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[Ginny Maziarka] cautioned that her group would let people know that the library was not a safe place unless it segregated and labeled YA titles with explicit content.
I’ve always thought of the public library as being a safe place. Part of it is just the way I’ve always romanticized books in my head, but there’s also always been the liberating feeling that I am free from all judgment as to what I read and check out. I know this might not be everyone’s experience with the libraries in their area, but in my mind, the ideal public library would make media available, not tell people which media is culturally appropriate. Particularly with the price of books and database subscriptions being so high, it seems incredibly important to have a place where reading and information are free. If some materials do not meet people’s standards, well, even terrible trash can spawn valuable discussion. And sometimes I think all of us, regardless of our views, would benefit from at least reading the other side of the story (agreeing is a different matter.)
So when my friend, who’s working toward her MA in library science, sent me this article, it gave me a lot to think about. Here’s the long and short of it: After the West Bend Community Memorial Library in Wisconsin included Francesca Lia Block’s Baby Be-Bop (link goes to Powell’s) in a library display, several groups of locals were outraged, and the book found itself the target of blistering hate. City residents Ginny and Jim Maziarka demanded that the library segregate “sexually-explicit.” Another local filed a suit with the Christian Civil Liberties Union, asking for $120,000 in damages (seeing the book apparently damaged them emotionally,) and the resignation of the West Bend Mayor.
From a certain standpoint, this is nothing new–I mean, it’s old for reasons aside from the fact that the ALA article came out in June. Of course, books, particularly books for children and adolescents, face antagonism all the time. From Harry Potter to In the Night Kitchen (yes, the Sendak one,) people can come up with infinite reasons as to why a book is obscene. Nevertheless, the hatred this book in particular has aroused terrifies me:
…[T]he complaint by Braun, Joseph Kogelmann, Rev. Cleveland Eden, and Robert Brough explains that “the plaintiffs, all of whom are elderly, claim their mental and emotional well-being was damaged by this book at the library,” specifically because Baby Be-Bop contains the “n” word and derogatory sexual and political epithets that can incite violence and “put one’s life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.”
[T]he plaintiffs also request West Bend City Attorney Mary Schanning to impanel a grand jury to examine whether the book should be declared obscene and making it available a hate crime.”
Other bloggers have talked about the sudden outrage over this book, but many of them hadn’t read it. I had: I discovered it back in Jr. High, and read it over and over. I remember lying on the couch in the living room, sick with some sort of bug, re-reading it all in one sitting (Admittedly, this was not a huge feat—it’s only about 100 pages.). Over the years, I had forgotten about it; I had left it behind with most of my other Jr. High favorites, but it never left me.
So when I heard about the hubbub, my first reaction was: “Why now? [the book came out in 1995.] And why that one and not every other book Block has written?” (Of the books of hers that I’ve read, the majority I can think of at least contain gay or bisexual characters.) The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to re-read it. So I did. Re-reading it, I discovered two secrets: 1. Why the homosexuality was considered so much worse in that than any of her others and 2. Why it had been so important to me as an adolescent.
Now, as I said before, I don’t think it’s the library’s place to judge or pry. When it comes to the issue of book banning, particularly where libraries are concerned, I find content irrelevant. Still, in this case, Baby Be-Bop is such an interesting work that I feel it’s worth assessing what about it could cause such anger, and why I feel it needs our protection. I should note that follows will, eventually, contain what are technically spoilers. I do not believe that they actually spoil the book because it’s more about emotions than plot; the beauty is in the details.
Set in the early ‘90s, Baby Be-Bop is the story of a young man named Dirk McDonald, who lives in a beautiful cottage outside of Los Angeles, CA, with his grandmother Fifi. He has always known that he was gay and wishes he didn’t feel he had to hide it. He wants to be strong and unafraid. When he is attacked at a punk club (ostensibly for insulting a man’s swastika tattoo, but it soon turns into a gay bashing,) he almost gives up hope until he is visited by the spirits of his great grandmother and his father, both of whom had passed on before he was born. They tell him their stories about how they grew up and fell in love. Although they both were heterosexual, they assert that they see no difference between their loves and Dirk’s. As his great-grandmother says without pause or hesitation, “Any love that is love is right” (66).
I also think it’s important to understanding the outrage that this book inspires to keep in mind that by love, Block means sex as well. In Block’s fairy tale, masturbation, fantasy, and sex are just as natural and beautiful as “spiritual love.”
