Thursday, March 29, 2007

Some Real Greatness Overlooked...

Thanks to the amazingness that is Netflix, Mira and I have spent the past couple of months making our way through all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, for those who have not experienced the greatness of this show, I know what you must be thinking ... come, on, a showed called Buffy --the vampire slayer???

When I was a little one of around eight years old, I first saw the cinematic version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry and David Arquette. I watched it about a kazillion times. My younger brother Matt and I used to act out vampire slaying scenes; I even named my hamster Buffy. Then around 1996 or 1997 I heard it was to be made into a TV series. Recalling my fondness of the movie (which looking back on it now, was not exactly high class cinema...) I scoffed at this notion. But I did watch it on and off. I watched most of the second and third seasons, which would have been when I was in 7th and 8th grade. Through high school I didn't keep up too religiously. But I think it's only now, as an adult, that I can fully appreciate how incredible this show is.

The show's creator Joss Whedon didn't really have experience doing TV when he began Buffy, so he says that the show was created in a cinematic fashion. Not only are there some amazingly artistically done episodes, the character development is beyond compare in
my opinion. First off, watching all seven seasons, one can really see how the individuals of the show have grown and developed. But it is never uncharacteristic or "out there." Some shows that I have recently watched have characters doing total 180s from season to season, there are plot flaws and holes left and right, and sometimes I wonder exactly what agenda the writers have. Never in Buffy. The range and depth of human emotion that is portrayed in this television series is astounding to me. Sometimes while we are watching I just have to turn to Mira and comment on how stunning it is that they were able to develop these characters in a one hour television show.

In addition to the incredible cinematography and character development, the writing of the show is fabulous. The dialogue amongst the characters is always entertaining, but not in a slapstick, Friends or Will & Grace sort of way. The episodes are always creative and manage to insert humor even when devastatingly sad things are happening. In addition, the storylines and the plot is so well-developed that the writers have things more or less worked out a year in advance. This provides for some excellent foreshadowing opportunities. For example, Buffy's little sister Dawn doesn't show up until the beginning of Season 5 (she was created by some monks out of mystical energy that needed to be protected). About mid-way through Season 4, Buffy has a dream in which she is making a bed with the other slayer, Faith. Faith mentions how Buffy has to be getting ready for "little sister." In the Season 4 finale, Buffy looks in on the same room during her dream sequence and mentions how her and Faith just made that bed. Tara then appears, telling Buffy, "You think you know ... what's to come ... what you are. You haven't even begun." She then tells Buffy to "be back before dawn." Foreshadowing? I think so! The last scene of the episode is a voiceover of Tara repeating this and Buffy staring at the darkened room (which is soon to become Dawn's room). The show is so well-crafted, it's really quite remarkable.

Besides all of this, there is the s
eries idea itself. You have Buffy, a normal high school girl who has been chosen to be the slayer. Its an incredible message about female empowerment in a culture where there are few female "superheros." Since Buffy's inception, there have been a variety of other shows with powerful lead females fighting evil or crime (Charmed, Alias, etc.) But Buffy was really the first aimed towards an audience of young women, and Joss Whedon created the show for that reason -- because he felt that there needed to be positive female role models on television. It was also groundbreaking in its positive portrayal of a lesbian relationship between Willow, one of Buffy's closest friends, and Tara in the 4th-6th seasons. The show came under some criticism for having that relationship be in some what of it's own special little universe, never exploring the difficult life for gays and lesbians. For me, this comes out as a strength of the show. When Willow falls in love with Tara, she just sort of accepts it. She goes through some difficulties with telling Buffy and with worrying that her friends are uncomfortable around her now. But Tara and her are treated as these two people who are really in love, and any type of political statement is left out. It's treated in the way a lesbian relationship would be in a world where it wasn't seen as some type of political statement or alternative lifestyle. Then, even after Willow and Tara were no longer together, the show did not follow the lead of many other shows who will treat one lesbian relationship as an experiment. In the 7th season Willow began a relationship with Kennedy, and the two of them shared the very first lesbian sex scene on network television (albeit quite tame, because, you know, network television). My only complaint is the lack of diversity in the main cast. In the 2nd season we get a slayer guest star from Jamaica or somewhere in the Caribbean. Season 7 has two potentials who are women of color: Kennedy is played by a Latina actress and Rona is African American. And that just about sums up the women of color on the show.


