Archive for the ‘Women, money and power / the social side of economics’ Category

Anti-social Networking: can sexual thugs be democrats?

Monday, February 28th, 2011

New media leave brutish, sexist values untouched in Mideast

The power of social media like Facebook and Twitter has been part of the giddy, feel-good narrative of the Arab uprisings. And we Americans have a tendency to think that as our technologies and pastimes spread, so will our values. But it’s equally true that technologies are fitted into existing social forms, benign or otherwise.

When news broke of television reporter Lara Logan’s abuse at the hands of an Egyptian mob, I felt instant regret: When writing a story a few days earlier, I’d edited out references to beastly conduct by some Egyptian men.

During a long-ago visit to Egypt, men would shout to me in the street asking whether I wanted to have sexual intercourse. (They used a four-letter Anglo-Saxon word.) They asked even while I was bicycling with my boyfriend.

During the recent uprising, though, this sort of thing seemed at first to be ancient history. Women participated in the Tahrir Square demonstrations and the groping that they often meet with on the streets of Cairo was absent in the square.

And so I wrote of my visit to Egypt not that I had been constantly harassed, but that “what struck me was the lack of civility in the public street.”

Then the story of the Feb. 11 attack on Logan broke. The boorishness I experienced in 1978 was not outdated at all. And that is bad news for Egypt.

Democracy doesn’t develop just anywhere. It’s nourished by certain kinds of civil society. It’s hard to imagine a strong democracy in a country where, say, 50 percent of the citizens routinely abuse the others. And Egypt seems to be this sort of place. An oft-cited 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found not just that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women in Cairo had been harassed, but that 62 percent of men admitted to perpetrating this abuse.

It’s not just a few bad apples, but 62 percent of Egyptian men. Sexual harassment isn’t even a crime in Egypt. The Egyptian Parliament was supposed to consider criminalizing it, but then the revolution came.

The Logan incident has a few more bitter lessons for those of us who support democracy in the Middle East.

If 62 percent of Egyptian men are sexual thugs, it’s likely that some of those Facebook- and Twitter-using, democracy-supporting Egyptian men we’ve been seeing on TV are sexual thugs, too. Nor should this be all that surprising. In the U.S., teenagers have driven other teenagers to suicide by online teasing, and the persecutors in such cases probably believe in democracy and the Bill of Rights.

Technologies like movies, television and mobile phones have increased the general knowledge base in developing countries, and allowed poor people more economic options. Anglo-American pop music has had real cultural effects in the rest of the world. But social media let any given society be itself more efficiently — not something better. Social media may “empower” ordinary people in repressive societies, to the extent of making it easier for them to gather together and protest. But social media leave basic power relationships and habits intact. They are egalitarian in the sense that any literate person with access to a computer can use them — but they don’t make societies more egalitarian. (Nor do they determine who becomes literate or has access to a computer.) You can just as easily tweet a call for genocide as a report of police brutality.

Technology doesn’t change a traditional society. As I’ve seen in Afghanistan, where I spend a few months a year, you can be a mobile-phone-mad university graduate with a Facebook page, and still unquestioningly accept that your parents will choose your spouse.

Kabul has movie theaters that show foreign films, but only men go to theaters in Afghanistan. You can buy a frozen chicken from China in Mazar-i-Sharif (in fact, it’s cheaper than a fresh, locally raised chicken), but the chicken buyers are men, because women don’t shop for food in Afghanistan. And while Egyptian men are part of the online community of Facebook, women in the streets of Egypt are not treated the same way as they are in the West.

I wish the democrats of Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and other Arab nations every success. But some of the men in those protests need to get out of their own way — and that of their women. The democracy they say they want involves a level of respect for women that isn’t in evidence. And as Americans watch the inspiring events unfolding in the Arab world, we need to remember that having a Facebook page doesn’t make a man modern, or ready for civil society.

Linda Lovelace’s Ordeal (from A New Literary History of America, 2009)

Monday, October 19th, 2009

1972: The Pill available to unmarried women in all states
March 22, 1972: The U.S. Senate adopts the Equal Rights Amendment
June 12, 1972: Deep Throat opens at New York’s World Theater
June 17, 1972: Five burglars arrested while breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate hotel
January 11, 1973: First broadcast of An American Family on PBS
May 17, 1973: First broadcast of Watergate hearings

Linda Lovelace: January 10, 1949–April 22, 2002

Ordeal, the third of four autobiographies of Deep Throat porn star Linda Boreman (Lovelace), isn’t interesting because it’s a good book, a tragic one, or even an arousing one. Published in 1980, it’s interesting as an artifact of early feminism, just like Deep Throat in 1972, and because, again like Deep Throat, it raises endless questions about sincerity, pleasure, the public and the private, questions that floated in the air just a year later during the Watergate hearings, questions that still shape our culture.

Lovelace’s voice is the studiously bland voice we hear every day from politicians, in the smuggest of op-eds, in the passive-aggressive niceness of airline employees. Hypocrisy has always been with us, but the mimicking of the colorless tone of down-to- earth “good folks,” of what was once called Middle America, seems to have become prevalent after World War II. It was diagnosed in the earnest realist novels of the 1950s, and parodied in Catch-22, Mad magazine, and The Graduate (“Plastics!”).

The deliberate impersonation of a blameless dailiness might have been an artifact of television, television commercials, and the televising of political oratory. All of this created a national speech, a national jargon, broader and more impersonal than the regional accents of radio, and it also allowed the audience to see how facial expressions and words played with and against each other. It is much easier to lie with your voice when your face is hidden, or to lie with your face when you don’t talk. (Deep Throat, like most porn films, is light on dialogue.)

