Thursday, December 29, 2005

Why I have no intention of going to see "Memoirs of a Geisha"

As the usual pre-Oscar marketing blitz takes hold I am increasingly being subjected to queries about when I'm planning to go see "Memoirs of a Geisha". The simple answer is, some time after hell freezes over.
In a way I suppose I know why people are asking what to me seems like a completely asinine question to be asking a feminist married to an Asian man. My interest in Japanese pop culture is fairly well known at work, mostly due to the fact that I have little badges of one of my favourite bands (L'arc En Ciel, in case anyone was wondering) decorating the bag I take to work (and yes, I know having badges on my bag is kind of juvenile - so shoot me). Since the badges are of cute little cartoon figures of the band, this tends to lead to people asking me what they're all about, hence my fondness for the Japanese rock scene being fairly well known to my co-workers.
Why this should lead anyone to assume that I would want to see a crappy Hollywood blockbuster about a faux-Japanese woman being forced into sexual slavery by a rigidly patriarchal culture that hardly even exists and more is, however, a little difficult to understand.
Why do I despise the very idea of this movie? Oh, let me count the ways. Firstly, the book on which the movie is based is in turn loosely (and I mean VERY loosely) based on the memoirs of an actual former geisha. The woman in question is on record stating that she is not at all happy with what the (sexist, racist, clearly not too bright) American author did with her memoirs. Indeed, Mr Golden should consider himself lucky that the woman in question's very Japanese good manners have thus far prevented her from giving him the taking down that he so richly deserves for his very silly book.
Secondly, memo for racist Hollywood executives - I hate to break it to you but, despite what you seem to believe, all Asian people do not in fact look alike. Japanese and Chinese people in particular do not look alike at all. Over Christmas the subject of this movie came up while I was having dinner with my in laws (note - I was the only non-Asian person in the room). The first comment made by each and every person was "but she looks so Chinese!". This is in no way intended as an insult,by the way - Zhang Ziyi is a very beautiful woman. What she is quite clearly not, however, is Japanese. And why, pray tell, does her character in this movie have blue eyes? She's not supposed to be hapa - were the creators of this movie under the impression that colored contacts were in common use in Kyoto during the 1930s?
So, all the main female roles in the movie (with one exception which is a fairly minor role) are played by Chinese actresses, none of whom look remotely Japanese. The wierdness of this is even more emphasised by the fact that all of the leading actors are Japanese, which leads to a rather odd visual effect - in what strange country inhabited only by Chinese women with wierd fake-looking blue eyes and Japanese men is this story supposed to be set?
Secondly, why did they film most of the movie in California? Golden Gate Park is very pretty, but it doesn't exactly bear an overwhelming resemblence to the traditional gardens of Kyoto. To anyone who's ever seen the real Kyoto, even in pictures, the scenery is downright distracting. The trees and flowers are all wrong. You keep expecting a couple of Deadheads to come ambling out of the bushes and offer Sayuri a hit off their bong.
Thirdly, why are some of the characters speaking with strange faux-Japanese accents? Either English or Japanese would be fine, but pick a language and stick with it. The dialect in this film is verging on Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's levels of offensiveness in some of the clips I've seen. Was there really any need for that?
Fourthly, could you find a more offensive stereotype of the passive, compliant Asian woman than the geisha? No wonder the white male racists who run the movie business love the idea of this movie. They'll be eating it up in Peoria, mark my words. Our MRA friends will be in heaven.
Fifthly, why does American pop culture persist in painting Japan as a country trapped in amber, as if wandering ronin still walked the land? From Shogun to Lost In Translation to this, I've yet to see an American movie dealing with Japan that didn't make me want to either throw something at the screen or curl up in embarrasment while apologising profusely for the stupidity of my countrymen.
And speaking of Lost in Translation, Chris Doyle (fabulous Aussie born, HK based cinematographer) had a great rant about that movie and what it says about Western racism and cultural arrogance. I'd love to see what he has to say about this steaming pile of stereotypes.
Lastly, if they really had to make this stupid movie, couldn't they have at least have noticed that the lot of the geisha was not a happy one, and I don't mean in a faux-romantic/tragic way but in a quite genuine sexual slavery and being required to kiss ass for a living really sucks kind of way? And I know I'm going on about this, but could they really not find a Japanese actress to play the lead? If one was making a blockbuster with a Japanese female lead who is required to sing, dance and play musical instruments wouldn't you think that they logical person to cast would be, say, Ayumi Hamasaki (who not only used to be an actress but can actually sing)? Of course, Ms Hamasaki would have probably had enough common sense and general self respect to refuse to have anything to do with this pile of crap.
Finally - have the producers of this movie never heard the phrase "comfort women"? To make a movie about Japan featuring a cast of Chinese actresses and have them play, of all things, glorified prostitutes...the mind boggles.
Please don't misunderstand me - I like Zhang Ziyi, and I LOVE Gong Li, who is one of the most talented actresses working today and who deserves far better than this exploitative nonsense. It's just that the whole idea of this project pretty much stinks from start to finish. What the hell were any of the people involved thinking? And are American audiences really stupid enough to think that the life of a geisha was "romantic", and to be unable to tell the difference between a Chinese and a Japanese woman? Sadly, I suspect that the answer to both is probably yes. How very depressing.
The SF Bay Guardian has a number of notable comments about this movie in this week's issue, including one that called in a slap in the face to all Asian Americans. Judging from the reactions it's getting from the people I know, that seems to be a not uncommon reaction. Merry fucking Christmas from Hollywood, where sexism and racism are both still very much the order of the day.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Things that really piss me off, Part 1 - The Abortion Wars

