Monthly Archives: June 2013

No Way Out But Through

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by Tova Kardonne

To do pretty much anything in music you start out learning songs. Lots and lots of songs. The process becomes quite familiar. It has stages; it has features. First, a new song seems more like a collection of sounds that happened to get thrown together, none of which connect to each other. Then, if you’re into this kind of thing, you look at why those sounds do connect, and you begin to see how the song hangs together as a structure. (Some people skip this part, or do it without realizing it.) Last, a song is really a part of my repertoire when it feels, from the moment it proclaims itself in its opening notes, like it’s drawn onwards inexorably to its end; like it always existed, like the composer could never have made any other choice, like it’s a living creature whose parts are all as much a part of it as my body parts are a part of me.

 

Then it loops in my head for days, sometimes weeks. Should so much as a single note wander through my consciousness, however tangentially provoked, there it goes: the whole thing, from beginning to end, because now the damn thing draws me onwards inexorably to its end, like it always existed, like I have no choice, like it’s a living thing whose parts can’t be severed from each other.

 

Sometimes that’s wonderful. Every time I repeat the song, its beauties are a little clearer, more poignant. The way the sounds interlock reveals more, to more parts of my mind. It reaches me more deeply; it teaches me how it has changed the world. Alternately, it can be frickin’ annoying.

 

So here’s the thing; this process is not confined to music. Take, for example, writing a feminist article. How does it go again?

 

Ah yes.

 

PHASE 1) A collection of sounds:

Something strikes you as peculiar. You brush it off. It strikes you again. On the same spot—you begin to get a bit bruised on that spot. You begin to notice it happening a lot. You wonder why it keeps happening. You come up with a reason; it’s contradicted by experience. You come up with different reason; it’s contradicted again. You let it go. The peculiar thing happens again. You think; is this peculiar thing all that peculiar? You ask someone about it. They’ve noticed it, too. They came up with a reason of their own. It may or may not convince you; but it adds an angle you hadn’t thought of before. You ask someone else; they don’t think it’s peculiar at all; you wonder why you thought it was. You ask someone else; they’ve never noticed it. Then the peculiar thing happens twelve more times in rapid succession. It’s now downright weird that some people don’t notice it. You wonder, why do I see it when that person doesn’t? And then, why does another person see it, but find it normal? And what about the other person, who both sees it and thinks it’s peculiar, like me? What’s the deal here? Because it’s no fun. Somewhere in the process, you figure out you don’t like it, this peculiar thing. It’s not just weird, it’s unpleasant. And it keeps happening. It’s not logical for it to keep happening, when the people you’ve asked about it regard it with feelings ranging from indifference to dislike. Well, then, there should be no trouble changing it. Possibly, it’s no big deal. So, you start pointing it out, and telling people you don’t like it. Suddenly, you’re getting yelled at. The people who think it doesn’t exist are mad at you for persisting in saying it does. The people who think it isn’t peculiar think you’re putting them down for not thinking it’s peculiar. The people who think it’s peculiar are behaving very strangely indeed. Sometimes they say, “oh, what a good idea! I should let people know I don’t like it either.” Sometimes, however, they say, “If I can put up with it, you should put up with it. See all those people getting mad? I don’t want you to make me their target.” Then, you are in a pickle.

 

PHASE 2: It kind of hangs together.

There is now an Issue. There is now a Political Stand to make, an Activist Position to take. You now have a label. That label has a definition, not the one in the dictionary, but one that everyone seems to know anyway, which means they believe they know more about you than you ever told them. The things they believe about you aren’t nice. You must now defend yourself. Most of the time, that means Formulating a Theory. You can’t just say, look, there’s this peculiar thing, it happens a lot, I don’t like it, and no one knows why it has to happen. Your Theory must be airtight. Because if it isn’t, then none of your experiences of the peculiar thing are believed. You are told that you wanted to see this peculiar thing where no peculiar thing existed. Above all, your Theory must justify your dislike of the peculiar thing. You must be prepared to call it an Absolute Wrong, even an Expression of Evil, to be taken seriously as a problem, but then you get accused of calling perfectly well-meaning people Wrong and Evil. You remember your first theory, that first reason you came up with; how naïve it seems, now. You remember your second theory; how it didn’t quite fit the facts as you’d encountered them. You remember asking people about your peculiar experiences; you remember who understood, who didn’t, and who denied you’d had those experiences at all. You begin to notice that the identity of the people you asked seems to have a relationship with what they see. It now seems clear that, whether other people see it or not, this peculiar thing is very much their problem, too.

 

PHASE 3: Build it into your world.

