Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Gender Violence and the Bolivarian Revolution: a recent example

Luis Felipe Acosta Carles, the (Bolivarian) governor of Carabobo state, has been posting a series of billboards throughout the state capital, Valencia, trying to raise public awareness of the media’s role in creating/exacerbating the problems facing Venezuela today. Usually the billboards and posters include some sort of image, a condemnation, and the tagline: “Security is the responsibility of all.” The point here is that opposition media outlets have been outspoken in their critiques of the government’s inability to do something about the violent crime rate throughout the country.

Here’s the latest installment: (The text reads: "Inciting sex brings rape. Security is all of our responsibility." This is, more or less, a tit-for-tat (pardon the expression) with the local media. On the one hand, the media accuse the government of doing nothing alleviate the security situation in the state and the country. On the other, they regularly publish material that tacitly approves of one particular form of violence and criminality -- against women)

Now, you’ll notice that the images all seem to be taken from the pages of newspapers, and appear to be features of some sort, not ‘just’ advertisements (not that that would in anyway make the disembodied bethonged ass of some beachgoer staring out at you from page 13 any less disconcerting, it just provides a [weak] cop-out for the editorial board).

Predictably, and not without justification, many feminist organizations have pointed out that the posters are deeply ambiguous. While the governor’s intentions may indeed be to unpack the semiotic link between the objectification of women and their socially-sanctioned rape-ability and to highlight the media's role in the construction of said link, the message on the boards themselves runs rather close to blaming the victims of rape. Not to mention the fact that, heh, if you want to get rid of something, if you really and truly and sincerely think something is bad, and you really and truly and sincerely want to be rid of it, then you probably shouldn’t plaster it all over town. In the words of Iris Hernández, a local council member from the (Chavista) Movimento de la Quinta Republica (MVR), “[these billboards] reflect in a direct form, explicitly and subliminally, the offense…danger, victimization, and inferior situation made by the fact of being a woman.” In other words, the women printed on the pages of oppostition newspapers were objectified by said papers. Carles on re-objectified them when he re-printed their images in order to make political points against his enemies.

Hernández, accompanied by other officials--all within the ranks of Chavismo, added, “These billboards, with their message, violate the laws and dispositions of the Bolivarian constitution of Venezuela…and even more from a legal point of view they themselves incite rape” (El Carabobeño, 11 Agosto, 2007). The Bolivarian Constitution has been noted by many as one of the most progressive in the world, especially as regards individual and group liberties. State sanctioned of group-specific violence is, suffice it to say, is not included among its articles, nor is it looked upon kindly.

[It bears noting, however, that the opposition has not failed to jump on the issue. Just one quick visit to www.noticierodigtal.com, a popular opposition news and discussion site, finds many active plans to capitalize on the situation. And as if we needed more evidence as to the general rancidness of the opposition, among the discussions one can encoutner many psuedo-feminists talking about the 'rights of women being trampled by these fascists' laughing and agreeing with Nazi innuendo and claiming that the governor wants to rid the state of (female) pornography because he is gay, just like the rest of the dictatorship (sic)]

Acosta Carles’ response: “I’m not against women wearing bikinis on the beach, I like it when Claret [his wife, who accompanied him for the speech] wears her bikinis, but the beach is one thing and the media is another.” He then added a biblical reference for good measure (hint:) to criticize those within Chavismo who have criticized his billboards. The logic (?) of the biblical reference is that these ‘opportunists of the revolution’ are selling Carles down the river in order to get in the spotlight and Chávez’s good graces. He continues, “and they ask me for security…but this is a security plan, to raise the awareness of the media to not use pornography. And now they say [I] ought to go to jail. Ah, but they don’t attack the media who publish all these beauties and bodies, all this staged beauty, physical but untouchable, but no one still, not even my own fellow party members, have presented me with a plan to guarantee peace and tranquility in the state.”
(El Carabobeño, 11 Agosto, 2007)

So is it, “hard working man trying to do what’s right just to be nagged and nagged by the bitchy opportunist feminazis?”

Or, is it “Short sighted particular interests shoot themselves in the foot and aid the opposition who do EVEN LESS about gender violence than the Revolution?”

Perhaps more interesting than anything else in Carles’ response is the way that he both touches upon truth while embodying the criticisms levied against him. On the one hand, he is right to point out that the private media’s depiction of women in Venezuela gives one the impression of a 24-7-365 taping of ‘Girls Gone Wild.’ On the other, his defense does just as little as his strategy to combat gender violence as the strategy itself.

A few quick anecdotes are in order: RCTV (gawd, i miss freedom) ran a spot on the ‘Venezuelan Women’s Football Team’ (before its concession ran out, of course) which featured 11 models in thongs and glittery bikini tops kicking a ball while the male commentator repeatedly whistled at their giggles and jiggles. Basic cable features a show called ‘Naked Wild On,’ featuring cheesy voice-overs a la ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ explaining to the audience at home that the unsuspecting nude sunbather ‘wants it.’

