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Anxious Adventuring: Blue Lagoon and the Construction of the Self

Anxious Adventuring_

Anxious Adventuring: Blue Lagoon and the Construction of Self

H. Bradford

5/31/19


There is really no reason to be anxious about visiting Iceland’s Blue Lagoon.  After all, it is supposed to be relaxing. Still, I had some misgivings about it.  For the most part, this stemmed from my concept of self. I have never been to spa before.  Spas seem like one of those things for “other” people. When I say “other” people, I mean, well-kept, normal, better off, thin, Instagram ready people.  I see myself as abnormal, weird looking, not thin, and not well-off. Spas seem indulgent and feminine, not that that femininity or indulgence is wrong. I worried that perhaps there would be social norms or expectations that I would not meet.  Secondly, it is spendy. The most basic “Comfort” package costs around $94. This includes a silica mud mask, free drink, entrance, and locker/towel use. I worried that maybe choosing the “cheapo” package was a stigmatized choice or worse, there would be hidden costs.  Like many things that I feel uncertainty over, it turned out to be a good experience and insightful about how a person constructs their “self” while traveling.


My day started with a very early flight from Oslo to Reykjavik, so I arrived in Iceland feeling exhausted but also thankful that visiting the Blue Lagoon was the first and main activity of my day.  I had pre-booked my visit to the Blue Lagoon and the booking included an airport transfer to the Blue Lagoon and then another to the Reykjavik. Because the Blue Lagoon is located between Keflavik airport and Reykjavik, it seems that many people either visit the Blue Lagoon while entering or leaving Iceland.  This low-key activity gave me something to do when I otherwise might not have been up for much more. There was a bit of confusion over which of the many buses outside of the airport was my transfer as well as some waiting outside in the windy cold that served as a welcome to the country. But, once I figured out the appropriate bus (different tour operators use different busing companies) I was on my way across the black lava fields to my destination.  Blue Lagoon is located about 20 minutes away from the airport. Once there, I joined the throngs of fellow tourists exiting their respective buses and lined up to check my luggage. If I remember rightly, it was about $5 to rent a locker for my luggage.

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After dropping my luggage off, I entered the main complex of the Blue Lagoon, where I again l joined a que.  This time, the line was for my entry wristband. The wristband serves as a key to a smaller locker (for purses or personal items), for entry and access to the amenities that come with the package that a person has purchased, and to pay for items (since it is connected to a person’s credit card).  While I stored my suitcase at the baggage check point for a fee, smaller items can be stored for free in the locker room. The locker was large enough for a backpack of items such as dry clothes, purse with wallet, cosmetics, personal towel, etc. The locker room is divided by gender, but trans or non-binary individuals who wish for private space for changing can ask for this upon request.  In the locker room itself there are shower stalls with curtains and walls, so it is private enough that a person does not need to get naked with others if they are uncomfortable with that prospect. Other reports mention that there is a staff who monitors the showers to make sure that everyone is clean when they enter the Blue Lagoon. However, I did not notice any staff tasked with this duty. Image may contain: sky, cloud, outdoor, water and nature


With changing complete, I headed off to the geothermal pool area.  Before entering the pool, one must leave their sandals or shoes behind, as well as deposit their towel (which is included with the fee) on a hook.  The thermal pool was expansive enough that even though it was busy, visitors were spread out. The demographics of the visitors seemed to be a mixture of older people and young people, with no children present at that time even though children over two years of age and older are allowed with a parent or guardian.  The tourists skewed towards white, young, and female at the time of my visit, but there was a number of older men and young men in mixed gender groups. According to research regarding spa tourism, women make up the majority of spa visitors. In a survey of spa goers at a resort in Crete, Greece, a convenience sample of spa users in a spa lobby consisted of 67% women and the most common age category of respondents was 45 to 54 to years old.  Most respondents, or 47%, had completed a Bachelor’s degree. The most common income category at 39% was 30,000 to 50,000 euros per year, followed by 28% making above 50,000 euros yearly income (Trihas and Konstantarou, 2016). While it is hard to generalize from a single study, it seems that spas would attract at least middle income individuals due to the fact that it is discretionary spending that lower income individuals may not be able to afford.  In the United States, 78% of spa visitors are women and the average age is 45. Kelly and Smith (2016) review research which suggests that this may be because women are tasked with more care work which lends itself to wanting to relax and because they feel more pressure to be healthy and attractive. They also suggest that this age is part of the U-bend, wherein individuals are believed to be less happy in their 40s and 50s (Kelly and Smith, 2016). Personally, I would hypothesize that women likely have more disposable income in their 40s, as this is when income peaks for women (Elkins, 2018).  This might lend itself to more spending on health and leisure. This age group may enjoy more capacity for leisure and health, as children may be older or grown. My perception was that the tourists at the Blue Lagoon skewed towards under age 40 at the time of my visit. While this is younger than the average spa visitor elsewhere, this may be in part because Iceland attracts younger tourists. The average age of a North American tourist to Iceland is 39.1 years old. The average age of an Asian tourist to Iceland is 34.6 years old and from Eastern Europe it is 31.7 years old. In a survey conducted by the Iceland Tourist Board, only 1 in 10 respondents were over the age of 55.  Most respondents were between the age of 24 and 34, followed by 35 to 54 (Oladottir, 2018). The demographics of my visit may also be unique to that moment in time.

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In Trihas and Konstantarou’s (2016) study of a Crete spa, most visitors were there for relaxation, followed by physical health and beauty.  This is consistent with other literature they reviewed wherein tourists were often motivated by relaxation and relief. Other important factors in the literature review include novelty and self-exploration.  The self is a complicated concept. Some travel research has posited that travel helps one find their self, but the self is not a fixed thing that one finds. Rather, it is is something constructed through the process of travel.  One way of visioning the “self” was put forth by Sirgy and Su s as self-image (how one sees their self), ideal self (how one would like to see themself), social self (how a person believes others perceive their self), and ideal social self (how others would like to be seen).  Ideal self and social self pattern consumption decisions (Kelly and Smith, 2016). As for myself, my visit to the Blue Lagoon was motivated by curiosity, fear of missing out, and relaxation. On one hand, since I had never visited a spa before, I was curious what that experience would be like.  Additionally, the Blue Lagoon is often framed as a “must see” tourist attraction in Iceland. I felt that if I did not visit it, I may miss out on an important experience. Because I am always uncertain when I will visit a country again, I am influenced by travel books, blogs, or travel websites which list “must see” locations.  Finally, I figured it would be a relaxing experience, even if the experience was not familiar and included some stresses of fitting in or uncertain norms. The Blue Lagoon is more than a geothermal spa, it is an attraction in its own right, and I assume that there are others there who are also unfamiliar with spas but who chose it as a destination because of its reputation as an important tourist attraction.  My hypothesis contrasts with Trihas and Konstantarou’s (2016) study which found that 35% of the spa visitors in Crete had visited a spa at least ten times. While I cannot test these predictions without doing actual research, this might be an area for someone else to explore. Image may contain: one or more people, sky, mountain, ocean, cloud, outdoor, nature and water


While visiting, I didn’t feel particularly out of place, as people seemed too involved in their social groups or relaxation to pay much attention to others.  Nor did I feel stigmatized for choosing the cheaper option. The electronic bracelets are color coded depending upon the package that one chooses. However, most people had the same blue wristband that I had, meaning that most people were not spending hundreds of dollars on their experience.  Like me, many were probably content to just be there. The lagoon itself was amazing. The air was very chilly, as it was a late September day. However, the water was 100 degrees F and perfect. I sat there, soaking up the beautiful, milky blue water. I tried out the silica mud mask, which I felt was completely adequate for my visit.  If a person wants to spend more money, they can try out other masks. Additional masks can be obtained at a mask station. The Blue Lagoon is a mixture of sea water and ground water. The water is heavy with silica, which forms a white mud on the bottom of the pool, from which the mask is derived. Blue green algae are also found in the water.  The water can actually turn from blue-white to green in the summer due to algae growth and visitors can pay extra for an algae mask. Aside from algae and silica, the water has 2.5% salinity (Haraldson, 2014). In contrast, the average salinity of ocean water is 3.5%.


Like many people at the Lagoon, I took selfies.  Taking selfies to document the experience seemed like an important ritual for the younger, female visitors.  Like others, I tried to capture myself with a mask on my face, as this represented to me both the novelty of trying something new and the constructed luxury of existing in that space.  Warren and Batarags (2018) pointed out that many of the photos of the Blue Lagoon are curated to cut out certain elements of the visit.  For instance, most people do not photograph the nearby power station, local highway, or the buildings that surround the lagoon.  This gives a false impression that the lagoon is located in the middle of nature. It is true that I did not photograph those elements of the experience either. I suppose I have internalized the norms of what sort of photos one should take of the Blue Lagoon. But, honestly, I did not find it to be a jarring environment spoiled by buildings.  The buildings are dark colored and modern looking and seem to blend well with the natural landscape.  Cutting out buildings and highways constructs the scene of the selfie.  Goffman noted that individuals present a sense of self to generate a desired impression.  Taking selfies entails creating content for an imagined audience, editing and framing this content in order to highlight positive ideas one has about themselves.  In one study, 45% of UK, U.S., and Chinese students surveyed felt that looking good in a selfie was important.  For some sefie takers, impression management might be accomplished through filters or lighting  (Nguyen and Barbour, 2017).   In the case of the Blue Lagoon, it is accomplished through what is in the view of the camera and what is not.  Including buildings, the highway, or power plant creates a stage wherein the self is situated in more mundane environs.  The impression that is consciously or subconsciously constructed through selfies is that the location is natural and relaxing and more individual and exclusive than it may actually be. Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor


Aside from taking selfies, I took time to enjoy a drink from the poolside drink station.  Since my band included a free drink, I tried out a strawberry skyr smoothie. I will say that drinking a thick yogurt drink in 100 degree water isn’t actually that refreshing.  The beverage was a bit too heavy for the heat. Technically, skyr is consumed like yogurt, but is actually a soft sour cheese. So, imagine choking down a thick, sour cheese drink while sweating in a steaming pool.  Well, I wanted an “Icelandic” experience. Still, I felt fabulous drinking yogurt and saturating myself with the hot silica infused water. One benefit of the cheap package is that, like all of the packages, visitors are allowed to stay as long as they like.  So, I stayed a few hours. I left the water a few times to drink water from a nearby fountain. At least the water was free!

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As popular and luxuriant as Blue Lagoon is, it isn’t actually a naturally occuring hot spring.  Rather, Blue Lagoon is actually formed by the wastewater from the nearby Svartsengi power plant.  Svartsengi, which means black meadow, is located in a lava field that is thought to have been formed by volcanic eruptions that occured in 1226 on the Reykjanes peninsula (Bilba, 2013).  The black landscape, which is speckled with green patches of moss, creates an otherworldly backdrop for the vibrant lagoon. The power plant is visible from the Blue Lagoon and is itself a wonder, as it uses steam and salt water to create energy that provides electricity and hot water to thousands of homes in Iceland.  The steam is accessed by drilling 1800 M beneath the earth, where the water is 465 degrees F because it is warmed by magma from the spreading of the Eurasian and American plates. Steam is converted to hot air and salt and water are filtered from the steam (Bilba, 2013). It was the first geothermal power plant in the world to produce both heat and electricity.  It was constructed during the 1970s as a state and municipally funded project to serve the region’s energy needs as well as provide electricity and hot water to Keflavik airport (Blue Lagoon-The History, 2019). The Blue Lagoon was meant to be a waste lagoon for water discharged from the plant, but the lava field proved impermeable to the water due to sedimentation, resulting in the formation of an expansive pool.  Because of this blocked drainage, new holes must be regularly bored into the lava field to alleviate some water build up (Blue Lagoon-The History, 2019). The geothermal plant is not open to the public, but according to Tripadvisor, a person might be able to arrange a private tour by contacting the plant. Thus, the Blue Lagoon does not necessary have to be viewed as luxurious, feminine, or middle class. It could be framed as an industrial wonder fit for working class people of all genders. Image result for blue lagoon power plant image of Svartsengi Power Plant from: https://www.nat.is/blue-lagoon-history/


The Blue Lagoon began to take off in the 1980s, when psoriasis patients began bathing in the water as an experimental cure (Blue Lagoon-The History, 2019).   The Iceland Psoriasis Society built the first rudimentary shelters along the lagoon and in 1987 the first public bathing facility opened. Blue Lagoon Ltd was established in 1992 and took over the facilities in 1994.  Scientific studies conducted between 1992-1996 provided the data necessary for Icelandic Health Authorities to declare it an official psoriasis treatment facility (Guðmundsdóttir, Brynjólfsdóttir and Albertsson, 2010).  The water is believed to relieve symptoms of eczema, arthritis, and sciatica and Iceland’s social security system covers visits to Blue Lagoon for medical treatment (Blue Lagoon-The History, 2019).  Thus, before it was a tourist attraction, it was used for medical purposes. In 1999, construction upgraded the lagoon so that it is now regularly fed water and features amenities such as a cafe and restaurant (Blue Lagoon-The History, 2019).  Today, the geothermal brine is replaced every 40 hours (Guðmundsdóttir, Brynjólfsdóttir and Albertsson, 2010) and the facility, which was updated in 2007, features massages, sauna, a shop, private retreat spa,  hotels, and clinic. In 2017, 1.3 million tourists visited the Blue Lagoon. Aside from tourism, Blue lagoon algae are harvested for a variety of purposes ranging from fish food to cosmetics.  Silica and salts are also harvested from the water for cosmetic purposes (Guðmundsdóttir, Brynjólfsdóttir and Albertsson, 2010).   Up to 4,000 people visit the Blue Lagoon each day, but when I visited in September, it seemed far less busy.


The Blue Lagoon is disparaged for being a tourist trap and over priced.  Both of these things are true. 31% of visitors to Iceland pay a visit to the Blue Lagoon, but 59% of visitors travel to Gulfoss/Geysir and 50% visit Thingvellir national park.  EVERYTHING in Iceland feels like a tourist trap, in that, well, most tourists travel there to partake in several popular activities and the country attracts millions of tourists.  If a person wants to avoid tourist traps, they might instead travel to Chad. So, to some degree, most people will likely visit something popular while visiting Iceland. Popular things are often denigrated as inauthentic or pedestrian.  Travel advice often hinges upon finding the unique, quaint, out of the way, and authentic. The Blue Lagoon is authentically the Blue Lagoon in the same way Disneyland is authentically Disneyland. It is an experience and one that constructs itself as healthy and indulgent, but in reality is a popularized pool of industrial wastewater.  Yet, to critique it for being popular and inauthentic is an exercise of cultural capital. According to Bourdieu, cultural capital is the tastes, knowledge, practices, and skills which are given value by elites. These things are transmitted through socialization by elite peers, family, or education systems. Tastes in food, music, clothing, hobbies, etc.represent cultural capital and are a source of status.  Everyone is socialized with certain skills, knowledge, or dispositions known as habitus. Habitus patterns a person’s relationship to cultural capital (Holt, 1998). For instance, a person who is not very knowledgeable about Italian food might visit Olive Garden and feel that it is an authentic Italian experience. The tastes of this individual might be denigrated as low class, ordinary, or uneducated because of their preference for a mass chain restaurant over a locally owned Italian restaurant or a trip to Italy itself.  Only a person with access to certain skills, networks, or knowledge would be able to discern what is deemed authentic by cultural elites. Of course, having economic capital is necessary for accessing so called authentic experiences. Returning to the Blue Lagoon, I had misgivings about visiting since I was not socialized to visit a spa. It was not part of my upbringing or education and represents a sort of cultural capital that I lack. At the same time, because the Blue Lagoon is so popular, it lacks the authentic veneer of more obscure geothermal spas in Iceland, the ones which locals ACTUALLY visit and the ones which are ACTUALLY naturally occurring.  It straddles the elitism of being expensive and the “low” culture of mass tourism. But, because it can be both elite (with hotel stays costing over $1000) and popular (visited by millions), it appeals to a wide audience who can customize their experience based upon their sense of self, economic capital, and cultural capital. Image may contain: sky, cloud, outdoor and water


With that said, I would say that my visit to the Blue Lagoon was relaxing and interesting.  It challenged my sense of self (viewing myself as not a spa person) and took me out of my comfort zone (as someone who has not visited a spa).  I can appreciate the sense of self-care or pampering that comes with a visit and have since visited other geothermal spas. To increase my sense of being a “spa person” I have tried to reframe these experiences as interesting geological or industrial phenomena.  This creates the potential for them to be more gender neutral or at least less associated with beauty and wellness. I lack the cultural capital, or for that matter, gender capital, to fully enjoy or embrace the experience. Without overthinking it, it was relaxing to submerge in the warm water and novel to be in such a unique place.  I would recommend it to visitors of Iceland and also recommend paying attention to the demographics and behaviors of fellow visitors!

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Sources:

Biba, E. (2017, November 14). Tour One of Iceland’s Incredible Geothermal Plants. Retrieved from https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/g1337/tour-one-of-icelands-incredible-geothermal-plants/?slide=4

 

Blue Lagoon – The History. (2019, April 26). Retrieved from https://www.nat.is/blue-lagoon-history/

 

Elkins, K. (2018, November 02). Here’s the age at which you’ll earn the most in your career. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/02/the-age-at-which-youll-earn-the-most-money-in-your-career.html

 

Gudmundsóttir, M., Brynjólfsdóttir, A., & Albertsson, A. (2010, April). The history of the blue lagoon in Svartsengi. In Proceedings of the World Geothermal Congress.

 

Holt, D. B. (1998). Does cultural capital structure American consumption?. Journal of consumer research, 25(1), 1-25.

Haraldsson, I. G. (2014). Geothermal baths, swimming pools and spas: examples from Ecuador and Iceland.

Kelly, C., & Smith, M. K. (2016). Journeys of the self: the need to retreat.

Nguyen, L., & Barbour, K. (2017). Selfies as expressively authentic identity performance.

Oladottir, O. (2018). Tourism in Iceland (pp. 1-28, Rep.). Icelandic Tourist Board. https://www.ferdamalastofa.is/static/files/ferdamalastofa/talnaefni/tourism-in-iceland-2018_2.pdf

Warren, K., & Batarags, L. (2018, October 02). Disappointing photos show what Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon looks like in real life. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/blue-lagoon-photos-iceland-reality-vs-expectation-2018-9#-think-again-the-blue-lagoon-is-located-right-off-a-highway-8

 

Trihas, N., & Konstantarou, A. (2016). Spa-goers’ Characteristics, Motivations, Preferences and Perceptions: Evidence from Elounda, Crete. Almatourism-Journal of Tourism, Culture and Territorial Development, 7(14), 106-127.

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A Rock and a Hard Place: A Story About Poverty and Wishful Thinking

A Rock and a Hard Place

A Rock and a Hard Place:  A Story about Poverty and Wishful Thinking

H. Bradford

3.11.19


I grew up poor.   Of course, poor is relative, and to some degree, everyone was poor where I grew up in rural Minnesota.  The median household income in Cromwell in  2016 was $26,094.  In contrast, Duluth, a city about an hour away, has a median household income of $45,950 So, it is a poor area for this region.  Against this backdrop, my family was poor, owing to the fact that only one of my parents regularly worked outside of the home for most of my childhood, my father’s employment was fraught with periods of layoffs and injury, and because my parents were very young when they had me (my mother was in high school).  While I wasn’t the poorest of the poor and benefited from support from my grandparents, I grew up aware that we didn’t have the nicest home (a trailer in the woods), best toys, braces for my teeth, other families seemed to have more, and that finances stressed my parents out.   I remember one winter when my father was laid off of work, we ate potatoes and eggs during January and February.  I remember wanting things to be better for my parents.  I remember, in about the first grade, wishing that Santa would bring us more money.   As a child, I really didn’t have the tools to understand poverty, how it works, how to escape it, or that escape from poverty is atypical.  In my immature mindset, poverty was something best escaped through some miraculous circumstance.  For instance, Charlie Bucket escaped poverty by finding a golden ticket in his chocolate bar and surviving the maniacal factory trials of a mad capitalist by virtue of his….virtue.  The Beverly Hillbillies escaped poverty by finding oil on their property.  Following this theme, I was convinced that we would escape poverty by finding a valuable rock.  This happened twice.


The swampy yard of my childhood featured at least two large rocks.  I would climb on one of them, which was mossy and would have been a good location for a rock garden if it wasn’t set in a swamp or shade.  Another rock that captured my imagination was located inside the forest across from our driveway.  This rock was also located in one of many swampy pools near our home which was ideal for finding frogs in the spring, but would dry up by summer.  Something about that particular rock captured by imagination.  It was gray and jagged.  Like the other rock, it was large enough to sit and play on.  Perhaps because it was deeper in the woods, surrounded by ferns and other prehistoric plants,  half submerged in a vernal pool, I imagined it was associated with dinosaurs.  I imagined that the rock had something to do with the extinction of the dinosaurs.  It became obvious to my mind that it was in fact, a meteor.  I knew, on a scientific level, that meteors are rare and valuable, so I decided that this was going to be our golden ticket out of poverty.   On a superstitious level, whenever we saw a meteor streak across the sky, my mother told us to say “money, money, money” as fast as we could, until it disappeared and perhaps money would come our way.  I was always disappointed that they never lasted long enough to say the incantation more than a few times, if any at all.  Money certainly never came of it.  In any event, I convinced my brother that it was a meteor.  It probably isn’t hard to stretch the imagination that far, since it was a large rock in the middle of a forest.  Obviously it got there somehow, so why not outer space?  My mind was not geologically grounded enough to consider glaciers.  My brother and I dragged my mother out to this meteor, convinced that it was going to make us some money.  She followed us to the rock.   Maybe she cautiously hoped that we had indeed stumbled upon something of value.  Just like Antique Roadshow, undiscovered wealth was waiting to be found.  I showed her the rock and explained the characteristics that clearly made it a meteor.  It wasn’t.  I don’t remember what happened after we brought her into the woods.  But, we never became wealthy from it and eventually I forgot about the rock and stopped playing in the woods.

Image result for rock with dinosaur toys

A random image of dinosaurs on a rock from FreePic


The second rock incident happened much later.  I went on a road trip to Thunder Bay, Ontario with my grandmother, brother, and mother.  I was about fourteen years old.  On the way back, we stopped at a rest stop or overlook, and I saw a large, clay colored rock.  I was convinced that this was an agate.  I suppose traveling up the North Shore of Lake Superior I had agates on the brain.  I convinced my brother that it was an agate.  Although it was dull and reddish brown, I was sure that if we loaded it into the car, then cracked it open, it would split into two perfect agate geodes.  The otherwise dull colored rock had a specks that glistened in the sun, which to me indicated that it was secretly an agate.   This was around the time my parents divorced and we were moving on to a new life in a low income apartment, on food stamps, in a new single parent household in Isanti, MN.  A magnificent agate would have been a huge help.  My mother was reluctant, but once again I got my brother on board.  We both convinced her to load the forty or fifty pound rock into our vehicle.  After all, we couldn’t possibly leave this opportunity for wealth behind.  It road around in our vehicle for months.  Eventually, my mother asked a rock collector at the county fair about it.  The expert scoffed at the idea that we would find such large agate.   But, we didn’t know how agates formed or how they would have broken up into smaller pieces over time.  I was disappointed that it was….just a rock.  It was a rock and an unwanted passenger in the backseat of our car.  I think we eventually rolled the rock onto the lawn of our low income apartment complex, which upset the management.  The last I remember was seeing it rolled up against a tree by the parking lot.  Did we get into trouble?  Did they make us move it?  Did they know it was our rock?  I don’t know.  I just know that once again, we pinned our hopes on a mineral miracle. Image result for agate geode

What I imagined we would find inside the rock….