Buffy has a huge following and always scored well with the critics. However, I don't think it ever got the recognition it deserved as a truly remarkable series. Throughout its seven years, one episode was nominated for an Emmy. It was also nominated a few times for special effects, etc. But never was it nominated for best series (except for some Science Fiction award ceremony), never were any of the actors nominated for anything ... Yet I would assert that there are few other shows that are as skillfully crafted as this one was. Needless to say I was astonished when I discovered the lack of explicit praise that this show received. However, after I thought about it, I realized that it probably was related in large part to the genre of the show. Science fiction or fantasy is not taken very seriously in the United States for some reason, although Lord of the Rings may be an exception to that rule. It's a shame because really well done science fiction is rarely over the top or even unbelievable. The way that this show was created was such that the evil and the fantastical served as metaphors for human evil, rage, lust, and more. For example, when Willow & Tara (the two Wiccans) first began their relationship, magic was often used as a metaphor for their feelings and their sexuality.
One of the other things I like best about this show is that the characters are so well crafted that even the obnoxious, ridiculous ones are completely endearing (Anya, Andrew...) and you find yourself feeling sympathetic towards the "bad" characters (Faith, Spike, for example). Just so good!

I think that we shouldn't judge a show based on its genre, or even its title. Very amazing things can be wrapped in quite unassuming packages :) Anyway, for those who have not checked out this show, I would highly recommend it. However, I have to say, you probably shouldn't start with the first season, which is a lot more hokey than the following ones. If you begin with Season 1, you'll probably think I was either lying about all this or just have terrible taste. I would recommend starting with Season 3 then maybe going back to the first two seasons later. Season 2 is pretty good too actually, but a bit more along the lines of a teen drama with all its romance.

For your viewing pleasure, I went to Youtube to search out some clips that I could use to illustrate all that I have been spouting out. I might have gone a little crazy, so there's sort of a lot. But I will provide short descriptions so you can decide if it sounds interesting to watch! Be careful though because some of these contain major spoilers. These ones will be marked with asteriks.

Ok, so this first clip is actually a behind the scenes look at what some consider one of the best Buffy episodes. I don't know if I agree with that, but it is pretty good. It is called "Hush" and is from the 4th season. This episode was nominated for an Emmy. Almost the entire thing is silent.



Now here is my very favorite scene from the episode "Hush." Amazing how the characters are able to completely maintain their personas even without words. In this clip, Giles (Buffy's Watcher -- aka teacher) is explaining to the gang why they have all lost their voices.



This next clip highlights a little bit of the actual fighting in the show. It's not with vampires or anything though ... none of that was really my favorite parts. This is from the 3rd season finale and shows a major encounter between Buffy and Faith, the "rogue" vampire slayer, who turned over to the "dark side" and who Buffy has a bit of a history with. Unfortunately, it is a "music video" so you can't hear any of the actual dialogue (although it doesn't matter much after the first 15 seconds or so)




Ok, next up we have some light hearted wonderfulness in the form of this season six episode "Once More With Feeling." The story behind this episode is that the cast members apparently used to get together at Joss Whedon's house and do Shakespeare readings. Once night Joss started playing on the piano and people were all singing, etc. when he realized what a beautiful voice Amber Benson (the actress who played Tara) had. Joss, in all his brilliance, decided to make a musical episode of Buffy. Here is an abridged version of the classic episode:



Here is another condensed episode, the season four finale "Restless." This is one of my favorites. In this episode, all the main characters are haunted in their dreams by the spirit of the first slayer. This is a great example of the artfulness of the show. I was astounded by their ability to capture the human dream state. I really wanted to find a video with clips of the dream sequences, but the only one I could find was with them in the form of a music video. Nevertheless, it still does a pretty good job of capturing the episode. Some people have criticized this episode for being racist because the first slayer is black, with her face painted and seems somewhat "savage." Plus, having her pitted against Buffy, the very blond, very white petite little slayer, seems to accentuate this dichotomy. However, the Slayer was supposed to have originated when human civilization began. Since many think that this started in Africa, I'm not really sure how else they would have portrayed the First slayer. It's important to keep these things in mind.



