Friday, January 11, 2013

Steampunk and the Nostalgic Blinkers of Victorian London

'Steampunk Lab: Lightbulb on Sears Catalog' photo (c) 2009, Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis - license:

One of the genres we are always quick to jump to read is Steampunk. It’s an excellent and relatively recent addition to the popular speculative fiction genres and it’s a lot of fun. The aesthetic of it is amazing, with it’s brass and cogs, steam and corsets, pageantry and frock coats. It has a cadence of language to it that is musical and open to a great deal of amazing humour, with the elaborate, formal speech and the careful protocols of etiquette. And it’s a time that is, in is many ways, so different from our own that it adds a level of the alien fantasy to the setting that goes far beyond simple Urban Fantasy, while still being grounded in our world, preventing it from being too alien.

Yet we often seem to forget that the Victorian Era was a real time, and Victorian England (where most of these stories are set) was a real place. And it wasn’t pretty. While the rich could indulge in their protocol, elaborate ritual, scientific progress and social tapdancing of high society; the poor lived in abject squalor. Disease was rife, exploitation by the rich - including child prostitution (indeed, it was during the Victorian period the age of consent in the UK was raised from 13 to 16 and only then after a reporter exposed how easy it was for a man of means to buy a child virgin - much in demand because of the high rates of STDs),. The poor lived in the most crammed slums imaginable, often working horrendously long hours in obscenely dangerous factories for little pay, again, including the children. It was bleak, it was harsh, it was horrific and far too many of those with wealth and power considered the poor to be fully deserving of their fates: desperate, starving thieves, even children (indeed the urchins of the streets were not considered children to be pitied by many, but a menace or pest to be removed) could and did face long prison sentences and even transportation.

The wealth of the time was, of course, based on Britain’s sprawling empire. An empire based on severe exploitation and oppression of colonialism, with POC across the globe being persecuted and controlled to further enrich the coffers. Slavery was only banned across the empire a scant 4 years before Victoria’s reign began.

In terms of sexuality, being gay remained a capital offence until 1861 (and one that was enforced in the 19th century - and men were hanged for it), after which it was replaced by “mere” imprisonment and hard labour.

Steampunk romanticises this genre in that it creates an alternate world simply through ignoring historical fact. Most writers seem willing to deal with suffrage but this is probably because many of the protagonist themselves are women. Beyond equality for women, however, few seem to want to acknowledge that despite the gadgets and the pageantry, Victorian England was not necessarily a pleasant time for many people. Part of the impetus for this erasure is based in the fact that privileged people have the ability of nostalgia that marginalised people will simply do not. Those who are gay, of colour, disabled or poor certainly have no reason to celebrate this time period.

Of course the easiest way to do this is to put on the blinkers and simply pretend it never happened.

Most of the protagonists in Steampunk are at the very least middle class. They almost all have servants and have been educated and, for many, the poor simply do not make a meaningful appearance in the books: A Conspiracy of Alchemists, Pilgrim of the Sky, Infernal Devices (Tessa is almost instantly taken in by the wealthy Clave)

When the poor do appear, they seem to exist solely to be saved from the wretchedness of their poor lives through the charity of the rich. An example of this is Steam & Sorcery by Cindy Spencer Pape, Sir Merrick Hadrian ends up adopting several homeless children and then covering up their backgrounds. His title and long history of wealth certainly play a role in the continued impoverishment of the lower classes but the reader is not expected to acknowledge this in order to focus on his act of generosity. Or Shelly Adina’s massively fun Lady of Devices Series which, again, sees a select group of the poor benefit from the generous instruction of their social betters (which is rather exacerbated by the ease with which she overcomes the bonds of poverty). Or we get the poor who don’t need to be saved, like Ivy Tunstill from the Parasol Protectorate series who aren’t really that suffering the privations of real poverty, they simply aren’t as well off as the rich characters.  

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Must Read on Slavery and Cinema

'No Slavery Vector Illustration' photo (c) 2011, Vectorportal - license:

Hey everyone, I came across an interesting article on Race Wire entitled, "Hollywood’s Slavery Films Tell Us More About the Present Than the Past," by Dexter Gabriel. I'll get you started here, but you really need to read the whole thing.