If you were me before this site, then you would come to a solitary conclusion, and implement it in your daily interactions. I prefer direct communication, but I understand indirect communication; I cannot endure bad-faith interactions. If given the choice, I’ll be as direct as I can, and if my interlocutor refuses to meet me open-heartedly to communicate, I’ll find a way to never communicate with that person again. Case closed.

 

But if you’re me these days, you write an article about it. You nail it right to the wall: what seems peculiar, what is unpleasant about it, whether it’s merely unpleasant or actually wrong, and, if it’s wrong, why the wrongness is anybody’s concern. On ambitious days, you’ll include what can be done about it. And it’s this last phase that leads almost inevitably to:

 

PHASE 4: It plays in your head all the time:

This is my problem today. In writing these articles, I’ve learned this peculiar song so well, I can sing it by heart at the drop of a hat. I once believed that it was all a misunderstanding, that could be corrected with a little clear discussion. But there has been name-calling, since then, there have been insults. My rationality has been dismissed, my professional skills have been maligned, my integrity has been called into question and simultaneously taken advantage of. I can tell you all the whys and wherefores of my Theories, I can answer all the accusations. I am ready for the gig; the public awaits. But in the meantime, I need to keep all the facts at the ready. I can’t ever be without the evidence. Just in learning what the real, objective, feet-on-the-ground problem is, in formulating my Theory, in writing it all out and making it lucid and explicit and figuring out what I have to say about it, I have made it my constant companion.

 

Oh, I’m no more angry than I was before. I was probably more angry when it was all an unexplored body of evidence, rather than the corpse on the table, dissected and understood. That sense of not being able to take time out of my daily grind to communicate, to find another option besides walking away, that was intensely frustrating. So I’m not frustrated; I have made it a part of my life: to discuss, to formulate, to take apart and examine the peculiarities that make life strange in our special form of patriarchy. Also to think of solutions, to figure out where to go from here. But should a single note play, however tangentially related to my feminist siren song, then the whole problem, in all its ugly intractability, with all the insults and betrayals, from within my communities and without, come rushing back.


But having gotten this far in, there’s no way out but through.

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Thank You For Your Patronage

by Mirra Kardonne

waitress

I’m walking down my street in the last week of living at my old place near Dundonald and Church. Some friends and I are going for a drink–both to say ‘Goodbye Gaybourhood’ and to catch up—they’ve been in Thailand shooting a documentary, I’ve been tying up loose ends and hustling like a mad hustling machine. The past six years of my world is packed up in boxes in my apartment, while my last week at my old job looms ever closer. We go to a neighbourhood bar, and after the wine is drunk and the charcuterie is nibbled, one of the three of us steps out onto the street to smoke. When she comes back in, she announces: “I’ve just been offered a job!”

“What?” I blurt. That’s not fair. “Who? What job?”

“Yeah, this guy I know from wherever-the-fuck said he’s managing a new bar, asked me if I need a job and if I have any cute friends who are looking.”

Silence.

“Can I be your cute friend?”

And so it goes. Do you remember the scene in the movie adaptation of Oliver, when the newly enfranchised young orphan steps out onto his personal balcony and sees all those young, buxom peasant girls singing in harmonies to the fancy-folk? Who will buy her sweet red roses? Her milk? Her fresh strawberries?

Well, let me tell you—Strawberries was asked if she had any cute friends to bring to the new singing-to-young-men strip o’sidewalk, Roses had a ‘better attitude’ and got top bill, and the others were a dime a dozen—let’em all sing about milk! And that tenor pushing the knife grinder? Better let him do it, those cuties might not know which end of the knife needs grinding. Let those extremely slim and fair-skinned sirens tempt you with breakfast and flowers— two blooms for only a penny!

I make money many ways, but damn, it’s a slog. Art and teaching don’t always cut it. At 17, I no longer lived with my parents, I had yet to acquire a post-secondary education, I had no resume to speak of…what to do?

At 19, I moved into the apartment where I would live for the next six years. I walked into a hair salon, armed with a resume filled with fake references. The proprietor doesn’t glance at it, he just looks me up and down and says, “I like that you’re not scared of low-cut tops”.

“… Oh. Well…no, I guess I’m not.”

“It’s 7:30 am to 2:30 pm.”

“Do you want to look at my resume?”

“I don’t care what you did before. You could be a prostitute and I don’t care. You know I hire prostitutes sometimes? You could be one, it doesn’t bother me.”

“I’m not a prostitute.”

