Gentrification: A Call For Reform or a Negative Acceptance?

by Iqra Ishrat, April 9, 2021

According to experts from Brookings Institute, gentrification is “the process of neighborhood change that results in the replacement of lower income residents with higher income ones” (Kennedy & Leonard, 2001), and has existed in United States urban centers since the 1970s (Fox, 2013). Since then, it has been changing communities, populations, developments, and professional opportunities in cities. According to statistics presented by population researcher Mark R. Montgomery, “During the period 2000-2024, the world’s total population is projected to grow by 1.76 billion persons, with some 86% of this growth expected to take place in the cities and towns…” (Montgomery, 2008). With populations increasing and more people moving into cities, some claim that gentrification can lead to health improvements, better education, lower crime rates, and more refined neighborhoods. However, it also leads to displacement of people, higher rent-prices, and animosity between inhabitants. These consequences and setbacks raise a question: do the benefits of gentrification outweigh the toll put onto original residents in the United States? Considering economic and political lenses along with perspectives of old residents, new wealthier inhabitants, researchers, and other community members in cities, gentrification is necessary for cities to develop and improve.

A major economic problem of gentrification is the cost of rent, which is increasing for former residents. Data from the US Census shows that in 1990, the median value of owner-occupied housing in central cities was 127,589 dollars and later in 2010 jumped to 184,839 dollars (Ellen, Horn, & Reed, 2017). That is a major price change of 57,250 dollars; many old residents are unable to pay for new, expensive housing, forcing them to leave. Along with increasing prices for housing in gentrifying cities, rent has also increased throughout the United States from 2000 to 2016. US Census data gathered by the Institute for Policy & Social Research shows that in states with many gentrifying cities like New York or Connecticut, the rent prices nearly doubled to over a thousand dollars per month (Institute for Policy & Social Research, 2018). Clearly, with such high changes in rent price, old residents do not have the wealth to afford increasing rent or house costs, forcing tenants to leave their cities.

Many old residents are angered with the inflating prices of housing. Since the prices keep increasing, people are being displaced from their communities. In other words, people are forced to move out to different neighborhoods since they cannot afford the current costs of living. Viewing the perspective of these old residents, they complain of the rent price rise due to gentrification. In an online newspaper entitled The Guardian, author Franseca Perry mentioned the opinion of a homeowner in Silicon Valley, “My entire family has left over the years to more affordable places for the working class… People are casually displaced every day and $1,000 a month rent hikes are not uncommon” (Perry, 2016). This view indicates that not all individuals can cope with economic changes occurring in gentrifying cities.

As the cost of living in cities is increasing, so are the cities’ tax revenues since homes have more value and wealthier inhabitants are moving in. Although this may promote displacement of the poor, it has many benefits that are necessary for cities. According to experts Maureen Kennedy and Paul Leonard (2001) from Brookings Institute, with the tax revenue increasing and more affluent individuals present, a city can spend more money to make itself vibrant, poverty rates can be decentralized, and commercial activity can be promoted. Thus, with more money, services can be added to revitalize the dull cities, and the old streets and broken-down residence cities can be cleaned and replaced with much needed improved housing. At the same time, new residents moving in can bring new customers to old businesses using their purchasing power and can also promote the development of new businesses, benefiting the economy. Overall, the better economy and increased number of wealthy occupants leads to decentralized poverty rates. According to the perspective of a community director in Cleveland, “I know it’s not politically correct, but with an average poverty rate of 42 percent, what my target neighborhoods need is a little gentrification” (Kennedy & Leonard, 2001). Although many old inhabitants in cities are displaced through gentrification, it will lead to much needed prosperity in neighborhoods and contribute to a more stabilized economy.

Additionally, while many residents have been displaced through the process of gentrification, studies found that the displacement may have been beneficial, to promote economics as mentioned previously, but also helpful to those that were forced to leave. In a large survey of five cities addressed by Professor of Economics Stephen Sheppard at Williams College, “displaced residents did not live in worse conditions following their moves. The majority of the displaced reported increased levels of satisfaction with their home and neighborhood and commute times were more likely to decrease after the move” (Sheppard, 2012). In other words, even though people couldn’t afford to live in their old neighborhoods, they are being moved to cities with better conditions where they can live their lives. Because of wealthier inhabitants, cities will have the benefit of a stronger economy; at the same time, old residents who cannot continue to afford the lifestyle get to live more comfortably when they move out to a new neighborhood.

Nevertheless, with changes occurring in cities through gentrification, animosity between residents is bound to occur. Specifically, the old residents are unhappy with the new wealthier individuals moving in. According to Elizabeth M. Kirkland who has a Juris Doctor degree and has focused on systemic racism at the Race Relations Institute of Fisk University, “the pre-gentrified neighborhood is inhabited mostly by African Americans or other people of color, and the in-movers are typically white” (Kirkland, 2008). Often, old residents of a certain ethnicity are unhappy with new groups moving in since they feel that their hometowns are being breached by people that will steal their city. Social Researchers Victoria F. Burns, Jean-Pierre Lavoie, and Damaris Rose interviewed elderly people in gentrifying cities on their thoughts of new individuals moving in. One interviewee, an 85-year-old woman, stated, “We ask ourselves where we are. I don’t like it. They are invading us…they are going to take everything from us… all the businesses; it’s them who are running them” (Burns, Lavoie, & Rose, 2012). Hence, it is important to note that community changes are not compensated within enlivening cities.

View of American poet Richard Blanco is similar to those unhappy with changes in the community due to gentrification. In his poem, “Looking for The Gulf Motel”, Blanco describes the changes that took place to his old neighborhood in Marco Island, Florida, and he wishes it was still the same as then:

“I am thirty-eight, driving up Collier Boulevard, looking for The Gulf Motel, for everything that should still be, but isn’t. I want to blame the condos, their shadows for ruining the beach and my past, I want to chase the snowbirds away with their tacky mansions and yachts, I want to turn the golf courses back into mangroves, I want to find The Gulf Motel exactly as it was and pretend for a moment, nothing lost is lost.” (Blanco, 2012)

In his poem, Blanco does not appreciate how everything that once was is gone. All the old buildings, scenes, and history important to him in Marco Island are gone; resembling the theme of change that is present in gentrification. This shows that not all will appreciate the changes done through revitalization of a city, comparable to the woman quoted earlier believing her community was invaded.

However, gentrification can decrease integration, or, race-based segregation in schools. Overall, with different-raced inhabitants moving in, gentrification leads to more diverse populations in schools. Professor of Law and co-founder of Perception Institute which focuses on researching social problems and creating solutions based on the research, Rachel D. Godsil wrote a paper on segregation in schools and how gentrification can help. In her paper, she states, “Diversity has been shown to play a critical role in spurring innovation and rigorous thinking” (Godsil, 2019). Simply, gentrification leads to interaction between diverse peoples, which ultimately encourages stronger thoughts and better relationships in schools. Also, schools can provide better education since they will have better funding due to increased tax revenue from wealthier inhabitants. With this money, supplies such as student recourses and/or technology can be added to a school district. So, with gentrification of cities comes the benefit of a better education due to greater diversity and increased funding. While this may not solve the problem of preserving communities and their history, it can ease tensions and lead to a brighter and more cooperative neighborhood.

When cities are re-developed through gentrification, health norms can be increased. Health conditions are typically bad in pre-gentrified cities due to low city budgets not being able to afford adequate standards. As stated by researchers Joseph Gibbons, Michael Barton, and Elizabeth Brault from the Department of Sociology in San Diego State University (2018), low income communities lack healthy food options, quality healthcare, and park space. Additionally, due to poverty in the cities, there are environmental factors that weaken residents’ health; physical examples such as living in broken and cramped homes, and social examples being the witnessing of depressed, drunk individuals on the streets (Gibbons, Barton, & Brault, 2018). Therefore, when communities described as such go through gentrification, improved healthcare is available, along with the availability of leisurely activities like community parks, overall helping to improve the health standards.

Along with better health for a community, crime rate can also decrease. Specifically, personal and violent crime rates tend to decrease in gentrifying cities. The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics defines personal crimes as “Rape, sexual assault, personal robbery, assault, purse snatching, and pocket picking” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, n.d.). Basically, it is any crime that may harm an individual. In a large study done that analyzed fourteen gentrifying neighborhoods by researcher Scott C. McDonald, it was found that as new wealthier inhabitants were moving in while cities were being changed, personal crimes overall decreased (McDonald, 1986). Recent statistics provided by the US Census also highlight the same results as McDonalds’ research. According to the data, in 1988 there were 13.5 violent crimes occurring per 1,000 population; but later in 2008, dropped down to a mean of only 8.9 violent crimes in the same population (Ellen, Horn, & Reed, 2017). This indicates that crime is reduced overall through gentrification and cities in the United States become safer.

Unfortunately, the uncontrolled gentrification process may not be able to maintain cities the way older residents prefer, but many positive and necessary changes in health, economics, safety, education, and revitalization occur to improve cities. However, improvements can be made to the gentrification process so that it doesn’t harm old residents of the cities as much. Currently, methods are used to ease gentrification and to keep the number of people being displaced low. Some methods mentioned by Kennedy and Leonard are, “tax abatements, housing trust funds, job linkage efforts, linkage fee programs, rent control, and so on” (Kennedy & Leonard, 2001). These methods allow more individuals to cope with economic changes occurring and they increase the number of old residents able to remain in cities. The goal is to achieve “equitable development”, described by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as “an approach for meeting the needs of underserved communities… It is increasingly considered an effective place-based action for creating strong and livable communities” (United States Environmental Protection Agency, n.d.). In other words, it was an attempt to make things fairer to old residents in gentrifying cities and to mitigate the detriments in the gentrification process overall.

First, it would be necessary to strengthen the relationships of community members so that they can devise a plan together. Cooperation would be important between different groups and communities within a city. “Strategies can and should be supported, implemented and funded by regional, city, private sector, non-profit sector and philanthropic interests” (Kennedy & Leonard, 2001). All these different groups coming together would be important to a city because they can help directly influence the outcome of the gentrification process. Through the various studies Godsil analyzed in her paper, she claims, “Studies have found a link between the quality of the informal interactions with diverse peers and analytical problem-solving and complex thinking skills (Godsil, 2019). If there is unity, diversity, and problem solving, different groups sharing their ideas would be highly effective.

Second, it would be required that all groups taking part have a common goal and view in mind. All people would need to know exactly what the purpose is for the city and how it is planned to achieve that goal. According to Kennedy and Leonard, working towards a common goal is not only beneficial since it creates a sense of trust, but it also allows for securing of land and homes for people through the communication of public and private sector leaders (Kennedy & Leonard, 2001).

Finally, once there is a common goal, work needs to be done to implement the desirable changes. This means policies may need to adjust, home development plans must go into effect, negotiations between leaders should occur, and overall taxes must be used effectively. If the entire process of gentrification occurs in this way, there will be far less drawbacks to it. Through this entire process, the necessity of gentrification will be revealed since it may bring positive changes to neighborhoods, bringing far more benefits than drawbacks through a much-needed stronger economy, better health conditions, lower crime rates, improved education, and most importantly, a united community.


