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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.

WC_28_WorldImp

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.

capitalism_belongs_in_the_trash_by_commie_kun-db1jm0w

 


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

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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