Shakira on the MTV Video Music Awards

I’m currently watching the MTV Video Music Awards as I type up my notes for the morning, and I just watched Shakira and Wyclef Jean perform “Hips Don’t Lie”. And would you believe that Shakira and her back-up dancers appropriated Asian Indian traditional dress and dancing?

I’m so tired of watching Asian cultures get appropriated by contemporary performers as a way of “snazzing up” the same ‘ol routine, as if a little dash of “the East” can give an overplayed song an exotic twist. How many pop culture singers and dancers have we seen over the past few years dressed in hanbok or chi-pao? Are we really surprised that this generation’s youth think there’s nothing wrong with appropriating Asian cultures? Those who establish “that which is cool” send the message that not only is there nothing wrong with appropriating Asian cultures, but that it’s in fact desirable.

But then again, why am I turning to the MTV Video Music Awards for discussions of identity politics? Sarah Silverman (known to Asian American activists for her defense of the epithet “chink” in her comedy) just did a homophobic segment lambasting recently outed Lance Bass. I feel my brain cells dying. This is my generation?

Sexual Dimorphism and Feminism

Two months ago, there was a clash of the comic book titans between Scipio of Absorbacon and Ragnell of Written World when Absorbacon published a post arguing the implausibility of female superheroes and supervillains. Scipio wrote,

I will believe a man can fly. It is substantially more difficult for me to believe that women are as likely as men to put on a costume and fight crime… It’s even more of a strain to unflinchingly accept woman villains. Men are more violent than women. Men are more likely to become criminals.

Scipio’s argument boils down to advocating inherent biological differences between men and women resulting in different modes of thinking. Scipio extends this argument to say that because men and women are biologically different, one gender is naturally more apt (and thus more plausible) at playing certain social roles than the other (i.e. being a hero versus being a villain). Scipio backed up this claim in the comments section by linking to a Research at Penn article entitled “Possible Basis Found for the Cliché Depicting Men as More ‘Hot-Headed’ than Women“, in which a University of Pennsylvania researcher used MRI to map the amygdala of adult humans and noted a sexual dimorphism in size of the amygdala of men compared to women. The PDF of the actual research article is here, if you’re interested in reading about methods and actual results. Again, the turn of the conversation was not unexpected — inevitably, those who argue biological differences between people, whether it be gender or race will cite a scientific article (or in this case, the lay-media’s summary of a scientific finding) to support their claims, frequently with little concern regarding critical understanding of the results. In the comments section, I posted a lengthy response, addressing why one cannot jump to conclusions based on this result:

  1. Are the two control groups sufficiently representative of a random sampling of men and women such that the findings could be used to infer differences throughout the entire population?
  2. Is the difference signficant? In Figure 3 of the paper, the variability within gender seems to be just as large as the variability between genders.
  3. Is it reasonable to correlate larger size with greater function? We don’t know how the larger size arises (more neurons? more dendrites? more glial cells?) and whether or not there is a functional difference in the amygdala conferred by this size?

Still, the possibility of a sexual dimorphism existing between the brains of men and women was an interesting question to me, so I chose to do a literature review of sexual dimorphism in the nervous system for my Neurophysiology summer class.

I have to admit that despite the position of feminism when it comes to “natural differences between men and women”, it had never really occurred to me to figure out the scientific position on sexual dimorphism in the human brain. It was certainly of political relevance: throughout history, the power structure have used “natural inequities” to justify disenfranchisement.For generations, White scientists used faulty scientific surveys to “conclude” that Blacks were more genetically pre-dispositioned to excel at manual labour over academic pursuits. White plantation owners believed themselves to be saving the African savage from himself by providing their slaves shelter and a “Christian” upbringing. Nazis published eugenics reports in which skull sizes were measured in order to defend statements of Aryan supremacy. Similarly, the patriarchy has used science to perpetuate gender roles that disenfranchise women, arguing that our supposed “emotionalism”, “empathy”, “sensitivity” and (according to the UPenn study) “unimpulsiveness” is reason enough to deny us equal professional opportunities or social standing. Women are still paid roughly $0.70 to the dollar compared to men, and women are still underrepresented in “traditionally male” jobs, particularly in the military where women are prevented from taking most positions. And some men even find it difficult to believe women are plausibly able to be superheroes or supervillains.

Feminism is about advocating gender equality, which, as far as I’m concerned, demands that men and women be viewed as fundamentally identical both in physical ability and in mental capacity. With that in mind, I was certain that in my literature review of sexual dimorphism, I would be able to find an obvious reason to discount the research as a product of patriarchal conditioning or faulty science. However, the more I read, the more it seemed to make sense — unlike race, in which there is no significant genetic difference between the races, the two genders are distinguishable down to the genetic level (men have an XY sex chromosome, women have an XX sex chromosome) and this difference results in necessary physiological and anatomical differences critical for reproduction.

