[The whole TWD blogging series is here.]

So, when we last discussed TWD, several things had happened:

Woodbury had collapsed, Andrea had died, and the Governor had abandoned his survivors. This was all part of the Battle of the Patriarchs.

Anyhoo, the Governor got rid of the handful of other dudes who had escaped with him and was supposed to have some sort of reflective travel thingie until he found a family with two sisters and their elderly father, and the daughter of one of the women. Amazingly, this small group had managed pretty well on their own up to that point, but, as soon as the Governor shows up, the little ladies become powerless, for instance, in getting the elderly man to bed or get him his oxygen tanks. They needed manly rescuing.

After convincing the women that their place, which had been safe so far, no longer is, they all go on the road, under the safe leadership of the Governor (because, really, that’s what women want). They find another group. The Governor kills the current leaders (so much for the whole crisis of conscience thing), takes over (because he’s The Man), and decides to go attack the prison where Grimes and his group are still holed up.

Meanwhile, Grimes is still a horrible leader. When Carol tries to teach the children how to defend themselves (a perfectly reasonable thing to do), Carl sees her, and she tells him not to tattle on her to her dad… because Grimes is a horrible leader but somehow, that never gets questioned. Follows a weird flu epidemic that conveniently kills the rescued members of Woodbury.

The worst of the last season was definitely when Grimes decides, all by himself, to exile Carol because he thinks she killed some of the flu sufferers, including Tyrese’s girlfriend (hence another episode of macho nonsense, with some “let him hit me” stuff, and Tyrese making the other men promise to find who killed her). So, while on a supply round, again, Carol shows she understands what situation they’re in pretty realistically (after the death of a young couple they encountered), and it’s not pretty. This solidifies Grimes’s belief that he has the right to just kick her out of the group. When he gets back to the prison, no one questions him, which is really completely barf-worthy considering the season opener last Sunday.

twd2Then, the prison gets attacked and is set on fire. The one highlight of the season is Hershel’s killing. Big fist fight between the patriarchs, where Grimes gets all bloody, in addition to his being sweaty and gross all the time. In the chaos, the group disperses, and for the rest of the season, we’ll follow the separate groups: Carl, Michonne, and a totally beat up Grimes (whose leadership is inexplicably restored the minute he starts to fee better), then Daryl and Beth (who gets kidnapped by a group of gross dudes), then Maggie, Bob, and Sasha (and with this group, we learned that black lives are less important than white lives, when Bob decides to go with Maggie and abandon Sasha). Tyrese ends up with the girls from the prison, Grimes’s baby, and they end up with Carol, who is left with the task of killing one of the girls who have become, well, insane, and can no longer be trusted to harm them.

Along the way, they pick up a few extra people: a big dude who protects a mullet dude who supposedly has the cure for the plague and needs to get to DC, and a couple of women from the previous group that attacked the prison.

twd1Separately, they are all following signs to Terminus, a supposed sanctuary, which turns out, surprise surprise, to not be that at all! The season begins after they have all been captured by the cannibalistic Terminus people, who used to be good guys, but then, bad guys came and took over Terminus. They took it back and turned bad guys themselves.

The big moral lesson of the opener is that, basically, there are no more boundaries between good guys and bad guys. Everybody is equally awful.

The whole episode is Grimes’s group’s escape from Terminus (in large part, thanks to Carol), killing a whole bunch of Terminus people. Grimes is still as awful a leader as he was before: after their escape, he wants to return to finish them all off. At least, the others dare tell him it’s a bad idea.

But, of course, because it’s TWD, there has to be some patriarchal BS: remember, they escaped thanks to Carol’s intervention (Carol is turning in to the most badass character of the show, without the credit from the other characters). When she is reunited with the group, she cautiously approaches while keeping her distance. We get a big moving reunion with Daryl. And Grimes, asshole that he is, says “did you do that?” (meaning, set Terminus on fire, which allowed their escape), and hugs and thanks her when it becomes clear that she did. Somehow, he has given her her seal of acceptance in the group (patriarchal acceptance is needed), and the others come and greet her as well.

I am waiting to see if the rest of the show will address her shabby treatment in the previous season and if Grimes feels at any point he has to make amends for kicking her out of the group.

But why anyone would still defer to Grimes is beyond me.

KimaAs great a series as The Wire is, one of its major shortcomings is its lack of attention to women and girls. This does not mean The Wire fails to cover gender in the areas of crime, politics, education and work. But within those spheres, The Wire is more or less a drama involving heterosexual males. Hence, we get an array of stories illustrating various pursuits towards hegemonic masculinity.

Research on gangs in the United States shows that women are not absent figures, and under certain circumstances can achieve prominent gang status. Fortunately, at least two significant female characters emerge in The Wire whose attitudes, behaviours and positions within their respective workplaces reflect empirical gang research – Snoop, a gangsta in Marlo’s crew, and Kima Greggs, who isn’t in a gang per se, at least not in the way we normally think of gangs; Greggs is police.

A 2001 study with 369 gang-affiliated youth across 11 American cities (Peterson, Miller, & Esbensen) found that organisational sex composition within gangs influences how much power females and males attain. This study revealed that in youth gangs where there was a more balanced sex ratio, that is where there was a more even number of boys and girls, the female gang members engaged in significantly less levels of delinquency on 12 out of 14 measures.

