Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Things I need to do in the next week:

  1. Find out my grades for the semester
  2. Prepare for best holiday dinner party ever hosted in the Jape:
    1. Prepare 25 spinach and mushroom cannelloni stuffed with garlic, goat cheese and ricotta
    2. Make 5 dozen of Nonna’s taralli
    3. Figure out how the hell to pull off matzo-ball soup for 25 people
    4. Buy 3 bottles of champagne for blackberry basil bellini… and make it
    5. Buy peppermint schnapps for scratch hot chocolate and mint liquor
    6. Clean apartment
    7. Have amazing dinner party with screening of best Griswold film ever
  3. Go to New Hampshire for 3 days: sleeping, “skiing”
  4. Do all of my Christmas shopping
  5. Work
  6. Go to NYC for 3 days: see movies, go to museum, see Schley, ice skate, have fabulous food
  7. Take mother to dinner and to see local production of “A Christmas Carol”
  8. Buy all ingredients for Christmas meal, to include
    1. Roast Chicken
    2. Roasted vegetables, including carrots, celery, onion, fennel, and potatoes
    3. Pastina (Christmas soup) with mini meatballs
    4. Stuffing
    5. Mashed Potatoes
    6. Green bean casserole
    7. Creamed Pearl Onions
    8. Taralli
    9. Pizzelle
    10. Apple Pie
    11. Chocolate Coconut Layer Cake
    12. Cheesecake
    13. Champagne cocktails
    14. Whiskey!
  9. Go to parents’ house, cook entire Christmas meal
  10. Celebrate holiday with graceful air, no stress, and relaxed disposition


Friday, November 19, 2010

Follow Up

Strange timing, but Judd Apatow, who I essentially indicted in my most recent post, was being interviewed on NPR's WBUR today. So I called in and got through, and talked to Mr. Apatow himself. I decided to hear straight from the horse's mouth just what he had to say about the portrayal of sexual violence in his films.

Unfortunately, the horse wouldn't let me ask my actual question.

You can listen to the interview by clicking on the link below. His responses were utterly shallow, short-sighted and disappointing. But not surprising.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Drunk Bitches and their Pimpin' Mistakes: Rape's Historic and Current Place in Western Narrative

Rape a tool of female and community oppression has been prevalent in the western narrative for millennia and its value as a symbol, illustrating the necessity and gaining of power by men, has transformed in the twentieth century, albeit subtly so. While modern interpreters of such texts might assess rape as a symbol of seizing power at the expense of an individual (woman, historically), it is all too easy to dismiss both the myths themselves and their analyses as obsolete products of their times. Closer examination of both the historic context and development of rape as this emblem for male power, however, reveals that its evolving meaning is as relevant as ever in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While simple analyses portray this taking of power as linear— moving from victim to perpetrator- the act and significance of rape for women, their communities, and the art that reflects them, requires further assessment, particularly in a contemporary western context, where women’s “equality” in sex is superficially valued and mistakenly considered achieved.

Rape’s connotative significance has and continues to pervade popular narrative form and media, veiled as a plot device in popular fiction, as comedy, as euphemism, and its current place as a “women’s issue.” These forums shape common misconceptions perpetuate rape as an omnipresent tool for oppressing women. The lack of violence often portrayed in popular fictional narratives in turn labels “real rape” as synonymous with gratuitous violence. No matter what the differences in cultural uses and perceptions of rape, men’s acquisition of power is almost always achieved at the expense of women. Realizing that rape’s multidimensional symbolic meaning changes over time and space, it is crucial to evaluate current conceptions of sexual violence against women in the United States from historical keystone texts, its nebulous place in current events, and its increasing but concealed presence in popular art today.

