Friday, February 22, 2008

In which my long-dormant feminist side speaks out

Okay, brief intro to a sordid tale:

Osgoode has an annual charity review called Mock Trial. Mock Trial is usually pretty racy. This year, Mock Trial took an unfortunate turn from "racy" into "what the hell...that's inappropriate." Friend of mine complains to York University's student paper, resulting in this article: "Producer shows no concern over ‘misogyny’" Quote:

     “There were a couple of scenes in this year’s performance that were unacceptable and downright offensive,” she said.
     One such scene, according to Brierley, involved female law students “gyrating” on chairs to the song ‘Buttons’ by the Pussycat Dolls.


     “There was another scene which portrayed a female law student who was essentially down on all fours, pretending to give [oral sex] to somebody who was playing a partner in a downtown Bay Street law firm,” she said.
     “The reason for which this law student was doing this was to gain funding for an environmental program.”
     Brierley claimed the female law student depicted in the skit was also meant to resemble an actual student.
     “As it turns out, the [female] character that was being portrayed was actually modelled after a specific individual at Osgoode. And although no names were mentioned, everybody that I spoke with after the performance knew exactly who it was referring to.”
     Elizabeth Martin*, another Osgoode student, said she knows the student who was being depicted personally, and that although no names were mentioned, the skit referred to the student through personal details known to the Osgoode community.
     “They made sure they made reference to [those things] in the opening of the skit to allude to her. And from there, it went on to this degrading act,” she said.
     “She’s deeply humiliated. She doesn’t even want to attend school.”

First of all, from all accounts it was meant to depict this person, and there was a striptease, so the whole "Brierley claimed" thing is misleading.

The producer contacted not only denied that the skit was inappropriate in any way, but also denied personal responsibility, or responsibility to the student body:

     [James Butlin, one of the show’s producers, said] “We’d certainly not apologize. Our show raises almost $10,000 for local charity and involves over 15 percent of our student body, and the response to our show has been excellent from all but these people that I hear about now.”

I...what? WHAT?! Goddammit man, if they'd only owned up to how totally NOT CRICKET that was, we would have been okay, I think. But instead, people went mental, siding with either "Mock Trial" or "Alyssa" (as if those two sides were mutually exclusive, as if Alyssa some sort of irrational hate-on for Mock Trial in general).

My favourite part, and by favourite I mean most-rage-inducing, is that people are angry she went "outside" the school. As if Osgoode is sort of sacred closed community and by "snitching" she broke some sort of unspoken rule. That is patently ridiculous. Osgoode is part of York--sorry folks, but it's true. Also? Osgoode has this bizarre secret-society mentality that allows institutional biases and groupthink to reign; those who don't buy in only have to survive three years of it, so we cope. If you think something is a serious problem, you have to go outside the school.

The editor of Obiter Dicta, the Osgoode paper, said in the most recent issue:"This is essentially a private affair that has unfortunately been played out publicly..." which is simply untrue. If someone had said something offensive is, say, a class, that might have counted as private. But Mock Trial is a publicly advertised show. Public sexism and inappropriate behaviour requires public discussion and public apology.

I will now quote the entirety of Alyssa's comment in the most recent edition of Obiter, because I think it's cogent and eloquent and deserves to be available in an indexed/html sort of a way:

While it is noble that so many Osgoodians spend months preparing an entertaining production in order to raise money for charity, the content of some of Mock Trial last week was troubling to say the least. I would like to preface the comments I am about to make by saying that I commend the dedication and hard work that so many student colleagues have spent on this performance. There is clearly a great deal of talent within the halls of Osgoode. My comments here and those that I made to the Excalibur are not meant in any way to undermine the efforts put forth by the vast majority of participants in the performance. It is unfortunate, however, that the production as a whole has been tarnished by the poor judgement of a few people who felt the need to include questionable material. In a profession where women struggle to be taken seriously, one has to wonder why students – many of whom were female – are perpetuating the very gender stereotypes that make it difficult for women to succeed and why their so-called progressive institute of higher education is allowing this to happen.

Two skits in particular were offensive: one with female students performing a chair dance to the lyrics “loosen up my buttons, baby,” and another depicting a female law student crawling on the floor and simulating oral sex on a male lawyer with whip crème and knee pads. As for the sexually charged dance scene, I fail to see the value in inviting the public to our school so that they can see female law students dancing in a sexual manner on chairs. What a woman does on her own time is her business. What people do at a public event in the name of Osgoode Hall becomes everyone’s business. I for one do not appreciate being associated with this type of performance given that I face enough problems as a young female trying to succeed in a field dominated by men and male oriented career norms.

