Tag Archives: gender

The Invisible War

The Invisible War provides an institutional analysis of how and why sexual assault thrives in the US military. Through a detailed accounting of the problem—over time and across multiple branches of the military—the documentary shows the predictive factors of sexual assault and also the dynamics that inhibit prosecution and future prevention. The film is gripping and intense—like its subject matter (absolutely no pun intended)—and it mirrors many of the same strengths that served the directors in their follow-up film The Hunting Ground. Unfortunately, it also replicates many of the same weaknesses: while providing a rather sociological analysis of sexual assault within military bureaucracy, it stops short of identifying core, hierarchical systems that perpetuate it, namely rape culture and patriarchy. Those limitations aside, it’s a stunning film that is very convincing (especially due to its strategic and exclusive use of official government and military statistics throughout).

There are numerous factors that lead to sexual assault within the military’s ranks, not least of which is the heavy drinking culture that it fosters. This drinking culture is partially an expression of the highly masculine nature of the military, but is also reflective of the many needs to cope with the violence, control, and trauma experienced by its members (sexual or not). As with the sexual abuse that festers within the Catholic Church, the US military is also a closed system in which civilian oversight cannot penetrate, which allows sexual predators to safely exist. Also (at least in my analysis of the film’s main arguments), the US military is also a highly macho environment, wherein men prove their masculinity through conquest. This is why male victims of sexual assault—who are justifiably shown in the documentary—are even less likely to report than female victims due to the dual shame of homophobia and emasculation.

The factors that inhibit prosecution are even more troubling, since they illustrate that many more people are aware of the predatory, abusive, and violent actions of their peers, subordinates, and superior officers, but choose to do little to rectify these problems. Survivors of sexual abuse or assault have to file charges against fellow soldiers up the chain of command. As a consequence, one’s commanding officer handles the initial investigation (and, as The Invisible War shows, he may be the very perpetrator the survivor wishes to charge). Officers do not want to inform their superiors of rape allegations originating in their units since it reflects negatively on their command skills and thus their future careers. The rape culture that many military personnel accept prima facie includes numerous apologies for sexually aggressive behaviors, as with the soldiers who made excuses for aviators who groped female soldiers (“what did you expect to happen when walking through a crowded hallway of drunk aviators?”—apparently not respect). There is a weak and ineffectual “prevention” division within the military, known by the acronym SAPARO (Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response Office) that engages in cringe-worthy victim-blaming via advertising and posters, but does not seek to understand predation nor target predators. If anything, SAPARO is like many bureaucracies’ legal office who seeks to avoid lawsuits or a public relations office that seeks to put a positive spin on horrible behaviors. The top military brass feel unaccountable to Congress, as witnessed by one incident the film shows: the head of SAPARO is ordered by her supervisor to not attend a Congressional hearing, despite Congress ordering her to attend and testify.

All in all, The Invisible War makes for a formidable case study on the many negative consequences of bureaucratic institutions (like large universities or the Catholic Church) who seem structurally uninterested, unwilling, or incapable of responding to malevolent behavior occurring within their own ranks.

Five Friends

Typically any mention of “gender” immediately makes people think of girls and women. Overlooked in this dynamic is a recognition that the problems females face in any given society is often either a result of or an interaction with the role that boys and men have in creating those problems. Consequently, to focus on the key cultural institution of masculinity is super important. Five Friends does just that, but it depicts an alternative form of masculinity lived by a small number of American men, who violate many of the key tenets of traditional masculinity—most importantly: don’t share your emotions with other men. The filmmaker himself grapples with how to raise his soon-to-be-born son (who is introduced at the end of the documentary) in a most positive fashion. Along the way, he interviews people who revolve around a single man: Hank. There are also interviews with a progressive male pastor as well as with sociological superstar Michael Kimmel, who both talk about manhood and men’s relationships with each other.

The filmmaker meets Hank through his work, strikes up a friendship, and then discovers that Hank is also friends—close, intimate friends—with another five men (probably at least that number). All five of these friends are introduced one by one. Many of these friends remark that their relationship to Hank is unique and unlike all their other male friendships, which are less intimate, personal, and emotional. The friends have varying types of relationships with Hank, too, which probably helps Hank greatly, as he can find the type of friendship he wants or needs at any given moment.

