Saturday, 30 March 2013

Rant about the Sex Life of Giant Pandas

I used to LOVE going to the Berlin zoo.  This is because that is where I met my “secondary boyfriend” Bao Bao.  It is also where our romance blossomed and finally came to an end when Bao Bao passed away last August.  Snif.  I haven’t been back since.

I always visited the zoo with my “primary boyfriend” F, an understanding fella, since he would patiently wait while I fawned at the panda enclosure for what must have felt like an eternity. 

F doesn’t like zoos.  He thinks the most interesting species at any zoo, in a disturbing and aggravating kind of way, is the homo sapiens.  People often tend to get quite rude and aggressive with their cameras and stick them as close as possible to the animals’ faces, ignoring all “no photography” signs as well as fellow humans also trying to get a glimpse of the imprisoned creatures.  This is particularly bad in Berlin, where visitors are often permitted VERY close to the animals. 

The other reason F doesn’t like zoos is the treatment of animals.  He says it is torture to keep for example a polar bear or a cheetah – both species used to travelling large distances in the wild – in a small zoo enclosure.  While I don’t disagree with him, it does baffle me how he, and many people who think like him, are nonetheless happy meat-munchers.  That, however, might be a post for another day.

I must admit that for a long time I didn’t really think much about the ethics of zoos.  I just liked seeing animals.  When I did think about it, I thought there were two reasons why zoos were acceptable, both linked to the protection of endangered species:
  1. Some animals have trouble conceiving in the wild and local populations have shrunk so much that genetic diversity becomes precariously limited.  Zoo breeding programs, in which animals are loaned to other zoos so that they can mate with partners with a different genetic makeup, can arguably help make the worldwide population healthier.
  2. Zoos sensitise and educate people about animals in a way that is hard to achieve in other ways.  I must admit that seeing a lion or a gorilla for the first time impressed me, even if I had previously seen them both on TV.

With my recent obsession with pandas I have learnt that the first of these reasons is not as persuasive as I once thought.  While breeding giant pandas in captivity, in particular in zoos, has been extremely difficult (including Bao Bao’s failed attempts with an earlier girlfriend Ming Ming on a romantic getaway in London), this does not mean that they don’t procreate in the wild.  They’re just shy, and who can blame them.  Would you feel particularly aroused with a horde of vets and in the worst case scenario curious visitors peeping at your intimate moments...?  In fact it appears that the giant panda population is on the increase, in particular due to the Chinese government’s efforts at enlarging reserves and creating green corridors between them.  (Lots more info here.)  So perhaps that is the way forward, rather than imprisoning pandas in zoos.

The second reason probably still remains.  However, is it – on its own – enough?  While zoos give kids in particular an opportunity to see and learn about species they would possibly otherwise not appreciate or understand, this may not be enough to justify the expense and cruelty of the institution. 

I wonder, will zoos slowly disappear and be just a relic we think about shaking our heads 50 years from now?

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Rant against Funny Women

A few weeks ago I wrote about funny women, and suggested that we feminists could also lighten up a bit from time to time.  British feminist Laurie Perry disagrees.  Writing about Naomi Wolf’s latest book Perry takes a general swipe at the present generation of what she calls “celebrity faux-feminists” who “provoke without challenging” and whose point is “not to challenge patriarchy, but to distract attention away from it”.

Are funny feminists missing the point?  Or worse, more or less willingly perpetuating the problem they are committed to fighting?  What is, more generally, the role of humour in political activism?

I’m a fan of stand-up comedy and good stand-up is often political and risqué.  For example, Finnish-Iranian comedian Ali Jahangiri makes “pizza jokes”, where a part of his routine revolves around a stereotypical immigrant pizzeria owner that speaks Finnish with a “funny” accent.  Or Bülent Ceylan, a hugely popular German comedian, who in shows such as “Döner for one” entertains his crowd with a never ending flow of stereotypes about Turkish immigrants.

First point I need to make is that these are the kinds of jokes that Jahangiri and Ceylan can make.  I cannot, and neither can you unless you are a dark-skinned immigrant in Finland or a German of Turkish extraction.  I can joke about women as bitches, whereas men cannot.  Only a disabled person can make “cripple” jokes, only a gay person can make “fag” jokes and only a holocaust survivor can make holocaust jokes.  Nobody except a person who is personally the butt of the joke can make them,* in every other instance the issue is highly likely to be one of prejudice and offense masquerading as humour.

