Thursday, November 14, 2013

nothing but freedom in that land where i'm bound...

There is something about listening to this song by Sweet Honey in the Rock that speaks to me deeply about the hooks and burdens that keep me rooted in debilitating patterns. To me, this song not only speaks to the tangible experience of people escaping the condition of enforced slavery but the internal conditions of slavery as well--in the form of internalized racism, internalized homophobia, or straight-out self-loathing. As they sing, I feel uplifted, really seeing that land where we may all feel free to be ourselves and be accepted:

oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
and before I'll be a slave
I'll be buried in my grave
and go home to my lord & be free

come and go with me to that land
come and go with me to that land
come and go with me to that land
where I'm bound

come and go with me to that land
come and go with me to that land
come and go with me to that land
where I'm bound

ain't no hatred in that land
ain't no hatred in that land
ain't no hatred in that land
where I'm bound

ain't no hatred in that land
ain't no hatred in that land
ain't no hatred in that land
where I'm bound

nothing but freedom in that land
nothing but freedom in that land
nothing but freedom in that land
where I'm bound

nothing but freedom in that land
nothing but freedom in that land
nothing but freedom in that land

glory, glory, hallelujiah
since I lay my burden down!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Dissatisfying Roles of Women in Star Trek: Into Darkness

(obviously, spoilers below)                     

Despite its efforts to catch up to the times (and its obligation to move beyond them), the role of women in the new Trek film is tainted by old-fashioned attitudes. It seems that despite the success of more gender-balanced or even female-centric science fiction and fantasy shows, the cultural assumptions regarding the capacity or viewer acceptance of women in adventurous roles prevail today. For one thing, the male-to-female ratio in the recent films remains as deeply off-balance as in the original series. More importantly, the film’s prominent women—Lt. Nyota Uhura and Dr. Carol Marcus—have their femininity emphasized above all else.

Uhura is “the girlfriend,” the one who can snap Spock out of non-emotion or bloodlust alike by appealing to his capacity for love. While she exhibits bravery, linguistic prowess, and the ability to shoot a phaser, there is, from beginning to end, a woman-behind-the-men quality to her—and this is not merely because Kirk and Spock are central to the story and happen to be male. While Uhura steps forward boldly to negotiate with the Klingons, the lens focuses on her curves and legs as she approaches, and the sexual manner in which the commander grasps her neck and prepares to stab her seem like yet another disempowering example of the “male gaze” of the film at large. (If I were confident that Kirk would have been filmed in the same way, this would not be an issue, but I just don’t see that happening.)

Meanwhile, Marcus, who was a respected scientist in The Wrath of Khan, has become “the admiral’s daughter.” She’s seen and treated either as a daughter or a sex object, and her skills are taken for granted. What happened to the scientific prowess that the original Marcus possessed? This Marcus is essentially presented as cute and harmless, even if she knows how to disarm a weapon. Since the metaphor of her capacity to disarm did not extend to her effort to talk her father out of destroying the Enterprise (he simply swept her up like a runaway child as she screamed and ran, surely a reckless act while being “transported”), her “cute and harmless” image prevailed.

Even when the logical Spock discovers Dr. Marcus’s subterfuge upon boarding the Enterprise, it is assumed that she is harmless and trustworthy merely because she is the admiral’s daughter—“daughter” being the key word. Marcus’s primary function has become relational: she is the runaway, the love interest, the naively brave emotional creature who believes that her very presence can save the ship because her father’s the admiral. Appealing to her father’s humanity and old ethical code is admirable enough—but while Spock and Kirk manage to check each other’s morality through the power of their personal connection, their characters and motivations are fleshed out beyond their relationships alone. The Dr. Marcus of this film would lose the bulk of her identity without her relationships.

Then there’s the scene in which she strips in Kirk’s presence:

Now, I should preface this analysis by noting that James T. Kirk has always been presented as exceedingly flirtatious and an archetypical intergalactic slut (no negative connotations intended). It makes sense that his 60's-style bravado and unapologetic sexuality would remain unhindered even as social attitudes towards female sexuality have changed over the decades. This in itself is not an issue—but the way that the strip scene is played out in the current film is.

In the first of the new Trek films, a nearly-naked Kirk hid under a bed and observed Uhura stripping. That he was caught almost-naked himself seemed fair, and Uhura’s annoyance with her Orion roommate, who had brought yet another lover home, conveyed an equal degree of promiscuity on the roommate’s part as on the baby-captain-in-training’s. While the gaze was still undeniably Kirk’s (forgetting the name of the Orion woman, the voyeurism as Uhura sheds her clothes), the scene was rendered relatively egalitarian by Kirk’s semi-nudity. While unarguably gratuitous, it tied into the plotline involving Kirk’s ongoing efforts seduce Uhura and eventual shock to discover that she was involved with Spock—his antithesis and, at the time, nemesis.
In this new film, Kirk winds up ogling a half-naked Dr. Marcus for no reason other than gratuitous sexual tension as she changes into a sensible suit in which to disarm a missile. He himself remains fully clothed as he stares. The fact that Marcus is the only person to strip during a time of crisis and be referred to more for her beauty than for her brains demeans her character and makes her “brave acts” less noteworthy—would her contributions be taken as seriously if she weren’t considered as hot? And if she can’t do her work in a dress, why is she wearing one on duty in the first place?

