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Exploring Frida: The Sexuality, Gender, and Politics of Frida Kahlo

Exploring Frida: The Sexuality, Gender, and Politics of Frida Kahlo

H. Bradford

5/18/17

Each month, Pandemonium meets up for a discussion and pizza.  Pandemonium is a bi+ group in Duluth/Superior.  Past topics include bisexuality and domestic violence, different bisexual identities, bisexual poets, and other topics related to sexuality and gender such as homophobia and the plight of transgender prisoners.  This month, the topic is Frida Kahlo.  Frida Kahlo is an artist who captures the imagination of many women.  Like many people, I became familiar with her from the 2002 film starring Selma Hayek.  Perhaps she captures the imagination of women and feminists because of her iconic fashion, her relationship struggles, her rebellion against social norms, the personal nature of self-portraits, her physical and emotional pain, etc.  She captures my imagination because she was bisexual and a communist.  Because of my interests, the presentation will focus on her political, gender, and sexual identities.  The presentation itself draws heavily from Hayden Herrera’s (1983) biography “Frida, a Biography of Frida Kahlo.”  The nature of Pandemonium is to educate one another on a topic for the purpose of growing as a bi+ community and in these identities.  These presentations are peer to peer in nature and none of us our experts on the topics that we explore.  Hopefully the following provides some insights, but should be treated as an informal community presentation.  With that said, Frida Kahlo was a very political and sexual person and these two facets of her identity were both deeply intertwined, sometimes inconsistent, and often revolutionary.

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Frida was born and died in the Blue House, a house build by her father in 1904.  Her father was a photographer who was a Jewish Hungarian born in Romania, but who grew up in Germany.  Her mother, Matilde, was a devoutly Catholic Mexican woman from Oaxaca.  Frida was born in 1907, but changed her birth date to 1910 so that she could shared her birth date with the year that the Mexican revolution began (Herrera, 1983).  The fact that she changed her official birth date indicates her nationalism, or love of Mexico, which was evident in her artwork and fashion sense.  Frida wanted to be associated with the Mexican Revolution.  The revolution itself stemmed from various classes who were upset with the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.  Diaz came to power in 1876 after decades of foreign intervention and warfare in Mexico.  He is credited with creating a powerful centralized government in Mexico and ushering in an era of capitalist development.  Mexican exports increased by six times under his rule, the country went from around 600 km of railroad tracks to over 20,000, and the money in circulation in the Mexican economy increased by twelve times.  Mining industries, oil exports, and banking saw explosive expansion during this time period.  At the same time, middle class Mexicans were frustrated by corruption, cronyism, and lack of opportunities.  While Mexico became much more developed under Diaz, 70% of the population was engaged in agricultural work.  The countryside was heavily taxed, denied regional or local autonomy, and often subject to corrupt governance which arbitrarily fined and punished the population, often with forced labor.  In 1883, a law was passed with allowed landed elites to easily buy commonly held lands or lands without official titles.  This denied peasants the ability to support themselves, turning many into renters, servants to landlords, resident laborers, and sharecroppers.  At the same time, the working class grew with the development of the country, but like all workers, suffered harsh conditions.  The workers were often paid in scrip and also suffered the same harsh taxes and arbitrary law enforcement that peasants did (Easterling, 2009).  The full history of the Mexican revolution is too complicated and lengthy to explore in depth, but basically, Portofino Diaz re-election in 1910 but was challenged by Francisco Madero, a reformist candidate from a wealthy landowning family who won the support of the liberal middle class.  Diaz feared Madero would win the election, so he had him arrested and went on to win the election.  Madero was sprung from prison and escaped to San Antonio, where he promoted a more revolutionary message that promised land reform with the hope of inciting an uprising against Diaz.  The call for revolution was taken up by rebels such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who organized peasant farmers to fight the regime.  In May 1911, Diaz resigned and later that year, Madero was elected.  This did not end the revolution, as Madero quickly befriended members of the old regime and expanded the military in the interest in maintaining the status quo and curtailing rebellion for land reform.  Later, he ordered the destruction of land through scorched earth policies and war against the Zapatistas, or followers of Emiliano Zapata.  The U.S. actively supported anyone who rebelled against Madero, hoping to return some semblance of order to the country.  A 1913 coup against Madero thrust General Huerta into power, but his regime was short lived.  He was ousted from power in 1914, while various rebel factions continued to fight each other.  The next six years consisted of fighting between Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Obregon Zapata.  Carranza was elected president in 1917, created a constitution which tried to appeal to peasant demands, but was assassinated by Obregon in 1920.  Pancho Villa agreed to stop fighting after 1920, but fighting continued in various parts of Mexico until 1934.  In short, the world in which Frida spent her childhood was tumultuous and politically charged as various rebels and social classes vied for power.  This would have informed her early political views and shaped the opportunities available to her as a woman and artist.

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Painting of Zapata by Diego Rivera


Frida Kahlo grew up in a very political world, but had the privilege of growing up in a middle class family which encouraged her personal growth.  According to Herrera (1983) Frida enjoyed a close relationship with her father, who lent her books, taught her painting and photography, and encouraged her to learn about nature and archaeology.  Frida contracted polio at age six, so her father encouraged her to play sports such as boxing and soccer to strengthen her leg.  Her father had no sons, so it is possible that he looked to Frida to fulfill the role of a son.  Thus, she benefited from her father’s non-traditional expectations regarding gender, which allowed her to express herself through education and art.  Perhaps because of he lacked a son, Frida’s father encouraged her to attend the National Preparatory School.  At the same time, Frida benefited from opportunities in art and education that arose after the Mexican revolution.  Under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, Mexican intellectuals and leaders looked to Europe for cultural and economic inspiration and disdained indigenous Mexican culture.  The Mexican revolution sought to return Mexico to Mexicans through land reforms, nationalization of natural resources, and embracing native culture.  Frida attended the National Preparatory School just a few years after girls were first admitted.  While studying there, she was a member of The Cachuchas, a very loosely Marxist organization (Haynes, 2006).  This was her first introduction to socialism.  Interestingly, it was not art that she pursued as a student.  Rather, she studied natural sciences with the intention of becoming a doctor (Mataev, n.d).  While at school, she was described by her friends at the school as tomboyish.  Her closest friends were members of the Cachuchas, seven boys and two girls, who were interested in socialism.  However, they were better known for causing pranks at the school, such as bringing a donkey into a classroom and setting off firecrackers during a lecture.  The students were also voracious readers who discussed Hegel, Kant, Russian literature, and Mexican fiction.  This indicates that at a young age, she expressed her gender in non-traditional ways and was politically minded.  Her love life as a student also indicates the political nature of her early life.  While she was in school, she dated Alejandro Gomez Arias, the leader of the Cachuchas.  At the same time, according to her mythology, she was immediately smitten with Diego Rivera when he came to paint the amphitheater of her school.  Although she was a young teen, she told her friends that she would have his child and reportedly tried to trip him by putting soap on the stairs and stole a sandwich from his lunchbox (Herrera, 1983).  Rivera himself was a product of the time, a muralist who created political scenes of Mexican history, social movements, and workers.  If the mythology is true, Frida became infatuated with Diego Rivera when she was 15 years old and he was 36 (Collins, 2013).


In Herrera’s (1983) account Frida’s first relationship was with Alejandro Gomez Arias, but this biography offered scant details about her bisexuality.  Collin’s (2013) posited that Frida’s first sexual relationship was when she was 13 years old and unable to participate in phy-ed due to her earlier bout with polio.  Her health teacher, Sara Zenil, initiated a relationship with her, which was ended when Frida’s mother found her letters and transferred her to a different school (Collins, 2013).  This affair may have been true, as indeed Frida was suddenly transferred from a teacher preparation school to the National Preparatory School.  The letters indicate that Frida believed she loved the teacher and she was exited from the school.   Originally, her mother wanted her to attend the school as she wanted Frida to become a teacher, as it was a traditional job for women (Ankori, 2013).  According to an account from Alejandro, Frida was later seduced by a woman who worked at a library for the Ministry of Education.  Frida was looking for a library job to support her family, who had fallen onto harder times due to her father’s inability to find photography work.  Her parents found out about this and Frida reportedly told a friend that the experience was traumatic (Herrera, 1983).  It is possible that she was involved with two older women, both of which were discovered by her parents.  In both cases, her introduction to same sex relationships was embarrassing, traumatic, and unequal in power.  This history therefore isn’t a positive example of bisexuality, but an example of older women taking advantage of a financially and physically disadvantaged youth.


Trauma and suffering are prevailing themes in Frida’s life.  On September 17th, 1925, Frida was involved in a bus accident.  She was impaled in the pelvis with an iron rod and her spinal column was broken in three places.  She also broke her pelvis, some ribs, and fractured her foot and hand (Herrera, 1983).  She took up painting after the accident and said that she chose self-portraits because she felt so alone during that time period and because it was a subject she knew best (Haynes, 2016).  In reference to the trauma of the accident, she said she lost her virginity to the handrail.  She spent a month in the hospital and several months at home recovering.  During this time, she continued her relationship with Alejandro, but it grew strained as he accused her of being “loose.” In her letters, she admitted to kissing and dating others (Herrera, 1983).  This is an early indication of her flexibility concerning traditional monogamy.  During this time she dropped out of school due to her health and medical costs.  She began painting after the accident and her first painting was a gift for Alejandro entitled Self Portrait.  The two parted ways when Alejandro continued school and traveled to Europe.  Frida was briefly involved in a relationship with German de Campo, who was an anti-militarism and anti-imperialist student organizer.  He was president of the National Student Confederation and fought for academic freedom, a new exam system, but was killed while giving a speech in support of presidential candidate Jose Vasconcelos.  Germain de Campo introduced Frida to some of his friends, including Julio Antonio Mella, an exiled Cuban communist.  She became friends with Tina Modotti, a photographer, model, and communist friend of Mella’s, who later introduced her to Diego Rivera.  Once again, Frida’s love interests were often deeply political individuals.


In the 2002 film Frida, Tina Modotti was portrayed by Ashley Judd.  Frida and Tina shared a dance in the film.  According to DeMirjynn (2011), the audience, along with Diego Rivera’s character, watch the dance in approval, locating her sexuality within the male gaze.  The dance followed a drinking contest, which could be seen as a way to dismiss the legitimacy of her sexuality, as it was alcohol fueled.  The film highlighted her affairs with men, with little attention to her female attraction.  Diego Rivera actually played a larger role in the 2002 film compared to the 1983 Mexican film, Frida, Naturaleza Viva.  In the 2002 film, Rivera reacted negatively to Frida’s affair with Trotsky, but not at all to her affairs with women, rendering her queerness invisible or unimportant according to DeMirjyn (2011).   Herrera’s (1983) biography of Frida supports that Rivera indeed acted either indifferently or supportive of Frida’s affairs with women, but the book gives little attention to these relationships, also rendering that history invisible.  Rivera himself was amused by Frida’s lesbianism, as he called it.  Diego believed in free love and had many affairs, but he did not tolerate Frida’s affairs with men.  He encouraged or was open about her affairs with women.   Nevertheless, Frida did sneak men into her home, warning them that Diego might kill them.  For instance, Frida had an affair with the sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, but it ended when they plotted to get an apartment together for their rendezvous, but the bill for the furniture was accidentally delivered to Frida’s residence with Diego.  In Noguchi’s account, Diego threatened him twice with a gun and on one occasion he had to jump out of a window to avoid getting caught with Frida (Herrera, 1983).  Diego’s reaction Frida’s sexuality as well as how it is framed by some historians shows the trouble with how bisexuality is understood and treated in society.  Garner (2000) argued that men may not be threatened by female relationships because female sexuality is framed to exist for them or because women are inferior in society, they are not viewed as threats.  The relationships between women can therefore more easily be dismissed.