References

Blanco, R. (2012). Looking for the gulf motel. In R. Blanco (Author), Pitt Poetry Series: Looking for the Gulf Motel (pp. 1-3). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. (Original work published 2012)

Burns, V. F., Lavoie, J. P., & Rose, D. (2011). Revisiting the role of neighbourhood change in social exclusion and inclusion of older people. Journal of aging research, 2012, https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/148287

Bureau of Justice Statistics. (n.d.). Terms & definitions: Crime type. Retrieved March 25, 2019, from Bureau of Justice Statistics website: https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tdtp&tid=3

Ellen, I. G., Horn, K. M., & Reed, D. (2017, March 1). Has falling crime invited gentrification? Retrieved from Social Science Research Network database. (Accession No. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2930242)

Fox, J. C. (2013). Urban Renewal. In K. L. Lerner, B. W. Lerner, & S. Benson (Eds.), Human Geography: People and the Environment (Vol. 2, pp. 653-656). Detroit, MI: Gale. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2062300256/SUIC?u=nysl_li_valleysc&sid=SUIC&xid=a418b775

Gibbons, J., Barton, M., & Brault, E. (2018). Evaluating gentrification’s relation to neighborhood and city health. PLoS ONE, 13(11), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0207432

Godsil, R. D. (2019). Rigor and Relationships: The Positive Case for Integration in Schools and Neighborhoods. Cardozo Law Review, 40(3), 1287–1326. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=135181365&site=ehost-live

Institute for Policy & Social Research. (2018). Kansas statistical abstract 2017 (52nd ed.). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1808/27662

Kennedy, M., & Leonard, P. (2001). Dealing with neighborhood change: A primer on gentrification and policy choices. Brookings Institution, 5. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/dealing-with-neighborhood-change-a-primer-on-gentrification-and-policy-choices/

Kirkland, E. (2008). What’s race got to do with it? Looking for the racial dimensions of gentrification. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 32(2), 18+. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A196534328/SUIC?u=nysl_li_valleysc&sid=SUIC&xid=0fa6f5b6

McDonald, S. (1986). Does Gentrification Affect Crime Rates? Crime and Justice, 8, 163-201. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1147427

Montgomery, M. R. (2008). The urban transformation of the developing world. Science, 319(5864), 761-764. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1153012

Perry, F. (2016, October 5). ‘We are building our way to hell’: Tales of gentrification around the world. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/oct/05/building-way-to-hell-readers-tales-gentrification-around-world

Sheppard, S. (2012). Why is gentrification a problem? [PDF]. Center for Creative Community Development. Retrieved from http://web.williams.edu/Economics/ArtsEcon/library/pdfs/WhyIsGentrificationAProbREFORM.pdf

United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Equitable development and environmental justice. Retrieved March 26, 2019, from United States Environmental Protection Agency website: https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/equitable-development-and-environmental-justice

The Impact of Gender Discrimination in the Workplace on Women’s Mental Health

by Farah Hasan, April 3, 2021

Perhaps the most defining moment of the Women’s Rights Movement to date was the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 following the valiant efforts of those who spearheaded the project, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and those who fearlessly backed the movement as a novel mark of progressivism. This momentous occasion is regarded as the single largest extension of democratic enfranchisement in the history of the United States (“The woman suffrage movement”). Despite such enormous strides having been accomplished for the advancement of women in a society where men had always dominated the government, the economy, the workforce, etc., women are far from seeing gender equality in the United States. Although the right to enfranchisement has contributed to the virtual elimination of overt prejudice, implicit bias against women still pervades. Evidence of such implicit bias is seen in numerous places including pop culture, educational institutions, and the workplace. Particularly in the workplace, despite making gains in the labor force participation rate over the last several decades, women working in male-dominated fields have significantly different experiences at work than their counterparts in fields with more female representation (Parker, 2018). Gender discrimination stands as an impediment to many women’s success in their professional and occupational lives, and often deters them from seeking promotions/leadership. Thus, perceived gender discrimination in the workplace has profound negative effects on women’s mental health regarding clinical depression and anxiety, especially in comparison to men’s mental health when faced with the adverse stimuli of gender-based prejudice. 

Gender discrimination in the workforce manifests itself in various forms and is thus perceived in varying extents of severity. One of the most pronounced forms of gender discrimination is the wage gap between men and women, with women earning about 80% of every dollar that a man makes for the same or similar job. Particularly in male-dominated fields, a toxic workplace culture is developed in which job performance and commitment are measured solely by the number of hours dedicated to work, the number of weekend shifts taken, etc. This takes away any hope for having flexible hours, which many women need in order to balance family commitments (as women are often primarily charged with keeping up with familial responsibilities). Consequently, many women are unjustly perceived to be lazy, not dedicated, and not committed to their job role. The lack of female role models in senior roles and leadership positions is also quite disheartening when it comes to female empowerment and promotion. Without figureheads for reference, women are more likely to undervalue themselves, be modest in talking about their accomplishments, and forgo opportunities to seek promotions (Agarwal, 2018). Women with a bachelor’s degree or higher report experiencing higher levels of workplace discrimination than women with lower levels of education. 57% of employed women with postgraduate degrees report experiencing some form of gender discrimination, compared to 40% of working women with a bachelor’s degree and 39% of women who did not complete college (Parker & Funk, 2017). Similar trends are seen when it comes to receiving support from senior leaders, being passed over for promotions, feeling isolated at work, and being paid less than their male counterparts. 30% of women with family incomes of over $100,000 say they’ve been paid less than a man doing comparable work, compared to 21% of women with lower incomes (Parker & Funk, 2017). Regarding the workplace environment, women employed in majority-male workplaces are more likely to see their gender as a limiting factor to their professional advancement, are less likely to report fair treatment in personnel matters, and experience more gender discrimination. 49% of women working in male-majority workplaces report sexual harassment as a problem in their workspace, compared to 32% of women who say the same about female-majority workplaces. Lastly, only 49% of women in male-dominated workplaces report that their workplace is putting enough effort into increasing workplace diversity, compared to 78% of women working in places with an even gender mix and 71% of women working in female-dominated places (Parker, 2018). 

The manifestation of gender discrimination and implicit bias against women in different forms and at so many different levels often translates into adverse consequences on women’s mental health. In a study titled “Perceived discrimination and health: A meta-analytic review,” Pascoe and Richman defined gender discrimination as a “behavioral manifestation of a negative attitude, judgment, or unfair treatment toward members of a group” and included studies that discussed poor service and treatment of women in public situations, derogatory comments, and harassment (Pascoe & Richman, 2009). It was found that perceived discrimination plays a role in increasing the incidence of depression, psychological distress, and anxiety. Experiencing discrimination on a regular basis causes more frequent activation of the body’s natural stress response, resulting in a perpetual negative mood state. Chronic stress and discrimination may also diminish one’s level of self-control, leading to increased use of and reliance on smoking, alcohol, and other substances to relieve the negative mood state. This may also decrease engagement in healthy habits, such as cancer screening and diabetes management (Pascoe & Richman, 2009). Risk of depression, in particular, is increased by stressful life events such as the loss of a loved one, a chronic disability/illness, or a business failure. Rejection, social exclusion, and embarrassment/humiliation also contribute to increased risk of depression. Gender discrimination in the workplace increases the odds that women will develop depression, regardless of the type of discrimination faced, whether it be regarding hiring, promotion, assignment of job-related tasks, wages, and firing. Women under 40 years old are particularly susceptible to developing depressive symptoms due to workplace gender discrimination compared to women over 40, adjusting for socio-demographic factors (Kim et al., 2020). 

While gender discrimination often puts women at a disadvantage, it is important to recognize that men could also be subject to such discrimination in the workplace. Due to the salience of historical instances of gender-based discrimination impeding women’s social advancement, most empirical research has focused exclusively on the impact of gender discrimination on women. This may be due to the fact that women have been entering male-majority fields at accelerating rates over the past several decades, but men’s entry into female-dominated fields has been largely stagnant. Regardless, research into gender discrimination may also apply to men entering female-dominated fields. Francesca Manzi of the Department of Psychology at New York University reviewed congruity models of gender discrimination (CMDs) to determine if men in female-majority fields face the same challenges as women in male-majority domains. It is important to note that while it is possible for men to be subject to gender discrimination, they may not be perceived as victims because they do not belong to a group that is commonly discriminated against, and discrimination of an “upper-class group” by a “lower-class group” (in this case, women discriminating against men) is usually not perceived as such. Female-majority occupations are often devalued and perceived to require less skill and intelligence, and thus do not come with significant status or monetary rewards, so exclusion from these occupations on the basis of gender is not seen as socially or economically hindering, and thus is not seen as discrimination. A potential source of stress, however, could be the incongruity of gender identity and occupation. Men may feel increased rates of depression and anxiety after perceiving a conflict between their gender and their job, which may lead to lower job satisfaction, dedication, and commitment. This is largely tied to the stereotype threat that comes from gender norms, where men’s quality of performance in female-dominated jobs is impaired when their gender is made salient (the stereotype threat also affects women in  male-dominated jobs). Conversely, it has previously been reported that men do not face gender discrimination in female-oriented jobs and actually experience facilitated upward mobility on the organizational ladder due to their gender (gender-based male advantage in female-dominated jobs is known as the “glass escalator” phenomenon). Unlike in the case of women being seen as incompetent in a “man’s” field, a man’s gender is seen to be a positive attribute that he brings to an otherwise female-dominated field, and thus the male stereotype works in his favor. Ultimately, this suggests that men have the advantage over women, even in female-dominated professions. Accordingly, men report receiving workplace support and report low levels of workplace inequality and/or mistreatment. Compared to the anti-female sentiment in male-dominated jobs, the anti-male sentiment in female-dominated jobs is insignificant (Manzi, 2019). 

The existing literature shows that both men and women can experience gender discrimination in the workplace. Due to the relative recency of the Women’s Rights Movement, the #Metoo movement, etc. women still have a long way to go in terms of equality and unfortunately bear the brunt of workplace gender discrimination. Women are subject to lower wages, fewer promotional opportunities, workplace isolation, sexual harassment, etc. On the other hand, it is important to recognize the barriers that men may face upon entry to female-majority professions, although further research must be done on this topic. Men face challenges associated with workplace gender discrimination, but on a much smaller scale than women, as they are less likely to report lower wages, be regarded as incompetent due to gender, receive less support from senior leaders, and be passed over for important assignments (Parker & Funk, 2017). Regardless, both men and women may experience some extent of psychological distress, depression, and negative mood state as a result of gender discrimination and/or incongruity between gender and occupation. Most men (67%) and women (68%) report that their gender has not played any role in hindering their professional success, but some workers are still experiencing the challenges of gender-based prejudice (Parker & Funk, 2017). Actions can be taken to counteract implicit bias and gender discrimination by encouraging diversity in workplaces (especially in occupations that are either male- or female-dominated) and normalizing the presence of other gender(s), allowing flexibility in work schedules, promoting female leaders, having strict disciplinary policies against sexual harassment, enforcing equal pay laws, and researching occupational barriers impeding men. Eliminating workplace gender discrimination may be a slow process, but with time, dedication, and sincere activism, it is an immense stride toward achieving true gender equality in America. 


References

Agarwal, P. (2018, August 31). How you can encourage more women into your workforce. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/pragyaagarwaleurope/2018/08/31/how-you-can-encourage-more-women-into-your-workforce/

Kim, G., Kim, J., Lee, S.-K., Sim, J., Kim, Y., Yun, B.-Y., & Yoon, J.-H. (2020). Multidimensional gender discrimination in workplace and depressive symptoms. PloS One, 15(7), e0234415.

