21 June 2007

False Friends and Pussycats

There have always been female singers, dancers and page-three models that bend and gyrate half-naked in front of predominantly male audiences in a way that would make most 70s feminists shudder. Yet there has been a rush of those whose language is feministic – it is a "liberating" experience and makes them feel "empowered". Attacks come from all sides – the sexually conservative and the downright catty attack them as sluts, attention seekers and poor role models. The traditional wings of feminism see it as self-degradation, becoming sex-objects and selling out their sisters. But rather than presenting themselves as sex 'objects', many behave in a sexually dominant, active way, sex subjects more than anything, and there is little inherently misogynistic about male arousal or female semi-nudity. Context and presentation of sexuality, even when intended for male entertainment, is everything, and the frantic, brazen antics of Courtney Love and the glossy camp of Christina Aguilera do seem, if anything, to erode traditional feminine sexual roles and promote an active, woman-centred image. However, some others don’t seem to fit: 'empowered' topless models and strippers and, especially, the PussyCat Dolls. These sound less sincere in their convictions to the bikini-feminist cause, and we should well be suspicious – Go to any strip club and ask any girl if she enjoys her work and you’ll always find she loves it – never expect anyone to honestly evaluate their job while they’re at work.

The lad-mag and pop-music industries depend heavily on images of semi-naked women that contradict classic feminist ideas, yet need a steady turnover of young, attractive, sexually uninhibited women. However, it is impossible in the modern world to argue against feminism, and there are two reasons for this: Firstly, attacks on basic feminist principles are no longer taken seriously, especially coming from women – imagine "Well, why shouldn’t I, as a woman, be treated like a second-class citizen and a sex-object?". Secondly, this political move makes all the wrong bedfellows – the typical female opposition to Feminism comes from middle-aged Daily-Mail and Concerned-Women-for-America types, who are equally appalled at the filth that passes for music videos these days. Yet the market for naked ladies remains, and so it is necessary to justify it using acceptable discourses. What can be acceptably challenged is the feminist movement's assumption that these sexualised images of women are exploitative. Hence the claims to 'empowerment' and 'liberating' feelings perfectly acceptable in modern post-feminist society, and putting feminist critics in a difficult position – allying with anti-feminist sexual conservatives to attack high-profile, successful women.

I do not doubt for a second that many of these feelings of 'liberation' are genuine. Some young girls and women obsessively strive to become page-three models and over-sexualised teen-sensation singers, and much of the branding, from PussyCat Dolls to Playboy memorabilia, is aimed squarely at the female market. So what is it, I wonder, about the PussyCat Dolls that grates with me? They talk the talk of female empowerment, but for some reason the PCD brand doesn’t sit right. Their language is the language of feminism, or at least the slightly unusual modern type so often embraced by women who titillate men for a living, and their choreographer/shadowy svengali, Robin Antin, is a woman and definitely does her best to sound like a feminist:
"Inside every woman is a PussyCat Doll, which makes you feel sexy and empowered. You wake up every day and put on a little bit of gloss, mascara, a little blush, and look cute. It’s about looking after your body, being healthy, eating the best, drinking a lot of water and taking care of your hair. It’s about using the PussyCat Doll mentality in your everyday life and being inspired by the best a woman can be. It’s a religion."

Sounds like air-punching self-help yuppie bollocks, but there is still a lot to be read into it. She uses plenty of feminist power-words – "empowered", "inspired", "the best a woman can be", but other words – "cute", and especially "pussycat" and "doll" are infused with ideas of submissiveness, and the context of the words undermines their 'feminist' punch. The PussyCat Doll inside every woman does not empower her, but simply makes her feel empowered. Even this empowerment is a rather petty one – the right and the power to put on lippy and have soft, strong and shiny hair. The adherents of the PCD religion are not inspired to be the best a woman can be, but by the best a woman can be – I am assuming by this she means the PussyCat Dolls. According to PussyCat Doctrine it is somehow empowering to aspire to them, but if you're not a PussyCat already, I'm afraid full PussyCat empowerment is not for you.
"It is an anthem for all confident girls," Antin says of 'Don't Cha', "I want to help women really accept themselves. I will never give up on putting my message out there for girls and for women."

