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Category Archives: inequality

As I wrap up my current project on industry’s recruitment and normalization of particular fans and fan practices and begin the pivot to the next project, which is about musical intertexts in remix, mash-up, and cover songs, I have had the good fortune of discovering several interesting things to talk about.

First, I came across the musical genius of Jimmy Fallon, both the series in which he and The Roots join a musical guest to do a rendition of their hit song with children’s musical instruments (e.g. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”) and his outstanding impressions (compilation), both of which will be great to talk about in terms of transformative use. All of that is definitely going in the book.

And then came what Paul Barrett at Businessweek called “a really apologetic lawsuit” from pop star Robin Thicke (who did a Jimmy Fallon children’s instrument rendition of “Blurred Lines”) against the heirs of Marvin Gaye.

The backstory is that Gaye’s heirs feel that Thicke’s hit “Blurred Lines” infringes on Gaye’s song “Got to Give it Up” (and Funkadelic’s “Sexy Ways,” though the Gaye estate has no standing on that claim) and threatened to sue if they weren’t paid royalties. In response, Thicke preemptively sued to have “Blurred Lines” declared not infringing.

Media and law scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan notes in his Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity that “Federal courts ask two questions to determine whether a song infringes on the copyright of an earlier song. The plaintiff must show that the second composer had access to the first song and that the second song shows ‘substantial similarity’ to the first” (p. 127).

Barrett’s piece says “The songs are definitely similar: heavy bass line, falsetto vocals, lots of loose percussion and background noise. They’re fun and bouncy.” He adds, “If that constitutes a copyright violation, Thicke and his colleagues are on the hook.” My own analysis (untrained, which I’ll need to fix before I write this next book) leads me to think that there may be a claim for infringement on the bass line, but if the notes and arrangement of that are not in fact similar there’s no case.

Vaidhyanathan tells us that “Copyright regulates (but does not necessarily forbid) performance, transformative works, slight and oblique reference, and even access” (p. 125), and that “slight and oblique” part is where Thicke may be in trouble.

However, the things that are similar between the two songs—the rhythm, the “feel”—are not things copyright is very good at protecting, for better or worse. As Anne Barron noted in Introduction: Harmony or Dissonance? Copyright Concepts and Musical Practice, for a special issue of Social & Legal Studies, “Copyright law, it is said, adopts a narrow conception of music [ . . . ]. It tends to equate music with a score, or at least only protects what can be easily notated in the form of a score. One consequence of this is that it privileges certain musical elements that happen to be important in ‘classical’ music—notably melody and harmony” (p. 26).

However, the law has a “poor vocabulary” when it comes to “rhythm, pitch, nuance and gradation outside the steps of the diatonic/chromatic system, as well as vocal inflection and timbre” or  “non-standard pitches and non-discrete pitch movements (e.g. slides, slurs, blue notes, microtones); irregular, irrational rhythms and rhythmic details; nuances of ornamentation, accent, articulation and performer idiolect; and the sound qualities enabled by new techniques developed in the recording studio” (p. 30-1).

So, the kinds of things that are similar across the two seem to fall into that category of things that’s poorly protected. Even if colloquially we can “hear” similarities between the two compositions, even if, as one comment on the Businessweek piece claimed, “Thicke said in an interview that Marvin Gaye’s song was the inspiration for Blurred Lines and that he wanted to write a song like Got To Give It Up,” that doesn’t necessarily add up to copyright infringement in the eyes of the law.

Barrett quotes the lawsuit as saying, “Plaintiffs, who have the utmost respect for and admiration of Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic, and their musical legacies, reluctantly file this action in the face of multiple adverse claims from alleged successors in interest to those artists,” and that’s another interesting twist.

There’s been a good deal of work on sampling (which my upcoming project builds on to ask similar questions about remix, mash-up, and cover songs) that argues that to sample something is to say “‘Hey, I dug this, too” (Vaidhyanathan p. 136).

To use a sample, Barron says, is not to take a “shortcut,” but a way of referencing the sample’s “cultural references and resonances, its status as a kind of aural icon that gathers together a network of associations and experiences [ . . . ]. The value of what is taken in these circumstances is deemed to lie as much in its place within the collective memory of a community of listeners as in the creativity of an author.” (p. 34).

This seems to be the same logic that informs Thicke’s engagement with the respective work of Marvin Gaye and Funkadelic: I like this thing. I want to show that I like it and participate in its tradition while I am doing something new.

