How (Not) to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Australian model Jennifer Hawkins posing with the cup

Australian model Jennifer Hawkins posing with the cup

This Tuesday Australia was again witness to the “race that stops a nation”  – the annual Melbourne Cup. Amid the gaudy headpieces, peacocking men and drunken stumbling, another common tragedy struck: two of the horses died, one in its stall from a heart attack after the race, and the other put down for a broken leg after being spooked by the crowd. While horses often die because of racing (or are put down when they are no longer winning) this year’s events seemed to strike a chord with people, and there was an outpouring of grief on both social media and a huge amount of coverage in the press. This was not without backlash – some people reacted by highlighting the other human tragedies that happen every day, arguing with people along the lines of “why should we care about two racehorses when there are so many other things to worry about”. Indeed on the same day – and getting very little news coverage – it was reported that an Iranian refugee sent to the island nation of Nauru by the Australian Government, was stoned and then beaten, as tensions on the island escalated between locals and the refugees being forced to stay there.

A picture from Animals Australia shared on Facebook

A picture from Animals Australia, shared on Facebook

But with horror happening all around us, what are we to do? Can we really ask people to stop caring about horses being tortured while refugees are too, as if caring about one thing is a callous distraction? I thought about this for some time.

I decided that it is a bit of a dick move to call people out for caring about another creature’s pain. What the outpouring of grief for the racehorses says to me is that people are capable of a great deal of compassion and that caring about one thing is not mutually exclusive to another. What we may even be seeing is a critical point where people are actually feeling emotional about the current state of affairs generally, 978-0-8223-4107-9-frontcoverwhich gets crystallised around strange and unexpected events such as this year’s Melbourne Cup.

American theorist Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects explores this very idea – that in daily life we are subject to an overarching and low-burning trauma, as we are subject to all kinds of pressures and misfortunes. We can get by most of the time without noticing these negative daily “affects”- sensations felt in the body – but sometimes they boil over into big and unfortunate events, like a pressure valve momentarily releasing everyone’s pain and struggle.

An image of the march for Jill Meagher in Melbourne

An image of the march for Jill Meagher in Melbourne

Another example of the kind of debate over “what matters more” happened after the murder of Australian journalist Jill Meagher in 2012. In an unusual case, Meagher was subject to sexual violence and was killed by a stranger, after walking home alone at night in the busy streets of Brunswick. With her last moments eerily captured on CCTV, many Australians were deeply moved by the case, and a week after her death 30,000 people marched down Sydney Road in her memory. While some responded by criticising the march for not focusing on the “real” issues of violence facing women (such as the fact that being subject to stranger violence is much less common than domestic violence), this kind of critique only served to alienate people who were experiencing grief and concern. I imagine for many people it was precisely the low-lying “ordinary affect” of fear that many women experience on a daily basis (especially walking home alone) that was being expressed in the march. The Meagher case was a nightmare made real within a broader context where women experience violence and sexism every day.

another_world_is_possibleThe lesson to take away from all of this is that when people demonstrate that they care about an issue, getting angry at them for not caring about something else isn’t going to work. Instead, it can be a good time to raise awareness of broader issues and how these connect up. After all, it is the same world that allows horses to be tortured for the benefit of billionaires, while refugees are used as political pawns. We don’t need to choose to have feelings about one thing and not the other. Perhaps we do need to think about the kind of world we want to live in, a world where neither of these things are possible – and how in fact we might get there.

Advertisements

What a Bust: Sexy Dressing Revisited

Something funny happened to me this week. Bettina Arndt contacted a mailing list I am part of, asking for research related to an article she wanted to write on the way women dress. Arndt said she was interested in writing about the paradox that when women dress sexily they don’t necessarily appreciate men paying them attention. I didn’t think much of it. Being a PhD student, I hardly felt qualified to be giving advice. But later I came across what seemed a very relevant text – Duncan Kennedy’s Sexy Dressing – so I emailed it to Arndt, to which she replied with thanks.

One of Arndt's controversial books

I then had a dawning realisation that Arndt isn’t just another academic, she’s that infamous and controversial sex therapist and columnist. I remembered where I had heard the name before – Arndt came to the Australian National University last June to promote her book What Men Want (spoiler: “more sex”), which was met with much protest from students. My inner feminista gave a little squirm.

But then, I thought about the content of Kennedy’s Sexy Dressing that I had emailed to Arndt (see also Kennedy’s Sexy Dressing, Etc). Written from a legal perspective, Kennedy asserts that there is power in women dressing provocatively, but promotes a sex-positive approach with an aim to reduce the sexual abuse experienced by some women that do dress sexily. Kennedy’s work has not gone down well with a number of feminist writers, given his endorsement of women’s eroticism for male heterosexual pleasure (see Janet Halley’s discussion of some reactions to Kennedy in Split Decisions). Basically Kennedy asserts that men have a stake in reducing sexual violence, abuse and crime, “so we can get on with playing within while evolving the [sexual fantasy] repertoire”. All in all I felt fine about sending this controversial sex- and desire-positive piece over, given that it so strongly asserts the need to differentiate between sexy dress/play and sexual abuse.

This morning I turned on the television to find Weekend Sunrise’s presenters discussing Arndt’s article “Busted: the politics of cleavage and a glance” appearing in today’s Sun-Herald (I wouldn’t normally watch this show, but I was waiting for PopAsia to come on, naturally). Arndt’s article basically frames women’s sexy dressing as a power often wielded unwittingly, that keeps men in “a state of sexual deprivation, dealing with constant rejection”.

Arndt's formula: women put it out there, men ogle

Unlike Kennedy, who frames his entire discussion around concerns of violence, Arndt only briefly touches on the issue, stating that “of course” men shouldn’t be sexually violent towards women because of the way they dress. The article paints women (especially the “young” women she refers to) as the naive commanders of sexuality, with sexual weaponry at their disposal (read: boobs). Men don’t fare any better, with Arndt stating that men are “lousy” at picking up on non-verbal cues in courtship (apparently all they see is boobs).

Aside from the binary-stereotype-reinforcements going on, there are so many problems that I have with this article that I can barely express them. Here’s a few: 1. It reinforces the idea that women are the only ones that put sex on display and that men are the only receptors of this (ignoring that men might also be negatively sexually objectified or that women might  be more than just “givers” of sexuality). 2. It doesn’t seem sex positive– rather than making some suggestions about how we might healthily negotiate the sexual power that Arndt accuses us of, she effectively condemns it, “with so many women now feeling absolutely entitled to dress as they like”. 3. It overlooks the many other directions sexuality might go in, not just orientation-wise (women can find women sexy too), but issues of domination and how these might figure in conversations about sexual power are not discussed.

An image from Chicago's SlutWalk

4. Last but not least, it only vaguely considers sexual violence and really does seem to suggest that women “invite” attention through the way they dress- yet I get wolf whistled at by men even when I’m dressed in tracky dacks and a baggy old t-shirt, it’s disgusting and I hate it!

I am deeply disheartened by this article, and can only hope that it invites greater discussion about sexy dressing in a way that moves beyond the simple and sensationalist stereotypes that Arndt presents.