              

I’ve been thinking about these stories lately.   It seems foolish that I believed, on more than one occasion, that we could escape poverty by finding valuable rocks.   But, these ideas are really no different than some of the other faulty thinking regarding poverty or social class.  For one, the idea of discovering something valuable to escape poverty is a common narrative in society.   I already mentioned Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,  The Antique Roadshow, and Beverly Hillbillies.  Any story involving hidden treasure similarly follows the notion that wealth is out there waiting to be found.   Lottery tickets similarly create the notion that wealth is out there.  It is just a matter of the right numbers at the right time….and SOMEONE has to win.  Even if the odds are low, it COULD be you if you just participate.   The Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes also reinforces the faulty thinking that wealth is something that can unexpectedly happen.  Game shows also promote this idea, as contestants compete for money or prizes.   Of course, some skill might be involved, but a person’s ability to solve word puzzles, guess the correct price, or answer trivia questions is generally not a surefire way to make it ahead in society.  In another example, one of my favorite children’s stories was called Silly Simon, about a foolish young man who was abused by his mother and could never do anything right, until his silly antics caused a princess to laugh.  He was awarded gold from a king for this feat.   This teaches that wealth is something that can happen in just the right circumstances or with a not so useful skill-set that suddenly has value.   Another common trope is the orphan who is adopted into wealth, such as Annie, Oliver Twist, or a low rated TV show that aired when I was a child called Rags to Riches.  At least I never once imagined escaping poverty through adoption!   I grew up in a world informed by Publishers Clearing House, scratch tickets, stories of orphans and treasures, game shows, etc.  At the same time, never once did my pre-college formal education tackle the topic of causes of poverty.   This is a disservice to children, who are often bullied for their social class.  I remember my brother was once upset that a classmate of his (in Isanti) said that our family lived in the dumpster by the school.  I remember a classmate (in Cambridge) picking on my family for using food stamps and another teasing me because my family didn’t own our own washing machine (which I hadn’t even considered a sign of poverty until teased for it.  I liked going to the laundromat).   If children are not raised to understand social class, then being poor is mysterious and easy to blame on lack of luck or some kind of flaw.

Image result for silly simon


Even as I entered college, I really didn’t understand class.  I felt embarrassed that everyone else seemed to have stories about going on vacations that involved sailing in Greece or backpacking in Europe.   I didn’t want to talk about myself.  (Of course, at this point in my life I have traveled a lot, but upon graduating high school I had never been on a plane and felt jealous when I met college students who had studied abroad in high school or went on elaborate family vacations.  I felt less than them!  That this was not a matter of money, but that I wasn’t “good enough” to have these opportunities.  But, these feelings motivated me to prioritize travel).  I felt ashamed that my parents were not doctors, professors, business owners, lawyers, or any of the other prestigious professions that other students’ parents seemed to have.  I felt that there was something wrong with me and my family.  I felt that I was inferior.  That if I was smarter, more attractive, harder working, more talented, more outgoing, less strange, or any number of other qualities, that I too would have an exciting and successful life.  So, rather than analyze the difference between myself and other students I met as a matter of socioeconomics, I felt that I was defective.   Internalizing being poor as a flaw or a failure was just as faulty as believing that wealth could come from meteors (or lottery tickets, sweepstakes, game shows, etc.).  Yet, this is more insidious and pervasive.  It is something that I believe to some degree even to this day.  Being poor….it did make me flawed!   I have crooked teeth because we couldn’t afford braces.  I have a crooked spine as well.  We didn’t have access or an understanding of psychology, so some of these needs also went unmet or unknown.  So, I am not the optimal person I might have been in other socioeconomic circumstances.  Certainly, I am a passable person and everyone has flaws.  Yet, for all of my passion for learning, all of my talent, hard work, or any number of positive attributes, I will never be “living my best life.”   In parts, I am to blame.  A scarcity mindset prevents me from taking too many risks or living too freely.  I will never feel empowered to quit a job I don’t like or make major life changes because in the back of my mind, I know that there is a lot to lose and fear of going without. Image result for living my best life

Yeah, not really.  But life is….okay.


The narrative of self-determination  is perhaps the hardest one to overcome.  I can rationally conclude that success does not come from meteors, agates, game shows, or lottery tickets.  Yet, I have not quite abandoned the notion that with hard work, education, talent, risk taking, determination, etc. I should be able to accomplish my goals and dreams.   This is the narrative that our educational systems socialize us to believe in the most, as in the context of capitalism, educational systems need to justify their own existence by promising that education can help us become self-actualized, successful people.   So, this is why I find myself up against a rock and a hard place.   This is also why I think we need to be careful about what kinds of stories we tell ourselves about class.   We must abandon the language of “living the best the best life,” goal digging, girl bosses, slaying and narratives of self-made successes.   This isn’t to argue that everyone should adopt “learned helpnessness” or the idea that nothing we do has an impact on our environment or life outcomes.   Instead, I think that narratives about upward mobility or class should be tempered by socioeconomic realities rather than individual efforts.  This itself is contested, as conclusions about upward mobility vary depending upon how this is measured and defined.   For instance, the U.S. Treasury Department posits that upward mobility is a reality for low income Americans, who on average see their incomes rise over time as measured by tax returns.  If one defines upward mobility as entering a new tax quintile, then yes, upward mobility is possible.   Marxists define things more broadly, as class is about a relationship to production.  A quintile increase in taxed income may not translate to increased access and control of capital.  Because upward mobility is not operationalized by Marxists as increased status or income, social mobility is less common in socialist interpretations.  In this broader view, capitalism itself is prone to instability and declining rates of profit over time, so income gains are never a given and always challenged by a profit motive that is inherently at odds with high or even stable standards of living for most workers.  But, one does not need to be a Marxist to understand that life is limited by class, and compounding this, it is limited by gender, race, sexuality, ability, etc.  It is also limited by job availability, unemployment trends, globalization, new technology, etc.  You can work very hard, have many talents, educate yourself extensively, make all the right choices, and you can still end up working menial, unrewarding jobs in which you worry about retirement and live paycheck to paycheck.


It was foolish for me to think that we would find money in the form of a meteor or an agate.  Even if we had, that money would not have sustained us for long.  I had so much hope back then.  But, of course, this is false hope and wishful thinking.  My favorite quote is “We must prefer a real hell to an imaginary paradise” by Simone Weil.  Of course, she was probably talking about some spiritual nonsense, but I have always interpreted it as it is better to think clearly without hope, than have false hope in ignorance.  Unfortunately, there is not a lot of hope that most working people will have a windfall of wealth, much less live their lives without economic hardship and worry.  There are no meteors, agates, winning lottery tickets, etc. to save us.  Even education, hard work, innovation, talent, etc. are not tickets to a better life.  A better life is secured through collective struggle, not individual efforts or accomplishments.  It is class struggle that shortens the workday, promises pensions, provides health care, mandates paid leave, and all of the other benefits that ACTUALLY do improve lives and creates opportunities.   Living our best lives is a function of the mass movements that seek to end war, protect the environment, provide public transportation, end police brutality, empower women, dismantle racism, etc.  So, I do have some hope, or at least, a methodology for betterment.

Of Communists and Kings: Rules for Feeling History in Romania

romania

Of Communists and Kings:

Rules for Feeling History In Romania

H. Bradford
12.21.18


One of the most interesting things to observe when I travel to “dark” places is how people behave.  Of course, almost everything in the world has “dark” history, but there are some places in which the dark histories are well known and less contested.  Some examples that come to mind are Auschwitz, Chernobyl, Hiroshima, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, etc.  These are places that most of mainstream society would view as having dark histories.  Interpretations of these histories may vary, but most U.S. citizens, for instance, would feel the need to be reverent or well-behaved while visiting the USS Arizona Memorial.  Indeed, while visiting this memorial, I found that the the mood was sober and quiet among American tourists.  The tourists were more subdued in ritualistic thoughtfulness.  So too, tourists at Auschwitz were generally quiet, subdued, and again, ritually thoughtful.  Tourists who deviate from this norm are sometimes shamed, as in the case of Yolocaust, a photography project wherein Jewish artist Shahak Shapira altered tourist selfie photos, placing them in historical Holocaust images.  Holocaust history is certainly contested, but at least in mainstream Western society it is acknowledged as real and horrific, even if specific Western complicity in persecution of Jews or failure to act against these atrocities may not be part of that narrative.  In both of these examples, most tourists follow social scripts of how to behave and express emotion.  These norms are called “feeling rules” a sociological concept developed by Arlie Hochschild.  There are socially prescribed ways to express feelings at work, school, weddings, funerals, parties, and the many other facets of life.  Tourists also follow unwritten social guidelines of how to express emotion.  The variation in these rules offers some insight to how history is interpreted.  For instance, in September I paid a visit to Primaverii Palace, a residence of the Ceausescu family. The following day, I visited two Romanian castles, Bran Castle and Peles Castle.  The tourists acted very differently at each of these sites.

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An image from the Yolocaust photo series, which was used to draw attention to tourist behaviors at Holocaust memorials/historical sites.  The site was later taken down and tourists featured in the images often removed their selfies and apologized after being shamed by the project.


Primaverii Palace was one of over 80 residences of the Ceausescu family.  The house contains the bedrooms of the Ceausescu children, gifts from foreign dignitaries, a sauna, indoor swimming pool, articles of clothing, a private movie theater, and family photographs.  Tourists were very quiet in the house and there was a marked absence of laughter, joking, admiration of the tilework or decor, or anything that might come off as overtly positive. Why? Well, the house belonged to a dead communist dictator who lived well while the people of Romania were cold and hungry.  The house is not meant to be admired, it is meant to be a symbol of the contradictions and failures of communism, wherein those connected to state power enjoyed luxury while the masses lived leanly. The house represents the dark history of oppression. Of course, the mansion itself is fairly modest, as far as mansions go.  I have visited many larger, more ornate mansions belonging to capitalists. However, these mansions are de-politicized. The inequality associated with capitalism is normal and expected. Therefore, visitors to THOSE mansions do not have to be quiet and respectful.  They can be wowed by the woodwork or the gardens. Any Western visitor to the Ceausescu mansion  with an inkling of Romanian history and iota of respect for the suffering of others, will probably behave respectfully at the mansion. The mansion is political. There are many reasons for this. One, Romania’s experience with communism is not “old” history. It happened within the lifetime and memory of many visitors, who like myself, may have seen images such as emaciated Romanian orphans on the news after the collapse of Romanian communism.  Two, communist dictatorship is almost incontestably viewed as bad. There are few Western sympathizers with Ceausescu. I myself am a revolutionary socialists and while I can explain why things went so awry in the Soviet Union and subsequent communist countries, I have no affinity or apology for the Ceausescus. Communist Romania, like North Korea or Cambodia under Pol-Pot, is a country with what Goffman called a spoiled identity. In Goffman’s case, the term was applied to stigmatized individuals, but I would extend this concept to the notion that an entire countries can be stigmatized by the brutality of their government and resulting ostracism and isolation from the West.  For political reasons, communist labelled countries are more stigmatized than similarly brutal of regimes that were supported by capitalist powers. A person who supports a particularly brutal regime, even critically, faces the risk of having their own identity spoiled by associating themselves with human rights violations and state repression. Thus, the feeling rules while visiting the home of a communist leader dictate that one should treat the visit with the respect owed to those who suffered under communism. Failure to do so might imply support of state repression or insensitivity to victims of communism, both of which threaten to spoil a tourist’s identity in the eyes of other tourists.

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Primaverii Palace


This respect and quiet were not expected at the two castles that I visited.  Peles Castle was an expansive estate tucked in the Carpathian Mountains. It was shrouded in a misty forest of dark pines.  The immediate reaction of the tourists is that it looked like a fairy tale. Inside, the castle was richly decorated with gold leaf and walnut, for a rustic look.  The castles contains 30 toilets and 170 rooms. In contrast, Ceausescu’s palace contained 80 rooms. The castle was built by Carol I, though really it was “built” by nameless laborers who made the furniture, rugs, rooms, stairways, gardens, plumbing, electricity, and so on.  The grandeur of a castle is not framed as an expression of the oppression of others. The castle is apolitical. Yet, visitors could be quiet and thoughtful as they consider the inequality of wealth under feudalism and capitalism or the thousands of workers whose labor is rendered invisible in the splendor of the castle.  How did Romanians live under the rule of Carol I and his successors? What wars were they sent to fight in? For what purpose? Where did all of Carol I’s wealth come from? A king should very well be as loathed as any communist dictator. Kings represent a system of benefits based upon heredity. Carol I was from the German Hohenzollern family and when he came to power in Romania in 1866, 38% of the arable land was owned by 2000 individual landowners.  Serfdom was abolished in 1746 in Wallachia and 1749 in Moldavia. In Transylvania in 1848, landlords tried to privatize wood, which had been traditionally an item of the commons which peasants could use for building, fires, charcoal, barrels, etc. In this sense, Romania was in a process of transitioning to capitalism, though still mostly rural and agrarian. Under Carol I’s rule, Romania was a constitutional monarchy, but the king maintained the power to dissolve the parliament, controlled the military, make treaties, appoint ministers and government personnel, approve laws, etc.  There is nothing progressive about monarchy, which concentrates state power among wealthy men whose qualification to rule is hereditary. Yet, on Trip Advisor, the castle is described as charming, wonderful, historic, a gem, fabulous, and beautiful. It could just as easily be described as an icon for the oppression of women (who were not allowed to be monarchical rulers and even ruling class women were breeders at best) or an atrocious waste of resources that could have gone towards the benefit of Romanian peasants. The castle itself was built by 400 workers, by some accounts (it seems that a cursory internet search doesn’t yield a wealth of information on the actual working conditions or workers who built the castle) and that these workers spoke up to 14 languages.  Workers included some imported skilled laborers, but also Albanians, Turks, and Romani who were presumably less skilled or at least not noted as skilled in the scant descriptions of the workers. Considering the long history of oppression and marginalization in Romanian society, it is hard to imagine that Romani workers were anything but hyper-exploited. Slavery was abolished in Romania between the 1840s and 1850s and Roma made up the vast majority of Romanian slaves. In 1859 there were 250,000 emancipated slaves in Romania. Thus, when construction of Peles castle began in 1873, Roma laborers would have less than two decades of freedom from six hundred years of slavery. The castle, therefore, might also be looked upon as a monument to the oppression of Roma. Of course, tourists do not see this when they see the castle.  There are no feeling rules that dictate quiet contemplation or soberness. Monarchy is taken for granted unless notoriously cruel (such as King Leopold II of Belgium) and there is a sense that monarchs can be good, bad, or neutral unlike communist dictators which tend to be framed as some shade of bad. Perhaps these feeling rules would be different in a different era wherein the struggle against monarchy or the spread of capitalism was still in its infancy or this history was more contemporary. Unfortunately, monarchy is depoliticized, so visitors to Peles or that matter Versailles or Russia’s Winter Palace, are unlikely to seethe with anger at the excesses of monarchs, take joy in the violent mass uprisings against such inequalities, or quietly reflect on the lot of peasants or those less fortunate.

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Peles Castle


Finally, I visited Bran Castle.  The mood here was different from Peles castle and from the Ceausescu mansion.  It was one of whim, fantasy, and dubious history. Although Bran castle has little to do with the history of Vlad the Impaler or vampires, it was marketed as Dracula’s castle, where one could purchase an array of Dracula themed souvenirs and foods.  A tourist could even take a Dracula tour or attend a large Halloween party hosted there each year. The castle is famous because it is similar to the castle described by Bram Stoker in Dracula. While the story of Carol I is made bland by the slow taming of monarchy, Vlad the Impaler was a thoroughly brutal ruler who by some historical accounts killed 90% of the boyars to replace them by a new ruling class that would be loyal to him, abused and murdered his mistresses, and impaled over 20,000 Turks at the Night Attack at Targoviste.  It is debatable if his cruelty was uniquely terrible by the moral standards of monarchs of the 1400s. Because his atrocities are several hundred years old, he is a character that can be looked upon with dark fascination or even historical neutrality. Unlike Ceausescu, who is very real, Vlad the Impaler, although historical, is mythological in his association with vampirism. Thus, a visit to Bran Castle (which was not associated with him) is not governed by feeling rules that require respect for death and suffering.  In contrast, the castle is marketed to celebrate death, the supernatural, and spookiness. If anything, the castle is disappointingly normal in that it really doesn’t have a particularly dark history, as far as castles go. Again, the celebration of Dracula and Vlad the Impaler represents an extreme depoliticization of the excesses of monarchy. One of the only overtly political marker in the castle is the story of various Romanian monarchs and how the castle was appropriated by the communist state. After the collapse of communism, Bran castle was returned to the Romanian royal family (who had been exiled in 1948).  This is supposed to be viewed as right and just. The right of monarchs to the property is not questioned and is simply a matter of the order of things. The remnant Hapsburgs who own the castle have since refurbished it and opened it to the public. Their generosity and stewardship is to be celebrated.

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Image may contain: Heather Bradford, sky, outdoor and nature


In a world where tourists should feel reflective and subdued in the face of communist atrocities, I feel that the same standards should be applied to those of feudalism and capitalism.  The double standard seems disingenuous, as if suffering matters, then all suffering is worth consideration. The world is imbued with inequality, injustice, and pain. In some cases, this is obvious to a tourist.  This has to do with how history is understood and felt. The rules of feeling and understanding history are political. I have visited many castles, but in almost all of them, the suffering is invisible and there is no questioning of inequality or wealth.  A castle is often nothing more than a pretty object to be stunned by. When it isn’t, it is perhaps a ruin or a damp remnant of some fantastic and distant time. Politics should be returned to these buildings so that tourists can remain alert for the contradictions and misery making inequalities of the world.  Excess and luxury should be fought against, whether it is the excess of communist rulers or the excess of kings. Both represent the theft of wealth from the land and from labor and lives of ordinary people. Almost everything should make us angry, disgusted, or sad. At the very least, feeling rules should be considered as they indicate norms of historical interpretation.

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Intentional Living Grows Through the Bullets of a Journal

journal

Intentional Living Grows Through the Bullets of a Journal?

Capitalism and the Organized Life

H. Bradford

12/3/18

Mao Zedong once wrote that political power grows through the barrel of a gun.  I am no Maoist, but there seems to be a cult growing around the bullet journal.  It is enough to make me wonder if intentional living grows through the bullets of a journal.  It started earlier this year, when I noticed that my coworkers had very elaborate planner books.  I have kept a yearly planner and separate goal book for a few years now, but these books were always utilitarian.  In the books, I very plainly record my schedule and goals throughout the year.  These books were used to track my progress or organize my life.  I never considered the aesthetics of keeping a schedule.  Then, suddenly, it seemed that everyone had fancy books with stickers and colorful pens, in which they tracked the minutiae  of daily living.   It seemed like a lot of work…and a lot of cost…as these planners cost $80, plus various accessories.  Generally, I had been paying less than $10 for my planning supplies.  However, the siren call of stickers, pens, lists, and schedules called me to Michael’s, where I had a 50% off coupon.  I bought my own fancy schedule book, albeit a cheaper version.

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Image stolen from internet.


First of all, I was surprised to find an entire aisle of the store devoted to planner books.  When did this happen?  I only noticed the trend this year, when suddenly everyone had these books.  And now, boom…a whole aisle!   According to the Star Tribune, the first official bullet journal was launched in 2014 by Ryder Carol and today over 281,000 people follow @bulletjournal on Instagram.  The goal of these journals, planners, or notebooks is to live more intentionally (Pearson, 2018).    Bullet journals are particularly popular among millennials,  who on average spend $60-80 on purchases at Appointed, an online store that specializes in paper products such as journals and calendars.  A London based psychologist named Dr. Perpetua Neo (whose name seems like a character from the Matrix or a diabolical machine) posits that millenials like these planners because it gives them a sense of control (something they don’t have much of in the face of wars, unstable economy, debt, etc.) (Babur, 2018).  That is an interesting theory.  Sure, I want control in my own life.  But, what is the end goal?  Why be in control and what must one be in control of?  Common categories for the planning products include finance, goals, health, and spirituality.  For me, I want to be more productive.  In this sense, bullet planners are something akin to Pinterest meets the scientific management of the personal life.  I imagine that if somehow I squeezed out just a little more time from my day, I would be a better person.  It is about control, but it is also about productivity and the self as a project.


Scientific management was method of management developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor in his 1911 book “Principles of Scientific Management.”   The book was based upon lessons learned when he tried to increase the productivity of workers at Bethlehem Steel.  Scientific management involved such things as timing the workers, controlling their movements to improve efficiency, and paying them on the basis of their productive output (Mihm, 2018).  Taylorism is alive and well in workplaces today.  For instance, each time a work place does a time study to increase efficiency, it is following this century old method of increasing worker productivity by cutting superfluous worker activity and establishing benchmarks or output goals.  Amazon warehouse workers have been made to wear bracelets that track how long it takes to fetch items, which they must do each nine seconds (Salame, 2018).    From a Marxist perspective, capitalists try to increase the productivity of workers to increase their profits.  Workers generate profit for capitalists because there is a gap between the wage they are paid and the value of their production, which is called surplus value.  If workers were paid the exact value of their production, there would be no profit.  For instance, at one of my jobs I take photographs of Santa Claus.  This  generates $1000-$2000 of sales each day.  In order to make a profit, the photo company must make sure that wages paid to Santa, the photographer, and the managers is less than $1000-$2000 per day.  Of course, there are other costs as well, such as photo paper, the camera, costumes and uniforms, receipt paper, etc.  These are considered constant capital, that is, they do not generate profit and therefore, while these costs can be cut (such as wasting less photo paper) they are mostly money sinks.  On the other hand, labor is variable capital.  A lot can be done to manipulate variable capital in order to generate more profit.  Wages can be cut, productivity increased, work day lengthened, breaks shortened, staffing deceased, etc.  The matter of profit making is complicated by the fact that things such as competition, the replacement of workers with machines, and the need to invest in new technologies tends to cause profits to decline with time.  That means that inevitably, labor costs have to be cut and the exploitation of workers must be increased to remain profitable.  Scientific management was a way to increase profits by squeezing more productivity from workers.