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The dance scene from the film, Frida


There is no denying the importance of Diego Rivera in Frida’s life.  Diego Rivera was a well known artist and communist when she met him.  Frida was a communist in her own right as well.  She was a member of the Young Communist League and while she is remembered for her feminine dresses, ribbons, flowers, ruffles, and indigenous styles, she actually had periods in her life when she wore more militant clothing.   After joining the Communist Party in the 1920s, she started wearing black or red shirts with hammer and sickle pins as well as blue jeans.  She also gave speeches, attended secret meetings, and attended rallies.  Diego actually depicted Frida as a communist militant in a panel of his mural Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution.  He portrayed her as a tomboy, with a man’s shirt with a red star on the pocket and short hair, handing out rifles and bayonets (Herrera, 1983).  This more masculine version of Frida demonstrates her flexibility in expressing her gender and openness about her political beliefs.  Her views of marriage were also less traditional.  Rather than a traditional ceremony, Frida married Diego in 1929 in a small civil ceremony in which she wore street clothes.  Her mother opposed the marriage, since Diego was an atheist communist and she was Catholic.  Her father supported the marriage, perhaps because Frida was his only single daughter, had massive medical bills, and the family could no longer afford their mortgage.  After the wedding. Frida moved into Diego’s mansion where two other communists lived.  Around this time, Diego had a strained relationship with the Communist Party over taking commissions for his artwork, relationship to government officials, his critique of communist trade unions, and his skepticism that countries would attack Russia.  His friend, Tina Modotti, who introduced the couple, remained a member of the Communist Party but denounced their friendship and called him a traitor (Herrera, 1983).   In a theatrical protest of his expulsion, Rivera attended the 1929 Communist Party convention, gave a dramatic speech, and smashed a clay pistol in a dramatic exit from the party (Morrison and Pietras, 2010).   Frida also left the party when Rivera was expelled.

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1929, the year that Diego and Frida married and left the Communist Party, was the same year that Stalin exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union.  Diego sided with Trotsky and pressured Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas into accepting Trotsky into the country after the revolutionary had been forced out of Norway and no other country would accept him (Tuck, 2008).   Rivera presented Mexican president Cardenas a petition for Trotsky to have sanctuary in Mexico, provided that he did not meddle with Mexican political affairs.  However, due to Rivera’s poor health at the time, it was Frida who met the Trotskys along with Max Shachtman and George Novak on November 21, 1936.  Trotsky reportedly refused to leave the boat until he saw friendly faces.  Trotsky and company took a secret train to Mexico City to avoid the GPU.  The arrival was complete with a fake welcome party at Rivera’s home.  Trotsky did not speak Spanish, nor did his wife, so Frida served as an advisor and escort.  Cristina, Frida’s sister, acted as a chauffeur.  Frida also had several of her trusted servants serve her guests.  Frida’s father had the impression that she esteemed Trotsky, as she described him as a companion of Lenin and a man who made the Russian revolution.  Time magazine reported that Natalia had malaria in January 1937 and Rivera had a kidney ailment (Herrera, 1983).  Perhaps these illnesses provided the opportunity for an affair to grow between Frida and Trotsky.  Revenge against Rivera for his affair with Frida’s sister may also have been a catalyst for the affair.

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Trotsky’s secretary Jean van Heijenoort noted that Frida and Trotsky’s relationship was obvious to many around them.  They would meet at Frida’s sister’s home and Trotsky exchanged letters to her through the books he loaned her.  They spoke in English to one another, excluding Trotsky’s wife from the conversation (Zamora, 1991).  Frida attended the Dewey Commission and sat closely with Trotsky as he defended himself against the accusations of the Moscow Trials.  Aside from this, the Riveras and Trotskys spent a lot of time together, doing picnics and excursions.  Trotsky began collecting cacti and horse riding.  Trotsky trusted Rivera, who was one of few people he saw without the company of another.  Trotsky and Frida likely began their affair after the Dewey Commission.  During this time, Frida was reportedly left out of theoretical discussions between Trotsky, Rivera, and the surrealist, Andre Breton.  This may indicate that she was not taken seriously as a socialist or dismissed as a woman.  She said that she didn’t care much for theory and that Trotsky didn’t like it when she smoked.  The affair ended in July 1937 and Trotsky moved out of the house.  He may have felt that the affair might discredit him and it certainly depressed his wife of 35 years.  Frida visited him at the new residents, which again hurt his wife, but Trotsky underplayed the visit in his letter to Natalia (Herrera, 1983).


Trotsky moved outside the city for a time in July 1937.   In recognition of the twenty year anniversary of the Russian revolution and Trotsky’s birthday, Frida gave Trotsky a portrait on November 7, 1937.  The title was Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky- Between the Curtains.  (Zamora, 1991).   Herrera (1983) believed that this portrait was a gift to Trotsky after the affair and represented a shift in Frida’s vision of herself.  The painting is seductive, mature, and confident.  In it, she is depicted in a butterfly printed robe.  She also completed a painting called I belong to my owner which depicts a rose and dry prickly flowers.  Herrera (1983) suggested that this painting may also represent the affair and how despite her flings, Diego owned her sexuality.  The affair with Trotsky marked a new period in her life, wherein she became more independent as an artist.  In 1938, coincidentally the year that the 4th International was founded, Frida came into her own as an artist.  She made her first significant art sales, selling four paintings for $200 each.  Upon making the sale, she said that she was happy that she could travel without Diego’s support.  In 1939, she traveled alone to New York for her first exhibition and began an affair with the photographer Nickolas Muray.  She also traveled to France, where she stayed with Andre Breton and became involved in the surrealist art community.  Despite the fact that she and Trotsky were no longer a couple and she never officially joined the 4th International, Frida attended Trotskyist meetings in Paris as a representative from Mexico.   She also had an affair with an unknown French Trotskyist.  It is also during her time in Paris that she met Trotsky’s future assassin, Raul Mercador (Herrera, 1983).

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Frida’s aversion to Trotskyism may have been more practical than political.  Herrera (1983) suggested that this is because the Trotskyist movement in Mexico was small, poor, and active in trade unions.  No one joined it unless committed to working for it full time.  Rivera joined the movement, but this may have actually strained his relationship with Trotsky.  There are several accounts of how Trotsky and Rivera had a falling out.  According to an account from Alfred Bildner, who stayed with Frida when she was hosting Trotsky and did some translation work for him, Diego and Frida had violent arguments with Trotsky in 1939, as they had adopted Stalinism.  Trotsky left their residence and moved a few blocks away (Bildner, 2004).   In another account, Rivera worked with Trotsky and in February 1938 signed a manifesto for the creation of an International Federation of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, for the purpose of resisting Stalinist domination of the arts.  In this version of the history, the political disagreements between Rivera and Trotsky were over the 1940 presidential election in Mexico.  Rivera supported Juan Almazon, a right wing candidate backed by Mexican fascists.  Rivera denounced Cardenas as an accomplice to Stalinists, which upset Trotsky, who did not want to antagonize the president who had offered him asylum.  The argument caused Trotsky to move out.  Yet, Trotsky described Rivera as fair minded and artistically genius, despite his political shortcomings (Tuck, 2008).  In Herrera’s (1983) version of their falling out, Trotsky sent a private letter to Frida asking for her help.  He said that Rivera was upset with him because he had suggested that he focus on his art rather than politics.  Trotsky had suggested this because Rivera wanted more responsibilities as an organizer, but did not answer letters or other mundane responsibilities needed in party life.  In the letter to Frida, he asked her for help in mending the relationship as he felt that Diego was an important part of the movement.  It is plausible that Rivera, who had a big personality and ego was personally offended by Trotsky’s lack of faith in his political abilities.  Whatever the case, Rivera’s relationship with Trotsky deteriorated.  He even gave Trotsky a sugar skull with Stalin’s name on it.

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Rivera and Frida’s marriage deteriorated not long after.  In November 1939, the two of them divorced.  This may have been due to Frida’s affair with Muray or any number of their affairs.  Frida returned to Mexico, painted prolifically, but also suffered from bad health.  In May 1940, Trotsky was attacked in an attempted assassination.  Following the attack, Rivera fled the country with the help of some friends, moving to San Fransisco.  On August 21, 1940, Trotsky was assassinated and Frida spent two days in jail with her sister Cristina.  They were believed to be suspects in his assassination.  Indeed, Frida had met Raul Mercader twice, but police did not find evidence of her involvement in the assassination (Herrera, 1983).  Following the assassination, she phoned Diego and said, “They killed old Trotsky this morning,” she cried. “Estupido! It’s your fault that they killed him. Why did you bring him?”  (Rogers, 2014)   A month later, Frida traveled to San Fransisco for medical treatment.  She later moved to New York and began an affair with a twenty five year old art dealer named Heinz Berggruen.  The two spent two months living together in a hotel.  Meanwhile, Diego Rivera proposed to Frida several times, wanting to remarry her.  In December 1940, she married him and returned to Mexico, as both of them had been cleared as suspects in the assassination of Leon Trotsky (Herrera, 1983).


Despite her initial upset over Trotsky’s death, Frida became increasingly pro-Soviet as World War II progressed.  At the same time, Stalinists shunned Rivera for his previous association with Trotsky.  Rivera tried numerous times to rejoin the Communist Party.  He applied again with Frida in 1948.  Frida was accepted and Rivera was rejected.  Rivera remained embittered against Trotsky and even asked Frida to sign her membership paperwork with a pen she had given Trotsky.  Frida refused to do this.  In her diary, she said that denouncing Trotsky was unthinkable, but she denounced him publicly anyway.  She called him a coward and a thief.  Diego even boasted that he only invited Trotsky to Mexico so he could be assassinated (Herrera, 1983).   Rivera’s connection to the assassination as been a matter of some controversy.  Rivera was friends with David Siqueiros, a fellow muralist who attempted to kill Trotksy in 1940.  It is also suspicious that Diego Rivera went into hiding following the attack.  He framed it as though he feared for his own life.  Rivera may have been a collaborator with the United States, according to research by Professor William Chase of Pittsburgh University.  According to FBI and State Department documents, while identifying as a Trotskyist, Rivera provided the United States with lists of communists and communist activities.   It is unknown if Diego actually collaborated with the FBI, but it is known that he was wire tapped by them while he was staying in San Francisco (Davidson, 1993).   In any event, the shadow of suspicion hangs over Diego Rivera, though Frida has not been identified with historians as complicit in Trotsky’s murder.


The remaining years of Frida’s life were marked with profound illness and a stronger association with communism.  Frida began teaching art and leftist theory to students of the Ministry of Public Education’s School of Painting and Sculpture.  She was said to treat her students as equal and recommend Marxist texts to them.  Some of her students were called Fridos and went on to found the Young Revolutionary Artists.  In 1944, her health continued to erode and she was diagnosed with syphilis.  In 1945, she wore a variety of medical corsets and could not sit down or lay down in them.  In 1950, she spent a year in the hospital.  As she grew more closely connected to the Communist Party, her art style changed.  She began painting still lifes and adopting realism.  She said she wanted her art to be useful and even boasted that she was a better communist than Diego, as she had been in the party longer and always paid her dues (Herrera, 1983).   In 1953, Frida had her first solo exhibition in Mexico, but was so sick that she had to be taken there in her bed.  Her leg was amputated later that year, which brought her tremendous despair.  She attempted suicide numerous times after her amputation.  Diego continued to have affairs with other women, including Raquel Tibol, whom Frida tried to kiss when she visited her bed.  Tibol was shocked enough to push Frida away.  At the same time, she developed a very close relationship with her nurse, Judith Ferreto.  Judith would sleep in her room, lay beside her in bed, hold her cigarettes for her, and sing her to sleep.  While the relationship may not have been sexual, it was one of her closest relationships during the time period, since her mental health, suicide attempts, pain, anger, and abuse of others alienated her loved ones (Herrera, 1983).   Frida created a painting called Marxism will give health to the sick, which was one of her last paintings and never fully completed.  The painting depicts her in her leather corset, near two large hands, an image of Karl Marx, a dove, and a hand around the neck of Uncle Sam.  Towards the end of her life, she tried to be more overt in the political content of her paintings.  The painting is meant to represent the healing power of Marxism, as she is holding a red book instead of crutches and healed by two large hands.  The original title of the painting was Peace on Earth so the Marxist Science may Save the Sick and Those Oppressed by Criminal Yankee Capitalism.   (Marxism will give health to the sick, n.d.).  Frida also painted a portrait of Joseph Stalin and became distraught when he died in 1953.  On July 2nd 1954, Frida attended a protest of 10,000 people against the U.S. supported coup against Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala.  Diego pushed her in her wheelchair through the crowd, where for four hours, she shouted “Yankee assassins, get out!”  She said that she wanted three things in life: Diego, to be a communist, and to paint.  The demonstration taxed her health and she died on July 13th (Herrera, 1983).