Manzi, F. (2019). Are the processes underlying discrimination the same for women and men? A critical review of congruity models of gender discrimination. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00469

Parker, K. (2018, March 7). Women in majority-male workplaces report higher rates of gender discrimination. Retrieved August 2, 2020, from Pewresearch.org website: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/07/women-in-majority-male-workplaces-report-higher-rates-of-gender-discrimination/

Parker, K., & Funk, C. (2017, December 14). Gender discrimination comes in many forms for today’s working women. Retrieved August 2, 2020, from Pewresearch.org website: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/12/14/gender-discrimination-comes-in-many-forms-for-todays-working-women/

Pascoe, E. A., & Smart Richman, L. (2009). Perceived discrimination and health: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 135(4), 531–554.

The woman suffrage movement. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2020, from Womenshistory.org website: https://www.womenshistory.org/resources/general/woman-suffrage-movement

Zoom Is Not A Dating App

by Zarya Shaikh, March 31, 2021

I turn on my camera and answer questions in the chat during office hours and lectures. I welcome private messages (PMs) when someone misses a key point our professor made. After all, as a pre-med student, it is my job to have color-coded notes on everything. I sometimes joke and socialize in breakout rooms to get to know who I am working with. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for someone to perceive my well-intentioned, friendly but professional, actions as flirty or feisty. In Spring 2020, one professor compared me to his ex-girlfriend when I asked about the status of a pending grade. I laughed it off as a joke and rephrased my original question. 

On the last day of classes in the Fall 2020 semester, I was attending classes via Zoom while grocery shopping. A classmate I had not spoken with before PM’d me during our final lecture, wishing me luck on my finals. I wished him well, too. He sent another PM, but I lost wi-fi. I finished grocery shopping and re-joined the lecture once my internet connection returned. I continued the conversation: 

I had received a wink from three other individuals without any prompting by that point in the semester, and I was not sure what to make of it. It reminded me of my classmate *Peter who would PM me at the start of the semester. He would comment on the content we were currently reviewing in the ongoing lecture and then ask for my social media in the same conversation. After answering his lecture-based questions, I would politely try ending the conversation by noting I do not use social media, and it was time for me to focus on the lecture (see screenshot below). He persisted in the following three Zoom lectures, and I was exhausted. I caved and gave him my Snapchat username. I never added Peter back, and he stopped asking. 

I was stunned by how committed Peter was considering I had expressed I was not interested in different ways on several occasions. He could see from my video feed how uncomfortable I was whenever he messaged me. It felt like Peter was in my room with me. He would know I chose not to respond to his message the next time I sent a general chat during lecture. So, I responded out of obligation and did not know if I was overreacting. I was used to second-guessing myself and questioned why I did not simply turn off my camera. 

In person during Fall 2019, I had developed a habit equivalent to turning off my camera. My two male classmates, *Imran and *Rahul, heckled me from the back of our Frey lecture hall. “Zarya beti!” (daughter in Urdu). I could hear it from the front of the large classroom. My professor heard it. My classmates heard it. I would turn around and tell them to stop distracting me and others around me. They persisted, and I could not focus. We had several conversations in which they agreed to stop. They did not.

Imran had the audacity to not only mock me during class but also ask, “Can you ask your friend to go out with me?” at the end of every lecture. In one case early on, I asked my friend (who I sat with every lecture) if she wanted to go out with him. She declined. Imran looked at me as though I had told him he missed an exam. He had been referring not to my friend but to another female classmate *Asma I randomly sat next to once. Following our conversation, Imran figured out where *Asma sat in our lecture hall and insisted that I ask her to go out with him – even though I had never spoken with her. Imran made it his life’s mission to make Asma and her friends uncomfortable by frequently turning around in class to look at them. In the meantime, Imran and Rahul built the courage to start sitting next to me in class. I used to arrive 10 minutes early to Frey, so I could get the seat I wanted. I eventually developed a habit of coming in after the class started, so they couldn’t easily change seats to where I was sitting.

To make the situation more complex, Imran and Rahul were both in my workshop section. I asked my graduate teaching assistant to change my group since Imran was in mine, too. Little did I know that Imran and Rahul would both appear at my desk at random times of the workshop and ask to go out with my group member. I became uncomfortable to the point where midway through the semester, I started watching lectures from my dorm room and finishing workshop exercises in 15 minutes just so I could leave before they arrived. 

Zoom classes are simply another space where I have felt the need to hide. 

A 2015 study found that among 385 female college students, 90.4% experienced verbal harassment and 80.0% experienced nonverbal sexual harassment.1 Individuals who were nonverbally harassed were “12 times more likely to experience psychological distress.”1 It is alarming that my experience of nonverbal sexual harassment is not a unique one; we are looking at a common issue that does not stop at the collegiate level. These statistics are only one preview of the sexual harassment that “38% of women and 13% of men across the US” endure in the workplace.2 “About 72% of sexual harassment charges” are met with retaliation from employers.3 It is disheartening that I was hesitant to reach out to my professor or the Title IX office. My fear stemmed from the notion that there would be retaliation if I reported Imran, Rahul, or Peter as there was in the cases of those surveyed. I look forward to replacing that fear with a network of support on campus for those who experience sexual misconduct.

*Names have been changed to protect students’ identities. 


References

[1] Mamaru, A., Getachew, K., & Mohammed, Y. (2015, January). Prevalence of physical, verbal and nonverbal sexual harassments and their association with psychological distress among Jimma University female students: a cross-sectional study. Ethiopian journal of health sciences, 25(1), 29–38. https://doi.org/10.4314/ejhs.v25i1.5

[2] Chatterjee, R. (2018, February 22). A new survey finds 81 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/21/587671849/a-new-survey-finds-eighty-percent-of-women-have-experienced-sexual-harassment

[3] Frye, J. (2017, November 20). Not just the rich and famous. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/news/2017/11/20/443139/not-just-rich-famous/

Is Surrealism Misogynistic?

by Srihita Mediboina, March 27, 2021

Two years ago, I took a trip to the Modern Museum of Art for an assignment for an introductory art history class. We had learned about a few art movements including surrealism. So, I decided to write my paper on a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, perhaps the most famous female surrealist artist. While studying the painting, I was trying to block out a sculpture in my peripheral vision. It was a piece by Hans Bellmer. Perhaps it sounds ridiculous to have an internal feud with a German surrealist artist, but I did. Bellmer primarily created sculptures that, in my opinion, were blatantly misogynistic. For instance, Bellmer created a doll where the torso is actually a second pelvis. Accompanied photographs were “taken below in a way that emphasizes the doll’s breast and genitals, while her face is partially obscured”(Bottinelli, 2004). Yeah, it was pretty gross.

While Bellmer was one of the worst offenders, he was not alone in his depiction of women in surrealist art. Many famous artists, including “Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, and Rene Magritte, created imagery that, in its sexual abandon, often objectified women; they chopped off female arms and legs, replaced their faces with genitalia, or, as in the case of Ernst, rendered them headless”(Thackara, 2018). This comes as no surprise since Andre Breton, the author of the Surrealist manifesto, based much of the underlying themes of surrealism on the research of Sigmund Freud. Freudian techniques, meant to reveal the unconscious, were common inspirations of Surrealists. These “theories on hysteria and animalistic impulses, rooted in cultural misogyny, had negative repercussions on the movement” as we already have seen (Botinelli, 2018). As much as I wish it stopped there, it doesn’t. “Freud’s psychoanalysis theorizes that unconscious thoughts and motivations, rooted in primitive drives toward sex and aggression, are the underlying cause of human behavior”(Bottinelli, 2018). 

The misogyny inherent in surrealism is not a new idea. Simone de Beauvoir wrote, in  The Second Sex, that Breton “never talks about Woman as Subject”(Beauvoir, 1949). But this view was not unanimous amongst feminist scholars as I had presumptuously expected. In Automatic Woman, a text further exploring the relationship between feminism and surrealism, Katherine Conley introduces a perspective I had not considered. “Maryse Lafitte argued against reading surrealist depictions of women as unremitting antifeminist, as has Rosalind Krauss”(Conley, 1996). Further, Conley argues for a new perspective on surrealism. Conley brings up two female artists : Leonora Carrington and Unica Zurn. Zurn and Carrington served as muses for Hans Bellmer and Max Ernst, respectively, before becoming Surrealists artists in their own right. Conley argues that this placing of a woman at the center, albeit as a muse, creates “the potential to step down from her pedestal and to create on her own”(Conley, 1996). They argue that even if women were only in the unconscious, placing them there necessitated a feminine, if not feminist, perspective.

This argument made me uncomfortable initially. It felt like Conley was trying to justify the actions and beliefs of male surrealists. However, to say surrealism was misogynistic would be to ignore the decidedly feminine parts of it. Kate Brown, writing about a Frankfurt exhibit, highlights how “the quantity and diversity of their work shows how a female perspective was central to surrealism from its birth in the aftermath of World War I”(Brown, 2020). In recent years, there has been an uptick in the demand and auction prices for art by female surrealist artists. Like most research, delving more into the issue of misogyny and Surrealism left me with more questions. What struck me while walking through the Surrealism exhibit that day was the stark disparity between the number of female and male artists. I don’t think that the depiction of women by male surrealists can necessarily be justified. Some might argue that it was the thinking of their time or that the unconscious that produced these images cannot be held responsible. One thing is undeniable; surrealism needs to be depicted holistically. Regardless of the forces that shaped it at the time, museums should be held responsible to depict the art movement as it was, which had decidedly feminine components.


References

Beauvoir, S. D., Borde, C., Malovany-Chevallier, S., & Rowbotham, S. (2011). The Second Sex. London: Vintage Books.

Bottinelli, G. (2004, September). ‘The Doll’, Hans Bellmer, c.1936. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bellmer-the-doll-t11781

Bottinelli, K., & Laxton, S. (2018, May 24). Psychoanalytic feminism and the depiction of women in surrealist photography. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/9vr8m90t#author

Brown, K. (2020, February 18). Surrealism was a decidedly feminine movement. so why have so many of its great women artists been forgotten? Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/kunsthalle-schirn-surrealist-women-1779669

Conley, K. (2008). Automatic woman: The representation of woman in surrealism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Editorial, A., & Thackara, T. (2018, September 26). Collectors are clamoring for surrealist women’s erotic dream worlds. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-market-female-surrealists-finally-reached-tipping-point

Petersen, A. J., & Conley, K. (1998). Automatic woman: The representation of woman in Surrealism. SubStance, 27(1), 138. doi:10.2307/3685723

The Medicalization of Birth in the United States of America

by Pavithra Venkataraman, March 20, 2021

“The United States provides the world’s most expensive maternity care but has worse pregnancy outcomes than almost every other industrialized country”

(Feldhusen, 2000).

When analyzing the differences between how America approaches birth, and how other developed countries approach birth, there is one that stands out: medicalization. Medicalization is a process by which human problems come to be defined and treated as medical problems. It consists of acts such as using medical language to describe a problem, adopting a medical framework to understand a problem or using a medical intervention to treat it (“The Medicalization of Childbirth,” 2016). The transition from home to hospital has brought with it opportunities that have created an increasing number of negative outcomes. These can easily be attributed to the industrialization of childbirth into hospitals. Demystifying and advertising the much more beneficial and safe option of midwifery would greatly increase and make more comfortable pregnancy outcomes across our country.