What does all of this mean for personal lives or have anything to do with planners?  No one profits from how many books I read in a year, how many days a week I work out at the gym, or any number of things I might track in my journal.  However, I believe that the rise of bullet journaling serves capitalism in a number of ways.  For one, it seems that some aspects of bullet journaling apply scientific management to the personal life.  That is, if a person tracks their goals, daily habits, spending, fitness, or other facets of their life in an intentional manner, a person can eke out more productivity.   Productivity is viewed as a virtue in our society.  It is rare to be shamed for being productive or sad because your day was exceptionally productive.  Max Weber argued that the virtue of hard work associated with Protestantism (frugality, discipline, and hard work) were important in fostering the growth of capitalism.  While Marxists look to material conditions and would view these values as a part of the superstructure of a society, these sorts of values certainly play a role in the functioning of an economic system.  Capitalism functions a lot better if the workforce generally values productivity and hard work.  On the other hand, because we are overworked, we have little time for leisure and personal pursuits.  Our free time has to be regimented because it IS in limited supply.   My time sheet for two weeks of work at ONE job was 116 hrs this week.  I have two other part time jobs in addition to this.   My coworkers who lovingly fill out their journals also work multiple jobs.   There is no way for me to read 30 books, see 50 new species of birds, or attend 150 political events a year without some radical scheduling.  My desire for productivity in my personal life is a desire to live as something more than a worker.  My desire to work is the desire to sustain myself and have some extra for living (hobbies, travel, experiences).  The sad thing is that about 8 million Americans have multiple jobs.  Pretty planners might be a way to beautify the prison of work that we find ourselves in until retirement or death removes us from the labor market. No automatic alt text available.

I drew a volcano in my book.


Another aspect of this trend is gender.  These planners are marketed to women.  I was frustrated that the designs for the books, stickers, and other accessories were SO extremely feminine. The planner was full of floral prints, rainbows, unicorns, pastels, You Go Girl, Girl Boss, vapid inspirational words or quotes about being a free spirit or following your dreams, and other traditional gender tripe.  Why can’t planners have skulls, fossils, bats, moths, dark colors, swear words, quotes from revolutionaries, glow in the dark, scratch and sniff, etc.  I want a planner that says I will work until I die or that suicide is always an option.  I don’t need the “Happy Planner” (the brand I bought) since I think “The Scarred by Depression Planner” is a more accurate description of my way of life.  Why do women have to be happy?  What if someone wants “The Angry Planner” wherein you write your goals into little flaming piles of shit?  Anyway, I am sure if these planners remain popular, these products will start to appear (if they haven’t already) to draw more consumers into the market.  However, right now the planners are very traditionally feminine (which isn’t terrible, but just seems narrow and to me, indicates that these planners appeal to white, middle class women with semi-conventional tastes. .  The fact that these planners are marketed to women also indicates some things about society.  One, women don’t have a lot of time!  Planners are a way to manage time, which many women lack due to responsibilities as paid workers and unpaid workers who take care of children, elderly, or adult men by cooking, cleaning, and managing homes.   It also represents the ways in which women feel pressured to view their bodies and selves as an unfinished project.  Tracking diets, exercise, hobbies, goals, etc. are a way to become an ideal woman.

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  I drew a bird.  But will it really be …my year?


Anyway, I bought myself a planner.  I chose one with a travel theme.  I like travel and I want 2019 to be a great year.  I enjoy tracking things and I will admit that I view myself and my life as an unfinished project.  I am never enough.  I will never be enough.  I doubt that a planner will help me feel like a enough, but it might help me squeeze more productivity out of each day.  Or, perhaps it will serve as a memory book of all the things I did or tried to do in 2019.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with creating fun schedule books.  I just think this trend represents a certain way of existing within capitalism and patriarchy.  In previous societies, such a thing might be unthinkable because days, hours, and even linear time are concepts that discipline us into workers…and there was a time long ago when we weren’t workers or at least not the wage workers we are today.    I don’t think bullet journals are some kind of capitalist conspiracy to oppress us.  For people with ADHD it may help organize life in a useful way.  For others, it may be a fun, relaxing, hobby akin to scrap booking or more traditional journaling.  However, I do think that if a person is going to live intentionally, this should also mean intentionally questioning why we must be so productive in the first place and who profits from our sense that we are not enough!  Certainly the companies that make these books profit if they are charging $80 for them!  Health and fitness industries, travel industries, cosmetic industries, magazines, etc. all survive by the insecurities of women who feel they are not enough.  I am not above this.   I am not enough.  And because of that, capitalism will always be able to squeeze just a little more from me at work and at leisure…. No automatic alt text available.


Sources:

Babur, O. (2018, October 22). Bullet journaling is everywhere now. Our love of planners is about our desire for control. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/10/22/17996604/bullet-journal-control-planners-bando-appointed

Mihm, S. (2018, February 23). Amazon’s Labor Tracking Wrist Bands Have a Long History. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-02-23/amazon-s-labor-tracking-wristband-has-a-rich-history-behind-it

Pearson, E. (2018, November 06). Bullet journals go mainstream as more people strive for an ‘intentional life’. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from http://www.startribune.com/bullet-journalists-jot-down-tasks-goals-and-memories-in-hopes-of-planning-a-more-intentional-life/499841641/

Salame, R. (2018, February 20). The New Taylorism. Retrieved from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/02/amazon-wristband-surveillance-scientific-management

Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

H. Bradford

4/11/18

On February 24th, the Duluth News Tribune ran an article about Duluth’s impending demographic crisis.  I wanted to write a socialist feminist response to this, but never got around to it.  Not that I am the authority on socialist feminism, but I am a feminist and a socialist…and I do think about these things…so, why not break it down?  Now, whenever I hear the word “demographic crisis” I want to run for the hills, or burn something, or both.  Not really, but I think it is one of those sexist, ageist, racist, pro-capitalist concepts that begs to be dismembered.   Here is why…

Ageism:

Early into the Duluth News Tribune article, when describing the shifting population of the Duluth region, the aging population is described as problematic.


“If population levels were even across age groups, this wouldn’t be much of a problem. But, as you may have heard, the largest generation in the country’s history is marching into retirement, leaving many jobs vacant just as unemployment levels are bottoming out and productivity growth is stalling (Johnson, 2018).”


It is true that our population is aging, but, one must consider why this is a problem.  According to the article, it is a problem because there will not be enough workers to replace those who retire.  On the surface, this seems like a problem, as society needs workers to produce things.  However, this frames the post-retirement age population as the cause of a social problem.  Framing the older population as a “problem” is ageist.  It also ignores their labor, as labor does not end when wage labor ceases.  Their contributions to society do not cease when they reach the age of 65 (or higher ages for the many people who do not have retirement savings, pensions, or the ability to survive on social security alone).  Older adults do unpaid work such as volunteering, caring for grand children, gardening, baking, canning, sharing their knowledge, checking up on one another, and a plethora of other important economic activities that are dismissed because they are unpaid.  Just as the invisible, unpaid labor of women is ignored as a natural or unimportant, this invisible labor and its contribution to society is also ignored.


This connects to the socialist feminist concept of social reproduction.  Basically, in capitalist society, the labor force must reproduce itself.  This can literally mean that the work force must replace itself through biological reproduction, but also means that each worker must sustain themselves through sleep, eating food, washing clothes, maintaining their health, relieving stress, and all the many things that are required to survive and work another day.   Typically, women have played an important role in providing the invisible, unpaid labor that keeps the work force …working.  Caring for children, giving birth, caring for the elderly, washing clothes, cleaning a home, doing dishes, making meals, grocery shopping, etc. are all important unpaid activities that ensure that capitalism will continue.  Of course, older adults who leave the work force also provide some of these services as they are “free” to (my own grandparents made many meals for me, baby sat me, bought me school clothes, taught me information, etc.).  Thus, is it really a problem that people grow old?  Aging is a natural process.  It may happen that we have an aging population, but why is this a problem?  Some people might respond that it is a problem because this group requires more care and there are not enough young people to care for them.  The article itself argues that it is a problem that there is not enough workers to fill jobs and that productivity will decline.


I am not an expert on matters of aging, but I imagine that the “problem of aging” could be mitigated by providing quality, free health care to people of all ages, along with clean environments, living wages, robust pensions, housing, etc.  The aging population might very well “age better” if a high quality of life was ensured for people of all ages.  What does it mean to “age well” anyway?  I think to most people means the ability to care for one’s self, enjoy a high quality of life, and live independently for as long as possible.  If this is what this means, the locus of “aging well” is framed as an individual responsibility and the very human need for care is viewed as burdensome.   This concept is very individualistic and puts the rest of society off the hook for taking responsibility of providing and caring for the variable needs of older adults.  It is also ageist, as aging well is basically the ability to live as similarly to a young person for as long as possible.  Maybe it is okay to be wrinkly, sedentary, crabby, or anti-social.  Society is awful.  Living through decades of economic ups and downs, cuts to social programs, pointless wars, and the general nonsense of everything deemed meaningful by society might sour a person against living with youthful optimism and vibrancy.   After years of being alive, “aging well” might seem like a racket to sell beauty products, skin treatments, fitness memberships, etc.

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(This image leads me to believe that aging well has something to do with being white and wealthy.  Capitalism doesn’t have resources to spare on caring for the elderly, so make certain you stay healthy with fresh air and bike rides in the country.)


If indeed there is a shortage of workers, there are certainly plenty of people in the world and United States itself.  These people might be more inclined to move to this frigid region and provide elder care if this was not low paid, under appreciated service work but unionized with benefits (including retirement plans!), better wages, and better working conditions.   A true shortage of workers might require open borders to allow new workers to enter the country, but this would require a move away from our current racist, xenophobic, nationalist, and exploitative immigration policy.  The “aging population problem” is not a problem with age, but an ageless problem of capitalism to meet the basic needs of humanity.


Of course, the notion of declining productivity must also be challenged.  Why is it a problem when productivity declines?  Why must productivity always increase?  What does this mean for the environment?  When have we produced enough?!  Productivity is a problem in capitalism because of the tendency for profits to decline.  Because competition lends itself to increased investment in fixed capital and there are human thresholds of how much variable capital can be exploited from workers, profits decline over time.  Markets also become saturated as there is only so much people can buy (again because wages only allow so much consumption).  When too much is produced and too little is consumed, capitalism falls into a crisis, which Marx called the crisis of overproduction.  Therefore, productivity is not necessary good.  It is not good for the workers (who must work longer or harder).  It is not good for the environment (as it creates waste and overuse of resources).  And it is not even good for capitalism, since it lends itself to instability.  I think it is important to think against blind productivity and instead think about rational, careful production in the interest of human needs.

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(Capitalism probably produces enough…  though I suppose the gulls don’t mind.)


Sexism:

Another reason why I dislike the concept of “demographic crisis” is that it is sexist.   Although the article only mentions it briefly, increasing birth rates is often suggested as a way in averting the crisis.  Even if it is not mentioned in detail in the article, it is implicit in the premise of the argument.  If the population is aging and this is a problem, that means that not enough new people are being born.  Thus, not only are older adults the problem, the bigger problem is that women are not gestating enough babies.  The bodies of women have long been treated as public property, inasmuch as their reproductive power is harnessed for state interests.  The fight for reproductive rights is a fight to liberate women from their role as the producer’s of the next generation of soldiers and workers.  The birth rate in the United States (according to 2018 CIA World Factbook Information) is 12.5 births per 1000 people.  Our birth rate is slightly higher than the UK, Sweden, France, and Australia which all have 12.x births per 1000.  The rate is higher than Finland, Canada, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Denmark, which have 10.x births per 1000 people.  Our birthrate is certainly greater than South Korea, Japan, and Germany, which range from 8.x to 9.x births per 1000 people.  Despite our higher birth rate, there is enormous pressure upon women to reproduce- to the point that the organized movement against abortion has made birth nearly compulsory in many parts of the country due to restricted access to abortion.  In many of these countries with lower birth rates, the issue of abortion is far less controversial.  Here, anti-choice activists bemoan the loss of millions of fetuses, which they argue contributes to our demographic crisis (fewer workers, fewer students, etc.)   At the core of demographic crisis is a demand to control reproduction- because if population is viewed as a resource, women’s bodies are responsible for producing this resource.


 In the context of capitalism (and unfortunately many economic systems), population is treated as a resource.  Workers need to reproduce so that there are more workers.  This leads to a precarious balance.  Capitalists do not provide for the reproduction of labor (this has often fallen upon women and families) as this requires an investment in workers.  At the same time, workers have to have a basic level of sustenance to continue working and to allow for a new generation.  For instance, if a woman works too hard or consumes too few calories, she may stop menstruating.  Therefore, workers generally have a basic threshold of exploitation which if reached these workers will no longer be able to survive and reproduce.   In the United States in particular, our status as a world power has an economic component and a military component.  The military domination of the world is an extension of the economic component, as military might ensures access to markets, thwarts competitors, offers access to capital (for instance natural resources and labor), etc.  For the United States to remain an economic and military power, babies must be born.  Babies are needed so that there will always be a supply of soldiers and workers.  Reproduction is a national interest.  I think this contributes to the controversy around abortion and the drive to limit it.
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(A piece of art that I created called Capitalism is Built on the Bodies of Women)

As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, capitalism has a contradiction.  On one hand, in seeks to increase profit by extracting more surplus value from workers.  Because profits decline over time, workers are pressured to work harder and longer.  This increased exploitation limits the ability to reproduce labor (to reproduce biologically, but also to maintain a certain level of health as workers).   In the United States, not a lot of profit is redistributed towards caring for our existing population (i.e. ensuring the reproduction of labor).   We do not offer paid parental leave.  We do not have free day cares.  There is a shortage of housing.  Health care is expensive.  The list goes on.  The conditions of capitalism are so extreme that 5.8 infants die out of 1000 born.  In Japan, two infants die per 1000 births.  In Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, there are slightly more than 2 infant deaths per 1000.  In the European Union as a whole, there are about 4 deaths per 1000 according to the CIA world Fact Book.  Once again, rather than a demographic crisis, our crisis is an inability to care for our population.  Certainly, anyone worried about our economic or military strength might begin by tackling the causes of infant mortality.  But, this would mean diverting profits towards human needs.  Re-thinking profits and capitalism itself would undermine the logic of militarism and nationalism.


Supposing that the United States provided free access to abortion, birth control, all health care, and social conditions favorable to reproduction (paid leave, free day care, adequate housing, etc.)  Even if these conditions were met, women have no obligation to reproduce the next generation.  They should not be scapegoated for demographic crisis.  In the end, it is up to society to creatively adapt to changing populations- not women.


Racism and Classism:

The article concluded that a key to averting Duluth’s demographic crisis is promoting immigration to the city.   Regarding this point, Mayor Larson said,  “Duluth needs to be a community that is welcoming and open to new experiences, new faces, new ethnicities, new races to solve workforce shortages (Johnson, 2018).”  I think that it is generally a positive, feel good conclusion, since well, who doesn’t want Duluth to be a more welcoming city?  The mayor suggests working with education and health care partners to attract more diversity to the city.  Hmm…alright.  What does really this mean?


In a subtle way, the statement hints at what kind of diversity is acceptable in Duluth.  I interpret working with education and health care partners to mean attracting diversity by attracting professionals of color.  The center of this argument is not “let’s build more low income housing so we can attract all of the African Americans in Chicago or Minneapolis who are on housing waiting lists and house those who already exist in our community!”  Duluth DOES have some racial diversity BUT, this diversity is segregated into poor neighborhoods, homeless shelters, and jail.  Yet, because they are poor and people of color, this population is not seen as a solution to the “demographic crisis” because they are an OTHER at best and problem at worse.  They are those people.  Those people who are blamed for crime or making things not like they used to be for white people.  This is another problem with the notion of “demographic crisis”- since demographic crisis always refers to the shortage of a desirable population.  We have a low income population that would probably be happy to invite friends and relatives and grow if Duluth was a more welcoming, less racist, expanded housing, housing and employers ceased discrimination against criminal backgrounds, day care was expanded, public transportation was more reliable, schools were not segregated and plainly racist, etc.


Truly making Duluth a city for everyone, as the Mayor suggested, would mean changing what Duluth is right now.  Right now, Duluth is focused on being a city for business.  In particular, it is a city for businesses that serve tourists.  Centering the city on the tourist industry makes Duluth a city not for everyone, but for middle class, mostly white people, who have the leisure and money to stay at a hotel or the outdoor gear to enjoy our nature.   Duluth can’t be a city for business and for everyone.  We CAN be a city that is for everyone that happens to attract tourists, but the reverse is not possible.  The reverse is what has made Earned Safe and Sick time so controversial, as segments of the business community that are most opposed to it are those sectors that serve tourists (restaurants and hotels).  The reverse has also been what has stalled the Homeless Bill of Rights- because homeless people are a “problem population” not one that should be accounted for in “demographic crisis” and certainly not one that deserves to be treated with basic dignity.  After all, they might just spook the customers!  If we want to be a city for everyone, then we should start by being a city for workers, for the homeless, for people of color, and all of the oppressed in our community.


Conclusion:

Duluth is just one city.  It would be pie in the sky to try to think we can build socialism in a single city.  Many of my suggestions require a massive struggle on a national scale to accomplish.  I do believe that we have local activists with the talent and audience to contribute to such a national struggle.  I am not one of them, but am a small and marginal voice in that struggle.   Beyond the national, there are some things that can be done on a local level.  We can focus local priorities on meeting human needs and support things such as Earned Safe and Sick Time and the Homeless Bill of Rights.  We can challenge the policies of our schools and police to make the city less racist and classist.  We can also think against business interests and promote diverting profits towards social good.  Beyond these material things, I wrote this because I wanted to challenge the ideological logic of “demographic crisis.”  Like many crisis and panics, it is a social construct.  Inherent in this constructed crisis is ageism, racism, sexism, nationalism, and classism.  There are no population problems.   There are only failures of societies to address the needs of populations.  It is only through struggle that we will win the means to address these needs.


Johnson, B. (2018, February 25). ‘Stability’ not enough for Duluth jobs; aging population isn’t being replaced on pace. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.duluthnewstribune.com/business/workplace/4408874-stability-not-enough-duluth-jobs-aging-population-isnt-being-replaced

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2091rank.html

Bright Eyed and Bushy Tailed: Reflections on Being the Easter Bunny

Bright Eyed and Bushy Tailed: Reflections on Being the Easter Bunny

H. Bradford

4/3/18


This spring, I saw an interesting opportunity posted on Facebook.  The post was a call-out for anyone interested in becoming the Easter Bunny at the mall.  Despite the fact that I already have two jobs, or three if you count subbing, I posted my interest and was interviewed later that week.  The interview was pretty informal, mostly consisting of questioning why I was interested in the job and trying on a giant Easter Bunny head.  With little effort, I was hired on for a two week stint as a costumed Easter Bunny at a mall kiosk for seasonal photos.  I thought the whole thing seemed silly and certainly would provide the raw materials for a good story.


The Costume:

The costume itself was hot and claustrophobic.  When I first tried the whole thing on, I felt a little overwhelmed by the sense of being trapped.  The trapped feeling came from the general heaviness and stuffiness of the head, which provided a dim and limited view of the world.  The head does not allow for adequate peripheral vision or the ability to look down.  The rest of the body is less challenging.  It consisted of oversized rabbit feet, baggy fur pants, a velcro velvety blue jacket, and furry gloves.  One thing that I appreciated about the costume was that the bunny looked intellectual, with round glasses and gold trimmed velvet clothes.   This was not a rowdy Peter Rabbit, but perhaps his pedantic uncle who is allergic to carrots (unless they are boiled) and whose favorite painting is Gainsborough’s Blue Boy.

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(My first time wearing the costume)

In any event, the costume could become hot.  Thankfully, there was a fan aimed at the bunny.  The only downside was that sometimes the fan upset children or messed up their hair, so it was turned away or tilted up, resulting in a sweltering rabbit.  On the upside, I tried to think what skills wearing the suit might translate to.  Paul (a fellow rabbit) said that maybe I would be more comfortable in a gas mask, since those are also claustrophobic.  I thought perhaps I would do better underwater (with a lessened sense of the space around me or a sense of confinement in a wetsuit or scuba/snorkel mask).  Yes, I want to believe that being the bunny better prepares me for revolution, apocalypse, or underwater adventures.


 

Gender:

The Easter Bunny was usually gendered as male by parents and children.  The bunny doesn’t have any specific gender markers, but might be viewed as male due to the blue velvet vest and jacket.  In a Twitter Poll, 80% of respondents believed the Easter Bunny to be male.  Though, velvetty anything seems pretty gender ambiguous in my opinion.  Only Paul suggested that the bunny could use they, them pronouns.  Otherwise, parents almost universally used masculine pronouns with the rabbit.  A few people inquired about the gender of the person inside of the costume.  For instance, a girl asked me if I was a girl bunny or a boy bunny.  An older woman asked one of the cashier/photography workers if the person inside was male or female.  I don’t expect that most customers would have the knowledge or experiences to envision the bunny outside of the binary of male or female.  I myself tended to gender the bunny as male, hence my Peter Rabbit’s uncle story.  I often wondered how parents felt about setting their child on the lap of the Easter Bunny.  Did the parents envision the person inside as male?  If so, how did this make them feel?  Male gender and sexuality is always viewed as more potentially threatening to children.  This is because we are socialized to view women as more “naturally” disposed for caretaking, more nurturing, and more invested in children.  Statistically, men are more likely to be perpetrators of child sexual abuse, though females make up 14% of the abusers of male children and 6% of female children.  With this in mind, I wondered how parents might react differently based upon their perceptions of the gender of the person in the costume.  As far as I could tell, most parents were extremely comfortable putting their child into the lap or company of a stranger in a rabbit costume.  This leads me to my next point…


Consent:

I was not able to speak as the Easter Bunny.  This made negotiating consent difficult.  As I mentioned, parents were pretty comfortable with placing their child in the temporary care of the Easter Bunny.  However, many children were not at all comfortable meeting the bunny.  It seemed that children over the age of two and under the age of five were often quite terrified of the bunny.  From a distance, they seemed excited.  As they grew nearer, the magnitude of meeting the bunny struck them- as well as the general weirdness of having to sit on this character’s lap or beside them.  This resulted in reactions ranging from shyness to terror.  Parents addressed this a number of ways.  A common tactic was to bribe the children.  Children were promised that they could ride the train, have candy, go to Build a Bear, or get a toy if they endured a photo with the bunny.  Parents also assured their children that the bunny was safe and nice.  This was done by approaching the bunny, touching its paw, high fives, sitting next to the bunny with the child in arms, and other tactics to increase the child’s exposure to the bunny and demonstrate that it was no threat at all.  Some parents threatened their kids, telling them there would be no candy or that they would go straight home.  A final tactic was to simply place the child on the bunny’s lap or on the bench, then run, hoping that the photographer would grab a few shots before the child inevitably ran away.


Parents played an important role in mediating the child’s consent.  However, most parents wanted a photo for their own collection of memories or to send to relatives.  They had a vested interest in forcing their child to endure a photo.  This put me in an awkward position.  When one parent placed a child on my lap, the child immediately thrust themselves off my legs and flopped onto the floor.  This resulted in more crying.  Since I did not want more children to fall over, I would hold them securely on my lap- a violation of their consent.  Parents encouraged this, even telling me to hold on tight to their child.  When I finally released one child, the crying boy wailed that he would never return to the Easter Bunny again.  I felt bad that many kids did not consent to being photographed with the bunny.  While I think that with time and patience, many frightened children would warm up to the bunny, the length of the line or impatience of the parents did not allow for this to happen in some cases.  In other cases, children naturally became more comfortable with the giant rabbit and ended up having a positive experience.  Thus, I can conclude that I think it is alright for parents to challenge their children to overcome their fears in a patient and supportive manner.  But, I do think it sends the wrong message for parents to threaten or force the encounter.