“Well, even if you were…”

Hot dog! I’m a working gal! Start from the bottom…

…And go sideways from there. To date, I’ve had approximately one million jobs (closer to 25, maybe). I just keep quitting them, you see.

women-work-moneyI don’t quit them because I don’t need the money, nor do I quit because I’m such a staunch feminist that I am fed and housed by naught but my convictions.  I would quit because I couldn’t stand to be there, even if I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why not. It’s all so normal- so banal.  As a young pup in the job market, when asked why I had had so many jobs, I would explain with a laugh (to hide my embarrassment) that I’m categorically BAD at EVERYTHING I deem to be unimportant. That must be it! I’m a snob, and that is a character flaw! This idea had little traction among those who know a little something about me, though it remained the most plausible explanation for my track record as job after job repulsed my best efforts to conform with shocking hiring practices and even more shocking behaviour towards low-level staff.  Later, I would rant that service jobs rely on the young/desperate beggars-can’t-be-choosers demographic to leap at work which pays an amount of money that can barely sustain even the most frugal. But that’s normal. It’s all par for the course. No one’s asking me to quit, I can very well stay. In fact, it is expected that I, and other young women, will definitely stay. Because this is a Great Way  to make money while the real plan, the plan A warms up and gets cooking. Everyone with a Bachelors degree knows that your education is by no means a guarantee of loftier future employment. But what does it mean when something like waitressing is the best you can get?  Well, that depends on who you are. Son–it’s good in the meantime, if you have some time off and need some cash. Ladies: Good for you. You have a career.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. One of the few available and unblocked passages towards power for women living in a patriarchy is to  adhere to conventional beauty norms. (Although the ‘power’ is not all that powerful). Nonetheless, it is ‘better’ to be an attractive woman when applying for service jobs, because the likelihood of being hired is higher. That much is not a secret. What is a secret is the systemic non-hiring of ‘unattractive’ women. If you are say, looking for a job as a waitress, (because hey—tips) there is literally no hiring manager who will not hire a sexy girl over an ‘average’ one. That’s my unofficial take on it, concluded only from the dozens of interviews I have had with restauranteurs or managers, and the predictable outcome of those interviews based on MY type of outfit, voice-perkiness, hair up or down, makeup or no makeup. Look for yourself. The Yukon chain Earls has received the kind of PR venom you can only get from being exposed in biased and gendered hiring practices. There is nary an employee who can remember an unattractive or even overweight person ever having worked at Earls… as their hiring motto states: “If you’d fuck them, hire them.”   Although you’re likely to get fired if fucking actually occurs. Too bad that magic ‘spark’ is a salient factor in hiring women.

Article after article describes the phenomenon of ‘attractive’ women trapped under a glass ceiling, hired as sexy ornaments in eateries and retail but barred from high earning jobs. More frustrating still, woebegone economists and statisticians posit that the obsession with attractiveness and sex appeal that women have had to suffer for decades has leaked into the man-realm, and now men trying to secure positions as attorneys, professors and politicians have to contend with the same discrimination that women who are trying to secure a mate feel every day.  Oh yes. That, at least, is the position of Daniel S. Mamerstash, who goes on to write a tearful article about how attractiveness is just such a crapshoot, men taste it when they dive into professional endeavours, women—when they want babies.

Gavin McGarrigle points out in his article that among a female staff hired explicitly to be sexual, there is no union to protect against sexual harassment. Comila Shahani-Denning, an associate professor in the psychology department at Hofstra University speaks to that lack of recourse:

“Research examining attractiveness bias in hiring decisions is important because of the extensive use of subjective appraisals in employment decision making. Given the legislation prohibiting employment discrimination based on non-job-related factors such as race, gender, ethnicity, disability and age, it is interesting that there is no legislation regarding physical attractiveness (Watkins & Johnston, 2000).”

But whatever their reasoning, one idea reiterated from Mamerstash to McGarrigle to Shahani-Denning is that there should be legal recourse for appearance-based discrimination, both for the ‘unattractive’ and the ‘attractive’.  

Sigh. There are so many factors to consider. One is so tempted to conclude that there’s no possible pattern among all the hiring and firing practices: sometimes, people just don’t get hired. Or they do. One is, of course, so very enticed by this idea because THAT WOULD BE GREAT, and it would be better if things were better instead of the far worse reality. Mamerstash, in his horribly misguided op-ed, declares it irredeemably unfair of the world to limit the opportunities of qualified men who were not blessed with good looks. After all, they can’t even get a girl (*ahem* I call bullshit), why you make them broke, too? McGarrigle asks why gender or attractiveness must play into your skill set when looking for employment. “Let’s say you’re simply ugly due to your luck of the gene pool, is that a medical condition? That could be argued. That’s your genetic composition,” Says Stacey Ball, an employment-lawyer in Toronto. And here we go again, right back to Power, my favourite topic. Is there objective beauty which can be rewarded or punished monetarily, and in the job market? Is beauty power? Because this would suggest beauty actually causes a dis-empowerment of its bearers.