A Brief History of Birth in the United States

The birthing process has changed dramatically through the centuries. To properly identify the time periods where change occurred, scholars often split this transition from home to hospital into three stages. The first stage, social childbirth, was extremely community oriented, “laboring and delivering with the assistance of female family, neighbors, and midwives” (Martucci, 2017). This stage lasted from the early 17th century to the mid 18th century. Birth was a female occurrence; men were not involved unless there was an emergency situation. During this stage, the only birthing style that was practiced was a ‘normal’ birth, defined as “a vaginal birth in which labor starts spontaneously [and] labor progresses without assistance or specific drugs and forceps [are] not used” (“The Medicalization of Childbirth,” 2016). In effect, there are no drugs that are used to induce, ease, or speed up the process; the woman’s body does the work and that is all. Midwives were the only resource that women had if they wanted assistance. 

This natural birthing process was interrupted by the invention and introduction of several medical apparatuses, especially the obstetrical forceps. Tong-like instruments, these were used to assist in delivery as opposed to either cesarean sections or other less-safe and more damaging devices. With this invention, university-educated doctors flooded the birthing process. During this transitional period, from the middle of the 18th century into the 19th century, there was an equal mix of hospital and home births, and therefore an equal mix of doctors and midwives being used. The rise of the forceps created a necessity for obstetrical education, to teach physicians the proper way to use them. 

In addition to the forceps, reports published in 1910 and 1912 stated that the practicing American obstetricians at the time did not have the proper training: “To improve obstetrics training, one report recommended hospitalization for all deliveries and the gradual abolition of midwifery. Rather than consult with midwives, the report argued, poor women should attend charity hospitals, which would serve as sites for training doctors” (Rooks, 2012). An important addition to the hospitalization process, the ‘twilight sleep,’ was created in 1914. Considered a sign of progress at the time, this process used a mix of several drugs and an amnesiac, scopolamine, to induce a long sleep that also took away any memories of giving birth. During this period of time, the natural child birthing process was criticized by scholars and doctors who wanted childbirth to be seen as a ‘destructive pathology’ in order to encourage medical intervention. Consequently, the medical focus of birth shifted from “responding to problems as they arose to preventing problems through routine use of interventions to control the course of labor” (Rooks, 2012). With this shift, instead of only using medical interventions in cases that had immediate and pressing problems, these interventions were used in every single case of pregnancy, whether or not there was an issue naturally.

This leads to the third stage of birth: medical authority. In the present day, around 99% of births happen in hospitals, with the process of pregnancy now beginning with doctors of gynecology. In this stage, the cesarean section rate is close to 30%, both elective and emergent, even though the ideal rate according to the World Health Organization is 15% or less (“The Medicalization of Birth”). Specifically, celebrities are electing to participate in a procedure called designer birth, according to the film The Business of Being Born (2008). This procedure involved a scheduled c-section delivery followed immediately by a procedure that involves the removal of excess fat and skin, better known as a tummy tuck. Other assisted delivery procedures include an episiotomy, “a surgical incision made in the perineum… to allow the baby’s head to pass through more easily; an amniotomy, “an artificial rupture of the amniotic membranes, which contains the fluid surrounding the baby… to induce or augment labor;” induction of labor through “Pitocin, a synthetic form of the drug oxytocin given intravenously;” and vacuum extraction, which uses a pump that pulls the baby ‘down the birth canal with the help of the instrument and with the help of the mother’s contraction” (“Pregnancy: Types of Delivery,” 2018). Each one of these procedures were created with the aim of helping the pregnant person and the baby and yet has large risk factors associated with the outcomes.

From Home to Hospital

In theory, it seems that it must be a good thing to have medical research and professionals improve and create new processes to help ease the birthing process. I argue that because of the following societal systems we have in place, medicalization no longer prioritizes the pregnant individual and child, instead favoring the hospitals and medical organizations that profit from them. It would be wrong to assume that all these procedures have improved birthing outcomes. In actuality, “a scholar who conducted an intensive study concluded that the 41 percent increase in infant mortality due to birth injuries between 1915 and 1929 was due to obstetrical interference in birth” (Rooks, 2012).  I believe there are two levels to the systems in place in the United States that have obstructed the improvement of birthing results. On the individual level, I believe that pregnant people and their bodies are no longer seen as such, even during individual interactions with doctors; rather, they are seen as commodities of flesh to be used and are treated that way. On a collective level, I believe the birthing process as a whole was seen as a business opportunity and therefore has been industrialized for the purpose of making the most profits. 

On its own, the birthing process began as an experience tailored to the needs of the pregnant person, based on the preferences of the family, and structured around the environment where the birth was happening. In the present day, the process in a hospital is unified, completely up to the discretion of doctors, and wholly dependent on what resources exist in that hospital. I compare this to the theory proposed by Hortense Spillers in Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book (1987), and expanded upon by Nirmala Erevelles in Disability as “Becoming”: Notes on the Political Economy of the Flesh (2011). Beginning from Spillers’ recognition of black bodies during the Middle Passage being treated as commodities of flesh, as opposed to bodies with purpose, Erevelles takes it one step further by conceptualizing ‘disabled’ bodies as similarly being viewed as ‘wounded’ flesh without considering the bodily aspects of mind and soul that also contribute to a body’s worth. It is easy to picture this occurring within the process of birthing: pregnant individuals are seen as vulnerable and weak, and at the very minimum, during the period when the birth is happening, they are only flesh that needs to be dealt with instead of bodies filled with emotions, preferences, and needs to be fulfilled outside of physical procedures. 

For example, a procedure known as ‘the husband stitch’ was brought to light first by Sheila Kitzinger in her 1994 book, The Year After Childbirth, and then through Carmen Maria Machado’s short story called “The Husband Stitch” (2014). This “refers to the procedure of suturing the vaginal entrance narrower than necessary to repair trauma post-birth, with the presumption that this will enhance the sexual pleasure of a penetrating penis” (Halton, 2018). The stitching happens after the occurrence of an episiotomy, which on its own has been increasingly advised as unnecessary and non-essential by many medical guidelines both in the US and the UK. Women who share their birth stories often report not being aware that an episiotomy had occurred until months after the birth when they were experiencing extreme pain and searched for the cause. They relay not being properly informed about the procedure or told how to help and deal with the healing process that is to come. As a newly public procedure, there are no studies that exist to explore how often, how many times, or how recently this stitch is and has been added. The process itself turns a woman into Spillers’ definition of flesh: women exist sexually for their husbands even though the pain of recovery is increased exponentially by both magnitude and length of time. These women exist as vehicles for reproduction and are placed at the complete mercy of their doctor with much less freedom to make their own choices especially while their legs are forcibly spread. 

When analyzing birth as a collective social institution, it is easy to see how industrialized the process has become. What was once a private experience is now a conveyor belt-style, in-and-out procedure where doctors and hospitals are praised and rewarded for their efficiency in terms of the number of births they can successfully complete in the least amount of time. I compare this to Lisa Lowe’s claim in her book titled The Intimacies of Four Continents. Lowe’s study of the effects of colonialism on the colonized lead her to claim that modern liberalism affirms the people in power “while subordinating [and erasing the history of] the variously colonized and dispossessed peoples whose material labor and resources were the conditions of possibility for that liberty” (Lowe, 2015, p. 6). Not only did settler colonialism remove and disadvantage Natives from their land, but the history books and archives ‘discourage’ these connections. Similarly, medical professionals capitalized on the birthing field, simultaneously discrediting midwives as untrained and incompetent and denying that this history of midwifery ever existed.

Not only does this industrialization disadvantage midwifery, but it equally, if not more so, disadvantages pregnant individuals. For example, the labor process has been streamlined to the point where the baby and pregnant person’s lives are put at danger over and over. Labor for a pregnant individual can naturally last anywhere from a single hour to 18-20 hours (“Pitocin,” n.d.). However, to hospital institutions, the more women they can care for in the least time possible, the more money they can make. Therefore, methods that speed up labor, no matter the cost or non-necessity, are introduced into the process: “Other wealthy, industrialized countries have national health services, in which elements of care that aren’t needed and don’t bring improved health tend to be dropped because of the cost. In the U.S. health-care industry, the more care that is provided, frequently more money is made by the doctors and the hospitals, so there is less incentive to not use these methods” (Rooks, 2012). One such method is the administration of the drug Pitocin, which mimics the natural hormone oxytocin by reducing the time between contractions, which in turn speeds up labor. This sounds like it would be favorable, but in reality, “Pitocin is the drug most commonly associated with preventable adverse events during childbirth” (“Pitocin,” n.d.). The most common negative outcome seen with Pitocin is hyperstimulation. In labor, contractions slow blood and oxygen flow in and out of the placenta to the baby, and the stages in between contractions allows the placenta to rest. When Pitocin is administered, the time between contractions is shortened which does not allow enough blood and oxygen to reach the placenta which creates a large risk, known as hyperstimulation, for the baby (“Pitocin,” n.d.). A common medicalized cycle of birth is as follows: (1) Pitocin is administered to speed up the labor, which creates pain and tension in the pregnant individual, which then leads to (2) heavy pain medication administered such as an epidural, which numbs the nervous system and therefore slows contractions and the time in between. 1 and 2 are repeated a couple of times, until the baby is in such distress that there is no option but to move to a c-section, which can be stressful and traumatic for both the baby and the pregnant person (“Pitocin,” n.d.). 

Not only are pregnant people forgotten during a process in which they should be the focus, there is a disproportionate negative effect towards pregnant individuals of minority, whether that be by race, sexuality, trans-status, disability, and/or socioeconomic status, to name a few:

“Black women are 4 times more likely than white women to die from complications of pregnancy. In fact, black women have a higher risk than white women for dying from every pregnancy-related cause, including hemorrhag, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and pulmonary embolism… [B]lack infants… die at twice the rate of white infants… Other ethnic minorities also have higher infant mortality rates.”

(Anachebe & Sutton, 2003)

Women with pre-existing health conditions unrelated to pregnancy such as asthma, diabetes, depression, or substance use issues are already at a higher risk of negative outcomes. While there are few studies that focus on outcomes of trans individuals who have given birth, a simple search yields testimony after testimony of these individuals who have faced discrimination and intrusive questioning that fall outside of the realm of birthing, as well as the sense that the care being provided is not as thorough. Socioeconomic status and the outcomes that occur can be explained by locational, geographical, and monetary access to hospitals and quality of care. When the only known option is a hospital birth, the nearest hospital is miles and miles away, and insurance does not cover the cost of giving birth in a well-ranked hospital, the outcome will generally not be as positive. 

Conclusion

I believe that these numerous negative outcomes and societal manifestations are a result of the medicalization process. To counteract these issues, we should return to the midwife-assisted, non-hospital-dependent birthing process that the majority of developed countries around the world still use. This transition would be a return to an age where birthing worked while still keeping the option of modern medicine in the extreme cases where the body is not functioning in the normal way. Midwife-assisted births would reduce the number of drugs administered, the number of c-sections performed, and cases of the ‘husband stitch.’ The focus would return to the individual giving birth, restoring continuity of care, tailor-made birthing timelines, and the ability and authority of the family to make their own health care decisions. Midwifery allows the pregnant people to choose which individual they would most like to work with during the pregnancy process based on comfort, particular skill set, and even cost associated. Although this system is not perfect, it greatly reduces risks attached and increases the likelihood that outcomes will be negative, allowing the birthing process to function on its own the way it is supposed to.  