This brings up another issue: the skirts. Now, if Starfleet’s mission is supposed to be exploratory rather than militaristic, there’s nothing wrong with people wearing skirts if they want—but I’m glaringly aware that none of the men on Trek wear skirts (and please correct me if there actually were men or gender-neutral people in skirts on the film). The women-in-skirts outfitting polarizes gender in a manner that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s. There’s no real purpose for this. It doesn’t increase freedom of expression because officers don’t appear free to choose. Even if Trek producers don’t want to acknowledge that there is more of a range of gender expression among human beings, they surely cannot deny that there will be aliens with more or fewer forms of gender than human beings have. There are animals in our own world that have multiple genders, or who are asexual. So once again: what is the purpose of the dresses vs. pants outfitting other than nostalgic homage to a style based on 1960s convention?

I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with dresses, relationships, or emotionality in themselves. Uhura’s relationship with Spock adds an enjoyable dimension to the new films. That the unethical, warmongering Admiral Marcus could have a principled daughter adds another dabble of complexity. If only there had been more of an emphasis placed upon Carol Marcus’s processing and defining her principles against the backdrop of her father’s betrayal. Kirk essentially lost a father figure in this film, and Marcus lost her father; rather than a glorified speech at the end, Marcus and the too-quickly resurrected Kirk may have spent a few moments processing those deaths and the delicate balance between relationship and principle—the very focus of the film since protecting “one’s own” and vengeance were considered justifications for preemptive war.

In any case, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for Star Trek to create complex, meaningful roles for women that equal those of the male characters. It’s supposed to be set in the 2200s, after all.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

On Altars, Multicultural Yoga, Inclusion, and Pluralism

I was recently alerted to a letter in the May 2013 Yoga Journal in which a Jewish yoga practitioner complains about the photographs in an article depicting Hindu and Buddhist dieties in meditation rooms, saying that she finds them "offensive." The writer could have simply asked that secular or multi-religious meditation rooms be represented in their photographs as well and left it at that; instead, she is claiming that the photographs of Hindu and Buddhist dieties on altars *offend* her, as if a yoga magazine is wrong to publish such images at all. 

It's awfully hard to be "inclusive" if there are people who are fundamentally opposed to pluralism. The writer of that letter asked for inclusion, but calling statues of deities "offensive" is not an inclusive act; it is a condemnation of "idolatry."

Growing up as part of a non-majority religion in several highly Christian areas, I am no stranger to phobias of the mainstream regarding non-Judeo-Christian-Islamic beliefs and no stranger to exclusive environments either. In the mainstream, even people who are agnostic and secular are schooled through osmosis to believe that there is no inherent meaning in an image--that it may ultimately be deconstructed to nothingness. This is a Judeo-Christian-Islamic belief, but it is not everyone's belief. People in the mainstream culture are often horrified when they witness people apparently imbuing images and statues and other objects with meaning. People who put murtis on their altars and relate with them beyond artistic appreciation or philosophical insight--as vehicles for accessing the divine--often bend over backwards to explain why their form of prayer is not as "foreign" a practice as it appears.

The first time that I shared a home with people who encouraged me to set up my altar over the fireplace in the living room, I was shocked. None of my housemates were Indian, and they added objects that they themselves considered sacred; one added feathers and stones, another an painting of a ship that had sentimental meaning to her. In some cases, our practices contradicted each other, but I chose to merge my altar with theirs rather than to have a more traditional altar in my own space. At one point, someone who did not resonate with altars at all moved in, which led to conflict and conversation--which, once again, was all about navigating what an inclusive space means, balancing the house's existing cultural practices with the needs of a newcomer, and attempting not to jump into offense and understand each other instead.

My own worldview does not conflict with the idea of simply including other paths or practices as different manifestations of the same divine force(s). Somehow, I managed to maintain this worldview while growing up despite having friends who believed I was going to hell. I didn't turn into Bobby Jindal and adopt my environment's mainstream religious and political views; nor did I turn cliquish by associating only with those who agreed with me.

I suppose I'm suggesting that there is a way in which multicultural communities may be navigated without needing to strip them of the diverse expressions of various devotional and non-devotional practices.

Before yoga became mainstream in the US, it was regarded as cultish and fringe. Many yoga teachers attempted to shift the focus of yoga to fit the cultural needs where they lived, and while this is understandable, it is sometimes questionable; I can find marketing that strips Indian philosophical and spiritual roots from yoga in an attempt to make yoga appealing to the masses just as distasteful as outright cultural appropriation/exoticization.