As for my own strategies for trying to make children comfortable, I would sometimes grab an egg for the children to hold.  This seemed to distract them from the frightening, giant rabbit.   I would also try to make the children comfortable with high fives and thumbs ups.  If kids rushed towards me (without showing fear) I might gesture for a hug.  I didn’t want to be a cold Easter Bunny with walls of boundaries, but I also didn’t want to make children uncomfortable.  I found that this was a little challenging to balance, as I naturally am more reserved when it comes to showing warmth and affection.


 

Working with Kids:

While I work with children at Safe Haven Shelter, I enjoyed my interactions as the Easter Bunny far more.  Within the context of the shelter, I am just me.  If a child is placed in my care, it is usually in the office, where there are computers, office supplies, and phone calls.  Thus, I always feel pretty stressed out about childcare at the shelter because 1.) I have nothing to entertain them with.  2.) I am in a room full of expensive or breakable things- i.e. computers.  3.) I often don’t know how long the encounter will last.  4.) I may have other work to attend to.  5.) I am not actually all that fun or interesting to children.  As the Easter Bunny, I was immediately fun and likeable.  Afterall, I am the one who brings candy and hides eggs.  On several occasions, I was able to ride on the mall train which was a grand entry and an opportunity for sort-of dancing.  While I could not speak, I could wave, gesture, high five, and pretend to hop.  In all, it was great to NOT be boring old Heather, who has nothing to offer children.  Really, being the Easter Bunny is the closest I will ever be to being a celebrity or God. Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, sitting and child

(a photo of a photo- of my friend Jenny’s niece)

 

Labor:

From a Marxist perspective, all workers sell their labor power in exchange for a wage.  Labor power is not only labor (i.e. selling shoes, making shirts, paving roads, or other examples of the act of working).  It is time, work, along with the whole human being.  In short, every worker sells their work and time, but also their personality, body, and the sustenance the person (physical health, mental health, caloric use, bodily wear and tear, etc.).  My temporary gig as the rabbit was a “hobby” job or one that I did more on a whim than for my actual survival.  Therefore, I didn’t feel particularly exploited.  At the same time, I think it would be very hard to be the bunny all year long or as a professional job.  There are some people (such as Disneyland workers) who do not have the luxury of a two week gig.  Thus, I think it is useful to illustrate the way in which this form of work is exploitive (as all work is).


When a worker sells their labor power, they are selling themselves.  In the bunny example, the worker is invisible, hidden inside a stuffy, hot suit.  The sweat of the worker, the inability to scratch an itchy nose, immediately use the toilet, easily ingest water, move hair that has flopped into the face, to speak, to see beyond the periphery of the eye holes, etc. are all ways in which the body is subjugated in the sale of labor.  Playing the character is how the personality of the worker is subjected in the interest of the emotional labor of entertaining children.   The way in which work subjugates the body and personality of a worker is pretty obvious inside the confines of a costume.  Even other workers tended to ignore the bunny, sometimes neglecting to turn on or move of the fan.  The bunny can’t easily communicate needs.  Another hardship as the rabbit was a lack of a sense of time.  There was no nearby clock, so time could move quickly or slowly depending upon how many customers were visiting.  At the same time, the bunny was paid better than other workers.  Workers who were not the bunny were pretty adamant that they did not want to end up in the costume.  I believe that at some level they realized that the bunny produced more “value” in terms of labor output (i.e. had a harder job but also contributed more to overall profits).


But, a person does not have to be in a bunny suit to realize the bodily oppression of labor.  A waitress who has to smile and look pretty for more tips, a social worker whose stress or compassion is a strain on their mental health, and a janitor whose heavy routine deteriorates physical health are all examples of how labor is more than just our work and time, but our whole being.

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(A little house of capitalist horrors)

Conclusion:

I would say that the job was certainly novel.  Towards the end, I was happy that the season was over since my coworkers seemed worn out and the hours in addition to my regular work hours was making me weary and eager for free time.  It was a fun side job and more insightful than one might imagine.  While hidden in my costume, I had plenty to think about in terms of gender, consent, and labor itself.  There were fun moments.  I liked to make children happy.  I liked to play a character.  I liked the opportunity to be something other than the more serious and quiet version of myself that I sometimes am as an activist and worker at my other jobs.  I enjoyed eating at Noodles and Company at the mall and visiting the mall at all!  It was something different from my normal routine.  I was also happy to have stories to share with my friends, coworkers, and family.  I even had a several people visit me as the bunny.  If the opportunity arises, I may be the bunny again next year.  Being the Easter bunny made me feel more inclined to celebrate Easter.  I visited my family and even purchased myself an Easter basket full of candy I don’t need.  But, even the Easter bunny needs a little treat!   Anyway, we’ll see what next Easter brings.  And who knows, maybe I will be one of Santa’s helpers…

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https://www.quora.com/Is-the-Easter-bunny-male-or-female

More Fluid Than Blood: Vampires and Bisexuality

More Fluid Than Blood

Vampires and Bisexuality

  1. H. Bradford

      12/10/17

 


Each month, Pandemonium meets to discuss issues related to bi+ identities and organizing.  This month, the group gathered to discuss vampires and bisexuality.  Anyone who has watched or read vampire themed media might have observed that vampires are often portrayed with ambiguous sexualities, if not outright gay, lesbian, or bisexual.  The following presentation seeks to uncover the history of how vampire sexuality has been depicted as well as the implications of these representations.  Vampires are very much a reflection of the times in which they were imagined.  As monsters, they represent challenges to the social order.  Since bisexuality, or for that matter any non-heterosexual sexuality, is a challenge to heteronormative patriarchy, it makes sense that vampires often lend themselves to a queer reading.


Before they were the subject of books or television series, vampires have long been imagined beings from the folklore of many cultures.  Blood drinking spirits appear in the stories of many cultures, but vampires as they are understood today were mostly based upon the tales of Eastern Europe.  These stories entered the public consciousness of Western Europeans during the 18th century with several highly publicized cases of vampirism within East Prussia and the Hapsburg Empire.  Incidents of vampirism and the related hysteria was investigated by 18th century scholars and Maria Teresa of Austria sent her physician to uncover the truth about vampires.  He concluded that they were not real and she subsequently passed laws against opening graves or desecrating the dead, which put an end to outbreaks of vampire panics. From then on, vampires, at least in Western Europe, were mostly a matter of fiction.  Thus, vampires began appearing in Western European fiction in the early 1800s.   The spread of vampires in Western Europe from Eastern Europe represents a transition of folklore and superstition from the lesser developed parts of Europe to the large, urbanized, mostly literate population of the West (Paolucci, 2000).  

A “vampire” skull from 1500s Venice, found among plague victims

One of the first works of vampire fiction was Polidori’s 1918 story The Vampyre, which featured a vampire named Lord Ruthven.  Polidori served as Lord Byron’s physician and his character, Lord Ruthven, established the trope of that vampires should be aristocratic and seductive (Primuth, 2014).  The plot of the book involves Lord Ruthven travelling around Europe as he seduces various women, often accompanied by his friend Aubrey.  Ruthven and Aubrey have a falling out, but reconcile.  Later, Aubrey watches Lord Ruthven die and makes a promise not to tell anyone of his death.  Aubrey stays true to the promise, even after Ruthven is later discovered to be alive.  Only when Ruthven tries to marry Aubrey’s sister, does he confess his oath in a letter.  Ruthven kills Aubrey’s sister on their wedding night and Aubrey dies as well.  While the story is interesting because it establishes the notion that vampires are alluring, sexual, and aristocratic, it is also of interest because Lord Ruthven may have been based on Lord Byron.


Early Vampire Literature

Prior to the publishing of The Vampyre, Byron wrote a poem about a vampire in 1810 while touring Greece.  The poem entitled The Giaour takes place in Greece, then ruled by the Ottomans, wherein a character named Leila is killed for her infidelity to her husband, Hassan.  Her lover avenges her death by killing Hassan, but Hassan curses him to become a vampire.  This early take on the vampire does not have common conventions such as fangs, sleeping in coffins, aversion to sunlight, etc. Yet, the vampire character in the poem is a Byronic hero inasmuch as he is cursed, dangerous, and an outsider (as Giaour means infidel) (Luchsinger, 2015).  Later, in 1816, Lord Byron stayed in Lake Geneva with his physician, Poliodori, as well as Mary Shelley and Percy Blythe Shelley and his mistress, Jane Clairmont.  During their stay, there was a snow storm, during which they challenged each other to invent stories for entertainment.  Mary Shelley developed the story of Frankenstein.  Byron began a story about a vampire, which Polidori fleshed out and published as The Vampyre (Lord Byron’s image inspired modern take on vampires, 2010).    


Lord Byron, or George Gordon, was a controversial, larger than life figure in his day.  He may have had a child with his half-sister Augusta.  It is also speculated that he may have been more than friends with Mary Shelley and Percy Blythe Shelley.  There is evidence that he was not strictly heterosexual.  He wrote poetry under the female name Thyzra to John Edelston, a young choir member who he fell in love with at the age of 17.  In letters that he wrote during his travels in Greece and Turkey in 1810, he expressed his interest in seeking same sex encounters in these places, which were more tolerant at the time.  He also bragged to friends back home that he had 200 sexual encounters while in Greece and Turkey.  At the same time, the punishment for sodomy in England in the early 1800s was death.  In 1815, he married Annabelle Milbanke, who left him a year later with their infant daughter.  She went to stay with her parents and requested a separation, which unleashed various rumors about his relationship with his sister, adultery, and sodomy.  He negotiated a separation from his wife outside of the courts and left for Europe, where The Vampyre was written (MacCarthy, 2002).  Certainly, the plot line of the story mirrors his life, as the vampire travels through Europe seducing and harming women in locales such as Italy and Greece, then eventually England.  The plot line of Aubrey following Lord Ruthven around Europe, then having a falling out, also mirrors the falling out that Polidori had with Lord Byron.  Finally, while Ruthven mostly preys upon women, the relationship between Ruthven and Aubrey may hint at bisexuality.  Paolucci (2000) suggests that a cave scene between Ruthven and Aubrey is suggestively sexual and that Aubrey’s refusal to believe in the supernatural is a rhetorical denial of queerness.


It is difficult to classify Lord Byron’s sexuality, since modern sexual identities were not yet developed.  The word bisexual was not used until 1892 in the Psychopathia Sexualis, a book about sexual pathologies.  While Byron might be viewed as bisexual, inasmuch as he expressed attraction to both men and women, caution should be used in applying modern notions of sexuality to people and situations that pre-date these understandings.  Still, he was one of the first famous writers to be labeled bisexual.  Though, literary scholar Emily Bernard Jackson warned against this, arguing instead that his sexuality was too fluid and complex for labels (Lord Byron, n.d.).  Nevertheless, in studying the history of bisexuality and vampire’s in the media, it is certainly important to recognize that the first vampire in English literature was modelled after Byron, who was controversial, charismatic, and attracted to both men and women.  In this sense, bisexuality, is built into the fabric of vampire literature, even if Ruthven’s character is not overtly bisexual.  At the same time, this inclusion isn’t necessarily positive, as homosexual/bisexual behaviors and attractions were viewed as deviant.

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Lord Byron- the inspiration of Lord Ruthven- an early vampire in Western fiction

In the 1840s, Varney the Vampire appeared as a newspaper serial (Primuth, 2014).  Varney the Vampire introduced some modern staples of vampire stories, such as fangs, nocturnal visits, entry through a window, super strength, and hypnotic power.  He is also a sympathetic vampire, even though part of the plot of the series involves him trying to take advantage of Bannersworth family.  Varney is important because he was the first sympathetic vampire.  He feels guilty and alone, and tries to control his predatory nature.  He mourns his wife and children from 180 years earlier and is the first vampire to commit suicide.  He is attracted to young, virginal women and seems primarily interested in women (Paolucci, 2000).  Varney is not a virtuous vampire, but he is a conflicted vampire that is not always villainous.  It is possible that his perceived heterosexuality is used to cast him as a “good” vampire rather than a deviant, villainous vampire.  There is less scholarly work on the sexuality of Varney, as opposed to other vampires of the 1800s.        


Carmilla and Lesbian Vampires

While Varney the Vampire has not lent itself to extensive and rigorous analysis for sexual themes, the novella Carmilla has.  Published in 1871, the novella Carmilla predates Dracula by 26 years. Joseph Sheridan Fanu’s novella follows the story of a girl named Laura, who befriends a mysterious girl named Carmilla.  Carmilla makes romantic advances on Laura, does not join her family in prayer, sleepwalks at night, and sleeps during the day.  Girls in the nearby village begin to become sick and die, while Laura herself begins to have strange dreams, poor health, and mysterious bites on her chest.  Eventually, it is discovered that Carmilla is actually Countess Mircalla, a noblewoman from two hundred years prior who had a relationship with a woman whose decedent became a vampire hunter.  Laura, whose memory of the events is unsteady, does not grasp the romantic inclinations of Carmilla towards her and even theorizes that perhaps Carmilla was a boy in disguise. Laura explains how Carmilla took her hand, breathed heavily, and kissed her neck.  The novella is unique in that Carmilla is not interested in the blood of women and men, but exclusively females.  She also explicitly has sexual interest in women with no interest mentioned of men.  She was, by modern understandings of sexuality, a lesbian vampire.  Since Carmilla visits peasant girls in the area, she may also be viewed as polyamorous as she is not uniquely attracted or bonded to Laura.  In the end, it is male power which restores the patriarchal, heterosexual, monogamous order as Carmilla is staked, then beheaded and burned by Baron Vordenburg and General Spielsdorf (Künnecke, 2016).  

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Perhaps owing to Carmilla, lesbian vampires are stock characters in vampire media.  For instance, between 1968 and 1970, there were 20 lesbian vampire films released in the US, Britain, and Western Europe.  These films often drew from the story of Carmilla or from the tale of Elizabeth Bathory.  Elizabeth Bathory was a 17th century aristocratic woman who used the blood of young women to stay youthful and whose history includes rumors of lesbianism and vampirism.  The accusations of lesbianism ignore the fact that she was married to a man, so, perhaps she would more accurately be considered a bisexual woman.  Bi-erasure aside, there was a proliferation of lesbian vampire films in the 1970s, which may have been in part to generate interest in horror films, a dying genre at the time.  Censorship was also relaxed in the United States in the 1960s along with the sexual revolution which opened society up to sexuality. Another explanation is that lesbian vampires, especially those who preyed upon men, appealed to male anxiety regarding feminism.  In these films, the vampire woman must compete with mortal men for the mortal woman.  The vampire is killed and the threat to the order of patriarchy is destroyed.  Lesbians are doubly marginalized, in that they are women and homosexuals.  They are also doubly threatening to patriarchy, which makes them particularly dangerous or sinister vampires.  Whereas Lord Ruthven escaped without punishment, this is not possible for Camilla, because of her claim to male power.  While many films of the 1970s had lesbian vampire characters, the use of violence to restore male power is graphically evident in the 1974 film Vampyres in which the opening scene depicts two women having passionate sex until they are suddenly shot.   Through flashbacks, it is revealed that these two women are vampires who take men home with them to suck their blood after sex (Uygur, 2013).    


The most well known of the lesbian vampire film genre were The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil, which featured Carmilla, but changed her to a bisexual woman.  A 1973 film called Female Vampire is a pornographhic film wherein the vampire Irina has graphic sex with men and women, yet is classified as a lesbian vampire film.  Again, there has been a problem with conflating of bisexuality and lesbianism in film discussions.  In The Vampire Lovers Baker (2012) cites the argument of Weiss that this represents a bisexual triangle, wherein the man is aligned with the forces of good and the vampire with evil, with the woman sought after by both is a neutral party.  After Carmilla is destroyed, Emma is united with Carl and Emma’s response to Carmilla’s seduction is reframed as delirium.  In seven of the twenty films of the era, the bisexual triangle is employed as a plot device (Baker, 2012).  Later films also use the bisexual triangle.  For instance, The Hunger uses bisexual triangulation by centering the story  on the love triangle between John, Miriam, and Sarah.  Miriam is a married bisexual vampire who falls in love with Sarah, who is also bisexual.  Miriam is haunted by her male and female lovers from over the centuries.  Blood and Roses and Daughters of Darkness, are two additional films which feature bisexual love triangles (Ritscher, 2013).

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A scene from Daughters of Darkness

 Despite the common use of bisexual love triangles, many of these films are classified as lesbian vampire films.  Richter (2013) argued that bi-erasure is a perennial problem in media studies, as bisexual characters are often miscategorized as gay, lesbian, or queer.  For instance, the movie Brokeback Mountain is often called a gay film in the media.  However, several bisexual theorists have argued against this and used this as an example of bi-erasure as the men in the film are romantically and sexually involved with each other, but also their wives.  Ritscher identifies several ways that bisexuality is erased from film.  The first way that bisexuality is erased is when scholars or reviewers refer to same-sex attraction or behaviors as homosexual.  This creates a false dichotomy wherein sexual acts are either gay or straight.  By this logic, only threesomes can be coded as bisexual.   In The Hunger, bisexuality is rendered invisible when Sarah and Miriam have a “lesbian sex scene” which is discussed and remembered by critics, scholars, and film viewers.   Another way that bisexuality is erased is by downplaying opposite sex relationships.  For instance, in the film Daughters of Darkness, Elizabeth who is a vampire, has an erotic scene with Tom, a human.  Despite this, she is still considered a lesbian.  In Blood and Roses, the character Camilla is depicted as in love with Leopold.  In the end, she kills her female lover Georgia and takes her place, so that she can marry Leopold.  Nevertheless, Carmilla is classified as a lesbian character.  Down playing opposite sex relationships is done to bolster same sex relationships, but in doing so reinforces the binary between straight and gay.  Richter (2013) cited Kenji Yomito, who argued that both straights and gays have an interest in erasing bisexuals.  Though, this may not be intentional and malicious, but an unconscious social norm.  Lesbian vampire film theory is problematic because it has assigned homosexuality to characters that may instead be viewed as bisexual.  In doing this, homosexuality is contrasted against heterosexuality as an opponent.  According to bisexual theorists, bisexuality is not merely a sexual identity, but an undoing of  the two oppositional poles of of sexuality and a challenge to the notion that sexual identity as a category.  As such, the goal of bisexual scholarship should not be to spot the bisexual, but instead to challenge thinking about the gay straight binary.  Bisexual theorists argue that bisexuality threatens not only the order of male supremacy but is also a threat to sexual rigidity (Ritscher, 2013).  I would argue that both male supremacy and sexual rigidity uphold patriarchy.  Sexualities that are fluid or non-monogamous threaten capitalist patriarchy because they threaten the structure of family and the gendered roles of men and women.  In doing so, these threaten the social reproduction of labor.     


Examining Dracula:

While Carmilla serves as the foundation of lesbian and female bisexual vampirism, it is not the most famous or generally influential vampire novel.  The most famous vampire novel, Dracula, was published in 1897 by Bram Stoker, an Irish writer.  Bram Stoker himself was believed to have been gay, or at least this was an argument made in ‘Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula.’  Bram Stoker wrote letters to his close friend, British author Hall Caine, which may be interpreted as romantic.  He also wrote a gushing letter to Walt Whitman regarding his ability to be natural and unashamed when speaking to him, but how his is shackled or unfree (Cardamone, 2017).  Presumably, the letter was about his closeted homosexuality.  In 1895, when Oscar Wilde, a friend of Stoker’s, was convicted gross indecency, Stoker disavowed the twenty year friendship in a panic.  Perhaps this was due to his own anxiety as a closeted, gay man when being out of the closet was a criminal offense (as in the case of Oscar Wilde who was sentenced to hard labor).  It is in this context that Dracula was written.  McCrea (2010) suggests that the novel depicts closeted heterosexuality, that is, it is written from the view that heterosexuality is foreign and frightening.  This interesting argument follows that the story of Dracula is a marriage plot.  In the story, Mina and Jonathan are going to be married, their lives are interrupted by the chaos wrought by Dracula, and when this resolves, they become a happily established married couple with a son.  At the same time, Lucy, Mina’s less sensible friend, considers her marriage prospects but her life is cut short by vampirism and death.  McCrea (2010) notes that many scholars have analyzed Dracula as an “other” in post-colonial, feminist, Marxist, queer, etc. interpretations of the novel.  However, McCrea (2010) proposes that Dracula is familiar.  For instance, Jonathan Harker passes deeper into Eastern Europe in the novel, into increasingly uncomfortable superstitions, spicy food, slow trains, and unnerving sights.  Yet, when he arrives at Dracula’s home, his first thoughts are to pause and consider how he is moving up in his career and what Mina would think of this.  Even Dracula himself is courteous, well read, and welcoming.  Dracula saved Jonathan from the three vampire women who tried to seduce and bite him, for which he is thankful.  Dracula even treats Jonathan’s stay at the castle as a marriage contract, saying that he has entered freely of his own will.  When Dracula leaves on unknown business, Jonathan waits for him in the castle, like an imprisoned wife (McCrea, 2010).  In this way, the novel is a dark fantasy about heterosexual marriage.   


Although Stevenson’s (1988) analysis is dated, it does make specific mention of bisexuality in Dracula.  His piece is mainly focused on the theme of exogamy.  That is, Dracula represents a foreigner who is trying to seduce the female characters and as such, represents an external threat that must be fought against.  He represents British imperialist anxieties over their racial order of the world.  Aside from exploring this theme, Stevenson (1988) took time to examine female sexuality in the novel and suggested that vampires are bisexual.  However, his view of bisexuality was very narrow and conflated with understandings of gender or even sexual roles.  His main argument is that vampires are bisexual because both female and male vampires are penetrators and receivers.  Their fangs penetrate and at the same time, they ingest the fluids of their victims.  Female vampires in the novel become more sexually aggressive, a demonstration of their masculinity.  Stevenson’s (1988) analysis is interesting, but lacks the language and nuance to explore gender as something apart from sexuality, which unfortunately is generically labelled as bisexuality.  However, this may be due to the fact that in 1988 there was less knowledge and awareness of bisexuality as an identity and little visibility as a distinct part of the LGBTQ movement.  BiNET USA, the oldest bisexual organization in the United States was not founded until 1990.  To broaden this analysis, it might be argued that if blood sucking is a metaphor for sex, then vampires are bisexual in that they prey on any human victim, male, female, trans, gender non-conforming, etc.  Gender is not as important to vampires as blood itself.  Even if drinking blood is not viewed as a metaphor for sex, it is an intimate act in that it usually involves drinking directly from the neck, which is often viewed as a sensual location for kissing in Western societies.  This act is usually done privately and at night, again, if not blatantly sexual, at least following social conventions regarding sex.  Upon closer examination, there may be hints of bisexuality in Dracula.  One example of a homoerotic or bi-erotic scene is the passage wherein Jonathan Harker is passively seduced by a group of vampire women living in Dracula’s castle.  This is interrupted when Dracula arrives and tells the women that Jonathan belongs to him (Künnecke, 2015).   Dracula affirmed the trope that vampires are threatening to both men and women.   