It is clear that there is an issue with our birthing system when we compare our outcomes to those of other developed countries. My argument lies in the way in which we, as a country, are choosing to fix it. Instead of compounding the issue by introducing medical solutions to fix medically-induced problems, I propose that we relinquish our need to keep the birthing process entrenched in the institution of hospitals. I believe a return to the way that the birthing process used to work will return us to outcomes that are much less negative and much less divisive along minority lines. Although medicine is important, its purpose, in simple terms, is to treat diseases that are not, for lack of a better word, ‘normal’ to a human body. The inclusion of pregnancy and birth, extremely ‘normal’ and necessary human bodily functions, into this category of medicine is not only unnecessary, but in practice detrimental to both pregnant individuals and the babies. I believe that midwifery is the right way to progress, and the best way to go about improving the birthing process in America.


References

Anachebe, N.F., & Sutton, M.Y. (2003). Racial disparities in reproductive health outcomes. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 188(4), S37–S42. https://doi.org/10.1067/mob.2003.245

Erevelles, N. (2011). Disability and difference in global contexts: Enabling a transformative body politic. Palgrave Macmillan US.

Feldhusen, A.E. (2000). The history of midwifery and childbirth in America: A time line. Midwifery Today. https://midwiferytoday.com/web-article/history-midwifery-childbirth-america-time-line/

Halton, M. (2018, April 26). The ‘husband stitch’ leaves women in pain and without answers. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/pax95m/the-husband-stitch-real-stories-episiotomy

Lowe, L. (2015). The intimacies of four continents. Duke University Press.

Martucci, J. (2017). Childbirth and breastfeeding in 20th-century America. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.428 

The medicalization of childbirth. (2016, December 10). In UBC Wikipedia. https://wiki.ubc.ca/The_Medicalization_of_Childbirth

Pitocin (Oxytocin) induction risks and side effects. (n.d.). American Baby & Child Law Centers. Retrieved March 7, 2021, from https://www.abclawcenters.com/practice-areas/prenatal-birth-injuries/labor-and-delivery-medication-errors/pitocin-and-oxytocin/

Pregnancy: Types of delivery. (2018, January 1). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved March 7, 2021, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9675-pregnancy-types-of-delivery

Rooks, J.P. (2012, May 30). The history of midwifery. Our Bodies Ourselves. https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book-excerpts/health-article/history-of-midwifery/

Spillers, H.J. (1987). Mama’s baby, Papa’s maybe: An American grammar book. Diacritics, 17(2), 65–81. https://doi.org/10.2307/464747

Reshelved: Can Children’s Classics Be Modernized?

by Joan Antony, March 15 2021

(Erin McCracken/Evansville Courier & Press via AP, File)

Moby Dick, The Cat in The Hat, Huckleberry Finn... and a number of other titles are the face of American children’s books, even in the 21st century. The public opinion on these books, and others, have not changed in the past few years. Despite modernizing trends that have swept through America, such as the “Cancel Culture” movement and the creation of “Banned Books Week,” many beloved classics remain on shelves across the country; a testament to their timeless messages and cherished meanings.

However, this may not be the case for all classics.

Sometimes, even industry giants in Children’s Books, such as Dr. Seuss Enterprises feel the need to evaluate the messages they sent to children. In the first quarter of 2021, the company collectively decided to take down a number of lesser known books from their collection; And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street as well as a few other titles (Gross, The New York Times). After his death in 1991, Dr. Seuss’ reputation as a beloved storyteller has been measured against modernist standards for children’s literature. The man, who is hailed as one of the greatest children’s books writers in American history, has come under fire posthumously for anti-Semitic and racist stereotypes depicted in his books. With the recent decisions made by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to discontinue If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool and others, discourse has begun on the morality of allowing these particular children’s books to be shelved. The future of a child’s education in relation to the views and opinions they form from the media they consume, is an important conversation that has only just begun to be discussed. The author’s position should be discussed in academic settings, not hidden away in a new animated Grinch movie or saturated in merchandise. America should have an honest discourse on the impact Seuss’ works have had on children of different demographics throughout the decades. A children’s literature expert, Michelle H. Martins states:

“Seuss was not thinking about Black kids and Asian kids when he was writing these books. He was writing for white kids.”

(All Things Considered, NPR)

And it’s not only in America that this revival is in the works. In France, a beloved comic book series Lucky Luke, is adding to its own cast of characters. A Black man is featured in A Cowboy in High Cotton, standing alongside the main character Luke, with an equal and important role in progressing the story (Onishi, The New York Times). The hero, Luke, is usually defeating the bad guys and bringing peace to the countryside all on his own. This time, he is joined by a fellow sheriff, an employee of the plantation he owns. The moral of the story is not only to satisfy his own goals, but to win the trust of his employees, a task he commits to with gusto. This is definitely progressive, in terms of European standards for children’s books, where change has been deemed necessary. Even now, Tintin in The Congo continues to be published internationally without much change to the stereotypes within the covers (The New York Times).

(Mantovani for The New York Times)

While it may seem very sudden, the dismantling of children’s literature is not a new phenomenon. Recently, authors are more likely to receive feedback and criticism on their books’ in terms of appealing to political correctness and the general mood of society (Limbong, NPR). Plenty of authors have faced immense backlash from their audience, on social media platforms such as Twitter, a platform in which retweets and direct tweets can go viral in minutes. With the ease of finding authors, their viewpoints on topics are much more accessible. Long gone are the days when the only way to reach an author was to mail them a long list of complaints. In that case, readers could never be sure their frustrations were being heard or even acted upon. With social media, it’s become easier than ever to wage a personal attack, and cite specific instances of wrong-doing. While in some cases the attacks have gone too far, most times the ‘face-to-face’ interaction between readers and writers is more effective for improving the selection of children’s books available in the genre. Or, at least some are taken off the shelf.

Imagine writing a generation defining series about a youth uprisal that defeats a tyrannical monster motivated by the preservation of “pure blood” and looking at THIS time in the world and going “hmm…yep. I’m gonna invalidate trans people.” (@halsey, Twitter)

Of course, criticism from the opposite side is to be expected, opinions will clash on whether making these significant changes in the realm of children’s classics is necessary or progressive (Alter and Harris, The New York Times). Will the washing out of these depictions actually harm children’s learning? Without markers of how it ‘used to be,’ will children be able to correctly point out how it ‘should be’? Is there an alternative to erasing these harmful descriptions, without losing the meaningful story in the process?

A good example of the latter would be the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, a beloved classic worldwide. Lewis has been heavily criticized for his imagery of the Calormenes, a city of people and culture that seems to ‘blend’ and typecast different cultures from the Middle-East, in addition to the sexist wording and imagery present throughout the series; as well as one incorrigible scene of cultural appropriation (Glumpuddle, NarniaWeb). The scene is one where three of the main characters in the last addition of the series, Last Battle, must get past the enemy Calormene’s soldiers. In order to so, they resort to rubbing oil over their faces, to ‘blend’ in with the soldiers, as well as donning ‘turbans’ as a disguise (Lewis, Last Battle). The scene is not further explained, and it is moved past quickly as a necessity in war time. For all these right reasons, the series falls on the spectrum of books that can be banned for one terrible scene alone. However in 2005, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe directed by Andrew Adamson, was a roaring success, topping the box office and inspiring little kids around the world to pick up the books for the first time. How so? For one, the director made sure to piece together all the scenes from the book with a warm remembrance of how it was when he was a child. His memory veiled the terrible descriptions into altered scenes, or left them out entirely (Glumpuddle, NarniaWeb).

“When I set out to do this, I said very early on that I don’t want to make the book so much, as I want to make my memory of the book. […][C.S. Lewis] planted seeds and let them grow in your imagination.”

NarniaWeb, Director Andrew Adamson circa 2005

From this telling line, it may be easier to decide the final say on books by one important factor: the children themselves. The kids who read these books are the kids who will grow up with these books. Children’s literature is a revered genre because of its versatility, for its importance of ‘growing’ with the child, as they mature and learn important values and connotations for real life.

Keeping this in mind, it is apt to conclude that there is no set right or wrong way to decide on ‘reshelving’ every book; it is a choice based on every individual classic, on the background of the author, and most importantly, how the primary audience will react to the appearance or disappearance of this particular book. Is it worth banning? Or does it just need a different adaption to help derive the meaning better?


Works Cited

Alter, Alexandra, and Elizabeth A. Harris. “Dr. Seuss Books Are Pulled, and a ‘Cancel Culture’ Controversy Erupts.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Mar. 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/04/books/dr-seuss-books.html.

“Are The Chronicles of Narnia Sexist and Racist?” NarniaWeb, 20 July 2009, http://www.narniaweb.com/resources-links/are-the-chronicles-of-narnia-sexist-and-racist/.

“Dr Seuss going? No, just old stereotypes.” Age [Melbourne, Australia], 5 Mar. 2021, p. 31. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A653763351/OVIC?u=sunysb&sid=OVIC&xid=6cf46853. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.

Glumpuddle. “Andrew Adamson Went From Shrek to Narnia.” NarniaWeb, 9 Feb. 2020, http://www.narniaweb.com/2020/02/andrew-adamson-went-from-shrek-to-narnia/.

Gross, Jenny. “6 Dr. Seuss Books Will No Longer Be Published Over Offensive Images.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Mar. 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/books/dr-seuss-mulberry-street.html.

“Imagine Writing a Generation Defining Series about a Youth Uprisal That Defeats a Tyrannical Monster Motivated by the Preservation of ‘Pure Blood’ and Looking at THIS Time in the World and Going ‘Hmm…yep. I’m Gonna Invalidate Trans People.”.” Twitter, Twitter, 7 June 2020, twitter.com/halsey/status/1269436246759112704.

Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2014.

Limbong, Andrew. “Why Author J.K. Rowling Is Facing Backlash From LGBTQ Activists.” NPR, NPR, 20 Dec. 2019, http://www.npr.org/2019/12/20/790319846/why-author-j-k-rowling-is-facing-backlash-from-lgbtq-activists.

“Looking Again At A Doctor’s Old Rhymes, Seuss Works Haven’t Kept Up With The Times.” All Things Considered, 2 Mar. 2021. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A653816567/OVIC?u=sunysb&sid=OVIC&xid=fa6d8174. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.

Onishi, Norimitsu. “Lucky Luke, the Comic Book Cowboy, Discovers Race, Belatedly.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Feb. 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/22/world/europe/lucky-luke-comic-france.html.

Pratt, Mark. “6 Dr. Seuss Books Will Stop Being Published Because of Racist Imagery.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 2 Mar. 2021, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/6-dr-seuss-books-will-stop-being-published-because-of-racist-imagery.

Telford, Taylor. “Some Dr. Seuss books with racist imagery will go out of print.” Washington Post, 2 Mar. 2021. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A653519393/OVIC?u=sunysb&sid=OVIC&xid=5710bddc. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.

The New York Times. “A Tintin Controversy.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 July 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/18/arts/18arts-ATINTINCONTR_BRF.html.

