Won’t somebody please say something about Chris Brown?!

Everyone’s read all the reasons why it’s wrong Chris Brown performed (and then won an award) at the Grammys. It doesn’t seem so difficult that you’d need someone to explain it to you, but if you’re in need of this thought-reform, please read it again.

Like everyone else, it struck me as a particular slap in the face to all women that his first of two (two!) performances should come before one by Rihanna, the woman whose face he totally fucked up a couple years ago, and that his second of two performance immediately followed a tribute to Whitney Houston, a woman whose own troubles with Bobby Brown hmmm kinda made them the Rihanna and Chris Brown of the ’90s, or the Ike and Tina Turner of the ’70s. It was almost like the Grammys were saying forcing a “we disrespect women and we don’t care!” poop sandwich down our throats. Then again, the Grammys also thinks it’s the victim here, and you know how victims become victimizers, right? Right?

Oh, then after the show he said this:

I mean the impetuousness and sheer arrogance is bad enough, but nobody says anything!!! Okay, Miranda Lambert said something (apparently she is a country singer of some recent note). And Michelle Branch; and Sherri Shepherd; and Eric Stonestreet — all people who are, in the celebrity universe, relative nobodies. In other words, anybody whose comments would have negatively affected Chris Brown’s record sales said… nothing.

Here’s how it should have gone down… Someone wins an award. They come on stage. They spend a minute thanking the usual suspects: the fans, producers, parents, spouses, God. Then they say, hey, while I have the stage I’d like to address a problem I have with violence in our community of musical producers.

Oh wait, that actually happened! In 1999! After the sexual violence-filled Woodstock earlier that summer! Thank Jebus Almighty for the fucking Beastie Boys, who are great enough as a musical act but also bloody awesome because they use their soapbox for political good. Observe the goodness, as they accepted their award for their very good (in fact “Best Hip Hop”) video, Intergalactic, at the 1999 MTV Awards!

Now, isn’t that refreshing?

Also, here are recollections from Kathleen Hanna, Ad-Rock’s wife, about how things went down that night.

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52 Titles: Jose Saramago’s “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ”

Jose Saramago is one of my favourite authors. I like that he isn’t afraid to spend 1,000 words cataloguing every step of a character’s thought process — especially when that person is Jesus Christ. Nuance isn’t always considered when people talk about the Bible and its tenets, so it’s nice to read something that contextualizes Jesus Christ as a person as well as his role as a religious figure.

The Gospel is fiction, yes, but a writer from Portugal — a country that is 85 per cent Roman Catholic — intuitively knows what buttons to push. Saramago took the bare bones of what we know about Jesus from the Bible, then fills in the details with fiction. Nothing could be more maddening to a devout believer than to hear plausible, unflattering fictions about your icons. Of course, if you believe Jesus Christ was a real human, then he must have had real emotions — why then it is so implausible to believe he could have human flaws? In it, he marries the prostitute Mary Magdalene, runs away from home, argues with his mom Mary, and outgrows his shoes. At times he asks, ‘Why me?’ because, if you were Jesus, wouldn’t you too?

My mother, a devout Christian, asked what I was reading; when I told her she dismissed it as sacrilegious (in so many words). That a believer would take that view is exactly Saramago’s point in writing the book. His view of Christianity and of faith is neither here nor there — the book succeeds not because it is controversial, but because he makes the faith part seem irrelevant to what is essentially an interesting story about an interesting man.

Put another way: I don’t think it’s a good read because I grew up in the church, or because doing something my mom considers sacrilegious makes me gleeful. It’s a wonderful social experiment, and a wonderful way to reconsider the tired, recited-by-rote Bible stories I’d heard growing up. All those bumper stickers ask: “Do you know Jesus?” This book makes you feel like you might.