In contrast, in youth gangs whose composition consisted of predominantly males and a proportionally smaller number of females, female gang members’ involvement in illegal activities were not significantly different from males’. In fact, findings from the study showed that for 12 out of the 14 delinquency measures there were no statistically significant differences comparing the male and female delinquency rates, including the measures for violent offenses.

The authors purport that these contrasting trends reflect organisational theory tied to gender and majority-minority relations:

…minority-group threat hypothesis suggests that as the proportion of the lower status group (i.e., females) increases, the higher status group (i.e., males) increases negative attention and control in an effort to maintain a dominant position. Thus, it would be in sex-balanced gangs – those with a sizeable proportion of female members – that the greater sex differences would emerge with regard to participation in delinquency. Our findings are in line with this prediction. Males and females in majority-male gangs did not report significantly different rates of offending, whereas males and females in sex-balanced gangs did. Thus, it may be that males in sex-balanced gangs, in which the percentage of females in nearly equal that of males, feel a gendered status threat and respond by narrowing girls’ opportunities for involvement in “masculine” activities such as delinquency. (p. 432).

To this end, although The Wire is probably inaccurate in portraying so few female characters, it is spot on in showing how female characters rise in prominence within largely male institutions. Take for instance Snoop, the only visible female gang member within Marlo’s crew. Snoop assumes masculine characteristics verbally (see her purchasing the nail gun, below; video can’t be embedded), through her attire, and behaviourally via her vicious criminality (Snoop shooting from the motorcycle, 2nd video).

http://youtu.be/JDpvkwBBu6U

Following Peterson, Miller, & Esbensen’s (2001) research findings, one would argue that Snoop is granted ascendance within the gang not only because of her masculine demeanor and brutal tendencies, but also because the sex-composition is so imbalanced in favour of males. As the only female within Marlo’s gang, women do not pose a gendered threat to the gang’s masculine order. Hence, Snoop is allowed to become “One of the Guys”, partake in work (i.e., valued criminal acts) along side males, and earn her way up within the organisational hierarchy.

Of course Kima Greggs is not in a gang the way we traditionally think of gangs. However, she also works in an overwhelmingly male institutional setting – the police force – where the law isn’t exactly always followed. Like Snoop, Kima assumes a traditional masculinity, which earns her peer respect and positions of power. And again like Snoop, Kima participates in workplace business along side her male counterparts. See the 2 clips below, where Kima clearly demonstrates highly masculine conduct (click on links, vid’s cannot be embedded):

http://youtu.be/2JVvEmCQrVE

http://youtu.be/zlXsk2tyGDA

One might argue that because the police force is similar to a gang in terms of its organisational, gendered composition and in terms of its masculine, violent inclinations, Kima is permitted to work at the detective level. If more women were in the police force and posed a greater numerical threat to the patriarchal stability, it is possible that even with Kima’s masculine attitudes and behaviours, she would be severely hampered in her career trajectory.

otrThat is what a cop said to Alice Goffman after she was swept up in a raid at the residence of her African American subjects / friends. Actually it gets even better than this:

“On the way to the precinct, the white cop who is driving tells me that if I am looking for some Black dick, I don’t have to go to 6th Street; I could come right to the precinct at 8th and Vine. The Black cop in the passenger side grins and shakes his head, says something about how he doesn’t want any of me; he would probably catch some shit.

At the precinct, another white guy pats me down. He is smirking at me as he touches my hips and thighs. There is a certain look of disdain, or perhaps disgust, that white men sometimes give to white women whom they believe to be having sex with Black men—Black men who get arrested, especially.

(…)

Do your parents know that you’re fucking a different nigger every night?

(…)

What is your Daddy going to say when you call him from the station and ask him to post your bail? Bet he’d love to hear what you are doing. Do you kiss him with that mouth?” (70)

It’s a double whammy: patriarchy mixed with racism and rape threats

So far, this is a very powerful book, I have to say..

It’s been a while since I have blogged about The Walking Dead (well, since last season). So, half of season 4 has come and gone and it’s time to review what, I think, has been the most consistent thread of the show: its misogyny. Fear not, unlike most of the human population, in TWD, misogyny is alive and kicking and it was on special display this half-season.

Last season ended with one of the best and most mistreated female character, Andrea, dying after the collapse of Woodbury. The Governor decided to evacuate, then massacred most of his followers and took off with a bunch of his lieutenants. The survivors were rescued by Grimes group and brought to the prison. That is where the new season picks up. We don’t know what happened to the Governor but Michonne is looking for him. Ok. So, now the prison has a bunch more people and children. It is pretty obvious that they are all non-entities, therefore, most likely, they will meet a red shirt fate.

walking-dead_3But there is this thing: Carol plays teacher to the bunch of kids the group has inherited. But in addition to storytime, the kids (boys AND girls) get training in weapon use, because, you know, it’s a useful skill to have in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Enters the sociopath-in-chief, Carl, and Carol is quick to tell him “don’t tell your father”… Why? Grimes (whose death I would pray for at every episode if I were the religious kind) would, of course, not approve, and even though he’s no longer technically in charge, well, the patriarch’s opinion still matters more than a woman’s action (more on that later).

Of course, we all remember that Grimes did not want grown women to have guns, in the earlier seasons, but was ok for Carl to learn to use them (with the results we know).  It’s the men’s job to do the protection thing, as Lori used to remind Andrea in Season 2. And, of course, we all know that Carl will tattle. At the same time, it is pretty clear that Carol is in love with Daryl. Whether that’s fully reciprocated is not clear.