To understand contemporary interpretations of rape and symbolic value in the western world, we must at least briefly establish its role in critical texts from more than two millennia ago. Widely remembered, for example, though not regarded commonly as a violent exchange in the Hebrew Bible, rape establishes women’s place as currency exchanged for freedom and power in the story of Lot and his daughter. Similar examples match this stage-setting illustration of rape, spanning hundreds of years. Persephone’s rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for instance, indicates to readers that the sacrificial lamb’s virginal undoing is honorable and even necessary, although tragic. Much later in popular myth, but equal in its willingness to dismiss women as accessories to the complex issue of male power dynamics, rape is centrally depicted in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. These texts are only a few in the thousands that have used rape symbolically in their efforts to address practical social, spiritual and political issues as they pertain to men. Thus, the historic and current significance of these texts have unquestionably shaped the way that literature and art view and use rape as a pliable symbol of power among men at the apparently inconsequential expense of women. In contemporary contexts, the status of rape as solely a women’s and human rights issue demonstrates how we reinforce its symbolic value today in our own social, spiritual and political spheres. Rape as a gendered health emergency— indeed, more than 90% of victims identify as women— is widely, inaccurately depicted as a strictly social force in U.S. media through television, film, and the internet in the United States (Franklin 2010). In a culture with the second largest film industry in the world and where pornography comprises the highest grossing industry in the country, the work of top contenders in the narratives forum via sex and entertainment wields unparalleled power.

Despite what American perceptions of “real” sexual violence do to reinforce the historic connotative meaning of rape, however, the symbolic value of sexual violence as a power acquisition by force is actually rejected within both the justice system and industry in the United States. Where women are allegedly treated as “equal” to men, and are granted greater sexual liberties, rape in the U.S. is rarely represented in modern narratives as a violent, gendered struggle in power dynamics. What, then, does rape symbolize in contemporary texts, as it continues to claim the safety, minds and bodies of 20% of women in the United States (Koss 1988)? Likewise, what is rape’s symbolic place now in the American metanarrative, as it is embedded frequently in pornography and the film industry’s top earning films?

This analysis is best begun with the existing literature on rape in the United States. Statistically, less than 3% of reports of rape will lead to a conviction of the defendant (Vickers 2007). Of reports filed by victims, between 2% and 8% are determined false. However, surveys of jury panelists report believing that up to half of all reports to law enforcement are false. This is particularly true for survey participants when questioned about victims who were intoxicated at the time of their assaults, the majority of which occur on university campuses (Lisak 2008). In these environments, where law enforcement often instructs victims to utilize their administration’s adjudication processes, it is estimated that fewer than 10% of all claims of rape are investigated or treated in the context of disciplinary hearings (Traywick 2010). More often, the victims and defendants are treated “equally” in mediation sessions facilitated by administrators—the very same who report their institutions’ rates of violent crimes to college boards annually. Popular constructions of rape reflect “equality” similar to that which American popular culture cherishes in granting equal sexual liberty to women and men: women are equally culpable as men in these acts of violence— if one dare call it violence. It can be surmised, then, that within the U.S., rape is not simply regarded as a unilateral act of violence, but rather, a mutual (though perhaps regrettable) act of sex by both parties, in the event that the “victim” has not sustained visible injury, as she must in order to be regarded as victim. This new symbol of women’s sexual culpability, conjoined with the image of historic unreliability, is thus revolutionized in a victim-blaming model, found in popular film and media, the narrative forms which attract the same university-age victims and perpetrators as their target audiences (Armstrong 2006).

The catalogs of admired film makers such as Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan, for instance, are no exception. Their careers in film have used rape contained in the context of mixed messages by women, unreachable female caricatures, and playfully innocent “drunk sex,” facilitated by their male protagonists. These top figures in the industry are the producers, or in some cases the actors, writers and directors of top-grossing hits such as The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005); Superbad (2007); and Observe and Report, (2009)— the popularity and success of which cannot be challenged. Troubling, though, is that every single one of these films uses sexual violence against women as fodder for comedy and as plot device, without addressing the act’s symbolic value, which is only increased by the successful production of the films themselves.

