The Nation in Our Underwear

Culture, Sexual violence


A piece in Nat Brut on the work of Azita Moradkhani

“It started the first time I walked into Victoria’s Secret.”

Azita Moradkhani, an artist who has lived most of her life in Tehran, begins our phone conversation by excusing her English. She just learned it, she tells me, a few years ago to move to the United States for graduate school: Two master’s programs — one in art education; one an MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston — in three years.

Even if that kind of apology were ever necessary (it’s not), it’s especially not needed here. Her flow of speech is melodic, quick, the same kind of entrancing as the patterns in her work. She has just come back from yoga. Out the window on my end, the crickets have just begun pining in the half-lit sweetgrass.

“Lingerie stores are very private in our country: Men can’t walk in and they are usually hidden in the malls,” she tells me.

But Moradkhani, now living in the United States, found herself at the American lingerie behemoth, windows lined with slips of spandex and lace, models’ hips jaunting crocheted nothings over their crotches.

Moradkhani’s life and work were changing with her transition to the States.

Someone had menstruated pearls. A single red dot; an arching woman; fetal children curled. A grey pair washed with the ghostly image of a rape, men removing the garments of a woman inscribed on a garment herself; mesh forming the image of a sunglass-and-hijab-clad-woman.

But what made my eyes pause in their appraisal of the panties (80% nylon; 20% spandex) was the flags: A pair stained delicately saffron and green, decorated with a spinning wheel; an Israeli star bleached over pubic hair; Iranian reds and greens. Genitals gently tattooed with flags.

Moradkhani had made something out of those panties, her 2014 series Which Pair are Yours?

Seeking Sunny Leone: Academic Writing on Indian Erotica

Culture, India

Read the full piece at Critical Collective, a global India-based web journal of fine arts. 

One sweltering Delhi May, hot on the research trail of visual and cinematic erotica, I wandered through the back lanes and offices of the B-film marketers of Chandni Chowk. A family friend—we’ll call him Deepak Uncle— had agreed to show me the shop from where he imported and disseminated Hindi and foreign B films.

The dingy walls of his cramped office gleamed with glossy rows of posters bearing lurid legends: Asian School Girls! Shark ki Atank! Supernatural women leered forward mid-action shot, breasts straining from their bodices. “Barely-legal” teens preened in eroticized plaid schoolgirl skirts.  And—my personal favorite—a simpering woman jutted her hip, a pistol peeking jauntily from her barely-there bikini bottom.

From the film posters lining city walls to the erotic reading sold at newsstands, the print visual culture of popular erotica is alive and well in contemporary India. Yet thanks to a series of technological changes — the rise of the internet, the increasing penetration of smartphone use, and the changing cinematic economy (Vasudevan 2010) (McQuire 2008) (Sharma 2003)  — to witness contemporary popular sexual imagery, we would do well to turn from the labyrinths of Old Delhi to the seemingly endless maze of erotic imagery online.


Wonder Woman’s Vision of Empire


Originally published at Feministing 

So I saw Wonder Woman last weekend with my grandma, and oh my god guys, I exited that theater like a classy martini—shaken.

Now if you’re like many of my friends, you probably never want to hear anything uttered about the Wonder Woman movie (hey, maybe the entire franchise) ever again. That’s real. But even if you wanna skip my hot take (now’s your chance!), it’s definitely worth engaging with the great writing about the film that’s already out there, particularly the film’s representation of Black people and the debates around Gal Gadotfeminism, and Zionism.

Because Wonder Woman has not only swept box offices as the highest-grossing first weekend for a film directed by a woman ever — it’s also been banned in Lebanon and blocked from screenings in Algeria and Tunisia due to Gal Gadot having fought in the IDF.

That’s why despite the endless takes already out there, I left the theater, Grandma at my side, so politically jittery I felt like I’d just eaten seventeen espresso beans. Wonder Woman is a film about empire and (in the way superhero films sort of inevitably are) “Western Values,” which has proven a flashpoint in actual contemporary politics—all of this implicating feminism. That seems worth engaging with.

Now in my humble opinion, we’re not gonna arrive at an emancipatory political program from a Hollywood film that celebrates a (fictional) white American government agent dude, a (real) woman who has publicly justified the Israeli military’s egregious abuses of Palestinians, and the Western World (a construct).

But pop culture is all about negotiation. If we want to watch films and also stay true to our politics in a literal way, we’re presented with the uniquely daunting prospect of having to discard 99% of the cultural production of human history. Definitely we can try to do that, but many of us get by instead by picking and choosing from pop culture — cherrypicking what tickles us, condemning what we must condemn, and picking the rest apart to start critical conversations about the ideas propagated by the people with the capital.

So let’s undertand Wonder Woman in that spirit. First I’m going to cherry-pick. Then I’m gonna condemn. Then maybe, we’ll find what we have to work with in the film—particularly, the film’s presentation of race and British Empire—to imagine better films, and better worlds around them.