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When Kahlo died, her coffin was covered with a red flag with a hammer and sickle imposed on a star (Helland, 1992).  The International was sung at her funeral along with The Young Guard, the song played at Lenin’s funeral (Herrera, 1983).   Her life and death leave many questions.  She is remembered for her femininity, but she also wore her hair short and dressed up in suits and the clothes of workers.  After her divorce with Rivera and after he cheated on her with her sister, she cropped her hair (Herrera, 1983).  At the same time, her masculinity should not be attributed simply to the emotional states caused by Rivera.  After all, she had been remembered as a tomboyish child.  She was a girl who wanted to be a doctor and who enjoyed politics and her father’s company.  She wore men’s clothes in a 1926 family photo.  Thus, her gender expression was more than shadow puppetry in the darkness Diego created in her life.  While she is more well known for her affairs with men, she also loved women.   In her diary she wrote a love letter to the painter Jacqueline Lambda (Haynes, 2006).   Frida also had relationships with actresses Dolores del Rio and Paulette Goddard.  Frida flirted with Georgia O’Keefe at Stieglitz’s gallery.  Diego Rivera reportedly supported Frida’s affairs with women, but felt threatened by those with men.  Garber (2000) suggests that this may have been because he was turned on by the idea of two women together or because he was insecure that he was twenty years older than her and could not satisfy her sexual appetite.  Whatever the case, her sexuality is always understood in the context of men.  In her own words she said, “Men are kings.  They direct the world (Herrera, 1983, p. 250).”  Trotsky and Rivera were certainly give more attention in this research.  They were masters of the world of politics and art.  Further, Frida’s relationships with women are less known.  They are left out of the narrative of her life for lack of information.  After Frida died, her friends edited and destroyed parts of her diaries.  It is possible that this aspect of her life was destroyed or edited out of history or because of biphobia and homophobia, for decades it was underplayed and under researched.  Beyond sexuality and gender, is her troublesome association with Stalinism and her affair with Trotsky.  She denounced a man who she both slept with and offered safety to.  While it seems that her political decisions were certainly connected to Diego, she was a communist before she met him and it insults her intelligence to suppose that she blindly followed him politically.  Surely he influenced her political life, but she had enough agency to declare herself a better communist and paint Stalin from her deathbed.

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Haynes (2016) noted that one theme from Frida’s life was duality, which is seen in both her art and her life.  An example in her art is the painting, The Two Fridas wherein she depicts two versions of herself, each sharing a heart.  They are dressed differently and in different poses to represent her European identity and the other her Mexican identity, as she was the daughter of a German/Hungarian Jew and a part Native American catholic mother.  The image also represents her emotional side and rational side.  Frida’s gender expression and sexuality may also be described as “in between.”  While her clothes are often feminine dresses, her unibrow, facial hair, and stern expression may be seen as masculine.  As a young adult, she wore suits and after a split with Rivera, she cropped her hair and resumed wearing suits (Haynes, 2016).  Frida actually depicted herself as more masculine during the 1940s, darkening her mustache in portraits of that era (Garber, 2000).  Another duality is her bisexuality, or betweenness in regard to her attraction to men and women.  Bisexual themes have been interpreted in Frida’s art.  For instance, Two Nudes in the Forest, depicts two naked women in the forest.  A darker skinned woman has her hand on the neck of a lighter skinned woman, as a monkey watches from the forest.   The painting was created for Dolores Del Rio, a Mexican actress, around the time she was going through a divorce with Rivera (Collins, 2013).  Delores Del Rio, like many of the women in Frida’s life, was powerful, beautiful, non-conventional, and pioneering.  She was the first Latina actress to become famous in Hollywood, though less political than many of Frida’s other love interests.  Josephine Baker was another love interest, and again, a pioneering woman.  She was the first Black woman to become a world famous entertainer.  She had communist sympathies and performed in Cuba on the 7th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and later in Albania and Yugoslavia.  She also was a leader in the NAACP and an organizer in the Civil Rights movement.  Certainly, Baker more politically interesting and historically important than Diego Rivera.  But, specific details regarding their relationship is harder to find, likely owing to the fact that they lived in a world that was hostile to same sex relationships.  Finally, in a way, Frida’s relationship to Diego might be seen as a relationship between two gender non-conforming individuals. Diego Rivera was woman-like in Frida’s eyes.  He was a large man and Frida said that he would have been welcome on the island of Lesbos.  She said she loved his large breasts and pink, oversized underwear, which he wore due to his enormous girth (Herrera, 1983).

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Politically, Frida’s life was full of duality.  Not only was she at varying times pulled between Trotskyism and Stalinism, according to Helland (1992) she was pulled between Marxism and nationalism.  Frida lived in a time where Marxism and Mexican nationalism were both popular.  Mexican nationalism consisted of an idealization of Aztec culture, an interest in Mexican history, mixed with anti-Spanish and anti-imperialism.   Kahlo used Aztec inspired images in her artwork, such as hearts and skeletons.  Unlike Rivera, she did not identify with the internationalism of Trotskyism and did not create as many traditionally socialist styled pieces of art.  Nationalism may have been why she identified with Stalinism.  Many of her paintings critique the United States, such as her Self-Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States, wherein the United States is depicted as highly industrial and robotic, and Mexico is depicted as agricultural and and pre-industrial.  Frida died with an unfinished portrait of Stalin on her easel and near her bed were pictures of Marx, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, and Engels (Helland, 1992).  While she did not overtly call herself a feminist, feminists admire Kahlo because of the themes of female experience in her paintings, such as birth, miscarriage, and unhappiness in love.  Frida might be looked upon as a feminist for her experiences with abortion.  While she later described the incident as a miscarriage, in 1932, she wrote in her diary of a self-induced abortion using quinine.  She also sought a medical abortion due to concerns for her reproductive health after her accident and experienced a miscarriage.  She was denied an abortion, so she sought to self-perform one.  Dr. Pratt informed her that she could have a child and deliver it through c-section.  Interestingly, her abortions have been reframed by historians as miscarriages.  While she is believed to have regret not having children, she may have cultivated this belief in order to conform to social norms of the day and because motherhood was central to Mexican woman identity at the time.  Her poor health may have been used to legitimize this decision.  Abortion was illegal in the United States and Mexico at the time (Zetterman, 2006).  A duality was her longing for reproduction, her love of children, but her inability to have them.  Finally, she is quoted as saying that she detested surrealism as bourgeoisie art, but she also rejected the socialist realism sanctioned by the Soviet Union  (Helland, 1992).  Thus, her art is another duality.  She was embraced by surrealists, but also had elements of realism.  Finally, her art itself contrasts with her politics, as she was a socialist who was deeply interested in herself or own individuality.


Frida Kahlo was a complicated and fascinating person.  The magnetism and mystery that drew people to her in her own time continues to attract audiences to her art and history.  There are so many facets of her life and personality to uncover.  This piece barely explores her political life, faintly reviews her sexual life, and only hints at her gender.  Like others, this research makes the mistake of focusing too heavily on her relationships with men.   Of course, bisexuality does not necessarily mean equal attraction to men and women.  The emphasis on her male relationships is not a problem with Frida’s sexuality or does not in anyway diminish her bisexuality.  Rather, it is a problem with the male focus of society and by extension, historians.  As a bisexual Trotskyist, I was certainly interested in that aspect of her life.   But, this focus runs the risk of creating a narrative that relationships with women or women themselves are unimportant.  Despite these shortcomings, it is my hope that it offers a few tidbits of insight to those who attended our monthly meeting and raises new questions about her.


Sources:

Ankori, G., & A. (2013). Frida Kahlo. London: Reaktion Books.

Bildner, A. (2004). Diego, Frida, and Trotsky. Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies.

 

Collins, A. F. (2013, September 17). Frida Kahlo’s Diary: A Glimpse Inside Her Tortured, Scribble-Happy World. Retrieved April 06, 2017, from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/1995/09/frida-kahlo-diego-rivera-art-diary

 

Davison, Phil. “Diego Rivera’s Dirty Little Secret.” Independent 25 Nov. 1993

 

DeMirjyn, M. (2011). “The Queer Filming of Frida”: Creating a Cinematic Latina Lesbian Icon. Praxis, 23(1).

 

Easterling, S. (2013, March). Mexico’s revolution 1910–1920. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://isreview.org/issue/74/mexicos-revolution-1910-1920

 

Haynes, A. (2006). Frida Kahlo: An Artist’In Between’. In Conference Proceedings–Thinking Gender–The NEXT generation.

 

Helland, J. (1992). Culture, politics, and identity in the paintings of Frida Kahlo. The expanding discourse: Feminism and art history, 397-408.

 

Herrera, H. (1983). Frida, a biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: Perennial.

 

Garber, M. B. (2000). Bisexuality and the eroticism of everyday life. New York: Routledge.

 

Mataev, O. (n.d.). Frida Kahlo Biography. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://www.abcgallery.com/K/kahlo/kahlobio.html

 

“Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick – by Frida Kahlo.” Frida Kahlo.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. <http://www.fridakahlo.org/marxism-will-give-health-to-the-sick.jsp&gt;

 

Morrison, J., & Pietras, J. (2010). Frida Kahlo. New York: Chelsea House.

 

Motian-Meadows, M. (n.d.). Kahlo As Artist, Woman, Rebel. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/2782

 

Rogers, L. (2014, April 30). Frida’s Red Hot Lover. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from https://lisawallerrogers.com/2009/06/10/fridas-red-hot-lover/

 

Tuck, J. (2008, October). Rebel without a pause: the tempestuous life of Diego Rivera. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/306-rebel-without-a-pause-the-tempestuous-life-of-diego-rivera

 

Two Nudes in the Forest. (n.d.). Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://www.fridakahlo.org/two-nudes-in-the-forest.jsp

 

Zamora, M. (1991). Frida Kahlo: the brush of anguish. Tokyo: Libroport.

 

Zetterman, E. (2006). Frida Kahlo’s abortions: With reflections from a gender perspective on sexual education in Mexico. Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, 75(4), 230-243.

 

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Trashy Women: What does Garbage Have to do with Feminism?

Trashy Women: What does Garbage Have to do with Feminism?