In the animal world, there are several examples of sexual dimorphism of the brain resulting in different sexual behaviours, and which arise from sexually dimorphic circuitry in the brain. One research article cites a difference in the behaviour of certain neurons of male and female rats arising at embryonic day 15. It came to seem less reasonable to me to argue that men and women did not have biological and anatomical differences in their brains that might result in functional differences. Although establishing a functional effect for anatomical differences in the brain is difficult in humans (and so my belief is that there isn’t any current scientific evidence for a conclusion such as the one cited by the Absorbacon post), I came out of the research project with a revised opinion of the science: it seems less reasonable to me to blindly imagine that men and women would have reproductive differences and differences in hormone production and release in the brain, but not other differences in the initial hardwiring of the brain. However, the science still has not completely resolved this point when it comes to humans, and while it is likely that our different genetic makeups prescribe different neural circuitry in the brain, the nervous system is particularly plastic, and we have yet to distinguish between the effects of nature vs. nurture in the development of the human psyche. I think that while it is reasonable to believe that male and female children might start out with sexually dimorphic circuitry, as we develop post-natally, our brains are capable of converging.

Either way, feminism must be able to adapt to the possibility that science will continue to uncover “evidence” suggesting differences between men and women that some might try to use to justify preferential treatment for men. I was wrong to try and blindly disregard the possibility that science might show a difference between the way men and women would think; by ignoring science, I wasn’t spending my time trying to consider how to argue against these findings in a way that would still benefit women. Fundamentally, I and other feminists must adapt our philosophy to incorporate the findings of science, and vocalize the fact that science cannot and should not be used to justify unequal treatment. Rather than continue to argue that women will be found to be biologically equal to men, we just develop the argument that biological difference does not justify social oppression. So, maybe the Gurs paper is right, and my amygdala is smaller than a man’s; but ask electroman and he will tell you that I can be just as hot-headed as he. And that’s just the way I like it.

Mark Burnett, May You Burn In The Deepest Pits of Hell

Despite being one of the grand-daddies of today’s reality tv explosion, Survivor has suffered in recent years from lacklustre ratings and general consumer disinterest. Gone are the days when your overweight friends held Thursday night Survivor parties with each attendent sporting their brand-new, freshly-ordered off the CBS website Survivor buffs, and “voted off the island” has long past its hey-day as pop-culture jargon. So, what did Mark Burnett do this season in order to remind us that his cash cow was still kicking? He did what all reality television shows inevitably do: he turned to race.

This seasonSurvivor features 20 new cast-members trying to survive in harsh, untamed nature (completely authentic despite the well-fed six-man camera crew following sticking the camera in your face as you attempt to light kindling with two pieces of rock and a machete). Of note is the fact that this season marks the most diverseSurvivor cast we’ve ever seen, with a whopping fifteen people of colour. Of course, rather than try to deflect accusations of tokenism in casting, Burnett went to the opposite extreme: unabashed racism! In the 30-second video promo, host Jeff Probst excitedly informs us that Survivorhas become a social experiment; the twenty castmembers will be divided into four tribes… by “ethnicity”! (Burnett must think we’re stupid if we think that “White”, “African American”, and “Asian American” are ethnicities. They’re races; Burnett is just afraid of sounding politically incorrect, describing what he has nonetheless done).

People divided by race and told to survive in the wild. What could be wrong with this picture, you ask? How about the unabashed racism of just looking at skin colour and separating people into different tribes? How about the fact that the only reason one would pit the tribes separated by race against one another is to play off of the kinds of racial superiority contests best left to the Bell Curve? How about the fact that Burnett is hawking this development not only as a daring “social experiment” but is implying through the commercial that separating people by race will automatically create such delightful racial strife that we will just have to watch (i.e., that racism is human nature)? And how about the fact that despite all this focus on race, the video still emphasizes images of White people?

I am disgusted — absolutely disgusted — by this new season of Survivor. Sure, there’s a rockin’ three Asian American men on the show (although what does it mean that no Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans or Asian Indians are included in this season?), but nothing excuses using people of colour as props to increase your own flaccid ratings, by including us in some sort of desperate affirmative action ploy and re-vamping your show’s rules to only incorporate people of colour when it’s about race. Screw you, Mark Burnett. They should throw you into that Tribal Council fire.

Hat-tip: WilliamBruceWest.com

Meme: the Comic Book version

Loren tagged me back to re-do the Influential Books meme in geek-form. He challenged me to unleash my inner geek. Well, I did and it isn’t pretty to let her spill out all over this coffee table like that. 🙂

(Incidentally, unlike Loren, I wasn’t able to find covers for all of these comics on the web. Probably because it’s 2 a.m. and what started out as a brief blogging bout to combat insomnia is quickly functioning to put me to sleep.)

1. One book that changed your life Generation X #1 – I didn’t own this comic, nor did I get a chance to read it more than once. And while it wasn’t the first comic I ever read or owned, it was one of my first exposures to contemporary comics and the wonderful world of superheroes as people I could relate to.