***Now for some of the serious side of the show. As I mentioned, I am so impressed with how they were able to portray human emotions. This is from the season five episode "The Body" after Buffy's mother Joyce passes away -- this episode is perhaps one of the most moving of the series (it upset Mira so much that she refuses to watch it ever again). The whole episode was shot without any music, adding to the effect. The video I have chosen is a fan-made "episodic" of the episode, so it includes some music and various clips.***




***Now, from the season five finale "The Gift." This was Buffy's last episode airing on the WB. Season 6 and 7 aired on UPN. In this shocking finale, a hell goddess named Glory has taken Dawn (who was created out of mystical energy that has the power to break down the walls between dimensions) and is preparing to use her in a blood-letting ceremony in order to open up her hell dimension. However, if the portal is opened, it will also open the portals to all other dimensions, causing chaos. The only way for it to be closed is when the blood stops flowing (AKA when Dawn dies.) In this clip, Buffy decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to save Dawn and the world.***



***Ok, not done yet! Haha, I said that I went slightly overboard. As I was gathering the clips I realized just how many fabulous ones I had to share. So the next one is from season six, episode six. In the first episode of the season, Buffy has been dead for the entire summer, but her friends decide to bring her back. They believe that she was trapped in some sort of hell dimension. In this clip, Buffy reveals to Spike (a vampire who because of a chip the government put in his head cannot harm humans) that she was actually in heaven. You can pretty much disregard the second half of this video, which is a music fan video. I just wanted to show the clip at the beginning.***




Here is a sweet clip showcasing the Tara and Willow relationship. The first one is from season five episode "Family" where Tara tells Willow a story about their cat Miss Kitty Fantastico. I think this clip really shows the sweetness of their relationship. The Buffy creators have stated that Tara and Willow really had the sort of "soulmate", perfect love relationship. There were other great relationships on the show (Anya and Xander, Buffy and Angel, etc.) but theirs was like the safe space where everything was always happy and wonderful. Following this clip is an overview of the Willow/Tara relationship.






***Ok so in the episode "Seeing Red", the group's main enemy of the season, Warren, comes to Buffy's house, pulls out a gun and shoots at her. A stray bullet goes through the upstairs window, hitting and killing Tara. Tara's death pushes Willow over the edge and she falls hardcore into the dark magicks, becoming "evil Willow." In the first clip Evil Willow is talking with Dawn and Buffy. Later on, Giles comes and does a spell that makes Willow feel all the world's pain. So she decides to destroy the world. In the 2nd clip, Xander is able to stop Willow's rampage.***





***Here is some happy Willowness from the seventh season episode "Touched." In Season 7, the First Evil is looking to start a war and is slowly killing off the line of slayers. So Buffy and the gang bring all the potential slayers to Sunnydale to train them for the final battle. One of these potential slayers is Kennedy, who ends up dating Willow. So, she ends up getting some happiness after all!***



My very final (yes, final) two clips are from season seven. The first is from the episode "Storyteller." In this episode, Andrew (the obnoxiously endearing "hostage" of the gang) does a hilarious rendition of Masterpiece Theatre and gives his own perspective on the events of the season. The second clip is a compilation of Andrew moments!



Saturday, March 17, 2007

Disney's New Princess


So Disney is finally expanding on the multiculturalism by introducing its first black heroine. The film The Frog Princess is set to open in 2009; it will be an animated musical set in New Orleans. It is being co-directed by the directors of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules.


The new princess will be named Maddy. Even though this will be Disney's first dip into African American culture, Maddy will not be the first princess of color. But considering Disney's history with "ethnic" princesses, I feel a bit concerned about how this film will play out. Let's see... we can start with Peter Pan's favorite Indian princess, Tiger Lily.

This first foray into the diversity of American culture certainly was not Disney's most shining moment. The images of the American Indians in Peter Pan were unbelievably racist. But then again it was 1953. So let's jump ahead a few decades to 1992 and take a look at Jasmine, the Arabian princess of Aladdin.