Of course, power differentials matter in all this. David Hesmondhalgh’s Digital Sampling and Cultural Inequality uses the example of how Moby sampled African American blues musicians in a way that relied on his privilege and their unprivilege to contend that responses to sampling have to account for such inequalities.

While, as Vaidhyanathan notes, sampling can be “a political act—a way of crossing the system, challenging expectations, or confronting the status quo” (p. 136), this isn’t true of every sample, only those where the powerless take from the powerful, as with Schoolly D sampling Led Zeppelin, whose guitarist The Simpsons called  “one of the greatest thieves of American black music to ever walk the earth.” When Moby or Jimmy Page did it to blues musicians, that is, it meant something very different.

Thinking through these issues in other forms of musical intertextuality, in the Thicke case it’s important to think about what it means for a white musician (he’s the face of the song even if it was co-written by African American artists) to be drawing on the style of a black musician (giving credit) while managing to skirt the requirements of law for actually paying that musician’s heirs.

And in that these are exactly the kinds of things I’m interested in in this new project—how musical texts reference older ones, with what purpose, and how this is inflected by law, economics, and racial and gender inequality—it’s really exciting to get to see them playing out in real time, and I’ll be following this case closely.

I want to talk about a young black man subjected to violence by a law enforcement figure. No, not 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, stalked and killed by a vigilante neighborhood watchman who was acquitted—at least not yet.

Nor 14-year-old Tremaine McMillan of Miami, FL,  “forced to the ground” and “choked in a headlock” “as he played with his puppy on the beach” “because the police said his body posture was ‘threatening’—and then charged with a felony.”

Nor 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington, whose shooting death by a police officer here in Champaign was ruled an accident and the officer was suspended for 30 days for poor firearm handling.

Nor the thousands with whom I could go on except that they haven’t been brought to national attention so I haven’t even heard about their stories.

I want to talk about 22-year-old Oscar Grant, fatally shot in the back while lying face down on a BART platform in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009. The BART police officer served 11 months for involuntary manslaughter after claiming he meant to use his TASER.

This is, of course, because I saw Fruitvale Station last week. And you know, even though one goes into it knowing how it ends, it’s still incredibly moving. The film has some problems, but effective acting is not one of them.

As I was walking out of the screening, I commented to my movie buddy that some people were upset because a scene where Grant is nice to a dog was fictional, put in to make it clear he was a nice guy (which I read somewhere but can’t find now).

She replied that the film had gone overboard with making him seem like a nice guy. The result, she said, was that it conveyed that he shouldn’t have been killed because he was a nice guy, not because he didn’t do anything wrong—a critique echoed by the negative film critic reviews at The Dissolve and Variety.

And she has a point to the extent that even not-nice people shouldn’t be shot to death for no reason.

But you know, (and now I come back to that first young black man in the list of those subjected to violence by a law enforcement figure) I think about how many times I read in comments (and, I know, I know, “Don’t read the comments!”, but-) people calling Trayvon Martin a thug because he apparently smoked pot and got in fights at school sometimes (neither of which carry a death penalty, last time I checked).

I think about how the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Martin hinged on whether six women (either all or 5/6ths white) bought the narrative of “Zimmerman was threatened by a black thug” or that of “Martin was a child attacked by a vigilante,” and the first narrative won the jury over.

Putting those things alongside my friend’s feeling that the treatment of Grant was heavy-handed makes me think that she and I, white people who already understand both “Even not-nice people don’t deserve to die” and “Young black man does not equal thug,” are not who that aspect of the movie was for. (Which isn’t to paint us as “enlightened” so much as meeting a basic standard of understanding that, surprisingly, is not so basic.)

The movie was making a case to those people who look at someone like Grant or Martin and see not a human being but a threat, and people with that view may well need to be hit in the face with the argument to have a chance at believing it. Certainly, the odds of people who equate youthful black masculinity with thuggery going to see Fruitvale Station may be low, but that’s who the continual insistence on Grant’s niceness at every turn was having an argument with.

Bad film-making, perhaps. But culturally vital.

Overall, recent events make me think that, given the systematic devaluation of black men’s lives, the tiny intervention of “He shouldn’t have been killed because he was a nice guy” might be what there is, right now. That “Thugs are people, too” might just save somebody’s life, since “Not a thug” seems to be incomprehensible to far too many people with guns and authority.