Cherries: Watching Diana Prince walk around Edwardian England unaware that, as a woman, she is supposed to be subjugated is a delight. I grinned like someone had given me free ice cream. I wish I could walk around the world like that: Without realizing I am supposed to cast my eyes to the ground when men swipe their gaze up and down like a full-body scan. Diana strolling into Parliament unabashed at how abashed everyone is by her breasts is the best example of how creating other worlds in film can jolt us out of what we have naturalized in our own world. It is neat to see a woman who, free of a lifetime of brainwashing, has simply not imbibed through every one of her pores the memo that she is lesser-than.

Yet as critics wiser than I have pointed out, that vision of female power is attached to a whole set of other, less-savory visions. As great as it feels to watch a woman run around capably kicking people’s derrieres, we should disavow the ideological basis of this martial feminism — especially considering Gadot’s background in the Israeli military, which along with the U.S. has perfected the art of using the rhetoric of liberal female and LGBT empowerment to justify military violence and occupation, particularly against Muslims (“pink washing”).

And even if the film shakes up some of our assumptions about gender, it stays relentlessly attached to other kinds of subjugation. For one: Really Diana? You really didn’t have any sexy Amazon lady lovers? 

And for another: Racism.

Take the Amazons. White filmmakers’ stubborn, violent lack of imagination—the inability to imagine a world which is not shaped by American racial and class hierarchies—means that, as Cameron Glover points out, the black Amazons are depicted as racist stereotypes.

This is the persistent disappointment of Hollywood fantasy, science fiction, and super hero genres. These genres could enable us to create anything—and in black feminist science fiction, for example, they do. Yet in the mainstream stories, in the farthest of galaxies or in alternate mythological realities governed by immortal Amazons, Hollywood still, by and large, simply cannot imagine a world that is not, like the United States and the global clusterfuck we have created, scripted by capitalism and racism. Or perhaps it’s not that the writers are so impaired by whiteness that they can’t even imagine a mythological lesbian separatist society as racially egalitarian. Maybe it’s that they can, but don’t want to.

Not the soaring bullets or the creepy proto-fascists or the mustachioed British guy who is War Incarnate, but this possibility — that white Western audiences literally do not want to imagine a world with an egalitarian racial and national order— is the most frightening aspect of Wonder Woman. 

So how does this question of imagination play into the rest of the film? I’m particularly interested in an aspect which I think fewer writers have touched on: The film’s depiction of British Empire.

If you, like me, learned history in the United States, you probably also were made to think that the First World War consisted entirely of white Europeans killing each other over a set of scandalous alliances and an assassinated Archbishop. It literally took me moving to India to realize that I’m an ignorant poop who had been spoon-fed lies my entire life and, duh, the First World War involved European empires and the brown and black people they were colonizing.

So on one hand, Wonder Woman shows us Edwardian London at the cusp of woman’s suffrage, with Diana Prince flouting gender taboos to her heart’s content. But it also shows us Edwardian London at the peak of empire. In the film, for example, we briefly see a South Asian regiment at the train station, as well as one African solder visible in a sea of white. And of course, we meet Trevor’s friends: Sameer, a South Asian trickster; Chief, a Native American profiteer; and Charlie, a Scottish sniper.

We could understand Sameer, Chief, and Charlie as the same kind of gesture-at-diversity, constellation-of-POC-friends-around-the-main-white-couple logic which informs most films that are trying to seem 21st century without actually being anti-racist. Indeed, the film is not Certified Progressive because it has some characters of color. (It could be entirely characters of color, including Wonder Woman herself; the fact that it’s not is a willful choice of the filmmakers.)

But Trevor’s friends do make us think about the reality of empires past and present, and of all the lives and stories that have never made protagonist. They are, after all, characters that have been colonized or otherwise ruled by Britain or America. They force us, for a second, to feel skepticism toward our main characters’ claims of moral truth. They make us wonder whether the heroes and villains are perhaps different, opposite, than films have said.

What if we took this perspective farther that the film ultimately allows us to? What if we took the camera off cute dimples-boy Trevor, and yes, even Diana, and followed the peripheral characters, instead? What if we could actually live up to the promise of cinema, and especially superhero cinema, to imagine other worlds?

Worlds that were willfully obscured. Worlds in which the victors of imperialism, capitalism, racism, occupation — in short, the whole Western martial project — are not centered, are not even inevitable? Worlds in which humans who were not corn-fed white boys flying fighter jets or glamorous white women actually existed, had lives, were dispossessed of their land, were dominated and dominated each other, profited, giggled, died.

And for those of us who must content ourselves, for the moment, with searching for any crack in the ideological armor of Hollywood, at least for the purpose of starting conversations? We can take comfort in at least one moment in Wonder Woman which, if taken to its logical conclusion, would upend the rest of the film’s politics.