H. Bradford

4/14/17


Each month the Feminist Justice League (formerly the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition) hosts a feminist frolic.  The goal of these events are to build community, educate one another, grow in our feminism, and enjoy the outdoors.  Our frolics are not well attended, but I think they are worthwhile since they challenge me to educate myself and others.  This month, we will be doing geocaching and trash collection at a local park.  This is a great way to learn how to geocache while engaging in environmentally focused volunteerism.  However, I was uncertain about the educational component of the activity.  I wanted to connect trash collection with feminism, which honestly, is not a topic that I have ever given any consideration.  Thus, this essay is an attempt to unify feminism with trash. s-l225


Trash in the Context of Capitalism:

First of all, it is useful to frame the problem.  Each person in the United States produces about 4.3 pounds of solid waste a day, amounting to 243 million tons a year.  Of this, in 2009, 1.5 pounds of waste per person per day was recycled (Pearson, Dawson, and Breitkopf, 2012).  The United States produces the most waste of any country in the world.  Though, waste production and disposal is a global problem.  The more industrialized and urbanized a country becomes, the more waste it produces.  For instance, before 1980 in Katmandu, Nepal, 80% of household waste was derived from kitchen waste.  This was disposed of through composting pits.  With increased urbanization and industrialization, there has been an increase of non-compostable waste, but the country lacks the waste management infrastructure to attend to it.  Thus, it ends up in rivers, roadsides, and vacant lots (Bushell and Goto, 2006).  Similarly, owing to increased development and economic growth, China has become the second largest producer of waste in the year. China has a population that is four times greater than that of the United States, but still produces less waste.  While we produce over 250 million tons of waste by some estimates, China produces 190 million tons.   Although China produces the second most amount of waste, it is important to note that like Nepal, much of that waste is food waste.  In China, 70% of the waste that is produced is food waste.  Typically, in developed countries, about 20% of waste is food waste (Van Kerckhove, 2012).  Thus, it can generally be said that the United States produces a lot of waste, as all developed countries do.  Development can be connected to waste production.  At the same time, as a country develops, the type of waste it produces changes from mostly food wastes to other wastes.


It may be easy to blame development itself on the production of waste, but this is not entirely true.  Waste is the outcome of development within capitalism.  Consider for a moment that U.S. supermarkets throw away 2.5 million tons of food a year.  This number is obscene, considering that many people in our country go hungry or lack access to food.  Why would so much food go to waste?  Capitalist production seeks to produce value.  This sounds a bit complicated, but consider that everything is given value from labor.  Labor is invested into the production of everything, though because of alienation from labor, the labor that went into each product or service is fairly invisible to most of us.  In strictly Marxist economic sense, the value of something is the amount of labor that went into the production of something.  Thus, an apple’s value could be expressed in minutes or hours of labor invested in caring for the apple tree, picking the apple, shipping the apple, or arranging the apple in the produce section at a store.  All of the food at a grocery store that is thrown away, certainly has use value to the hungry, but also value in the generic labor sense.  Throwing out food means discarding the labor that went into it.  This seems terribly inefficient in the sense that people go hungry and that this seems to squander labor.  But, capitalism is a system that really doesn’t care about hunger or waste.  Capitalist production is entirely geared towards valoration or the accumulation of capital.  Again, this is a little complicated.  Valorization entails trying to extract more value from labor by increasing production.  All profits come from the excess surplus value from labor.  By producing more, a capitalist hopes to extract more profits from labor.  The bottom line is that meeting human needs is not the goal of capitalist production,  the goal is profits.  Since acquiring more profits from surplus value requires more production, capitalist production results in a wasteful treadmill of production.  That is, in the interest of profits, the economy produces more than what can be sold.  What can’t be sold is discarded as waste.  Most products are not recycled, not because people choose not to recycle, but because recycling is not profitable.  This is because recycling may involve costly inputs (constant capital) and the end product may not be made into a commodity that is sought after or imbued with as much value as the original commodity (Yates, 2015).  In short, one way that capitalism seeks to increase profits is through more production and all of this production creates waste.  Recycling of waste is not always profitable, due to such things as costly capital inputs and diminished value.  This is why as countries develop within capitalism, they produce more waste.


Another aspect of capitalist development is that not all countries develop equally.  Almost all of the world was colonized by a few European countries.  Colonies developed economies that supported the development of their colonial masters by providing cheap raw materials, cash crop economies, export based economies, markets for goods, cheap labor, etc.   After these colonies fought for and gained their independence, they remained dependent on their former colonial masters through institutions such as the WTO, World Bank, and IMF, as well as fair trade agreements and military interventions.  These systems have stymied development in former colonies.  At the same time, capitalism itself makes development challenging since these countries must compete with the already highly advanced economies of former colonial powers.  It is no wonder then that more than half of the world’s population does not have access to waste collection (Simmons, 2016).   In much of the world, impoverished people make a living from rubbish.  In Beijing alone, 160,000- 200,000 people work as scavengers, who pick through the trash in search of recyclables they can sell.  While China is the second largest producer of waste, is also the world’s largest waste importer, importing all of the waste paper products from the east coast of the United States and ⅓ of the UK’s recyclables.  In turn, the United States imports 11.6 million tons of recycled paper and cardboard from China (Van Kerckhove, 2012).  This phenomenon represents a few aspects of capitalism.  Once again, capitalism is extremely wasteful if it is actually more profitable to ship recyclables back to China to be shipped back to the United States.  Secondly, capitalism creates a lot of “have nots” in the world.  These “have nots” survive from the waste produced in our country and their own.

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How are these countries faring today?


Capitalism produces both waste and poverty.  Poverty and waste intersect in terrible ways.  For instance, uranium was mined on Navajo lands to produce nuclear weapons during the Cold War.  The nuclear waste was not disposed of properly and resulted in contamination of land, increased rates of cancer, and birth defects.  Various studies have found that Native American are more impacted by pollution than other groups.  For example, Native Americans are more likely to live by toxic waste dumps, have their communities be targeted as sites for nuclear waste disposal facilities, and live near superfund sites than other groups (Lynch, 2014).  Owing to the long history of genocide, racism, trauma, and the fact that one in four Native Americans live in poverty, they have less political and economic power to fight the outsourcing of pollution to their land and fight corporate power.  All poor people, ethnic minorities, and other oppressed groups are less valued in society, have less power, and are more likely to face the negative environmental consequences of capitalism.


Another way that poverty intersects with waste is that waste recycling generates income to low income individuals, which puts them at risk of exposure to pollutants.  One example of this has been the boom in electronic waste.  Electronics is one of the fastest growing types of waste in the world.  Although it only accounts for 5% of municipal waste, it is the most lucrative kind of waste because it can yield iron, gold, silver, copper, aluminum and rare earth metals.  Thus, e-waste recycling appeals to impoverished people in need money.  At the same time, the recycling process can expose workers to lead, mercury, flame retardants, and plastic chemicals.  The chemicals, elements, and compounds in e-waste are known to impact brain development in children and overall lifespan, thereby wrecking not only the health of the workers but their children and communities.  Once again, global inequalities shape where e-waste ends up, as  the United States is the number one producer of e-waste but China and Africa end up with 80% of the world’s used electronics.  There are often fewer waste and labor regulations in many of these countries.  At the same time, there are incentives to have fewer regulations since it makes the labor cheaper and economic conditions more appealing to foreign investors (Heacock, Kelly, Kwadwo Ansong, Birnbaum, Bergman, Bruné, and Sly, 2016).


Poor people and poor countries are often blamed for environmental problems.  Environmentalists often blame population growth on environmental problems.  As such, it is easy to look to the large populations of the less developed world and see future car owners, fast food eaters, and mall shoppers.  It can’t be Christmas everyday and certainly not all over the world!  It is easy to look at the developing world and see waste and pollution.  In the United States, our garbage is collected by professionals and carted away to some place out of the sight of most middle class white people.  Elsewhere, more than 40% of the world’s garbage ends up in illegal or unregulated waste dumps (Simmons, 2016).  Sometimes poor people or people from the developing world are blamed for not disposing of trash properly, perhaps because of lack of environmental education.  However, in a study of 1,512 Hispanic women living in southern Texas, the women who were less acculturated, which was measured by a self-report of use of English at home, with friends, with children, etc. were more likely to be engaged in recycling.   Researchers believed that perhaps this is because the women were more engaged in informal recycling in their home country, such as sharing clothes or recycling bottles for vases.  It is also possible that they are more aware of environmental problems that they were exposed to in their home country (Pearson, Dawson, and Breitkopf, 2012).  This is one small study, but it should be used to dispel the idea that white people of the developed world are more enlightened about the environment.  We are the ones creating the most waste, despite our smaller population.  Again, the problem is production not population.


To summarize these points thus far, capitalism is driven by profits rather than health and human needs.  It is also driven towards production in the interest of generating more profits.  This is inherently wasteful.  Not only is capitalism wasteful, it creates and supports inequalities on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, etc.  It also creates and supports inequalities between entire nations, in which a few countries are highly developed, but the vast majority exist on the periphery as supports to more advanced economies.  Poor people and poor nations are more likely to endure the negative consequences of the world’s waste, even if they are not the world’s biggest producers of waste.  As a final point on the topic of capitalism, it is important to note that many environmentalists blame consumers and consumerism for the amount of waste.  Certainly consumers do play a role in buying and discarding products.  However, this framework ignores capitalist production, which arguably seeks endless productive growth and by extension, endless waste.  Products themselves are not designed to be long lasting or durable.  This phenomenon is called planned obsolescence and means that production will always chug along because nothing lasts, parts can’t be replaced, and nothing remains trendy in capitalism.  Planned obsolescence is not a term invented by anti-capitalists, but by capitalists themselves who noted that production must continue to avoid economic stagnation.  Goods are created to be replaced.  This is why a car only lasts for 150,000 – 200,000 miles.  It is not because it is impossible to design a better car, but that the effort to design such a car is not incentivized by capitalism.  It is better to produce a car that lasts a few years and then must be replaced by a newer model.  In addition to the waste generated by the drive towards more and new products, corporations spend trillions of dollars on advertising to convince people to buy things.  This results in wasteful products, packages, ads, and production.  Finally, while consumer waste is astounding, it pales in comparison to industrial waste and military waste.  Household waste only makes up 2.5% of U.S. solid waste.  97.5% of the waste actually comes from businesses and the government (Butler, 2011).  The military plays an important role in destroying competitors, opening up new markets, consuming products, providing jobs, silencing countries and groups who do not agree with our way of things, and other functions that help capitalism continue.  It can easily be said that the production of waste is not only a side effect of capitalism, it is in many ways central to its functioning.

Apple-Planned-Obsolescence

 


 

Trash in the Context of Patriarchy:

Today, the Feminist Justice League is collecting trash.  I would like to dissect that for a moment to understand the role of patriarchy in all of this.  I have already established that capitalism creates waste and that minorities and poor people are affected more by this than groups with more power.  At the same time, globally and in the United States, women are more likely to be poor than men.  Women have less social and political power and are less valued in society.  Because of oppression, women are also more susceptible to the negative impacts of waste.  For instance, Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs are flame retardant compounds used in construction, electronics, motor vehicles, furniture, etc.  They have a tendency to accumulate up the food chain, resulting in higher levels of PBDEs in human beings.  As such, the European Union and United States have banned the use of some of these compounds.  This is not the case in the developing world, again, because of global economic pressures which reward government deregulation in lower income countries.  It is estimated that 20-50 million tons of electronic waste is produced throughout the world each year.  A single electronics recycling plant in Taizhou, China dismantles over two million tons of electronics alone and employs over 40,000 people.  As a result, snails, mud, poultry, plants, and the air around the facility had significantly high levels of PBDE’s.  When researchers took breast milk samples from women living near the facility between 2012 and 2013, they found that their PBDE levels were twice as high as samples from developed countries, higher than other parts of China, and even higher than women living near other recycling plants.  Infants exposed to higher levels of PBDEs can have reduced memory and motor functions (Li, Tian, Ben, and Lv, 2017).   In China, migrant workers from rural areas and ethnic minorities are groups often involved in this kind of labor.  However, in India, women of the Dalit caste may find themselves living near waste sites or engaged in recycling.  Women are the lowest of the low in both social contexts, so they are more likely to find themselves doing low paying, highly exploited work.  In addition to problems that infants exposed to chemicals face, women may experience fertility issues, cancer in reproductive organs, autoimmune disease,  and spontaneous abortion if exposed to heavy metals, flame retardants, and other toxins (Mcalister, Mcgee, and Hale, 2014).  Pollution itself has also been linked to the shortening of telomeres.  Telomeres appear at the end of strands of DNA and serve the function of protecting chromosomes.  Traffic pollution, fine particles, and smoking is linked to shorter telomeres.  Telomeres naturally shorten with age, but pollution accelerates this process.  In a study of 50 blood samples collected from pregnant women (controlling for age) living in a polluted area near Naples Italy compared to 50 samples from a less polluted area in Avellino, Italy, found that the women near Naples had shorter telomeres.  Telomere shortening has been connected to the aging process and to cancer (De Felice, Nappi, Zizolfi, Guida, Sardo, Bifulco, and Guida, 2012).  In sum, women are certainly impacted by the waste in the environment, especially when gender compounds with class, ethnicity, or caste in the case of India.  Because women have less economic power, they may have less access to health care.  Finally, women are responsible for producing the next generation of human beings.  Unhealthy women may give birth to unhealthy babies or may be unable to reproduce at all.   Historically and in many parts of the world, a woman is valued for her reproductive ability.  Fertility issues compromise the already shaky position of women. e-waste-3


