Amazon censors women and queer people

So, I’m sure everyone has heard by now, but Amazon has recently made the decision to remove the sales rankings of so-called “adult” books in order to ensure that they don’t show up in some searches (like the default search) and bestseller lists.

Their rationale? The censoring books primarily written by and for queer people (and, in the case of erotica, some non-queer women as well) was done “[i]n consideration of our entire customer base”:

“In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.”

Just to be clear, the criteria for the “adult” material that they’re using is pretty damn sketchy:

But as an online petition points out the following publications remain on the sales ranking system:

-Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds by Chronicle Books (pictures of over 600 naked women)
–Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love” (explicit heterosexual romance);
–Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Wolf and the Dove (explicit heterosexual romance);
–Bertrice Smal’s Skye o’Malley which are all explicit heterosexual romances
–and Alan Moore’s Lost Girls (which is a very explicit sexual graphic novel)

while the following LGBT books have been removed:

–Radclyffe Hill’s classic novel about lesbians in Victorian times, The Well of Loneliness, and which contains not one sentence of sexual description;
–Mark R Probst’s YA novel The Filly about a young man in the wild West discovering that he’s gay (gay romance, no sex);
–Charlie Cochrane’s Lessons in Love (gay romance with no sex);
–The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience, edited by Louis-George Tin (non-fiction, history and social issues);
–and Homophobia: A History by Bryan Fone (non-fiction, focus on history and the forms prejudice against homosexuality has taken over the years).

There’s already a push to google bomb them by creating the phrase “amazon rank” as a synonym for being censored in regards to queer and/or erotic material (with careful attention to inconsistent logic). It’s made at least one newspaper, a letter writing campaign, and there’s even an online petition.

Here’s the letter I wrote to their customer service:

To whom it may concern,

I am one of the many who was shocked and disappointed by Amazon’s recent decision to remove the sales rankings of certain books in order to keep them from showing up on most searches and bestseller lists. As I am sure many others have said, the criteria for “adult” that the company has chosen to apply is inconsistent and ill-thought-out. Regardless of intention, the result of this decision was to further marginalize already marginalized groups such as women and queer people while leaving the explicit material of privileged groups such as men and heterosexuals largely untouched.

I find this level of lack of foresight and competence in a company unacceptable. For a web-based company, the decision to change even one part of the fundamental structure of its website is something that needs to be undertaken with great caution, thought, and care. In this case, before anything was done those in charge needed to clearly define the criteria for labeling a product “adult”, doing everything possible to ensure that said definition was as internally consistent and free of bias as possible.

By focusing on queer books (regardless of actual explicit content) and erotica (a genre with primarily female authors) while leaving clearly explicit but more normalized versions of “adult” material intact, Amazon has created an image for itself as a company that supports homophobia and sexism. I may be only one person, but I am still part of Amazon’s “entire customer base” and I do not feel that Amazon took my interests into “consideration” at all when the decision was made to make it harder for me to find books on queer theory, DVDs about the queer experience, and depictions of romance and sex written by women for women.

Before this happened I had intended to make a sizable purchase of various books, DVDs, and games from your site, but I cannot in good conscience support your site while this policy is in effect. I hope that this decision will be rescinded quickly with a full public apology given to the authors whose sales you have hurt and the customers who you have inconvenienced, and that any further consideration into the separation of adult material from non-adult material will be undertaken with much more deliberation and care than was taken with the current policy.

Andrea Rubenstein

Amazon’s doing this has, obviously, pissed me off. Even more so because, living in Japan, I don’t have easy access to the kinds of English books and DVDs that I consume on a regular basis and therefore was gearing up to do a major purchase so my dad could bring it to me when he comes to visit. Now I need to take my shopping elsewhere, which will create more hassle for me than working with a company that already has my information on file. But, really, when the decision comes down to hassle versus supporting a company that obviously disdains me and my interests I’ll take the former any day.

For those of you interested in knowing more, here’s a link farm.

