Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In Other Sad Rape News: Mackenzie Phillips

[Trigger warning.]

Last week, I heard some news that I'd describe as soul-crushing, to the extent that it just kind of makes me sad to be alive in a world where things like this happen.

Mackenzie Phillips--a child star with an infamously drug-addled adolescence--reveals in a new book that she was raped by her father, musician John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, and that the relationship became what she calls consensual later, ending when Mackenzie Phillips terminated a pregnancy and determined that she "would never let him touch her again."

The American media rushed to sensationalize this horror show, recalling the same issues of using the word "sex" to describe what was clearly, in at least one instance identified by Mackenzie Phillips herself as rape (see Liz's post from yesterday for a great example from the Roman Polanski coverage). For more on the shoddy coverage, see this Shakesville thread [trigger warning]. In addition to this typically ridiculous coverage, I've seen some familiar victim-blaming: She consented later, she's a junkie, she just wants attention, she shouldn't have brought it up.

All of this is depressing as hell, and really hard to talk about. I briefly tried to describe my reactions to Liz last week, and utterly failed. I've been following the story closely, though, and always leave humbled and somber. There is a lot left to be answered here, like whether consent is relevant in a case that Mackenzie calls a "betrayal" and an abuse of power, whether she could have ever really consented in a situation this rife with abuse and confusion. I'm grateful that Sady of Tiger Beatdown attempted to make heads or tails of this case with a recent post. Reading her discussion provides solidarity for those wading in the confusion and tragedy of this situation.

I know Mackenzie Phillips from two roles: the teenage tag-along in American Grafitti and the rockstar mom in So Weird. Her fucked up childhood, during which her Dad gave her hard drugs from the time she was a pre-teen, has been well documented. I remember when I watched The Disney Channel's So Weird as a kid, my mom told me the story of Mackenzie Phillips' childhood, and how she hoped Phillips' role on the show meant that she was off drugs for good. Until I heard Phillips' new claims, I was sad enough for her drug-doomed life.

Well, here's hoping future media coverage is more fair about rape, and that Phillips' story brings the dark problems of incest and rape to light, and eventually to prevention. It's a tall order.

Hollywood's Rape Apologia

[Trigger warning.]

After Liz brought up the media coverage of Roman Polanski's recent arrest, I thought we could use a little blog closure on the topic, even though "closure" in this case can be more accurately described as "disgust."

As you've probably read, Polanski was arrested in Switzerland last week when he entered the country to attend a film festival and receive an award. He's been living and working in Europe for the last three decades. He fled the United States to avoid being sentenced for unlawful sex with a minor--a crime to which he confessed. His 13-year-old victim testified that Polanski gave her champagne and Quaaludes and that he didn't stop his mulitple assaults when she repeatedly said "no."

There are several facts that people like to insert at this point, to brush off and excuse Polanski's actions. The victim had a pushy mother who intended Polanski to sleep with her daughter. The judge in Polanski's case behaved improperly. Polanski thought he had a plea bargain. Polanski has been living in "exile" outside the United States, therefore suffering the horrible fate of not being able to return to Hollywood to direct the many films he's made since the 70s. His victim does not wish to prosecute Polanski anymore. And of course, it wouldn't be rape apologia if we didn't insert the classic: She wanted it.

What all of these "but, but, buts" don't change, however, is that sex between a 40-year-old man and a 13-year-old girl has a name: statutory rape. It's got rape in the name, because regardless of the drugs and liquor, or even supposed consent, in the eyes of the law it's assumed that the power structure that exists between adults and children makes it impossible for a child to truly consent to sex with an adult. Any such act is not truly understood by the child, and is an abuse of power. Why we wouldn't believe the testimony of a girl over Polanski is another issue. What we do know is that Polanski confessed to an act that is rape, of a child, period, and never served his time.

More insightful writers have detailed this case and the reaction from Hollywood's elite, especially the depressing number of film industry people (Wes Anderson, sigh) who have signed a petition in support of Polanski. I encourage you to read the pieces on Salon and Jezebel. I also encourage you to check in on this Shakesville thread every once in a while, where you'll hopefully see the list of celebrities speaking out against the rape apologia as this case pans out.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Rape: Not Synonymous with Sex

So I read a headline this morning, and I didn't even have to look at the article to be 100% convinced that the headline was wrong. Right there in my morning paper. The headline was this:

Polanski Arrested in Sex Case

No he wasn't. SEX is not illegal. One does not get arrested in for committing sex. Polanski was arrested in a RAPE case. because he allegedly committed RAPE.

