Saturday, November 12, 2011

Monsoon Resistance

Depictions of resistance to oppression in popular culture aren't reserved for just the grand revolutionary moments - e.g. wars of national liberation from a colonial power or a homegrown dictator. Resistance also takes place in the micro moments of everyday life. Films and television, amongst other mediums, are excellent tools to highlight such moments. They can happen in the most unlikely circumstances and can be interspersed with other narrative themes. Meera Nair's film Monsoon Wedding (MW) illustrates such moments.

MW tells the story of a Punjabi Hindu family in the days leading up to the wedding of Aditi Verma, the family's eldest daughter. One of the film's story arcs focuses on the issue of sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by a family elder, Tej. As the story unfolds, we learn that Tej had sexually abused one of his nieces, Ria, when she was growing up. Ria, who is now in her twenties is confronted by Tej's presence when he returns to New Delhi for Aditi's wedding. Ria and Tej are the only ones aware of what transpired years prior. Further complicating Ria's ability to confront Tej is his revered stature in the family. Ria's paternal uncle Lalit Verma (and Aditi's father) openly expresses his love and affection toward his brother-in-law Tej throughout the film. His gratitude stems from the fact that following the family's migration to Delhi following the partition of India, Tej helped to take care of the family following the trauma of the migration.

Against this backdrop, Ria suspects that Tej is possibly once again sexually abusing another child, Aliya, who is the prepubescent daughter of Lalit's close friend. Aliya is staying at the Verma house in the days leading to the wedding. During one of the pre-marriage celebrations (the Sangeet) Aliya makes statements to her and her friends suggesting that she has some knowledge of how adults kiss. This heightens Ria's suspicions as she sees Tej walking with Aliya toward his vehicle. She makes the decision to stop Tej from driving away with her. She frantically runs to where the vehicles are parked. As Tej is about to drive away with Aliya (all with the blessing of Aliya's parents who have no knowledge of what has been happening and what is about to happen), Ria stands in the way of Tej's vehicle. After Tej stops the SUV, Ria takes Aliya out of the car. Ria confronts Tej about his previous sexual abuse of her and now Aliya. She does so loudly and publicly in front of Aliya's father and Lalit, as well as Tej's wife (Lalit's sister and Ria's paternal aunt) who comes on to the scene. After Ria is slapped by her aunt, she leaves with her friends in their car.

The next morning, Lalit finds Ria and begs her to return home with him. He tells Ria that he believes her. However Lalit expresses that his "hands are tied" given what Tej has done for the family and the close bonds that existed over numerous decades. Ultimately, Lalit is able to persuade Ria to return home, as the wedding cannot proceed without her. In the remaining scenes leading to the wedding ceremony, there is a great deal of obvious tension as others in the house evince disgust with Tej through their facial expressions and body language. Finally, as the family is in a room seeking the blessings from deceased family elders, namely Ria's father (and Lalit's elder brother), Lalit stops Tej as he is about to go and receive guests. Lalit declares to Tej that he cannot have Tej remain at the house given what Tej has done to Ria. Tej and his wife (Lalit's sister) are asked to leave and never come back. 

Both Ria and Lalit's actions represent forms of resistance that have a normative quality to them. For Ria, it is the act of outing and confronting her abuser's oppression, not only against herself in the past, but with respect to what he was about to do to Aliya. It is an act of protection. It is also to break an implied code of silence. The difficulty of her task is even more accentuated by the fact that Tej was a highly respected member of the family and deference is normally given to such individuals. Lalit's confrontation with Tej also serves as an act of resistance in refusing to conform to the perceived custom of revering and respecting one's elders. An elder deserves no respect when they violate the physical and emotional integrity of another. However, his resistance is also more personal given that he must confront his memories and affection toward Tej and set those aside.

MW's resistance is therefore about impugning the implied codes of silence that work to the benefit of elders and persons in authority in a given social field. The themes raised in MW are not confined to family contexts in the Global South. In an interesting, although tragic way, the theme of abuse raised in MW harkens to other instances of abuse (sexual or otherwise) that we see today in the Global North as well. Abuses which take place in families here, but also those that take place institutionally. In particular, it raises issues about the duty to speak up and protect others who are being subjected to abuse. In recent days, the revelations surrounding the sexual abuse committed by an assistant football coach at Penn State and the failure of others to respond to this has unleashed an understandable sense of public outrage against those who knew. MW, amongst others illustrate the difficulties in confronting and calling attention to such oppression while presenting the "right" path.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Planned and Deliberate - Comedic Violence in the First Degree

Comedy wouldn't be what it is if those who engaged in it weren't a little outrageous. But are there no limits to how far one can go? Who decides what those limits are and when they apply? In some or perhaps many jurisdictions, the laws of the state may overtly prohibit the type of speech that comedians can engage in, especially when the comedic speech concerns those with power. In other ("relatively freer") jurisdictions, the restrictions may be those imposed by members of civil society and people within the entertainment industry, rather than by politicians. Norms are temporally and culturally contingent. Jokes that target individuals from a particular community may be acceptable at one point in time, but moving forward in time may be rejected and excoriated.