A disclaimer feels necessary here. I know more about how race works than the vast majority of white people because of my education. I have had that vertigo feeling of realizing my life is worth less in the social ledger than other people’s because I read as queer. But I am aware how limited that knowledge is, that it’s not the same.

I understand that I fundamentally can’t imagine what it’s like to live under the threat exemplified by the cases of Trayvon Martin, Kiwane Carrington, and Oscar Grant. Of Rodney King, Tremaine McMillan, and Calvin Miller. I write, then, from a position of knowing enough to know what I don’t know.

But even if “Thugs are people, too” is all there is right now and what we have to work with in the short term, in the long run the systematic devaluation-fear of blackness (mostly masculinity, but the refusal of legitimacy to Marissa Alexander’s “stand your ground” warning shot that hurt no one demonstrates the ways black women quickly get moved into the “irredeemably violent” box, too) is where the fight is.

I haven’t posted anything about Trayvon Martin since the verdict. I’ve retweeted smart things that came through my feed, pointed out a very telling Google algorithm moment, but mostly it felt like a more important time than ever for white people to not be deciding what Trayvon Martin’s life and death meant. Who was I to think that my opinion mattered in that moment?

The Crunk Feminist Collective posted on Facebook: “Calling all white feminists allies: Where are y’all? <looking far and wide> Your silence around the Zimmerman Trial speaks volumes. [ . . . ] Where is *your* intersectional analysis about white privilege, that not only calls out the operations of racism, but the particularly gendered operations of racism in the hands of these white women jurors?” (Via Amanda Ann Klein’s blog post taking up the challenge.)

The poster is right that this is work white feminist humans need to do, even as I’m still uneasy even in this blog post with asserting that what I think about this matters.

But I think my role as an educator is exactly a place to make an intervention in the systematic devaluation-fear of blackness. Maybe, if I’m lucky, even one slightly larger than tiny.

In my Intro to Gender Studies class this year, I want to find a way to work in a discussion about the role of masculinity in Trayvon Martin’s death, and how it intersected with race and class in the killing and the trial (and, at times, homophobia in suggesting Zimmerman’s following seemed like impending gay rape). I want to help my students understand the role of whiteness and femininity with those jurors from selection to verdict. All of it.

It’s pedagogically sound, but more importantly ethically incumbent on me as someone who understands these things and has an opportunity to help others understand them. There’s also the role of my (racial, educational, employment) privilege in making me someone to whom the flock of (mostly) middle class white kids on the other side of the classroom is likely to listen to.

If you’re a teacher interested in pitching in to help change the cultural narratives that, ultimately, killed Trayvon Martin (which is not to absolve Zimmerman, clearly), keep an eye on, curated by my colleague Safiya U. Noble, Ph.D. and going live mid-August.

For its 2013 conference (#IR14 if you’d like to follow along at home October 23-27), the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) implemented a new format for submissions. The template went beyond asking for the standard abstract fare of a “description/summary of the work’s intellectual merit with respect to its findings”; it also required a discussion of “its relation to extant research and its broader impacts,” “a description of the methodological approach or the theoretical underpinnings informing the research inquiry” and “conclusions or discussion of findings,” and it wanted all of this in a space of 1000-1200 words (CFP).

This was a departure from the previous template that allowed submission of either a 500 word abstract or a full paper. It’s also a pretty unusual conference submission format that I hadn’t ever seen in the 7 years I’ve been doing this job, and based on comments about it on AoIR’s mailing list (AIR-L) neither had anyone else. It was challenging for me and my panelists to produce something that kind of explained our work (but didn’t have space to, really), but we did it and we were accepted and yay for us.

But as acceptances and rejections came back, AIR-L exploded starting May 30 in something that seems to me to be a paradigm skirmish (like a war, but smaller!), centering on whether the submission process had been tilted toward empiricist work at the expense of the theoretical.

Conflict between paradigms is an area of interest to me in general, but what I found particularly interesting was the incidence of people making incommensurable arguments—using different criteria but not realizing they were on different planes. This is something that I discussed (and attempted to resolve) in the field of Communication in a piece I published last year in Communication Theory, which articulated a model akin to intersectionality for disciplines, allowing similarity and difference on multiple research axes (ontology/epistemology, methodology, axiology) rather than grouping people by a single characteristic a la identity politics.