Messages for girls and for women, confidence, accepting yourself – the feminism boxes are all ticked, but again something is wrong with the context. Is it actually a message of confidence for girls? No, it's just an anthem for confident girls – those fat girls and uggos excluded from the PussyCat Dolls Alpha clique remain so, those included are encouraged to be comfortable with their dominance. But it is the chorus of 'Don't Cha' that reveals the PussyCat mentality. (The verse provides a mildly touching back-story to the hot-girl anthem, which in many ways doesn't fit with the main thrust of the song, but it is the way with pop-music that anything in the verse is effectively buried, and can easily be ignored).

So, "Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?". There are four ways to read this question – as a confidently hot woman, as a confidently hot man, as a shy, fat or ugly woman and as a shy, fat or ugly man. For the hot man the message is "Dump your sub-par girlfriend and hook up with a real woman", for the hot woman: "You are hot, you are a PussyCat Doll, you can have any man you want". Messages of confidence, no doubt. But for the fatties, dorks and uggos the message is "Don't you wish you had a girlfriend who was hot like me?" or "Doesn't your boyfriend wish you were hot like me?" messages that simply and effectively destroy confidence.

The empowerment is genuine. It is, for the most part, attractive, confident women using their sexuality to gain power over men. But this is not women's empowerment and it is not feminism. This is the empowerment of hot chicks over sexually-frustrated men and, most importantly, over other, less attractive, women. This is not women gaining power, this is women who already have it consolidating it and, in doing so, pushing down other women. Basically, a net loss for Womankind. Feminists should be naturally wary of any use of feminist language at a time when anti-feminist rhetoric is ridiculed or ignored. But especially, feminists should be wary of talk of 'empowerment'. With many layers of power-structures, empowerment comes in many forms, and the empowerment solely of the attractive, slim and confident over the fat, ugly and socially inadequate is not the empowerment of women or a step towards sexual equality. Simply empowering a woman is not enough to be Feminism – Marie Antoinette was very much empowered over the average French peasant – to have gender equality requires advancement of the whole gender. This must especially include the women who are not part of the fit-girl elite.

14 June 2007

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Calls for the Dissolution of Jerusalem City Council

For anyone with an interest in translation, or for that matter anyone concerned with the presentation and distortion of facts, the looming/escalating Iran crisis is one of the most interesting of recent years. The hinge is the famous quotation by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – usually translated as “Israel must be wiped off the map”. This is the most widely used and recognised translation, but it hits many pitfalls. A word-for-word translation gives:
“This regime that occupies Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.”
That he is actually quoting (misquoting in fact – the Ayatollah said “stage of time”) someone else is the first reason to distrust the hysteria around it, but is not interesting in the same way as the translation. The latter part can be interpreted in a variety of ways – literally it makes little sense, so most would assume it is an idiom, and it is, according to most translators, an idiomatic way of saying ‘vanish completely’. However, using ‘vanish’ in an active form instead of ‘be wiped’ in the passive implies internal forces instead of a hypothetical nuclear attack. Even more complicated, some languages, like English, are more profligate with passives than others, some, such as Spanish, have no passive form, and most Indo-European languages can imply passive meaning with active forms, or use the same form for passive, reflexive and intransitive verbs. Could ‘vanish’ also mean ‘vanish itself’ or ‘be vanished’? This is the first problem the translator faces – different methods of expression in different languages.