Which is this: Ares, the God of War, does not turn out to be that old Hollywood favorite, the cartoonishly-accented diabolical German general white Americans love to project our racial guilt onto. Instead, in a straight-up Joseph Conrad move, we discover that the real God of War has been at the dark heart of the Thames river, in the British Parliament, all along. He has been orchestrating the destruction of the entire world from the other side of a polite, blonde British mustache.

Not bad. Though of course, we’d really be getting somewhere for feminism if Hollywood didn’t stop there. What if we were brave enough to follow the trail of the villain across the ocean, to the polite halls of the White House itself? Or what if we took it a step further and followed the trail to the politer living rooms from which elite American viewers sit, streaming Wonder Woman onto our TV screens as the world burns?

The Most Brilliant Woman in the Room: Creative Freedom, Gender Justice, and Female Collaboration

Read the original piece in Louder Than Ten. 

She was the most brilliant woman in the room.

She was talented, she was charismatic, and damn, could she write. I wanted her and I wanted to be her. We talked long into the night about books and what we wanted out of college. We went to parties and held hands. It was the first month of freshman year, and she smoothed back my sweat-wet hair in a steamy dorm party bathroom. Out on the beer-splashed dance floor, we kissed and kissed.

I was a writer too—or an aspiring one. The first few weeks of freshman fall, we had one goal and one goal only: get in. We craved access to those publications where the Real Writers (those juniors and seniors with personal styles as laconic as their nonfiction) sat around casting creative judgement on the student masses.

If I could only gain access, I remember thinking, I’d have it made.

It’s easy to understand gender inequality in terms of male oppression of women. It’s harder to understand the more subtle and sneaky ways in which patriarchy turns women against each other.

She wanted the same thing. But while we started as friends, compatriots, and collaborators, things quickly fell apart. These editors, cadres of junior and senior men, weren’t just judging our writing; they were judging us. Because we were women, they evaluated our social and sexual worth as much as our prose.

I felt it in the meetings, in the editors’ speculative eyes. I felt it in the party invitations I wasn’t lucky enough to get. I felt it in the subjectless one-line email an editor sent me asking me to stay after the meeting “so we could chat.”

I wanted their approval, and I wanted to get it over and above my friend. I wanted them to think I was sexier, prettier, more interesting. I felt there wasn’t room or attention enough for two. This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.

I wanted to be the most brilliant woman in the room.

A few months later, she was dating one of the big shots leaving me in the lurch. The message: I wasn’t sexy enough to be a writer, or a good enough writer to be sexy. We had once been comrades, co-conspirators, friends, but I could no longer look at this woman without feeling like I had swallowed gas. By winter break of that first year, we had the kind of fight that, at 19, might as well have been the apocalypse.

We were never friends again.

What are the barriers to female creative freedom?

Ask Virginia Woolf a hundred years ago, and (besides the secret of time travel) you will likely find this: women will be creatively free when we’re economically free. And we will be economically free when we’re creatively free. That’s the catch 22.

Things have gotten a lot better since Woolf’s time (bras burned, birth controls distributed, university admissions gained), but gender inequality remains a structural barrier to women’s full participation in creative fields.

When we look at the numbers, we find that sexism has weathered a century of progress. Women receive equal or more degrees in creative fields than their male counterparts. Yet in the upper echelons of these fields—the big names with the big publications and the big dollars—we find that rampant gender inequality persists.

The VIDA Lit Count is a group of lovely humans who devote hours each year to counting female representation in the literary world.

If you’ve heard of them, you’ve heard of some of their scarier findings. In 2014, for example, the New Yorker published a little more than half the number of women than men; The Nation published less than half.In the visual arts, these problems are deeply entrenched and more evident the more prestigious the venue.

Women earn half of American MFAs, yet receive only a quarter of New York solo shows.And the statistics march on. Women receive more than half of bachelor’s degrees in the humanities, yet earn substantially less than their male peers. According to a recent Humanities Indicators report, early in their careers, women earned $2,000 less per year than their male peers. By mid-career, that gap becomes a whopping $17,000 per year.

 When it comes to more technical creative fields, these barriers become even more pronounced. A 2009 poll found that 82.6 percent of web designers are male.
So what keeps us back?

Our society has gender inequality built into its bones. It manifests in things like the pay gap, the scarcity of women in power positions, and the fact that women are more likely to be the targets of gender-based violence.

It’s easy to understand gender inequality in terms of male oppression of women. It’s harder to understand the more subtle and sneaky ways in which patriarchy turns women against each other.

To understand this sneakiness, let’s think back to the anecdote with which I opened this piece.

As long as we accept the notion that female creativity is a limited resource, we will continue to view other creative women as enemies rather than allies.