Rogan’s 2007 hit Superbad illustrates rape’s current place as a gray area mired in women’s elusive sexuality through its importance in achieving the goal of its male protagonist, Seth: alcohol-facilitated sex with a peer. To quote his character’s view of alcohol-facilitated sexual encounters, he states early in the film to his friend regarding purchasing alcohol for an underage female peer, “Yeah, man that will be pimp! That way you know she'll be drunk. You know when you hear girls say 'Ah man, I was so shit-faced last night, I shouldn't have fucked that guy?' We could be that mistake! However, it must be noted that the film itself never explicitly refers to the protagonist’s method of achieving sex (intoxicating the victim to incapacitation) as rape, which is literally the entire plot of the film. Here, the female target is regarded by the protagonist and his dubious friend as too confusing to understand, too difficult to reach, and ultimately out of [his] league. Implicitly, incapacitated sex with his target is necessary and forgivable, as she states later in the film, and as audiences and critics reflect in their high regard for this “romantic comedy” (Rogan 2007). Here, rape is not a violent act of desperation or seizing power, but merely an exchange through which the playing field of sex may be leveled.

In every other popular film mentioned above, too, similar portrayals of these unreliable and ultimately dangerous sexual beings are achieved not in female characters’ supposed dominance over their male predators, but in their willing participation in self-incapacitation and submission. The filmmakers succeed in depicting their ideal blend of masochistic and subordinate women through the symbolic value of rape implied as premeditated, attempted drunk sex. In The 40 Year Old Virgin, for instance, the protagonist’s group of three male friends explains the most successful tactic in selection the right “drunk bitches”— not too intoxicated to walk, but just enough to weaken their decision-making (Apatow 2005). Such a tactic and its popular reception by producers, fellow filmmakers, audiences, and women further intensifies what rape, embedded in more innocent terms, stands for in contemporary contexts. It makes women accountable—“equal”- in this supposed exchange of power, and therefore eliminates any opportunity for any women to be victims at all.

If rape as a symbol of power-acquisition between men and women or between men (using women as the tradable commodity) is regarded as obsolete in the United States, low reporting numbers among women 15-24 and the representation of rape in popular media illustrate an undeniable correlate in attitudes about violence against women (Baugher 2010). Whether the symbol reinforces the social construction or merely reflects it, sexual violence is undoubtedly among the most complex women’s health and rights issues around the globe. Therefore, its symbolic value—that is, how we treat rape- must be scrutinized. Its meaning and place in shared realities of violence change not only over time, but especially by whom it is observed and condoned. Rape, considering the myriad factors and influences under which it takes place, is never an act easily understood. This begs the question: what would rape look like in the American narrative if it were finally acknowledged as a domestic problem, a health issue, a war crime, and a not simply playful misunderstanding among confused youth in the status quo?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Skin. Deep.

Maybe the problem is that I’ve always had too my time and/or energy to think.

I got some scary news from my doctor the other day, and it got me to thinking.

Nothing life-threatening. Or even “now-threatening.” But something else is looming over me— something I used to write about often, as women do, because we’re asked to by the societies that impel us to internalize failure. What’s looming is the question of whether I could really love myself, my body, unconditionally. But I suppose I should back up and ask what begs the question…

At 7, I was “diagnosed” (and I use quotes to try to diminish how self conscious I am about using such a dramatic word) with psoriasis. The name of the condition itself makes me cringe, and having explained it to people for nearly two decades now still fills me with shame. First, because of what such a condition does to the body, in appearance and otherwise. Second, because it is largely regarded as a “cosmetic” condition, and nothing more. So despite my being questioned about my appearance often as a young person, I often felt like I was proclaiming to have, in the minds of others, something as important or life-altering as freckles. Although I was often treated as (and indeed labeled) a “leper” due to the appearance of my arms, legs, neck, and forehead by my peers and even elders, the professionals who were intended to provide support for the disease (yes, some even call it a disease!) shrugged off the condition as merely topical, and not “beneath the skin.” But I was in elementary school, and so for a child, you don’t really need to dig so deep to make an impression. Needless to say, it took me until my early twenties to realize the impact such a cosmetic disorder (I have never in my life heard of or met anyone my age who suffered from the same thing) could have. Aside from the appearance and infrequent physical pain (i.e. cracking, bleeding) that it caused, it was how I internalized the treatment I received from others that shaped how I loved (or didn’t love) myself.