The recent heterosexist and homophobic comments made by comedian Tracy Morgan in Tennessee are examples of jokes that are viewed as unacceptable in many contemporary North American cultures (amongst others). At a show earlier this week, Morgan made jokes stating that homosexuality was a choice and if his son chose to be gay, he would take out his knife and stab him. Kids who were being bullied for acting gay, he admonished, should stop whining and essentially "man up". The outpouring of condemnation has come from a variety of sources, including the Human Rights Campaign and Morgan's own 30 Rock co-star Tina Fey.

All of this criticism and denunciation is well-founded. Morgan, like other comedians do not operate in a social and cultural vacuum. They are aware of the mistreatment that many LGBTQ youth face, even if he chooses to minimize it. Furthermore, we have to recall that this likely wasn't a spontaneous discriminatory utterance - he wasn't for example responding to a heckler (although it would hardly be justified even if that was the case and it wasn't justified when Michael Richards resorted to racial epithets). If it was part of a stand-up routine, it might be fair to say that this was planned and deliberate "discrimination in the first degree." While portions of a comedian's act may be improvised (e.g. when a comedian engages in some impromptu colloquy with an audience member and usually at the latter's expense), there are many other portions that are clearly worked out in advance and form part of the overall sketch. It is considered and deliberated upon - in other words some time is spent contemplating what goes into the sketch and what stays out - pros and cons are weighed as to what will have the greatest impact.

Without a doubt, had Tracy Morgan made these jokes as late as the early 1990s, he might not have faced much hostility of any sort. Back in those days, a number of comedians made jokes about gay people, including Eddie Murphy in his film "Delirious" from the early 1980s. You could hardly imagine Mr. Murphy doing that kind of sketch today. Times have changed, norms have changed - for the better. When comedians like Tracy Morgan violate these norms, the result may be scorn and denunciation with a potential for loss of job opportunities. Although, there may be limits to that too - after all, Mel Gibson is still acting in or directing films.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sexual Assault and the City

Sexual assault is one of the most serious crimes known to civil societies. It impacts upon those subjected to sexual assault in a most intimate fashion. It isn't limited to instances of rape. It can involve the unwanted and offensive touching by one person or more of another without consent. In most cases, these assaults are perpetrated by men against women. Yet, one can easily imagine circumstances where the opposite may also be the case. This is eminently possible when we consider that under a broad understanding of sexual assault, men can also be the object of sexual gratification of another. Given the predominant paradigm of male on female sexual assault, forms of popular culture do not treat the converse as worthy of serious discussion.

Where it is covered it may be constructed as legitimate conduct. During an episode of the once popular television series Sex and the City, the character Samantha Jones learns of a masseur who provides more than skilled massages but cunnilingus to select female patrons. Expected to be treated to such extra services, she schedules an appointment with this masseur. As the allotted hour winds its way closer and closer to its end, Samantha seeks to accelerate the process of her obtaining sexual gratification by grabbing the masseur's genitals. This is naturally intended to signal the masseur as to her sexual intentions. The scene transitions to the manager or owner of the spa berating Samantha for sexually touching one of her male employees. Clearly, the masseur takes exception to what Samantha does. Samantha responds by informing the manager/owner that the masseur has a history of satisfying female customers in a manner that exceeds the scope of his duties as a masseur. We learn further that the masseur's employment is terminated. Samantha's action goes unpunished, save for being banished from the spa and being dressed down by other women who were serviced by the terminated masseur.

What lesson(s) is to be learned from this? Clearly, where a man has a sexual history, this means that he must be expected to comply when advanced upon by another a woman to whom he has not yet given consent. Let us imagine Samantha is Samuel and the masseur is a masseuse who is known to provide fellatio to select clients. Would there be any doubt that if Samuel touched the genital area of the masseuse, this would be construed not only as a sexual assault on her person, and interference with her bodily integrity, but also an act worthy of arrest and prosecution? We would have little doubt that Samuel would deserve such treatment. Surely the masseuse would have been acting inappropriately by going beyond the scope of her employment with other clients, but it wouldn't justify her being sexually molested by Samuel. Sex and the City's treatment does just this when the male is the "victim" and one of its lead characters is a "sex offender". However, the victim's status as a victim is impugned and tainted because of his sexual history with other clients, the very type of attack that feminist scholars and activists rightfully criticized the legal system for allowing to be done to women.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Hegemonic Deterrence

People in various workplaces are confronted with a number of challenges related to discrimination and harassment. In many ways, they are sent signals to just keep quiet and "put up with it." When they don't, they face retaliatory measures - including lateral transfers; loss of responsibilities; being sent signals that their future at the workplace is in doubt even if their work is nevertheless more than satisfactory; and, of course, termination.