I wish I felt like there was more to analyze here, but I’m afraid that this is the whole dark secret of the book. There is violence, but it is never glorified. There is hate speech, but only from the mouths of despicable individuals. Some of the characters smoke, but I don’t think that’s what’s triggering people. On the whole, it is a book that says, “It’s okay to love how you love,” and I think that scares people.
Far from being damaging, Baby Be-Bop is a healing, empowering story. It encourages teens to speak up and tell their stories where they have felt silenced. It encourages teens not to be afraid of their sexual sides. I think that’s why I read it as a teen. Though my parents were as encouraging as Block, my school was run by a rather conservative religious group (despite the school being a secular school,) and their messages sometimes leaked past the positive ones I got. Although I was pretty sure that I was heterosexual, it just felt so good to hear someone else say that my body wasn’t dirty. I don’t want to pretend that this book single-handedly saved me, but I consider it part of the remedy. I like to think it’s helped other teens of all sexualities and genders in that way too.
Of course, the book has its problematic moments; in particular, I’ve never been comfortable with Block’s tendency to use LA’s minority populations to help exoticize the city and enhance the fairy-tale atmosphere of her stories. There’s a lot to talk about in that aspect of Block’s work in general; Said would have a field day with her bohemian love of “the East.” Sadly, I do not think these were the racial problems the plaintiffs in this case were concerned about (not that I would advocate banning the book over them.).
Nevertheless, on the whole, if sharing Baby Be-Bop is obscene, then I will gladly be obscene. If encouraging love is damaging, then I will damage. And I will do all I can to support libraries so that any teen who has been taught that ze is dirty and wrong will check out this book and others like it and begin to feel clean.
(Cross-posted to Feministe.)
Nearly a week later, and I’m still recovering from Valentine’s Day, which apparently is also known as “the day when complete strangers can insinuate that you and whichever male friend you happen to be spending time with are a couple and then insult that male friend for not buying you a rose. ” I was unaware of this second name–this strange custom didn’t appear in college, where I’d usually either spend my Valentine’s Days buying student group fundraiser chocolates for boys that I had crushes on, so that I could make life awkward for the both of us or sneaking paper cranes into friends’ mailboxes. But one thing that’s a constant about Valentine’s Day whether in or out of the ivory tower is the way it tends to make single people feel guilty,bitter or inadequate. And then we run to dating sites (link to Sara Haskin’s “Target Women” video on the subject, which is hilarious).
Okay, I’ll stop with the snark (maybe). For one thing, the real reason why I waited nearly a week for this post is that I just figured out how to do screen captures yesterday (and wasted copious amounts of time saving all the internet ads I hate for future subtext juicing). For another, the point of this post is not the cultural phenomenon of dating sites, but the uncomfortable subtext lurking in one rather popular dating site: OK Cupid. Most people I know within my age group use OK Cupid to some capacity, myself included. As far as dating sites go, it’s generally thought to be the most “with it.” I’ve even seen it praised by commenters on Feministing for not marginalizing poly relationships and allowing for homosexuality and bisexuality (because apparently other sites have not gotten the message).
But behind its trendy facade, OK Cupid makes plenty of really uncomfortable statements and insinuations. You know, the sort of assertion that people like to pretend is edgy, but in closer examination is revealed to be the same sort of cultural messages we’ve been receiving for years. In many ways, OK Cupid is not nearly so friendly and savvy a site as it makes itself out to be.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Deciding to join a dating site is full of implications that make people feel uncomfortable and question themselves that have nothing to do with the site itself. Also, there are plenty of things about the site that make me feel uncomfortable, from features that “punish” you (aka- mark you with a red light, meaning that you rarely reply to other messages) for not replying to each and every message you get (ignoring the fact that most people receive some pretty invasive messages that they may not feel comfortable replying to) to the fact that it calls you a “dirty dog” if you turn off the automatic censor. Their “about us” page only includes one woman, which would bother me less if her photo was not of a pair of disembodied legs in fishnets and her label wasn’t “office chick,” whose primary duties were “making sure Sam doesn’t go insane, writing surveys, busting spammers and never, ever letting the programmers run out of Diet Pepsi.” But then, I have a sense that many dating sites probably think they can create a dating site for both men and women with only the input of one gender (Apparently, they’ve all read/seen He’s Just Not That Into You and therefore know that women have relationship IQs of 5.). The fact is, if I just systematically pointed out everything I’ve seen on the site with disturbing subtext, I’d get a headache; and this post would become a mere rant. So, as always, I’m going to focus on a few bits and pieces that I think illustrate larger issues.