So what I’d like to do here is explore that disconnect, but also the ways in which the conversation reinforced empiricist projects as “real” research and perpetuated a quite normative definition of rigor. I’m going to do so in a way that names no names and uses no direct quotes. You can go look up the archives if you want—they’re open—but there are way too many people for me to ask permission of all of them and it’s not strictly public, so I’m going to err on the side of caution.

AoIR describes itself as “an academic association dedicated to the advancement of the cross-disciplinary field of Internet studies. It is a member-based support network promoting critical and scholarly Internet research independent from traditional disciplines and existing across academic borders,” but this inclusiveness, cross-discplinarity, and border-crossing were troubled by the introduction of the new submission format.

First, it was quite clear in the debate that non-social scientists felt alienated by the template. Some said they had trouble cramming what they did into it, and others said they hadn’t submitted at all because they couldn’t figure out how to explain their work on its terms.

And emails to the list suggested that some researchers were in fact not accepted to the conference because the format didn’t accommodate them very well. Several noted that theoretical work was rejected on account of lack (or lack of specificity) of methods where that was not an appropriate evaluation. Others specifically noted the humanities as what was disadvantaged, with one scholar pointing to the normalizing force of subheadings, charts, and diagrams built into the conference template.

There were some gestures in the debate toward a hypothetical “qualified” reviewer who could understand disciplinary difference and preserve AoIR’s diversity and not judge one paradigm by another, but mostly that seems not to have materialized. Many participants complained about being assessed based on inappropriate criteria (like methods/findings in a non-social-scientific paper) or reviewers just being pedantic about the template rather than making substantive critiques.  Some called for better guidelines for reviewers to avoid this.

One thing that was not explicitly recognized is that ultimately a great deal of this is a question of reviewing labor. It is my understanding that endemic to conferences reviewed by submitters is an overrepresentation of junior scholars (especially grad students) in the reviewing. Senior scholars are busy or can’t be bothered, or whatever (in addition to being outnumbered)—but regardless of the reason, this has consequences for review quality.

Many of the people making these judgment calls were likely inexperienced and reviewing based on their (seemingly faulty) sense of the rules or based on the paradigm in which they are trained rather than having a developed gut instinct for good work across types of research (which I feel like I can say now because I have at least partially developed that instinct). This is the risk of inexperienced reviewers, a relationship a couple of participants in the discussion also noted, and it’s particularly dangerous to an internally diverse organization such as AoIR.

The response to the theory/humanities complaint was pushback from other scholars who argued that the conference has not been rigorous enough in the past and that this year’s submission process was an improvement. There was little recognition among these proponents that this conflated rigor with scientistic modes of inquiry and presentation.

The new format was held up as a way to lessen the chances of bad presentations at the conference itself by catching those who can write good abstracts or latch on to a trendy topic but then not deliver, a goal certainly worth attempting. But there was a clear divide around the relationship between incomplete research and bad research.

It was social scientists who raised the specter of the cocktail-napkin presentation or simply argued that it’s hard to assess quality on to-be-completed research. The other camp contended that saying the work had to be complete in February or March to present it in October seemed to exclude a lot of people and types of work. Members of this group pointed out that some presentations are just bad, irrespective of done-ness.

Part of the argument about rigor was because of the different “home” disciplines to which AoIR members belong. Social-scientists have had the experience that AoIR isn’t taken seriously. They mentioned being unable to be funded to attend or that attending AoIR wouldn’t “count” for tenure or other evaluations.

In large part, it seems, this has been because AoIR doesn’t require full papers. In previous years, one had the option to submit a paper and then go through a review process to be published in Selected Papers of Internet Research, but one could get accepted without doing so. And indeed, one rationale for the new format was that almost no one was using the full paper option, such that it’s clear that AoIR was primarily an abstract-based conference—which, discussion participants noted, some disciplines see as lazy.

That interdisciplinarity can be constrained by one’s “home” discipline was also clear from the disciplinary divide around the subject of conference proceedings. The folks hooked in to science-type conferences like the Association for Computing Machinery noted the lack of proceedings as another source of disrespect and of the conference seeming less rigorous.

(This is interesting to me because I always thought of conference proceedings as what people did when they weren’t good enough for a real, journal publication. But my field doesn’t use them, so I just had to figure out what they were for as I encountered them—and by comparison to the average journal article they’re kind of shoddy.)

Ultimately, though AoIR is founded on inclusiveness of different research modes, it is clear that speaking the language of methods and findings (and charts and subheads and figures) conflated the conference’s push for rigor with a more scientistic mode. That is, while people could recast that into terms that made sense for their work, and some did, that wasn’t always accepted in the review process.