Propaganda on BART
OK, as of now I am officially pissed. What did I see as I was taking the train into work this morning that made me want to throw my coffee cup at the wall and go find the person responsible so I could kick his or her ass, you ask? Well, I’m happy to share. What I saw was an anti-abortion propaganda poster from something called the Respect for Life Ministry in Oakland. The poster featured a blurry picture of a woman clutching protectively at her belly with text saying something along the lines of “The Supreme Court made abortion legal up till 9 months. Don’t you think we’ve gone too far?”.
Firstly, respect for whose life? Certainly not mine, which was not improved in any way by having to read this crap before my morning coffee. I’m not seeing how this improves the lives of all the American citizens currently getting shot at by the Iraqi resistance, either, or all the Katrina victims who are still waiting for someone to find them a permanent place to live. There are actual crises going on where those who have a genuine desire to preserve and improve the lives of others could be a real help if they chose to, and this is what these idiots are worried about?
I’m so sick and tired of this disingenuous bullshit from the fetus-fetishists. First of all, abortion is not in fact generally legal up to 9 months. Really late-term abortions are only legal in cases of extreme fetal abnormalities or risk to the life of the mother. It is not in fact possible for a woman who is 8 and a half months pregnant to walk into a clinic and say “I’d like an abortion now, please, I just suddenly upped and changed my mind. Oopsie, silly me!”. Despite how much those who fetishise the fetus would like to believe it, most abortions do not in fact happen in the third trimester, and the few that do happen for serious medical reasons. These procedures are not done on a whim.
Secondly, who is this “we” of whom they speak? Most Americans support legalized abortion. These crass attempts at emotional manipulation are nothing more than an attempt to get around that basic fact by misleading the public into thinking that something truly shocking is happening, when in fact the reality is much more mundane.
Here’s the really creepy thing. While I’m sure that there are a few anti-abortion zealots so uneducated that they really do believe that women are randomly running out and getting abortions in the eighth month of pregnancy for completely trivial reasons, I’m also pretty sure that those are not the people who are running campaigns like this. I’m sure that most of the people who design posters like this are very well aware that the only abortions that happen really late in pregnancy happen because the fetus is so genetically abnormal that it’s life expectancy outside the womb would be very short, or because continuing with the pregnancy would place the life of the mother in danger. So, if they are aware of the reality, why send out messages that attempt to mask that reality? There are only two reasons as far as I can see. One, they are so determined to win people over to their cause that they don’t care if the have to lie to do it. Secondly, they honestly think that danger to the life of the mother just isn’t all that important. I’m betting on the second, actually.
Can we please just stop pretending that these people don’t hate women?
So, I’m officially pissed. Is it even legal for religious organizations to prosthelatise on public transport? And why, in an area as liberal as this, would the BART officials agree to sell advertising space to these lunatics? I’m thinking that this may be a great opportunity for a bit of citizen activism. This is not Kansas, folks, and this crap has no place in the Bay Area. I’m getting mighty tired of the religious right’s attempts to intrude on my personal space, and I see no reason why people should be forced to look at religious propaganda while they’re commuting to work in the morning. So, Bay Area folks, is there anything we can do about this? Start some kind of campaign to let BART know that this stuff is not acceptable in the Bay Area?