Via Tamora Pierce.

Responsibility of comedy writers

Although I had never heard of Graham Linehan before, he’s apparently a writer for some fairly popular UK comedies, including one called The IT Crowd.

Now, apparently there was a recent episode of that show that included a sub-plot involving a transwoman named April. The plot was basically that Douglas, the Asshole of the show, goes out on a date with her and during the date he propositions her. She seems reluctant and eventually tells him that she “used to be a man”, to which he says that it doesn’t matter and his offer still stands. Except, the twist is that he misheard her! He thought that she said she was “from Iran”; this leads to a physical fight where she throws the first punch but he ends it by throwing her through a glass window and the last the audience sees of her is her lying motionless in a pile of glass.

All this played up as comedy, mind you.

So, Graham has a blog and on this blog a commenter named Leanne pointed out to him that he isn’t writing in a vacuum and the kind of violence he used as humor has a real life correlation.

The first comment after hers? A guy telling her that she’s “oversensitive”. So far he’s been the only one and no flame wars have been started, so I suppose that’s something.

Graham’s response to her comment was as follows:

Thanks for the letter, Leanne. I’m sorry you didn’t like the show.

I don’t really feel the need to defend it further as it’s a very silly show, and not meant to be taken seriously. But thank you for remaining polite on a matter that obviously means a lot to you.

Ignoring all the other problems with the response, I find his claim that “it’s a very silly show, and not meant to be taken seriously” to be just another cry of “it’s just a television show!” that I’ve debunked in the past. Not only that, but framing it as an issue of being “taken seriously” or not completely misses the point. Just because people aren’t going to look at the show as something 100% true to life, it doesn’t mean that they won’t find truth in the themes.

Graham’s depiction of violence involving a transwoman that resulted from a sexual encounter where the man thought she was a ciswoman draws from real life situations which are prevalent enough that men who commit these violent acts defend themselves using something termed the trans panic defense. It is with this underlying theme that’s rooted in reality that Leanne was speaking to, rather than the “silly” comedy trappings of the final depiction.

In fact, I would go even further and argue that the humor of the scene is dependent on the audience, at least a little bit, sympathizing with Douglas*. While April is upfront about her past (and I do give Graham minor points for not making her “trick” him into having sex under “false pretenses”), it’s significant that she throws the first punch. By initiating the violence, it lessens Douglas’ fault in the assault and one could argue that it even goes so far as to justify said violence***. And, since the violence is played for laughs, the audience doesn’t have to actually think about sad/scary things like how the same kind of violence happens in real life but with tragic consequences.

Ultimately, Graham is right; he doesn’t have to defend his work. He can write whatever he wants to write as long as the networks are buying it. But I find it to be rather intellectually dishonest for him to use “it’s a very silly show, and not meant to be taken seriously” as an excuse to try and weasel out of the responsibility his writing, as part of a fairly popular television show, plays in not only shaping popular culture but also in reinforcing the beliefs of his audience.

* Darren, the commenter who called Leanne “oversensitive”, argued that it was Douglas who was meant to be the butt of the joke**. While this would seem to fit the way that the show treats Douglas’ character in general, it’s hard to agree that April “gave as good as she got and got the better of him in the end” when he threw her through a glass window and that was the end of it. Or am I missing a part where he actually faced some real consequences like jail time for assault (doubtful since she threw the first punch)? What about even some in-show criticism of his actions from the characters we’re supposed to see as sympathetic?

** Darren also argued that we were supposed to see Douglas’ actions/opinions as bigotry, but I don’t buy that as his views are fairly common. One might argue that those opinions are more extreme than that of the average person, but I’m not so sure. In my experience (which has been backed up by the various research I’ve done into trans* issues) most people I’ve talked to about transwomen believe that transwomen are, if not “men”, at least not fully “women”. In the case of the heterosexual men, most of them say that they would not only not date a transwoman, but if they slept with one and found out later that she was trans they would be “disgusted” and more than a few said that they would want to do violence to her. And, mind you, most of the people I have access to, while not anti-oppression activists, are left-leaning and at least try to be conscious about issues of oppression.