As you remember, when the show started, Carol was a battered wife, weak and submissive. At the show progresses, and after the death of her daughter, and especially this season, Carol has become a much stronger character. She seems to have figured out what times like these require and is no-nonsense about it. She’s becoming a leader, preparing the kids for their future when the current adults are gone, one way or the other.

Well, of course, we can’t have that.

Some flu-like bug infects the prison and secondary characters die like flies, including Karen, Tyreese’s girlfriend, who gets attacked by post-infection zombie after refusing to have sex with Tyreese (see what happens to women who don’t submit their male superiors?). Karen will later be murdered by some mysterious killer (along with another sick and close to death “patient” and their bodies burned. The fate of his property girlfriend will drive Tyreese to a fit of rage (even though the super-flu was guaranteed to kill Karen and turn her into a walker). Note: when Grimes discovers the crime scene, he sees a bloody handprint that is child-size (hint!!).

But, he confronts Carol and she confesses to the murders and provides a very rational explanation: they were going to die anyway, they were contagious and putting others in danger. But that’s a problem because the other men have promised Tyreese swift punishment for whoever committed the murders.

CarolBut, and this is one of the most vile moment of the show, even though it’s pretty clear Carol is taking the wrap for someone else, Grimes is an idiot, and, on their next supply run, he makes the unilateral decision to send Carol into exile, back into the zombie apocalypse, on her own (but she has a car and supplies!).

That is one of the most disgusting patriarchal plot of the show, and it is pretty clear that Carol is being exiled as potentially competitive leader, what with all her work with the children. And in TWD, women can’t be leaders. Even if Carol had killed the sick people, Grimes and the others have done way worse (including, for Grimes, killing Carol’s zombified daughter).

Throughout that supply run, Grimes keeps quizzing Carol. And when they run into a couple of other people, young man and woman who offer to help, Carol is the one who accepts and Grimes refuses, but she prevails. That means, of course, that decision will necessarily turn out to be a bad one, for which Grimes will blame her. And, as they wait for the young man to return, it is Carol who is rational about the fact that they need to leave, he’s probably dead and they need to get back to the prison. After all, if the young man and woman had listened to Grimes instead of Carol, they might have survived (how did they survive all along??). But Grimes uses that as his final reason to exile her.

Interestingly enough, somehow, he, alone, gets to make that decision, without the council that was created at the prison and that was supposed to handle all the decision-making. What follows is even worse: as people at the prison learn of Carol’s exile, none of them basically care, not even Daryl. No one question’s Grimes prerogative to have made such a unilateral decision. No one wants explanations beyond Grimes’s version of events. Patriarchal words carry all the power and no questions are asked.

So, that is the first patriarchal and misogynistic thread of this half-season. The second one has to do with the return of the Governor.

Lilly TaraWhen last season ended, the Governor and his acolytes just drove into the sunset. When we pick up, the Governor has been abandoned by them. He wanders all alone, long hair, beard, etc. Until he meets a small family of two sisters (Lily and Tara), their elderly, sick and dying father, and one of the sister’s daughter (Meghan, can this be even more heavy-handed).

We might as well name that storyline “the miracle of the patriarchy”. For instance, obviously, these two sisters have done pretty well for themselves so far, what with surviving this whole mess, keeping their father alive, and living in relative comfort. But somehow, as soon as the Governor (renamed Brian) shows up, the sisters become all powerless to do the things they obviously had to have been doing all along, like putting the disabled old man to bed, getting him a re-supply of oxygen, etc. All of a sudden, they need a man to do all the basic survival stuff (kinda reminiscent of the young man and woman in the previous thread). Not only that, but the little girl, Meghan, is described by her mother as not very talkative, but opens to the Governor. Is there anything that a patriarch can’t do?

Anyhoo, even though, they seem to have a stable situation, the sisters decide they need to leave and have the Governor guide them to wherever, after the old man’s death (you would think that would make their situation easier, but go figure). No surprise, Lilly and the Governor start having an affair. And, of course, the sisters turn out to suck at walking away from a decent place, one twists her ankle, so, of course, the Governor has to save the little girl. Really, women can’t do anything right.

As they meet the former acolytes of the Governor, and a group of survivors they have teamed up with (how original), the Governor returns to his murderous, pathological self and takes over the crew because that cannot be left to a bunch of Latinos. Long story short, the Governor wants the prison and riles up the crowd to get them to agree to go take it.

They go, mini-war starts where the Governor’s group uses a tank, thereby demolishing the very prison they want to occupy, which makes a lot of sense.

Interestingly enough, Tara, the soldier sister, turns out to be lesbian (and her lover is also ex-military… geez), but, despite her military experience and training, turns into a puddle of fear at the first exchange of shots. It’s so ridiculous.

But the main point of this whole plot is this: CLASH OF THE PATRIARCHS, that is, Grimes and the Governor having themselves a real man fight, with no weapons, just fists, dammit, because that is how real men fight each other. That is what this entire half-season has been about.

The only good thing about this half-season: Hershel is dead, thank goodness. No more pompous pontificating.

But as I mentioned, the misogyny of the show, unfortunately, is alive and well.