And separate from the question of if you can or cannot get hired as an attractive or unattractive woman in a service position, and whether or not either camp can sue for discrimination, I’m still left wondering, where are the men for these same jobs? I know legions of unemployed young men who would love to work as a waiter, or as a receptionist. But they can’t. Those young men don’t seem to be sexy girls…where’s their  “nice ass/decent rack”? And those times when they can, it’s only for now, until they make their next big move into professionalism. Right? We’ve been here before.

Have you ever been to a frat party? That’s what working in a lot of restaurants is like. Dim the lights , turn up the music and fill the place with hot women who want to ask you questions, you’ve stumbled into the party you’re too cool to even know is happening. Girls and women will get paid to be the object of fleeting and untenable desire. Certainly that’s where the guaranteed tip-money is, at places like Jack Astors or Milestones. For instance, on the Jack Astors application:

“We have specific requirements for personal appearance, as described in our Welcome brochure. Are you willing to meet our requirements? Yes/No.”

What are these requirements?

983417_10152475756487195_1196656614_nForm fitting clothes that ‘skim’ the body, low necklines (up to two buttons done-up) and short skirts (down to the Jack Astors preferred brand). My sneaky informant tells me, when trying to adhere to the Welcome brochure uniform code (otherwise known as the Look Book), she was told she looked “boring” which was only remedied by donning a very short skirt (her [female] manager looked pleased with her, smiled and said “Wow! I can see your legs! That’s more like it, lady!”) She reports that when hired, most other new female employees were 19-21. Thinking that she already looked good for a hostess, during training the manager informs her that the skirt she chose was “too long” ( just above her knee) and that her face and hair were “boring” and to “put on more makeup”.

Walk into an office/bar/club/, pretty girl smiles at you and makes you feel welcome. It’s a fantasy too commonplace to be any real danger, yes? One might ask, what kind of danger are we talking about? At first we talk about economic danger, women on all points of a completely subjective attractiveness spectrum are compensated or not for something over which they have no control. Attractiveness or the opposite will both reward and punish depending on a number of factors, but by and large, women are pan-societally punished for being pretty, being ugly, being too smart or too dumb, being too single or too pregnant. And what choices are left to women who simply cannot pay the bills?

The idea of decorating of a space with women in order to lend an immediate perception of luxury and safety is one that was first introduced to me in an Ancient Civilizations course at the University of Toronto.  How interesting, thought I. What a slippery kind of power women do have. The effect of simply being inspires the feeling of wealth and of decadence. Whether or not they are objects of sexual desire, women are always desired to facilitate specific ends: to raise the status, to inspire the illusion of… safety.

How curious. Hey! Women! You inspire feelings of safety! So tell me… Do you feel safe?

No? Late at night? In revealing dress? Mandated in the handbook? Wages and tips hanging in the balance?

Is that, perhaps, what you’re being paid to part with?

Giving it Away

by Amorina Kingdon

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published ‘Open Letter to all the Colleges that Rejected me.” by highschooler Suzy Lee Weiss. The synopsis: her peers padded their resumes with gratuitous, useless charity work, and the colleges fell for it.

The comments that follow are in two camps: one being, well, duh, Gen Y brat whines that after doing nothing distinguishing, she is un-shockingly not recognized for it.

But she was also lauded. Because there is a stereotypical image of the people she skewers – female, wealthy – declaring their caring for disease x or survivors of y. And you already know how you secretly feel about them: their work is noble – ‘public-minded’ – but, ultimately, inconsequential.

The volunteer and not-for-profit (NFP) sectors are gendered. This is important for women, because they are 48 per cent of Toronto’s labour force, but 84 per cent of its not-for-profit labour force. Canadian volunteers are most likely married, educated females, with an above-average income. Since women have entered the workforce comparatively recently, these statistics carry implications about how women have integrated into the working world, especially the demographic tendency toward educated, wealthy women who would perhaps be in the best position to take the business world by storm.

Work is important. It’s is the primary way we interact with society as individuals, by trading time and labour in return for sustenance. Work is independence.

But volunteer work can’t directly support someone. So whatever pride you may feel at the end of the day, you also feel a bit like….a beggar. And what weighs in the balance? Oh, right – the rewards of selfless giving.

But these are the same values that kept women in the private sphere as unpaid housewives, labouring for this same reward of selflessness instead of money. Can that not, perhaps, be one reason why they feel at home in the sector?

I’d like to quickly acknowledge the generalizations I’m making by lumping volunteers and NFPs together when they have many differences, salary and benefits being the biggest. (This essay deals principally with volunteers and part-time employees, not those drawing a full-time salary.) But they do share some key similarities.