Mental Health is Also Physical

by Sara Giarnieri, March 12, 2021

When you think about mental health, what comes to mind? 

Are you thinking of emotions, or maybe just general well-being?

Did you know that mental health plays a significant role in your physical health as well? 

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions are often associated with our emotional responses. Yet there are physical characteristics of mental health conditions that aren’t as readily acknowledged such as muscle tension, upset stomach, and chest pain (“Stress symptoms,” 2019).

Why do mental and physical health go hand in hand?

This is because a disruption in mental health can prevent us from maintaining a healthy lifestyle. As the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion states (2020), “Mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, affect people’s ability to participate in health-promoting behaviors.” For someone debilitated by mental health, riding a bike may not be as easy for them compared to someone who may be in a stronger state of mental health. The neglect of our health due to psychological conditions can lead to physical symptoms. 

For instance, some common physical signs of depression are fatigue, changes in appetite, and headaches (“Depression,” 2018). Anxiety can also cause fatigue, rapid heart rate, and a decline in focus (“Anxiety disorders,” 2018). Anyone experiencing physical symptoms like these should recognize that it could be due to mental health, which is an aspect of our lives that is often ignored. Mental health should receive the critical attention needed in order to lessen these physical symptoms and achieve a happier, healthier life. 

Those who are battling psychological conditions may also be at risk for long term physical health conditions.

Studies have shown that people who are struggling with mental health are more likely to have certain health conditions. The New Zealand Journal of Psychology studied the correlation between mental health and physical health and found that those with psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, stroke, arthritis, asthma, and chronic pain (Lockett et al., 2018). The careful treatment of our mental health can help to prevent the development of serious physical conditions. 

How can we take care of our health?

Make sure you are listening to yourself both mentally and physically, as the two coincide with one another. Pay attention to how much sleep you get, provide your body with enough nutrients, and exercise daily. Set aside time to find and indulge in activities that make you feel good. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to reach out! If you feel that you are struggling, don’t hesitate to speak to a friend, family member, counselor, or someone you trust. They are there to help you. 

Think back again: What is mental health to you? Did your answer change, or did it remain the same? Either way, everyone can take more time to learn about mental health and how much it truly influences our lives. 


National Mental Health Resources

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: +1 (800) 273 – 8255

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline: +1 (800) 662 – HELP (4357)

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Top HelpLine Resources

MentalHealth.gov

Stony Brook University Mental Health Resources

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

Mental Health Outreach and Suicide Prevention


References 

Anxiety disorders. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961

Depression (major depressive disorder). (2018). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20356007

Lockett, H., Jury, A., Tuason, C., Lai, J., & Fergusson, D. (2018). Comorbidities between mental and physical health problems: An analysis of the New Zealand Health Survey data. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 47(3), 5–11.

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2020). Mental Health and Mental Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/mental-health-and-mental-disorders

Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987

Mean Girls and Boys That Don’t Cry

by Ayesha Azeem, February 27, 2021

Whether we want to believe it or not, stereotypes control our conscious and subconscious thoughts, influencing our actions and behaviors towards society. As Leslie Scrivener’s article “The Cult of the Mean Girl” highlights, our perceived ideologies about how women behave toward each other influence our behavior in practice. Because we believe women are supposed to indulge in gossip and jealousy due to social norms, we as a society expect and even participate in this behavior. Ideologies and perceptions of men’s behavior also exist; while society perceives women as emotional and judgmental, we also expect men to remain professional, dominant, and violent. These thoughts and expectations not only affect how we behave towards others but also how we recognize ourselves. 

As soon as we are born, we gain awareness about the accepted and rejected behaviors in our society. One of these expected roles of a woman include “being nasty to each other … one of the rigidly enforced North American standards of what constitutes femininity” (Scrivener 1). Society expects women to treat each other as antagonistic competition, making them their own worst enemies. Little girls are not directly taught about these attitudes from their mothers, yet women around the world understand and engage in hostility towards each other. Girls watch their mothers gossip about neighbors and coworkers and administer this pettiness within themselves as well.

Society expects young women to rely entirely on their husbands and center their appearance, behavior, and mindset around what the men in their life anticipate and desire. As a result, women may prioritize their romantic relationships over friendships with other females since “women receive messages that their primary relationship should be with men, and that they have to compete for those relationships” (Scrivener 3). This often induces unwarranted aggression and possessiveness as part of the rivalry against female peers and thus destroys any connection they once felt. With the heavy emphasis on supporting the patriarchy, the media influences women to yearn for successful romantic relationships as their ultimate goal in life, belittling friendships and enhancing incivility among women. Because of this, when women suffer domestic violence and other relationship-related stress, they find themselves alone with no one to confide in. The stereotypes women comply with cause failures in their connection with peers and foster unnecessary cruelty. However, stereotypes and social norms control not only women, but also men.

We expect men to act dominant, controlling, and violent, and we criticize them when they do not make these traits apparent. From minor reprimanding like “real men don’t cry,” to extreme, life-changing situations such as forced enlistment into the military for men in South Korea, the way in which our society regards and expects men to behave alters the way they recognize and think of themselves. Generally, we expect men to remain nonchalant and unaffected, whereas we portray women as overly emotional. When men find themselves unable to effectively communicate their feelings because they learn at a young age that their tears are forbidden, they tend to internalize their feelings of depression, pain, and hatred, which may transition into radical acts of violence. Studies find that nearly 1 in 4 women experience physical abuse issued by an intimate partner, generally a male (National Domestic Violence Hotline). However, men are also victimized by abuse and rape. 15% of domestic violence victims are males who may not have the support they need to speak up about their struggles for fear of being labeled as an instigator or facing disbelief — or even taunts — rather than the help they desperately need (National Domestic Violence Hotline). Other men may resort to mass violence instead, attempting to get revenge on society for trying to isolate men from their feelings. The recent mass shootings witnessed in the United States have been overwhelmingly committed by male gunmen, from El Paso to Parkland, Florida. The terror and fear only increase as time goes on (Reese). 

Rather than allowing young boys to communicate their feelings and feel heard, society ignores their violence as “boys will be boys” until the resentment transitions into horror.  Additionally, with the emphasis on the patriarchy and the supposed role of a man, young boys are forced to grow up earlier than they are meant to. Society expects every young man to graduate college with a degree, find a career immediately, buy a house and find a suitable woman to make his wife before he grows old. The pressure put on young men without providing an effective and safe outlet causes harm both for themselves and the people surrounding them. 

With this generation’s eagerness to raise awareness about the immoralities around the world, we would benefit from diminishing the unnecessary stereotypes held about gender and how one’s sex and gender should affect the way they convey their emotions. Parents should nurture their children in a way which young boys do not feel obligated to conceal their emotions and vulnerability, and young girls should feel encouraged to create enduring friendships with other females rather than focusing on finding an intimate partner. After all, we have bigger things to worry about than whether our behavior matches that which society expects of us. 


References

  1. Scrivener, Leslie. “The Cult of the Mean Girl.” Toronto Star, 5 Mar. 2006.
  2. “Statistics.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline, https://www.thehotline.org/resources/statistics/.
  3. Reese, Phillip. “When Masculinity Turns ‘Toxic’: A Gender Profile of Mass Shootings.” Los Angeles Times, 7 Oct. 2019, http://www.latimes.com/science/story/2019-10-07/mass-shootings-toxic-masculinity.

Saving for a Home Birth: How COVID-19 Will Change Fertility in the United States

by Sophia Garbarino, February 25, 2021

The novel coronavirus pandemic has significantly changed life in the United States, both temporarily and probably permanently in many ways. Not only has it impacted or directly caused the death of over 200,000 Americans, but it also rapidly changed the social norms of relationships and birth (CDC). Quarantining, social distancing, and working from home are all essential to the new normal American life. COVID-19 and the policies it has produced will ultimately accelerate the U.S. population decline by delaying marriage while pushing more parents away from medicalized births and into the comfort of their own homes.

Financially, the pandemic will decrease the fertility rate via unemployment. According to a July 2020 report by the National Women’s Law Center, “women have disproportionately suffered pandemic-related job losses: since February 2020, women have lost over 8 million net jobs, accounting for 55% of overall net job loss since the start of the pandemic” (Ewing-Nelson). On top of rising “levels of student loan and credit card debt,” unemployment and social distancing measures have forced many couples to delay marriage and pregnancy (Mather). Before the pandemic, the U.S. had already seen a “historically low birthrate” due to women’s increased participation in the workforce, meaning “women are having their first child at a later age. And when that happens, the total number of kids they have is fewer” (Belluz). Now that unemployment numbers are skyrocketing, the nation can expect to see older parents with up to “300,000 to 500,000 fewer births next year” (Kearney and Levine). For many, COVID-19 is simply not the ideal, welcoming baby climate.

While financial hardship is turning parents away from expensive hospital births, the pandemic will also change the fertility experience via fear and COVID healthcare policies. As more patients become afraid to seek or are denied direct hospital care, more expecting parents are turning to alternative, natural birthing plans, like delivering at home with a midwife and/or doula (de Freytas-Tamura). Even before the pandemic, the “rise of surgical births with other medical interventions has meant a set of concerns over the high costs of births, as well as of the safety of maternal and neonatal patients” (Curreli and Marrone 29). Hospital birth is expensive and more risky now that coronavirus poses a potentially fatal threat, making home births seem much more appealing. In fact, the U.S. may see a drive towards European birth culture, “where more than 75 percent of all births are assisted by trained midwives… midwives [are] safer, less expensive, and more likely to facilitate a satisfying experience for the mother and family” (Wagner 37-40). Currently, “only three-quarters of the states allow licenses for midwives to practice out-of-hospital deliveries,” meaning many women will still have to give birth in a hospital or a birthing center (de Freytas-Tamura). As such, several expecting mothers are switching from hospital to birthing center deliveries, a trend that will likely continue to increase past the pandemic.

It’s difficult to say exactly how the pandemic will affect U.S. fertility in the long-term, but there are several short-term responses that suggest what the American birth experience may look like years from now. Unemployment, delayed marriage and birth, and home births are just a few responses indicating a future decrease in fertility and reduced medicalization of birth.


1Based on the U.S. COVID-19 mortality rate reported on October 1, 2020.


Works Cited

Belluz, Julia. “The historically low birthrate, explained in 3 charts.” Vox, 22 May 2018, https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/5/22/17376536/fertility-rate-united-states-births-women.

“CDC COVID Data Tracker.” CDC, https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_casesinlast7days. Accessed 1 October 2020.

Curreli, Misty, and Catherine Marrone. “Professional Certification and Doula Work: Measuring the Significance of Credentialing in the Field of Birth Companionship.” Marrone, pp. 29-34.

De Freytas-Tamura, Kimiko. “Pregnant and Scared of ‘Covid Hospitals,’ They’re Giving Birth at Home.” The New York Times, 21 April 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/21/nyregion/coronavirus-home-births.html.

Ewing-Nelson, Claire. “June Brings 2.9 Million Women’s Jobs Back, Many of Which Are At Risk of Being Lost Again.” National Women’s Law Center, July 2020, https://nwlc-ciw49tixgw5lbab.stackpathdns.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/june-jobs-fs-1.pdf.