Within the United States, women are less likely to work directly with waste management.  In fact, feminists who demand equality to men are sometimes told that they really don’t want equality as this means they will have to do hard, dirty work, like garbage collection.  Within the United States, men tend to dominate this field.  In New York City, there are 7,000 trash collectors.  As of 2008, 200 were women.  These women were honored during Women’s History Month and at least one had been working as a garbage collector for thirty years (Horan, 2008).  American women may not be socialized to look at garbage collection as a career, or perhaps, since it is viewed as a male dominated space, women are less likely to apply to those jobs.  Nevertheless, women are perfectly capable and willing to do this kind of hard work.  For example, Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, has an all female garbage collection team.  The women drive trucks, but must also lift heavy garbage cans as the job is not as mechanized as in the U.S..  The women were hired as part of an initiative to attain gender equality among various sectors of the economy and serve the area of Warren Park, a low income community within Harare.  The women seemingly took pride in their work and reported they were treated well because of their good customer service and that they were not harassed by their male counterparts (All women garbage collection team cleans up Harare, n.d.).  The picture is not as rosy for women and girls in Mogadishu, Somalia.  Two decades of instability left the country unable to institute basic governance over such things as garbage collection.  The federal government formed in 2012 sought to tackle the massive amount of garbage that amassed over the years of chaos.  To this end, it hired private contractors to clean the garbage.  Most of the people hired by these private companies are women and girls.  They are regularly sexually harassed and harangued as they work.  For instance, they are told that they should be cleaning their homes, not the streets.  The women may begin work at 5 pm and end work after 9 in the morning.  They are paid $3 a day for their work and if they do not work hard enough, their supervisor may deduct $1 from their pay.  In November 2008, a bomb planted near a pile of trash took the lives of 21 women street cleaners (Mogadishu’s unsung garbage collectors, 2016).  Even under the threat of violence and constant harassment, the women dutifully worked as there were few job opportunities available to them.

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Around the world, women play a unique role in waste management, even if this is not always evident in paid labor.  For instance, women are often in charge of household waste disposal, as they are more likely to manage household chores such as cooking and cleaning.  Women are often important consumers of products, as they may conduct shopping on behalf of the family.  This can determine the kinds of waste that a household produces.  Women often socialize children and are involved in education, which means that they play a role in promoting and passing on social values, such as recycling.  Globally, women participate in the economy as waste pickers, sweepers, and domestic workers but are less likely than men to have secure, full time employment in waste management.  Women have also been more involved than men in grassroots initiatives in solid waste management, perhaps because waste has a greater impact on their role in the household(Beall, n.d.).   As example of this, women in Kathmandu Nepal noticed all of the trash that was accumulating in their city and started up a project called Women for Sustainable Development.  One of their projects was a waste management initiative which encouraged paper recycling and pressured shop owners to move away from plastic bags (Bushell and Goto, 2006).  Similarly, in 1997, a small group of women from Dzilam de Bravo in Mexico organized to begin collecting trash and seaweed from the beaches in an organization called Las Costeras.  They wanted to beautify the beaches for tourists and turn the seaweed into compost, which they could sell to farmers.  By 2011, the group had inspired other coastal garbage collection organizations, involving over 400 participants.  The women receive small sums of money from the government for their work and also receive vegetables from farmers.  However, the women expressed that they felt stigmatized by others, since it was dirty work.  The soil of the Yucatan Peninsula is made of karst limestone and very permeable, so their composting project has actually helped to improve agriculture (Buechler and Hanson, 2015).  There are many similar examples of women all over the world who have organized in their community to clean up garbage and recycle trash into art, jewelry, or purses that they can sell.


Not only are women more vulnerable to environmental problems, studies suggest that women may be more involved in more formal and informal environmental activism than men.  This is despite the fact that women have more barriers to involvement in activism in general, due to unequal pay with men and the unequal burden of unpaid labor.  Historically, women have been more involved in environmental activism than other kinds of activism.  Research has also suggested that women are more likely to be concerned about the environment than men. Women are socialized to care for their families and be nurturing, which may lend itself to greater concern for the environment.  Of course, gender inequalities do shape how women choose to engage in activism.  In a survey of British Colombia women involved in three social movement organizations, researchers found that women were more engaged in the organizations.  The women were more likely than men to engage in recycling at home, plant trees, reuse items, compost, avoid disposable cups, buy environmentally friendly cleaning products, buy organic produce, and conserve energy.  Men did outscore women in a few areas, such as being more likely to bike or walk to work, recycling at work, and helping to maintain nature reserves or parks.   Men were more likely to sign petitions, attend protests, attend an educational lecture, do a lecture, attend a community meeting, and write letters to politicians, though women were more likely to engage in more individual activity such as donating money to organizations or buying their products.  The study found that women were more engaged in environmentally friendly behaviors, but less involved in social movement activities.  Perhaps the women did not have as many opportunities to engage in community activism or did not feel confident in taking a public role in their environmentalism (Tindall, Davies, and Mauboules, 2003).


It seems that women may take a more lifestyle approach to their activism. A 2012 UK Survey found that single women recycle more than men.  70% of women were engaged in environmentally friendly waste disposal as opposed to 58% of single men.  80% of couples engaged in environmentally friendly waste disposal, though women were believed to be the catalyst behind this activity.  This may be because of the gendered division of labor in which women are more likely to wash out cans, remove lids, and sort waste.  Buying and cooking food consists of 60% of household waste and is traditionally done by females (Levy, 2012).  In another study, data collected from 22 nations through the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) was analyzed to understand how gender shapes self-reported environmental engagement.  The study found that women were significantly more likely to engage in environmentally minded behaviors such as recycling and driving less.  All individuals in the study were more likely to be engaged in private environmental behaviors than social activism.  Even in lower GNI countries, women were more engaged in private environmental behaviors.  In higher GNI, this becomes more pronounced as women had more ability to engage in these behaviors (Hunter, Hatch, and Johnson, 2004).  Thus, it can be concluded that women are on a daily basis more engaged in lifestyle activism.  It is alarming that both men and women prefer not to engage in social movement activism and if they do, men are more engaged in this.  Social movement building is important in challenging the structures of patriarchy and capitalism which create waste, environmental destruction, and social stratification to begin with.


The fact that we chose to collect trash as a feminist group aligns with the norms of being female.  It is a nice gesture.  It is a nice way to beautify our city.  But, the lesson that should be drawn from all of this is that the problem of waste is global and systemic. Small groups of volunteers can certainly play a small role in making the world a better place, but to truly make the world a better place, we need to challenge the logic of capitalist production.  There will always be more waste to pick up since capitalism creates waste in pursuit of profits.  The most vulnerable groups in society will always be impacted the most by waste.  Social movement activism is important to realizing our collective power to challenge capitalism.  No amount of recycling, buying organic, or composting will overthrow capitalism.  These are good things and should not be shunned, but they do not challenge how capitalism operates.  Capitalism operates globally, perpetuating war, inequality, and environmental destruction.  Protests, petitions, strikes, boycotts, educational events, etc. are all tools that should be in our activist tool box.  Feminists should support and unite with other social movements such as anti-racist movements, movements for indigenous rights, and the environmental movement, as each of these challenge capitalism in their own way and we are stronger if we work together.  Picking up trash is fine, but the goal should be to throw capitalism into the dustbin of history.

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References

All-women garbage collection team cleans up Harare | Africa | DW.COM | 29.03.2016. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://www.dw.com/en/all-women-garbage-collection-team-cleans-up-harare/a-19148073

Beall, n.d.  http://wedc.lboro.ac.uk/resources/books/Solid_Waste_Management_-_SN_5_-_Complete.pdf

Buechler, S., & Hanson, A. M. S. (Eds.). (2015). A political ecology of women, water and global environmental change (Vol. 15). Routledge.

Bushell, B., & Goto, M. (2006). Kathmandu: Women Tackle Solid Waste Management. Women & Environments International Magazine, (70/71), 60-62.

Butler, S. P. (2011, December 3). Are consumers destroying the earth? Retrieved April 13, 2017, from http://climateandcapitalism.com/2011/12/03/are-consumers-destroying-the-earth/

De Felice, B., Nappi, C., Zizolfi, B., Guida, M., Sardo, A. S., Bifulco, G., & Guida, M. (2012). Telomere shortening in women resident close to waste landfill sites. Gene, 500(1), 101-106. doi:10.1016/j.gene.2012.03.040

Heacock, M., Kelly, C. B., Kwadwo Ansong, A., Birnbaum, L. S., Bergman, Å. L., Bruné, M., & … Sly, P. D. (2016). E-Waste and Harm to Vulnerable Populations: A Growing Global Problem. Environmental Health Perspectives, 124(5), 550-555. doi:10.1289/ehp.1509699

Horan, K. (2008, March 29). City Honors Female Garbage Collectors. Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://www.wnyc.org/story/77923-city-honors-female-garbage-collectors/

Hunter, L. M., Hatch, A., & Johnson, A. (2004). Cross‐national gender variation in environmental behaviors. Social science quarterly, 85(3), 677-694.

Li, X., Tian, Y., Zhang, Y., Ben, Y., & Lv, Q. (2017). Accumulation of polybrominated diphenyl ethers in breast milk of women from an e-waste recycling center in China. Journal Of Environmental Sciences (Elsevier), 52305-313. doi:10.1016/j.jes.2016.10.008

Levy, A. (2012, December 31). Recycling? Women have got it all sorted (and it’s wives who force their men to follow the rules). Retrieved April 09, 2017, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2255090/Recycling-Women-got-sorted-revealed-wives-force-husbands-follow-rules.html

Lynch, M. (2014, March 10). Native American People, Environmental Health and Justice Issues. Retrieved April 14, 2017, from http://greencriminology.org/glossary/native-american-people-environmental-health-and-justice-issues/

McAllister, L., Magee, A., & Hale, B. (2014). Women, e-waste, and technological solutions to climate change. Health and Human Rights Journal, 16(1).

Mogadishu’s unsung garbage collectors. (2016, January). Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://witnesssomalia.org/index.php/14-icetheme/homepage/169-mogadishu-s-unsung-heroes-its-

Garbage-collectors

Pearson, H. C., Dawson, L. N., & Breitkopf, C. R. (2012). Recycling Attitudes and Behavior among a Clinic-Based Sample of Low-Income Hispanic Women in Southeast Texas. Plos ONE, 7(4), 1-6. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034469

Simmons, A. (2016, April 22). The world’s trash crisis, and why many Americans are oblivious. Retrieved April 12, 2017, from http://www.latimes.com/world/global-development/la-fg-global-trash-20160422-20160421-snap-htmlstory.html

Tindall, D. B., Davies, S., & Mauboules, C. (2003). Activism and conservation behavior in an environmental movement: The contradictory effects of gender. Society & Natural Resources, 16(10), 909-932.

