‘real women’ & those of us who aren’t.

In high school, I worked in a gift shop that sold gardening tools, books and trinkets.  One of our best-sellers was a Hanes Beefy-T that read “REAL MEN GROW ROSES.”  It tapped into something with customers—something about it felt clever, irreverent.  Women would tease their husbands with the shirt; men would swagger up to the counter to buy them.  But no matter what their reactions, gender was at the fore of how they responded—because what’s more gendered than claiming the experience of “real men”?

We see this meme a lot.  “Real men love Jesus,” “real women take care of their children,” and so forth.  But more insidiously, this meme takes hold in our movements and communities in big ways.  Many of us preface our own experiences or aspirations with that phrase – “real women have curves,” “real women aren’t a size zero,” “real women don’t do housework.”  We do it because, in a world full of restrictive social scripts, we seek to see ourselves reflected somewhere, anywhere.  That lack of affirming images—or any images—leaves us to our own devices.

But sometimes, we don’t even get so far as to claim who is a “real woman.”  For example:

when-did-this-become-hotter-than-this

This is body shaming, pure and simple.  And thankfully, that’s been clearly identified in response memes that add affirming text like “it didn’t—they’re all beautiful” and my favorite “LOVE ALL THE WOMEN!!!” (a la Hyperbole and a Half).

But this tactic, which appears simply to be a well-intentioned misfire, has much more to it than that.  Let’s unpack, shall we?

 

the pitfalls of flipping the script.

In so many marginalized communities, there’s a temptation—an easy temptation—to simply flip the script on oppression.  “That skinny girl just needs to eat a sandwich, am I right?”  “Imagine what it would be like if women ran the world—we wouldn’t have any of these problems!”  This exists in a number of communities in a number of ways.  This isn’t to say that there isn’t value in those statements—but they do lay traps for us to spring on ourselves later.

Here’s the problem: flipping the script leaves the script intact.  The assumption in the meme above is that there is a right kind of body to have, and the women on the top row don’t have it.  While body policing of thin women operates differently than it does with fat women, it’s still body policing, and it still feels like shit.

And it requires operating on the same old norms.  If you think “that skinny girl needs to eat a sandwich,” that means her body is too thin, too small, too something. In order for something to be considered “too much” of anything, there has to be an ideal, a template or a norm—and this thin woman deviates from that norm.  Reifying that ideal—even if we’re revising it—always leaves the huge numbers of people behind, and it almost always leaves out people of color, people with disabilities, gender nonconforming people, and many more.  A truly liberatory approach to fat positivity/body positivity can’t simply replace one ideal with another, slightly shifting the whole system of body shaming and policing, but ultimately leaving it intact. So why rely on ideals at all?  Why not just explode them with images of all of our bodies and stories of all of our experiences?

 

‘real women.’

The first time I remember seeing a phrase claiming to speak to the body of “real women,” I remember my face flushing with embarrassment.  It was a familiar feeling—a trigger, then the sear of humiliation.  As an intersex woman, my sex and gender are always in question, and there is never enough evidence to somehow prove who I am, validate my body, or make sense of my gender.  Despite my strong femme gender presentation and even stronger cisgender woman identity, my body will never fit all of the qualifications required of female bodies.  I am not a “real woman,” and I am never allowed to forget it.  “Real women” memes, despite being designed to create more space for more women, not only leave me out, but they bring up the string of moments of sex and gender policing I have faced over the years, and make me feel even less access to my own gender identity.

And I’m not the only one.  Historically, as we have explored, transgender women have been accused of not being real women.  Butch women and lesbians, too, are often described as too masculine to be “real women.” The “realness” of women of color has been contested through forced sterilization, birth control testing on Latinas, and much more.  None of us are consistently understood to be “real women.”  And not being seen as “real” isn’t just rhetorical—that perception is what leads to restriction to our access to resources, social acceptance, public spaces like bathrooms—even control of our own bodies.

On top of that, there are plenty of people who aren’t women who still need liberatory movements.  That isn’t to say that every remark we make needs to reflect every marginalized community.  But failure to be aware of who we’re leaving out makes it more difficult to include those people in the future.  And it replicates precisely the kind of narrow essentialism we were initially trying to escape.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want anyone to feel the burn of recognition, frustration and humiliation I feel when I realize I’m not “real.”

 

what you can do.

Talk about your experience on its own terms.  Don’t do it at the expense of anyone else.  Describing the rights, respect and dignity that all of us deserve can be just as catchy as flipping the script—and it’s much less likely to leave those who share our struggles behind.

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borders & intersections: wisconsin, choice & immigration

A lot’s at stake in Wisconsin.  Public understandings of the meaning and worth of labor are up for debate.  National displays of solidarity are popping up nationwide.  And, in amongst all of that, the very livelihood of thousands of Wisconsin workers is at risk.  We are looking at the resurgence of the labor movement.

One more thing that’s at stake in Wisconsin: corporations’ control over elections and legislative sessions.  To be clear, if Wisconsin conservatives get their way, corporations will be the only voice well-resourced enough to be heard in state politics.  By defunding unions—or preventing them from forming altogether—the biggest contributors to elections will be corporations.  Look, of course everyone approaches elections with their own interests at heart.  By breaking unions, we’re removing their voice from elections—which means corporations are the only voice left.  To make it all Marxist, we’re eliminating proletarian participation in democracy in order to play up bourgeois interests. Given that labor unions also fund and support most of issues we care deeply about Women’s rights, LGBT rights, POC rights this is not just an attack on labor its an attack on everything.