Most troubling about the performance, however, was the second skit mentioned above. The vast majority of my criticism rests here. While the dance was inappropriate, the now infamous “blow job” scene was degrading, offensive and I would even go so far as to suggest that it constitutes sexual harassment. Aside from being completely inappropriate at a public event attended by families, professors, student colleagues and friends, this skit maliciously targeted a specific female student in a manner that can only be understood as an attempt to humiliate this individual and tarnish her reputation. Although no names were mentioned in the show, it was clear to most people that I have spoken to since the performance last week exactly who this character was supposed to be.

Both of these scenes were offensive in their portrayal of women in a profession where women have had to fight for respect and the right to be taken seriously as intelligent professionals. The portrayal of women in this manner also undermines the ability of female students at Osgoode Hall, such as myself, to feel that they are earning an education in a safe space where they are respected as intelligent and capable individuals rather than sexual objects. What’s worse is that this event had the school’s name all over it, suggesting that this type of depiction of women is sanctioned by Osgoode as an institution.

Finally, the fact that there were so many people involved in the production implies an institutional culture at this school that sees no problem in treating its female students in this manner. Presumably dozens of students witnessed rehearsals of Mock Trial practices and dress rehearsals and yet the performance went on as is – three times. This is clearly a much bigger and more systemic problem. The fact that many knew about the offending performance and no one felt compelled to remove this content is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this entire story.

This should never have happened. The Mock Trial producers should never have included these scenes and the Dean – who performed in the Wednesday night performance– should never have allowed this to continue for two additional evenings. These Mock Trial scenes have embarrassed the school and personally harassed and degraded a member of its community. For the first time in my life, I am embarrassed to be affiliated with this institution. I was so outraged, in fact, that I contacted the Excalibur so that they could report on it. They ran the story on the front page of this week’s edition. When asked to comment, one of the producers remained unremorseful, as if doing something for the purpose of raising money for charity gives them a carte blanche to treat people in such a degrading manner. As for the notion that the offending scene featured a “fictitious character,” that is simply not true and everyone knows it. Claiming that it was not an actual representation after the fact does not change this.

I have been challenged – privately, by members of the Osgoode community and my friends – for my decision to complain to the sponsoring firm so that they could “raise these issues with the producers of Mock Trial and to either pull funding for next year’s production or make it conditional on the content of the production being less offensive to women and other vulnerable groups.” Note that this is a direct quotation from the letter I sent to Cassels Brock; I do not think this is an unreasonable request. People have pointed out to me that this may have an impact on the ability of Mock Trial to secure funds in the future for its charitable aims. While I understand why some may be concerned, perhaps those same people should be instead complaining to those responsible for this, rather than the person tired of this kind of behaviour at Osgoode. I have received numerous letters of support in the past day, from total strangers thanking me for speaking out publicly about this issue. Clearly I am not the only one who feels offended by what happened last week.

Make no mistake: if Osgoode loses funding in the future for Mock Trial, it is not because a female law student got mad as hell and raised a fuss, but rather because there was a failure of judgement and oversight at all stages of the process. If people don’t want their dirty laundry aired, then perhaps they should keep their clothes clean. I don’t think it’s appropriate to be quiet about this simply because this is a charitable event and it reflects poorly on the school. It should. We have to face the consequences as a community for allowing this to happen and not run for cover. This is indicative of a systemic problem and a culture at Osgoode that makes this kind of behaviour possible. There are plenty of ways to raise money for charity in an inclusive and respectful manner and defaming a member of our community in a (mostly) otherwise entertaining production is not one of them. (emphasis mine)

Now, I applaud Obiter for including a number of pro/con comments in this issue, and I only have serious concerns with one: "Come join the Cabaret…" by Sheila Hyatt. The comment states: "Mock Trial is, I think, best defined as a cabaret show. Cabaret as an art form is generally a bawdy, funny, sometimes vulgar intertwining of performances of varying calibre and has also traditionally been a venue for social and political satire and commentary. Mock Trial is very much along this vein."

Okay, I'm agree so far. But the comment continues: "I’ve heard mostly positive comments about the show. Naturally, however, this is law school, and in keeping with the legacy of melodrama that is Oz, I have also heard murmurs that some people are getting their knickers in a knot over the 'raciness' and 'inappropriateness' of some numbers."

Again: What? This isn't about a couple of prudes in a tizzy because someone showed some ankle, for heaven's sake.

The comment then raises the similarity of Mock Trial with the cabaret as depicted in the film Cabaret, stating: "The film deals with cabaret in Germany during the Nazi rise to power. Between 1933 and 1945, the art form was essentially “sanitized” due to Nazi repression of social and political criticism, as well as a desire to exert greater control over public morality. Clearly I am not saying that those who are worried about the content of the Mock Trial show are repressive, fascist, racist, dictators!"