Kearney, Melissa S., and Phillip B. Levine. “Half a million fewer children? The coming COVID baby bust.” The Brookings Institution, 15 June 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/research/half-a-million-fewer-children-the-coming-covid-baby-bust/.

Marrone, Catherine, editor. Deeply Private, Incredibly Public: Readings on the Sociology of Human Reproduction. Cognella, 2019.

Mather, Mark. “Life on Hold: How the Coronavirus Is Affecting Young People’s Major Life Decisions.” Population Reference Bureau, 23 July 2020, https://www.prb.org/how-the-coronavirus-is-affecting-major-life-decisions/.

Wagner, Marsden. “Maternity Care in Crisis: Where are the Doctors?” Marrone, pp. 35-41.

Androids as Allegories: Analysing Asian/American and African/American Embodiment in Speculative Media

by Anonymous, February 15, 2021

***FALL 2020 CONTEST WINNER***

This essay was written in 2018, before the HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft County aired. Both narratives are worth looking into for representations of Black bodies in the nexus of history, science fiction, and modernity.

Recent years have seen increased diversity in the American population. However,  entwined with its shining tradition of immigration, our country has a much murkier history of  oppression and outgroup aggression. From slavery to Manifest Destiny, immigration bans to  racial violence, the repeated and systematic dehumanization of large swathes of the population  has sparked countless campaigns for liberty and equality that continue into the present day. The  media has proven an excellent tool for and against different agendas, with media portrayals of  different populations shaping public opinion of the people that comprise those groups. This essay  looks at two different subgenres of speculative fiction (Techno-Orientalism and Afrofuturism)  that emerged in the twentieth century and their connection to real-world histories of oppression  through the lens of two recent productions, the 2015 film Ex Machina and the Metropolis concept album series.

I. History of Un/humanity

Throughout American history, people of color have been posited as less than human.  From the Three-Fourths Compromise in 1787 and immigration bans in 1882 and 1917, to modern stereotyping, the American legal system has worked in tandem with socioeconomic anxieties to portray people of color as unhuman “Others.” This has been accomplished by relegating the bodies of Black and Asian people to the “uncanny valley.”

Figure 1. Graph depicting the uncanny valley (Mori).

Coined by Masahiro Mori in 1970, the uncanny valley describes semi/sentient technological simulacra that are vaguely familiar, but at the same time discomfiting in their distinct inhumanness (Chu; Roh 78). Mori believed that people respond positively to simulacra (i.e. effigies, superficial or unreal representations of humanity), when they are less than 85% similar to actual humans (Mori 2012). The strength of the positive response then increases proportionally, albeit slowly, as the percentage similarity increases. Those that fall near the graphical valley at 85% are characterized by an existence in the liminal space between humanity and the mere simulation of it (Figure 1).

This percentage is determined by a combination of the simulacra’s vocalizations, physical embodiment, and responses to human engagement.  Considering the negative connotations associated with African American Vernacular English, black skin, epicanthic folds and “foreign” customs, representations of people in media can often  be examined through the idea of the uncanny valley. Though rather than having the ambiguous  “human” category as the baseline, much of contemporary American respectability and assimilation politics uses the unmarked category of “whiteness” as the baseline against which all other speech patterns, bodies, and behaviors are compared and evaluated for  familiarity/humanity. 

With this context, we can begin to consider how the characterizations of people of color  in media and contemporary fiction force them into this uncanny liminal space, an existence allegorized by the speculative fiction staple – the android. Exploring different manifestations of the android as allegory enables us to disentangle the heterogeneity and distinctions within the minority monolith, as well as providing us with a deeper understanding of the relevance of  speculative representations of marginalized groups.

II. Techno-Orientalism

In a 1902 campaign to extend the Chinese Exclusion Act, Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argued that Chinese laborers were capable of sustaining deprivations in safety and  sustenance that those of European descent could not (Gompers). The paper was termed “Meat vs. Rice, American Manhood vs. Asian Cooleism”. Its very title suggests that Asian Americans are something other than hu/man, some differential species known as “Coolie”. Despite their crucial role in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and as laborers in the American West, the extent of Asian American humanity was routinely called into question. They were construed as literal machines, “cogs of hyperproduction”,  arriving overseas in bulk for use in constructing industrial modernity (Roh 5).

Techno-Orientalism is a direct byproduct of this paradigm shift. It is defined by Danielle  Wong as “A discourse that imagines Asia and Asians in hypo- or hyper-technological terms in  order to secure the West’s dominance as architects of the future” (Wong 35).

Lacking a distinct cultural history, America seeks to compensate by imagining a distinct  cultural future, in the form of future-societies. A staple in speculative fiction, future-societies  have their roots in the industrial revolution, when increasing mechanization led to novels and  speculation on the integration of synthetic technology with organic humanity. In the wake of the  technological and arms dominance that emerged in the nineteenth century, the United States  constructed its identity on the basis of modernity. Its status as a relatively young nation and a  global superpower to boot fed into this ideal of futurism, where Western society, America in  particular, was seen as the embodiment of modernism. “If it was the West that created  modernity, it was also modernity that created the imaginary space and identity described as  Western” (Morley 153). 

Beginning in the 1980s, however, Asia has seen tremendous economic and technological  growth, outpacing the nations typically thought to constitute the West. As a result, the focus of American anxieties shifted to “fears of being colonized [and] mechanized…in its pursuit of  technological dominance” (Roh 4). Disoriented by the shift in technological innovation, the  Western society developed insecurities about European and American modernity, Watching  Asian nations outpace them in terms of GDP growth and technological innovation forces  Western society to recenter the locus of modernity, forcing them to recenter the very core of their  identities (CIA). This leads to further othering of Asian/American populations by white in order to retain their sense of identity, which is so inextricably entwined with the notion of  technological superiority.

This led to the rise of cyberpunk. Envisioning future-societies dominated by masculinized  white protagonists, cyberpunk allowed creators to reproduce the militarized, white, “rugged  masculinity” that they believed to be their birthright. White men cast in the “lone wolf”  archetype are shown as taking a stand against faceless corporations that are trying to elide  humanity in favor of impersonal, unfeeling mechanization. Defining pieces in the genre include  Blade Runner (1982) and Neuromancer (1984), both of which center on a lone white man in an  Orientalized environment, which despite being populated by Asian/Americans, rarely gives them  scope to be active subjects. Limited in their characterization, the presence of Asian/American  bodies is used as sentient set dressing, with the sentience often called into question.

III. Ex Machina’s Inheritance

The distinction between sentience and thought originated in eighteenth century  philosophy and has been historically connected to dehumanization and the justification for  oppression towards the racial and ethnic Other. Sentient beings are considered capable of  subjective interpretation, also known as emotions. Thinking beings, in contrast, are simply able  to rationalize; take objective data and spit out information, no more human than a computer  CPU. Thus, denying Asian/American characters of a full range of emotional expression  effectively reduces them to androids; unhuman mechanized bodies whose sole purpose for  existing is manual labor. By removing Asian/American subjectivity from Asian-coded  environments, the narratives deny them personhood. 

This phenomenon is observed in the 2015 film Ex Machina. Despite its rather hackneyed  deployment of racialized tropes, Ex Machina is lauded as a speculative milestone for its inclusion of bodies of color in a future-society. However, said bodies are routinely denied  subjectivity. 

Humans interpret a subject’s emotion through two methods; voice modulation and facial  expression. It is thus telling that both Asian androids in the film, Jade and Kyoko, have static  visual affect displays. Throughout the 150-minute film, we see no variation in either of their expressions.  Furthermore, their sole expression is neutral, suggesting that they lack any capacity for  subjective, emotional response. In this sense, the film constructs the Asian face as “too artificial,  too inorganic to pass for human” (Wong 40). The stereotype of the unfeeling, coldly logical  Asian is depicted in full force here. This is driven to a visual extreme in the case of Jade, who is  shown tearing herself apart in an effort to escape confinement. Her desperation literally destroys  her. She does not show sentience, repeating the phrase “let me out” in a monotonous tone as her  body breaks down. 

It is also necessary to consider historical precedent in the case of Kyoko, who has been  effectively muted by Nathan, the androids’ creator. Unable to utter a single sound, or to move in  ways contrary to his explicit commands, she is denied any means of self-expression, any way of  conveying the thoughts and feelings that would mark her as sentient.  

Even Kyoko’s sexuality is almost mechanical in its eerie semblance to a computer  responding only to user input. One of the most disturbing scenes in the film occurs when Caleb is  looking for Nathan. Approaching Kyoko, he repeatedly asks her for Nathan’s location. As she  remains mute, staring at him with her unchanging expression, Caleb shouts the profanity “F**k”  as an expression of his growing frustration. It is this word that triggers Kyoko’s first action in  this interaction, namely, to begin unbuttoning her shirt. Unable to respond outside the parameters  and commands which Nathan has programmed nor express sentience, Kyoko is a trite character, 

in the tradition of cyberpunk’s “use of the passive techno-Orientalized female body” (Roh 159).  Kyoko is nothing more than sexual, sexualized technology. 

Contrast this to Ava, the white female android. Not only does her tone vary throughout  the film, depending on the emotions she experiences, we can also see changes in her facial  expression. Viewers are called to question Ava’s humanity based on whether they perceive her  expressions and voice modulations as either genuine expressions of feeling or calculated actions  with the aim of liberation. In either case, Ava is at least offered the option of humanity, her white  face allowing her to “pass’ in a way neither Asian android can.  

What is more telling is director Alex Garland’s response to questions of racial bias. The  director stated in an interview:

“the only embedded point that I knew I was making in regards to race centered around  the tropes of Kyoko [Sonoya Mizuno], a mute, very complicit Asian robot, or Asian appearing robot, because of course, she, as a robot, isn’t Asian.”

(Garland)

This statement is fundamentally flawed in its interpretation of race. Race is not a biological  reality so much as a social construct, with the body “a kind of mediation of the processes by  which race becomes attached to physiology…racialization is neither a biological nor a cultural  descriptor” so much as one created to divide society on a system of baseless difference. Skin  color, like so many other identities that have been historically rendered objects, exists on a  spectrum, and the sheer arbitrariness can be seen in codification attempts such as the “one-drop  rule”, which has no biological substance. There is a historical tradition of configuring posthuman  subjects as white, and the lack of subjective action given to the non-white androids renders them  unhuman, rather than posthuman. 

While the movie features multiple female bodies of color, they are not complex  characters. Even Kyoko’s demonstrations of her inorganic nature are oddly fetishized; a naked Asian woman is literally peeling away her flesh in order to show a white man the extent to which  she is an “Other”. Had Garland limited the removal to her face, it might have proven less overtly  voyeuristic. Even in the supposedly “feminist” scene, where Kyoko stabs Nathan, it is important  to note that her transgression results in her immediate death via dismemberment. It is the white  gynoid who delivers the final thrusts, who escapes into the wider world, whose transgressions  result in her salvation, as opposed to her destruction. 

Bound by the “visions” of both Nathan as  their fictional creator, and Garland as their real creator, Jade and Kyoko exist as little more  “technological tools for the personal exploration” of white women and men, rather than active  subjects in their own right (Roh 161). In interrogating the portrayal of said bodies, it is possible  to understand the premise of multiculturalism and its contributions to the same dehumanization it  purports to counter, by arguing that mere inclusion of bodies of color does not inherently confer  subjectivity to said bodies.