*** For evidence to back up my assertion, I cite Andrew’s comment, where he says, “Leeane – if you recall in the episode, April threw the first punch. She started it and so deserved everything she got.”

Shame on you, BBC

The BBC has chosen to defend some transphobic comments made by a gay comedian whose show they sponsor. In this clip where he’s talking about Thomas Beatie, he says: “If he hasn’t had genital surgery surely that just makes him a lesbian” and “that thing is still a woman”.

Here’s an excerpt from the response to Selina’s complaint:

I understand that you were unhappy because you felt that the presenter made offensive comments about Thomas Beatie.

I can assure you that no offence was intended. ‘The Graham Norton Show’ features trademark Norton comedy monologues, celebrity chat, eccentric stories and characters, and home-grown weirdness from the great British viewing public. The show provides him with a comedy vehicle to extract humour from people and events that interest him and his audience.

We try to ensure that post-watershed, anarchic comedy series are well signposted. As the BBC is a public service financed by the licence fee it must provide programmes which cater for the whole range of tastes in humour. We believe that there is no single set of standards in this area on which the whole of society can agree, and it is inevitable that programmes which are acceptable to some will occasionally strike others as distasteful. The only realistic and fair approach for us is to ensure that the range of comedy is broad enough for all viewers to feel that they are catered for at least some of the time.

There are so many things wrong with that response that I can’t even begin to address them. All I can think is, “WTF? Why is it that the dehumanization of a person/group of people is still considered funny?”

You can read more at Transphobia on Graham Norton and Graham Norton.

Reasons why unisex bathrooms are good for all

When we talk about replacing gendered bathrooms with unisex ones, the conversation tends to focus on the important issue of giving those who don’t fit easily into the gender binary (whether they be trans*, genderqueer, intersexed, or even engaging in drag/cross-dressing) such a basic right as the ability to use a bathroom without the risk of being arrested, harassed, or assaulted.

But recently I read something that made me think about some of the other potential benefits of unisex bathrooms. A cisperson was arguing that since cispeople are the majority that we don’t need gender-free spaces, including unisex bathrooms. Now, of course, the easy answer to that is it doesn’t matter if it’s one person or a thousand, there’s no excuse for denying people their basic rights. But another thought occurred to me: this person was assuming that no cispeople were in favor of, or could benefit from, gender-free spaces.

Which, of course, is patently absurd. But it did make me think about the various “perks” for cispeople that could come from unisex bathrooms. So, I’ve made a lit of the potential benefits that a unisex bathroom could give over the traditional gendered ones:

  1. (Concerning men’s bathrooms) Raising the standard of cleanliness.
  2. Women’s bathrooms on average tend to be better maintained than men’s, and so combining them into a communal space would likely mean that the new bathroom would be maintained to the same cleanliness as the former women’s bathrom was.

  3. (Concerning men’s bathrooms) Access to a “powder room”.
  4. In certain cases, women’s bathrooms have what’s often called a “powder room”, which is a small area with chairs and mirrors. In a unisex situation, men would have access to this area as well.

  5. (Concerning women’s bathrooms) More available stalls.
  6. I can’t count the times when there has been a huge lineup at the women’s bathroom and none at the men’s where I wished I could just walk over there and use one of their stalls. Some places have tried to combat this problem by mandating that women’s bathrooms have more stalls, but shared stalls would solve the problem just as easily.

  7. Increased safety.
  8. While people may feel safer having a sign that designates “women” and “men”, the facts are that it’s no deterrent for perverts. Most of my female relatives have a story about being in a woman’s bathroom and having a man pop his head under the stall to watch her pee. For me it wasn’t a man, but a girl who was a classmate of mine. By removing the false sense of safety that gendered bathrooms provide, unisexed bathrooms would encourage increased security measures such as using dividers in stalls that go from the floor to the ceiling.