1. Donors: Funding requests often go to the same donor pool, requiring a certain public image to match those donors’ ideas of acceptability. This often bends towards the traditional and conservative.

2. Career prospects: It’s hard to build a career in the for-profit sector if your resume is largely volunteer or not-for-profit.

3. Job security: Many of these organizations live paycheck to donor paycheck. It’s very hard to plan your work when it could shut down at any time.

So why are women taking this deal? Many reasons: some simple, some not-so-simple.

1. Their work is often traditionally female (e.g. health, awareness, fundraising.) Notice a pattern? Talking and nurturing figure highly.

2. They are more flexible, because many women have childcare duties.

3. They are un-threatening to the proverbial male ego.

4. With more women in the sector, it’s likely they’ll hire more.

5. Because much of the work in this sector resembles the unpaid work that women have traditionally done at home for support from a husband or family, women are more intellectually comfortable taking work that’s un- or under-paid.

This one key assumption – that public-minded, selfless enterprises should not be monetized – keeps women’s work and labour acceptably out of the free market, and women relatively uncompensated. While organizational structures have been built around it, much of the work feels a lot like home.  
This is because today’s volunteer sector has its roots in the idea of private property, and a private sphere. The idea that some work should not be ‘for profit’ stems from our understanding of the archetypal household. (Of course, private can also mean a for-profit business, but for the purposes of this article, ‘private’ refers to the home.) This is neither a public democracy, or a for-profit hierarchy, but a sort of benign tyranny. One person rules uncontested, and the rest fulfill their various functions in exchange for protection, name, honour and resources, but no direct compensation, and little control over said resources. This arrangement—the traditional wife in the traditional household— has a sort of arbitrary sanctity that’s simply another word for being owned. This the realm of childcare, education and healthcare; of helping and cooking and making. Traditionally, it’s the realm of women’s work, and within this sort of work, our cultural narrative says that the labour is free, done by people who are already bought and paid for in full. To profit from this work is to sully it.

 

Imagine a bachelor who paid a housekeeper to take care of all these sorts of things, putting money in her hand for her labour, which she was then free to do what she liked with. That’s an employer/employee relationship. But the role of the traditional married woman is exactly that, employee of the husband. But she’s not paid in money – that would shine the cold hard light of economics on an economically unfair relationship. Instead, she gets the ‘honour’ of being a respectable married woman, with a shiny new last name, gets to keep a small slice of her labour to feed and clothe herself (no, that’s not the same as a salary), and most importantly she is the heart of the home, loved for her selflessness; she is a volunteer.

This is a narrative that women must reject. Work is work. Women are not selfless by nature, any more so than men. That is simply the coin they have been paid with in lieu of actual coin for most of history. Rejecting that label and considering their labour worthy of recompense in the currency that allows them to participate in the public sphere – money – is not desecrating anything: it’s tearing down an illusion.

But then again, how can we privatize those things without opening the door for corruption? There’s a reason we hate corporations!

But examine some of the assumptions behind that indignation. The assumption that private industry can only be evil, aggressive, untrustworthy. That it can only do harm, can only work on a growth model where people are taken advantage of.

These are patriarchal values, and they fuck over everyone involved; the men who feel they need to be ruthless buggers to succeed, and the women who feel they can neither embrace nor re-negotiate the terms of patriarchal success, and therefore stay home or organize bake-sales.

What if – and I’m really blue-sky-thinking here – the women already working in these ‘selfless’ sectors led the way in figuring out how to make a living from their work – but left the ruthless patriarchal values behind? What if we challenged the notion that you can’t make a living from giving? What if we – oh my god, someone slap me, I’m clearly hysterical – instead of flat out rejecting capitalism and privatization, found grassroots ways to change how it’s done?

Perhaps I’m not crazy. I am encouraged by this recent NYT article. I’m also encouraged by endeavours like Etsy, although it’s only baby steps.

Whether or not these can become scalable outside large cities and widely affordable, it’s still a start at chipping away old models of ‘public-mindedness’.

Women bring a different philosophy to corporations. Of course you can find stats to say whatever you like, but companies with more women at the top tend to do better, and some data even suggests that women’s portfolios do better long-term because they take fewer reckless risks. It’s not that they biologically must bring these values; it’s that we know the story from the outside of the club.

There are many challenges, too many to list here, but I want to mention the most important: divorcing effectiveness from straight-up profit in the eye of the user and the initial funders. This is key, because much of the response to the Wall St Journal article centres around the implicit assumption that volunteers and NFPs are just not that important (read: effective). Not to mention that we publish big lists on the mismanagement and frivolousness of the bigger charities. (If only we brought the same scrutiny to bear on all organizations. How much do you think it cost to make that $200 coat you’re wearing?)