It made me wonder what the equivalent humanities/cultural studies-centric template would look like. Can we even imagine it? “Be sure to include your theoretical framing and account for race, class, gender, and sexuality”? Related to this, one participant in the discussion noted that if she had applied her humanities criteria to a social science paper and rejected it for being boring and dated, there would be a huge outcry, but making the same assessment the other direction was totally acceptable.

Thus, it is unsurprising that, while there were certainly statements of valuing other types of research than the one any given participant did, this was an unequal sort of mutual respect. Empiricist research got to stand as “straight” or default or unmarked research (even in some statements by the humanities folks, hello internalized inequality!).

It is, after all, often the case that dominant/more socially valued groups get to stand as normative/universal. When social scientists advocated for including other types of work, they tended to ghettoize it out of normative presentation venues like paper sessions into roundtables, workshops, etc.

Of course, there was also some devaluation going the other way, with the humanities proponents concerned about the danger of producing dated research by talking about something that happened a year ago on a rapidly-changing Internet. One wondered what the point was of watching a paper that is going to be published in the next month or two.

As a whole, the AoIR debate points to two sides of a single concern: if the research is closed (completed), and the structure for participation is closed (restricted), what gets shut out?  While some participants were worried about research being boring or stale, others suggested bigger stakes: that this was an anti-interdisciplinary move—perhaps even a betrayal of what AoIR stands for.

This is an important question. Some modes of research are more respected than others—this is something that is currently true about the world, however much we might dislike it and seek to change it in the long term. Doing interdisciplinarity without recognizing the existence of this hierarchy produces circumstances like the scuffle that took place on AIR-L over the IR14 conference template.

I woke up last Tuesday morning, as many did, to Angelina Jolie’s New York Times op-ed, which got to me first via @IMKristenBell.

I do, as most seem to, believe that both undergoing the preventive surgery and making the announcement took a lot of courage on Jolie’s part. It was undoubtedly painful, plus probably scary to have currently healthy tissue removed.

There’s also the factor of, as Anne Helen Petersen put it, “Star Famous For Boobs Has Double Mastectomy” (which I got via @bertha_c). Jolie’s breasts were somewhat necessary for her job in a way that they aren’t for most people. (I wonder: Did she have them insured, like Tina Turner’s legs?)

But, while not disputing the personal difficulty involved, I want to look at this structurally, as is my wont.

Alongside that personal difficulty, that is, Jolie has some significant advantages. She is definitely aware of some of the privilege she has, noting that “The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.” (Others have noted this awareness: Shakesville, via @kouredios; the Guardian, via @bertha_c again; Gina Neff over at Culture Digitally)

But Jolie’s statement that “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity” pointed to some other forms of privilege she didn’t discuss, and of which she may not be aware.

Biology declared that Jolie’s breasts were “time bombs” (I saw this phrase in a headline about someone else’s breast cancer decision-making but I can’t find it again now to give credit). Medicine had the capacity to remove them. And cosmetic surgery to make her body look the way she felt it should was available to her.

Jolie had access to those procedures because she’s very wealthy, obviously, but what’s important to me here is a less tangible form of access. She had access to these procedures because it makes sense that a ciswoman would be able to access surgically-produced breasts.

A transwoman who had the same conviction that her body looked correct with breasts would, even today, be considered somewhere between mentally ill (still in the DSM 5) and dangerous (the “transwomen are men pretending to be women so they can be sexual predators in locker rooms” narrative; see, when it’s out, Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt‘s forthcoming piece “Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System,” a followup to their award-winning 2009 article Doing Gender, Doing Heteronormativity: Gender Normals, Transgender People, and the Social Maintenance of Heterosexuality).

In both cases, there are medico-biological-scientific-y reasons for why one’s body is out of alignment with one’s sense of self. But one set of reasons is seen as more valid than the other. The exact same body-shaping procedures that for transfolks are often framed as “messing with nature” are readily available to people who have a different gender identity—we can think also here about the treatment of gynecomastia in bioboys being considered perfectly legitimate as a way to prevent mental distress, but the desire for the same breast tissue removal in transmen is a sign of mental distress.