All dressed up in belly-dancing gear as part of a film filled with negative stereotypes of Middle Eastern culture, Jasmine is not the best portrayal of the "East." Then there's Mulan, the feisty Chinese heroine of the film of the same name (Mulan, 1998)



Mulan disguises herself as a man so that she may take her father's place in the army. Considering Disney's history of sexist portrayals of female characters, this film is a step in the right direction. Mulan shuns society's desire for her to be the "sophisticated lady" and once in the army she becomes a respected member of her battalion.

Disney also gave us the movie Pocahontas (1995). Our leading lady, the daughter of the chief of the Powhatan tribe:

The film garnered much criticism for both its distortion of history as well as its stereotypical images of American Indians. While not blatantly racist like Peter Pan, Pocahontas has been criticized for portraying Native Americans as just as prejudicial as Europeans. At least they were made out as relatively peaceful and caring people.

Just a year after Pocahontas Disney released The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). The leading female role in this film was Esmeralda, the gypsy dancer that is widely adored. While Esmeralda is portrayed as an outcast searching for justice for her people, she represents a somewhat stereotypical image of the European "gypsy" with her brightly colored clothes, bangles, tambourine and pet goat.

In 2002 Disney released Lilo & Stitch which took place on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i. Lilo, the little Hawaiian lead of the film, lives with her older sister Nani after their parents died in a car accident. Hawaiian culture is a large part of the film. Lilo is big into the hula dancing and Hawaiian music plays throughout. While the stereotypes exist (hula dancing, etc.) they are largely positive. And as my roommate pointed out, Lilo certainly did a lot for positive body representation.


And of course we can't forget the Bianca, the Hungarian heroine of The Rescuers (1977)



And Nala, the first African female lead.



Haha ... well, here's hoping that this new heroine is more positive than some of the ones in the past.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Genocide in Laos?

I was very recently made aware of a pretty disturbing issue, which is the apparent genocide that is occurring in the jungles of Laos against the Hmong minority. In my social work field seminar each of us has been responsible for leading a class period, presenting on whatever topic we want. This past week a Hmong-American girl in my class presented on this issue, showing a video done by a fact-finding commission that went undercover into Laos. I would like to share the information I have learned (and I did a little bit of my own research for verification and elaboration purposes.)

First of all, some people might wonder exactly where in the world is Laos? Laos is located in Southeast Asia between Vietnam and Thailand. Here's a handy dandy map! Anyway, Laos was a pretty important spot during the Vietnam War, as it was the site of what is now known as the "Secret War." First of all, even though Laos was supposed to be neutral territory during Vietnam, North Vietnamese forces continued to operate in southeastern Laos along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The second thing that was going on was that the Royal Lao Army was being challenged by the Pathet Lao, the Laotian communist faction. The U.S. was naturally not happy with either of these developments, but because of that darn Geneva Conference they were going to have to be sneaky about their involvement in Laos. So, the C.I.A. decided to train some 30,000 Laotians, mostly Hmong, to fight for them. Reports of this Civil War were virtually non-existent in the U.S., as the war itself was officially denied. But nonetheless (thanks to Wikipedia for this info), this was the C.I.A.'s largest covert operation until the Afghan-Soviet war and was the largest bombing campaign since WWII. Well, naturally, this "Secret War" ended up being considered a disaster. The U.S. didn't suffer too much, however, since officially they weren't even "involved" in the conflict and since it was mostly others doing the fighting for them. Over 30,000 Hmong men and boys lost their lives. When America pulled out of Laos in 1975, they took only the most important soldiers and their families to safety in Thailand, leaving the rest of the Hmong to fight for themselves. The Pathet Lao, having won, vowed to hunt down and exterminate the traitors who had fought alongside the U.S. The Hmong fled into the jungle and across the Mekong River into Thailand. Since 1975 approximately 200,000 Hmong have been resettled into the United States from refugee camps in Thailand. The last wave came in 2005 when we accepted 15,000 Hmong refugees.