Speaking of appropriation, there can also be a case made for people who set up altars with the hope that yoga students will find "ethnic" statues "cool" and "foreign." A shallow or superficial approach to altars may have been assumed by the letter writer--but I challenge that assumption. Many yoga practitioners of varying backgrounds and religions relate to deities displayed on altars--and there are certainly Hindu, Buddhist, and other practitioners of yoga who create altars as a cultural practice.

Of course, cultural sensitivity is important. I know both Indian and non-Indian teachers who have taught yoga in culturally sensitive ways with varying degrees of spirituality or aspirituality: in Italy and Afghanistan; in corporate settings and communes; in schools and shelters and temples and parks. Yogic teachings can be accessible to everyone, no matter what religious or non-religious beliefs they hold.

I'm also pleased to recognize that yogic practices evolved in India and that many people include elements of various Indian religions, whether metaphorically or spiritually, in their practice and teachings. Not everyone may resonate with a spiritual approach towards yoga, but there are many who cannot imagine practicing yoga without a spiritual foundation.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

When Less is NOT More...

Racialicious published my article on the fading diversity of (the Canadian fantasy show) Lost Girl.

A comment to the article made me wonder: where is the line between knowing how our histories impact current relations and creating models for new ways of relating?

I see (well-written) speculative fiction as an area where assumed attitudes toward race, sexuality, etc. may be disrupted or dissolved and where alternate possibilities of relating may be explored. Speculative fiction may offer windows into new ways of being with oneself and others. It may illustrate current issues and themes in fictional settings so that they may be freshly analyzed. Whether engaging philosophically or viscerally, when we step away from our conceptions of the world or universe that have begun to fossilize despite ourselves, we create space for something different to emerge.

On breaking down segregation...

I love this interview  with two of the kids who pushed for their Georgia high school’s first every integrated prom. Yes, in 2013.

Sometimes I think I’m slow to change my bad habits. The state of Georgia’s slower.

Okay, seriously, I know there's nothing funny about institutionalized racism. I spent my teen years in Georgia, and even though the area where I lived was less regressive, there were kids who would freak out at the idea of interracial relationships. In the 90's.

Since I'm on the topic of young people standing up to policies of segregation, I also watched this interview with Claudette Colvin who was arrested in 1955 at the age of 15 for refusing to get up and
move further back on the bus (nine months before Rosa Park's arrest). She says, "It felt like Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on another shoulder, and I could not move." Calling upon ancestral strength can be potent in trying times.

The other side involves calling upon our descendents for strength--whether related by blood or not. I discovered some years ago the power of connecting with future generations alongside--or even instead of--ancestral generations. There is a particular motivation and sense of innovation that can be harnassed when acting for our descendents just as ancestors--both blood and adopted--can provide foundation and support.

Finally, there are our present-day peers. The young people in that Georgia high school  in Wilcox County were motivated because of their connection to each other to break down deeply entrenched community-sanctioned segregation. How inspiring!

On transmuting problems through mythic imagination...

Often, when we face our densest problems, there is a tunnel vision that forms that we cannot maneuver our way around. Yet, this is the time when it is most important to engage with the mythic—not as an escape but as a method of working straight through our issues, or as an outlet for developing perspective.

It makes sense that when we are in survival mode, it is difficult to enter imaginal realms. Years ago, when I worked with children who were homeless, I was struck by how little their imaginations were nurtured. Like all children, they were making sense of the world around them, but the sense of wonder that is considered innate in children was often stifled by their families’ desperate need for pragmatism.

I don’t mean to imply that none of the children with were capable of imagination—of course they were capable. It just wasn’t encouraged. One child was actually mocked by a parent for the magical story that she had written with my support. I had encouraged her to use her imagination and substitute typical for unusual objects or events. This was something that didn’t come easily to her—yet, she had been proud of her tale.

In play-acting, the children would set up a pretend “thrift store” which would then go out of business, the business owner running away with the cash. We all recycle the themes that we are offered by our lived experience; it’s possible that by mythologizing the ordinary, the children were approaching the tangible limitations in their lives with curiosity and a sense of humor. Yet, time after time when I would visit and see the same game being played out, I feared that their circumstance was breeding the sort of tunnel vision that blocks the transcendence of limitations.

While the children I speak of were homeless, most of us are born into societies in which mythic consciousness has been fractured. The umbrella of collective consciousness is more influenced by reality TV than by stories that ignite the imagination. In strengthening our ability to view our problems with a mythic lens, we help pave a collective path toward healing and inspiration. This may sound intangible, but it is absolutely tangible once discovered; I have seen it play out in many forms for different people. For me, it is a lived experience that I have to remind myself to come back to in times when I find myself mired in the underbelly of personal or global pain.

Unraveling, reweaving...

I am revamping this blog; please bear with me. Pertinent past entries will be re-posted within the next well as new ones.

Friday, July 22, 2011


1. a physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or integrative traveling from one place* to another

*may include traversing geographic regions or states of consciousness, time travel, and cross-cultural experiences

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


1. a body that gives light literally, such as a celestial body
2. a body that gives light metaphorically, such as a radiant human being