I read this comic when it was purchased by my high-school friend, and in it, I was introduced to a plethora of strong heroines who I could identify with, in some ways on a personal level and in others on a racial level. Here was a superhero team made up of characters not only my age, but my gender and even my physical appearance, with unique superpowers that might render them more monsters than mythos.

I gravitated to Jubilee and Husk, the latter because there was something awe-inspiring about a woman who transcended outward appearance to let the inner person matter (by literally removing her Aryan-looking skin). I never much cared for M or Penance, but Skin, Synch and Chamber were fascinating characters whose powers spoke volumes about their personal conflicts. Although I only got to see this comic briefly, it was enough to spark an interest in not only American comic books as a form of entertainment but as a medium for sociopolitical commentary.

Honourable Mention: The Death and Life of Superman by Roger Stern.

I know it’s not a comic book which is why it’s not the main entry, but I read this novelization multiple times as a child when I first became fascinated with superhero characters (specifically Superman and Batman). My parents would never have let me get away with buying comic books (they would have called it a waste of money) and most of my childhood comics consist of issues cajoled out of the nickel boxes at local garage sales, their covers falling off and out of context since, in most cases, I had a middle issue of an ongoing story arc. But through the Death and Life novelization, I became extremely familiar with superheroes and was able to explore the worlds of these characters, disguising my interest because I was able to borrow the novelization from the library and it looked thick so my parents assumed it had to be worth reading.

2. One book you have read more than once The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.

It takes multiple reads to even begin to grasp this magnum opus by Frank Miller. Sure, he’s a sexist, borderline racist/Asiaphilic boob, but he sure could write a good Batman back in the day. (Note: we are ret-conning all stories in which Bats is forced to introduce himself as “the goddammed Batman” out of existence. Thank you for your patience.) Miller re-defined Batman, giving him a level of nuance that insisted we reconsider this character as more than just a nutjob in a cape. Batman has become, because of DKR, an exploration into the human psyche, and you only need to read the book a couple of times to realize that the strength of DKR is how we begin to see Batman as the kind of person we all could become, under the right circumstances.

3. One book you would want on a desert island: Watchmen by Alan Moore.

Talk about a complicated book, Watchmen is the kind of book you finish and immediately open to the first page again and begin reading. It makes DKR look like child’s play. Plus, if you ever feel like you finally get a good grasp of what Moore was trying to communicate in Watchmen (which you never will), you could always use the pages of the graphic novel to start your own signal fire.

4. One book that made you laugh Young Justice: Sins of Youth, because there’s nothing funnier than all the adult superheroes in the world being turned into kids and all the kids being forced to babysit as adults. Impulse is hilarious, young Aquaman is hilarious, Batman as “Batboy” is hilarious — god, it just doesn’t end! Okay, the death of Tana Moon isn’t very funny, but that aside…

5. One book that made you cry The Outsiders #25 in which Indigo died in the arms of Shift. Yes, I know that Indigo was a minor character and she had just gone all villainy and stuff, but that comic just played the heartstrings like a Fender Stratocaster. For some reason, I was practically sobbing by the end.

6. One book you wish had been written Grace Choi: the ongoing serial by anyone other than Judd Winnick. How awesome would that be?

7. One book you wish had never been written There’s so many in this category, it’s hard to pick one. But if I have to pick one, and only one, it would have to be Batgirl #??? (I only have this in graphic novel form) in which Cassandra Cain’s brain is rewired by a telepath so that she can speak.

I was really excited by Cass’ first introduction in comics as a martial artist whose language centres had been rewired to “speak” the language of martial arts. She would have presented a unique challenge to writers as the lead character of a comic book title, and I felt completely cheated that writers destroyed her character by ushering her comic title in by granting her the circumstances under which she would be able to communicate normally. It felt like such a cop out and I would’ve much preferred a title in which we could have explored Cass without her ever being able to communicate her emotions and feelings through conventional means of speech.

8. One book you are currently reading 52 by a bunch of people, Bite Club,Teen Titans, and Outsiders are all on my list of comics to buy on Wednesdays, if I can scrounge up enough money to get them all (usually I just get 52 and hope that I can find the rest as back-issues later, although lately I’ve had to put even 52 on hold). Things that have had to be put on hold until finances are more stable are CheckmateAll-New Atom and JLA.

9. One book you have been meaning to read Seven Soldiers of Victory in part because of Ragnell’s recommendation several months back. Also, From Hell by Alan Moore, which I hear is incredible.

10. Now tag five people! I tag anyone who reads this blog and has seen even a single episode of Justice League: Unlimited. Ha! That’d better be five people.

Apologies

Hey everyone! A brief apology to all you guys who’re reading this blog and wondering why there’ve been no new updates in the past week and some change. Unfortunately, I’ve been super-busy with research projects (trying to wrap up the end of the summer) and with the start of classes that occurred this Monday. I will try to get Cerebrogenesis out as soon as I can, and I have several good post ideas waiting for me to find time to write them. I promise there will be something more substantial to add to this blog as soon as I can get like half an hour on a computer (which hasn’t actually happened in several days).