Now before I get more into this, I want to address the question that some might be asking themselves: "Why did the Hmong join up with the U.S. in the first place?" Well, this question lends itself to a somewhat complicated answer as it involves a lot of history and culture. First a little bit more history about the Hmong may be in order. There seems to be a lot of confusion about who exactly the Hmong are (my dad, for example, thought that word was used for any person from Southeast Asia.) So the Hmong are an Asian ethnic group, sort of like how the Mayans are an ethnic group in Central America. Just as the Mayans don't belong to only one country, the Hmong do not belong to just one country. It is thought that they first originated in the mountains of present-day China. In the 18th century, however, they began to emigrate to Southeast Asia due to persecution from the Chinese. The Hmong are an independent people and when the Chinese began insisting that they give up their own language and traditions and adopt that of their "country", they chose to leave. Here is an interesting fact: a written language was only developed in the 1950s by Western missionaries; however, there are claims that the Hmong once had a developed written language of their own that was lost during this period in China. Once in Southeast Asia, the Hmong settled mostly in modern-day Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma. A large percentage of this population settled into the highest mountains of Laos, where they lived relatively isolated from and undisturbed by the rest of the country. They maintained their language, customs and own Shamanist religion (as opposed to the Buddhism practiced by most Laotians). The desire of the Hmong was to live in peace and continue on as they always had. The Hmong people say that their name means "Free." So when the communists began their takeover of Laos, the Hmong people became afraid that they would be forced to give up their land and their customs. Their fears were eased by the United States, who promised them safety and repatriation should their side lose.

And we're back to where we started, with the U.S. hitting the road and the Hmong fleeing their homes. Now here we are thirty years later and as it turns out the Hmong people are still hiding in the jungles. Not only that, they are being actively hunted and killed by the Lao government. Of the reports I've read, the estimate is that there are anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 Hmong still in the jungle. A huge number of these are children, as well as many widows. Now of course the government in Laos has continuously denied reports of genocide. Well, what a huge surprise -- you mean they aren't coming out and saying "Hey world! Hey U.N.! We're exterminating an entire culture over here! We're killing women and children!" (And call me cynical, but even if they did ... well, would that necessarily mean anything would happen?) And for a long time the Western world was denying anything was happening as well. Former ambassadors in Laos said that these reports were unsubstantiated (once again, like the government would be showing the ambassadors what was really going on?) and that the Hmong were happy as can be and all resettled in Laos.

First of all, before I say anything more, let's just pretend that was the case. Then, why, might I ask, are there still thousands of Hmong crossing the border into Thailand? If they're so happy and safe in Laos? Anyway, beside the point ... thanks to this fact finding commission, which is a non-profit run organization, the truth actually has begun to come out. The commission were able to get people into Laos (which was apparently a difficult feat, considering what they wanted to do) to go into the jungle and capture what was happening. The people working in this underground network are known as the "blackbirds" -- they provide support to the Hmong in Laos and also have filmed groups of them. Once these tapes (which showed some horrifying images of children harmed by chemical weapons, mutilated bodies, etc) began to be circulated, the issue began to gain some international attention. TIME, along with the assistance of the Blackbirds, was able to get some reporters and a photographer into the jungle. The BBC also went in and did a film. Most recently, Rebecca Sommer, a German journalist, photographer and filmmaker, produced a documentary film entitled Hunted Like Animals. Sommer works for the NGO Society for Threatened Peoples International, which is in consul with the United Nations. This film was created during 2005 and 2006, when Sommer traveled to a refugee camp in Thailand and heard stories of the Hmong people there. It is interwoven with footage taken by Blackbirds from inside the jungles of Laos.

There really isn't much more that I can say. All I can do now is show you. PLEASE KEEP IN MIND THAT THE FOLLOWING CLIPS CONTAIN SOME UPSETTING AND GRAPHIC MATERIAL. IT IS NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN.

So while the filmmaker has put clips of the documentary on Youtube, she has apparently disabled the embedding option. So... I can only put a link to the videos and cannot post them directly on here. Sorry, I know that means extra work. But all you have to do is click right here to see the first one. This clip is of a military attack in Laos. It also includes an interview with a journalist from the BBC who traveled to Laos for footage.