Being a total nerd, I am currently going over the United Nations 2013 Human Development Report. As always, the report goes over the types of policies that improve the Human Development Index of a country. But take a look at this excerpt from page 88, that compares different educational scenarios over time for South Korea and India (the red emphases are mine and click on the image for a larger view):

Differential educational prospects 2

Now, granted, there are other major differences between South Korea and India. However, it is not exactly news to assert that better educated women provide benefits to society as a whole and that therefore, educational equality by gender is a pre-condition to higher development and major social change. Religious fundamentalists like the Taliban understand the dynamic very well, which is why they get all hung up about educated girls and are willing to use extreme violence to prevent even the primary education of girls.

By SocProf.

Talk about degradation ceremony:

“An unusual punishment has shocked many in Iran. On April 15, police paraded a convicted criminal through the northwestern city of Marivan dressed in traditional Kurdish women’s clothing. This has prompted protests in the streets, online, and even in Iran’s parliament.”

Note the whole parade aspect to this, to make sure that one misses what is happening.

The idea behind this is simple: to be a woman is a degraded status and therefore, to make a man dress like one is a humiliation. When it is conducted in public, it exposes the recipient of that punishment to ridicule. One would never imagine doing the opposite: dress a woman like for punishment, right? That would not make any sense. Humiliation only works one way, from dominant status to subordinate status. The reverse would be some sort of upgrade, which defeats the purpose of punishment and humiliation. There is no stigmatization in reverse because there is no equality in power.

Now, it may seem as something out of a theocracy, as Iran is, but let us all remember that western culture also contains similar elements of comparing boys to girls or men to women as a form of humiliation (“throwing like a girl”). We have all sorts of nasty names for boys and men who do not conform to patriarchal norms of toughness, athleticism, etc. Insulting someone’s manhood flows from the same idea that sexes are polar opposites, not equal, with no shades of grey in between.

See also here for an article in French on this topic.

By SocProf.

And keep the girls out!

“Last Tuesday evening, Mark Cuban, the famously outspoken owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, told ESPN that he would consider drafting Brittney Griner, the 6ft 8in center for Baylor Bears, to his team. Cuban said:

“If she’s the best on the board, I will take her … You never know unless you give somebody a chance.”

He followed up with a statement the next day to USA Today, in which he wrote:

“We evaluate every draft eligible player on the planet … As I told the media yesterday, she would have to excel in workouts to get drafted. I have no problem giving her that opportunity. I hope she gives it a shot.”

Cuban’s remarks about Griner and her ability were conditional, based on her trying out for the team. He wasn’t offering her a seat on the bench, merely a chance to determine if her skill level deemed her worthy of a Mavericks jersey.”

And predictably, at the slightest hint of challenge to the patriarchal and phallocratic order – by having a few women cross the borders into exclusively male territory – a sh*tstorm exploded:

“And thus was born the #GrinerNBA hashtag – which turned quickly into a cesspool of misogynistic and transphobic (“she’s a he!”) comments about Griner (sadly, a common event whenever Griner is the center of the conversation). The misogynistic comments tended to point out that Griner is just a woman and the NBA is not the place for women: “no offense she a girl”“NBA’s a man’s sport”“I’m all for equal rights but Women need to know their place.” And Cuban would “take a chance with her in the kitchen”“I would not like to see #GrinerNBA happen because it is a men’s league.”

And the usual threats of physical violence, rape and murder.

Now this is interesting in light of the case of Caster Semenya. Caster Semenya is the South African track and field athlete who had to undergo a series of degrading procedures to ascertain that she was really a woman, because she was too good to be a woman, so, athletic authorities had to check. She was then ordered to undergo hormonal treatment to lower her performance level closer to a “normal” woman level. Commentators indicated that it would be unfair to have her compete with women if she had an advantage (hormonal levels, for instance).

But, as Dave Zirin writes in his book Game Over, women cannot win when it comes to sports and the Griner case is no different:

“These misogynistic jokes discredit Griner’s ability to play ball with men by tapping into old sexist ideas that women are always less than men and that their specific space in this world is wherever men are not. The very act of getting on Twitter and saying misogynistic things about such a popular female sports star is an act of desperation. It means to set right the balance that was upset when Cuban floated the idea of allowing Griner to try out for the NBA.

With an irony not apparent to these commentators, the belief that Griner is “not manly enough” to play in the NBA is flatly opposed by the other offensive method people used to insult her: that she is a man. This is aclassic transphobic trope, or a fear that her gender presentation does not “match” the sex she was assigned at birth. For example: “she possesses man parts, so why not?”“Griner has a penis and would fit right in”“She looks and sounds like a man.” For much more, if you need it, in this vein, just check out the hashtag.

These transphobic jokes, like the misogynistic ones, devalue Griner because we live in a society that denigrates trans people in general and chafes whenever confronted by someone who does not fit into a neat box of “feminine woman” or “masculine man”. Because athletes are seen as “masculine”, female athletes, by being athletic, are no longer feminine.”

So, a woman athlete is either not woman enough (to play with men) or not a woman at all (in which case, she’s a freak and can’t play with men either).

What this framing does is (1) shift the discussion completely away from the actual skills of the athlete in question, (2) reinforces the gender boundaries: men and women in sports have to fit in neat, separate boxes, no overlap possible, no path back and forth allowed; gender is exclusively binary; (3) overall reinforces patriarchal and phallocratic norms where women cannot win (remember Durkheim’s functions of deviance?): fit in culturally and patriarchally accepted and enforced gender norms and one is seen as inferior to men; don’t fit in gender norms and enjoy the torrent of misogyny and transphobia coming your way. The safest alternative then is to step back in line and let gender status take precedence over athletic status.