I would have thought that this was pretty self-evident, but it continues to baffle me how common “rape jokes” are.  (If you don’t believe me, see here, here and here for just a few recent examples.)  So here comes the angry feminist: Stop making them!  They’re not funny!  In fact they’re incredibly hurtful, offensive and threatening!  Only a rape victim can make a rape joke and even that has to be about her (or him, in fairness), NOT about a veiled threat towards the person to whom it is addressed.

Having covered the basics, I get to the second, more important point: Is it funny?  The problem with my two examples of Jahangiri and Ceylan is that they are not very funny.**  They take a stereotype and pander to it.  This is, I think, the problem that Laurie Perry was complaining about in the New Statesman column I linked above.  It is also the problem that Ariel Levy discussed in Female Chauvinist Pigs addressing the emergence of a whole cultural phenomenon whereby men did not have to make stereotypical jokes about women, as women were making them.  That indeed risks distracting attention from the problem, and even reinforcing it.  The thinking goes as follows: Sexual objectification of women’s bodies must be okay, since women are doing it. And in any event, it’s just a bit of fun, a joke, geddit?  Don’t be such a tightarse.  Chillax, get a sense of humour!

Same with the pizza jokes: Immigrants, their accents and the fact that they end up starting fast food businesses because of employment discrimination in Finland cannot be that serious, if Jahangiri is making a joke of it.

A good political joke does not take a stereotype and reinforce it.  It takes a stereotype and turns it on its head, SUBVERTS it.  That is funny, smart, fresh, surprising... and therefore effective as a tool in political activism.  I could give plenty of examples but my present favourite is the hilarious and fiendishly intelligent Chris Rock with this video, made in the run up to the 2012 US presidential election.  He takes the stereotype of white prejudice against a black president and ...

Well, see – and laugh – for yourself.

What's your view?  Are rude and offensive jokes ok?  Where does the line go?  Are there any lines or is everything permitted, as long as it is funny?  Do jokes make a good addition to the activist toolbox?

*Yes, I know that Phyllis Diller’s fat jokes that I linked in my 3 March post fail this test. Darn!
**With the exception of the name.  "Döner for one" is actually a pretty funny twist on "Dinner for one" -- a weird German New Year's tradition.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Rant about Chocolate

When I was at university, our student Amnesty group got a visit from Professor Kevin Bales, a sociologist who had written a book called Disposable People based on his investigation into the shameful practice of modern slavery that I knew nothing about when I entered the meeting.  Filmmakers Brian Edwards and Kate Blewett had produced the documentary “Slavery”, which had recently aired on Channel 4, following Bales’ research.

I came out of that room deeply shaken.  The practice was not only odious but appeared to be remarkably widespread.  The examples of real life stores that Bales had encountered during his investigations ranged from bricklayers in debt bondage in Pakistan to domestic workers in Paris.  But the most appalling examples he had, illustrated by real pictures of backs crisscrossed by lash strokes that you do not expect to see outside the set of a Tarantino movie in this day and age, were from cocoa plantations in Côte D’Ivoire.  

Being the young idealist that I was, I got together with a fellow-student Elizabeth to form a group called Oxford Anti-Slavery Campaign that mostly wrote outraged letters as far as I can remember.  As a massive personal sacrifice that best illustrates my dedication to the cause, I also stopped eating chocolate, except the Fair Trade kind.

Then Elizabeth and I finished university, got other things on our mind, and moved on.  However, I had clearly not been the only chocoholic to change my habits upon learning about the industry practices, as the American Chocolate Manufacturers Association not long thereafter published a convincing protocol of steps it was taking to clean up its act.  I felt vindicated and celebrated with a well-deserved choco-binge.

As it transpires, I gave up too easily.  Half a year ago author Elina Hirvonen, who lives most of the time in Zambia, criticised in her column in Helsingin Sanomat the chocolate industry for essentially the same gruesome tricks I’d heard about ten years ago.  It singled out the Finnish candy giant Fazer for hypocrisy for its ad campaign that promised to spend 5 cents for every bar sold to build a school in Côte d’Ivoire – much cheaper than actually getting rid of the repulsive practices in cocoa farms, as Ms Hirvonen pointed out.  This caused a surprising public uproar, maybe because it so clearly accused such a well-known and respected “feel-good” brand as Fazer.  The company replied immediately, issuing a sickly-sweet press release that apologised if its campaign had caused offence and of course promising to “do more” to ensure responsible practices in its production chain, starting from those cocoa plantations.  Nothing concrete, but one can see that they’re feeling the heat.