Van Kerckhove, G. (2012). Toxic capitalism: The orgy of consumerism and waste: Are we the last generation on earth. AuthorHouse, 58-87.

Yates, M. (2015, August). Waste, Immiseration, and the Lure of Profitability . Retrieved April 13, 2017, from https://worldecologynetwork.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/yates-formatted.pdf

Reflections on Working at a Domestic Violence Shelter

This is my two year anniversary of working at a domestic violence shelter.  It is also the tail end of Domestic Violence Awareness month (October).  As such, I thought I would write about some observations that I have made about domestic violence since I began working at a shelter.

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Race: Perhaps one of the most striking features of the shelter is the racial composition of the clients that we serve.  While I do not have official statistics from the shelter, as a general observation, at any given time, 60-80% of our shelter residents are women of color.  This rate is based upon my own calculation of a sample of data, so it should not be taken as official data.  Around 2.5% of Duluth residents are Native American and 2.3% of our residents are African American.  Consider that for a moment.  These groups make up under 5% of our general population (not including other minorities and mixed race individuals).  At the same time, they make up over 60% of the women in shelter (and often over 75% of the shelter).  To me, this highlights the extreme vulnerability of women of color in our community.  Nationally, rates of physical violence, rape, or stalking from an intimate partner are 30-50% higher among women who are African American, Native American, and multiracial than white and Hispanic women.  So, it comes as little surprise that the shelter would have a higher percent of women of color than white women, as this is consistent with the national statistics.  However, not all women who are victims of domestic violence go to shelters.  In my observation, women who come to the shelter tend to have fewer social networkers, greater poverty, and more community stresses around them.  Whereas a white, middle class woman might have family and friends to stay with, or perhaps some money to stay at a hotel, this is not the case for low-income minority women whose networks are so entrenched in poverty, homelessness, historical trauma, substance abuse, and violence that there really is nowhere else to go.  I believe this accounts for our high number of minority women in shelter.


Gender:

Intimate partner violence can happen to people of any gender.   Certainly, male teens and children are victimized by domestic violence and find themselves at the shelter with their mothers.  Yet, most victims are women.  Nationally, 85% of intimate partner violence victims are women.  So, it is a women’s issue.  Nevertheless, perhaps every other month, there is a call from a male victim.  This is challenging because there are no male specific domestic violence shelters in our state.  Really, there are only a handful of non-gendered domestic violence shelters in the country.   I have taken a few calls from gay men in abusive relationships, but also a few heterosexual men.  I absolutely believe there should be resources for everyone.  I am also supportive of our hiring of a male advocate.  Men can be victims, but also should be part of the solution.  When men call, we do our best to connect them to homeless shelters, our resource center, or do a safety plan.  I fully acknowledge and want to help male victims.  HOWEVER, domestic violence is by and large a gender based problem faced by primarily by women.  I think this is important to point out, since when something impacts one group disproportionately to another, it represents an important piece of information about the functioning of society.  Everyone can be a victim, but why are women more often victims?  This is a long question with many answers.  Women have been viewed as property, without rights, and inferior to men.  For much of history, the physical discipline of women was acceptable and legal.  Women continue to be politically, economically, and socially subordinate to men.  Therefore, it is hardly incidental that women are more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence.


Sexuality:   Thus far this year, I have done about 32 intakes.  An intake is a packet of paperwork that we complete with victims when they arrive at the shelter.  In these intakes, we collect a lot of information, including demographic data.  During the intake, we ask women which sexuality they identify as.  Over half the time, women reply “female” or do not know what I mean.  This is interesting, since it demonstrates a confusion in society about the difference between gender and sexuality.  It also shows that many people do not know how to label their sexuality.


That aside, working at the shelter has given me the opportunity to observe black female sexual identity.  I probably would not have this opportunity in my segregated white world.  In my limited observation, I have observed some fluidity in black sexuality.  I don’t want to “other” this group, but simply point out that they may not fit within the labels and stereotypes of white sexuality.  For instance, the majority of lesbian identifying black women in the shelter have a children from one or more male partners.  They also often have black male abusers.  Despite their sexual history with black men, they identify as lesbian, at least in the intake.  Also, within this population, there have been fewer individuals who would be stereotyped as “butch.”  I find this interesting, since to me, it means that they construct gender and sexuality differently.  In my own observation of white homosexuals or bisexuals, a narrative of continuity is important for establishing legitimacy.  For instance, someone who switches sexual identities or did not “discover” their homosexuality or bisexuality until later in life, might be viewed with more skepticism.  I have not sensed this same anxiety over continuity and labels among the residents at the shelter.  Of course, this is a small sample size and I did not specifically ask the residents about these issues.


Finally, the majority of women who use the shelter identify as straight or heterosexual (when presented the list of sexualities to choose from).   The majority of residents have abusers who are their opposite gender.  Nevertheless, it is important to note that 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women have experienced physical violence, rape, or stalking from an intimate partner, compared to 35% of heterosexual women.   The 61% of bisexual women is particularly startling, as this would indicate that bisexual women particularly vulnerable.  In my own experiences, I have only done one or two intakes this year wherein a woman identified as bisexual.  However, I think that sexuality is rather personal.  I am a complete stranger when I meet the women.  As such, they might not want to divulge their sexuality.


Ability and Health:

One of the biggest challenges of working in the shelter is that the women who come here usually have one or more health issues.  Statistically,  women with disabilities are 40% more likely to be the victims of domestic violence.  The challenge is not that they have a disability or major health issue, but that when we are full, we are serving over 39 residents.  In the summer of 2015, there were some nights when we had as many as 58 residents.  Most shifts have three staff.  The night shift used to have one staff, but has gone to two.  Thus, staff are spread thinly and can not always meet the needs of the residents.  Aside from arriving with injuries from the abuse, women arrive with substance abuse problems, mental health issues, and physical health issues.  This means that the residents need a lot of support and resources.  It is hard to even describe the level of need and the lack of ability to always meet it.  This is probably the number one stressor at the job.  On my own shift, I probably call 911 at least once a month or once every other month due to medical emergencies.  These emergencies have ranged from going into labor, allergic reactions, difficulty breathing, heart problems, and head trauma.  More frequently, residents need to be brought to the ER for non-emergencies such as colds, flu, toothaches, vomiting, infections, UTI, gallbladder issues, etc.  On the mental health spectrum, women often have anxiety attacks, nightmares, manic episodes, depression, or just need someone to talk to.  On the extreme mental health spectrum, there have been delusions and hallucinations.  Of course, there is a difference between disability and health issues, but speaking broadly, each day that I work here, there is one or more medical issues to attend to.


Because the population has been exposed to trauma, is stressed out, is low income, and minority, they have a full plate of health challenges.  And, if a person arrives in relatively good health, the environment itself lends itself to disease and stress.  The shelter is communal living.  Imagine living in a room full of strangers who have all gone through (sometimes a lifetime of) traumatic events.  There is stress and conflict.  There are babies crying in the middle of night.  There are women getting up early for work or going to bed late.   There are people who snore and fart through the night.  Communal living isn’t fun.  Stress and lack of sleep compromise the immune system.  And, communal living is messy!  Any space containing 39 to 50 people is a breeding ground for germs, especially when half of them are children.  Norovirus rampaged through the shelter four times last year.  In fact, I don’t think that it ever left the shelter.  Colds, flus, stomach bugs, and infections find fertile ground to multiple, moving room to room all year long.  It is a germaphobes nightmare.  I have a real fear of norovirus.  Like some junior, unofficial CDC fan-club member, I actually wrote down each time norovirus afflicted the shelter last year.  I found that it hit the shelter at about three month intervals, starting in September 2015, with the most recent outbreak in July 2016.  This is consistent with studies that immunity to norovirus lasts a few months.  Most of the staff had numerous bouts of vomiting last year.  Each night, I clean for a few hours.  I try to wipe down the surfaces with bleach.  It is a losing battle.


Young Victims:

Another interesting characteristic of the shelter is that the victims who come here tend to be young.  While we serve women of all ages, most of our residents tend to be under the age of 25.   These young residents also tend to have a number of small children.  Many of the women first became parents when they were in their teens and some are teen parents when they arrive.  Usually, this makes me feel old!  I am old!  And I am unusual, since I am a woman in my mid-30s without children.  Women who are a decade or more younger than me must shoulder the responsibility of having two or more children!  This is a daunting task, since rents are high, jobs are low paying, transportation is cumbersome, and day care almost impossible to find.  I feel that we are worlds apart.  I have such freedom.  I am enormously privileged.  Motherhood looks like carting crying, coughing, snotty nosed children to the freezing bus stop to get to a housing appointment or find clothes for a job interview.  In their frustration, it is easy to see all of the disgusting ways that society fails mothers.


Aside from young mothers, we usually have one or more women in shelter who are pregnant.  Based upon reports from the intake, these pregnant women were often subjected to greater abuses when they became pregnant than prior to it.  I actually had a woman go into labor on my shift (after earlier in the day she fled her abuser, who attacked her).  It was pretty intense.  She was screaming at me to help her.  Her water broke outside our office.  She actually gave birth on the stretcher as she was pushed into the hospital.  I like to regale my coworkers with the story of how I almost delivered a baby.  For vast majority of the women, the pregnancies were unplanned.  Some had hopes of a good relationship with their abuser.  Others were sexually coerced.  The presence of young mothers is consistent with national statistics.  The group with the highest incidence of domestic violence is 18-24.  This is also the age group with the highest rates of abortion.  Since 4 out of 10 unplanned pregnancies end in abortion, it makes sense that the group that is most vulnerable to relationships that deny them sexual autonomy also has the highest rate of abortion.


The Complicated Victim:

When I tell people that I work at a domestic violence shelter, usually they become quiet or tell me how nice it is that I do that work.  I read recently that 79% of Americans have never actually had anyone talk to them about domestic violence.  When Americans think about victims, we often think of mousey white women who live under the shadow of their abuser.  They are shrinking violets who endure abuse in silence.  This stereotype of a victim is useful, since because of the racism in society, it seems very hard for white people to sympathize with Native American and African American women.  It is hard for ordinary white people to sympathize with victims who have criminal backgrounds, who abuse children, who are themselves violent, or who are addicted to drugs.  In the popular mindset, a victim must be virtuous, long suffering, and “good.”  Victims who are not these things are blamed for the violence against them.


The truth of the matter is that the victims I work with are not the virtuous, saintly, white women who crumble like crushed lilies under the fist of their massive, angry, alcoholic abuser.  Many of the women struggle with severe substance abuse.  Many of the women do not treat their children kindly.  They can be neglectful or even outright abusive.  Many of them have criminal backgrounds.  Some visit the shelter between visits to jail.  Many of the women can be aggressive, insulting, rude, and selfish in their interactions with staff and other residents.  I am not listing these characteristics to put down the women.  Rather, I am being honest and want to create a portrait of the complicated people that stay at the shelter.


The complicated victim is a challenge, since as an advocate, we must challenge ourselves to show compassion and empathy to people who can be mean, rude, or disappointing.  A victim is a victim, even if they fight back or even if they were using drugs.  A victim deserves kindness, support, and unbiased service no matter what they have done or how they treat others.  The ideal of the saintly victim makes compassion easy.  The saintly victim is grateful and positive.  The complicated victim might swear and make a scene.  But, it challenges a person.  It challenges a person to be less biased.  It challenges a person to see substance abuse, homelessness, self-defense, and survival differently.  In the challenging victims, I see a lot of my own privilege.  I have the emotional resources to be calm and collected in the face of conflict.  I have the emotional resources to be patient when I don’t get my way, because I have faith in the long-game of life.  I have a lot of material, emotional, and psychological resources that help me cope with the challenges of life.  My behaviors are the outcome of my conditions and experiences.  So are theirs.