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52 Titles: John Vaillant’s “The Tiger”

I bought John Vaillant’s first book, The Golden Spruce, because it was on one of my reading lists in fourth year. Stupidly, I never read it for class (sorry, Bill!). Part of why I decided to read a book a week this year was to finally catch up on all those books I’d bought and parked on my shelf. When I finally did read it, I loved it so much I gave copies of it as Christmas presents to, like, three people the following winter. (The Tyee had a great two-part Q&A with Vaillant on the book, here and here if you want the gist of it.)

When someone says that truth is stranger (and more compelling) than fiction, he is speaking of stories such as the ones Vaillant so deftly retells. While his two books have been categorized as science non-fiction or environmental books, they are much more than that — they are about the elemental between man and nature. Like a man who so deeply loves nature that he cuts down a sacred tree to make a statement about the logging industry and, ultimately, what it is our society values. Or, how an animal so hunted that it breaks from its natural, human-shy disposition to become a man-killer.

With these mythological themes behind a writer, you’ve got the makings of an epic read. Turns out predatory animals don’t like being hunted down by impoverished Russian men who stalk them, half-drunk, in the freeze and powder white of Siberia, to re-sell their pelts on the black market. Maybe this one male tiger, half-starved to death from trying to make it through the winter, decides, Fuck it, I will do away with regular Amur tiger behaviour and eat a human, because they are trying to kill me, and plus I am hungry. Eventually, the modern roles of man/hunter and tiger/hunted are reversed, arguably to what they should always have been.

Still, the book stumbles a bit towards the end — something about the way the characters end up doesn’t quite seem right for readers expecting an epic outcome to an epic set-up. The “nature’s revenge” tale must, practically, come to an end. I don’t think I’m spoiling the book by telling you what most logically happens: it’s not a Hollywood blockbuster ending, there is no David conquering the modern food chain Goliath. In the end, men with technology (i.e. guns) win, and the tiger dies. But that’s not the fault of the writer; I don’t think that can be changed unless events happened any other way. Sometimes, it just is what it is.

One final bit of fan-gushing: several months back, I, like a total armchair critic/snot, complained on Twitter that he misused the phrase “begs the question” on page 184. Then he wrote me a super apologetic email thanking me for “persisting in spite of all” and finishing the book despite his lingual failing!!! (And just now, having dug up that email, I realize I never replied to him like the total asshole I am.) Shit! Like, in what world does a writer apologize to me for that? Good dude. Good book. You should buy this and The Golden Spruce and give them to a friend for Christmas.

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My problem with the suburbs

I spent the first 18 years of my life in the suburbs of Richmond Hill, Ont. It is an aesthetically homogeneous place, which I think is the source of its two biggest flaws: transit and safety. My boyfriend still, after five years, cannot identify my parents’ house while driving because every home on the street looks so alike (the builders gave buyers the option of garage on the left or right). The urban planning of the town involves a lot of looped crescents and cul-de-sacs, so it’s no surprise that pedestrian and transit commuter traffic is non-existent. The only people that walk in Richmond Hill are people who can’t afford a car, those seeking exercise (usually in loops around the maze-like, go-nowhere residential roads), or people who are too old or young to drive. Subscribers of the Jane Jacobs school of urban planning recognize that populated streets are safer than empty ones (see: crime prevention through environmental design).

With these ideas in mind, here are two events in my life that explain urban planning in Richmond Hill — though these anecdotes could as easily have been told from Markham, North York (pre-Sheppard subway), Burlington, Oakville or Whitby:

  1. The time I was 14 and tried to visit the local bike shops to buy a bike.
  2. The two separate incidences, at the same York Region Transit bus stop, in which I had two men, in two separate incidents, show me their penises.

There was a brief period of time when I was 13 or 14 and wanted to buy a BMX. I didn’t realize that it involved upper body strength, but that’s another story, which ends with me becoming a roadie instead. In any case, I wanted a bike, so I could go the mall and corner store and back home on my own. Richmond Hill has lots of bike shops, many of which are close, if you’re driving. They are a mere 10 minute drive away — but 30 on a bus, or an hour’s walk. Thus, I had a dilemma: I needed a bike to get around, but as long as I had to rely on expensive and outrageously infrequent bus service, I couldn’t buy said bike. In the end, I gave up on the dream of owning a Haro (Matt Hoffman-endorsed model!), because it took half a day just to visit one shop. I still find that sad, that I was defeated in my goal to buy a bike by the awfulness of Richmond Hill’s transit system. No coincidence, there are hardly any bike lanes in town, too.