This shows that constant vigilance must accompany consumer boycotts and companies should, in most cases, NOT be given the benefit of the doubt, but be made to prove, and prove again, that they are not only window-dressing, but have in fact implemented systematic changes not only to their practices but also to their corporate culture.

As for me, I’ve lost Elizabeth’s contact details, so a return to the Fair Trade days it is, until the industry convinces me that something more has been done, and will continue to be done even when the activists turn their gaze elsewhere.  Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice ...  Well, that won’t happen, will it now.

I’d be interested to hear your experiences of successful (as well as unsuccessful) consumer boycotts, and what other ways you know of impacting reprehensible corporate behaviour.

(p.s. While scouring the internet to find the references for this post, I came across a lot of up-to-date disturbing stuff on modern slavery.  In case anyone wants to follow-up on that broader topic, for example Anti-Slavery International and Free the Slaves have good resources available online.)

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Rant about Funny Women

There are these enduring images of what a “feminist” looks like in our collective consciousness.  Let’s see...  She is not terribly attractive.  She is not wearing make-up, or a bra.  She’s in loose clothing, but if you get a glimpse under her arms, you will see that her pits are hairy. 

Most importantly: She is angry.  Her fist is waving in the air and she is shouting.

Well, ladies and gents, there has been a lot to be angry about, and to some extent there still is.  But this does not mean that we should be angry all the time, and I also admit that sometimes the message gets across better when made in a funny way.

This is something I have discovered recently to my delight: funny feminists.  I read Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman not too long ago, ready to be disappointed after all the reviews raving how hilarious it was.  To my surprise I discovered that it was... hilarious.  Here is a pretty good portrait/review that gives the gist of some of the stuff.  I also found my current favourite feminist rant site Bitch through a link to this LOL-worthy “review”.  What better way of saying it than with pictures of cats?

Then there are of course women whose job it is to be funny, and even when not “feminists” in the deliberate sense, they are in fact trailblazers in an industry where not having a penis is a real disadvantage, as a recent interesting, but rather depressing study shows:

“Gender determines the proportion of speaker and audience laughter.  Whether they are speaker or audience (in mixed-sex groups), women laugh more often than men. ... Neither males nor females laugh as much with female speakers as they do with male speakers, helping to explain the paucity of female comedians.

On average, men are the best laugh getters. ... Laughter is sexy.  Women laughing at men are responding to more than their prowess in comedy.  Women are attracted to men who make them laugh (ie, "have a good sense of humour"), and men like women who laugh in their presence.”

In this mildly depressing context I will simply bow to Phyllis Diller, a pioneer in the field who recently passed away.  Here is a good obituary from the NYT, and here a sample of her work... ok, TOTALLY un-PC, but fat jokes are just too funny!

But now I come to the crux of today’s rant.  It is great to have women cracking it in the funny business, and even better to have feminists laugh at themselves, the patriarchy and the world in general.  But the absolutely BEST part is when it is the women who’ve made it, the ones at the top of their game, whatever powerful stuff that game is.  It made my day when I discovered this: A tumblr called “Texts from Hillary”, set up with pictures of famous (American) people texting coupled always with one of a stone-faced Hillary Clinton, both with captions of what was purportedly in the texts between Ms Clinton and whomever.  Some of them are funny, some less so, some I didn’t get.  Most of the funniest ones involve Clinton ostensibly responding with a thumping, sarcastic putdown.  What made the boys that ran the tumblr (that had gotten hugely popular within merely a week) stop?  “Hillz” herself submitted an entry.  Chapeau, Madam (former) Secretary of State.

So ladies, next time you find yourselves in a tight spot – make a joke of it.  Gents, next time a lady says something even mildly funny in your vicinity – have a loud, guffawing laugh at it.  You kind of owe it to her, since she’s probably laughed at much less amusing pronouncements of yours in the past.

Jokes welcome in the comments section...