Unfortunately, import and effectiveness are often symbolized by the bottom line. So if an organization isn’t turning a huge profit, it must not be effective. Kind of a stacked deck for something termed a ‘not-for-profit.’

A good example of this is the safe-injection site Insite in Vancouver, BC. In 2011, they had to produce evidence that they had a health benefit in order to justify their exemption from federal drug laws, by guesstimating how many people would have maybe probably died if they hadn’t shot up at Insite instead of rainwater puddles in Downtown Eastside back alleys. The answer is both ‘we don’t know’ and ‘some’. If success in these kinds of fields is measured by profit alone, we are ascribing monetary value to human life.

So what is more important, profit or effectiveness? Capitalist thinking would have it that they are the same thing; the more effective an organization is, the more profit it generates. But this is based on industries that have thrived on the masters-of-the-universe growth model. Haven’t we learned that besides ripping society apart, such models simply don’t last? Things other than just the bottom line must become measures of an organization’s success.

We have a funny ideal that ‘public mindedness’ is noble and ‘getting paid’ is selfish, and they are mutually exclusive. This is a false dichotomy based on the economic exclusion of people lulled into working for free with platitudes and labels of ‘selflessness and goodness.’ We need to learn that the work that mostly-women volunteers do should be taken seriously and compensated fairly. To do otherwise is frankly discriminatory, and misses out on the insights and approaches they bring to the table. If you are going to work – if you are going to put in time, energy, and thought into a task that produces a benefit for others – then you don’t need a reason to get paid. You need to justify NOT getting paid.

 

The Blasfemmers Review: Sister Mary’s A Dyke?!

SMAD_4x6(front-print)-1By Mirra Kardonne, Amorina Kingdon and Amy Medvick

If there’s one thing you can expect from Cahoots Theatre Company, it’s that you have no idea what you’re in for. Sure, a play might have a title, a synopsis—but it’s all a covert scheme to pull the rug out from underneath you once you’ve sat down. Sister Mary’s A Dyke?! is no exception.

This one-woman show, written and performed by Flerida Peña, is a journey through a young woman’s changing relationship with her God and a discovery of her sexuality, the struggle between the dogma of Catholicism and her awakening feelings for her classmate, Elle.

From the moment you sit down, the pious tone is immediately communicated. Peña ‘s character, Abby, is both at home in the setting of her Catholic boarding school and at odds with it—and the audience can feel the discomfort of her youthful confusion over her traditions. But it takes almost no time for the story and for Abby to become fully realized, and take the audience on a seriously hilarious ride.

Photo  by Dahlia Katz

Photo by Dahlia Katz

Abby’s journey is narrated through her conversational prayers to Jesus. Though Abby has been raised in a climate of oppression surrounding women and sexuality, when she is faced with the reality of her convictions, her feelings, and her longing to see happiness and freedom for the women around her, she brings her questions straight to her deity, who guides her transformation from a timid school-girl to a fearless freedom fighter. Her trust in this deeply personal relationship with her spirituality is what allows her to revise and rebuild a new Catholicism that addresses the needs and the reality of the many diverse women she has grown close to. In this way, Sister Mary’s a Dyke?! offers a way to negotiate one’s identity and political convictions with a spiritual commitment to a faith that must once again grow to represent the ethos of it’s flock.

Photo  by Dahlia Katz

Photo by Dahlia Katz

If you’ve got any Catholic in your past, the set will be immediately familiar. A central stage, hung about with cathedral-esque window frames and spot-illuminated to show the passage of time, mimics religious spaces, then transforms into a classroom, a campsite, or locker-lined high-school hallway. The minimal props – a row of small benches, and later, to much laughter, a small tent – are used sparingly, and the space is just big enough for one person to fill. Flerida Peña’s voice is gloriously enjoyable, and her physical presence on stage is energetic and earnest. She’s a pleasure to watch.

We would have liked to see the events of the ending continue on the ground-breaking, boundary-busting-ness that the rest portrays, and see Abby’s newly discovered strength fully carried through into her future. Nonetheless, Sister Mary’s A Dyke?! comes highly recommended, offering compassion, bewilderment and plenty of surprises that will leave you laughing and just slightly wishing that you too were a Catholic lesbian radical activist, fully loaded and en route to Vatican City to deliver some justice.

Sister Mary’s A Dyke?! continues until Junes 16th at the Aki Studio Theatre, 585 Dundas Street East at the Daniels Spectrum. Tickets can be purchased here, or at cahoots.ca.

Dirty Happy Money

By Amy Medvick

“Ugh, money,” I thought when it was proposed that this be our Blasfemmer theme for June. “Boooor-ing!”