IV. Similarities – Comparing Histories

It is also important to consider the portrayal of the black body in Ex Machina as another embodiment of this concept. “The disconnection of black body parts from black subjectivity in  the name of scientific progress” (Wong 41) is a common motif in cyberpunk, as well as real world history. There is a rich American tradition of scientific experimentation on black slaves,  which is paralleled by Jasmine’s lack of face and brain. This literal absence of signifiers of  thought, feeling, and sentience disturbingly parallels the deplorable treatment of black women’s  bodies by white men in the name of “scientific inquiry”.  

The case of Saartjie Baartman stands as a grim example. One of the Khoikoi people of  southwestern Africa, Saartjie was taken to England by a Dutch trader, who then sold her to an  exhibitionist who displayed her in a literal menagerie for public viewings. In a gross parody of empiricism, scientists and anatomists would come to poke and prod the poor woman, all in the  name of “research”. Even death was not to provide a release from these indignities, as her body was autopsied for “definitive evidence of her low-level status on the scale of civilization”  (Farrell 76). Her labia were preserved in a jar of formaldehyde in a Paris museum until the  1970s, when activists managed to force the items to be removed from display. But it was only in  2002 that her remains were repatriated to South Africa and given a formal burial. 

Saartjie’s experiences were part and parcel of nineteenth century western philosophy that  used bastardized biological precepts to justify the dehumanization of black and brown bodies.  These pseudoscientific armchair anthropologists wrote about Asians, Africans and Native  Americans as less evolved, then – in a staggering display of egoism and lack of integrity – used  their own writings as “evidence” to justify oppression, colonization, imperialism, and slavery  (Farrell 60). Such blatantly unscientific paradigms undergirded centuries of unethical  experimentation on Black bodies, beliefs that Black people are “less sensitive to pain”  (Washington; Hoffman et al). 

It is very difficult to divest Jasmine’s denuded, defaced form from such a sordid history.  It is also difficult to read the film’s cinematography as anything more than an underdeveloped,  cursory nod to this history. It is a glancing acknowledgement, not a remotely clever  interrogation. The film’s creators seem to fail to realize that the simple reproduction of a cliché  or visual injustice is not necessarily a critique of it. 

Afrofuturism seeks to counter this objectifying trend. While Techno-Orientalism is based  on restructuring future temporalities as “colorblind” or white-by-default, Afrofuturism  restructures past and present temporalities to acknowledge the existence and active subjectivity  of black bodies (Van Veen 11). A subset of Ethnofuturism, it contains the largest body of work compared to other ethnofuturistic lenses, such as Asian-futurism and chicano-futurism, which  focus on Asian and Latinx representations in speculative fiction, respectively. When considering  the android as allegory for the conditions of racial “Others’ in America, it is important to  consider “the nonequivalent co-construction of anti-Asian and antiblack racism” (Roh 183). 

In both cases, however, a problem arises in the indirectness of the android as allegory.  Using the struggles of mechanized simulacra as representations of real-world dehumanization  transfers experiences that remain, in reality, and unhuman condition” to a level of literary  abstraction. By representing the struggle of these androids, most of which are typically either  indistinct or rife with racial caricaturing, as representative of real-world human struggle, it  separates the viewer from the reality, the visceral suffering of flesh and blood humans. They can  construct these struggles as being unreal, existing only in fictional allegory and post-apocalyptic  or long past temporalities. It removes the immediacy. 

V. Afrofuturism as the Future

African/Americans face a similar struggle for nuanced representation in speculative  fiction. A study conducted as recently as 2008 found that Black people in America are routinely considered subhuman, represented in media as “ape-like” and more “primitive” (Goss et al.).  Unlike Asian/Americans, though, their unhumaness is tied to their lack of technology. Whether considering technologies of the flesh (intelligence), or disembodied technologies (access to the Internet, computer systems, smart devices), African/Americans have been portrayed as  possessing “less”. This construction of blackness as antithetical to technology-and therefore  limited in sociocultural-advancement is reinforced by “the digital divide…limited broadband in  inner-city communities, and the lack of computers in urban schools…racial surveillance and  profiling” (Womack 47).

Unlike Asian/Americans, contemporary dehumanization of black skin is posited on the  notion that they are “less evolved”, more closely resembling the prehuman apes as opposed to  posthuman androids. In this sense, depicting African/Americans as active technology-enhanced  subjects in speculative literature, rather than contributing to a history of caricatured oppression,  can serve as a counter to “militarist and masculinist white visions of 20th century antiseptic  science fictional futures” (Van Veen 20). By portraying black as integral to the narrative fabric  of posthuman future-societies, they subvert the white default in media, and reconstruct narratives  to provide less glamourized contexts for the reality of their condition. 

As a movement, Afrofuturism can be defined as aiming to “Fuse the shiny tomorrowland  of extraterrestrial beings, experimental technoculture and cybertronic robots with the self-esteem  politics of ‘black is beautiful’” (Nama 142). By generating narratives that examine the  African/American social condition while simultaneously imagining unconventional  African/American embodiments beyond those imposed through a history of white hegemony and  colonial trauma.

VII. ArchAndroid

The condition of robot laborers bears striking similarity to that of African/American  slaves. Both are constructed as unhuman, their commodification and enslavement justified by  questioning their capacity for sentience. In fact, the term “robot” comes from the novel  “Rossum’s Universal Robots”. The author, Capek, takes the term directly from the Czech word  for “forced labor”, a descriptor evocative of slavery. In most depictions of androids as allegory  for this group,

“The figure of the excluded and racialized other had nonetheless been insidiously  included: the other had just been sanitized as metallic robota, ‘their’ troublesome  attributes of consciousness and demand for ‘human rights’ quietly erased through deferential reprogramming.”

(Van Veen 20)

This entire allegory is explored in Janelle Monáe’s Metropolis concept album series. Chronicling  the narrative of a messianic female android named Cindi Mayweather, Monáe’s work also uses a  working android as an allegory for the experience of individuals of color, but unlike the  voyeuristic distance of Ex Machina, Monáe’s Metropolis is populated by black androids, and  humans of different ethnicities. What is telling is that the android bodies, made and marked for  commodification, are those of black women. However, unlike the sustained male gaze present in  the creation of other cyberpunk and speculative fiction properties, e.g. Ex Machina, the album  series presents Cindi as a subject rather than object. Her face is hyper-expressive, switching  between expressions in a rapid, fully humanized manner, while her body is never denuded,  except for the album art in The Metropolis Suite. However, it is unskinned and unadorned,  explicitly showing wiring and cords spilling out of her, suggesting disassembly and un/making than a voyeuristic intrusion. Her unfinished body is tellingly depicted in a stark white metallic  shade, to convey how the embodiment of “blackness” as a race is purely social, with no natural  basis. The color of our skin is literally that of the elements we were created with, and not a  reflection of us as individuals.

Unlike Ex Machina, Metropolis is also consciously aware of the history it inherits, and  the rampant objectification of bodies of color in mainstream speculative fiction. A tongue-in cheek adaptation of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic film, it uses a female android as a catalyst for  societal change. While Lang’s film posited the gynoid Maria as an evil entity, whose  hypersexualized performances were responsible for fomenting what was essentially a communist  uprising that resulted in societal collapse and destruction, Monáe’s series posits Cindi  Mayweather as an androgynous, messianic entity whose performances encourage individual self expression and love. Rather than being coded as a mechanical Eve, responsible for the downfall of man, Mayweather relies on “the concept of prophecy, or speaking about hope to create a vision  of the future.” (Womack 41). Monáe also uses the concept of love as a measure of humanity, with viewer sympathy for Cindi stemming from her initial attraction to a human. But it is telling that her character is not marked solely by her actions in relation to men. While her attractions and affections catalyze her development as a messianic performer, it is her use of prophecy and calls to liberty that fully renders her a subject. In this case, the android is a beautiful allegory for enslavement, using music as a means of communication to call her people to freedom from an oppressive society that sees them as little more than objects. In fact, the use of the term ArchAndroid to describe Mayweather is reminiscent of the term “archangel”, suggesting that she  holds the key to all sentient salvation.

“Her inversion of Maria, the female android who is constructed to seduce and trick the  proletarian workers of Metropolis. In Monáe’s version, “slave cybergirl” #57821  becomes the ArchAndroid, the revolutionary mediator between the proles and the elites,  just as her Africanist embodiment reverses Maria’s whiteness to the ArchAndroid  blackness.”

(Van Veen 13)

Her frenzied audiences are also predominantly women of color, with men of color outnumbering white men. This defies the male gaze that is so pervasive in speculative fiction, increasing  Mayweather’s subjectivity, as opposed to objectification in the eyes of a male audience with  greater social power than herself. It makes it explicitly clear who her message is for, consciously aware that the messages of empowerment and control that manifest in depictions of future-societies are typically centered on white men. For Mayweather’s audience, self-worth and love for others in a future-society parallels that in contemporary society, acting as revolutionary forces that can counter a societal dynamic of dehumanization and objectification. Metropolis’s Cindi  Mayweather thus subverts the android trope in its entirety, offering a possible archetypal “happy ending”, rather than having the android punished for her subversiveness, as with Kyoko in Ex Machina

Monáe’s use of Egyptian motifs is also telling, hearkening back to a time when dark skinned cultures were heralded as advanced societies, producing technological knowledge that  shaped the world. They were the crux of technoscientific development, and as such were the loci of modernity. Rather than relying on trite, tired racialized imagery based solely on  dehumanization in the post-colonial context, the symbols employed by Monáe connote possibilities of power.

IX. Conclusion

It is important to understand that these issues are not restricted to the past and paper. The  insidious specters of systemic dehumanization continue to make their presence felt current  political rhetoric surrounding African and Asian societies. The distinction between Ex Machina and Monáe’s work is rooted in the use of an objectifying lens versus a subjective one. This  distinction serves to “complicate [the] assumption…that inclusion would remediate racism”.  While Ex Machina used racist cliches, it did nothing to dismantle the stereotypes or xenophobia that initially created them. Contrast this with Metropolis, which uses lyrics such as “I’m a slave  cybergirl without a face a heart or a mind / (a product of man, I’m a product of the man)” to  cleverly subvert the notion that women of color are incapable of subjectivity and/or sentience.  The use of the first-person pronoun immediately acknowledges the speaker’s subjectivity and  self, even as the literal words imply that her nature is to be objectified. Unlike Ex Machina’s  brutalization of the literally brainless and faceless black female body (shockingly sensational, but  hardly original), Metropolis immediately follows this lyric with a chorus that drives home the  nature of that dehumanization. Cultures of inequity, just like robots, are products created by  (mostly) men, for the system of institutions and ideologies that privileges them over “Others.” Mayweather the android, her body and programming created by a man and commodified in the  future-society. is thus a parallel to the contemporary woman of color, whose gender and race are  the products of a racist, patriarchal, capitalist society that profits and has profited on the  commodification of their bodies.

As seen through the deconstruction of Ex Machina and Janelle Monáe’s use of colored  bodies, however, it is evident that inclusion itself does not progressive humanization make.  Rather, it is the complex context in which the human or androids act and react that truly makes  for positive representations. It is not enough to have the bodies without considering what they are  meant and made to embody. Afrofuturism offers a direct response to histories of inequity that  Techno-Orientalism only serves to reinforce.


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