These friends feel they can be honest with each other, lovingly critique each other, be sympathetic, kind, and supportive. Some of them also say “I love you” to each other, hug, and kiss (on the cheeks, of course), and are forgiving of each other’s misdeeds. These behaviors clearly violate what Kimmel describes as the tendency to separate roles and emotions into feminine and masculine categories. Here, Hank is clearly a [straight] man, while he also embraces a compassionate and nurturing persona. Today, women can now do more masculine things, usually with far less condemnation than in the past, but men have not generally been granted (by society, women, or themselves) the same license to embody “femininity”. Kimmel argues a better future would be one where all people can express a wide range of emotions, adopt wider roles, and have this still be considered “human”—and not just masculine or feminine.

Five Friends describes how childhood sexual assault led Hank to seek more meaningful and stable relationships and friendships later in life, although he wisely states that his friends did not seek his friendship because of common tragedy like his. Thus, great harm need not befall men who seek such relationships. Hank also describes his relationship to his father. Hank sought more from the relationship and his father, which never got. This seems to drive his passion for and interest in establishing deep friendships with other men.

Although the film stands without having to interview or even include women, they and their perspectives on their male counterparts’ lives and relationships are absent. There is some description of the women in the mens’ lives, but it is mostly tangential.

It is notable that Hank’s friends are all solidly upper-middle class. They are professionals for whom emotional disclosure is more common and verbal communication skills are tantamount. Also, except for one, these are racially-homogenous friendships. Then, except for another friendship, they are also age-homogenous, too. While racial segregation surely limits the diversity of one’s friendships, age is a much more artificial limitation. The friendships are largely established through business contacts (Hank is a businessman). This raises the crucial issue of whether most men in society—who are working class, not upper-middle class—can easily establish these same kinds of friendships as these men? Perhaps, but it would take a much greater change in the norms of masculinity. Hank’s relationships amongst mostly upper-middle class white men is not as threatened by emotional disclosure and closeness. The film does not question what the challenges are for working class men, nor what could be pathways toward closer male friendships for them. Also, interestingly, the film does not grapple with themes of feminism, per se. Sure, there is a latent feminist analysis at work, but it is unspoken and appears in indirect ways (mostly through the Kimmel’s words).

While not a simple set of ideas to apply in every instance, Five Friends demonstrates the real possibilities of radically different male friendships. Given all the negative consequences associated with standard masculinity—everything from interpersonal violence, sexual assault, and war, to poor men’s health and suicide—there is a great need for evolving masculinity so that restrictive gender definitions do not continue to maul men, just as restrictive femininity and patriarchy continue to do for women.

Topics: gender, masculinity, social relationships, aging

Beyond Belief

This emotional documentary tracks the lives of two white American women who both lose husbands on planes that crash in New York City on September 11th, 2001. The women eventually discover each other—both live relatively near-by in Massachusetts—and both happen to be pregnant at the time of their husbands’ deaths. The two women meet each other and find ways to deal with their grief.

Beyond Belief‘s main contribution is the focus upon how these women translate their victim-hood into a proactive cause for good in the world, as opposed to violent demands for revenge (like much of the US was snookered-into following 9/11 by the media). They form a non-profit organization that provides aid to women in Afghanistan who are also victims of the even longer war happening there. The process they pursue in dealing with loss—by channeling their energies into raising money for Afghani women—is both saddening and inspiring. The emptiness of their familial lives is matched only by the sadness they feel once they get the chance to meet Afghani women who have experienced comparable loss, although theirs is far more structural in nature.

Despite how moving Beyond Belief is, there were many things in it that were left unspoken and that may make viewers uncomfortable. First, the privilege these women have is irrefutable. Of course, they’ve experienced incredible tragedy, but the resources they possess make it manageable, compared to the most others who reside in poverty. From the houses they live in, the cars they drive, and the degree of freedom from want, it is clear they have ample financial resources (especially clear in light of their husbands’ occupations). But, the film never mentions the substantial monetary gift from the government to 9/11 widows (which is important to note, as no other widowed individuals receive such financial assistance, although many could use it). They do remark upon their economic privilege once they get to Afghanistan, but that trip alone is indicative of privilege—who has the financial resources to take weeks out of their lives, purchase expensive tickets, to travel across the world? They also have impressive family support: loved ones watch their kids while they raise money, have meetings, and travel to Afghanistan.