Monday, December 12, 2005

On Brokeback Mountain and how women really feel about hot guys making out

I saw a really interesting discussion over at Pandagon the other day which, due to my recent blogging hiatus, I didn't stumble across until everyone else had moved on, so I thought I'd resart the conversation here. The initial post was about the movie Brokeback Mountain and one homophobic little weenie's horrified response, in which he asserted that all American as disgusted by the very thought of anal sex, and that no-one wants to see two hot young actors going at it on the big screen, therefore the movie is destined to be a failure.
It took me a while to stop laughing for long enough to be able to type, but now that I've calmed down a bit, I wanted to address the many layers of bullshit in this idiot's argument.
First of all, no one wants to see two hot young men men making out? Is this guy smoking crack? Firstly, about 10% of the male population is gay, and an unspecified further number are bisexual/bicurious. Does this guy think that these men don't buy movie tickets? Like I said, the idea is laughable.
The more interesting thing that he's overlooking, at least to me, is a quite different phenemenon, though. Namely, that a significant percentage of the straight female population LOVES to watch hot young men make out. Tempting as it is to just mock our homophobic little friend for his sexual ignorance, I suspect that many other straight men in this country are under exactly the same illusion, and I find that interesting. A quick poll of my female friends finds that at least 50% would be VERY happy to watch a couple of hot young guys making out, although most of us are less enthusiastic about gay porn per se, the reason cited usually being that it's a bit too agressive for most of our tastes. Given that, why the disconnect between what so many women actually find sexy and men's perception of what women find sexy?
I don't really have an answer on that one, but I do have a few theories. Firstly, I think it may just be an aspect of the generalised idea floating around in our society that women are fundamentally asexual, and that our sexuality only exists as a function of what men need in order to get off. I'm sorry to be so crass, but that does seem to be a fairly common viewpoint. From that point of view, the idea that women have any desires that aren't useful to the average straight guy becomes puzzling.
The bigger thing going on here, though, is our culture's continuing insistence that men cannot and should not ever be viewed as sexual objects. Or, to put it in academic language, one of our culture's central myths is not so much that women do not have "the gaze" (although that's a part of the issue), as it is that men are not ever supposed to be the objects of the gaze.
As I've said before, I think this idea is ludicrous. I objectify men all the time. So does every other straight or bi woman I know. The fact that our culture stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that that ever happens is a source of frequent amusement to me.
This underlying cultural phenomenon becomes immediately apparent when discussing the idea that women like looking at men making out. Most men I've ever had this conversation with have looked at me with blank incomprehension, as if I had just suggested something that their brains were simply not able to process. The idea that men are never sexual objects, and that women don't have enough sexual energy of their own to feel the need to objectify others, is so prevalant that most people never even question it. Try to talk to anyone in academia about "the gaze" and you'll see what I mean.
The wierd thing about this is, this idea about who has the gaze and who does not is not universal across all societies. Example - as anyone reading this probably knows, I'm interested in Japanese pop culture. Within that pop culture, there is a positive glut of homoerotic imagery produced specifically for female consumption. You see it in manga, you see it in anime, and you see it in the music industry. In fact, one of my favourite Japanese pop stars is notorious for the fact that all of his live shows feature a great deal of homoerotic play between him and his band members. Watch a video of those live shows, and you can clearly see that the homoerotic moments are what really makes the little girls scream in Beatlemania-like ecstasy. The singer in question refers to these cleverly staged homoerotic tableaux as "fanservice", and claims that he himself is straight and is putting on a show in order to make his female fans happy (and on behalf of those female fans I say - thanks, babe, we appreciate it!).
If you're a woman who likes looking at hot guys fool around in Japan, there is an entire section of the pop culture devoted to making you happy. This is perfectly logical, as the people who produce music, movies etc are not stupid and know which side their bread is buttered on. The question is, why is there no equivalent material catering to the desire of women to watch hot boys make out in the US? Given the worship of the almighty dollar that prevails over here, you would think that someone would have identified this market segment which is so woefully underserved and come up with some product to sell women like me and my friends. Why haven't they?
Postcript : for those who are shaking their heads and wondering what the hell I'm talking about in regards to the prevalance of pretty boys fooling around in Japanese pop culture, I recommend Googling the term "bishonen". It's very illuminating, and does tend to make you wonder why our culture has failed to produce much in the way of a similar phenomenon.