So, the Taliban tried and failed to kill Malala Yousafzai and now she’s famous, is getting a book contract and everything. That has to be frustrating for your average medieval patriarch. So, how does one compensate?

“A teacher in Pakistan has been murdered in an attack similar to that on Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl blogger.

Shahnaz Nazli was shot dead in Shahkas, near the town of Jamrud in the Khyber tribal district, between the north-western city of Peshawar and the Afghan border.

Reports said the 41-year-old was hit in what as described as a drive-by shooting.

According to the AFP news agency, the teacher was on her way to the government girls’ primary school in Shahkas when gunmen fired at her about 200 metres from the school and then fled the scene.

“The teacher was killed after unknown gunmen on a motorbike shot her and fled,” said a local government official, Asmatullah Wazir.

No groups have so far claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack, though the Taliban has previously been behind numerous attacks on girls’ schools and teachers. Hundreds of schools have been bombed and destroyed in the tribal areas of Pakistan.”

Of course, the Taliban do not have the monopoly of gender violence. The rape culture in South Africa has had devastating consequences, especially in light of the Pistorius case:

“”The massive problem we need to understand in South Africa is the level of men’s violence against women and against each other,” said Lisa Vetten, a researcher who specialises in domestic abuse. Police statistics on domestic violence are limited. But 15,609 murders and 64,500 reported rapes in 2011-12 suggest massive levels of violence in South African homes.

Household surveys by the MRC have found that 40% of men have hit their partner and one in four men have raped a woman. Three-quarters of men who admit to having raped women say they did so first as teenagers. The MRC found that, while a quarter of women had been raped, just 2% of those raped by a partner reported the incident to police.

Experts say South African society features all the known causes of rape and violence, including a historical culture of “might is right”, a wealth gap that makes men feel weak, an unequal relationship between women and men, lack of adequate childcare, which results in the neglect of boys, and high male unemployment.

Jewkes, a British doctor and director of gender and health at the MRC, said: “Having a father at home is really unusual here. South African children are more likely to be raised by a non-biological parent than by both biological parents. So you see high levels of neglect, humiliation and abuse, which develops into domestic violence. We also have a high rate of teenage pregnancies and those young mothers are not equipped to raise their children.

“South African men think women should be under their control. There is an idea that violence is justifiable as a means to keep women in their place. This has not changed in 20 years and even though the South African murder rate has dropped by 50% since 1999, rape figures have not,” said Jewkes.”

But there are some positive developments out of Ecuador:

“Ecuador hopes to move forward in the fight against violence against women by typifying femicide – gender-motivated killings – as a specific crime in the new penal code.

The first statistics on gender violence in this South American country were presented in 2012, indicating that 60 percent of women had suffered some kind of mistreatment.

The aim now is to include the crime of femicide in the penal code reform introduced in Congress in late 2011. The new code is expected to be approved by the legislature to be sworn in on May 24.

The bill describes femicide as the murder of a woman “because she is a woman, in clearly established circumstances.”

It goes on to describe these circumstances: the perpetrator unsuccessfully attempted to establish or re-establish an intimate relationship with the victim; they had family or conjugal relations, lived together, were boyfriend/girlfriend, friends or workmates; the murder was the result of the “reiterated manifestation of violence against the victim” or of group rites, with or without a weapon.

Femicide is to be punishable by up to 28 years in prison – similar to the sentence handed to hired killers.”

Although:

“Ecuador thus follows on the heels of other Latin American countries that have adopted femicide in their legislation: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru.

However, in several of those countries – most notoriously Mexico and Guatemala – the classification of femicide as a crime has failed to reduce the wave of violence against women.”

It might be because femicide is tied to other social and cultural issues that governments have a hard time controlling (such as a deeply macho culture and drug trafficking). Still, at least  it might raise awareness.

I do not follow sports, except for the World Cup of Soccer. And I especially do not follow American sports such as baseball, basketball or football (or as we Europeans call it, American football, since the real football is what Americans call soccer). But, I do enjoy reading Dave Zirin’s columns and books. So, I was happy to pick up his latest, Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down.

The book is a global tour of what sports trends that Zirin finds encouraging as they match his lefty politics. So, he takes us on a tour that includes the role of soccer fans in the revolution in Egypt and more broadly the Arab Spring, or athletes as labor fighting back against corporate league bosses and owners, women pushing for greater opportunities, and gay players coming out. Overall, Zirin sees major shifts in the world of sports, hence the “Game Over” title, as it points to the idea that sports is not the same. Something dramatic is changing. And as with any progressive change, there is backlash.

“Over the last thirty years, the athletic-industrial complex has transformed itself into a trillion dollar, global entity. One way it’s done this is by making its product and its players as explicitly apolitical as possible. From Peyton Manning to Derek Jeter to Danica Patrick, the dominant message projected by athletes has been that it’s far more important to be a brand than an individual, and that a modern jock should never sacrifice commercial concerns for political principle. This credo echoes Jesse Owens, the great Olympic star, who once said, “The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside.”