"Director Roman Polanski was arrested by Swiss police as he flew in for the Zurich Film Festival and faces possible extradition to the United States for having sex with a 13-year-old-girl in 1977, authorities said Sunday."

True, his actual guilty plea was for "unlawful sexual intercourse" with the underage girl, but even if you somehow accept the notion that a 13 year old girl can give valid consent to sex with a middle aged man, it still qualifies as, at the least, statutory rape. In any case, it's not sex.

The bright and vigilant feminist blogosphere has done a very good job pointing out the media's rape-apologist presentations of rape as sex, and the ways in which it diminishes the seriousness and consequences of rape.

I think this sort of presentation does damage to "sex" as well. It sort of feeds into this idea that sex is something that's dirty and scary and sordid. I mean, sheesh, it's something you can get arrested for. And I don't like that. Sex can be great. Sex happens between consenting adults and can bond relationships or provide pleasure, and myriad other positive things. Of course, it can also suck, just like other nice things can suck, depending on the circumstances. And yes, there are risks and possible consequences that absolutely need to be addressed in smart, comprehensive sex ed.

But sex and rape are not the same thing. They're not even particularly similar. And we do a disservice to both terms and, especially, to rape survivors, when we conflate the two.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Periods and Purification

Last week, I read an essay called “Purification” by Grace Poore, an autobiographical account and analysis of the Tamil traditions associated with a young girl’s first menstrual period. In the essay, which you can find in this anthology, Poore describes the alienation and purification rituals young girls go through when they start menstruating. Poore had to follow a specific diet, submit to superstitious rules (don’t wash your hair during the first three days or you’ll get dark circles under your eyes), stay home from school, wash and hang her clothes separately from her family's, keep her distance from her brother and finally submit to a humiliating purification ceremony where she was washed with milk to cleanse herself and her house.

I’m always interested in menstruation stories, because there’s so much shame surrounding this biological function that girls can’t control. One of my first rebellious streaks as a teenager involved talking openly about my period to show I wasn’t ashamed of it, inspired by my dad yelling at me to “put that thing away” when he spotted a tampon in my truck, because “that’s embarrassing.” I thought at the time, “Is it really that embarrassing, dad? The biological process that makes it possible for me to have children, and for you to have grandchildren, is something embarrassing?” I mean, later on in life, there will be social expectations that I’ll have children, and my dad will presumably be asking when he can expect to hear the pitter patter of feet kicking to get out of my insides.

But that physical fact of menstruating—that it’s a part of the biology that makes babies possible—is only acceptable and unthreatening later in women’s lives, when they’re settled down with the menfolk within the legal and spiritual bounds of marriage that make everyone more comfortable with women having sex and being knocked up in a controlled way. (Controlled by who? Anyone but them.)

When you’re a teenager, periods are something to be ashamed of, because your body is sending the shameful message: Grand opening of sexual maturity, come on down! Meanwhile, society is trying to keep you and your ladyparts chaste.

“But wait,” you think. “When I started my period at 12-years-old, I wasn’t out looking for sex any more than I had been the days and weeks before I started my period.” Well, that doesn’t matter. Consider the angry way Grace Poore’s mother reacts to her daughter’s total bewilderment at finding blood on her skirt: She snaps at her daughter for not knowing what to do with a pad that involves loops and a belt, enforces a strict diet, keeps her daughter home from school for a week, forbids Poore to speak about the situation and refuses to explain any of it to Poore, who is left wondering what she did wrong. It’s almost as if one day, Poore was an innocent young girl and the next day, she started menstruating and became someone to tame and suspect. At Poore’s purification ceremony, during which she was bathed in milk by a stranger to cleanse her and even the air in the house of her monthly condition, she describes being scrutinized by her family and friends:

Then, all eyes fell on me. They studied my face, my hair, the color of my skin. They looked carefully to see if I would make a suitable daughter-in-law someday. Finally, done with their scrutiny , they came over and shook my hand…they swarmed over to the feast Mother had laid out for them and forgot my presence. I sat in my chair and watched them. Amidst the smells of ladhus and gulab jamuns, chicken curry and spiced rice, I became invisible.