Oh, money. I don’t have very much of it: just enough, really. Part of that is because I am a woman. Statistically, we don’t earn as much as men. But the thing is, I don’t really care that much about money either. Again, that’s likely in part because I am a woman. Women generally pursue lower-paying careers and work fewer hours than men1. I have done both.

Of course, many women are financially ambitious, successful, and know perfectly well how to manage their bank accounts. They show that we are capable of doing so. Still, a few 1000 years of social conditioning and a gal might find herself not so keen on pursuing a lucrative profession as her male peers.

But to say that women just aren’t interested would be an oversimplification. Men and women are working different jobs due to discrimination both in the hiring process and in the workplace itself, promotion bias, lack of flexibility for and discrimination against working mothers, as well as that pesky social conditioning that discourages women from positions of power or “unfeminine roles”. And though more women are now pursuing higher education than are men by a small margin, all those same discriminations still apply when they finish school and start looking for a job2.

Compounding this, popular wisdom now tells women to empower themselves by avoiding the “man’s world” and the discrimination that comes with it altogether, and instead emphasise home-life, personal relationships, and self-development (read: dieting), joyfully slaving over the proverbial hot stove while leaving their careers permanently on the back burner. (Thus the popular advice on how to cope with workplace discrimination is to “opt-out” and not work. That kinda sounds like a cultural cop-out to me, but hey, what do I know.) Find a hubby that can bring home the bacon (and spend some quality time frying it), or just eke it out somehow! After all, pursuing a lucrative career isn’t what really matters in life—what matters is being able to spend time with your family / partner / friends / pet, etc. Never minding that very little fuss seems to be made about how men negotiate their “work/life balance”, as if work weren’t inherently a part of life but instead it’s opposite.

The Globe and Mail recently published an article about money and happiness. According to certain research, one’s happiness does increase proportionately with one’s income. Some claim that it increases up to a salary of about $75,000 a year, at which point it levels off; however, many “happiness experts” believe that one’s happiness can keep climbing well into the hundred thousands. Of course, the happiness factor depends on how one’s money is spent—buying time and experiences is more cheering than buying objects. It would seem that the so-called feminine wisdom of valuing quality time spent with the family has some truth to it, but only if that time is purchased back from the economical system that annexed it, quality-assured with a big fat pay-check.

Me, counting my feminist dollars. Painting by Jan Sanders van Hemessen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Me, weighing my heavy feminist gold. Woman Weighing Gold by Jan Sanders van Hemessen

I am a feminist, and I believe that women should have equal opportunity in the working world, free from discrimination and bullshit Mars/Venus rhetorics shovelling them into low-paying “feminine” jobs. I believe the only way we can achieve that is by collectively pulling a Rosa Parks and refusing to go. Yet, because the whole thing gives me the fucking icks, I am not yet even on this metaphorical bus.

So, in order to be a better feminist I should become a big CEO, or more realistically— let’s face it, ladies—a teacher, right? All those dollar signs will open the door to all the happiness the patriarchy has deprived me of. I could be a big, $$$HAPPY$$$ feminist CEO (teacher). That’ll show ‘em!

Know what though? I don’t buy it (pun intended!).

Certainly, how I spend my time—the experiences I should be buying— is important to my happiness. But I manage to have them on less than a third of the ideal $75,000. In fact, I have the time for them precisely because I work fewer hours, making less money, yes, but having lots of time to myself. Cha-ching! It’s like I bought time off, but without ever seeing the cash.

It’s true, more money could allow a person to do more with their free time. But wouldn’t that just offer a greater variety of happiness-experiences, not more happiness in absolute numbers? Hmmm, the mathematics of quantifying happiness are getting fuzzy…

Of course, some of the time I am unhappy, such is life. Lately, the main reasons are A) I miss my ex-lover, who lives far away, and B) The patriarchy and similar systems of oppression REALLY suck. Can money help me here?

Well, in the case of reason A, a wad of cash could buy me a plane ticket to visit him, but it couldn’t fix our failed love once I got there. As for reason B, I could set up some sort of initiative or program to address our social problems. That would require funds, right? Of course, I might not see any significant return in my lifetime—those old inequalities would probably still persist, not that the venture couldn’t be in itself rewarding. Or wait—I could just keep doing this Blasfemmer thing for the cost of a domain name and a parachute.

Yeah, I’m still not sold (intended!). The results are at best inconclusive: though money could perhaps give me greater freedom in how I spend my time, which might result in increased happiness, it certainly can’t magic away my personal sadnesses.