Setting that aside for a moment, we can fast-forward to my late teens. Having “accepted” my situation and “rejected” others’ opinions of my physical appearance (and though still crippled by the fear of rejection), I unexpectedly found a doctor with a miracle drug called Infliximab, or Remicade, for short. Although he specialized in gastrointestinal disorders and treated patients with Chron’s and Colitis with the same drug, he found that other autoimmune disorders, like psoriasis, could be temporarily pacified by use of this drug. He promised, as no other ever had (and we’re talking everything from top-ranked dermatologists to holistic healers, here) that he would “eradicate my symptoms.” At 17, with a prom and senior photos pending, I naively placed my trust in him. I’ll even go so far to say that I remained willfully ignorant of the potential downsides of this drug. Finally, someone had made the leper an offer. How could I refuse? Until recently, I thought the story really would end there. He made good on his word, and for a mere $7000 a month (thanks, HMO), along with several hundred milligrams of intravenously infused TNF-alpha inhibitors, I was “cured.” I could finally see my body clearly. Clear. I could love it, finally.

So I continued, for seven years, to spend 2.5 hours every 6 weeks receiving my “treatment.” That’s what we called it. When I got a job after finishing my undergraduate degree, I continued to drive the 50 miles from Boston to ensure it was his offices that treated me, because they were so nice, and because I knew them. They hooked me up, they put on a movie. They had wi-fi. They even gave me lunch on occasion (provided by some man or woman in a suit shelling out Panera Bread like it was currency, strangely) and so I never gave my long term health a second thought. I didn’t even consider the possibility that Remicade might be making me sick, despite my knowing that it can make one prone to upper-respiratory infections on occasion.

I didn’t entertain the idea that I might be so tired for the past two years because we changed my schedule to be “treated” less frequently by simply “upping” my dosage when I seemed resistant to the prescribed amount. I never questioned why I didn’t receive the obligatory TB tests other than my first one, in 2003, or why I haven’t had an actual appointment with my doctor in more than three years. I never questioned any of this until I saw a new doctor, out of convenience’s sake, last week (I don’t have a car any longer, so taking a whole day off work to travel 100 miles round-trip by train was starting to seem daunting).

This new Dr. performed tests I’d never heard of. He asked why I hadn’t been recommended or referred to see a dermatologist in almost eight years. He raised his eyebrows and immediately voiced concerned when I named my current dosage: 800 mgs per 6-8 weeks. That, he said, is the maximum dosage he’d give to someone in their later or latest years—not to a young patient with decades of potential treatment to go. He was shocked to realize that the only “chart” sent over by my previous doctor read only one line “DiBella: treated March 2008.” That was all. He said we need to pull back. He said an appropriate dose for me was roughly half of what I’ve been receiving, and that a continued dose at my current level hugely increases my risk of Leukemia and Lymphoma down the road. He said these were required warnings by the FDA, and the company who manufactures Remicade itself. Why, then, had the word “lymphoma” never been uttered to me?

I should mention that there is good reason, in the case of some young patients, like those with Chron’s, to provide higher doses of a drug like this. Their pain, the damage to their GI tracts, and the short-term quality of their lives depends sometimes on this treatment. I at one time would have indubitably agreed with regards to my “cosmetic” condition, which only in hindsight I realize caused me such trauma. It’s a drug I’ll continue to use for now, but this issue is really only the springboard for so much else with which I’ve been confronted lately: I’ll have to stop at some point. If I get pregnant, ever, I’ll have to stop. If I get sick, I’ll have to stop. If I move to a remote place that doesn’t have access to professionals who can administer the drug, I’ll have to stop. I guess what I’m asking is, will I have to stop loving myself again? This question is raised for me, I’m sure, because I’m now performing a three-year sociological critique upon the status of the U.S. healthcare system and its treatment of women. I’m also participating in it. We live in a world that I’m beginning to believe makes us and keeps us sick.