Thus, after this tradition that supposedly celebrates a young woman's entrance into the adult club, she realizes that women in her culture (and she's not alone, it's true in most cultures) are invisible in their daily routines and accomplishments. From the moment her ceremony is over, she'll be expected to take her place in a daily domestic routine, where her work will be expected and unnoticed unless she deviates from the norm.

I was struck by how coldly Poore's mother treated her, as if Poore somehow turned sinister slut overnight. One would think that Poore’s mother would have felt sympathy for her daughter, who was about to go through a humiliating and isolating process. Instead of sympathy and communication as someone who had been through it, Poore’s mother angrily refuses to explain the situation, leaving the young Poore utterly bewildered about what is happening to her and why. At least Poore seems determined not to pass on this humiliating treatment of girls to the next generation in her family. Poore writes that in adulthood, she doesn't want to follow in her mother's footsteps and be complicit in these rituals that humiliate young girls for having the audacity to be born female.

I think a lot of women find it really therapeutic to share your-first-period stories because they’re always memorable, although taboo. It’s an experience all women have and can share, but we’re encouraged to keep it to quiet and isolate ourselves from the comfort we could take in solidarity with other women. It is in that spirit that books like My Little Red Book are compiled, along with losing-your-virginity anthologies.

For my part, compared to Poore, my first-period experience was downright PC. The Friday of my first week of seventh grade, I looked down and noticed I was bleeding on the couch while watching The Tonight Show with my mom. I knew vaguely what periods were, and that I wasn't keen to start mine soon, but the suddeness of it left me very sincerely bewildered.


She followed my eyes and saw what I saw. She rushed up and said, "Wait here, I'll be right back." She walked out the front door with her keys, and returned a short time later with pads from the corner grocery store. She took me to the bathroom and explained, "You wear these in your panties. If you want to learn how to use tampons, just let me know."

When I went to bed a few minutes later, she came to tuck me in. A wave of pessimism had come over me that I couldn't explain. I didn't want to tell her that I wasn't excited, that I dreaded this next phase of my life. I wasn't eager to grow up. I felt a weight on my shoulders that I couldn't quite describe, but I've had the feeling many times since then. I just find it amazing that I was capable of feeling that downtrodden at age 12. I could tell that my mom was excited for me, that she wanted this to be a mother-daughter moment. But she could tell that something was wrong, and that I just wanted this moment to pass as soon as possible. She asked if I was okay, and was anything wrong. I said no, I'm just tired (a response I've used countless times since then, also to avoid explaining what is wrong). I cried and went to sleep. That was 12 years ago.

I never asked my mom how to use tampons. My older friends told me horror stories about how much they hurt, and I read those vapid stories in teen magazines about tampons getting stuck inside you while cliff diving with your crush, how embarassing. My horrible sex education (I'll save that for another post) also left me utterly clueless about where you would even put a tampon. After years of virtual diaper rash (I especially remember horrible discomfort during basketball and volleyball practices) and fear of swimming, Tampax sent some sample tampons with very thorough diagrams and directions for how to use tampons. Thus, sometime during my freshman year of high school, I spent a few hours in my closet, with my door locked, painfully and secretly teaching myself how to insert and take out tampons. When my next period rolled around, I felt like a real woman, a grownup. I walked with a swagger for that one day. Tampons without applicators still thwart me, but I kept that Tampax diagram for years, and I've never looked back.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Back in the Game

Hello there new wave feminists. Because of some family issues and being so busy in general that L and I constantly battle the urge to curl up with her kept-in-the-office down jacket and pass out in our cubes, we've been too exhausted to blog.

Fortunately, I'll have some fodder from a Women's Studies course I'm taking (stay tuned for some analysis on why Michelle Obama's hairstyle is important), and I'll soon be tackling some sort of film analysis as a thesis and writing sample for grad school. So send L and I good vibes for the GRE as well. I'll advise on my Women's Studies projects as they come up--taking a cue from Tiger Beatdown and some other kick-ass femme bloggers, I'm thinking of writing my thesis on some of the all-American woman-hating John Hughes classics.

But to ease us back into the wide world of ladybrained analysis, let's just take it easy this Friday, and kick it back to school with the ever-awesome Sarah Haskins.

P.S. I had some weird high-school nostalgia feelings yesterday as I watched a 90s-riffic movie while making friendship bracelets and skipping school, I mean work. Aaaah, yes, that was about one-quarter of my high school experience. The Rilo Kiley soundtrack didn't help matters much.