Then again, I say this from the privileged position of having enough money to meet my physical needs, not to mention finance the occasional dinner out, shopping trip, bottle of wine, ice-cream cone, amazon.com order, a couple of trips to Brazil, etc, etc. For so many of the world’s poor, the majority of which are women and girls, some money—not $75, 000 but simply a few hundred dollars—could make a huge difference. And my modest riches have undoubtedly come to me at their expense, resting on the systematic creation and exploitation of the poor by the governments and major corporations that furnish a cushy life for middle-class North America.

In fact, I myself haven’t always had this much wealth. There was a time when I often made as little as $600 a month, working for less than minimum wage at a little gourmet grocery. And yes, it was nearly impossible to be happy. I was trapped at this job because it left me with no time and energy to look for a new one, and no financial safety net to allow me to quit. I had to face workplace sexual harassment—one of my bosses had a penchant for stroking my hair—and I lived with the constant fear that one day I would be followed by one of them down to the dark and isolated bathroom in the basement. I became horribly depressed. Nevertheless, I proudly avoided relying on the financial help of family and friends, feeling that the independence was worth it.

I also tutored on the side and this helped. The first family I worked with was that of a Somalian woman. She lived with her 7 children (ages 3 to 14), in a tiny 2-bedroom apartment. One bedroom was lined with bunk beds like a hostel, for the oldest 6. The youngest and his mother shared the other room. Their father was working out of province and sending money.

image by Delphine Ménard (notafish })

image by Delphine Ménard (notafish }<‘;>)

Many of us would be miserable in such circumstances. However, while this likely wasn’t their ideal arrangement, to all appearances they were happy. These children would arrive home from school full of energy, clambering over each other to ask me questions, smiling and laughing as they got down to their homework, the youngest impishly hiding my shoes while I wasn’t looking. The second youngest would sweetly and trustingly climb into my lap as I taught her to read, and the eldest told me she dreamed of being a doctor one day.

They were generous too—the children would unquestioningly offer to make me Kraft grilled-cheese sandwiches while we worked. When she had to end our sessions because she could no longer afford them, the mother—with whom I mostly communicated in facial expressions and gestures since she spoke little English—wordlessly gave me a pashmina shawl, a parting gift that I treasure to this day because I know just how generous a gesture it was.

Teaching these children made me happy—not because of the payment, which was negligible, or because I had any illusions I was helping them. An hour and a half a week split between 7 is hardly enough to make a difference. It made me happy because their happiness was infectious, and it reminded me that I was lucky, grocery store illegal-wages notwithstanding. Certainly, I wanted to see their situation improve, as I wanted my own to improve. Yet, though I have seen many families since then, better off than they, never have I seen one any happier.

The Cratchit family happily eating dinner.

The Cratchit family happily eating dinner.

Eventually, my own financial situation collapsed. I became completely dependant on my family and friends, an arrangement that was incredibly emotionally uncomfortable. But soon I got back on my own two feet, and I was fine. Pride was swallowed, but I more than survived.

As a feminist contemplating raising my career ambitions, I have to ask myself where the money I make will come from. Will we close the pay gap through lowering the income of higher-earning men? Or will it come at the expense of families like the one I described? The second seems more likely. As a feminist, I cannot claim more for myself without considering those below me. To do so would be to buy into the very patriarchal ethic I defy, that whole take-for-yourself-and-fuck-whoever-you-took-it-from thing, that never-you-mind-your-pretty-head-about-my-unearned-privilege thing.

While I would love to see the gender pay gap closed by taking from the richer to give to the poorer, it’s definitely not going to happen that way. Too many of the folks with wealth in droves will tend to hold on to it, this I know. And though my instinct is to be as uninvolved as I can by shunning the race for riches, I don’t kid myself. My nice little liberal lifestyle changes don’t mean fuck-all to giant exploitative infrastructures. If anything is going to change, work must be done. Some of it will cost money.

This is why I am re-evaluating my distaste for financial ambition. Though I don’t think ascribing the dollar with quantifiable happiness-inducing powers is exactly a big feminist step forward, neither is remaining powerless in a world where money walks. Knowing at whose expense it comes, it might feel like dirty money, but in my hands it could be put towards more than my own comfort and happiness. I could do that work that must be done, for families like the ones I described, for girls and women with dreams but few opportunities. There is a lot I could do with that extra $60,000 or so worth of happiness, but it couldn’t make me happy unless it increased the happiness of others too. Seeing some change in the world—not loose change (!) but a serious difference in people’s lives—that, indeed, would make me very happy.

  1. Douglas, Susan J. Enlightened Sexism. New York: Time Books. 2010. Pages 20 and 50.
  2. Douglas, Susan J. Enlightened Sexism. New York: Time Books. 2010. Page 3.