Initially, they are a bit naïve about what role they should have on the lives of Afghani women; they want to “do good”, but they possess political ignorance about what life is like in Afghanistan. In fact, the NGO they create appears to have little on-the-ground coordination or even consent from Afghan widows themselves, although another NGO named CARE does help out with this a bit. (In a dramatic plot-twist, an Italian aid worker that the women learn from early on is later captured in Afghanistan, which scares the women greatly and delays their trip to Afghanistan.) Although it is not emphasized, close attention to the documentary’s timeline shows that the women create their NGO after the Iraq War begins, not before it. This follows the pattern of people opposing US militarism only after the rabid, ultra-nationalism following 9/11 dies down and the far-less popular Iraq War begins.

Viewers who are knowledgeable of Orientalism, will notice some “othering” of Afghani women and the burqas, which was also common in the mainstream media at the time. There is some background given for why conditions in Afghanistan are so bad (and why there are so many widows), but like many American recountings of Afghanistan’s history, Beyond Belief also leaves out the crucial US participation. While it is a historically debatable as to whether the US coaxed the Soviet Union into a trap in Afghanistan (some US political leaders have claimed to do this), it is quite undebatable that the US funneled untold millions into efforts that helped to destroy the country, by funding Islamicist fighters to drive the USSR out of Afghanistan. These efforts—which, again, far too many Americans seek to gloss-over—contributed directly to the 9/11 attacks, as the mujahideen fighters eventually became the Taliban and the base support for al Qaeda. In other words, the US had an obligation to aid Afghani war widows many years before the 9/11 attacks and the [formal] US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

These criticisms of geopolitics, and liberal fund-raising and aid aside, Beyond Belief is a quite wonderful personal story about people overcoming great loss, finding purpose, and avoiding the easy trap of blaming “others” for bad things that happen. Over the course of the documentary, these two women reclaim their lives and contribute (on the whole) towards doing more good than bad for people in Afghanistan—something that few Americans can claim.

Topics: gender, family, terrorism, war, death/dying

The Punk Singer

Most music documentaries—especially biopic films—do little to inform a sociological analysis. There are scores of context-independent, apolitical, and boring music documentaries out there (and these are on musicians who are good)! Thankfully, The Punk Singer is not one of these. It focuses upon the life and ideas of Kathleen Hanna, whose musical and political resume would be one of envy for many. She was the lead singer of the feminist punk band Bikini Kill and co-founder of the riot grrrl movement, to name only two things of note (member of Le Tigre would be another). Hanna has been central to so many things of cultural significance in the United States in recent decades that The Punk Singer could serve as a historical primer of sorts for the ill-informed.

For those unfamiliar with Hanna and her cultural milieu, The Punk Singer defines and provides a brief overview of the first and second waves of feminism in the US. Then, without giving an overt definition of feminism’s third wave, the documentary offers nearly all the main elements that scholars and activists identify with the third wave. We see an emphasis on cultural reclamation of previously derogatory words (incl. “slut”, which Hanna had written on her belly once while performing and the word “girl”). Even the idea of girlhood is reworked here. There is the advocacy of taking control of one’s own sexual empowerment and pleasure (see Bikini Kill lyrics and numerous statements by Hanna). The DIY (do it yourself) ethos is replete throughout the documentary, as musicians, punk scene denizens, artists, and Hanna herself create their own subcultures, media, events, and social movement. The Punk Singer also inserts a brief nod to intersectional themes, as a member of the “queercore” band Tribe 8 reflects on needing to analyze other forms of domination and inequality. Finally, the third wave is represented by the post-modernism demonstrated by punk and Hanna herself—she remarks to the camera that not everyone has to care about feminism, but that others should have to stay out of her way.