  9. Make it easier on families.
  10. While some places have introduced a “family bathroom”, most places just rely on the parent bringing their child into the bathroom with them. When the parent is not the same sex as the child, however, this can cause discomfort. Another problem is that not all men’s bathrooms have facilities such as baby changing stations (which has become standard for most women’s bathrooms) and so a man out with his children could find himself in a bind. Unisex bathrooms would solve these problems in the same way that family bathrooms do now.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many smaller venues already have unisex bathrooms, in the way of forgoing stalls in order to have one or two rooms with a toilet and sink. The transition would be the hardest part, but in the end I also believe that it would be more cost effective for buildings to have one larger restroom area rather than two smaller ones.

Can you think of any other benefits that could come from unisex bathrooms?

Who's the butt of the joke?

On the over-the-top offensiveness of God Hand (the game the above clip comes from), pat of Token Minorities says:

I don’t think this is accidental. I think this says something about us, as the kinds of people who enjoyed and got used to playing games like Final Fight, where we fed the machine quarters and yelled “Oh yeah?! I’m going to beat your ass!” during every boss fight and punched punk stripper transsexuals all day and didn’t give a fuck. God Hand is laughing at you because you love it, because it has translated all the gendered and racialized images of our games of yesteryear into actual goddamn dialogue and you still don’t really notice it. It’s bringing us back to the Old School, complete with everything that was kind of messed up about the Old School, and so I propose that perhaps God Hand’s inclusion of blatantly Bad Things is actually so pronounced and over-the-top that it actually has a point, a thought-provoking point, and not merely gratuitous, sensational stupidity. Maybe it’s gotten a few people to idly ponder the games they played when they were young, and what they learned from it. It’s messed up, but it’s closer to the Chappelle’s Show end of the spectrum (thought-provoking and possibly educational) than Indigo Prophecy (which is basically ignorant) or Border Patrol (which is actively messed up).

I’m not sure that I agree with him (and would have to play the game to fully form an opinion), but it’s something to think about.

The problem with feminism lite

I apologize for rehashing an old debate, but I came across a Facebook cause yesterday called Forward Feminism. Their tagline states “Bring back the true values of Feminism” and they say that they are “[b]ased off the book Full Frontal Feminism”.

Full Frontal Feminism is what I’m going to call “feminism lite” (BetaCandy calls it Spice Girls Feminism). To my knowledge, the book is aimed at being a non-threatening introduction to feminism for those “I’m not a feminist, but” types. I can understand the logic and I can’t say that I wholly disagree. But at the same time this feminism lite gets marketed as the feminism (not always intentionally, but often through poor wording choices or just because the book becomes popular).

This is especially problematic when the rhetoric is targeted at highly privileged audiences, like FFF was. Many aspects of this have already been covered, especially the white and class privilege aspects (link roundup), but I’d like to address the underlying culture of privilege that feminism lite is a part of and perpetuates, using the Facebook cause that started this post off. Continue reading

Debunking rumours: Chinese MMO's anti-genderbending policy

Doubtless many of you have heard (from Kotaku or other sources) about Shanda Entertainment, a Chinese MMO publisher, requiring photographic proof of a person’s sex in order to allow them to play a female avatar.

This information is most likely false! Joystiq has done some digging into the issue and turned this up:

The source of story in the English-speaking world seems to be a painfully short, two sentence “editorial summary” on Asian business site Pacific Epoch. Besides containing scant details or supporting information on Shanda’s policy, the summary contains the eyebrow-raising assertion that players with female avatars would have to “prove their biological sex with a webcam.” While this isn’t impossible, we find it hard to believe that a publicly traded company would start encouraging its customers to send in pictures of their naughty bits for any reason. Besides being ineffective (what’s to stop a player from sending in a picture of someone else?) the system seems overly complicated when a National ID card number could easily provide proof of gender (much as it already does for age confirmation in other MMOs).