(I <3 alliteration)
OK Cupid, like pretty much anything on the net or in print, has to choose images to represent a news bite. To avoid bombarding people with giant walls of text, they try and reduce people to images as much as possible. For example, every user, as they use the site, is awarded a series of personality trait images. For example, if someone is “more compassionate” than most users, their profile has a cartoon image of a cheerful female nurse (more ambitious, by the by, is a man in a business suit with a laptop). But what’s really irked me this week is their image for their weekly quiz contest, drama. The programmers at OK Cupid decided that they could best represent this contest with an image crying, screaming woman, playing into the stereotype that women just love making big deals out of nothing and causing excess drama. You’ve never heard of a drama king, right? They must not exist. The fact that the image isn’t even commented upon and is simply plastered up there beside the word drama without explanation only makes it worse: it turns the image into a symbol.
This is a particularly insidious use of semiotics, the science of signs. Basically, semiotics looks at how we make a connection between image and meaning. For example, the little image (or the little emoticon that I used above) that we tend to think of as a “heart,” does not look anything like a human heart. Yet, in our cultural imagination, the image is inextricably intertwined with this meaning. In this example, the OK Cupid design time created an arbitrary symbolic correlation between the crying woman and drama. This plays into the at least old as Greeks (if not time) idea that women are hysteric (a word which actually comes from the Greek word for womb.), irrational creatures and tend to make ludicrous complaints. It plays into the idea that we’re always looking for drama where there isn’t any, making mountains out of molehills. Do I think it’s going to brainwash anyone who didn’t already believe this to some degree? No. But it’s obnoxious, and propagates an image of women that we constantly have to fight against and discourages women from speaking up even when it matters.
The lifeblood of OK Cupid’s matching system is a series of multiple choice questions that you answer both for yourself and for your ideal match. The site’s matching algorithm then uses this information to stick you with a bunch of labels and calculate how well you will get along with other people.
Now, of course, everyone regardless of gender, sexuality, age, and relationship status has to answer the same questions, which, initially seems like a good idea. But, in my experience, this tends to lead to what can, if we use only diplomatic terms, be described as awkward situations.
My queer friends (especially those who live in neither Massachusetts nor Connecticut, and were not in California before the 2008 election) have a lot of fun answering questions about whether they wish to get married some day, and whether they believe homosexuality is a sin or not. My trans friends have dealt with similar questions. I suppose you could argue it’s not the duty of a dating site to condemn anyone’s moral judgment, no matter how bigoted, but I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable with the site normalizing homophobia and transphobia like that. Pretty much, instead of alienating a socially conservative audience, the site has decided that they’d rather pretend that homosexuality and transgenderism are things that we can debate normally and dispassionately, like marijuana usage or gun control, as if it didn’t involve debating the legitimacy of actual people. The site acts as if it is simply taking itself out of the debate by allowing “both sides” on their site. Is this really okay? Is this behavior really conducive to a safe, fun website?
Another “fun” example is the question that I posted in the image above, an image which I have entitled “questionnotaboutbisexuality.gif” because I still don’t know what bisexuality has to do with anything. The question reads, “A bisexual person wants to date a man and a woman at the same time. In your opinion, is this person out of line? A) Yes, being bisexual does not excuse infidelity. B) No, dating both sexes best fulfills their needs. C) It depends on the situation.” The question may have an “out,” a none of the above, but I’m still bamboozled as to why a question which is essentially about open relationships has to become tied up in sexual orientation. I declined to answer this question because, to me, “it depends on the situation” does not translate to, “As long as everyone is open, honest, and consenting.” Gender has nothing to do with it. Sexuality has nothing to do with it. Bringing bisexuals into the mix just plays into the bisexuals are more likely to cheat stereotype.
And I’m not even going to start on the “slavery vs. holocaust” oppression Olympics question.
In a sense, by staying out of moral debates, OK Cupid has made itself a less safe place to be.
Oh, Baby, That’s Just the Way It Is
And last, and least, the text blurb that inspired this post in the first place:
You’re choosy, not wanting to get mixed up with just anyone. Girls can get away with this kind of selectiveness for some reason. Most guys have to take whatever’s lying around, passed out.
After taking their (heteronormative) “dating persona” personality test, I decided to check out some of the other possible personas a person can have. This one comes from the female persona “The Intern,” a woman who wants casual sex, but is inordinately picky. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to rape culture. (Oh yes, and stereotypes about how straight men just want sex and will take anything with boobs. Can’t forget those. The stereotypes, I mean, not the boobs. Though one should remember boobs too.)