Many of the vampires of the 1800s have “deviant” sexualities.  According to Foucault, the development of capitalism resulted in the increased repression of sexuality, so that by the Victorian Era, when many of these famous vampire novels were written, sex had become relegated entirely to the personal sphere. That is, sex and sexuality were not to be expressed or discussed in public.  At the same time, the roles of men and women were more sharply defined than any other time in history and homosexuality or any other “deviant” sexual behavior or identity was driven underground.  Male homosexuality became highly regulated, whereas female homosexuality was given less attention.  Women were viewed as more emotional in general and given more social leniency to express affection towards one another (Künnecke, 2015).  Perhaps this accounts for why Carmilla was depicted as a lesbian, whereas male vampires were not overtly homosexual or bisexual.  Foucault also noted that monsters are individuals whose behaviors must be corrected.  At the core of monstrosity is deviance and irregularity.  Monstrosity is threatening because it calls into question social norms.  To Foucault, homosexuality became understood as something deviant because society had come to the understanding that the strength of a nation was bolstered by its citizens, their marriages, and their families.  In this understanding, sex was a tool used by the state for regeneration.  A monstrous vampire always represents a threat to the order and is constructed as somehow deviant.  Defeating a vampire results in the re-establishment of order.  As such, if blood drinking is a metaphor for sex, a vampire is a bisexual or homosexual threat to society.  Early folkloric vampires may have represented fear of Plague.  However, 18th century vampires were written about in a time that was beginning to fear homosexuality, and as such they represent anxieties over violations of sexual norms (Uygur, 2013).  


Early vampire characters were mostly constructed as monstrous and evil, with some exceptions, such as Varney the Vampire.  The ability for vampires to be portrayed as anything other than overtly heterosexual and is a function of social movements which sought to expand the rights of the LGBTQ community.  In general, if gays or lesbians appeared in the media before the late 1960s were tragic, unstable, or miserable characters.  Some films, such as the 1943  Creature of the Devil may hint at homosexality or bisexuality, in that the main character becomes jealous of his twin brother’s relationship with a woman and sends a hunchback to kill him.  The 1944 short story, The Bat is my Brother may allude to homosexuality or bisexuality, in that the main character is shown how to be a vampire by an older vampire mentor.  The younger vampire is guided through his vampirism, coming out and and coming to accept his condition.  Still, there are no overtly bisexual or homosexual vampire characters.  The 1931 film version of Dracula was directed by Tod Browning, who was gay, but in general, queerness was consigned to the shadows due to social conservative and active persecution of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals (Primuth, 2014).  Vincent (2015) noted that 1960s and 1970s saw an opening of sexuality in America with the feminist movement and gay rights movement.  The FDA approval of birth control in 1960, its legalization in 1964, the elimination of homosexuality as a disease in 1973, and the Stonewall riots in 1969 all contributed to the process of broadening the expression of sexuality in society.  The most landmark piece of vampire media created during this era was Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.  She created morally ambiguous characters that usurped traditional sexuality.  For instance, Louis described his first encounter with Lestat in suggestive terms, describing Lestat as extraordinary, graceful, like a lover, and opening up new possibilities.  Yet, even though the transformation into a vampire is coded in homoerotic imagery, Louis becomes interested in woman named Babatte Freniere who spurns him as unholy.  Louis and Lestat have fluid sexualities, which may be due to their dependence on the blood of women and men, their outsider status to human societies, and sexuality that is unbound by reproduction (Vincent, 2015).

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The 1980s saw a backlash against the gains of the 1960s and 1970s.  During the 1980s, vampires were often villainized again, such as Fright Night in 1985 and The Lost Boys in 1987.  The AIDs epidemic also influenced vampire media.  For instance, in the 1991 novel, Dracula Unbound, Dracula contracts syphilis.  In the 1998 film Blade, Blade takes a serum to stay alive, which might be comparable to the cocktail of pills that HIV patients must take to ward off AIDS (Primuth, 2014).   It was not until the 1990s that more positive representations of LGBTQ characters began to appear.  For example, the heroine of the 1990s young adult book series, The Last Vampire, is a bisexual, though this series mostly focuses on her relationships with men.  In 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer began airing and featured Willow as a positive lesbian character.  


Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

Willow was a popular character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer because of her dialectical nature.  She was a character with destructive power, but also the power to help.  She was also one of the first characters on television to be depicted in a lesbian relationship, when she entered a relationship with her fellow witch Tara.  However, Willow is also an example of bi-erasure because her sexual fluidity is ignored in the series.  For instance, her previous heterosexual relationships were ignored or dismissed when she asserted that she was “gay now.”  In the series, she was depicted as heterosexual, with a crush on Xander or her relationship with Oz (Muscat, 2014).  Mo (2016) noted how in seasons one and two, Willow was depicted as interested in men.  First she was interested in Xander, which was unreciprocated in season one.  She later became involved with Oz, but cheated on him with Xander, eventually reconciling with Oz who she dated until season four.  However, in season five she reminded Anya that she was gay now when Anya expressed concern that she would steal Xander away from her.  Later, Tara was worried that Willow wasn’t really a lesbian and would return to dating men.  Willow defended herself against this accusation that her sexuality was fluid, which was reinforced by the narrative of the story which did not allow for any deviation from being fully lesbian from then on.  Muscat (2014) argued that Willow was reduced to a binary of totally straight or totally gay, which denied the possibility that she might have been bisexual or fluid.  In an episode wherein all of the female characters vied for the love of a character named RJ due to the effects of his magical letter jacket, Willow only falls for him when she uses her magic to alter his gender.  This reinforces the notion that homosexual attraction is only authentic when absolute.   Muscat (2014) also noted that within the Buffyverse, bisexuality is coded as dangerous and often associated with vampire characters.  For instance, Vamp Willow, an alternative universe version of Willow was coupled with Xander, but propositioned a girl at The Bronze and licked the neck of regular Willow.  In the series Angel, there are homoerotic undercurrents to both Drusilla and Darla’s relationship as well as Spike and Angel’s.  Only if a character is evil or morally ambiguous can they experience fluid sexuality.   Even Willow called her vampire self skanky (Mo, 2016).   

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Mendlesohn (2002) argued that in contrast to other characters, the series denies a queer reading of the relationship between Buffy and Willow.  A “queer reading” is when a reader, or in this case viewer, constructs homosexual desire in situations wherein this sort of attraction is not overt and heterosexuality is normalized.  It is way for readers who was oppressed or excluded to identify codes for same sex relationships or cues that two characters may be flirting, loving, or passionate towards one another.   Willow is coded to be young and innocent, as she wears pinks and reds rather than darker colors.  Throughout the series, her behaviors are rarely sexualized.  Intimacy with male or female partners is usually shown off screen.  Buffy, on the other hand, has more overtly sexual behavior.  Buffy also tends to look to male characters for support and validation.  Throughout the series, Willow grows, changes her appearance, makes new friends, and becomes more confident.  On the other hand, Buffy does not grow, nor does her appearance change.  Their relationship lacks the necessary tension to drive it towards a queer reading.  In contrast, it is easier to do a queer reading of the Buffy and Faith relationship because Faith is the opposite of Buffy in appearance, unrestrained, and sexual.  Willow is more of a backdrop to Buffy rather than her equal or antagonist. (Mendlesohn, 2002).  Casano (2013) agreed that while While there is no overt bisexuality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the relationship between Buffy and fellow slayer, Faith is sometimes speculated to be bisexual.  Faith appeared in season three of the series, following the death of the slayer, Kendra.  Eliza Dushku, who played the character, felt that Faith had feelings for Buffy and was bisexual.  Faith is promiscuous, fearless, bad girl, who is an outsider to the Scooby Gang (Casano, 2013).  Any hinting that her character is bisexual would play into the stereotype that bisexuality is deviant or that only a morally ambivalent character could be bisexual.  Certainly, in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the series aired, there was growing awareness of bisexuality with the establishment of BiNet in 1990, the release of the book Bi any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out in 1991, the first international bisexual conference was held in Amsterdam in 1991, the bi flag was invented in 1998, and the first Celebrate Bisexuality Day was celebrated on September 23, 1999.  The 1990s was a pivotal time for biseuxals because it saw the establishment of organizations and inclusion of bisexuals in Pride Festivals.  Still, despite the flourishing of bisexual identity in the 1990s, it is disappointing that Buffy the Vampire Slayer did not handle the issue of bisexuality as well as it might have.

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An example of wholesome, non-sexualized Willow

In the decades since the 1990s and early 2000s, there has been some improvement in the portrayal and visibility of bisexuals.  HBO’s series, True Blood, which aired from 2006-2014 and was based upon Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries novel series, depicted many LGBTQ characters.  One prominent bisexual character was Sophie-Anne LeClerq, the Vampire Queen of Louisiana who was sexually, romantically involved with male and female characters, including Sookie’s cousin Hadley (Reynolds, 2014). Sophie-Anne appeared in eight episodes and was portrayed as a mentally unstable, but powerful antagonistic vampire.  She wears glamorous clothes, longs to be in the sunlight, collects birds, plays Yahtzee, and seems genuinely attached to Hadley.  In the series, she acquires some debts and resorts to selling vampire blood.  Facing an IRS audit, she is forced to marry Russell Edgington, the vampire King of Mississippi.   Sophie-Anne is a capricious, immature, unstable, frivolous character so in a way, she may pander to some stereotypes about bisexuals being mentally unstable.  However, the character was a survivor, who clambered her way up in the world to become the vampire queen of Louisiana, then submitted to marriage to Russell Edgington to overcome her financial troubles.  Evan Rachel Woods played Sophie-Anne and is openly bisexual.  At the same time, in an interview with US Magazine, her character was called a lesbian, even as she says her bisexuality has been a part of her for as long as she can remember (Ravitz, 2011).   

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Sophie-Ann in True Blood

Pam de Beaufort, the bar manager of Fangtasia, was also depicted as bisexual and had a relationship with Tara Thornton (Reynolds, 2014).  Pam appeared in 63 episodes and is loyal to Eric Northman.  She is depicted as more interested in women than men, has a dry sense of humor, and dislikes children.  In her human life, she ran a brothel and was romantically involved with Eric Northman, who later turned her into a vampire.  Generally, the character was developed well enough that she doesn’t particularly fall into any bisexual stereotypes.  Like most vampires in the series, she is morally ambiguous and in some ways deviant, but generally she is a well-rounded likeable character for the setting and tone of the show.  Pam does have a fun quote, “Let bygones be bygones and bigirls be bi girls.” (Nicolaou, 2017)  At the same time, her bisexuality was erased when Sookie told her that she didn’t have time for her lesbian weirdness.

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Pam- attacking Sara Newlin

Tara Thornton  was the most prominent bisexual character in the series (Reynolds, 2014).  Tara is Sookie’s best friend in the show.  She is sour towards vampires and a survivor of abuse.  When she becomes a cage fighter, she begins dating a fellow female cage fighter.  She later is turned into a vampire by Pam de Beaufort and the two eventually have a relationship (Zakarin and Fleenor, 2017).   Eric Northman is also depicted as bisexual.  He is the owner of Fangtasia and a love interest of Sookie Stackhouse.  In the series, he seduces Talbot, the partner of Russell Edgington the King of Mississippi (Nicolaou, 2017).   The series features many bisexual, gay, and lesbian characters.  Even characters that are not portrayed as bi or gay are never rigidly straight.  For instance, in season three, Sam the shapeshifting bartender, has a sexual dream about Bill Compton (Gray, 2011).  Finally, while Sookie Stackhouse, the main character, is depicted as straight, Anna Paquin, who portrayed her, is bisexual.  She has been very open about her bisexuality, but it has been the subject of confusion.  In an interview with Larry King, she discussed her marriage to her co-star Stephen Moyer and the birth of her twins.  Larry King assumed this meant that she was no longer bisexual.  She had to correct him by stating that a straight person does not stop being straight if their partner dies or they become single, so her bisexuality does not change if she is in a monogamous relationship (Nichols, 2014).  This demonstrates the misunderstandings that persist about bisexuality.     

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Tara had a variety of relationships in the series, including a relationship with Pam, a short lived relationship with “Eggs,” a longtime crush on Sookie’s brother Jason, and a relationship with Sam.

The series itself was produced by Alan Ball.  Other than portraying a variety of queer characters, the show had many clear and obvious parallels to LGBT issues.  For instance, the series takes place after vampires have “come out of the coffin” and are publicly known to exist.   Obviously, coming out of the coffin is the vampire equivalent of coming out of the closet.  Vampires themselves have their own vampire rights organizations and vampire-human marriage has been legalized, again mirroring the LGBT movement.  Not everyone is on board with vampire rights, which mostly include far right Evangelical Christian figures.  One hateful church has “God hates Fangs” as a slogan on a sign outside the church, again, a parody of “God hates Fags.”  (Primuth, 2014).  According to Campbell (2013), queer politics seeks to challenge heteronormativity, resist assimilation, embraces differences, and combats social forces that discipline and normalize.  Rather than focusing on identity, it focuses on fluid and contextual opposition to dominant norms of gender, race, class, and sexuality.  In True Blood, vampires are a metaphor for queerness and queer politics.  Campbell (2013) cites Cathy Cohen when he argues that U.S. institutions seek to appropriate and assimilate queer life and in doing so, marginalize queer women, poor, working class, and queer of color.  This mirrors the vampires of True Blood.  While all vampires drink blood, some vampires are better than others.  For instance, some vampires drink “True Blood” a Japanese blood substitute which allows these vampires to assimilate into society and are viewed as safer than others.  Bill Compton, for instance, is presented as a protagonist in early seasons.  He is a white, heterosexual vampire who values monogamy, in contrast to other vampires.   Bill is gentlemanly and better than other vampires, such as the hedonistic Malcolm, Liam, and Diane.  Malcolm was presented as a gay character, who was against coming out of the coffin and assimilation.  As such, he is seen as dangerous, immoral, and a stand in for an anti-assimilationist queer identity.  In the series, deviant vampires are signified drug use, hedonism, and promiscuity.  Cohen called this secondary marginalization.  So, although there are many queer characters in the series, many of the characters are vampires, which enjoy power, wealth, comfort, beauty, and immortality.  Many, like Eric Northman, Bill Compton, Pam de Beaufort, Sophie-Ann, etc. are white, conventionally attractive, and generally privileged.   The show could be critiqued for promoting an assimilationist viewpoint. Nevertheless, the show generally did a good job portraying a large number of queer characters and developing many of those characters beyond stereotypes.  

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Other recent television and film series have not handled LGBT issues as well.  The television series, The Vampire Diaries, did not introduce its first same sex couple until Season Seven.  The characters were Nora and Mary Louis, villainous vampires.  Mary Louis was captured by an organization that hunts supernatural creatures called the armory, where she was injected with vampire hunter blood.  She and Nora both died together in an attempt to destroy Rayna, the vampire hunters, magical sword (Anders, 2016).  Their deaths were rather pointless and the characters were not allowed to stay in the series long enough to become compelling.  Also, their sacrificial deaths harkens back to film norms that LGBT characters must die or experience tragedy.  The Vampire Diaries introduced, Luke, a gay character in season five.  He was a witch and had a twin sister named Liv.  He sacrificed his life to save Liv, but was never well-developed nor shown in a relationship.  Again, the series used the old trope that gays must die tragic deaths.  While Caroline Forbes’ father was gay, he was never shown in the series and was referred to disparagingly.  Once again, this was not a positive depiction.  Finally, Matt, Rebekah, and Nadia had a threesome in the series, but Rebecca and Nadia’s bisexuality is never expanded upon beyond this scene.  Because this is the only context for their bisexuality, it seems that the show depicts bisexuality as a performance for the pleasure of men (LGBT Characters in the Vampire Diaries and the Originals, 2015).   

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While vampire fiction has historically been an arena for expressing subversive sexualities, this is not the case with Twilight.   Twilight goes against earlier traditions of gender non-conforming characters by creating characters that are very traditional.  Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are brave and muscular, while Bella and female characters have female slumber parties, bake cookies, and cook meals for men.  Bella is often a damsel in distress and Edward Cullen shuns intimacy before marriage.  When Bella and Edward are finally married and do have sex, Bella finds herself bruised from the encounter and blames herself (Ames, 2010).  The Cullens themselves, though not related by blood, live as a family unit of heterosexual couples, with Edward being the only character not coupled until he meets Bella.  Other vampires, such as the Nomads and Volturi, do not live in the same traditional family units.  They drink blood and act more like traditional vampires.  The Volturi allow for more of a queer reading, as the Volturi consist of a trio of men, Aro, Marcus, and Caius, who spend more time together than with their wives.  The Volturi are also presented as feminine men.  The Nomads are also a trio, which begs the question of how the third person relates to the couple.  In contrast, the Cullens consist of Carlile and two males and two females.   The Cullens represent the monogamous, heterosexual ideal.  Bella marries early in life and become immediately pregnant, then fights the keep the pregnancy even after it threatens her life.  Throughout the relationship, Edward is protective and watchful of Bella, which could be viewed as controlling and stalking behavior.  When Bella is injured by sex, she is mostly concerned about comforting Edward than her own well-being (Hofstatter, 2012).  In this sense, the series is not only heterosexual, it is violently heteronormative.   Despite the confining heterosexuality and gender roles in Twilight, Kristen Stewart, who played Bella is openly bisexual and told the guardian that she was not confused about her sexuality and that in general, she saw sexuality as grey or fluid (Brooks, 2017).

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“Move along…nothing queer here…we assure you” -Actual Volturi Quote…or not.

The popularity of vampire fiction has declined over the last several years, but more recent vampire stories offer insights about the future.  Obviously, True Blood came along way from Dracula in its overt depiction of sexuality and other media in general for its positive and prominent depictions of LGBTQ characters.  At the same time, Vampire Dairies was centered upon heterosexual relationships and kept queerness in the margins.  Twilight was even worse in its hammering assertion of heterosexuality.  The stark differences between these series demonstrates that queer liberation is incomplete.  Twilight represents the alluring hold that tradition and conservatism continue in society.  It represents a world where deviance from heterosexuality does not dare name itself or where it simply does not exist.  This is the same world of Dracula, where sexuality is quieted, impulses controlled, and deviance is exiled or destroyed.   In The Vampire Diaries, queerness can exist as an auxiliary to heterosexuality, so long as it stays quiet, does not distract, and dies when necessary.  True Blood made the most ground, but it still portrayed queerness as preferable when it is expressed by those with beauty, wealth, power, and whiteness.  As for bisexuality, there have been many mis-steps in its presentation over history, the largest being its invisibility, fetishization, or conflation with gay or lesbian identities.  However, bisexual social movement organizations are only a few decades old.  Better representation of bis in the media hinges upon the success of this movement along with the larger LGBTQ movement to assert itself in society as a whole.  Hopefully this is done with a mindfulness towards the rights and representation of people of color, people with disabilities,  the working class, people who are poor, people of diverse sizes and appearances, and all the many other ways that groups of people are marginalized in society.  Liberation expands the lense of who is portrayed and how they are portrayed in the media.  Vampires have long made for fascinating characters and storylines.  They are also a mirror for how society constructs deviance and acceptability.  In this reflection, there is plenty to see.             



Sources:

Ames, M.A. (2010) Twilight Follows Tradition, Analyzing Biting Critiques of Vampire Narratives for their Portrayal of Gender and Sexuality, Faculty Research and Creative Activity. 36.  

 

Anders, C. J. (2016, April 04). The Vampire Diaries Picked the Worst Month for These Pointless, Tasteless Deaths. Retrieved December 02, 2017, from https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-vampire-diaries-picked-the-worst-month-for-these-po-1768964780

 

Baker, D. (2012). Seduced and abandoned: Lesbian vampires on screen 1968–74. Continuum, 26(4), 553-563.

 

Brooks, X. (2017, March 09). Kristen Stewart: ‘It’s not confusing if you’re bisexual. For me, it’s the opposite’. Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/09/kristen-stewart-bisexual-personal-shopper-trump-tweets

 

Campbell, P. O. (2013). Intersectionality Bites: Metaphors of Race and Sexuality in HBO’s True Blood. Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader, 99-114.

 

Casano, C. (2013, October 24). Buffy and Bisexuality: Faith as a Subversive Bisexual Character and Willow as. Retrieved November 28, 2017, from http://girlsincapes.com/2013/10/24/btvs-bisexuality/

 

Cardamone, T. (2017, October 31). ‘Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man… Retrieved November 27, 2017, from https://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/10/31/something-in-the-blood-the-untold-story-of-bram-stoker/  

 

Gray, E. (2011, October 28). Vampires And Sexuality: What Are ‘Twilight’ And ‘True Blood’ Saying About Sex? Retrieved December 02, 2017, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/emma-gray/vampires-sexuality_b_1063907.html

 

Hofstatter, B. (2012). Representations of Gender Relations in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Graz.

 

Künnecke, L. (2015, March). Blood, Sex and Vampirism: Queer Desires in Stoker’s Dracula and Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://www.academia.edu/12280616/Blood_Sex_and_Vampirism_Queer_Desires_in_Stoker_s_Dracula_and_Le_Fanu_s_Carmilla

 

LGBT Characters in The Vampire Diaries and The Originals. (2015, April 24). Retrieved December 07, 2017, from http://www.fangsforthefantasy.com/2015/04/lgbt-characters-in-vampire-diaries-and.html

 

Lord Byron. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://lgbthistorymonth.com/lord-byron?tab=biography

 

Lord Byron’s image inspired modern take on vampires. (2010, June 23). Retrieved November 30, 2017, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/nottingham/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8517000/8517132.stm

 

Luchsinger, A. (2015, March 13). The Vampire – How Lord Byron and The Byronic Hero Influenced The Classic Character. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from http://www.uwgbcommons.org/archives/26418

 

MacCarthy, F. (2002, November 08). Was Byron hounded from Britain because he was gay? Retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/nov/09/classics.poetry

 

Mendlesohn, Farah. “Surpassing the Love of Vampires; or Why (and How) a Queer Reading of Buffy/Willow is Denied.” Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield, 2002. 45-60.

 

Mo. (2016, September 13). Kinda Gay: Bi Erasure on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Retrieved November 24, 2017, from https://butchplease.net/2016/09/13/kinda-gay-bi-erasure-on-buffy-the-vampire-slayer/

 

Muscat, K. (2014, October 4). ‘Ain’t Love Grand’: The Erasure of Bisexuality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer — Kill Your Darlings. Retrieved November 24, 2017, from https://www.killyourdarlings.com.au/article/aint-love-grand-the-erasure-of-bisexuality-in-buffy-the-vampire-slayer/

 

Nichols, J. (2014, July 31). Anna Paquin Brilliantly Schools Larry King On Bisexuality. Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/31/anna-paquin-larry-king_n_5638081.html

 

Paolucci, P. L. (2000). Re-Reading the Vampire from John Polidon to Anne Rice: Structures of lmpossibility Among Three Narrative Variations in the Vampinc Tradition (Doctoral dissertation, York University Toronto).