What does this say, then, about the rules of embodiment? We believe that bodies “naturally” do two (and only two) things, and never the twain, and we’re prepared to surgically intervene to make sure it happens. That’s not exactly a new insight—it matches what Anne Fausto-Sterling has argued about intersex babies. However, I don’t  know that it has been extended to questions of breasts rather than just genitals before, and I’d add that we’re also prepared to deny surgical intervention, depending.

But I want to push a little harder on it.

Jolie’s comments that she doesn’t “feel any less of a woman” and that it “in no way diminishes my femininity” are surely for the benefit of those who feel like substandard women after losing one or both breasts to cancer.  That is a real experience that is powerful to the people who have it. But I want to ask where such a feeling of inadequacy comes from.

Time after time, the commentators have marveled that Jolie resisted the dictates of beauty and sex appeal:

It’s remarkable because Angelina Jolie is generally regarded as one of the most beautiful women in a world that profoundly values beauty and defines women’s worth by their sex appeal, and she is telling women to value their health. (Shakesville)

That breasts do not exist just to turn on other people will not come as a surprise to any sentient adult human being. Nor, it should go without saying but sadly does not, do breasts make the woman. But brutal, mature reality does not generally have much of a place in the fantasy land where the myths of celebrities and public perception intermix. (The Guardian)

But she doesn’t need them to be beautiful, or to be loved, or to maintain that stardom.  Women have been hearing this message for years, but with this editorial, Jolie not only makes it available to men, but proves it through the very existence of her resilient, still sexual body. (Petersen)

But what all of these comments about rejecting beauty standards miss is that Jolie got her breasts back.

Maybe not “hers” in the traditional sense, but visually, which is all anyone cared about in the first place (as problematic as that is, and in which she surely intervened by emphasizing health). The full trajectory does not suggest that “she doesn’t need them to be beautiful, or to be loved, or to maintain that stardom” or refute the logic “that profoundly values beauty and defines women’s worth by their sex appeal.”

She did not go on with her career as a breast-less woman. If anything, this event actually suggests that the breasts do make the woman, however it is that one comes by them, much like breast removal is so key to making “proper” men. (Also here, the challenges with talking about breast cancer in men.)

This is not to say that I think she shouldn’t have had reconstruction, not least because I’m not in the habit of prescribing what other people do with their own bodies. Also, it falls under “sane response to an insane system.” But I will wager it never occurred to anyone to even consider not doing reconstruction. A breast-less woman is virtually incomprehensible to us. And certainly not eligible to be sexy.

And that rule of embodiment, the tight equation of “breasts” and “woman,” is one that we really need to take a hard look at.

It points to a situation in which we have loaded a whole lot of meaning onto bodies. The general belief, that is, is that if you feel X way, you must be Y thing, and your body must look like Z.

Now, I am probably the most anti-identitarian person on the planet. I am deeply suspicious of the move from X to Y in the above formulation, and generally think identity is a trap. But I think we can leave that aside in this case, because we’re talking about embodiment in relation to already-established identities—Jolie as woman and our hypothetical transfolks (who are themselves a subset of all the ways one might identify as trans).

Ultimately, I really don’t think that Jolie’s case and the conversations occurring around it are cause for celebration that we’ve thrown off the yoke of oppressive standards of embodiment and the reduction of people to their bodies. In fact, I think it is more firmly settled on our collective shoulders than ever.

Recently, my friend and colleague T. J. Tallie  published Queering Natal: Settler Logics and the Disruptive Challenge of Zulu Polygamy in GLQ, and since T. J. often has smart things to say I prioritized reading his article in my ongoing project to keep up on recent work my field and related ones.

It’s a great piece that does an excellent job parsing out the way polygamy (or, as he points out, more accurately polygyny) was the “flashpoint” for British colonial anxieties about their capacity to control “the natives” in 19th century South Africa and the potential for Zulu practices to “contaminate” British “modern” sexuality; he expertly demonstrates the ways this nonnormative (to the settler colonists) practice was seen as dangerous and disruptive (and therefore was queer) (p. 168). (Yay for using “queer” to mean disruptive the way I like!)

I’d had a quote on polygamy on my list of possible blog topics for quite some time (since November, based on the date of the original source). It came from a news article about the Women’s League of the African National Congress party in South Africa; the larger point of the piece was that the league refuted the label of “feminist” (which was what caught my eye in the headline).

Responding to and deploying a tired definition of feminism, the Women’s League also denied hostility toward men, instead identifying its mission as the advancement of women; this commitment led to an exchange in which, “asked about whether [South African President Jacob Zuma’s] polygamy was not against the advancement of women, [Women’s League president Angie] Motshekga said practising his culture was a ‘personal choice’. She said the women Zuma married were consenting adults, and he was not harming anyone.”