The recent release of “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” has sparked renewed dialogue on American slavery, as all such films inevitably do. A full 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery remains a touchy subject for public discussion. When then-candidate Barack Obama dared mention it in his famous 2008 “race speech,” the rarity of the moment sent commentators into spasms of awe. As a nation, we seem unable to negotiate a working language for slavery into our popular discourse. So, naturally, we’ve outsourced the job to Hollywood.

But Hollywood’s depictions of slavery have never been solely grounded in the past; they are just as much about the present. They reveal each era’s memories of slavery, shaped by popular folklore, myths and contemporary constructions around race and national identity. “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” present us with slaves that are, with few exceptions, voiceless spectators, or caricatures out of old plantation epics—byproducts more of the history of slave films, than of slavery itself.

Early Hollywood depicted an American past filled with loyal, contented slaves, a trend that would continue for decades.

In the silent films “Confederate Spy” (1910) and “For Massa’s Sake” (1911), faithful Uncles spy for the Confederacy, sell themselves back into slavery and sacrifice their lives, literally, “for massa’s sake.” No movie would capture these popular American mythologies like D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.” In the film, slaves work, dance and sing happily for their masters—until emancipation. Spoiled with freedom, they turn haughty, violent and, worse still, oversexed. Only Mammy and Uncle remain loyal, fighting in defense of their former masters. In the film’s climax, the gallant Ku Klux Klan rides in to put the unruly blacks back in their place.

These early movies had little to do with slavery as it actually existed. Rather they depicted the slavery of Old South nostalgia, the slavery memorialized in minstrel shows and “Lost Cause” folklore that by the early 20th century had become a part of popular Americana. Hollywood helped promote this mythologized past, creating plantation epics filled with doting Mammies, loyal Uncles and happy, docile slaves.

Finish reading here

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I Always Wanted to Know.....

The Ladies of The Frisky and Madame Noir are conducting a series of conversations between White women and Black women regarding questions that most of us wonder about but never really discuss. They are planning on a series of roundtable discussions.  This first roundtable deals with interracial relationships. As they get posted to youtube, I will place them on the blog.  It's important to note that these responses are certainly generalized and neither group of women is representative of their race.

I normally don't do 101 discussions in this space but for the purposes of continuing the discussion, please feel free to ask anything that you have secretly always want to know.  I will do my best to answer all questions.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

When it comes to hatred against GBLT people, the Westboro Baptist church isn’t extremist; it's just Christian

This is a guest post from Sparky, of Spark in Darkness.  Many of you are  familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky.   

So, there’s a petition going around to try and getting Obama or various other powers that be to officially designate the Westboro Baptist church as a hate group.

Which I agree with. The Westboro hatefest are vile in their homophobia, they’re hateful and they exist entirely to spread and promote hate and, in turn, violence and degradation of GBLT people. I would love to see them designated as a hate group.

But, despite that, I have some nagging thoughts at the back of my head – namely “why them?”

We could say it’s because of the extremity of the rhetoric of Phelps and his ilk… but is it so extreme? Is it even extreme? The only thing that sets the rhetoric of the Phelps clan apart from the rhetoric of the mainstream Christian churches is that Phelps is willing to use the slur f*g.

In terms of message? The pope used World Peace Day to attack gay people. He has called us a threat to the future of humanity. The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales –  Archbishop Nichols, decided to use his Christmas message to attack us as well. I thought Christmas was supposed to be something of a thing with Christians – but, apparently, hatred is more important. Luminaries from Anglican Archbishops to Catholic Cardinals have called our rights “Orwellian” “dictatorship” “fascist” and even “nazi.”

American Gun Enthusiasts Make Pierce Morgan Look Calm and Rationale

I am not a fan or Pierce Morgan but in the wake of the shootings in Con., I have found myself in agreement with him more than I ever thought possible.  It takes a special type of person to make Morgan look like the sensible one.  Recently on his show, Morgan interviewed Alex Jones - a man who is partially responsible for creating a petition to have Morgan deported.  The video simply cannot be summarized and must be seen to be believed.


As a Canadian I don't do the whole rah rah, my country right or wrong thing but I would appreciate if Americans kept this kind of thought process on their side of the 49th parallel. 

'Django Unchained,' Quentin Tarantino's Broken Clock Moment

Long before Django Unchained was released on Christmas day, there was a lot of buzz about this movie. Spike Lee called Django Unchained an insult to his ancestors and swore that he would not see it. On just about every major Black blog and Facebook page, there has been a discussion about how this movie deals with slavery, whether or not Tarantino is a racist and what this film says about the media in general.  

