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Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

H. Bradford

4/11/18

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

Ageism:

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


Sexism:

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


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

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


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


Racism and Classism:

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


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


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


Conclusion:

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


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

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

Intersectionality as a Tactic

Intersectionality as a Tactic

H. Bradford

7/18/17

Both the Feminist Justice League and Pandemonium have met this month to discuss the important topic of intersectionality.  I myself have read dozens of articles in an effort to clarify this concept so that it can be used to strengthen these organizations.  However, even the most basic questions about intersectionality remain elusive.  Is it a theory?  Is it a metaphor?  Is it an action tool?  Is it a methodology?  Is it all of these things?  If so, how it is in defined?  What do critics have to say about it?  In short, what is intersectionality and how can it be used in organizing?  The following is based upon my recent readings, but also conversations with activists such as Adam, Lucas, Jenny, Chris, and Pamela.

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To begin, I first heard about intersectionality in graduate school about five years ago.  I was a latecomer to the concept, probably owing to the fact that I had never taken Women/Gender Studies courses in college or plainly hadn’t been paying attention.  I heard about it at an LGBTQ event on campus.  I didn’t care for the concept at the time, since although it addressed interlocking oppressions, the speaker explained it as if these oppressions exist in an ether of power.  The concept of power was so diffuse that the analysis did not connect these interlocking oppressions to capitalism or any particular institution within capitalism.  Since then, I have encountered intersectionality many times.  Sometimes I have felt that it is a buzz word or a badge that activists can hide behind to see more legitimate and inoculate themselves against “white feminism.”  Other times, I have scratched my head, waiting for something more.  I want a meatier definition than what I am offered.  This has finally sent me on a quest to figure out intersectionality.


My readings have made it very clear that intersectionality originated with Black feminists in the late 1970s and 1980s.  These feminists believed that mainstream feminist analysis at the time did not address how racial oppression intersects with gender and class oppression.  Of course, there were considerations to gender and race by feminists earlier in history, but through a genealogy of concepts such as interlocking systems of oppression, borderlands, and multiple jeopardy, intersectionality was brought to birth.  It was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, a legal professor at UCLA in response to Degraffenreid v. General Motors.  In this case, five black women sued GM for discrimination.  However, they had trouble demonstrating in court that they had been discriminated against since not ALL female workers had faced discrimination and not ALL black workers had faced discrimination.  Thus, the discrimination they faced was the outcome of both their gender and race, yet the legal system did not recognize these compounding oppressions.  The heart of the concept is that oppressions interlock with one another.  Kimberle Crenshaw herself said that it was meant to be a metaphor and not a complete theory.  Of course, this creates a challenge for me, as I am used to operating in the world of theories and actions based upon theories.

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I have felt frustrated and befuddled by the vague and incomplete nature of intersectionality.  I want to understand it because I don’t want to fall into the trap of “white feminism.”  For instance, many activists and organizations call for intersectionality, but don’t actually define it.  When it is defined, it is usually very simply, again referring to interlocking oppressions faced by individuals of multiple identities.  Identity is an important word that is often used in the definitions that I have seen.  This has led some activists to write off intersectionality as an extension of identity politics or incompatible with a materialist world view.  In my own opinion, of course identities are socially constructed, but they have real world meaning and consequences.  Identities are not incompatible with a materialist world view.  After all, if someone wants to organize the working class, it certainly helps if people identify with and as members of the working class or workers in general. (As opposed to “middle class” as is the common, watered down, socially encouraged identity.)  Identity helps individuals to see themselves as having common interests and develop demands based upon these interests.  Has there ever been social change without identity of some kind?  The important part is rooting identities in history and economics.  Thus, the aspect of framing intersectionality that I struggle with is that identity is more than a label.  It is also a social position or place within a system of power.  Therefore, a person is not oppressed because they identify as female or bisexual or both, but because being female, bisexual, or both disadvantages one in a patriarchal capitalist society that empowers men while promoting heterosexuality in the interest of maintaining control over property and reproducing labor.  This is why I have felt that some of my readings on intersectionality have been an incomplete sentence.  Alright, oppressions intersect.  I agree.  But, why?  How?  By what mechanism?  By what institutions?  Complete the sentence.  Oppressions intersect because of systems of power within CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY.   They could intersect because of feudal patriarchy.  They could intersect in a slave based economy.  But, since we are living in a capitalist system, it makes sense to connect oppressions to their place and role in capitalism.