ESPN, twenty-four-hour talk radio, and a seemingly bottomless appetite for distraction have exploded the size of our sports world— and its profits— into the stratosphere. In conjunction with this expansion, politics has also been actively discouraged by management and slammed by sports columnists. Legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell toward the end of his life dubbed it rule number one of “the jockocracy”: sports and politics just don’t mix.

Yet over the last several years, the specter of politics has been haunting sports. Cosell’s Golden Rule has been repeatedly and flagrantly breached. More athletes are speaking out across the political spectrum as a series of revolutions, occupations, and protests has defined the global landscape. The real world is gaining on the sports world and the sports world is starting to look over its shoulder.” (Locs. 258-270)

As always, Zirin has a punchy writing style and he definitely takes sides. At the same time, there is, unsurprisingly, in every line, an undying love of sport. But Zirin always has an eye for the relationships between sports and society, dominance and resistance. This is true here as well.

“Our sports culture shapes societal attitudes, relationships, and power arrangements. It is where cultural meanings— our very notions of who we are and how we see each other, not only as Americans but also as individuals— play out. It frames the ways in which we understand and discuss issues of gender, race, and class. And, as ever, it is crucial for understanding how these norms and power structures have been negotiated, struggled with, and resisted.” (Locs 367-370)

The book is rich in stories in context that will keep even the least interested reader (like me) interested in the subject. Overall, in the US, Zirin sees the end of the “shut up and play” rule where athletes are not supposed to have opinions beyond their brand preferences. And there is often a price to pay if players do speak up and get political.

At the same time, Zirin reminds readers that players are labor, with unions, operating in environments of unprecedented corporate power and owners who engage in David Harvey’s accumulation by extraction, passing on the burden of the economic crisis and bad managements to the players. In that sense, sports is a perfect reflection of socioeconomic trends that affect the American society as a whole.

And so, the lockouts we have all heard of over the previous years are about very basic labor issues:

“Our side of the table, the average career for a football player is 3.6 years. It takes you three years and three games in order to get five years of health care coverage when you’re done playing. If you play any less than three years you don’t get any health care coverage when you retire. If you play three years and three games, you still only get five years . . . so you take a guy who graduates from college at 22, the average career is 3.6 years, let’s say he plays four years. Players are retiring at the ripe old age of 26. Five years of health care coverage and everything after that, every injury you have is a preexisting condition. Try to find insurance for that. So when they say to me, it’s a battle between billionaires and millionaires, that’s where I start.” (Locs 520-525).

Of course, in different ways, a lot of Americans face this exact same situation with the health care system. Athletes get it much younger and much more dramatically.

This corporate power is accompanied by what has long been Zirin’s pet peeve, and the subject of his previous book, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (reviewed here), massive public subsidies to very wealthy teams and their “wronged billionaire” owners. And as with the American society where wealth has been transferred upwards over the past thirty years, the same goes for the big leagues, like the NBA, where massive wealth gets transferred from the public and the players to the owners.

But why was soccer fanhood so central to the Arab Spring?

“In many countries with an authoritarian bent, the clubs are allowed to exist and even thrive, under the tacit understanding that it’s better for young, frustrated men to take out their anger on themselves and the police than on the government.” (Locs 732-733)

Thus were born the Egyptian Ultras who were so present on Tahrir Square. And so, as much as they were supposed to stay away from politics, the Ultras trained themselves to be revolutionaries as they went against the other fans. Similarly, athletes and fans in Bahrain also took to the streets, with less success though. Several star players were arrested and tortured there.

Even more globally, to have the privilege of organizing a major sports event, such as the Olympics or the World Cup of Soccer often means a shock doctrine for the less privileged:

“Increasingly, these rising economic powers are also vying for the honor and prestige of hosting international sporting events. In the twenty-first century, such events require more than merely stadiums and hotels. The host country must provide a massive security apparatus, the means to crush any opposition, and the ability to create the kind of “infrastructure” that modern games demand. That means not just stadiums, but sparkling new stadiums; not just security, but the latest in antiterrorist technology; not just new transportation to and from venues, but the removal of unsightly poverty along those paths. That means a willingness to spend billions of dollars in the name of creating a playground for international tourists and multinational sponsors. What this all requires is what the decaying Western powers, at this point, cannot provide: massive deficit spending and a state police infrastructure ready to displace, destroy, or disappear anyone who dares stand in their way.” (Locs 993-1000)

For anyone following the British press, there was a lot of coverage of these issues before the London Olympics. And one just has to look at current events to find items reflecting exactly that:

“Brazilian riot police armed with batons, teargas and pepper spray have forcibly evicted an indigenous community from a dilapidated museum complex next to the Maracanã football stadium.

The forced relocation, which led to scuffles, arrests and accusations of brutality, comes amid growing pressure on the hosts of the next World Cup to accelerate preparations that have fallen far behind schedule. Renovation of the stadium, which will host next year’s final, was supposed to have been completed at the end of last year, but there are doubts that it will be ready for a friendly between England and Brazil in June.

The museum has been the focus of a protracted legal battle between squatters, who claim the site should be used to promote indigenous culture, and the municipal authorities, who want to knock down a graffiti-covered eyesore and modernise the area before the world’s attention moves to Rio de Janeiro.

“We were negotiating, and then the government resorted to force,” said Urutau Guajajara, a bare-chested man wearing a feathered headdress who described himself as a professor of the Guajajara ethnic group. “The police were very violent.”