Leonardo Di Caprio has publicly stated his difficulty with having to repeatedly use the word nigger in the film, Samuel Jackson has refused to answer any questions regarding the usage of the word unless the journalist actually says nigger instead of the "N word" and Kerry Washington has spoken about the difficulty of her role and the staged whipping.   This movie was difficult for the actors, for the viewers and the critics.  In term of race, I cannot remember the last time we had a movie become so much a part of the social discussion.

I am going to preface this review with the fact that I am not in the least bit a fan of Quentin Tarantino. I think he is far too comfortable using the word nigger in his work and much of the time, it adds nothing to the plot or development of the character.  A White man can never understand how deeply casual usage of this slur hurts Blacks and Tarantino's treatment of the pain itself, has a history of being cavalier at best. 

Without doubt, the usage of nigger was ubiquitous throughout Django Unchained but unlike other Tarantino movies, a setting of two years before the civil war absolutely justified its usage. It would have been ahistorical for White plantation owners to use any other word to refer to Blacks, let alone their slaves.  It is wrong to apply 21st century standards and moral sensibilities to this time and would have made slavery itself seem like a benign institution.  The problem is that given Tarantino's comfort with the slur, it makes acceptance of its inclusion in Django Unchained, feels like giving him permission to continue to litter his work with it. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Problem With The At Home Stomach Pump

'stop me?' photo (c) 2010, Rega Photography - license:

Diet and weight loss is a multi billion dollar a year industry in the U.S.  Everyday we are inundated with the message that fat is unhealthy, and disgusting.  It is suggested that people should be willing to do whatever it takes to lose what are viewed as excess pounds and as a result, almost every day some new product is touted as the answer to the obesity problem. That many of these so-called solutions do not work or are harmful either physically or emotionally, is ignored because at the end of the day, society has invested in the idea of thin at all costs.

I don't often write about fat or weight but when I came across the at home stomach pump on Facebook, I was disgusted and so alarmed, I simply had to address it.
A US patent application has been made for an unlikely weight loss tool: a tube installed from inside the stomach, out the abdominal wall, that allows patients to manually pump their meal straight out.

Aspiration Therapy, designed by Philadelphia-based Aspire Bariatrics, is intended to be a non-invasive alternative to a gastric bypass -- the "A-tube" installation process looks like a bit of a mouthful though. On the upside, according to a video on the company's website the whole ordeal takes under 20 minutes and patients can return home within a couple of hours. [source]
This product is seen as a good thing largely because the recovery time is quicker than a gastric bypass.  The company has a small sample (note: 20) people who have managed to loose weight using this technique. For the record, I don't think that twenty people counts as enough to make any kind of scientific claims about the safety or effectiveness of this product.
 One female patient lost 38kg over the course of the 59 weeks she used the system. She "aspirated" after every meal: "the patient uncapped [her] tube, connected a 60 cc syringe and extracted food from her stomach twice. This resulted in a siphon effect, which permitted the subject to freely drain the stomach by allowing the open tube to empty into a bucket. The patient squeezed the tube to enhance propulsion and to break up large food." Beyond the troubling mental image this provides, the latter sentence is key. Not only did this particular dieter have to watch her stomach contents slop into a bucket straight from her innards, she also had to give them a helping squeeze for added artificial digestion.

Teens React to Online Bullying

With a child approaching his teenage years, bullying and the pain that results from it are on my mind a lot.  Despite all of the attention it has received, both in schools and PSA's, it continues on without abatement.  The internet has allowed people to bully anonymously and given around the clock access to victims.  Some people feel free to say things they would never dream of saying in person as though the words they write have no impact.  It has become all to commonplace for some to advise others that they should go and kill themselves.  Said to someone who is already vulnerable and feeling isolated these words are like a dagger to the heart.

Amanda Todd posted her story on youtube a month before she killed herself.  Since then, it has been uploaded and shared numerous times and still yet there continue to be those who harass her, though she is no longer alive.  I don't know what the solution is to bullying, but I do know that it has to stop. No one deserves to be bullied.

I came across the following video on Facebook and simply had to share it with you.  It is the reaction to several teens to the video Amanda Todd posted on youtube shortly before committing suicide, along with their reflection about their feelings about the bullying incidents they have been subjected to.

For those who are interested and have not yet seen it, here is a link to Amanda Todd's original youtube video. Please share your experiences with bullying.