Instead of cures, we’re given consolation. When I tried to research what I could about my now-increased risk of blood cancers, most of what I found was either sugar-coated by the drug companies themselves, hidden in the fine print of practitioners’ websites, or amplified by personal injury and medical malpractice attorneys encouraging me to get sick so I could sue. In the end, it was kind of laughable. In the end, I realized that, if it weren’t for the environment in which I’ve been inculcated for 24 years, and which pushed me to seek this “treatment” in the first place, my situation truly would be “cosmetic.” It is not the disorder, but rather my socialization as an untouchable that made this thing, which I have hated my whole life, and which made me love myself only conditionally, that created this.

But who is responsible for the socialization? Am I, because I can self-actualize? My elementary school peers, who sparked my self-consciousness? The drug companies who profit from our self-loathing? Our ancestors, who constructed it? Who? Name it, so I can look it in the face before I have to face the real me again—the me who will inevitably be revealed in ten, twenty, thirty years. Too soon.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Regina, One More Time

Hold on. One more time, with feeling. 
Try it again. 
Breathing's just a rhythm. 
Say it in your mind until you know that the words are right. 
This is why we fight.

What percentage of sexual assaults reported to law enforcement are believed false by experts?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Response to the Silence that Has Followed Yale's Pro-Rape Demonstration

Last week, my visceral response to fraternities and rape culture, which was pacified temporarily upon my immersion into a graduate school, returned with a vengeance. Granted, it's hard to avoid thinking and getting angry about rape when one works in a law center dedicated solely to responding to it, and when one pursues a graduate degree focused on it. Thus, I shouldn't have been surprised to hear about Yale's latest extracurricular sport: chanting. About rape. Anal rape. Rape of "sluts," campus rape, party rape. All kinds of rape, in fact.

Now, victim advocates and campus residents are calling for a reaction that goes beyond wrist-slapping (or, as I imagine it, high-fiving). But as with most women’s issues and particularly women’s issues pertaining to “sex” (is rape sex?), the backlash to this feminist response is as strong as the response itself. Protectors of these perpetrators (because, let’s face it, most of them are probably rapists) argue that adjudication by Yale’s administration would be going “overboard,” and claim that the bros in this fraternity were merely practicing their freedom of speech by inciting threats to women's health and safety.

In the words of the Dude, “this isn’t a first amendment thing.”

First of all, Yale is a private institution, and as such, it has the freedom to react accordingly to any actions that intimidate and target half their resident population.

Yes, Yale has a choice.

Of course, most institutions turn blind and/or victim-blaming eyes to victims who come forward about completed rape, let alone demonstrations calling for it.

And you know, I have a feeling that the whole "free speech" defense of these disgusting displays of violence would go out the window if the frat had showed up at a Hillel Club shouting "Kill the Jews" or headed to the Black Student Union screaming for a lynching. Like racial and cultural minorities, across which women span, this half of the world's population has historically been not only oppressed, but violently so, at the hands of a dominant, unforgiving group: men. Not all or most men, to be sure. But men, nonetheless.

Our culture needs to reach a consensus about violence against women: it's historic, it's present, and it's detrimental to us all. Rape is already rampant on college campuses in 2010. Remember: 1 in 4 women will be victims of sexual assault in college, and only 1 in 10 these victims will report it. To ignore this battle cry to perpetuate sexual assault is to comply with and condone a future where women are not valued, are not heard.

We have witnessed an outpouring of support toward suicidal teens and university students in LGBT communities around the country this month. These voices have risen to the top of the media, commanded the attention of the president, and are changing how we respond to verbal assaults upon lesbian and gay youth. Now we need to ask ourselves why we have never found the same relief- the same rallying- for women, who cross all lines of race, class, sexuality and gender identity.

It would be great to tell all women, "it gets better." But does it?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Shore at Head of the Charles, 2010

hazel afternoon spinning
down, wool and cotton hugs, and tears-
conjured by hungry bellies
between chinks of laughter
in the blue, the yellow of our fading day.

i never knew love
was wielded from such work-
the product, the renewer of
good intentions and bad
ears and long bridges.

i never knew love.