HAHA, CLEARLY! My God, we've actually gotten to a use of reductio ad Hitlerum. (I suppose Godwin's law fits too.)

The major problem for me is that I agree with much of this comment, if it were applied to different circumstances. The statement that: "I would like to point out that, as anyone who has studied Jonathan Swift can tell you, satire gets a point across far more effectively than the clearest analytical writing." So true! And that: "...don’t assume that because you were morally offended by something in the show that everyone was or should be offended. It is that kind of thinking that leads to moral arrogance as well as a lack of dialogue between divergent viewpoints." Yes, yes!

But of course, the comment misses several major points. Like the fact that these differences of opinion aren't about opening a progressive discourse, but about a series of ad hominem attacks that the comment itself has participated in (seriously? Nazis? SERIOUSLY?). Also, the striptease was sort of a side note, but was nevertheless problematic not because it was "racy" but because of the way it portrayed a group of students. Would it be okay for a skit to portray any other group by reference to a single, generalized stereotypical characteristic? Hell no.

Another point is that satire and parody have an object. Had the dance number been contextualized, even briefly, it might fit into this category. Male and female students stripping as the only way to pay gargantuan tuition. perhaps, or a sexy dance choreographed to a recording of a boring lecture set to hip-hop music. As it stood however, the only message of the piece was "SEXY DANCING".

The fact that these two skits (mainly the one consisting of a personal attack) made it into Mock Trial concerns me a little. The fact that half the Osgoode community seems hell-bent on attacking the whistle-blowers is, to my mind, far far more alarming.

If I Had A Million Dollars (Pt. IV)

So if you're wondering, I haven't just morphed into some sort of crazed consumer whore. This all started with me looking, seriously looking, for the ultimate coffee maker. One that had the following:

  • Attached grinder
  • Timer
  • Thermal carafe

They're surprisingly hard to find, although I have found these:

Cuisinart Fully Automatic Burr Grind & Brew Thermal™ 12 Cup Coffeemaker

Cuisinart Fully Automatic Burr Grind & Brew Thermal™ 12 Cup Coffeemaker

Capresso 455 CoffeeTEAM Therm Stainless Coffeemaker/Burr Grinder Combination

Capresso 455 CoffeeTEAM Therm Stainless Coffeemaker Burr Grinder Combination

Oddly enough, the real problem seems to be the inclusion of the carafe, which I find bizarre.


But as I trolled the interwebs for something suitable, I came across all these other goodies, and couldn't resist sharing them.

The Genuine Turkish Bathrobe

Genuine Turkish Bathrobe 

SONY Paperless Paperback

Sony Paperless Paperback

The Organized Traveler's Carry-On

Organized Traveler's Carry-On

The Better Winter Hat

The Better Winter Hat

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Queen of the Grammar Rodeo Agrees

A different Language Log poster notes another pointless attack on Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Williams said: "...I must, of course, take responsibility for any unclarity in either that text or in the radio interview..." to which UK Times columnist Alan Hamilton commented:

So, Christians: to pride, lust and the rest, add the eighth deadly sin of “unclarity” — a word that is obscure enough not to appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Benjamin Zimmer, editor of American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press, points out how asinine that criticism is.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

LANGUAGE LOG Chills Out on the A of C...sort of

Further to my last post, the always-interesting Language Log also posted on the beleaguered Rowan Williams. Now, the post seems a tad harsh on the A of C, while explaining what total hash the media has made of his comments, so I am going to cheat here and quote the concluding paragraph first, lest you think poster Geoffrey Pullam is as much of a negative nancy as the rest:

Dr Williams is a gentle, learned, brilliant, scholarly man, and a bit of a public relations doofus. The calls for his resignation are not unjustified. He should be the holder of an endowed professorship in some suitable subject at some research-led university. He should not be a prominent church administrator, and certainly not the Archbishop of Canterbury. Someone duller, less original, less intelligent, and more political should be found for that job.