Pacific Epoch cites popular Chinese MMO web site 17173 as the source of its information, and while we couldn’t find the original article on their site, we did find a story about some obviously fake Halo 3 branded condoms, which 17173 presented as fact. Combine the questionable editorial judgment with the translation problems inherent in citing information from a Chinese site and you have a perfect recipe for an erroneous story to spread across the internet.

The moral of the story? Just because something looks official doesn’t mean that it actually is. Especially regarding areas in which there are language barriers where we can’t easily verify the source of the information ourselves.

Male normativity in the usage of "homosexual" and "gay"

The terms “gay” and “homosexual” aren’t technically gendered; homosexual women often refer to themselves as gay, and the fact that the previous clause is correct English in itself should be self-evident as to my point. And yet, over and over again I see those two words being used alongside lesbian (like this article which uses the phrase “homosexuals and lesbians”), as if lesbians are some magical creatures apart from the rest of the gay world.

Men, being the default, don’t have a special word for them. But women often have such special status markers as lesbian and Mrs., not to mention that most of the time they are lumped into the markers that carry a male connotation such as gays and guys. Thought not as common, as the newspaper article linked in the first paragraph illustrates, this tendency to construe the male as neutral (and the neutral as male) bleeds into words that, as a clear part of their definition, are gender neutral.

Such male normative language bleeds into male normative thinking, which ends up reinforcing the idea of men as normal and women as Other. If lesbians can’t even be properly included in the term homosexual, then what hope is there for them to be seen as full participants in the queer community?

More real world Privilege in Action: Casual heterosexism

I wrote about my language school for another PiA post here, but I’d like to bring it up again today. My topic here is heterosexism and it’s in similar vein to the first post and, again, about a reoccurring pattern.

We were going over a compound verb today with three different meanings: to signify a longstanding friendship, to signify a romantic attachment, and to ask to do an action together (yeah, the last one seems a little bit out of place, but that’s Japanese for you). My teacher — a very sweet and contentious woman, if a bit more conservative than I — talked about how the first meaning was between friends and wrote the word for “friend” on the board next to the example sentence. The third one was similar, although the explanation was too complex to sum up in a word so she left the right part of the example sentence blank. When she got to the second, however, I expected her to write the word for significant other (ie. the frequently used gender-neutral word for boyfriend/girlfriend) but she talked about “relationships between men and women” and then wrote the heterosexual specific word for male/female relations.

When I had an opening, I was like, “Um, sensei, wouldn’t [gender-neutral word] be a better choice? I mean, not all relationships are between a man and a woman…”

She looked at me and blinked for a split second, and then it was like a light bulb went off in her head. “Of course, of course!” she said abashedly, “[Gender-neutral word] is much better!” And she promptly changed the word on the board.

My teacher obviously wasn’t intending to exclude those of us in the class who were queer. In fact, I would wager that she never even thought that the language she was using — typical language, I believe, for adults to use in regards to relationships — could be exclusive. But, that’s just it. Privilege is having the dominant discourse be tailored to your group, to the point that you often don’t notice how certain words are exclusive of other groups.

The “normal” discourse all too often erases the experiences of groups outside what’s seen as “normal”, making it easier to ignore, minimize, and otherwise ignore/forget the existence of those groups. It’s not that most people do this intentionally; far from it. People use words which are exclusive (boyfriend/girlfriend in the context of assuming heterosexuality, mankind instead of humankind, etc) all the time, but because of privilege, these words are in such common usage that we use them as if they are all encompassing when the reality is that they are not.

For most people, when it’s pointed out to them is when they change it. This is not a terrible reaction; and most certainly is better than insisting that there’s nothing wrong with a word that has been pointed out to be exclusionary. However, in this case the best response is for us to be aware of our language as best we can, and choose the egalitarian version of a term whenever possible. Many people put down this kind of idea as being the “thought/word police” or the “PC gestapo” or somesuch, but the truth is that it’s just about using language that acknowledges and respects the basic humanity of others.