This next clip is about the use of chemical weapons against the Hmong.

This one is more of some of the same. It includes a little boy who was severely injured.

Many of the Hmong are being encouraged by the Lao government to "surrender", being told that they will not be punished for their loyalty to the U.S. during the war. And now Laos and Thailand have together decided that the Hmong fleeing into Thailand are not refugees, but illegal immigrants. Thailand is also encouraging repatriation of the Hmong. Here is a clip detailing what has happened to some of the Hmong who have trusted Laos and surrendered.

Finally: "We are not rebels"

The photograph on the right is of a community of Hmong living in the jungle. When the reporters from TIME came a few years back, the people were overwrought with emotions, supposedly believing that it was the CIA, finally coming back to rescue them after 30 years.

If you are as appalled as I am about all this, please do something! Spread the word to your family and friends about what is happening. The United States has already taken in many Hmong refugees and we should continue to take them in. What is happening to them is our responsibility. Injustice such as this is the entire world's responsibility. The West is so fond of sitting back and watching genocide happen in the "third world." We rephrase it as "acts of genocide" to make it seem less horrific. It doesn't change anything. And this time these people and children are being killed as a direct result of American actions.

Contact your elected officials, write the Department of State and to the United Nations. Tell them that we cannot abandon the Hmong and that we will not let the Lao government get away with these crimes any longer.

There is another Hmong-American girl in my Social Work class who works with somewhat recent refugees at the Kajsiab House, which is a community oriented mental health center for the Hmong population. She says that Hmong people here in the U.S. watch those clips to see if they recognize any of their family that is still trapped in the jungle.

Can you imagine?

Monday, March 5, 2007

Patriot Act Classifies Hmong as Terrorists

Here is some disturbing news that I just learned today. The new provisions of the Patriot Act are now defining any type of guerrilla fighters (those who fought against their country's established government) as terrorists. Among many other groups, the Hmong are one affected significantly by this new definition. For those who are unfamiliar with the history of the Hmong, thousands of Hmong boys and men were secretly trained by the US army during the Vietnam War to fight against the North Vietnamese as well as against the Laotion communist faction, the
Pathet Lao (in what is now termed the "Secret War"). Some 30,000 Hmong soldiers died during this time. The Hmong people were then left to their own devices when the U.S. pulled out in 1975, despite American promises that they would be taken care of. The Royal Lao Army was defeated and the Pathet Lao took over, making a vow to exterminate the Hmong people for their betrayal. Many thousands of Hmong fled into the jungles of Laos and were able to cross the Mekong River into Thailand where they were placed in refugee camps. A great number of them were resettled in other countries. However, to this day there are still some estimated 1,500 Hmong hiding out in the jungles of Laos. I plan to cover this information in another entry, hopefully within the next couple of days.

Needless to say, the Hmong may have been "guerrilla" fighters, but the U.S. sure as hell has no right classifying them as "terrorists" when they were fighting on our side. It's just absolutely the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. The implications of this are that those Hmong still hoping to escape Southeast Asia will not be granted refugee status, and it will be much more difficult for those Hmong already here to be granted their green cards. For a population that has given up so much it is incredibly unjust to make them suffer like this.

This new part of the Patriot Act, which makes guerrilla fighter synonymous with terrorist should be completely eliminated in my own opinion. How often have guerrilla fighters been the brave ones to stand up against totalitarian dictatorships? Just think of Latin America in the 60s, 70s and 80s ... Is the U.S. trying to instill fear in anyone that may want to stand up against an authoritarian government? With these kind of new laws, who on earth is going to be able to seek asylum in the U.S. anymore? Perhaps this is some type of twisted new way of curbing immigration.

At any rate, it is completely unfair. So please, write to your elected officials at the federal level and tell them that this is wrong and goes against what America stands for. But maybe you should hold off until my next posting on the current situation in Laos. You might have more to say then.

In the meantime, here is a link to an editorial in
the UW Badger Herald concerning this issue. An a link to another article with video clip from the local ABC station in I believe Fresno, CA where there is a very sizeable Hmong population.

Credit for these stunning photographs from a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand goes to the photographer Philippe Tarbouriech. You can view his other beautiful photography here.