Now, half my brain is shrieking in outrage at Pullam's fatalism, while the other half is nodding and thinking yeah, pretty much.*

Anyhoo, with that caveat I send you on your way:

The archbishop, the law, and the press

*Interestingly, Pullam criticizes Willaims for taking a tolerant stance on homosexuality--though he, like I do, agrees with said stance--because of the schism it threatens within the Anglican Church. Perhaps it is because I am (a) only nominally Anglican, or (b) not British, but I am less bothered by the spectre of a schism than I am by the idea of any church paying lip service to intolerance in order to maintain political and financial prominence. I'd be perfectly happy to declare my self a "New Order Anglican" or "Reformed Anglican" or whatever, if it meant belonging to a more inclusive church, and especially if said more-inclusive church was still headed up by the A of C, thus granting us entirely symbolic but still pretty nifty authority.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Oh for Pete's Sake, Chill Out on the Archbishop of Canterbury

A few days ago, Rowan Williams, the completely sane Archbishop of Canterbury (i.e. the head of the Anglican Church), gave a speech on civil and religious law in which he backed the inclusion of some sharia law provisions into British law, similar to statements he had recently made in a BBC interview.

Cue international freak-out.

His actual statements include:

For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.

He says Muslims should not have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty".

I defy you to find fault with that.

He also said, quite rightly:

He stresses that "nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that's sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well". ...

"There's a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law, as we already do with some other aspects of religious law."

So of course, the UK government and numerous commentators have decided to go completely snakey, shrilly insisting that there is no law but law, and the UK government is its creator, for all Brits.

Which is just not true, of course. Jewish and Muslim arbitrators exist and are regulated to deal with some family/civil law issues.

One of the main problems is that Muslim religious marriages are not recognized, requiring Muslim couples to register a civil marriage as well. This is not the case for most other groups' marriages. Because of the confusion and double standard, people who believe themselves to be protected by civil family law are not.

It was probably naive of the Archbishop to drop such comments into the already murky Euro-American debate about the merits and contours of multiculturalism without having a more concrete stance from which to argue. However, I find it incredibly irritating that the man is being attacked for suggesting that the UK (a) acknowledge that sharia is going on "behind closed doors", and (b) promoting pluralism and inclusion. All the pompous "experts" sputtering that no one should be excepted from the law because of their religion -- and alluding to polygamy and corporal punishment when they do so -- are indulging in a shamefully self-serving straw-man argument. Not only didn't Williams say that, but he explicitly said not that. If you aren't willing to debate the actual issue, please be quiet.

And even if Williams was making an absurd suggestion, he has no power to implement it. He's the head of a Christian sect, for heaven's sake. Everybody needs to simmer down now.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

In which I review The Hunting Party, which was awesome

Yesterday I actually watched a feature-length film (pauses for your shocked reactions). It was The Hunting Party, a 2007 film directed by Richard Shepard, starring Terence Howard and Richard Gere. It rocked.


Long story short: the movie trifecta of burnout has-been (Gere), sellout success (Howard), and brilliant-but-green young'n (Jesse Eisenberg) go on a buddy road trip. Only it's through post-war Bosnia, and they're going to locate a Serbian war criminal, Radoslav Bogdanović a.k.a. The Fox, and interview him. Or, possibly, kill him. One of the two.

The movie is loosely based on an Esquire article, which you can read here. The film has been criticized as being anti-Serb, which is a fair concern, I think, but not a fair conclusion. Gere's character has a personal hatred of The Fox, and countervailing characters and themes are presented. The real, and really dark, humour of the piece is in the resigned uselessness of the UN personnel. They know the war criminals of all stripes are still in the former Yugoslavia, but they don't even have the tools, much less the mandate, to capture them:

Operating under the banner of the UN, the local IPTF unit was composed of Egyptians, Indians, and Bulgarians and was mandated to chronicle human-rights abuses and reform the area's police force. One thing it certainly wasn't doing was looking for the many war criminals believed to be residing in the Foca vicinity.

"Oh, no, we don't get involved in that at all," an Egyptian officer told us, looking alarmed at the very prospect. "In fact, we don't even have a copy of the indictment list." (Esquire article)

This is a real problem, noted in my beloved Carol Off book The Lion, The Fox, and The Eagle (no relation). There was, and continues to be, a lack of political will in finding some of the archest villains of the Yugoslavian conflict. Some of those at large include Goran Hadžić, Radovan Karadžić (the model for The Fox), Ratko Mladić, and Stojan Župljanin.

The "Hunting Party" aspect of the movie might be pure fiction, but the ham-handed flailings of those who claim to be trying to capture these men is all truth:

The topic arose because of a full-page ad in that week's edition of Slobodna Bosna, a Bosnian newsmagazine. Placed by the U. S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, it announced the $5 million bounties the American government had recently posted for the capture of Karadzic, Mladic, and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. Unfortunately, the notice was also a prime example of why governments shouldn't be in the ad business; not only were the photographs of the three men out-of-date, but the toll-free informant hot line accepted calls from the United States only--useful, perhaps, should any of them be hiding out in Des Moines. (Esquire article)