When Lovelace discusses the injuries of her past, her voice has an almost autistic blankness: “My mother has always been very emotional toward me. When I was four years old, she started beating me—first with a belt, later with the buckle of the belt.” Is that “very emotional” a reflection of Lovelace’s inability or unwillingness to understand her own history? Is it a defense against the sadness that must underlie such a memory, if true? Ordeal might have been a very sad book, but intentionally or not, it is not. Or is “very emotional” a sly understatement, allowing the reader to draw the connection between Linda’s abuse by her mother and her choice to stay for years with her abusive husband and Svengali, Chuck Traynor?

Consider this bit of Linda’s backstory: “I don’t want to pretend that I was always Miss Holy-Holy. I fell in love once or twice; I lost my virginity at age nineteen, and when I was twenty, I gave birth to an illegitimate child that my mother put out for adoption.”

“An illegitimate child.” She doesn’t even say whether it was a boy or girl—the important thing is that it was “illegitimate.” Her mother put it out for adoption? I was under the impression that the child’s mother’s consent is necessary, not the grandmother’s. Linda has no agency here. “My only honest conversations those days were with God,” she says of her initial time with Traynor, but the question of how honest she is with herself, or us, comes up throughout her book.

Discussing sex, Lovelace blends false modesty and coyness, like the tan lines on the otherwise overexposed bodies of porn stars. Chuck Traynor may well have abused her, but Lovelace had a foot in the world he lived in before they met, through her high school best friend, Betsy, a “topless dancer.”

Lovelace’s ghostwriter for Ordeal, Mike McGrady, was an Eastern establishment journalist—Yale, the army, Newsday—whose Naked Came a Stranger, a parody of a sex novel, was a best seller in 1969. A year later, he published his self-exposé: Stranger than Naked; or, How to Write Dirty Books for Fun and Profit; A Manual. Linda did something similar. In 1974 she published her first autobiography, Inside Linda Lovelace, portraying herself as a sex addict who participated willingly in the porn world. In Ordeal she calls Inside Linda Lovelace “a pack of lies” and says it was written by Chuck Traynor. Ordeal doesn’t mention a second, 1974 autobiography, The Intimate Diary of Linda Lovelace, which was put together by the man who became her producer and lover after she left Traynor; he seems to have been gay, but beat her anyway at the end. Not to mention that in 1986 Linda published a fourth autobiography, Out of Bondage, also cowritten with Mike McGrady. The issues become murkier still when you consider that Out of Bondage was published by Lyle Stuart, a division of Kensington Books, while The Intimate Diary of Linda Lovelace was published by Pinnacle Books, also a division of Kensington.

Why would a woman who wanted to distance herself from an earlier, false autobiography choose a collaborator with McGrady’s history of hoax? Did she choose McGrady precisely in order to tantalize the reader with questions about truth? Or was he the best she could find—damaged goods, like herself? Or was Ordeal his idea, inspired by his own history of spoof and confession? These questions are emblematic of the early 1970s, when the first hearings on a possible presidential impeachment in American history were televised, and when the first reality TV show—An American Family—aired.


Style Over Substance: Obama, the iPhone, and What We Pay for Being Cool

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why my friends buy dysfunctional products. I include myself for my two cursed MacBooks, each of which has been in the shop multiple times in their first year of service. I’ve been using Macs so long that it would be a major issue to change all my files, though every month or two I think about it.

But because of my MacBook horrors–which include having to buy a second one when the first one simply wouldn’t turn on the day before a month-long trip to Afghanistan–I’ve resisted the siren song of the iPhone and stayed with my reliable if unglam BlackBerry.

Yes, I’d love to have the function that identifies songs that are playing, and the photo storage is cool and good-looking. But from what I’ve heard, it just doesn’t work. Lately, every time I’ve walked up those silly transparent steps to the Moronbar at my local Apple Store with one of my two lemon MacBooks, I’ve watched the line of hipsters waiting to drop their iPhones off for repair–and recoiled.

Then my visiting friend from Los Angeles, Rachel, told me she needed to use my landline for a radio interview because her iPhone was unreliable. I knew I’d made the right choice. I don’t need another product that doesn’t work.

My friend Edward, who is 49, told me that a 27-year-old woman he recently went on a date with showed him how to use some of the apps on his iPhone. (Maybe that’s what people do on dates these days). Edward is brilliant but an “old 49″ who dresses like a man of 60. So the iPhone is the equivalent of sharper shoes for him. It involves him in the culture of younger folk.

The iPhone seems to have a fatal allure for my 50ish friends, and I’ve come to think they see it as a way of clinging to youth that doesn’t involve fashion mistakes or plastic surgery. With both the iPhone and BlackBerry now available for about $199, with a contract, neither is a signifier of wealth. But each has a meaning. And maybe the BlackBerry is a way of leapfrogging to full adulthood–the corporate world, seriousness, all that–for some users in their early 20s.
Don’t get me wrong, part of me wants an iPhone, too–the same part that occasionally buys really uncomfortable shoes because of how they look. And I understand those who have both iPhones and BlackBerrys; it’s like having both sensible shoes and stilettos. If you’re willing to lug around two devices (the reason many people give for buying an iPhone is that they don’t want to carry both an iPod and a BlackBerry), and can afford it, why not?

My bi-phone 51-year-old woman filmmaker friend Pamela loves her BlackBerry (“I’ve dropped it at least 300 times and no matter how hard it falls, it still works!”) and her iPhone. But what she e-mailed me about the iPhone reminds me of Edward:

“Not only is it useful in my line of work, having an iPhone is sort of like having a dog–you take it out and you instantly make friends with lots of very attractive young people–you sit around and trade tips on the best new apps or show each other photos or films you’ve made. This definitely makes it worth every penny.”

Ah yes, the very attractive young people–and so accessible! Who can blame Pamela? The quest for signifiers of youth is pretty harmless, in the field of consumer goods.