 

Primuth, R. (2014, February 11). Vampires Are Us. Retrieved November 30, 2017, from http://www.glreview.org/article/vampires-are-us/

 

Reynalds, D. (2014, June 20). PHOTOS: The LGBT Characters of ‘True Blood’. Retrieved November 28, 2017, from https://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/television/2014/06/20/photos-lgbt-characters-true-blood

 

Ravitz, J. (2011, September 16). Evan Rachel Wood: Being Bisexual Is “a Big Part of Who I Am”. Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/evan-rachel-wood-being-bisexual-is-a-big-part-of-who-i-am-2011169/

 

Richter, N. (2013). Bisexual Erasure in ‘Lesbian Vampire’Film Theory. Journal of Bisexuality, 13(2), 273-280.

 

Stevenson, J. A. (1988). A Vampire in the Mirror: The Sexuality of Dracula. PMLA, 103(2), 139. doi:10.2307/462430

 

Uygur, M. A. (2013). QUEER VAMPIRES AND THE IDEOLOGY OF GOTHIC. Journal of Yaşar University, 8(Special), 47-59.

 

Vincent, R. (2015). Vampires as a Tool to Destabilize Contemporary Notions of Gender and Sexuality. Ellipsis Vol 42. Article 25. https://scholarworks.uno.edu/ellipsis/vol42/iss1/25

 

Zakarin, J., & Fleenor, S. (2017, October 06). 5 bisexual characters who deserve recognition on Bisexual Visibility Day. Retrieved December 07, 2017, from http://www.syfy.com/syfywire/5-bisexual-characters-who-deserve-recognition-on-bisexual-visibility-day

 

Fungi and Feminism

Fungi and Feminism

H. Bradford

8/12/17

 

Once a month, the Feminist Justice League hosts a feminist frolic.  This month, the goal was to go on a hike to learn more about fungi, edible and otherwise.  We asked Ariel, one of our members, if she would be willing to tell us a little about edible fungi, as she forages for fungi and sells them to a local grocery store.  As for myself, I undertook the task of trying to connect fungi with feminism for a short presentation on that topic.  Connections between these two topics are not commonly made, but almost anything can be connected to feminism.  Indeed, fungi can be connected to feminism through an exploration of women’s roles as foragers and food preparers, the connection between fungi and witchcraft, and the contributions women have made to mycology, the science of fungi.


An Introduction to Fungi:

To begin, it is useful to outline some basic information about fungi.  Fungi are a diverse group of organisms that consist of everything from yeast in bread and beer, infections like athlete’s foot or ringworm, mushrooms and toadstools, and mold on bread.  Most people are probably most familiar with fungi in the form of mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of some fungi.  However, this is just a small portion of the diversity of this kingdom.  Taxonomy is always changing, but fungi are often considered to be one of five or six kingdoms of organisms, including plants, animals, protists, archaebacteria, fungi, and bacteria.  For most of history, fungi was lumped into the plant kingdom and it was not until the 1960s that they were separated into their own category of lifeforms.  It might be easy to confuse fungi with plants, due the fact that both grow in soil and tend to be stationary.  In actuality, fungi was more closely related to animals and 1.1 billion years ago they shared a common evolutionary ancestor with the animal kingdom (Staughton, 2002).  Fungi are similar to animals in that they cannot produce their own food, as plants do through photosynthesis.  Rather, they feed on dead and living organisms, breaking them down by excreting enzymes and absorbing nutrients through their cell wall (Fungi-an introduction, 2009).  This means that they differ from animals in that they do not ingest their food, rather they absorb it.  Another similarity between animals and fungi is that both of them use oxygen in cellular respiration to convert nutrients into energy.  That is, both use oxygen and release carbon dioxide as waste, as opposed to plants which use carbon dioxide and release oxygen (Bone, 2011).  Yet, fungi are similar to plants in that both have cell walls, although the cell wall of plants is made of cellulose and the cell wall of fungi is made of chitin.  Chitin is the same substance that the beaks of squids and the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects is made of.

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Despite the clear differences between plants and fungi, historically, fungi have been lumped together with plants and even today, mycology tends to be lumped within botany departments rather than zoology.  While fungi have had a sort of identity crisis over history, they do indeed have a very close relationship to plants.  Over 90% of all plants have a mycorrhizal fungal partner.  In other words, plants often have fungi that live on or in their roots for the purpose of helping them extract more nutrients from the soil.  In exchange, the fungi obtain sugar, which the plant produces.  This is why a person often sees mushrooms at the base of trees.  Some unusual plants, such as monotropes (more commonly known as Indian Pipe or Ghost Plant), do not produce chlorophyll and depend upon fungi to obtain energy from nearby trees.  Almost every plant has fungi living between their cells.  In addition, 85% of all plant disease are caused by fungi.  In fact, chili peppers evolved their hotness as a defense against fungi (Bone, 2011).  Therefore, it is no wonder that plants and fungi are associated with one another.

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One of the most interesting thing about fungi is how diverse that kingdom is.  While the animal kingdom contains a wide array of organisms including lifeforms as different as horseflies, sea horses,  horseshoe crabs, and horses fungi vary even more greatly.  Fungi include organisms that reproduce sexually, asexually, and both.  This makes them extremely interesting from a sexual standpoint.  Unlike animals, they can be one celled or made up of many cells.  Subsequently, fungi include such diverse phylums as club fungi, which include mushrooms, toadstools, puffballs, and shelf fungi.  This is the phylum that most people are probably familiar with.  These fungi often have club shaped structures with gills containing spores.  Another phylum of fungi are called sac fungi, or fungi which produce spores in tiny sacks.  This group includes yeast, truffles, molds, and morels.  Another phylla is called zygomycota, which feature sexual and asexual reproduction and include black mold.  Finally, there are imperfect fungi, which have unknown methods of reproduction and include penicillium and aspergillus.  There are about 1.5 million species of fungi, but only one tenth of these are known to science.  Interestingly, the mass of the world’s fungi is far greater than the mass of all of the world’s animals, amounting to about ¼ of the world’s entire biomass (Fungi-an introduction, 2009).  Fungi also outnumber plants six to one.  Finally, the largest organism on the planet is actually a honey fungus in Oregon which is over 2,400 years old and larger than 1,666 football fields (Bone, 2011).   Truly, fungi among the most fascinating forms of life on the planet.

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Mushrooms, Women, and Foraging:

 

For most of history, fungi were not given much attention as a unique group of organisms.  Thus, most early humans would have understood fungi mostly through the sexual phase or the fruiting body of a mushroom (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  Humanity’s earliest encounters with fungi would have been with mushrooms and shelf fungi.  Humans lived as hunters and gatherers, in small communities that foraged for their food, for 190,000 of our 200,000 years as modern humans.  Some human societies continue to live this way.  For most of human history, humans foraged for fungi, for food, medicine, ritual, dyes, etc.  However, mushroom foraging is confounded by the fact that mushrooms may appear only at certain times of the year or under certain conditions.  They may not appear in the same place each year, making them harder to forage than plants.  Mushroom foraging is also made difficult by the fact that some mushrooms are extremely toxic, which means that misidentification or experimentation could result in illness or death.  Around 2,800 species of mushrooms are used today by humans.  Much of the mushroom foraging in the world is done by women  (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).   This comes a little surprise, as in a study of 175 modern hunter-gatherer societies, women provided four fifths of the food.   According to Crane’s research (2000) the food that was typically gathered by men was further away and harder to obtain.   Today, in Mexico, Bahrain, Guatemala, Guyana, Nigeria, Zaire, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Russia, mushroom foraging is largely women’s work.  However, in Poland and Switzerland, is is more often done by men.  In some tropical areas, women collect mushrooms closest to their homes whereas men collect mushrooms that are deeper in the forest (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, & Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  This is not unlike the gender dynamics of collecting honey and may reflect the importance of women in society for their reproductive capacity (Crane, 2000).   In Guyana, men pick up mushrooms that they find incidentally on hunting trips, whereas women engage in active, premeditated mushroom collecting.  Beyond this, there are gendered ways in which mushrooms are collected, with men tending to be solitary foragers who search out more valuable and hard to find mushrooms and women collecting them together and in more energy efficient locations.  Mushrooms that are collected for ritual purposes are often done by both genders.  Mazatec healers in Mexico can be women or men and Maria Sabina was an important informant of mushroom rituals to ethnographers (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez (2012).

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While it seems that among many hunting and gathering cultural groups women play an important role in obtaining mushrooms, this is not the experience in industrial United States.  Bone (2011) found that many of the people she encountered while foraging for mushrooms were men.  Professional mushroom foragers, who often travelled the country in search of various mushrooms, were often men.  In particular, men from Mexico and Southeast Asia made a living by foraging and selling mushrooms.  At the same time, even amateur or more casual mushroom foragers were men.  When she sought to learn more about foraging mushrooms, it was always men who shared their expertise.  She also noticed a certain machismo among mushroom foragers, as some took risks by eating mushrooms that were known to be toxic or have negative health effects.  Bone (2011) was focused on developing her knowledge of mycology and experiencing fungi from the perspective of a foodie.  Her book, Mycophilia, does not examine the gender dynamics of mushroom foraging at any length.  However, it does very clearly support the idea that in the United States, mushroom science, foraging, commercial production, and preparation are all largely dominated by men.  This begs the question of why mushrooms exist so differently from the women centered foraging that is prevalent elsewhere in the world and presumably elsewhere in history.


There may be a few explanations for their phenomenon.  For instance, until the 1600s in France, mushroom foraging was women’s work.  However, with the scientific revolution, mushrooming became a men’s activity as men began to monopolize the science of mycology (Dugan, 2008).  The shift from mushroom foraging as women’s work to men’s work represents a shift of the power of behind which knowledge is given privilege in society.  As men took control of institutions of learning, medicine, publishing, science, etc. and systematized scientific knowledge, the folk knowledge of women, but also poor people, indigenous people, criminals, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups was denigrated, ignored, or suppressed.  This might explain why according to Dugan (2008) mushroom collecting was mainly conducted by women in the United States until the 19th century.  In was during the 19th century in the United States that women’s knowledge of childbirth, medicine, and the natural world in general was suppressed by emergent medical and professional institutions.  As this knowledge was professionalized and monopolized, the knowledge of men was empowered and given social value at the expense of women.  Long before the advent of science, many groups of people developed the a body of knowledge about mushrooms that scientists would only later rediscover.  For instance, Russian peasants had a deep knowledge of mushrooms and some of the common names for these mushrooms were associated with the tree that the mushrooms grew near.  Europeans were latecomers to mushroom identification and even Darwin was indifferent to fungi when writing about evolution.  However, the Mayans developed their own system of classifying mushrooms, as did the Chinese.  Chen Jen-yu’s Mycoflora, written in 1245, proposed 12 types of mushrooms (Dugan, 2008).  In all, this should illustrate that humans have had thousands of years of interactions with fungi and through use and observation developed a body of knowledge.  Some of this knowledge was dismissed or overlooked on racist, sexist, and classist grounds.

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Mushroom hunting- a painting by Bernardina Midderigh Bokhorst

The ability of women to forage for mushrooms is also challenged by capitalism.  Capitalism negatively impacts women more than men, because women are oppressed as workers and on account of their gender in capitalism.  The oppression of women include the being paid less than men, doing more unpaid labor in the home, experiencing sexual harassment and sexual assault, having limited reproductive freedom, enjoying less political representation, having less social legitimacy, and a myriad of other expressions of oppression.  Thus, at least on the amateur end of mushroom collecting, women may not be as involved because of the ways in which capitalism and patriarchy shape women’s relationship to nature.  Within the United States, time in nature is usually associated with leisure, which women have less of due to spending more time with care work and household work.  Women are often also economically dependent upon men and make less money than them, which may mean that taking up hobbies and traveling around to pursue them is a greater economic burden.  Within the context of societies which are less developed and women continue to forage for mushrooms, women have a harder time obtaining wage labor, surviving on lower wages, and supporting their families.  In some areas of the world, foraging and selling mushrooms to middle men is an important way that widows and single mothers generate income for themselves.  Historically, women sold vegetables and mushrooms in markets in Europe.  This tradition conditions in Eastern European countries like Latvia, Russia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic, where women are often the source of mushrooms in markets (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012). Therefore, mushroom foraging is an important source of income to women.  Because it is work that is outside of the formal economy, they are more vulnerable to difficult labor conditions.  And, because of the environmental problems wrought by more developed countries in the context of capitalism, women are vulnerable as the environment they depend upon for livelihood is threatened.  For instance, women in Puebla Mexico must obtain permits to go into the forest and collect mushrooms.  In other places, such as Burundi, logging has diminished the abundance of mushrooms.  Another challenge is other ecological issues, such as acid rain and soil nitrification in Europe.  Mushroom collectors are often independent workers, so they are not afforded health or safety benefits (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  Indeed, mushroom yields around the world have decreased over the years, perhaps as a result of climate change.


Women and Food:

Closely related to foraging, women are engaged in cooking and eating fungi.  The preparation of mushrooms, including cooking and storing, is mostly done by women around the world (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez,2012).  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in an average day, American women spend about twice as much time as men preparing food and drinks.  In an average day, 70% of women reported preparing food compared to 43% of men.  This means that women not only do more food preparation than men, more women are engaged in this activity than men (Charts by Topic: Household activities, 2016).  This should come as little surprise to feminists, who have long articulated that women do more unpaid household labor than men.   This work is often devalued, taken advantage of, and taken for granted as part of the normal gender roles and relationship between men and women.  Although women do more unpaid cooking, men dominate professional cooking.  Women and men attend culinary school in equal proportions, but most celebrity chefs and paid culinary professionals are men.  Men also outnumber women 7 to 3 at more prestigious culinary schools and when women do go into culinary arts, they are disproportionately represented upon baking and pastry programs (Jones, 2009).  For instance, at B.A program in pastries at the American Culinary Institute is made up of 86% women (Tanner 2010).   Both of these trends represent how “women’s work” is undervalued in society.  At culinary schools, pastry sections are called the “pink ghetto” or “pink section” because they are dominated by women.  Food and work are both gendered in society.  Baking and desserts are associated with femininity (Brones, 2015).    This relationship to cooking also creates a special relationship to fungi, even if this relationship is not immediately obvious.

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The first relationship to fungi is the relationship between women and yeast.  To begin, bread of some kind or another has been eaten by humans for at least 30,000 years.  But, early breads were unleavened flat breads which were made from ingredients other than grains.  The first recorded discovery of yeast is from Ancient Egypt, where yeast was used to leaven bread and make beer 6000 years ago.   No one knows how yeast was discovered.  It may have been floating in the air and landed in some bread, resulting in lighter, fluffier bread.  Or, it is possible that yeast entered bread by adding ale to it instead of water.  In any event, the discovery of yeast necessarily coincided with several other developments in human history.  First of all, it arose out of settled societies which domesticated and grew grains.  Grains were domesticated by ancient farming civilizations about 8000 years ago.  But, for most of human history, people foraged for their food.  Settled agriculture allowed for population growth, the birth of cities, the invention of written languages, private property, and social stratification.  It also is considered to be the beginning of patriarchy, as with the invention of private property, monogamy and the associated control of women was ensured the transmission of property through sons.   Settled agricultural societies were possible because of a surplus of food.  This surplus of food also allowed for the creation of professions, thus, in Egypt, there were professional bakers, herders, teachers, doctors, scribes, etc.  Egyptian art depicts both men and women engaged in bread making.  However, it is more likely that men were involved in the actual profession of bread making or baking, while women made bread in the home or as supporters.  This gendered dynamic continued through time.  For instance, in Medieval Europe, women prepared food for their families or homes, whereas men were professional breadmakers in guilds.  In both examples, the work of women was essential the same, but not given the same social value.  So, although women are more likely to work with yeast or for that matter cook with any other fungi, it is not seen as work that matters in the same way professional culinary work matters.

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While women have a close relationship to food and by extension, fungi as a food, due to their role as a cook for their families, this often goes unnoticed or unheralded.  Despite gender inequalities, women managed to influence society through cuisine.  For instance, countries can roughly be divided into mycophobic and mycophilliac depending upon their relationship to mushrooms.  France is viewed as a mycophiliac culture, with many recipes calling for mushrooms and a history of foraging for mushrooms.  It was largely through women that this French passion for mushrooms spread to other countries.  For instance, Hannah Glasse wrote an  English cookbook in 1747 which drew from French cuisine and included 110 mushroom recipes called the Art of Cookery Made Easy.  Eliza Action’s cookbook Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) and Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) also included dozens of mushroom recipes.  Cookbooks focused on the historical cuisine of the British isles tended to have few mushroom recipes.  The first American cookbook, by Amelia Simmons in 1796, does not feature any mushroom recipes.  But, by the 1800s, various cookbooks featured mushroom dishes.  Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, introduced in 1934, popularized mushrooms as part of American casserole cuisine.  And, one of the most popular American cookbooks of the 20th century, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) included dozens of mushroom recipes.  Irma Rambauer’s book The Joy of Cooking included 30 recipes with mushrooms (Bertelsen, 2013 ). In each of these examples, women were able to influence culture by working within the traditional social space offered to women.  The household has traditionally been viewed as the sphere of influence of women.  Books about cooking, by women for women, is a way that women exerted power within the confines of tradition.  In doing so, in a small way, these cultures were changed.  Today, mushrooms consumption has exploded.  The global export value of mushrooms was almost 1.75 billion dollars in 2010, compared to 250 million dollars in 1990 and negligible in 1970.

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Another way in which women relate to fungi is through the ways that food is gendered in society.  Because mushrooms are a viewed as a vegetable and something healthy, one might assume that women eat more mushrooms than men.  After all, women are told to watch their weight, monitor their food intake, and make healthy food choices.  At the same time, masculinity is connected to meat eating.  Eating mushrooms seems to be something lowly and feminine.  There is even a racial and ethnic component to eating mushrooms, as they are associated with mycophilliac cultures such as India, China, Japan, and Russia.  Surprisingly, men and women in the United States actually eat roughly the same amount of mushrooms each year.  According to the USDA, women consume about 8% more fresh mushrooms then men, but men are more likely to eat processed mushrooms.  As a whole, men ate about 49% of all mushrooms produced in the United States, whereas women ate about 51% (Lucier, Allhouse, and Lin, 2003).  Yet, this isn’t to argue that gender does not shape mushroom consumption.  In Mycophilia, Eugenia Bone, a food writer from New York, expressed disdain when she attended a Midwest mushroom foraging event and the men in attendance planned on battering their mushrooms or putting them on steaks  (Bone, 2011).  In this example, gender, geography, and class intersected to generate a different sense of taste from the Midwestern men with less social capital.  In another example, the white truffle is the most expensive food in the world, at $3000 per pound (Bone, 2011).  However, men with power are more likely to obtain and ingest truffles.  For instance, a 3.3 pound truffle was auctioned for $330,000 to a billionaire named Stanley Ho, a Macau casino owner.  The truffle itself was discovered by an Italian truffle hunter and his father, along with their dog.  Gordon Wu, a property tycoon from Hong Kong purchased two truffles at an auction for 125,000 euros.  An anonymous Chinese writer purchased a truffle for $120,000 at an auction.  Globally, women and children are more likely to be among the world’s poor and less represented among the super wealthy.  The truffle’s value is because it is hard to successfully commercially cultivate, rare, and labor intensive.  At the same time, some its value is more symbolic than material, as truffles are abundant in China, where labor is cheap enough (i.e exploited) that they are raked from the earth by humans rather than trained dogs and pigs.  But, these black truffles are viewed as inferior to European black truffles.  In this sense, when food is associated with power and privilege, women are less likely to partake in this indulgence.  So, while men and women may eat equal amounts of mushrooms, how they are eaten may differ.  I would hypothesize that men eat them more often on pizza, battered, on burgers, or on steaks and women in salads and as a meat substitute.  Class certainly shapes mushroom consumption as well, not only in access to elite foods like truffles, but in consumption of mushrooms in general.  Bone (2011) noted that the biggest consumers of mushrooms were those who were 350% above the poverty line.

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(image stolen from National Geographic…)

Mushrooms, Women, and Witchcraft

Another way in which mushrooms have been associated with women is through medicine and witchcraft.  In Europe, mushrooms have often been associated with mushiness and evil.  French words for mushrooms translate to eggs of the devil, devil’s paintbrush, and toad bread.  Toadstool and toad hat are names derived from Danish mushrooms.  In Estonia, Fulgio septica, a large yellow slime mold is called “Shit of a Witch (Dugan, 2008).”  An edible yellow fungus commonly found on dead branches is called “Witches butter.”  Western Europe and the British Isles in particular associated mushrooms with witchcraft (Bertelsen, 2013).   In Russia, Baba Yaga is associated with magical tree mushrooms.  In one story she spares the life of a hedgehog that is eating a mushroom, under the understanding that the hedgehog will become a boy and serve her.  She is also accompanied by spirits that live under mushrooms.  In Italy, there is a story of a witch who disguised herself as a mushroom to figure out who is stealing her cabbages.   Mushrooms have been associated with fairies and in 1599, the word fairy ring described, which is a ring of mushroom left behind by dancing fairies.  In Germany, fairy rings were known as Hexen rings, where witches would dance in a circle on Walpurgis night or the night before May Day (Dugan, 2008).  Plant diseases caused by fungi were sometimes believed to be caused by witches, as exemplified by a decree by Pope Innocent the VIII who noted that witches cause crop failure.  Witches were also blamed for the poisoning of cattle, which itself was often the cause of grain fungi.   Witches were believed to use fungi in herbalism, and that least Inquisition documents indicate the beliefs that witches used puffballs in potions in Basque country, Amanita Muscaria is known as “Witches mushroom” in Austria, and witches in Portugal used a hallucinogenic mushroom called  Panaeolus papilionaceus.  There is also a Finnish belief that if someone is bothered by a kobald like creature, a certain species of mushroom was fried in tar, salt, and sulfur, then beaten, and the woman who controls the kobald would appear to release the creature.  In the Balkans, dried mushrooms were used to ward of witches by placing them in the windowsill (Dugan, 2008).   It seems that mushrooms have been associated with witches, mischief, powerful women, and misfortune.  Though, there are some exceptions.  For example, in China, the lingzhi mushroom or mushroom of immortality, was associated with Kuan Yin, the goddess of healing and mercy (Bertelsen, 2013).