“It was shocking,” said Ingrid Paul, an Argentinian who has lived in the community for the past three weeks. “The police were obviously preparing for a fight. They came in with masks at 2:30am. We were all affected by the gas, even a three-year-old child.”

After their eviction, some of the indigenous people were taken to temporary housing provided by the government. Others sang songs, smoked pipes and handed out leaflets declaring: “513 years of struggle: resist the expulsion of the multi-ethnic indigenous group of the Maracanã.”

In the aftermath, police and TV helicopters buzzed overhead. Officers armed with automatic rifles cordoned off the area and several dozen police vehicles – including armoured personnel carriers – lined the streets.

The government says it is necessary to raze the building as part of the renovation of a rundown area that is supposed to be transformed into a sports and entertainment hub.”

It is all here: the pushing the poor to the side so they don’t stain the perfect landscape for the global media; the militarization of security, the use private military / security companies with shady accounting and overspending of public monies; the forced and inadequate relocations. It is the cleansing of urban centers for the benefit of the global elite and the few who will be able to afford the steep ticket prices for the main events (with massive corporate buys that leave a lot of empty seats as happened in London). And ultimately, the public will be stuck with the bill. In the case of the World Cup in South Africa, Zirin coined this phenomenon “Invictus in reverse” where it even got worse:

“Then there were the assassinations. In a story that made international news but gained next to no notice in the United States, two people (on a discovered list of twenty) were assassinated for “whistle-blowing” on suspected corruption in the construction of the $ 150 million Mbombela Stadium. The Sunday World newspaper attained the list, which included two journalists and numerous political leaders.” (Locs 1230-1233)

Nevertheless, in a country plagued by massive poverty and the heritage of apartheid, enormous amounts of money were spent on infrastructure just for one global event, like the grandiose Moses Mabhida Stadium.

And of course, no political opposition must be seen or heard at global sports events. No dissent must be allowed. The poor and disadvantaged must be out of sight. Only the “approved” vendors are allowed, so regular street vendors are pushed out of the way and reap no benefit from the in-pouring of global money. And the global media will be silent on the police brutality that will necessarily occur. Nothing must ruin the global spectacle.

Inevitably as well, Zirin devotes a full chapter to the shame of Penn State and its revered coach in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.

“This is what happens when a football program becomes the economic, social, and spiritual heartbeat of an entire region. Joe Paterno was the personification of everything that made Penn State matter in football, in academics, and in much of the state. When something becomes that valuable, a certain mind-set kicks in: Protect JoePa. Protect Nittany Lions football. Protect the brand above all. In a company town, your first responsibility is to protect the company.

But Penn State never was an “outlaw program.” It was what every school was supposed to aspire to become. Now every athletic director or school president has to reckon with the fact that they have been looking up to an institution that places such value on football that children can become collateral damage. Let JoePa’s last teachable moment be this: If your football coach is the highest-paid, most revered person on your campus, you have a problem. If your school wins multiple championships and a booster drops money to build a statue of the coach, tear it the hell down. And if you think children are being raped, the minimum just isn’t good enough, no matter whether or not you wear a crown.” (Kindle Locs 1695-1703)

And Zirin has a few choice words as well for the students who rioted in support of Paterno and his team, a jock culture that has mutated into malignancy, as he calls it. And in the wake of the Steubenville horror, these words certainly ring true. At the same time, Zirin is also critical of the way the NCAA interjected itself into what is a legal matter. Zirin also has a full chapter on the NCAA and its exploitation of student-athletes in the context of state retrenchment from academia:

“Given the grim budgetary realities that surround state universities today, the numbers boggle the mind. According to USA Today, salaries of new head football coaches at the 120 bowl-eligible schools increased by 35 percent in 2011. Average pay has now ballooned to $ 1.5 million annually, an increase from $ 1.1 million. Over the last six seasons, football coach salaries have risen by an astonishing 55 percent. This has happened as tuition hikes, furloughs, and layoffs have continued unabated. In an era of stagnating and falling wages, compensation for coaching a college football team traces a trend line that rises like a booster’s adrenaline during bowl season. The question is how— not just how this is possible given the stark economic realities of most institutions, but how schools can be this shameless.” (Locs 1864-1869)

Intercollegiate sport is unsustainable but it is somehow sacred and therefore protected from cuts. And despite claims to the contrary, Zirin shows that money from athletics does not trickle to the rest of academic institutions.

Zirin also covers materials he covered in his film Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports,

He does cover race, gender and LGBT issues in sport, with a specific focus on Caster Semenya and her shameful treatment by the sports authority, dedicated to determining her gender, even if it meant subjecting her to a series of degradation ceremonies. Zirin argues that there is something especially rotten when it comes to gender and track and field.

“Track and field has had a particular preoccupation with gender, especially when it intersects with race. Fifty years ago, Olympic official Norman Cox proposed that the International Olympic Committee create a separate category of competition for black women, “the unfairly advantaged ‘hermaphrodites.’ ” For years, women athletes had to parade naked in front of Olympic officials for inspection. This gave way to more “sophisticated gender testing” to determine if athletes have what officials still perceive as the ultimate advantage: being a man.