Now about the penises…

On top of infrequent service, the bus stops in Richmond Hill are at least five- or ten-minute walks apart. I’ve spent many an after-school afternoon trodding down sad, empty sidewalks for what seems like forever after falling asleep and missing my stop. There are no trees or other shelters from the elements, and long straightaways that channel the wind, so it’s baking hot in summer or cold and windy in winter. Without streetside stores backing onto the sidwalk, you’re rarely going to see people just ambling down the road. I think most folks would pay the bus fare than take the extra block or two on foot.This brings us back again to the the “empty streets = unsafe streets” notion. On top of that, there are long, straight arterials with few visual or traffic distractions to slow down drivers — they certainly aren’t paying attention to what’s on the sidewalk. Even homes that back onto main arterials like Bayview aren’t inclined to notice what goes on in their backyard, because of a) the 8 or 10-foot high fences and shrubs that separate the street from someone’s private backyard kingdom, b) the cul-de-sacs that don’t connect residential streets to main roads.

All this is a recipe for old man perverts to show young women their junk without anyone around to hear your shrieks. Within a three or four month span, I had two men show me their penises at the SAME BUS STOP. Both times I’m just sitting there minding my own business, they sit down or amble up to the bus shelter, and unzip their pants. The first guy had made a name for himself doing this all around York Region and North York to girls, most younger than myself, and was eventually caught. The second guy was an Asian fella who panicked and tried to make a hilarious break for it in his car (imagine his minivan getting two feet of air after gunning it through a row of shrubs and interlock retaining wall), but was eventually nabbed when also showed his genitals to one girl too many, and was also arrested. I felt a little bit like Anna Faris in Observe and Report (see above) — though oddly, this didn’t happen in the four years I used the bus daily during high school, but when I was living at home temporarily in my third year at Ryerson.

Until this happened, I’d always believed, like so many other people, that the suburbs are safer than downtown. As it turns out, they’re great for a lot of things — good dim sum, long dog walks, churning out neurotic teenagers, big malls, a Tim Hortons close at hand — but not at making a 20-year-old girl feel safe.

The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity in the GTA (and beyond!!), is holding a ‘Suburbs vs. Downtown’ event on Monday September 26th at 6pm at The 519 to discuss the divide between the city and the ‘burbs and what it has to do with differences in culture and identity. Details of the event can be found here.

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52 Titles: Sara Marcus’ “Girls to the Front”

I started going to hardcore shows when I was 15 or 16, probably getting out to one a week during my high school and university days. Ten years on, I’m lucky if I have time to make it to one or two in a year — that distance (and time) has given me space to reflect on the space for young women in what was then, and even more so now is, a male-dominated, hyper-masculine subculture. So obviously, obviously, I bought Sara Marcus’ much-anticipated book about the riot grrrl scene. Punk music, check. Feminism, check.

When I started going to shows, riot grrrl was a punchline, reduced to a fashion footnote for corny photo spreads in the YM and Seventeen magazines my older sister bought — plastic hair barrettes, Doc Martens, pigtails, DIY shirts with shit scrawled on them. It was no longer an actual genre — I’d missed the boat by quite a few years, and it seemed as though hardcore punk (from which riot grrrl was an off-shoot) had settled into a state of true, unshakeable apathy. The punk of the ’70s was about the youth voice; class struggle in the ’80s; consciousness-raising (veganism, grassroots activism, zines about all kinds of political/personal struggles, Hare Krishna) in the early-mid ’90s. But hardcore punk in the late ’90s/early 2000s was about moshing, violence, wearing North Face and Nike Dunks, posturing about ‘honour’ and ‘friendship’ — really, a euphemism for being catty to people who weren’t in your crew. The personal had obliterated the political. It’s still like this, in 2011, except now people wear less streetwear and more black/skinny jeans/plaid. I still love the music but then, as it is now, there were just a few ways for girls to find their way into the community, which boiled down to two main approaches:

  1. You could be one of the boys: take photos (that was me!), make zines, mosh, maaaaaybe start a band if you were really brave and liked people talking shit about you, or…
  2. You could be the slut: the girlfriend to some dude in some band or the coat-rack in the back.

