify the amount of bloodshed and killing that had been committed. Some exploitation, sure. But not the injust-sort-of-hanging-threats-over-proles-in-order-to-make-them-do-what-you-want-them-to-do sort of exploitation. I understood that politics were a play in order to gain authourity, in order to get people to do what you wanted. It's pretty much a necessary game sometimes. But I didn't understand why.

Until I read Beyond Power. Then I understood.

It's not because we've placed value on money, riches, or wealth. No, the root problem with society isn't materialism.

It's not because we've placed value on being sexually available and Men Being More Important. No, the root problem with society isn't the Male Gaze.

It isn't because we've become too individualistic, or become like drones, or we're too capitalistic, or too socialistic, or whatever.

No, all problems with society boil down to: we place too much value on having power in society.

We place too much value on being able to control others. We place too much value on being able to dominate others. We place too much value on being able to oppress others.

That's the crux of being in power. Being rich, being desired, being [insert any desirable trait in here] are simply just tools to having power.

We look to those with power and influence. If we are critical, we will question their right to power until we are satisfied that they are there for just reasons. If we are cautious, we will question their methods of exercising power, until we are satisfied that what they do is just and right and beneficial to all. If we are careful, we hold them accountable for any fuck-ups they commit, that we may be satisfied at having power wielded in a righteous manner.

But so often in the past, to have power is from whence injustice, massacres, rapes, wars, and oppression erupts. Loyalties can be bought as long as you have the influence, or maybe just the capacity to deliver a swift death to others if they dissent.

What makes even less sense than this continual value of power is that with power, one has no choice but to oppress, in order to maintain this power. And one is always afraid of the oppressed, because at any one time, one of the oppressed may rise above you, and take away that power so highly valued. It is the root of why abuse occurs - because abusers thinks this power to hurt others will be enough to validate themselves. It's the root of why rape occurs - because rapists crave that power to dominate and harm others. It's the root of why world leaders will send soldiers, who may be good people unto themselves, to war - under the illusion that their decisions will gain them the prestige of being the powerful army that either vanquishes, or, more recently, liberates other.

History's continual tragedies occur.

Suddenly, all the hateful narratives that had been spoonfed to me since I was a child made sense. I understood why Christ was a good man in a hateful world and I understood Islam to be, at its heart, a good lifepath, and why I had problems with religion as an institution. I understood why Buddhism aimed for Nirvana, and why I had so much trouble with its philosophy.

I meant to write Marilyn French fanmail. I read Beyond Power over and over again. It was bathroom reading - on the toilet, in the bath, waiting for the delipatory creams to work gave me the quiet moments I needed to further percolate her ideas in my mind. Some days I picked it off the shelf, thumbed to any random page, and read the first paragraph my eyes alighted on. Every reading was revelatory.

I am so sorry I didn't write Marilyn French fanmail, to tell her how much this one book meant to me, how much it had, really, I felt, poured light into my soul.

It was a tough book to read, Beyond Power. But it became excellent groundwork for reading her epic From Eve To Dawn. I only bought Volume 4 two weeks ago. I was looking forward to reading it. Volumes 1 to 3 were amazing. Ideas from Beyond Power were in there, and even more illuminated with examples from women's history.

Women have history! Right alongside men! While men went off to wars and gained accolades, women did stuff at home, and French found it necessary to collect information about them and write about them in a manner that's friendly to a wide audience. And it was necessary! It still is! And, more than ever, it became clear to me that this criminal quest for power was driven some need or some lacking only some men feel, and it led to culture-wide dysfunctions that all societies today still reel from.

Reading those books, I felt even more and more that men and women do best standing side by side, rather than participating in the mad dash to trample on each other, trying to cancel out each other's existances. That feminism is still necessary. That speaking out is utterly necessary.

I meant to write Marilyn French fanmail. I didn't, so I guess I'll settle for heartily recommending her book, Beyond Power.

Also, I'm thinking of having a draw for an entire collection of From Eve To Dawn. All participants will have to do is write a blog post on women's history, or something. If you'd be interested, let me know.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What's In A Name? Mis-pronounciasian Edisian*

One of the things which bug me the most about being Malaysian-Chinese is that people mispronounce my name. Shit, I don't even like trying to pronounce my own name, because it varies according to dialect. And some people insist on asking me how to pronounce it, when they can't wrap their tongues around the accents anyway.