 

labor and immigration

Increasingly, “made in America” is a thing of the past.  Our economy is global, which means labor must be global, too.  When corporations can’t exploit labor abroad, they do it here—within immigrant communities.  When we fail to address immigration reform in a deep and comprehensive way, we unintentionally perpetuate classist and anti-labor systems of thought, policy and rhetoric.

This is an opportunity to re-imagine labor. Cesar Chavez had it right. The farmworker’s movement developed because migrant workers were the one pool of labor that could not legally unionize in the United States.  So business owners had carte blanche to treat farm workers however they saw fit—and with the latitude they had, they proved that corporations can play tidily into Hobbesian narratives of self-interest.  In short, they treated immigrant labor like shit. 

So what’s the Chavez connection to Wisconsin?  The farmworkers movement of the 1960s and 1970s  interrupted what the labor movement was at the time.  Corporations were just beginning to outsource jobs and seek cheaper labor in other countries—thereby exploiting policy divides in nations that had less established labor laws.  In the United States, migrant workers existed (and still do) in a no man’s land: many aren’t documented residents who can leverage American labor laws against unjust employers.  At the same time, they also cannot unionize and speak out as a group about their own best interests.  It’s a stalemate in the truest form.  And corporations have been exploiting and perpetuating that stalemate for decades.

As of yet, major American labor unions haven’t deeply addressed the needs of immigrant workers.  In so doing, they have missed an opportunity to get union workers and their many allies to do something radical and actually identify with immigrants: as workers who can be all too easily exploited when they can’t frequently and vigilantly voice their own needs and enforce their rights.  And in the absence of intersectional, pro-immigrant perspectives, anti-immigrant xenophobia takes hold, even in the most progressive communities.  By not drawing the parallel between labor and immigration, we reify systems that keep immigrants undocumented and prioritize corporate interests over those of workers.

And the labor connection to immigration is just one opportunity that progressive people in the United States miss.  There are many more opportunities to connect our work for immigration reform to choice, LGBT rights, and progressive activism around globalization.

 

gender justice

Gender justice is a term used to unite struggles for queer rights, trans justice, and choice & reproductive justice.  And guess what?  Immigration reform connects to all three!  Here’s how:

Reproductive justice & “anchor babies.”  A primary scare tactic used by the far right accuses immigrant women of entering the United States to give birth to “anchor babies” that will provide their path to citizenship.  In this trope are deep and unspoken fears of a conscious racial takeover.  And in using the “anchor baby” line of thinking, conservatives once again paint the fertility of women of color as something that’s “predatory” and must be restricted.  Once again, women’s families and reproductive health are up for public debate.

LGBT rights and asylum.  As astonishingly anti-LGBT stories continue to roll out of Uganda, and many LGBT people in the United States join together to show our support, we lose immigration and asylum as a key mode of supporting LGBT people in other countries.  Asylum is very rarely afforded to LGBT immigrants to the US, showing that, once again, homophobia and transphobia aren’t “real” enough, that it’s all in our heads, and that ultimately, we could choose to be or do something different.  (You know what’s not a choice, though? Being gay.)  At the same time, we fail to expose the role of American evangelists in creating the anti-LGBT climate in Uganda and then exploiting that climate by seeding sensationalist policies like the infamous “kill the gays” bill.

Trans justice, documentation and Arizona. Recently, Arizona effectively legalized racial profiling of people perceived to be immigrants  (read: Latinos).  If you’re brown, police will assume you’re not a citizen.  Something similar happens to transgender people every day: if they don’t present as gender normative, their documentation is challenged and questioned at every turn.   The whiter, and more gender normative you are, the less your citizenship is interrogated.

globalization & foreign policy

Globalization is inevitable, but the way it’s taking shape is not.  For decades, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and so-called “free trade” agreements have defined what kind of power and money nations can access when they don’t already have power and money.  Many of us know that this is unfair, some of us know that this disproportionately breaks along lines of race (creating shitty impacts for nations of people of color), but few of us make the connections to immigration into the US.

In truth, “free trade agreements” could be more accurately renamed as “free labor agreements,” which allow American corporations to build maquiladoras and sweatshops in, among other places, Central and North America.  When those sweatshops open up, they employ many—if not most—people in the town where they’re located.  That means that corporations define the going price for labor in that area while simultaneously establishing a deep local dependence on that corporation to keep the local economy alive.  At the same time, corporations can decimate local natural resources and introduce social power structures that eventually decimate indigenous ways of living.  It’s malevolent, it’s racist, it’s insidious, and it’s forever.

 

do this, right now, today.

So, what can you do?  Here are some action steps:

  • Redefine “the immigration problem.”  Overwhelmingly, people on the left and the right will agree that the solution to “the immigration problem” is to stop the flow of immigrants to the US.   But the need for immigration reform runs much, much deeper than that.  If we had thought more deeply about the impacts of free trade agreements on Latino nations, we would have predicted the wave of immigration from Central America.  “The immigration problem” is more than documentation for farm workers, naturalization for LGBT immigrants, or the DREAM Act for students.  It bleeds into movements for labor, choice, and global justice in US-powered foreign policy.  And, at its core, it asks US voters who we think should be allowed to be an American.
  • Explicitly connect your liberation to the liberation of immigrants.  Because, as we’ve explored here, those two things are deeply connected.
  • Ask yourself: who benefits?  Overwhelmingly, you’ll find that the people who benefit from anti-immigrant policies and discourse are (surprise!) US corporations.
  • Come out as an ally to immigrant communities.  Speak up about your support for immigrant communities, and continue to educate yourself on the lived experiences of immigrants, the problems with public discourse about immigration, and how public policy continues to define who can be a “real American.”