I found that framing of consenting adults really interesting at the time (hence saving it for later), and now I find that I want to return to it in conversation with T. J.’s work, in part because I have been trying to work through ideas of consent for my work on fandom and labor and the sexual consent frame has been particularly useful as one that accounts for both constraint and choice.

To do this, I turn to Martha Nussbaum’s 1998 piece “Whether from Reason or Prejudice”: Taking Money for Bodily Services about sex work. Nussbaum points out that many of the problems people identify with sex work are common to all sorts of other activities, yet we don’t think of them in the same way—factory work requires use of one’s body in ways one can’t control, therapy is emotionally intimate, being a model who works to train gynecologists involves extensive contact, etc.

Nussbaum contends that we therefore need to figure out what specifically is bothersome about sex work—and whether this is “from reason or prejudice”—rational or just indefensible cultural bias. I’d like to apply this form of reasoning to the polygamy question in order to get at questions of consent.

The most typical mainstream objection polygamy (which, as in the historical Zulu case, seemingly always takes the form of polygyny) is that it is oppressive to women. As in the case Tallie describes, there is generally no regard for how the women involved might see the practice, but rather monogamists declare that such women are “oppressed under the barbarism of their men” (p. 173).

Now, when only men get to have multiple wives, it does participate in a logic of male access to and control of women and is therefore problematic. But this logic of access is prevalent in all kinds of cultural practices and institutions. As just one example, the high school boys CJ Pascoe studied for Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (something else I’ve read recently as part of catching up) worked to solidify their masculinity through extravagant claims to sexual control over girls’ bodies, and the girls were often uncomfortable about this but went along with it because that was how high school culture worked. It is therefore unreasonable to condemn polygamy as uniquely problematic.

A corollary to men having a right of access is the discourse of male hypersexuality. Certainly, in the context Tallie describes it was convenient for the British to argue that polygyny was about Zulu men’s hypersexuality in contrast to restrained British masculinity since this fit right in with their beliefs about the need to “civilize” the natives. But this logic is also not specific to that time and place; the idea that men want more sex than women is of course a tired trope of both comedy and drama.

Indeed, I’d argue that the horror-fascination with polygamy—which I’ve mostly encountered in the US-specific context of Mormonism, but Tallie’s discussion of how Zuma was treated in the British press a few years back seems similar—has something to do with men having unlimited sexual access, something both desired and disavowed within normative masculinity.

However, as the examples of Pascoe’s work and the “frustrated husband and wife with a headache” scenario already begin to suggest, polygamy, though indisputably based in gender inequality, is not uniquely coercive.  This raises a couple of issues around what consent means in such a situation.

Nussbaum points out that “poor working women” are “heavily constrained by poor options” in general, saying that “I think that this should bother us and that the fact that a woman with plenty of choices becomes a prostitute should not bother us, provided that there are sufficient safeguards against abuse and disease, safeguards of a type that legalization would make possible” (p. 696).

Applying this to marriage (of whatever number of people) as an economic institution, we can ask about who is in a position to consent in terms of what that person’s choices are and, as I have argued in the fan-labor case, the awareness of those choices. In the case of Zuma’s wives, then—given the likelihood of class endogamy—they are likely to be educated and financially secure, making their choice of this form of relationship meaningfully consensual rather than coerced by circumstance.

Though clearly there’s always some inequality impinging on consent, asking about what the options are both relocates agency with the less-powerful person and doesn’t deny constraint, a useful antidote to the freak-show quality of contemporary visions of polygamy and the tendency to discount people’s own meanings for their practices demonstrated both by British colonists in the 19th century and discussions of fundamentalist Mormons today.

Of course, there’s still that small but persistent manner in which gender is the axis of inequality in these formations. As a way around this, while polyamory is clearly not the Ultimate Radical Thing™ it is sometimes made out to be by its proponents, the idea of nonbinary relationships that are negotiated to everybody’s specifications—where each participant potentially has the option of multiple partners if they so desire—does get around the imbalance of polygyny.

And it does so without a normalizing defense of heterosexuality or monogamy, such that it seems likely to open up more sexual possibilities in a way that is supple with regard to the particularities of the situation, which is really what I think we ought to look for in a theory of sexual consent.