The “regime that occupies Jerusalem” is even more complicated. Firstly, the linguistic problems – does ‘regime’ have the same negative connotations as in English? It is more likely taken directly from French than from us, where it can also mean a diet. Could this also be the case in Farsi? Most languages do not distinguish between ‘occupies’ and ‘is occupying’, which do we think he meant? The whole phrase, however, hits a new problem. It clearly means Israel, but does it mean Israel as a whole, just the parts occupying Palestine, just the parts occupying Jerusalem, the whole country or just its ‘regime’? Most would doubt this phrase meant the whole country, George Bush, for example, spoke of destroying the ‘regime’ of Iraq, but, we assume, hoped not to destroy the entire country. However, there are also personal political issues to take into account. Many in the Iranian government refuse to call Israel by name, therefore this would simply be one of the many euphemisms commonly used as simply ‘Israel’. This in turn infects literal use of these phrases in the same way ‘passing water’ is always tainted with urination. Even the seemingly simple modal verb, ‘must’ can carry a wide variety of meanings, levels of certainty, strengths of intention and implications.

This table shows a variety of possible meanings, simply connect the columns and choose whatever statement best suits your agenda.
This regime occupying Jerusalem
vanish from the page of time
The entire State of Israel
be dissolved
The Jewish people
never have existed
The current Israeli administration
be destroyed
The Israeli people
redraw its borders
The military occupation of Palestine
Israel’s post-1967 borders
be omitted from historical record
The Israeli political system
be wiped from the face of the earth
Jerusalem’s local government
be brought to an end

Anything from “The military occupation of Palestine must end” to “All Jews will be destroyed” to “Jerusalem’s local government should be dissolved” is possible, and most translations and interpretations in the West approximate the second. Considering Ahmadinejad’s history of belligerence towards Israel, the more belligerent translations are perhaps more likely, but how certain can we be of this history? Ambiguity and distortion are unavoidable in translation of any kind, and there are other kinds of translation involved in building up a picture of a nation and its main character.

The Holocaust is a concept that requires particularly careful translation. It is a peculiarly European part of history, in which Iran had no involvement. The Holocaust, for countries outside of Europe and America, is a less weighty historical event than it is for the nations who were involved in forming and liberating the camps For Jews it is even more different - who could argue that ‘ha-Shoah’ means exactly the same to Israelis as ‘der Holocaust’ does to Germans? Its importance concerning the rights of Jews within society is also minimal in countries who, having expelled their Jewish population, are no longer concerned with the issue. However the resulting creation of Israel is more emphatic where Israel is more of a political issue. Oddly enough, Holocaust denial translates more easily into Western consciousness, being in both societies a prelude to anti-Semitic rhetoric, which too is often surprisingly similar. Even calling the Holocaust a ‘myth’ is rife with difficulties. The famously devout C.S. Lewis, speaking to the famously mythology-obsessed J.R.R Tolkein, described Christianity as “True myths, myths that really happened”. Is it not possible for blatantly true events to take on the social and literary function of a myth?

The difficulty of translating words, euphemisms, idioms, metaphors, even historical events, should make us wary of our perceptions of any culture. I don’t doubt that anti-Semitism is driving much of Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and policy, but there are many circular arguments that we use to confirm this. We believe he called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, this translation is confirmed by his attitude to the Holocaust, which is confirmed by his calling it a ‘myth’. We know ‘myth’ to be an accurate translation because of his history of anti-Semitism, which we see in his belligerent rhetoric towards Israel. His belligerence towards Israel, combined with his stated ambition to wipe it off the map shows he cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons, and his desire to wipe another country off the face of the earth is proof that he is trying to acquire them.

Subtle nuances will always be lost, or more likely altered, in translation, but overall this is seldom a problem. But subtle changes in meaning build up, especially when they feed off and contribute to a distorted and probably prejudiced picture of their background. We have a tendency to take accurate translation for granted, even though we get most of our translations from the Middle East from one source – the Middle East Media Research Institute, whose connections are perhaps dubious. Plans for the invasion of Iran are already being made, and especially plans for its media-friendly justification, and we should always be wary of hearing our enemies’ words via our mouths.