Addendum: I should also have mentioned the other part of the Real ID Act, which requires a significant amount of documentation in order to get a government issued ID. This is also a crazy thing to require, as it will only make things extremely difficult for those who were born, say, in the jungles of Laos or a refugee camp and don't have a birth certificate. As a social worker, I should also add that this is going to increase costs and time for many different government institutions. I think that money could be spent in ways better than having workers spend hours trying to track down someone's birth documentation.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

legal prostitution?

So I recently started watching Penn & Teller: Bullshit! on Showtime. For those who aren't familiar with the show, it's pretty good. Penn & Teller, the well-known magicians, go around the country and deal with different controversial issues, pretty much calling bullshit on one side. The first one I watched was really good; it was about the Boy Scouts of America and how they exclude gays and atheists. The second one was about illegal prostitution. Overall I thought that they made some really good points in favor of legalizing prostitution, using Nevada as an example. However, I was pretty annoyed at the fact that they completely brushed over many of the other more complex issues. At the beginning of the episode they had two women who are Sex Worker advocates; the two women both spoke out against prostitution saying that it exploited women and reinforced the idea that women can be bought and sold. These two women were basically treated as not credible, which I thought to be unfortunate.

On the one hand legal prostitution has its pluses. In the Nevada brothels women must undergo weekly physicals and be tested for STDs -- apparently there has never been a Nevada brothel worker that has tested positive for HIV. Since the brothels are regulated, they are clean and pretty upscale looking places. If a woman is a victim of violence, she doesn't have to worry about reporting it to the police. On the show they featured a number of different sex workers proclaiming how much they loved their jobs and how they should have the right to do what they want with their bodies. After all, it's sex between consenting adults, right? Sounds good to me.

But unfortunately the show failed miserably in documenting the many many cases of young girls and women who fall into that life because they have no other choice. Sure maybe there are a lot of sex workers who enjoy their job, but that doesn't mean that there aren't thousands of girls that are being sexually exploited. Yeah maybe Nevada's brothels are all nice and regulated, but does that mean that legalized prostitution would result in a whole bunch of luxury brothels spread throughout the country? Let's take a look at a country where prostitution is legal -- India. If anyone hasn't seen the 2004 documentary Born Into Brothels (view a trailer here), I would highly recommend it. This film won an Oscar for its portrayal of the children of sex workers in Calcutta's red light district. What you have are destitute women who get into prostitution because there is always a market for women's bodies. They then have children who consistently are ending up following the same path as their mothers. I know that some would argue "Oh, but that's India, that's third world. That wouldn't happen here." Bullshit. It does happen here. And that does not equal sex between consenting adults. Adults though they may be, they didn't have a choice. I just did some quick research so that I might actually sound like I know what I'm talking about. I read a BBC article that said that U.S. is estimated to have at least 400,000 young people in the sex trade. Many of these are homeless teens and runaways. The social worker interviewed in this story noted that many of these youth use "survival sex" to obtain basic items such as food and clothing. Sure, if prostitution were legal it still wouldn't be legal for these kids to be selling themselves. But it would be legal once they're 18 and I certainly don't think anyone would be arguing that they would qualify as a "consenting adult." Call me cynical, but I don't think that legalization is going to stop all of this from happening. It will only make the profession a more viable option for desperate women and girls.