 

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It is hard to see black and blue, but it is also hard for society to see victims who are not white, thin, and able bodied.


Myth of Welfare Queens: As I have mentioned before, upon arrival at the shelter, I complete paperwork with the victims.  During this paperwork, I collect income information.  This is one of the most startling observations about victims: the majority are not getting any kind of public benefit, child support, or income.


Many people believe that low income mothers with many children are gaming the system by collecting child support from multiple fathers or getting large checks from the government.   This simply is not true of the women who come to the shelter.  While many of them apply for benefits once they are here, most do not arrive with health insurance or even MFIP.  Many of the women have severe health problems and disabilities, but are not collecting disability benefits.  I would say that there has not been a single intake that I have completed wherein the victim was receiving all of the benefits they would qualify for.  And, if the women do qualify for benefits, it extremely rare that it is over $1000 a month.  Most receive a few hundred dollars.


There are several reasons why the women do not have the benefits they  could qualify for.  One: Some were financially dependent upon their abuser as a form of abuse called  financial abuse.  Two: Many of the women have been chronically homeless, have moved across states, cities, or counties.  Applying for benefits requires residency in an area or living there long enough to collect the benefits.  This is not the case for women who have been moving a lot.  Three:  Applying for benefits can be difficult, especially because many of the women did not complete high school or may not be the best readers.  They may not know where to apply, the programs available, or the process of application.  Four: Because of mistakes in filling out paperwork, they may have been denied a benefit. In short, in my two years at the shelter, I have not met a single woman who was somehow cheating the system to gain benefits or child support.  It is more common that women have so little income that they cannot afford $1 co-pays on their medications. financial-abuse


Still Going On?  

When I was younger, I imagined that domestic violence was one of those things of the past.  If I heard about it, it seemed rare and shocking.  Doesn’t everyone think that women shouldn’t be beaten?!   Yet, over 4.7 million women experience domestic violence each year.  A few weeks ago, I protested the 15th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan.  Between 2001-2012, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took the lives of 6,488 U.S. soldiers.  During that same time period, 11,766 women were murdered by their male intimate partner or ex-partner.  That is astonishing and terrible!

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Yes, it is still a problem.  Each night, I update our available beds on a website that lists all of the shelters in Minnesota.  Each night, across the state, all of the beds are full.  Women come from across the state to our shelter because they cannot find space elsewhere.  We are regularly full.  There could be another shelter in Duluth and that would be also full.  The problem never goes away.  The shelters are always full.  Sometimes we have people sleeping on mattresses on the floor rather than turn them away.


Once a woman comes to shelter, she is safe, but moving forward is difficult.  Housing is expensive.  Low-income housing is competitive and in low supply.  Jobs pay poorly.  Our public transportation system is extremely inconvenient.  Our community, especially our schools, are hostile to minority women and children.  With consistent effort and enough time, some women succeed and move on to housing.  Even if a victim breaks the cycle of abuse, they are left to fend for themselves in a racist, classist, sexist, ableist society.

A Socialist Feminist Suicide Squad Review

Suicide_Squad_Women (image from DCcomicsmovies.com)

A Socialist Feminist Suicide Squad Review:


I love comic book movies.  When I was young, I collected comic books.  I created my own comic books.  While I am not a full-fledged citizen of comic book geekdom, I am at least a traveller in the realm.  So, of course, I went to see Suicide Squad.  I knew it was poorly reviewed, so I expected the worst.  I was surprised to find that it was better than I anticipated.  It was better than Batman v. Superman, Antman, and Deadpool.  However, it contained more overt sexism than other superhero films I’ve seen.  More than other comic book films, it gave me some feminist food for thought.  Thus, it is my duty as a feminist to pop any sexist pop-cultural bubble.  It is my passion to rain on any patriarchal parade.  I must be the ants in the misogynist picnic.  There will be no fun and games where feminists lurk about.  So, here it is, a review of Suicide Squad, or at least a review of some of the female characters.


Amanda Waller:

I enjoyed Amanda Waller because she is a powerful female character, who, unlike the other female characters in the film is not sexualized.  In fact, she is presented as fairly asexual character clad in professional clothing and a self-possessed, cold, and reserved personality.  In contrast to Nick Fury, there is no point in the film where she comes across as a savior or hero.  While both characters are powerful and duplicitous, Nick Fury, at least in the films, can be counted upon to do the “right” thing.  He is generally on the side of the Avengers, or at the very least is not going to kill them or any of his underlings.   Waller is on her own side.  Unlike other minorities in the film, she does not adhere to common racial or gender stereotypes.  In this way, she is a refreshing contrast to the other characters.  She is a sturdy African American woman who ruthlessly pursues her agenda to control metahumans and promote U.S. security interests.   To this end, she kills a group of employees who do not have an appropriate security clearance, puts herself in danger to better study Enchantress’ powers, and orchestrates her own rescue by the Suicide Squad.  Waller is the villain of the movie inasmuch as she coerces a group of criminals to protect U.S. security interests.  In this sense, the villain wins in the movie.  After Enchantress is defeated, the Suicide Squad returns to prison with a few miniscule benefits such as an Espresso machine, letter privileges, and shortened prison times.  These are token payments considering that they saved the world from destruction.  Although Waller is responsible for the mass destruction wrought by Enchantress, her only consequence is having to provide Batman her files.  I enjoyed that she was “evil” without being campy or maniacal.  She represented the ordinary “evil” of militarism, capitalism, patriarchy, and bureaucracy.


With that said, her character raises some important issues.  She is a strong Black woman in a non-traditional role.  However, this doesn’t mean that her character promotes feminism.  The inclusion of strong women in films is nice, but I wouldn’t consider it feminist unless it somehow challenges patriarchy.  Amanda Waller is strong, but her strength comes at the expense of other women.  She literally controls the heart of the Enchantress, which she uses to bend the witch to her will.  In order to gain the approval of the old, white, military men, she demonstrates her control over Enchantress, treating her like a trained dog.  She has her trained pet pick up a secret file from Iran.  Her career depends upon navigating a white man’s world.  To accomplish this, she must dress like a professional.  She must talk like a white person.  She must control women.  She must use and abuse prisoners.  She must threaten people of color with the death penalty (by remote control).  She must live a solitary life.  There is no room for kids, husbands, or people to care for.  A woman can have a career or she can have kids, but it is hard to balance both.  She is reminiscent of leaders like Condoleeza Rice, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, or Margaret Thatcher, who like Waller, do not represent gains for women in the sense that they are war mongers who step on the working class, minorities, women, and the poor in their promotion of imperialist interests.


Waller is an essential part of the film.  She brings everyone together and is responsible for the plot (as disjointed as it is).  The characters respect and fear her, which may send the message to women that in order to be respected you must be asexual and act/dress/think like a white man.  While her character is not well developed, there is a sense that she has history and a vision.  What is going on inside her head?  What does she think of the Suicide Squad?  In my opinion, I think she worked hard to get where she was.  Perhaps she feels bitter about the hard road.  Her intelligence, strategic mind, and composure helped her to succeed, but in doing so, she can’t identify with the plight of criminals, women, or racial minorities.  She thinks she is better and different from them.  Because she is better and different, she doesn’t have qualms with exploiting the exploited.   Afterall, there’s room at the top of the hill if you can learn how to smile as you kill.  She doesn’t smile, but she does restrain a smirk.


 

Enchantress:

Enchantress has been reviewed pretty harshly by critics because of her revealing outfit, convoluted motive, and lack of character development.  Really, I didn’t mind the Enchantress.  I was happy to see a female villain in addition to Amanda Waller.  I was not particularly bothered by her revealing outfit, but perhaps this is because of my own interpretation of the character.  Little is revealed about her in the film, but it is mentioned that she is a witch from another dimension.  An artifact containing her soul is discovered in an unidentified jungle temple.  Now, based upon the fact that she was worshiped by a temple building jungle dwelling society, it could be extrapolated that this culture had private property and social stratification.  After all, if everyone was equal, there would be no excess labor to build temples.  It is also unlikely that there would be a sufficient population to build a temple if this society was hunter/gatherer.  With that said, I imagine the culture having private property and therefore some degree of patriarchy.  However, there may have been some elements of female power through respect or worship of female fertility.  Perhaps Enchantress represented a female fertility deity to them.  Or, perhaps she crafted herself as such to appeal to pre-existing notions of goddesses.  The fact that she was worshipped alongside her brother is consistent with my interpretation.  The society that worshiped her was patriarchal with one foot still in the matriarchal or matrilineal past.  In any event, her skimpy outfit might have showcased her body, highlighting her sexuality and fertility, sources of female power.  The fact that she kissed people or gyrated to perform spells would also support a theory that she was worshipped as a representation of female sexuality.  Also, if she resided in a jungle, she might choose to wear less clothes because of the heat.  Thus, I feel that it is possible that her apparel and behavior might have a historical/geographical context.  Certainly the modern context is that it makes her visually appealing for the audience.  However, the camera does not pan over her body in the same way it does for Harley Quinn.  The camera does not zoom in on her butt or chest.  Her body is often contorted or crouched, which obscures her figure.  In other scenes, she is shown with debris, smoke, or magical aura around her, which again takes the focus off of objectifying her body.  This may give too much credit to the film, but to me, she did not suffer the same longing and lingering gaze as Harley Quinn.


In any event, the Enchantress is revived in the modern world.  However, her power is limited by the fact that Amanda Waller controls her heart.  She is clearly a chaotic and independent character, as she is always eyeing the heart and obviously plotting her escape from Waller.  To aid her escape, she revives her brother, who lends her his power.  Her brother plays more of a sidekick role to her, as he is always off to the side or the periphery of her activities.  Once free, she concludes that humans worship technology, so she must build a machine that punishes them for abandoning their old beliefs.  Really, she could come to many conclusions.  Maybe she could have decided that people worship money or possessions.  She might have concluded that people worship men, after all, three major religions of the world worship a singular male god.  Instead, she focused on technology.  Perhaps she awoke to see young people wandering around parks, staring at their phones as they played Pokemon Go! And didn’t understand that it is helping them get outdoors and exercise!  Ah, like so many she was so quick to judge what she does not understand.


Enchantress is rather powerful in that she can teleport, has telepathy and telekinesis, can materialize a giant machine, and can become incorporeal.  She seems far too strong to be a match for the Suicide Squad.  And, there isn’t a compelling reason for them to fight her.  Like the rest of them, she was a prisoner of Amanda Waller.  Only, she escaped.  Unlike them, she is not a criminal and doesn’t have mundane goals.  But, she also hasn’t harmed them.  Her first major act of destruction is destroying various military facilities and an aircraft carrier.  This isn’t a bad thing.  She might even find some support among eco-feminists or primitivists.  After all, she is basically a goddess who wants to destroy technology.  She even shows mercy by offering to spare the Suicide Squad if they join her.  Even she recognizes that the world has failed them and tells them as much.  This is after they killed her brother.  Now, I do think she has to be defeated.  I don’t believe the solution to climate change or any of the world’s problems is reverting to a superstitious pre-feudal society.  However, it doesn’t seem that the Suicide Squad should be the ones to do it.  Really, I can’t think of any heroes who are up to the task.  Batman represents capitalist interests.  Superman represents American interests.  It begs the question of how she was defeated in the first place?  Did people organize or plot against her?


Another consideration regarding her character is the issue of national sovereignty and indigenous rights.  Remember, her artifact was found in a jungle by an archaeologist!  Well, what right does the U.S. have to use her as a weapon?  What if Brazil or Guatemala, or whatever country that contained the mysterious temple, claimed that it was a stolen artifact?  What if the temple actually exists in territory inhabited by indigenous people who are decedents of the people who originally used the temple?  They too could demand that the artifact is returned.  So, Amanda Waller is basically trampling on the rights of indigenous people and sovereign nations in the interest of U.S. security.