First, in seeking to join the campus creative community, my friend and I entered groups in which most of the members were female, but most of the leaders were male. We faced male gatekeepers whose judgements seemed to mix both our sexual and creative merits; older advisers and editors had the power to accept or reject our work as well as us. This delegitimized our ability as artists, made us self-conscious about our genders, and took the focus away from our work.

While these dynamics don’t always play out in the professional world as blatantly as they do on college campuses, we can see them most graphically in cases of sexual harassment and workplace assault, and more subtly in the way myths about gender and femininity distract from women’s talents (e.g. the standards of female behaviour that penalize women for coming across as “too flirtatious” or “too frigid”).

By playing into insecurities about our work and our sexualities, this creative economy (which we both longed to be a part of) turned us against each other. We began as each other’s strongest allies, as would-be lovers stealing kisses in the dorm party steam. We ended as mortal enemies.

Why did we see each other as competition? Why couldn’t we understand the trivialization and dismissal of our talent?

The answer lies in sexist notions of female competition. Heterosexist, male-dominated societies like ours teach women to compete for the scarce resource of eligible men. When we translate this to professional settings, we find atmospheres in which women must compete for the attention of male superiors, editors, and bosses.

Beyond competition for work, this myth of female competition inculcates in us another, more subtle and insidious feeling: that female creativity, talent, and brilliance are scarce and finite resources—that there can only be so many brilliant women in a room.

And there are many reasons why this feeling won’t go away. There are too few women at the top of our fields to demonstrate the possibility of female brilliance. A lack of fair and equal compensation for female labor (damn you, persistent pay gap) discourages us from achieving. Deterrents like sexual harassment convince us that our creative worth is second to our sexualities and bodies. Cultural norms devalue female creativity as derivative.

For creative women, these factors prevent us from collaborating and instead encourage us to compete. This works to the advantage of (you guessed it) men.

As long as we accept the notion that female creativity is a limited resource, we will continue to view other creative women as enemies rather than allies.

And as long as we continue to pit ourselves against each other, rather than sexist thinking and structural barriers that say women may go this far but no farther, we will never have creative freedom.

She was the most brilliant woman in the room.

All plush voice and acres of dark hair, hands that made magic. An artist, a big figure on campus. She was a senior when I was still a confused and blundering freshman. The few times we met she crawled under my skin, prickly and sticky.

I wanted her and I wanted to be her.

Three years later we were lovers, doing each other’s makeup and eating Moules Frites in the languid New York City heat. We drank cocktails in pools and wore sunglasses and tried on each others’ clothes. We sat on laptops next to each other and clicked away, though these valiant attempts more often than not ended in sex.

No, we weren’t always great at working around each other (try editing copy at the beginning of a romance), but we were great at supporting each other’s work. How empowering: to no longer be afraid of, but to love another creative woman—to encourage, rather than discourage or compete with, another woman’s talent.

The most radical act is friendship.

What had happened in those three years?

I had changed. I had grown more confident in my own work. But I had also changed in relation to my gender. By seeing, again and again, the timidity and fear with which so many of my female peers approached their work, by seeing brilliant and talented female friends drop out of the game (or never even try), I learned that we as women were not the problem. We were not bitchy, we were not catty, we were not wrong.

Rather, we exist in a system that pits us against each other. And in the face of this, the most radical act is friendship.

Things are changing. Accountability efforts like the Vida Lit Count and networking efforts like the Facebook group Binders Full of Women Writers are building solidarity among female creative professionals of all stripes.

 But there’s a lot more to do. We can start with ourselves. We so often fear each other because we worry there isn’t space enough for all of us. But when we learn to support one another rather than view one another as competition for scarce creative and professional resources, we lift each other up. We don’t need to fight each other to enter the room. We need to link arms and smash down the door.

When we do so, we will arrive in that hallowed sanctum—a little dusty, magazines a bit out of date—and find, I am certain, that the most brilliant woman in the room is, and has always been, all of us.


Article Credits

Editors Marshall Watson
Anna Coe
Rachel Gertz
Designer Travis Gertz

Should I Harass This Woman on The Internet?

Culture, Relationships

These days, women have begun to use the internet. Like other highly sexual activities — bicycle riding and the showing of one’s ankles — this form of newfangled female audacity can drive a man mad. Faced with all those flirty emoticons and naughty statuses about “walking the dog” and “burrito-eating,” it can be hard for any red-blooded man to restrain himself. Unprompted sexual advances, repeated demands for attention, obscene commentary — in the face of profligate female posting, how’s a man to resist?

We get it: It’s hard to know when it’s appropriate to send a sexually explicit message to a complete and total stranger. That’s why for your convenience, we have put together this handy flowchart! Next time a woman’s existence online fills you with an irresistible urge to send her an unprompted and potentially sexually-explicit message, consult my handy dandy flowchart — availaable at The Tempest.