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In an overview of my readings, there are a range of critiques of intersectionality beyond identity politics.  Some activists find that intersectionality had radical roots, but was tamed over time by white feminists.  The Black feminist history was forgotten and it has become a meaningless buzzword.  Other critique has suggested that it has sucked up all of the air in academia for other feminist theories.  Some activists feel that the strength of the theory is that it is incomplete, since that lends itself to debate, discussion, interpretation, etc.   Others argue that it is postpositivist, making it hard to study or measure.  On the other hand, I read an article which used multiple regression to tease out how self-reported identities (as variables) correlate to particular political actions.  In this case, intersectionality was measurable in a statistical sense.   Perhaps the best response I read to the whole debate was one from an anarchist feminist group in the UK.  The group (sorry I forgot the name), admitted that intersectionality is debated and has some limits.  They approached intersectionality tactically.  It is a popular word.  It means a lot to many people and in the simplest sense, it means considering how oppression is interconnected.  Keeping in mind how some groups may feel excluded, unwelcome, forgotten, or unsafe in a social movement or social movement organization, only serves to strengthen and broaden the power of an organization/movement.  I completely agree!

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Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional March in Pittsburgh

Of course, approaching intersectionality tactically is not without its challenges and problems.  For one, no organizations can be everything to everyone…at one time.   The point of social movement organizations is usually to organize around an issue that impacts a particular group of people.  For instance, the Homeless Bill of Rights Coalition is organizing around passing an ordinance that would give more protections to people experiencing homelessness.  Surely, homelessness is connected to many intersections such as race, class, family status, criminal background, disability, health, etc.  I think that the group does a good job, since meetings usually occur at a location that houses homeless people and free food is always provided.  But, child care it not provided (to my knowledge) nor is there sign language translation or Spanish translation.  There is no mini van that roams the city, picking up people to attend the meeting.  By not providing these things, it is very possible that someone in the community could be excluded.  This is not the fault of the coalition, but should demonstrate that social movement organizations are limited in both their financial and personnel resources.  There may not be enough members for childcare, not enough money for a van, not enough members to provide everyone with rides, etc.  While in a perfect world it would be wonderful if social movement organizations could provide supports so that every single interested person can participate in the movement, in practice, this puts demands on individual activists which are better directed at the state (with far more resources).  You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.  Perfect intersectionality in the context of capitalism is impossible as few of us have the financial wherewithal to make it possible.  But, this creates new possibility for new intersections.  We need social movements to fight for free daycare, socialized health care, and public transportation to make it possible for the broadest swath of society to participate in capitalism’s overthrow.

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Another tactical limitation of intersectionality is that it is alright for there to be autonomous social movements/organizations.  It is alright for there to be a black feminist group.  It is alright for there to be a trans group.  It is alright for there to be an environmental group that focuses on mining or another that focuses only on fighting pipelines.  Again, there are so many issues and so many ways that people are oppressed that it makes sense to divide up the work.  Not only is this practical, it benefits those involved.  A bisexual/pansexual group is useful since it helps build identity, leadership, and demands (which helps strengthen the larger, broader struggle against heterosexism).  Of course, all of these individual groups should be mindful of how their issues intersect.  Forming coalitions, working together, planning broader events, co-sponsoring, pooling resources, etc. are all benefits of working intersectionality.  But, at any given moment, a group that fights pipelines does not have to address agism, sexism, racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, and every other ism in one fell swoop.  Sometimes it is enough just to fight pipe lines.  Yet, any effective organization will make an ongoing effort to address some of these things.  This builds power in the movement.  Again, a single organization cannot be everything to everyone all at once.


I have said it before but the biggest barrier to intersectionality is capitalism.  Those who are the most dedicated members in the Feminist Justice League face multiple oppressions.  We are all working class.  Many of us are women.  Some of us are survivors.  Some of us have disabilities.  Some of us have criminal backgrounds.  I know that I personally make an effort to connect gender oppression to other oppressions.  I know I have failed.  I also know that our organization does not perfectly create space and opportunities for everyone.  We are activists, but we are also oppressed.  We operate within the limits of capitalism.  We have no budget as an organization.  I personally do not have time or the emotional resources to be a taxi, nanny, or nurse to a social movement.  I am a socialist, but I am not socialism.  Certainly our failures to be intersectional can be attributed to some personal and organizational failures, but I would say that the biggest barrier is the lack of access to resources in capitalism.  Capitalism itself divides various sectors of the working class.  It obscures class politics and the meaning of class.  Capitalism divides people along racial lines.  It incarcerates and kills in the interest of profit and property.  Capitalism creates gender roles that ensure that no profits are diverted into caring for children or the elderly.  It limits access to abortion.  Everyone woman will produce the next generation of workers and soldiers, or else.  It destroys the environment and makes us believe that we are its chosen people, so that our Have Nots fight the global Have Nots.  This is the power of capitalism, which impacts us all in different ways and to varying degrees, but, the bottom line is that it impacts us all.

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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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