Let’s leave aside that being male is not the be-all, end-all of athletic success; wealth, coaching facilities, nutrition, and opportunity determine the development of a world-class athlete far more than a Y chromosome ever could. Essentially, the physical reality of intersex people calls into question fixed notions we are taught to accept about men and women in general, and athletes in sex-segregated sports like track and field in particular.” (Locs 2334-2342)

So, in the case of Caster Semenya,

“In the Caster Semenya case, there are important questions few in the sports media dared ask. Why should it matter if she is maxing out her every biological advantage? No one claims that basketball star Yao Ming had an unfair advantage because he is seven foot five. No one asked if swimmer Michael Phelps’s mammoth, flipper-like feet unfairly skewed the competition. If anything, he was praised for being, as one announcer said breathlessly, “built to swim!” Why isn’t Caster Semenya, with her slender hips and powerful muscles, “built to run”? If Semenya’s biology is not “normal,” it’s worth asking, what world-class athlete does have a normal body?” (Locs 2346-2351)

We can all suspect what the answers are to these questions. And they all point to our collective discomfort when it comes to intersex individuals and anyone, for that matter, who does not fit neatly in the socially-acceptable gender boxes. But Zirin sees a few hopeful signs of greater openness in the world of LGBT sports.

But racism has not disappeared either and Zirin is merciless towards NBA commissioner Stern:

“Racism reverberates with particular strength in the NBA because no other sport tries so aggressively to market African American players to an overwhelmingly white, middle-class “ticket-buying” audience. This dynamic causes a set of resentments and tensions that Stern seems unable to navigate. Instead of building bridges, he napalms them. Every scuffle, every fight, every elbow on the court is subject to the kind of hand-wringing that would be unheard of in fight-happy hockey. Every scandal is a commentary on the culture, attitudes, or even, as ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd opined, the “absence of fathers” in the African American community. In other words, race is discussed, but never explicitly— and never as a way of analyzing the assumptions of the analysts themselves. Instead, the discussion often merely reinforces racist attitudes about players, their backgrounds, and their states of mind.” (Locs 2766-2772)

So, as one reaches the end of Zirin’s book, which is mostly about hopeful trends, one does wonder whether these trends are real or just a set of nice anecdotes but far from social movements to make sports more publicly accountable, more labor-friendly, less racist, sexist and homophobic. Frankly, I don’t know. Sometimes, it seems as if Zirin is overplaying his hand but then, he’s the expert, not me.

 But then, it does not take much to remind us of the persistence of racism in the world of sports, whether from audience at stadiums in Europe or sports commentators:

 “The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, is, if you think about it, a pretty nasty song. It dreams, in one of its more memorable verses, that the “blood of the impure” will “irrigate our fields.” It’s a rousing anthem, to be sure, and I myself can frequently be heard humming it to myself in advance of a match being played by Les Bleus, or as I ride my bike or do the dishes. I’ve found that it’s sometimes hard to find a French person (at least if you hang out, as I do, with too many intellectuals), who can actually sing it without irony. And yet, over the past 26 years, the question of whether a particular subset of French men – those who play on the national football team – sing the Marseillaise under certain conditions has been a rather unhealthy obsession in France (we’ve blogged about it before, when Kinshasa-born flanker Yannick Nyanga sobbed uncontrollably during the anthem ahead of a rugby match vs Australia last year).

We are now being treated to what feels to me like Act 467 of this drama. Karim Benzema, as anyone who attentively watches French football matches knows, doesn’t sing the anthem before matches. In a recent interview, asked why, he answered in a pleasingly flippant way: “It’s not because I sing that I’m going to score three goals. If I don’t sing the Marseillaise, but then the game starts and I score three goals, I don’t think at the end of the game anyone is going to say that I didn’t sing the Marseillaise.” Pushed further on the question, he invoked none other than Zinedine Zidane who, like Benzema, was the child of Algerian immigrants to France – and who also happens to be the greatest French footballer of all time, and the one to whom the team owes its one little star on its jersey: “No one is going to force me to sing the Marseillaise. Zidane, for instance, didn’t necessarily sing it. And there are others. I don’t see that it’s a problem.”

Ah, Karim, but it is a problem, don’t you see? In fact, your decision about whether to vocalize or not, as you stand in line under the careful scrutiny of cameras, about to enter into a hyper-stressful and aggressive sporting match during which your every action will be dissected and discussed, is an unmistakable sign about whether or not the true France will survive or alternatively be submerged in a tide of unruly immigrants and their descendants.

Notwithstanding the fact that, as Michel Platini has noted, in his generation no footballers ever sang the Marseillaise, and that “white” footballers – even the Muslim Franck Ribéry, who at best mutters a bit during the anthem but is much more enthusiastic in his pre-game prayers to Allah – are rarely if ever asked this particular question, even so some will continue to insist that your choice not to sing is a window onto your disloyal soul. As the Front National explained: “This football mercenary, paid 1484 Euros per hour, shows an inconceivable and inacceptable disdain for the jersey that he is lucky to be able to wear. Karim Benzema does not “see the problem” with not singing the Marseillaise. Well, French people wouldn’t see any problem with having him no longer play for the French team.””

For the record, I’m French “de souche”, white. I know La Marseillaise is a stupid war song and I never bothered to learn it and I have never sung it in public events. But the whole “disdain for the French jersey” theme is not new and it came to the fore especially after the incident at the World Cup of Soccer in South Africa where the French team refused to train and practice and ultimately, left the tournament in shame (see my review of a French book on this very subject).

Anyway, read Zirin’s book.