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(Witches Butter Fungus- Image from Birds and Blooms)


There may be some actual connections between witchcraft and fungi.  For instance, there is a connection between ergotism and witch trials.  Ergotism is caused by the grain fungi, Claviceps purpurea.  The fungus colonizes cereal crops, producing nectar like droplets containing spores.  The disease is called ergot, the French word for spur, due to the rooster spur like shape of the fungus on the infected plant.  In medieval times, up to 30% of the harvested grain was actually fungus, due to wet weather conditions.  When humans or animals ingest the fungus many symptoms can arise.  The infected can feel intense heat over their body and lose blood flow to their extremities, causing the limbs to rot and fall off.  This condition was called St. Anthony’s Fire due to these symptoms.  The alkaloids produced by the fungus can also cause vomiting, diarrhea, the sensation of ants on the body, twitching, hallucinations, seizures, and distortions of the limbs.  Ergotism outbreaks occurred through the 1800s.  Peasants were vulnerable as they had to eat lower quality grain or could not waste the diseased grain.  Children were particularly vulnerable with 56% mortality in some outbreaks.   Historians such as Mary Matossian have hypothesized that witch trials and bewitching may have actually been the result of ergotism.  She argued that most witch trials happened in river valleys in southwest Germany and south east France, where cool and wet conditions would have promoted fungal growth.  Both places grew rye and peasants in the area would have consumed up to three and a half pounds of bread a day.  There was only one witch trials in Ireland, where grain was not grown as much.  Trials for witches often happened in the fall or winter following wet years.  Even the Salem Witch Trial followed this pattern as it occurred after a cool spring.  The symptoms reported in the witch trials were similar to ergotism and the fact that children reported these symptoms is also consistent with the fact that children are more vulnerable to the effects of ergotism.  It is interesting to note that in studying ergot grain fungi, Albert Hofman developed LSD (Hudler, 2000).  In any event, it is possible that outbreaks of ergotism were blamed on witches and a catalyst for witch hunts.

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(A vintage Halloween postcard featuring a costumed witch with fungi)

Beyond this association with witch trials, it is useful to dissect what a witch is.  A witch is symbolic for a women with power and knowledge.  For thousands of years, humans obtained an immense amount of knowledge from the natural world in terms of edible foods, useful medicines, dyes, animal movements, etc.  Because women had an important role in gathering foods, they had special knowledge.  Further, prior to the invention of patriarchy, women likely had important roles as religious or spiritual leaders, healers, and religions with goddesses.  Over time, with changes in social structures and the introduction of Christianity, the role of women was diminished and their knowledge was viewed as threatening and connected to paganism.  In this way, the idea of a witch is a way to diminish and persecute the traditional knowledge and roles of women.  Witches may be associated with mushrooms because of how mushrooms were used in healing and rituals.  Indeed, some fungi have healing properties.   Mushrooms are valued in Chinese cuisine, culture, and medicine.  Chinese medicine includes 100 species of mushrooms, including the wood ear mushroom which was eaten for its perceived improvement to circulation and breathing.  The health effects of mushrooms are only recently being discovered in the West.  Mushrooms contain polysaccharides, which boost the immune system and can be a source of protein, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin D, copper, and selenium.  Chanterelle mushrooms are 11 to 24% protein.  In contrast, the average potato contains 3.9% protein.  Mushrooms also secrete antibiotics (Bertelsen, 2013).  The most famous fungal cure is penicllin, but fungi are used in many modern medicines.  Beano is made with the fungi Aspergillis niger, which digests methane and in turn relieves flatulence.  Lovastatin and Pravastatin are both derived from fungi and used to treat high cholesterol.  Cyclosporin comes from a fungus and is used to suppresses the immune system for organ transplants.  Shiitake mushrooms may have cancer fighting properties (Hudler, 2000).  Gypsy mushroom may be effective against herpes, the steroids used in birth control come from fungi, turkey tail mushroom may be a treatment against hepatitis C, and fomitopsis officinalis has been used to treat tuberculosis and e-coli.  Midwives in Germany and Italy used ergot, the deadly grain fungus, to induce labor (Bone, 2011).  Mold was used by Chinese, Ancient Egyptians, and French to treat wounds (Hudler, 2000).  Of course, the benefits of fungi should not be overstated.  They may be hard to digest due to their chitin cell wall.  Some fungi are deadly.  Designating fungi as a superfood is a marketing ploy to sell more mushrooms.  However, the healing properties of many mushrooms may mean that witches were associated with mushrooms because healers traditionally used mushrooms as medicine.   By associating healing with evil and witchcraft, women’s knowledge, experience, and power was de-legitimized.  At the same time, through witch hunts and trial, women themselves were terrorized with violence and the threat of violence as a form of social control.

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Women and Mycology

It should be clear that one of the themes related to women and fungi relates to the value of the knowledge and work of women in society.  It is suiting then that the final point is how women have contributed to the science of mycology.  In this feminist narrative of history, women have probably been closely connected to fungi for most of human history as foragers for food and as healers.  With the end of hunting and gathering societies in many parts of the world, women took on new, but subservient roles in society.  Still, women continued to be connected to fungi through their preparation of food and role as caregivers, even if this labor was not given social importance.  This final segment of history is about women struggling to assert themselves in male dominated science.  Outside of the realm of formal science, women are often responsible for passing down knowledge of mushrooms to their children.  Even the science of mycology depending upon the knowledge of women.   For instance, Carolus Clusius and Franciscus van Sterbeeck, who lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, respectively were two of the the first pioneers in mycology.  These men relied upon the knowledge of wise women, known as herb wives, to obtain information about mushrooms (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  It is tragically ironic that when men were developing science based upon the knowledge of women, these very same women were persecuted as witches for their knowledge of nature.


Later in history, Mary Elizabeth Banning was a pioneer in mycology who sought to identify mushrooms in the 1800s (Bertelsen, 2013).  She identified 23 new species of fungi and completed one of the first guides to mushrooms of the New World.  She worked as a teacher to support her mother and sisters after her father died, but found time to pursue mycology, then associated with botany.  Men dominated professional botany, but women were sometimes amateur botanists.  For 20 years, she studied the mushrooms of her home state of Maryland at a time when there was only one book on American fungi.  She never earned money or recognition and was often viewed as a lunatic by those outside of the scientific community.  She did however correspond by mail with various scientists (Pugliosi, 2016).  Her life represents several barriers for women who wish to pursue science.  For one, she was burdened with care work for her family.  Her mushrooming adventures were limited by the constraints of caring for her family.  At the same time, her work was stymied by the fact that she also had to be a wage laborer as a teacher.  Her “hobby” as a scientist was an unpaid third shift.  While she produced useful information, she never published it out of lack of confidence and her outsider status to scientific institutions.

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(An illustration by Mary Elizabeth Banning)

In a similar but less tragic example, Beatrix Potter was interested in mycology and painted hundreds of scientifically accurate portraits of fungi.  She studied fungi under a microscope and presented a paper on fungal spores at the Linnean Society of London.  She began creating watercolor paintings of mushrooms at the age of 20 and sent her paintings to the naturalist, Charles McIntosh.  In turn, McIntosh gave her scientific advice and sent her specimens to paint.  Beatrix Potter also began studying lichens, which she wrongly believed were fungi rather than a symbiotic relationship between fungi, algae, and bacteria.  The mycologist, George Murray, rebuffed her, both for the position on lichen and her earlier work on spore germination, which he said had already been studied in Germany decades earlier.  Her paper was never published and she was told to make revisions.  Female students were not accepted into the society until 1905 and she was unable to present the research herself.   Her biggest contribution to mycology was her illustrations, which were used for fungi identification (Flemming, 2016).  Potter went on to achieve fame as a children’s book author and illustrator, but her scientific endeavors largely went unnoticed in history.  Again, she was shut out of a world controlled by men and men mediated her access and legitimacy within science.

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(Mushroom watercolor painting by Beatrix Potter)


With successes of the early women’s rights movement and other social movements, the social space within science slowly expanded for women.  In 1950, Elizabeth Hazen and Rachel Fuller Brown discovered Nystatin while trying to isolate antibiotics from Strepomyces noursei  (Hudler, 2000).  Nystatin was one of the first anti-fungal drugs and is used to treat various Candida infections such as diaper rash, yeast infections, and thrush.  Both scientists worked together for the New York Department of Health  and went on to develop two antibiotics.  Developing anti-fungal drugs is particularly challenging because, as it was noted earlier, fungi are closely related to animals.  This makes fungal infections harder to fight than bacterial infections.  Bacteria are simpler organisms, with a cell wall but not the complex cellular structures of animals and fungi.  This makes it easier to destroy bacteria.  Drugs developed to fight fungal infections may attack healthy human cells, as they are more similar (Staughton, 2002).

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Another contribution to mycology was the discovery of the cause of Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus that destroyed elm trees in Europe and the U.S..  The cause of this disease was discovered by a team of five female Dutch scientists (Hudler, 2000).  The source of the devastating tree disease was uncovered in 1921 by a team, lead by Johanna Westerdjik.  Westerdjik was a plant pathologist and the first female professor in the Netherlands.  She wrote over 70 papers on mycology and plant diseases and supervised over 55 Phd students, half of whom were women.  It was her student, Marie Beatriz Schwartz who isolated the fungus infecting elms and another student, Christine Johanna Buisman who developed Dutch Elm Disease resistant elms.  The project that she started continued until the 1990s.

 


“Moldy Mary” was another contributor to mycology.  Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin after observing mold attacking bacteria in a petri dish.  He hired a woman nicknamed “Moldy Mary” to collect moldy produce so the mold could be studied.  Her real name was Mary Hunt and she was a young lab assistant.  The molds that Hunt found were tested to determine if they were penicillin.  Some of the cantaloupes she collected indeed contained a culture of Penicillium chrysogenum and many modern strains used in modern penicillin come from her moldy melon (Hudler, 2000).  Another contributor to knowledge about fungi was Valentina Wasson.  Unfortunately, her husband, R. Gordon Wasson is more famous than she is for his research into the cultural relationship between people and mushrooms.  However, he was struck by the cultural difference between them when on their honeymoon, Valentina, a Russian, began collecting mushrooms.  He was terrified that they were toxic, a reaction that highlighted a difference between his American upbringing and her Russian upbringing and how that shaped their relationship to mushrooms.  The incident inspired the couple to research these cultural differences together and they authored Mushrooms, Russia and History in 1957.  They went on to travel to Mexico where they studied the relationship to mushrooms among indigenous people and went on to introduce psychoactive mushrooms to a mass American audience through Life magazine (Hudler, 2000).  Unfortunately, this attracted droves of Western visitors to the Mazatec community and especially to Maria Sabina, who was interviewed in their book.  Maria was investigated by the Mexican police for selling drugs to foreigners and had her house burned down.  Thus, while they examined cultural differences in the relationship between cultures and mushrooms, their work had a negative impact on indigenous people of Mexico.  Finally, as one last tidbit of mycological history, all button mushrooms, the mushrooms commonly used in pizza, salads, canned mushrooms, and cream of mushroom soup all come from a spore discovered by the Dutch scientist Gerda Fritsche in 1980 (Bone, 2011).

Mary Robeson aka Moldy Mary

A depiction of “Moldy Mary”

While women have made contributions to mycology over time, gender inequality in mycology persists today.   There are two times as many male members of the American Mycological Society as there are females.  Only 13% of the presidents of the MSA (founded in 1932) have been female, starting with Marie Farr in 1980.  MSA secretaries have been consecutively female since 1991, but treasurers have historically been men.  Various MSA awards have also gone disproportionately to men, although female students have won travel grants in greater proportion to their male counterparts.  The majority of published articles in Mycologia are written by men (Branco and Vellinga, 2015).  Mycology is not unique among the sciences.  The gender inequality within mycology is pretty comparable to similar sciences such as botany, ecology, and lichenology.  It begs the question of why women do not enter the sciences or when they do, they are not as active in leadership roles.


Oddly enough, I wanted to be a botanist when I was a kid.  I even went through a period of time in the 5th grade when I wanted to be a mycologist.  I attended science camp and continued to be interested in science through high school.  However, I think a deterrent for me and science was a lack of confidence and a fear of math.  Low self-esteem is pretty common among girl.  There are varying statistics on the occurrence of low self esteem, but if one believes the statistics put forth by Dove’s Self Esteem fund, as many as seven in ten girls believe they are somehow deficient.  If girls indeed believe they are not smart enough or capable enough, they may be deterred from science.  And, if they do enter the sciences, they still must contend with the social expectations of women, such as having a family, doing research, doing unpaid labor at home, etc.  This cuts into time spent for research or going to conferences and limits the ability to become leaders in their field.  They may also face sexism and sexual harassment in their work environment, like many women do.  Finally, as it has already been outlined, scientific institutions have not been welcoming to women in the past and have suppressed the knowledge of women.  Rationality itself is associated with masculinity, whereas femininity associated with emotions.  But, rather than viewing one as inferior or that reason and feeling are opposed to each other, they are instead, interconnected.  The drive to study the natural world, interest in research, dedication to a subject, and passion for science all come from an emotional place.


Conclusion:  

I am certainly not a scientist, but I hope that the presentation and accompanying hike provided a few insights about fungi.  Personally, I find fungi pretty fascinating and hope to learn more about them in the future.  That is the goal of feminist frolics, to get together, share knowledge, and hopefully open the door to future learning.  For thousands of years, the knowledge and experiences of women have not been valued.  I think that learning together and sharing builds confidence, community, and self-efficacy.  It is also a way to find a place in nature, science, and history.  Hopefully you will join the Feminist Justice League in future feminist frolics.  I think you will find we are a bunch of fun gals and fungi!

Mushroom Mother - feminist art poster hand finished in gold

A feminist poster called “Mother Mushroom”

Sources:

 

Bertelsen, C. D. (2013). Mushroom: a global history. London: Reaktion Books.

 

Bone, E. (2011). Mycophilia: revelations from the weird world of mushrooms. New York: Rodale.

 

Branco, S., & Vellinga, E. (2015). Gender Balance in Mycology (Rep.). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://msafungi.org/wp-content/uploads/Inoculum/66(5)%20preprint%20gender.pdf

 

Brones, A. (2015, May 17). Cupcake Feminism: Is What We Bake a Matter of Gender? Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://www.thekitchn

 

Charts by Topic: Household activities. (2016, December 22). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.bls.gov/tus/charts/household.htm

 

Crane, E. (2000). The world history of beekeeping and honey hunting. London: Duckworth.

Dugan, F. (2008) Fungi, Folkways and Fairy Tales: Mushrooms & Mildews in Stories, Remedies & Rituals, from Oberon to the Internet. North American Fungi, [S.l.], v. 3, p. 23-72, ISSN 1937-786X. Available at: <http://www.pnwfungi.org/index.php/pnwfungi/article/view/1062>. Date accessed: 11 Aug. 2017. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.2509/naf2008.003.0074.

 

Fleming, N. (2016, February 15). Earth – Beatrix Potter: Pioneering scientist or passionate amateur? Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160215-beatrix-potter-pioneering-scientist-or-passionate-amateur

 

Fungi – an introduction. (2009, October 27). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/dossiers/fungi-an-introduction/

 

Garibay-Orijel, R., Ramírez-Terrazo, A., & Ordaz-Velázquez, M. (2012). Women care about local knowledge, experiences from ethnomycology. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 8, 25. http://doi.org/10.1186/1746-4269-8-25

 

Hudler, G. W. (2000). Magical mushrooms, mischievous molds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 

Jones, G. (2009, November 19). Male to Female Ratios in Culinary School. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.reluctantgourmet.com/male-female-ratios-culinary-school/#context/api/listings/prefilter

 

Lucier, G., Allhouse, J., & Lin, B. (2003, March). Factors Affecting U.S. Mushroom Consumption (Rep.). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from USDA website: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/39489/30836_vgs29501_002.pdf?v=41414

 

Puglionesi, A. (2016, November 08). The Lost Mushroom Masterpiece Unearthed in a Dusty Drawer. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-lost-mushroom-masterpiece-unearthed-in-a-dusty-drawer

 

Staughton, J. (2016, November 18). How Are Mushrooms More Similar to Humans than Plants? » Science ABC. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.scienceabc.com/nature/how-are-mushrooms-more-similar-to-humans-than-plants.html

 

Tanner, P. (2015, February 20). A Debate About The Role Gender Plays in The World of Pastries-www.njmonthly.com. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://njmonthly.com/articles/eat-drink/does-dessert-have-a-gender/

My Adventures as an Egg Donor

My Adventures as an Egg Donor

H. Bradford

8/1/17

I remember when I was a student teacher, I taught a lesson on the social construction of gender.  A seventeen year old smarty pants wanted to argue that gender was not socially constructed.  After all, a woman can’t get another woman pregnant!  With a smile, I told him that I had, in fact, impregnated three women.  He was taken aback by this and retreated from the argument (which to him was really was more about biology than the social construction of gender).   The story of egg donation came up again tonight at Socialism and a Slice, a monthly meeting of local activists.  The topic was again the social construction of gender, but also the promise that reproductive technologies can usurp some aspects of biological determinism in reproduction.  Of course, reproductive technologies exist in a social context and I am not for the blind worship of science and technology.  Yet, at the same time, I like to think that someday technology can be used to grant genders/biological arrangements access to parenthood.


In 2007 and 2008 I was really struggling.  I had a large bill with St. Scholastica, was making less than minimum wage as an Americorps volunteer, worked two to four jobs, and was just beginning to pull myself out of the black hole that is depression.  My long experience with depression is another story.  But, to make that long story short, I spent a good portion of my 20s as a non-existent person.  I hid from the world, didn’t pay my bills, and waited patiently for death.  Needless to say, I had a lot of financial things to deal with once the clouds began to clear.  One solution to this problem was working myself in a demoralizing frenzy of drudgery to climb out of the hole.  Another solution, in addition to that one, was to donate eggs.  I began to look into this option.  The closest place to donate eggs was a hospital in Minneapolis.  But, it paid around $3000 if successful.  I filled out a long application.  I believe it was over 25 pages long.  The application was accepted and I was invited to the hospital to continue the process- which would include a mental health examination, health exam, and interview.


I believed that at any part of the process, I would be weeded out.   But, I am generally a pretty healthy person.  I have never smoked, drank alcohol, had a surgery, had a major illness, been hospitalized, tried an illegal drug, etc.  On paper, I seemed like a good candidate, as I have many hobbies, was a healthy weight at the time (they had weight restrictions), intelligent, driven, etc.  I even passed the mental health evaluation.  So, despite some struggles with anxiety and depression in my early 20s (which I can talk about later), they were not red flags.  I passed each barrier, which was great as I invested my meager resources at the time in traveling to Minneapolis for evaluations.  Finally, they took my photo and told me that I would be put on the roster of possible egg donors.  With a few weeks, I was told that I had been chosen to donate.   It should be noted that it was an anonymous donation, so I would never know the recipient of the eggs nor would that person know me.  I was simply donor number 306.

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The donation process was involved.  It first involved a visit to the hospital to go onto birth control pills so that my menstrual cycle would align with the recipient.  I was told to begin them on a certain date.  After which time, I would begin a series of injections.  I was given a large amount of hormones, as the goal was to make my body produce a dozen or more mature eggs.  I injected myself with Gonal-F once or twice a day, depending upon the stage in the process.  Towards the end, it was more and in all, I spent about three weeks taking hormones.   In addition to the Gonal-F injections, I also took injections of a medication that suppressed ovulation, simulating menopause (Lupron).   Beyond this strict schedule of injections, the process also involved early morning drives to Minneapolis, as my blood was tested for its estrogen level and I was given ultrasounds to check on the progress in my ovaries.  It was an intense time, as I would rush to the cities then drive back for work.  At the same time, towards the end, my ovaries felt like bags of marbles.  I felt heavy.  I am sure it was imagined, but I felt droopy and weighed down.  The first time that I donated was in November and I remember making a large Thanksgiving meal for my family.  I remember them attributing this to my mega dose of estrogen.  As if they believed that somehow I was magically domesticated by the hormones.  I was deeply offended.  Despite being pumped full of estrogen and in a fake state of menopause, I was not weepy, crabby, plagued by hot flashes, or somehow more feminine.  Really, I just like cooking things from time to time…hormones or no hormones.   I felt entirely like my self, just weighed down and worn out from the driving.  In any event, after daily trips to the cities for a week…the time finally came to donate.  I was given a dagger sized syringe and a date.  I was told to impale myself on my butt then show up the following morning for the extraction.  No eating.  No drinking.  The final injection was some sort of magic potion that would mature the follicles and release the eggs (HCG).

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I made several dishes for Thanksgiving this past year.  Not one of them was the outcome of my hormone level.


The extraction itself was uneventful.  I was put to sleep, a needled was inserted into my vagina, and eggs were somehow sucked out from my ovaries (I believe?).  The extraction process took less than an hour, but I was moved to another room to rest for an additional hour.  In all, around 15 or 16 eggs were removed.  Though, I believe that my second time donating, it may have been as many as 23.  These eggs would go on to be fertilized.  The most promising would then be implanted in the recipient.  The failures and duds would be destroyed with the option of freezing some eggs for later use.  Thus, I am responsible not only for three pregnancies (since I donated three times and each time resulted in a pregnancy), I am responsible for some abortions (depending upon how one defines such a thing).  Because of the large number, I was told that I was a good donor.  I also did not experience much pain or any complications after the first donation.  Again, I handled it pretty well!  I was given a check for my efforts as well as parting gifts from my recipient.  The first time, the gift included a card and some gift cards.  In all, it was pretty cool.  I used the money earned from three donations to pay off my car loan, put money towards my St. Scholastica bill, and a little money towards a trip to Cuba.


As I said, I donated three times.  The first two times were uneventful and largely successful.  But, I was kept on a pretty tight schedule.  Not long after I had donated the first time, I was asked to donate again.  And, once I had donated the second time, I was asked to donate a third time.  This is a pretty intense process.  It was a lot of driving.  It was a lot of early mornings in addition to working over 60 hours a week.  It was a lot of hormones.   It was a lot of sedation.  Plus, I was saving up for an expensive trip to Cuba.  In order to afford the trip to Cuba, I worked from March to June without a day off.  I have never worked that long of a stretch in my life.  I hope to never do that again.   Even with money from the donation process (which I mostly put to bills) I still had to save several thousand dollars for the Cuba trip.  And, my third donation actually happened shortly after this trip, so I was taking hormone injections while on vacation.  My third donation did not go as well.


When I awoke from sedation, I began having odd body spasms.  My arms and legs shook.  I felt nauseous.  The nurse and doctor asked if I had taken any drugs, but I had not done anything unusual.  Eventually this uncontrolled trembling stopped, though for the next week, whenever I was resting, I would spasm a little.  Because of this reaction, I was told that I could no longer donate.  I have no idea why this happened, but I felt angry at myself.  I felt angry at my body for betraying me.  Had I been a trooper…the kind of person who could soldier on through exhaustion and hormones…without complaint or complication, I could have donated my way out of debt.  I felt so upset with myself.   So, so, so upset!  But, three times was an accomplishment.  Perhaps it was hard on me.  Perhaps I was overly tired.  Maybe I was anxious.  Maybe I hadn’t been taking care of myself.  Why did the third time go awry?  I will never know.  But, that was the end of my short lived career as an egg donor.


Having gone through that experience, I have mixed feelings.  On one hand, I feel great.  It helped me pay off some debt and go on a trip to Cuba.  I also feel like I cheated evolution, gender, and biology.   In terms of evolution, success is passing on your genes.  I am not sure if the three recipients had successful pregnancies, but supposing that they did, this means that I may have three offspring in the world.  I may have more because of the high incidence of twins from IVF and the possibility that some eggs may have been frozen.  I cheated biology, since as a person who was born female, reproduction requires a lot of effort.  Raising a child requires a huge amount of resources and labor.  Thus, I feel that I am the equivalent of a brood parasite, such as a catbird.  I laid my eggs in some other bird’s nest and got to fly away, without effort or consequence.  Egg donation is a bit of biological trickery on my part.  Finally, I have suffered some gender dysphoria in the past.  It is not something I am particularly open about nor is it immediately obvious because of my feminine gender presentation.  In this regard, I feel that I transcended some of the limits of my gender and biology.  I was able to express both my gender and biology in a non-conventional way.   I’ve impregnated multiple women who I don’t even know.   I kind of felt like a stud.