This, combined with such questions in their matching algorithm which ask if no really means no are not innocent comments nor funny depictions of college party life. By including them so flippantly on their site, OK Cupid is normalizing this kind of behavior. How is this okay?
And that, my friends, is the crux of this post. Dating sites may not be designed to be moral regulators or political forces, but they are both a product of and a regulator of our culture. OK Cupid may be pretending to stay out of debates, but it’s really saying that it’s okay in our culture to discriminate based on gender and sexual orientation; it’s okay to have sex with someone without consent; it’s okay to be a person who ignores the word “no.” It’s saying that in our culture, it’s okay to chalk these things up to personal preference.
Sometimes I think I’m a bad feminist blogger because my gut reaction to any sort of rhetorical question like that is, “I don’t know.” I don’t claim to have all the answers. So I’m going to cheat and say, “I’m here to make you think,” because I feel like a hypocrite every time I declare moral superiority because I criticize conservatives for the same thing. Though, honestly, I can’t imagine how any of this is okay or even desirable in our culture.
Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to conclude that OK Cupid is not a safe dating site, not that I think there’s one out there that currently does any better. It’s pretty clear to me that no dating site, and certainly not OK Cupid is going to make me feel like a desirable straight woman for my feminist beliefs or make me feel particularly welcomed on their corner of the internet except as a sex object. But that’s all part and parcel of internet culture, which is, of course, tied up in our own culture. I think sometimes we separate the two too readily.
For Write to Marry Day:
When the courts shot down San Francisco’s bold move to legalize gay marriage nearly five years ago, I wrote a post on an Ani DiFranco livejournal community telling a simple story from my childhood. Now that gay marriage has been legalized, and people would like to take it away from those I consider my friends (so of them such precious friends that I consider them my family), I want to tell it again because I think it’s a poignant image of what No on Prop. 8 means to me.
Picture two little girls. One of them is me; the other is one of my two best friends. We must be about twelve as this story begins. She and I had met in the fourth grade and had been inseparable ever since. We went to dance class together. We did each other’s hair. She introduced me to Billie Holiday, and I introduced her to Donna Jo Napoli. We had always been at once precocious and ridiculous–upon hearing that Silly Putty had been invented in an attempt to find a substitute for rubber, we bought some and experimented upon it with lemon juice and vinegar, hoping to take it that one extra chemical reaction step and save the planet. Together we read the feminist puberty books our mothers had given us, giggling about the idea of sex. Classic girlfriends.
In any case, this one day, which has stayed in my memory ever since, we passed by a shop that had wedding dresses in the window. I pointed one out, admiring its simplicity. She had a different favorite; she wanted a froofier dress. As we walked along, we described our dream dresses, our dream weddings. We fantasized about honeymoons in Venice or Capri. Of course, you could argue that we were two young girls brainwashed with the idea that marriage was the key to some kind of ultimate fulfillment, but ignoring that, it was a pretty cute scene of two twelve-year-olds acting, well, twelve. Marriage at the time was something very intangible, something that ended most movies. Though even then we knew that marriage was not about a dress, the dress was a symbol of something beautiful.
Years later, my friend came out of the closet. Nothing changed. But for some reason, people don’t seem to realize that the woman who’s been in a very committed, loving relationship with another woman for the past six years is the exact same person as the little girl who wanted a glittery wedding gown and dreamed of taking a honeymoon ride on a gondola through enchanted canals in the moonlight. It’s a sad image, really: a girl dreams of a wedding, and then grows up to realize that it can never be hers because the law sees her love for her girlfriend as somehow degenerate.
It’s so strange; we were such similar little girls, and now, in many ways, similar women, and yet, there are people who would consider our marriage dreams to be very different. Because I am straight and she is not, there are people who would consider mine to be “cute” and hers the prelude to perversion. Could you have guessed who was who just by looking at us at the time? Could you have guessed who was who just by hearing the dreams?
When I think about prop. 8, first and foremost I think of my friends and then I think of this story. I think of people telling perfectly normal individuals that they are somehow abnormal, that their desire to fall in love and get married is disgusting. I know this story perhaps does not offer compelling legal reasons–it’s a story from my past, one that holds personal significance for me. However, for me prop. 8 is a personal attack. It is an affront against some of my closest friends and beloved relatives. For me, this is both about general human rights and people I love very dearly.
This is not about abstract ideas; this is about real people. VOTE NO ON PROP. 8.