Finally, it is interesting to consider her weakness.  Basically, she is a goddess-like sorceress whose only weakness is her heart.  This sends an interesting, but not terrible message to women.  In society, we tell many stories about love and romance.  These stories aren’t always healthy or realistic.  We idealize romantic love.  For some women, this idealization results in bad situations, such as unhealthy or abusive relationship.  While it doesn’t have to be, narratives of love reinforce feminine gender roles as selfless givers.  A woman’s weakness can be her heart.  Enchantress does not want to be limited in this way.  She reclaims her heart at the first opportunity.  She also tries to kill her host’s boyfriend by sending her minions after him.  Like Amanda Waller, she really isn’t interesting in men, love, or relationships.  She has a close relationship to her brother, but she is otherwise autonomous of men.  In a way, perhaps she represents what men fear the most about feminism.  Enchantress is a dirty (covered in soot), wild (tangled hair, glowing eyes, twisting body), powerful woman who wants to destroy modern capitalist society entirely.  (The movie did not deviate from female beauty standards in that she is young, thin, pretty, and groomed.)  She even teases Rick Flag that he doesn’t have the balls to attack her.  This eye-roll inducing attack panders to masculine insecurity, and predictably, he does attack her.  But, at the very least it uncovers the fragility of masculinity through his willingness to defend his masculinity with violence-even if it risks the death of his girlfriend.  In sum, I think she is a likeable villain, even if she doesn’t have a story or personality.

 

June Moon:

June is the archaeologist who serves as the host to Enchantress.  She has a terrible name.  I also think she is a bland character.  There is the potential she could be awesome!  After all, she must be an adventurous, capable, independent, and intelligent woman to adventure into a jungle, alone, to search an unknown temple.  To do this, she must survive disease, insects, heat, isolation, patchy public transportation, and… graduate school.  Archaeology has traditionally been a male dominated specialization within anthropology, so she must be willing to challenge gender norms to some degree.  Perhaps she is even a feminist archaeologist and this is what attracted to her the particular temple wherein Enchantress was entombed!  Her ethics seemed a bit lacking, since upon finding an artifact she decided to break off the head!  Who would do that?!  Unless of course she knew that there was something inside…


Whatever the case, she does not come across as a cool, independent, adventurer in the rest of the film.  Instead, she is the quivering girlfriend of Rick Flag.  True, it is probably traumatic to be possessed by a powerful witch.  Her fear, sweat, and tremors show her anxiety over being taken over by this dark entity.  Yet, she could act as more of an agent on her own behalf.  Instead, she depends upon Rick Flag to protect her.  They seem like an odd couple.  Assuming that she is both intellectual and adventurous, she might seek out someone similar, rather than a super soldier with an equally stupid name.


 

Zoe Lawton:

Zoe is Deadshot’s well adjusted daughter.  Despite the fact that her father is imprisoned and works as an assassin and her mother suffers from addiction, mental health issues, and is perhaps a prostitute, she is mature, caring, and polite.  She takes care of her mother and forgives her father.  She is wise to the world, knowing full well that her father kills people.  The fact that she is a good kid makes her a sympathetic character.  This also makes Deadshot more sympathetic, since he wants to be a good dad to his likeable child.  If she was rebellious, disrespectful, or angry, the audience might not care as much about their relationship and hope that she ends up in prison herself!  Thus, she mostly serves the purpose of making Deadshot seem like a family guy with something to fight for.   I will praise her for not being a racial or gender stereotype (she is seen doing math and is not presented as an at risk youth).  But really, she seems like she could be one of Barack Obama’s kids…not the kid of an assassin.


Katana:

Katana is a katana wielding Japanese woman who joins the Suicide Squad to assist Rick Flag.   The character is faintly developed and generally just clutters the movie with another character.  I suppose she might be interesting in that she represents a stereotype reserved mostly for Asian men: stoic and honorable warrior.  But, a stereotype is a stereotype.  There are things she could add to the plot.  For instance, there could be more tension because she doesn’t like criminals.  She is pretty dedicated to her dead husband, but probably sharp enough to cut through some of the sexist bullshit in the movie.  Perhaps she could be a foil to some of the sexist statements such as the suggestion that Rick Flag spank his girlfriend or Deadshot is not above hitting Harley.  Maybe she could have befriended Harley.  This might help her find a life outside of the lonely existence of talking to her dead husband’s soul and might help Harley find a voice of reason who isn’t looking to exploit her.  Harley did say that she thought she seemed nice and complimented her perfume.  If she is going to be a killjoy, maybe she should be a feminist killjoy.  Instead, Katana is invisible in the movie.  She wears a mask and speaks in Japanese.  While I am not sure why she was working with Flag in the first place, she eventually decides to leave the mission.  As she becomes more comfortable with the Suicide Squad, she speaks more English and even follows them to the bar.  In the end, she rejoins the team for the final battle, but her character is so peripheral this is hardly noticed.

Grace Santana:


Grace is El Diablo’s dead wife.  He killed her when she confronted him about his criminal activities/arson and threatened to leave with the kids.  In this way, she is a strong female character in that she was going to stand up against her husband, even though she knew he had horrible powers.  Those horrible powers are used against her and the kids.  El Diablo wants to atone for this.  He turns himself in to the police and refuses to use his powers from then on (except when jumped in prison and egged on by Deadshot.)  For the most part, he does own this past.  He recognizes that the past can’t be changed and rejects Enchantress’ vision of a do-over.  He sacrifices his life to kill Incubus.  As for Grace, she mostly serves as a tragic character in his story of redemption.


Harley Quinn:


Harley is the most polarizing character in the film.  In the entire film, she was the most interesting character, both visually and in terms of development.  There are certainly aspects of the character which were deeply troublesome.  For one, the depiction of her mental health was portrayed as a joke.  When she spoke about the voices in her head, this was supposed to solicit a laugh from the audience.  Again, this occurred when she said she was off her meds and uncertain if Enchantress’ machine/magic was real.  Each character made a point of remarking on how crazy she was.  The terrible thing is that she was a psychologist, but because of the abuse that she was subjected to, she became mentally ill.  This seems far fetched, but in my own experience at the shelter, there are certainly cases of professional women who lose their careers, health, children, houses, and otherwise comfortable lives in their abusive situations.  Of course, unlike Harley they do remember what they once had and who they once were.  Mental health isn’t a laughing matter.  It isn’t sexy, adventurous, or fun.


Beyond the insensitive treatment of her mental health, is the portrayal of her sexuality.  Because of her mental health, the audience should view her as pretty vulnerable.  If she has mental health issues that are so severe that she hears voices, hallucinates, has flash backs, and doesn’t remember much of her past, she is not really able to provide consent in most situations.  This isn’t to argue that she is incapable of consenting to sex or having a relationship, however, this would require a lot of communication about boundaries, safety, health, emotional needs, etc.  It would require equality and security.  Yet, all of the men, who all know that she has these problems, ogle and flirt with her.  The camera pans up her body and focuses on her butt.  The audience is therefore invited to gaze upon her and enjoy the show.  She has some awareness that her sexuality is power, so she is not mindless.  She uses her sexuality to tease the prison guard, for instance.  But, the power between them is deeply uneven.  He has the power to restrain her, electrocute her, and force feed her.  Taunting and enticing offers her a tiny bit of leverage in an otherwise powerless situation.  Granted, she might be seen as empowered insofar as she announces that she sleeps with who she wants, when she wants.  And, she shamelessly flirts and taunts.  However, in her fantasies, she is a monogamous housewife in curlers.  Her sexuality is a survival tool.  Despite this, she is treated like a broken sex doll to shamelessness fetishize.  She’s so hot and crazy!  Nevermind the fact that she is mentally ill and abused.  Look at that ass!  The audience’s lack of respect of the character was best demonstrated when Batman punched her.  Both times I saw the movie, the audience laughed at this scene.  Like the leering men in the movie, her humanity was lost of them.


The worst part of the film is the treatment of her relationship with the Joker.  I was surprised to find the Joker treated as if he is Edward Cullen.  He just loves her so much.  Usually I think of the Joker as more indifferent to her.  Instead, he rescues her twice and jumps into a vat of acid for her.  He comes across as engulfed in her as she is in him.  The depiction obscures the abuse.  He is instead treated like a partner who truly loves her, can be depended upon, will make sacrifices for her, and will save her.  Certainly abusers do charming things and loving acts.  And this serves to keep her more committed to the relationship.  However, since the Joker’s main role in the movie is to rescue her, it gives the impression that he isn’t that bad, there is a strong bond between them, and the relationship might even be admirable in its passion.  I mean, they were pretty passionate as they kissed in the acid vat.  Again, abusive relationships can be passionate and exciting, but giving too much emphasis on those traits and not on the negative elements sends a dangerous message about what relationships should look like.


There are some positive aspects of the character.  For one, she is actually relatable.  I can relate to wanting to be in a relationship with someone more charismatic, interesting, and magnetic than myself.  I sometimes feel boring, shy, reserved, and timid.  I would love to be vibrant and visible.  In the past, I have felt attracted to people who have these things I lack…as if by some magic they could elevate me.  In this sense, it isn’t implausible that a person could fall in love with the Joker.  He is a fascinating, magnetic, visible, bizarre character.  And, women give up their careers and goals all of the time for love.  Love is a cruel mythology of self-sacrifice, patience, endurance, hope, triumph, and redemption.  Harley believed what every woman believes: love is both real and magical.  Few people approach it logically as a ploy to get people to reproduce and raise babies.  This cynical world view doesn’t really lead to happiness or good movie plots.  It leads to an exhausted nihilistic sigh.  Thus, I think that women can probably relate to Harley, or at least more to her than Amanda Waller.  Besides her relatability, she defeated the Enchantress by stealing her heart.  This was a great moment for her character, as she feigned interest in Enchantress’ offer in order to get close enough to attack her.  She also showed independence after the Joker presumably died.  This should have made her into a sobbing, incapable mess.  Instead, she wiped her tears, rejoined the Suicide Squad, and went on to defeat the villain.  She also showed independence when she tried to escape the Suicide Squad.  Of course, this was to join the Joker, but more than this it was a way to escape prison, Angela Waller, and the bomb in her neck.  The Joker may be abusive, but he is no worse than prison or Angela Waller.  It is trading one abuse for another, though the former offers the veneer of love and the pleasure of passion.  There is no savior.  Even Batman, the good guy, punched her.  So, I would like to see the storyline continue wherein perhaps she has enough lucidity to question the relationship.


 

Sexism:

Sexism plays a cameo role in the film.  While Sexism is not an official member of the Suicide Squad, it sneaks around many scenes.  Sexism has some really awful scenes.  For instance, when Slipknot punched a female prison guard in the face because she had a “mouth on her.”  Sexism also appears each time a male character drools over Harley or when Batman punches Harley, then proceeds to give her sensual CPR.  He checked her pulse, but not her breathing.  He also didn’t say, “Harley, Harley, are you okay?!” and didn’t tilt her head back before he started breathing.  I am not a CPR expert, but Batman was really being weird about it.  When Deadshot asks what sleeping with a witch is like or tells Rick Flag to spank his girlfriend, Sexism appears again.  Each time a man reacts to being called “pussy” it is Sexism.  Why?  Because they felt that they must violently defend their masculinity.  This reaction is only possible if they believe that being female is inferior.  Sexism.  Racism also appears in the form of stereotypes.  Classism also cameos in the depiction of criminals (lumpenproletariat) as inherently sexist. Of course, sexism slithers around in most films.  It is the costumes, roles, lack of roles, relationships, etc. that establish or cement what a woman is.  Usually it is an object or something to give meaning to the more interesting lives of men. So, I can’t say that I am surprised to see Sexism’s role in the film, but there were some truly shocking scenes.


This is my take on Suicide Squad.  It is a little lengthy and certainly more could be said.  So crows the feminist harpy.  The end.

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