On the other hand, there is a darker side to all of this.  Egg donation was hard on my body.  After the third donation, I actually developed wrinkles around my eyes.  The skin on my face became like crepe paper…very fragile and wrinkled.  It was an odd reaction that went away over the months following the donation (thus I know it was correlated with egg donation rather than with natural aging).   I also woke up convulsing on a hospital bed.  Then, I felt that I was blamed for this reaction (as I was barred from donating again and accused of taking drugs).   The reason why I donated was because I was in debt.  I was overworking myself.  My debt was related to my depression and the high cost of education.  In the context of capitalism, those who donate will always mostly be lower income women.   The cost of IVF is extremely expensive.  Thus, the recipients will always be women with access to money.  Of course, both women in the situation are oppressed.  Why do women feel that they must spend tens of thousands of dollars on reproductive technologies?  Why not adopt?  Why is going through the process of pregnancy so important?  I don’t blame the women for their choices nor do I look down upon these choices.  However, choice exists in social context and our society does tell women that motherhood and pregnancy give value and meaning to life.  Women who choose not to have children are seen as deviant, selfish, or of lesser character.  To make matters more complex, there are plenty of women with infertility issues who can’t afford IVF or adoption (which itself costs tens of thousands of dollars).  For instance, now that I am older and my fertility is waning, I know that would never be able to afford to have children through adoption or IVF.  It is plainly too expensive.  Additionally, why was I considered a “good donor?”  Partially because of supply and demand.  The demand is for young, educated, talented WHITE women, as most recipients are professional white women.  So, while I support reproductive technologies, in the context of capitalism and patriarchy, there is inherent exploitation involved.  I was so miserably poor I really didn’t care if there were medical complications.  I wanted a better life.  I became upset when my own body became a barrier to a better life.


Despite the negatives, I mostly draw a positive balance sheet from the experience.  I needed to pay off a bill with St. Scholastica so that I could further my education.  I have…furthered my education a bit too much…but it certainly opened a door for me.  I feel proud of my unique gender experience.  I feel smug about my place in evolutionary history.  I traveled to Cuba, which was a wonderful and educational experience.   I paid of my car early, improving my credit score and freeing up more spending money.   In all, I have little to complain about.  As for the exploitative nature of the situation, that could be mitigated by free higher education, living wages, universal medical care, etc.  It was certainly odd that I used money from the donation process to travel to Cuba, where education and health care are free, despite a much smaller GDP to work with and embargo.   As for the recipients, I am thankful that I was selected and hope that they have a happy family.  I hope that their children turned out to be smart, talented, well-behaved, thoughtful, independent, creative, angelic little creatures.  I hope that donor 306 was a blessing in their life and a mystery to puzzle, rather than an accursed brood parasite.

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Feminist T-Shirts: Severing the Thread between Capitalism and Feminism

 

Feminist T-Shirts: Severing the Thread between Capitalism and Feminism

H. Bradford

7/5/17


I’m not going to lie.  I like to wear things that advertise my politics.  It’s terrible.  It’s hypocritical.   But, it is also a way to tell the world that I am weary of the status quo and sometimes it’s a way start a conversation.  It is also an expression of self (which itself should not be idealized) and a message to others like me that they are not alone.  Recently, when I saw a really cool feminist t-shirt at a store at the mall, I really wanted to buy it.  I didn’t.  Still, I am not a saint and my wardrobe is made from the blood and sweat of exploited workers.  Thus, this piece of writing is not a call for people to be perfect.  Certainly, I have a lot of room to grow.  Instead, it is a call to analyze a disturbing trend in feminism with the hope that this knowledge can shape our organizational tools and demands.  The trend this piece examines is the rise of the feminist t-shirt and the accompanying ideology of corporate feminism.  To this end, this topic is July’s educational component of the Feminist Justice League’s “feminist frolic.”  Many topics have been discussed over the past year and it seems appropriate to explore how feminism has been appropriated by capitalism, while doing some small act to combat this trend: making our own t-shirts.


This year has seen an increase of feminist activism.  Locally, there has been an explosion of feminist events to partake in.  Nationally, between three and five million people in the United States participated in the Women’s March, making it the largest single protest in American history.  More people participated in the Women’s March than are members of the U.S. military.   This burst of feminist activism is certainly a welcome development.  Feminism is cool right now.  As a result of the rise in popularity of feminism there has been an increased demand for feminist t-shirts.  T-shirt with slogans such as “Feminist AF”, “The Future is Female”, and “Nevertheless, She Persisted” are a few examples of popular mantras this year (Spinks, 2017).  While it is great that feminists proudly wear their politics on their sleeve or chest, the trend is problematic in that it may ignore the working conditions behind the production of these shirts and reduce feminism to a profit making fashion statement.  For instance, in 2014 women at a sweatshop in Mauritius were paid 80 cents an hour to make t-shirts that said, “This is what a feminist looks like.”  In all, they earned less than $155 a month working at a factory which produced over 40 million t-shirts a year for Urban Outfitters, Next, and Top Shop.  Further, women who did not produce the quota of 50 shirts a day were subjected to discipline (Ellery, 2014).  At their meager wages, it would take the workers about 72 hours to buy one of the shirts produced at the factory.  The workers themselves share a cramped room with 15 other women.  The women often lived in the dorms for months without seeing their families overseas.  The iconic shirt was worn by celebrities and politicians, and was even featured in Elle magazine.  Astonishingly, the shirt itself was used by Fawcett Society, a nonprofit that promotes the labor rights of women.  When confronted by the conditions of the Mauritius factory, the non-profit argued that the garments were ethically produced (Bianco, 2014).

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The case of the “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt is appalling, but it is far from an isolated incident.  Beyonce, a self proclaimed feminist, also came under fire because the clothing in her company, Ivy Park, was produced at a sweatshop in Sri Lanka.  Workers made less than 65 cents an hour and would need to work over a month to afford the leggings that they produce.  Similar to the women from the factory in Mauritius, they worked 60 hours a week and stayed at a boarding house, as many came from rural areas (2016, Euroweb).   Dior sold a $710 t-shirt with the slogan, “We should all be feminists.”  The quote was from an essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer.  Some proceeds from the shirt were donated to the Clara Lionel Foundation founded by Rihanna (Ngabirano, 2017).  The investment of some proceeds of an over priced shirt to a celebrity foundation should raise some eyebrows.  All of these examples illustrate how corporations have sought to profit from the popularity of feminism, but also offer insight to the troubling nature of clothing production. Image result for dior feminist shirt


Globally, around ¾ of all garment workers are female (Spinks, 2017).  The garment industry has historically been dominated by women and has traditionally been very dangerous.  In the United States, one of the deadliest industrial accidents was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which took the lives of 123 women and 23 men.  The accident occurred on March 25, 1911 when a fire erupted in the 11 story building near the end of the workday.  A fire that is believed to have originated in a scrap bin quickly consumed the building.  There were no alarms in the building and the doors were locked to prevent theft.  Many people jumped to their death on the streets or elevator shaft, as the tallest ladder from fire fighters only reached the seventh floor.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is noteworthy because it radicalized the labor movement, generated demands for more safety regulations, and was important in the founding history of International Women’s Day.  Yet, little has changed since 1911.  While clothing production has shifted away from industrialized countries like the United States, the working conditions are is inhumane as a century ago.  The Tazreen Factory Fire of 2013 in Bangladesh illustrates this point.  The massive fire killed 112 Bangladeshi workers at the Tazreen Factory which produced clothes for Walmart, Gap, and Disney, among other companies.  Walmart refused to offer compensation to the survivors and families of victims.  Just like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the factory doors were locked.  Victims had to break windows to try to escape the inferno.  When a foreman told workers that there was a fire, a manager told the workers that there was no fire and they should continue working (Survivor of Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory Fire Urges U.S. Retailers to Stop Blocking Worker Safety, 2013).

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While there are many accidents each year in the garment industry, another startling example of the horrors these workers face was the Rana Plaza collapse, also in Bangladesh.  On April 24, 2013, the eight story Rana Plaza in Dhaka Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 workers in the largest garment industry accident in history.  JCPenny, Walmart, Benneton, and other brands and stores were connected to the garments produced at the factory.  Since then, North American companies signed a safety plan that they call Alliance to ensure safety standards in Bangladesh.  However, the accord has been criticized as industry driven and not transparent.  Companies must pay for inspections, but are not obligated to pay for upgrades related to safety concerns.  Instead, Alliance signees have financed loans to suppliers for safety improvements (Kamat, 2016).  This is surely a boon to brands who can make more money from loans than they can from investing their profits into safety improvement.   The safety issues are not a matter of bad luck, but characteristic of capitalist production.  Bangladesh is one of the cheapest places in the world to make garments.  It is number two to China in garment exports and employs 5 million people in the garment industry (Kamat, 2016).  The low cost of production comes at the expense of safety.  Since October 2015, 3,425 factories in Bangladesh have been inspected, but only eight have passed the inspection (Tomes, 2017). Image result for rana plaza collapse


Many feminists are mindful of the horrific conditions of the garment industry.  Officially, merchandise for the Women’s March was made and printed in the United States, but there were knock offs or other organizations which made have produced garments not made in the United States.  However, simply because a t-shirt was made in the United States does not mean that it was ethically made, since a t-shirt has many inputs (Spinks, 2017).  At the same time, Made in the United States does not necessarily mean sweatshop free as 50% of sewing shops in the United States fit the definition of sweatshops, i.e. they break one or more federal or state labor law.  85% of sweatshop workers are women aged between 15-25 years old (Feminists Against Sweatshops, n.d).  To make matters worse, even if a person purchased clothing from an ethical source, the cotton used in the clothing itself is made with extremely exploited labor.  In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, hundreds of thousands of citizens are mobilized to pick and grow cotton under the threat of loss of land, punishment, and public humiliation.  The governments of these countries maintain monopolies on cotton production, selling it at under the cost of production to remain competitive (Skrivankova, 2015).  US cotton is heavily subsidized, as US cotton farmers receive a total of about $490 million dollars in subsidies.  The Chinese government offers 8.2 billion dollars in subsidies to cotton farmers.  The large subsidies makes it harder for poorer countries to compete, which in turn increases the level of exploitation to maintain profits.  Beyond the human cost of this, there is an environmental toll.  Although cotton is grown on only 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, it uses 16% of the insecticides and 7% of the herbicides used in agriculture.  It also requires huge amounts of water.  In central Asia, this resulted in the destruction of the Aral Sea, once the 12 th largest lake in the world and now 10% of its original size (Organize Cotton, n.d.).  In India, where cotton has been cultivated for thousands of years, 400,000 children under the age of 18 work in the cotton industry.  Children are often employed in pollinating the cotton by hand to increase yields.  The children are said to have nimble fingers and girls are preferable to boys, as they require less punishment to work. (Neal, 2014).  Of course, these same arguments have been used to justify the exploitation of women in the garment industry.

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It is difficult to know the conditions under which a t-shirt is made or all of the inputs that went into the t-shirt because we are alienated from labor.  That is, in Marxist terms we are not in control of how things are produced.  A t-shirt might have labels that offer clues to the working conditions, but because we are estranged from production, we never see the entire process.  This makes it easy to mindlessly consume.  It also makes it challenging to ethically consume goods.  At the same time, consumers are individuals who exist in a social world.  Focusing on consumption atomizes social problems to a matter of consumer choices.  Thus, while it is important for feminists to consider where and how a shirt is made, it is also important to consider the dynamics in the world which produce exploitative labor conditions in the first place.  This is where the situation becomes far more complicated.


To begin to unravel this, let’s first examine the role of women in the labor force.  The vast majority of garment workers are women.  This is the case in 2017 as much as it was in 1917.  The relationship between women and labor is complex.  On one hand, women’s access to waged labor is a basic demand for gender equality.  Women’s entrance into the labor market has allowed women to support themselves without male support.  This was a historical gain for women, as it allowed women to access such things as divorce, their own housing, their own careers, etc.  That is, wage labor has allowed women to be something more than just the property or dependents of men.  However, it has also subjected women to harsh working conditions, sexual harassment, and lower wages than their male counterparts.  Women can participate in society, but they are still not equal and still dependent upon men.  Work alone did not liberate women, it simply subjected them to the oppressions that wage workers face, combined with the gender oppression of patriarchy.  Within capitalism, women continue to perform a larger share of unpaid labor, which has resulted in a second shift for women as they do unpaid household labor as well as paid labor.  Since paid labor is well, paid, it is given more value in society.  Unpaid labor is invisible and taken for granted as part of the role of women.  Thus, paid labor has also created a dichotomy between labor that matters and labor that does not.  The problem is not with wage labor, but the conditions of labor in capitalism and the challenge of connecting the struggle with women with the struggle for worker’s rights.  To make matters worse, wage labor v. unpaid labor has sometimes created an antagonism between women who work at home and those who do not.  These sorts of antagonisms are useful in blinding people to their common oppression.


Some writes such as Leslie Chang and Naila Kabeer have argued that waged work, even in third world sweatshops, liberates women.  It allows women to contribute to their families and find economic independence.  Schultz (2015) argued that this position ignores the dynamics that create the exploitative conditions in workplaces of the global south.  Free trade policies create a race to the bottom for wages and conditions, generating pressure for countries to have the cheapest labor or production costs.  Longer hours, lower wages, and greater environmental destruction are all outcomes of fast, flexible production.  At the same time, because of the lower social position of women, they have less ability to resist and organize for better wages or make demands.  Thus, they often make much less than men and find themselves discriminated against without much option for social mobility.  These exploitative conditions grant super profits to capitalists, while denying the most basic human rights to the workers (Schultz, 2015).  This dynamic answers why women are part of the garment industry to begin with.  It is an industry that seeks to profit by seeking out the lowest wage workers.  Women are not equal to men in society, which puts them at a disadvantage in the labor market.  Women in some developing countries may even be new to wage work, having instead grown up in communities that still earn a living from farming.  Since its origin, capitalism has pushed farmers off their land into wage work.  This dynamic is still at play in the developing world and will only increase with climate change.  Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change as it is a low-lying country that is often battered with powerful cyclones.  This creates pressure on rural populations to move to cities and seek work there.  Bangladesh was not always a major producer of clothing, but became one due to free trade agreements which incentivized a focus on exports, ended textile quotes, and set up export processing zones in the country.  This combined with war, famine, and natural disasters resulted in the development of its sweatshop economy.  So while sweatshops may provide women with jobs, the working conditions are not the inevitable growing pains of development.  They are instead constructed by trade organizations, trade agreements, and the larger dynamics of global capitalism.  The working conditions within the garment industry can be analyzed, understood, organized against, and changed. Image result for bangladesh union fight

(Bangladesh workers struggling for a union at the Orchid Sweater Factory)


While the right to paid labor is a basic feminist demand, this demand has also been used by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to justify women’s employment in export processing zones.  Export processing zones are free trade zones wherein businesses are exempt from taxes, tariffs, health and safety regulations, etc.  Since the 1960s, these special economic zones sprung up in Asia, spreading to Latin America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.  Once again, some feminists have argued in favor of work in EPZs as a means of escape from patriarchal family dynamics.  This argument is unfortunate because it accepts the inevitability of capitalist oppression.  EPZs do nothing more than replace the patriarchy of their family with the economic exploitation of capitalism.  Women who work at Haiti’s Ouanaminth free-trade zone making Levi’s jeans, face verbal abuse, beatings, interrogation, and threats with guns.  Women who work at EPZs in Mexico are subjected to health screenings for pregnancy, personal questions about their sex lives, short term contracts.  EPZs are only liberating in the same way that capitalism is liberating compared to feudalism (Eisenstein, 2015).  As absurd as it seems for a feminist to support sweatshops and EPZs, many feminists did not make the connection between Hillary Clinton and the exploitation of working women.   This is either symptomatic of the lack of anti-capitalist analysis in mainstream feminism or the fear wrought by the lesser evilism and abysmal candidates of the two party electoral system.  Hillary Clinton’s first high profile job was on the board for Walmart at a time when the company was enmeshed in a lawsuit over gender discrimination (Barrett and Kumar, 2016).  Yet, she was endorsed by NOW and viewed by many as a feminist candidate.  ⅔ of Walmart employees are women, and yet, during labor disputes, Clinton kept quiet while serving on the board.  She also accepted campaign donations from the Walton family which were much higher than the average wage of a Walmart employee.  She also bragged that welfare rolls had dropped 60% while her husband was in office, but this was not because of an accompanying decrease in poverty.  Clinton also supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement to open new markets for American business in Asia (Young and Becerra, 2015).  Bill Clinton supported the passage of NAFTA, which forced Mexican farmers from their land into maquiladoras, or sweatshops along the border with the United States (Barrett and Kumar, 2016).  Despite her support of policies which create the conditions for sweatshops and service to Walmart, which actually uses sweatshop labor, Hillary Clinton was viewed as a feminist candidate.

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Hillary Clinton was not elected president and perhaps it is unfair to target her more than any other ruling class candidate.  She is simply an easy target because she exemplifies “corporate feminism” so well.  “Corporate feminism” wants to see more women in board rooms and as leaders.  But this brand of feminism can never be intersectional and can never truly liberate women because it encourages women to partake in the exploitive mechanisms of capitalism.  Capitalism will never allow the feminist struggle to be intersectional as capitalism itself pits men against women, white workers against people of color and immigrants, etc.  The problem with the “Girl Boss” feminism is that girl bosses exert power over other women.  Consider the “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall street, wherein a young girl stands up to the iconic bull of the market.  The statue is meant to depict female power and send a message that there should be more female leaders in Wall Street.  Yet, this panders to the basest, most atomized version of feminism.  Feminism is not simply about girl power.  Bell hooks very simply defined feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” (Sow, 2017).   Feminism envisions women as leaders on Wall Street lures and distracts women from connecting feminism to other social struggles to end oppression.  One such struggle was the Occupy Wall street movement wherein thousands of protesters occupied parks and other public spaces in protest of the growing economic inequality in America, wherein the wealth of the top 1% increased 450% since the 1970s.  It was movement in protest of bank bailouts and costly wars.  Corporate feminism with celebrity endorsements and a women equality that is based upon an equal share in capitalist leadership, feeds into the oppression of women.  Of course, a simple t-shirt is not a statement of alignment with the ruling class, but it is a subtle and insidious expression of the corporate appropriation of feminism. Image result for occupy wall street


What is to be worn?

A woman should not be shamed if she choses to wear a feminist t-shirt.  Many people are new to feminism, may like the message, may not know about the labor conditions, may not have the money or access to other clothes, or any number of other reasons.  Feminism should not be a war against each other, but a war against capitalist patriarchy.  To this end, there are a number of things that are far more productive than policing the clothes worn by others.  Feminist organizations can certainly be mindful of where and how their t-shirts are produced, but the alienation of labor makes this rather difficult.  Feminist organizations can host events that involve crafting, clothing swaps, or DIY t-shirt making as an alternative to buying clothes.  This is a way to use recycle clothes while building community.  However, this is limited because it does not do much to challenge the conditions of capitalist production.  To broaden the impact, feminists can connect with anti-sweatshop groups or labor organizations.  This tactic can amplify the impact of feminists and feminist groups by challenging institutions through boycott and protest.  Connecting with labor organizations can broaden the impact as some may have connections to workers in other countries and may even be involved in organizing them.  The global organization of the working class is a key to improving global working conditions, as capital is extremely mobile.  Factories can easily move in search of the lowest paid, most complacent workers if workers try to organize for their rights.  The goal must be to make this difficult through solidarity and fierce organizing.  Beyond this, feminists can challenge free trade agreements and organizations and the status quo of American imperialism.  The ruling class should fear putting the word feminist on their shirts.  The word will not be a trend, but will spell their doom as part of the untamed, un bought, intersectional expression of the unyielding power of working people to create a better world.

 

 

 

Sources:

 

Barrett, P., & Kumar, D. (2016, November 4). The Art of Spin: Feminism, Privilege Politics and the Clinton Campaign. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Feminism-Privilege-Politics-and-the-Clinton-Campaign-20161104-0005.html

 

Bianco, M. (2014, November 05). There’s a Horrifying Secret Behind Those Trendy Feminist T-Shirts. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://mic.com/articles/103260/the-truth-about-these-trendy-t-shirts-reveals-the-biggest-problem-with-mainstream-feminism#.DTtsefqYW

Eistenstein, H. (2015, July 17). The Sweatshop Feminists. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/06/kristof-globalization-development-third-world/

 

Ellery, B. (2014, November 01). 62p An Hour: What women sleeping 16 to a room get paid to make Ed and Harriet’s £45 ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirts. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2817191/62p-HOUR-s-women-sleeping-16-room-paid-make-Ed-Harriet-s-45-Feminist-Looks-Like-T-shirts.html

 

Feminists Against Sweatshops. (2014). Retrieved July 4, 2017, from http://www.feminist.org/other/sweatshops/sweatfaq.html

 

Kamat, A. (2016, December 15). Bangladesh’s Factories Might Have Safer Buildings Now. But the Conditions for Workers Are Still Deadly. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.slate.com/articles/business/the_grind/2016/12/bangladesh_s_apparel_factories_still_have_appalling_worker_conditions.html

 

Neal, J. (2014, February 23). The task of protecting India’s child cotton pickers. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-26294513

 

Ngabirano, A. (2017, March 22). Are women being played by ‘feminist’ ads? Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/03/22/have-companies-taken-over-feminism/98706852/

 

The risks of cotton farming. (n.d.). Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://organiccotton.org/oc/Cotton-general/Impact-of-cotton/Risk-of-cotton-farming.php

 

Schultz, E. (2015, March 24). Exploitation or emancipation? Women workers in the garment industry. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://europa.eu/eyd2015/en/fashion-revolution/posts/exploitation-or-emancipation-women-workers-garment-industry

 

Skrivankova, K. (2015, October 02). Why you could be wearing cotton picked by forced labor. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/02/opinions/uzbekistan-turkmenistan-cotton/index.html

 

 

Sow, A. (2017, January 19). Buying Feminist Merch Is Not Political Action. Racked. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from https://www.racked.com/2017/1/19/14317912/feminist-merch-political-action

 

Spinks, R. (2017, March 7). Was Your Feminist T-Shirt Made by Factory Workers in Exploitative Conditions? Slate. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/3k8bav/was-your-feminist-t-shirt-made-by-factory-workers-in-exploitative-conditions

 

Survivor of Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory Fire Urges U.S. Retailers to Stop Blocking Worker Safety. (2013). Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.democracynow.org/2013/4/25/survivor_of_bangladeshs_tazreen_factory_fire

 

Tomes, J. (2017, April 24). Why cheap fashion remains deadly. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.dw.com/en/why-cheap-fashion-remains-deadly/a-38565592

 

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Young and Becerra, 2015

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