Anyway, my own experiences really informed the way I read her book, drawing parallels between our ten-year difference in punkhood. You know, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

One of the big themes was about how riot grrrls (all teenaged girls, really) had no agency or voice when the national discourse turned hand-wringing over their sexualities, their morals, and just about everything else in their lives. It was the ’90s, and there was the March on Washington, the emergence of the Christian right. These days it’s mostly the same — pre-teens slut-shamed in the New York Times after being gang-raped, ridiculous abortion legislation, crisis pregnancy centres, SlutWalks, still about the Christian right and their purity balls and virginity vows (you should read Jessica Valenti’s “The Purity Myth” for more on that).

The most beautiful thing I learned about riot grrrl was that it took the feminist rhetoric of “creating safe spaces” for women and made it real; not just that, but they made it the backbone of their community. It’s easy to be a feminist, hard to be a feminist activist. They went to shows and forced boys to make room in the pit by linking arms in a circle, right up front by the bands, creating a space where women could be part of shows without being moshed over. They started meetings and chapters, where issues of rape, harassment, incest and body image were freely discussed. They lived together, started bands together.

Still, feminism, even a punk version of it, wasn’t without flaws. Most kids who can afford to go to shows, buy records and merch and go on roadtrips aren’t scrabbling in the dirt and feeling oppression firsthand; like pretty much every musical scene since MTV has been an exercise in suburban angst and the odyssey to find belonging with other middle-class misfits. Plus, they are 17, and who can blame them for not being cognizant of post-secondary academics such as Germaine Greer, Andrea Dworkin, Judith Butler, Naomi Wolf, etc., etc., and their concepts on class, race, oppression, privilege, and blah blah blah big feminist words. So yeah, of course riot grrrls were a little oblivious to the dynamics of race and class in their scene.

In any case, what eventually happened is riot grrrls who were feminist (without knowing exactly that they were) became shamed, sort of, for not being up to snuff on said ideas. Anyone’s who’s ever read the comments section on a feminist blog is saving themselves $50,000 in gender studies tuition — pretty much a roomful of edumacated, enlightened gals trying to out-academicese each other. THE PERFECT term for this is “Oppression Olympics.” I can’t remember now whether this phrase was attributed to riot grrrl Erika Reinstein in the book or if I’m borrowing it from an awesome riot grrrl’s blog, but it’s a problem that has not gone away. It can be discouraging trying to remain energized about feminism when it’s become OK for feminists to harp on other feminists for not “owning up to their privilege” or being a white girl and not understanding race relations, or dimensions of class/sexuality/so forth, or shaming people for things they could not have controlled (i.e. having a penis, being white, taking ballet lessons when they were 6 years old), rather than saying, “Hey, women who are feminist and also grew up with privilege can immensely helpful as allies and partners in dismantling all kinds of privilege.”

So, lots of tendrils that still resonate, 15 or 20 years on. More than anything, I mourn the loss of riot grrrl not for its music, but because young women are marginalized in punk unless they are brave enough, have the wherewithal to. I don’t believe it’s a conscious decision for guys in the hardcore scene to exclude women, it’s just a natural extension of the bravado and machoism that exudes from the music. There’s an important lesson here — not just for some now-obscure musical/political scene that came and went within the span of oh, eight years — but for all feminist activists who give a damn and want to do something useful. So to borrow from hardcore vernacular, stop being so fucking negi.

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