Another argument that Penn & Teller gave was that legalizing prostitution would decrease the violence against women because women would then not be afraid to go to the police. Okay, well again that sounds good. But the very nature of the profession makes a woman inherently more vulnerable to violence. When men pay for women's bodies they are objectifying them; when someone is objectified it becomes easier to take advantage of them. I believe that there are probably many men who respect sex workers, but I also believe that there are just as many who don't. Look at how frequently prostitutes are victims of serial killers or other psychopaths -- Jack the Ripper, one of the most notorious serial killers of all time, targeted prostitutes. I did a little research here also to see if there were any statistics, although in cases of violence against women statistics are never very reliable since it is often widely underreported. Reports seem to vary, but I read several articles saying that an estimated 80% of street sex-workers suffered from work-related violence. And in case anyone found that Jack the Ripper example a bit outdated, just this past fall four female sex workers were murdered in Atlantic City. Another public case was that of Gary Ridgway, known as the "Green River Killer" of Seattle. He was convicted of killing at least 48 prostitutes over a 21 year period. According to the article he thought "he could kill as many prostitutes as he wanted without getting caught." Well, it only took 21 years. And on the issue of rape: I wonder if they have any idea of how many women (women who are NOT involved in illegal activities) never report their rapes. So all of a sudden prostitutes are going to be reporting this with greater frequency than other women who are raped? I would think they would be even more ashamed, since it happened to them while at work, when they are supposed to be "in control" of the situation. It seems amazingly idealistic to think that legalization of prostitution would eliminate violence. The show also claimed that legalizing prostitution would get rid of all the "pimps." I am not clear as to how this would happen. I don't think that legalized prostitution would clear the streets of "corner hookers" or "pimps" or "madames" or whatever. Especially with the large number of gangs in the U.S. who often lure in young women and put them into sex work. Read this article about Hmong girls in Minnesota and their risk of sexual exploitation. Which brings me to my next point...

I read in an editorial somewhere the point that those high class brothels in Nevada are quite pricey. I don't think that every man wanting to hire a prostitute is going to be able to shell out a few hundred dollars for an hour. It's not like only the affluent hire women for sex. So you have a bunch of legal brothels open up all over the place ... there are still going to be women out on the streets who are willing to work for far less. And I can envision that they will be women who are unable to get jobs in esteemed brothels -- think, undocumented sex-workers, young runaway girls, women who do have STDs or who have substance abuse problems ... and the cycle continues. Let's also not forget the issue of human sex-trafficking, which is becoming an increasingly significant issue in the U.S. Here is an article about the devastating number of women from South America, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe being sold into the U.S. sex trade. How does legalized prostitution help them?

I think that these are really serious issues that need to be considered. They can't be ignored simply because some sex workers choose their jobs and enjoy them. It absolutely does not change the fact that this is a profession that was built off of the sexual exploitation of women's bodies. Sure, maybe that is changing as women "reclaim" their sexuality, etc. But for many women there has been no reclaiming. I'm worried that legalizing prostitution would only make the vulnerable even more vulnerable. What I think really needs to be focused on are the issues that bring these women and girls into prostitution in the first place: abject poverty, systemic racism, xenophobia, child abuse, violence against women, sexism, etc. Only when women really have control over their bodies do I think that prostitution can safely be legalized.

I myself have mixed feelings on the issue. On the one hand I am a huge advocate of women's rights and a strong believer that women should have control over their own bodies. However, I really struggle with the feeling that selling one's body is inherently objectifying. Maybe it's just because it would feel incredibly disempowering for myself. But obviously other women don't feel this way, so I guess maybe it's alright for them. I don't know. The people on the show talked about how people are against prostitution because they think that sex is dirty and because of the Western Christian tradition, etc. I think that's true for some people. But it's a sweeping generalization. For people like me it has more to do with the history of female inequality, exploitation and objectification. It has nothing to do with sex. I think sex is great in lots of situations. It can be empowering and beautiful, etc. etc. But I don't know... there's something about female prostitution that unsettles me...

But here I am falling into the exact same trap that the show fell into -- something that bothered me greatly and that I almost forgot to mention here. The show focused completely on female prostitutes engaging in heterosexual sex. There was no mention of male sex workers or of sex workers catering to those of the same sex. I found this to be a glaring omission. But perhaps not surprising, since prostitution seems to be inherently associated with women being bought by men. Perhaps once again going back to the objectification of the female body and the male gaze, etc. Ahhh, I'm repeating myself I know. But I think it's interesting that those issues were left out. Oooohh, also issues of race would have been good to touch on because all those "high-class" prostitutes were white women. Would there be discrimination within legalized brothels? Or brothels devoted to the exoticization of women of color? White men coming to "purchase" "exotic" women? Ughh... I can see it now. Damn, I've taken too many women's studies classes. But yeah, share any thoughts you might have. This is pretty much a stream of consciousness flow as I haven't fully thought out these ideas.