These signals can be overwhelming and may stop someone from pursuing a legitimate grievance. Even when they do, there is sometimes a tendency to feel (or at least leave an impression that they feel) guilty for saying something, "for causing trouble."

A recent lawsuit was filed in the United States Federal Court for the Southern District of New York. The plaintiff, Jaime Laskis, is a lawyer who formerly worked at the New York City office of a Canadian law firm, Osler, Harkin, and Harcourt, LLP. Her claim alleges sex discrimination and retaliation for drawing attention to the alleged discrimination. You can read more about the action here (the Toronto Star article online previously contained a link to access a copy of the original complaint filed with the district court but seems to no longer be available).

Something that Ms. Laskis said to the Toronto Star illustrates the hegemonic deterrence against speaking out (as well as to the demeaning experience of being discriminated against). She says:
“It's a horrible situation. It has been a really difficult process. I'm not this kind of person. I'm not a troublemaker. I'm not even a loud voice. I just keep my head down and do my job.”
Her words are instructive and speak to the larger narrative and construction in our culture(s) of those who supposedly complain about wrongful treatment. One can see this illustrated in a number of films. They are (made to feel like) "troublemakers" and/or "whiners". Such troublemakers are people with loud voices - read: "loud mouths". They are people more interested in poking their head up merely to get attention simply for the sake of fulfilling some need to self-aggrandize. They are not people who are interested in doing their job.

The reality is of course, someone who has a bona fide claim of discrimination is not a troublemaker for raising the issue through a legal claim or through internal channels at the workplace. They are merely drawing legitimate attention to unlawful and discriminatory conduct. They are, in a sense, whistleblowers, for they call attention and raise issues about wrongdoing that may not be known and need to be addressed. By this, I don't mean that it is not known more generally that discrimination could or does happen in various workplaces, including law firms, but that it is, if proven, happening in a specific firm during a specific period and perpetrated by specific person(s). It moves from the general and abstract (discrimination happens) to the tangible and specific which may be subject to redress. Blowing the whistle (which, yes, also serves a personal and legitimate interest), has a larger utilitarian purpose. It serves notice to some that similar conduct may be subject to court action - not to mention the (potentially) ensuing damage to the reputation of the individual and/or the firm. It also sends a signal to those inside the firm or other workplace who are being subjected to this treatment that they have options.

Using a metaphorical "loud voice", one shatters the expected silence that the discriminated and harassed are expected to endure through hushed tones and a supplicating demeanor. In other words, loud voices aren't necessarily the ones that are discordant. What is discordant are statements made to or about women (or other marginalized groups) that sound like the following. A senior partner at the firm (allegedly) states to an employee who is going to attend graduate studies in law: "that's great you are going to Harvard - you might meet some pretty women pretending to get a legal education." Or, even more priceless (and again allegedly) said by the same partner with respect to female employees taking maternity leave:
[T]hat's why I hate working with women, because they just get pregnant and leave. Out of every three years you only get one good year out of them [emphasis added].
As told to Ms. Laskis specifically, the partner advised her that she had to demonstrate that she was more than "just a pretty face." Furthermore she was purportedly advised that she was "not helping herself coming to work looking well put together." This was despite the fact that she was recognized for doing consistently good work reflected in performance reviews.

Clearly, sometimes keeping one's head down and doing their work allows further discrimination and abuse to happen.

If all that Ms. Laskis claims is true, she, is not the troublemaker. The errant partner is and so is the firm for allowing it to occur (on a vicarious liability theory). Furthermore, in pursuing this case and hopefully being vindicated along the way if she can prove her case, she helps to challenge the hegemonies of deterrence that expect the discriminated to not only accept the wrongdoing but are made to feel like they have something to be ashamed of when speaking out.


James Hathaway, The Law of Refugee Status (Markham, ON: LexisNexis Canada, 1991) at 219 (speaking about the enforcement of international human rights law being dependent on publicity and moral probation. While the context in which Professor Hathaway speaks about it is different from what is addressed here, I think the concept nevertheless has resonance).

Michele Henry, "Woman Alleges Sexual Discrimination in Lawsuit Against Toronto-based Firm" The Toronto Star (15 February 2011), online:

Laskis v. Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, 11-Civ-0585 (S.D.N.Y. 2011).