PS Does anyone here know how to create trackbacks in Blogger? I feel like I should be giving Amanda credit for starting me musing on this topic.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Quick repost of something I posted at Alas. I realised that I'm carpetblogging, as Arwen puts it, again, so I thought I'd move the conversation back over here. The topic at hand - race as a component of identity. I need to go to bed soon, but I'll come back and tidy this up tomorrow.
I really do think that Americans are insane on the topic of race, by the way. A few months ago I had a fellow leftist feminist call me a racist because I said that I was attracted to Asian men. Not "I love the culture because I have some ignorant idea that it is X, Y and Z" or "I think that men from Asia have X characteristics", just that I tend to find Asian men in general more physically attractive than other demographics, although not exclusively so (I was talking about a particular group of Japanese rock stars, FYI). Only in America could that be construed as racist.
Anyway, re-post below. Thoughts?

Also, this was interesting (about the idea of in-groups)“Now, people are not necessarily naturally racist in the sense that they are hardwired to define “their own kind” in terms that are based on race; generally it is based on whom they associate with; however, for most of human history people were a lot more segregated by race than they are now, so “their own kind” was determined racially. Moreover, as the preference for “one’s own kind” is related to the biological imperative to spread one’s genes, “nature’s intent” as it were was for the preference to be racial (i.e. to benefit those in the same extended family) and race is probably the easiest category for people to develop the sense of “ones’ own kind” with.
Just look at how many “primitive” tribes’ (i.e. not integrated into modern civilization) names for themselves are “the people”? or “the true people” or something like that.”
//My comment begins here///
Here’s the thing. More and more as time goes on and mass communications, cheap and frequent travel etc become factors, what people see as signifying “one’s own kind” may be changing.Take me as an example. When I think of “my kind” race has nothing to do with it. I’m much more likely to identify people of a different race who belong to the same subcultures as me (goth, BSDM, artsy/creative) as “my kind” than people of my own race who look superficially like me but do not share my subcultural identifications. So, for example, a white Evangelical soccer mom with 3 kids who is as conventional as can be and has never left the town in Arkansas she grew up in? Not “my kind”. Someone involved in the Japanese visual kei scene with a creative job? “My kind”. Bill O’Reilly? Not “my kind”, even though we’re not only both white but both Celts who were brought up as Christians. The woman I met last week on the train who is trying to carve out a career for herself as a dancer who I spent half an hour talking leftist poltitics with, who happens to be from Brazil? “My kind”. Race is only one of the factors that make up identity.Of course I had a wierd upbringing (ex-pat/Third Culture kid) and that may have something to do with it, but I think that outside the poisonous racial politics that still prevail in much of the US, the idea of race as one’s primary marker of identity is on the wane, at least for a certain (admittedly elite) section of society. Honestly, I think that most Americans don’t realise how much more blatantly racist than most other societies their country is. I’ve never been anyplace as race-concious as the American South.Which is another relevant point. The idea of race in most societies is intimately bound up with the idea of class. The higher up the social ladder you look, the less race matters. This is true in every country I’ve ever lived in, and I’ve lived on 4 different continents.
I’m probably getting a bit off topic so I’ll quit now, but I do think it’s worth noting that the obsession with the idea of race as the one and only way to classify people, and the refusal to recognise how class is tied into that, is somewhat of a uniquely American issue.Also, I’d argue with the idea that people always historically defined “their own kind” by race. If a population was geographically isolated and had no contact with other racial groups, how would that even be possible? the idea of race is oppositional in nature - how would people define themselves that way if they had no outside group to compare themselves to?
This part in particular freaked me out.” Moreover, as the preference for “one’s own kind” is related to the biological imperative to spread one’s genes, “nature’s intent” as it were was for the preference to be racial (i.e. to benefit those in the same extended family)” If you’re suggesting what you seem to be suggesting, I can only point out that in every society in which people of differing races have co-existed, they have had sex with and had children with each other. If your idea that a “preference for one’s own kind” is related to the imperative to “spread one’s genes” was true, that wouldn’t happen, and yet it does, every time. Proving, once again, that there’s nothing inherant about racism.