For Bikini Kill or Le Tigre fans, there are numerous opportunities to see these bands perform, as well as old “how did it really happen” interviews. Even for those unfamiliar with these bands, many will have heard of others who were influenced by Bikini Kill and Hanna herself, or who crossed paths with her. Joan Jett and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon appear as friends and confidants, as does King Ad Rock (aka Adam Horowitz) of the Beastie Boys, who is Hanna’s husband. There is also an important reflection upon Hanna’s friendship with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (Hanna spray-painted the phrase “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his apartment wall, inspiring the band’s most famous song title); an interviewee remarks that a good Nirvana history will conclude that its legacy is not in the “hesher rock” scenes of the Pacific Northwest, but in feminist art punk.

Sociological audiences will be able to observe how social change occurs in subcultures, with people pushing the boundaries of acceptability and expression, creating the space for new groups of people and ideas. The Punk Singer shows how Hanna challenged both her male punk compatriots to treat women better (sexual violence and marginalization are central themes) as well as empower her female compatriots to seize control of their lives and their art. Bikini Kill challenged male thuggery at their concerts, asked women to stand-up front by the stage, and called-out sexual predators. Hanna’s influence on riot grrrl is just as significant: she and her fellow punks created fanzines that discussed the need for feminism in punk scenes in order to protect and encourage female participation, and other problems faced by women in the male-dominated punk environment. Not only was this an intellectual influence upon punk (felt by women as well as men), but it also manifested in real-world riot grrrl groups, who met—kind of like second wave consciousness-raising circles—to support each other, network, do art and music together, and push for change within the punk movement. It is impossible to deny the effect that riot grrrl has had upon punk. Of course, sexism, misogyny, and assault still exist, but they are far less tolerated by everyone and they are easier to challenge than in the early-1990s. The Punk Singer is a great window into a fascinating world and one of its most charismatic participants.

Topics: gender, feminism, music, culture, social movements

Pink Smoke Over the Vatican

The Catholic Church is not only one of the world’s oldest and largest organizations, but also one of the most resistant to change. The Church is presently struggling with many disturbing internal matters, including a wide-spread sex abuse scandal (and cover-ups), and international resistance to its policies towards abortion and birth control. The patriarchal roots of these issues intersects with another on-going controversy of note—which is the focus of “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican”the ordination of female priests.

Viewers may be surprised to learn of the early days of Christian history, in which women played a prominent role. The film discusses the organized efforts of male leaders to expunge female leaders from positions of authority, including those who were “called” to the priesthood. In doing so, the significance of gender in the socially constructed history of the Church becomes all to apparent.

The film reveals that the issue of ordination is not only about whether women can be ordained, but also what to do with the women who already have been ordained. A variety of interesting interviews introduce a lot of female priests from numerous countries. The strategy of pro-female ordination supporters has been for sympathetic male bishops to ordain women priests and then to eventually ordain some of them as bishops, too. Then, these women bishops had the power to begin ordaining women themselves, mainly in Europe, but now also in North America.

One of the more paradigm-shifting elements to “Pink Smoke” is the footage of female priests leading mass and other religious ceremonies. For Catholics who have only known men to assume these roles, such events will look other-worldly. The faithful—and definitely religious Catholics—are the intended audience of the film, and as such the film is sometimes a bit “churchy” (especially true for non-Catholics and the non-religious). But, even for others, the film explores the crucial points of debate around the issue that even lay-non-laity audience can appreciate. Some of the female priests go as far to argue that many of the other scandals (e.g. regarding sexual abuse) would be better addressed by female leaders. While it does not take much counter-evidence to show the wide-spread corruption of female political leaders (particularly heads-of-state), there is a qualitative point to make about the starkly different gendered approaches that women may bring to the Church’s leadership. Many of the interviewees point to gendered double-standards: the all-male Church hierarchy maintains the status quo by reference to Church laws that were made by earlier men (which they assert are not God-derived laws). Interestingly but unsurprisingly, many of the ordination supporters were inspired by other social movements, including South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement and the American civil rights movement.

Perhaps the predictable post-script to “Pink Smoke” has been the Church’s reaction to the ordained women. Many have been excommunicated or are being threatened with it. Roy Bourgeois—the director of the School of the Americas Watch and a male supporter of female ordination—was interviewed prominently in the film, but after the film’s release, he has since been excommunicated from his Maryknoll order.

Topics: sociology of religion, gender, social change