It's not really hard to pronounce when you read it - it's two separate syllables, two separate words, each having its own sound. Some people pronounce it in a single word, which makes it sound different and it's just not my name.

So I stick to the English name I use, because it's so much simpler. Then back in Malaysia people can pronounce it according to their dialect. Other Malaysians, no matter what race they are, find it easy to pronounce my name, because they've been around those names all their lives. Yay multi-culturalism. Whenever I've spoken to mainland Chinese here in Canada, I make it a point to learn how to pronounce their names, and they always get this look of surprised pleasure when I get it right - "you can pronounce it!" they always say, as if it's some great feat. Well, yeah, of course I can, I grew up pronouncing those names!

The other thing that bugs me about this whole mis-pronounciation thing is that people somehow don't know how to say "Malaysia" sometimes. Now, of course, different people will pronounce it differently - most of us say some variant of "Muh-lay-see-ah", with different accents on different syllables. I personally say "Muh-lay-shuh".

The worst pronounciation I've ever heard of was "Muh-lay-zee." WTF?

Recently, a friend of mine said to his circle of acquaintances, "Have you met my Malaysian friend?"

They thought he said, "Have you met my little Asian friend?"



* Title mis-spelling shamelessly ripped from Disgrasian.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Gender Performances

So I was reading tekanji's excellent series on the Gaming Beauty Myth and my mind, as usual, spun off into a tangent, and this time it took me to the idea of gender as a performance.

I know I've encountered this idea somewhere on the feminist blogosphere, but I can't remember exactly where - probably Feministe. I have, however, explained the idea to a photographer friend of mine, and I know he found it a new idea.

The idea is that gender is not necessarily tied to our biological sex - it is something that is socialized in us. When we think "masculine" and "feminine" we imagine specific behaviours, modes of dress, and even ways of thinking, that are categorized into "guys" and "gals".

For example, frilly dresses. Coded feminine. Pants. Coded masculine (until women fought ridicule and normalized pants-wearing for women, at least).

The problem with gender is that it's assumed to be intrinsic. If we don't behave a specific way, there's something wrong with us, something different, that has to be scolded away. It's part of the problem some ciswomen have with transwomen - that sex and gender are intrinsic to the genitalia one is born with, and a transwoman is merely trying to pretend to be a woman, and cannot truly be one because she was born male.

This is, all-round, patently, hurtful bullshit. But it's everywhere around us, and it's something we internalize. We're taught this every day - boys don't cry. Girls don't run around in mud. Boys don't play with dolls. Girls don't play video games. Boys are made of bugs and snails and puppy dog tails. Girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice.

So there's this woman where I work. When I first met her, I was struck by her overall body language and I couldn't put my finger on why she was so different, so unique among so many other women I've met. Of course, me being the super-smartypants I am, I quickly figured out why.

When she walks, it's a very brisk pace. It's not so much walking as it is striding.
Code: Masculine.
Anecdote: When I first walked like that, I was in a classroom, age 13, and walking up to the teacher to get something. I wanted to look self-confident. Instead, the teacher said, "look at you, coming up to me like that, you look pissed off!"

When she strides, her whole body moves. Her shoulders swing.
Code: Masculine.
Anecdote: I walked like this once in Morocco. One day while my mum was ranting about me to my aunt and the tour group leader, the latter said, "she walks like a gorilla." Much public shaming ensued.

Sometimes, she puts her feet up on stuff - chairs, tables.
Code: Masculine.
Anecdote: I actually read this in a book on body language, that men would tend to take up space by putting their feet up on stuff, in order to demonstrate dominance. I tried doing this and got told off for being "unladylike".

There isn't much to code her as trans - she is very much a ciswoman unless I'm in the dark about something that pretty much isn't my business anyway. She wears makeup. She wears feminine clothing and heels.

But when I first met her, something in my head shifted, and I suffered from a bit of cognitive dissonance, of trying to categorize her as "not womanly" and realized that I was barking up the completely wrong fucking tree. Hell, I wasn't even in the right forest to start with. Seeing her drove home just how much I'd internalized all this ladylike/unladylike bullshit. I mean, I already knew that stuff, in theory.

And I'm pretty sure I've met other women who had masculine-coded behaviours (RenEv, for example, writes and thinks in ways which are coded masculine; even she admits she doesn't get women). She's just the first woman I met iRL to actually give me that uber-cognitive dissonance.

It's pretty cool to have been shaken up like that.