This of course doesn’t even begin touch on the imbrication of race and gender. Any guide book or trivia collection about Venezuela proudly notes that the country has accrued more international beauty pageant titles than any other country in the world.

(1981’s Miss Univers, Irene Sáez, ran for president as COPEI’s candidate against Hugo Chávez in the 1998 elections. She finished fourth with 2.8% of the vote.)The question, of course, is why are almost all the images of 'venozolanas lindas' a bunch of cracker descendents from mid-20th century oil-boom immigrants?

Much like Miss Universe, the image of beauty all too often presented to the public by the private media here is all but a carbon copy of a North-American male’s media-infected idealization of ‘pretty.’ In effect, the Venezuelan private media’s depiction of women simultaneously feeds and produces a fairly typical dual white male fantasy structure which defines the good, the right and the beautiful. First, 'women' (because women outside the mold are something else...) are skinny (but always well endowed in the chest), white and blond. Hence, the prototypical fantastic ‘she’ carries the necessary maternal traits (large breasts-milk-sustenance-protection) while providing a positive pole of colonial identification (white-goodness) as well as the ‘youthly beauty’ (and privileged social position) of remaining thin.

Second, women are there for the taking. Available, subservient, on display. Madonna and Whore. And, it is of course up to the male in the equation to decide when the ‘she’ gets to be which. The interaction of these fantasies, as they reinforce one another, plays into a third, that of the male protector, of the ultimate comodification of the woman as the object to be held – displayed proudly but never to be shared. This relationship is not reciprocal.

So what precisely does this exercise in by and large second wave feminist analysis have to do with the governor of Carabobo misguidedly plastering T & A on the streets of Valencia? On the one hand, he registers the way private media inculcates particular forms of desiring which can lead to the violent expression of that desire should reality not align itself with the fantastic structure of the subject (violent, it should be noted, for the subject experiencing the trauma as well as the focus or occasion of their frustration). “All these beauties and bodies, all this staged beauty, physical but untouchable.” The key word is of course ‘staged.’ Carles points out the plastic nature of the content, the ultimate unreality of it all, while still betraying the degree to which he remains enfolded within and influenced by it. He then performs the desiring of this beauty as well as the frustrating denial of consummation (physical but untouchable). The result is that this defense of his actions reinforces their problematic nature.

On the other hand, for Carles it is okay for women to expose themselves in certain situations, certain ‘appropriate’ zones (the beach). It is, however, decidedly not okay for the female form to be exposed outside of his control. By this, I do not mean to approve of the private media’s depiction of women. Rather, my contention is that this particular response has less to do with women even as objects to be protected (even if that were a goal to be pursued) and more with control. One could, presented with this situation, find a road other (note I did not say between) than the puritanical and the permissive. I am suggesting a path which approaches sexuality not as an always already commodified ‘thing’ or amalgam of things – breasts, asses, vulnerable snap shots and the like – that are contained either in their prohibition from the public or in their widespresad use in advertisements.
In other words, a de-fetish-ization.
The truly revolutionary work, work in the spirit of the Bolivarian revolution, would here be to address the social and psychological structures which entice such an excited response, from those who would censor it as well as from those who would exploit its allure. Such working-through would necessarily be collective to be effective, and would, I hope lead not to a general ‘de-sexing’ of reality, but rather to non uni-directional forms of sexuality that have more to do with pleasure, and less to do with fantasies of control.

The added touch of his wife presented for his defense (the equivalent of ‘heh, I’ve got black friends’ after dropping the N-bomb at a party), while politically necessary, is further symptomatic of the contradictory nature of his position. This contradiction – between fighting against sexual violence while unknowingly reinforcing many of its preconditions – is perhaps to a certain degree inevitable as one begins to wrestle with our gendered inheritances. It is incumbent on the revolutionary to approach these situations prepared to work through the socializations of the old order, understand that we are just as imbricated in them as anyone else, to be self-critical and sincere in our efforts to jettison them.

In other words, Carles’ campaign is right on target, his execution dubious if not deplorable, and his response to criticism anything but revolutionary.

1 comment:

Cristina said...

Wow. Great analysis--I'm so happy you wrote about this. I particularly appreciated your comments on Acosta Carles' response; sounds like he has issues to work out.

I've heard that beauty pageants are big in Latin America generally and that beauty standards favor whiteness. I had no idea that beauty pageants were so big in Venezuela.

You say at the end that revolutionary work would involve de-fetishization, rethinking sexuality more in terms of pleasure(s) instead of control (and of course, commodification). And of course I agree. Have you gotten a sense there is opportunity to do this kind of work? I ask because the feminists you cite--i.e., the ones with a public voice, with access to media--are as you say, fairly second wave in their thinking. That's not always bad, but I wonder what other kinds of thinking about gender and sexuality are possible or already happening there.

This makes me think about Marcos' expressions of support for lesbians, gays, transsexuals and bisexuals, welcoming them to the movement..though I seem to remember some comment he made about a utopian soccer game that would bring everybody together, but with the GLBT people as cheerleaders.