You know, the jungle. Where the savage brown people and ferocious animals are defeated by heroic white folks:
Jill is writing her own follow-up post about this subject, but I feel so nauseous and sleepless about this whole thing that I felt the need to weigh in as well. I felt the need to post these pages, which I saw in person earlier tonight at a bookstore. The images were scanned by Wolfa and posted by Ico after being poitned out by Radfem. These pages are chapter headers from It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments, published by Seal Press and written by Amanda Marcotte.
More than 20 years ago, I made my very first contributions to feminist writing in a book that was published by Seal Press. This might be a little surprising given that I’m in my early 30s. But at the time, I spoke better English than the editor and translator of that anthology of fiction by women authors: my mother, a Japanese immigrant and a lifelong feminist. She grew up in a city that was devastated by American bombs when she was a young girl, and then run by American soldiers. When she got older, she attended the first women’s college in Japan, and eventually immigrated here, although she never naturalized; she couldn’t stomach the “swear to defend and bear arms” loyalty oath. In the early 80s, Seal started publishing her collections of translated stories, fiction by Japanese women writing in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the war. I was a little too young to help out with the first book, but as I got older she’d ask for my help with editing and choice of words more and more. I was so proud to be helping out.
Today I don’t know where that pride has gone.
The saddest thing about these images is that they have practically nothing to do with the content of the book, as far as I can tell. They’re a riff on the title; they’re part of the marketing. But what they end up doing is making a disturbing commentary, a damning exegesis that’s surely not part of the real intent of the author or publisher but that can’t help but bubble to the surface of many of our minds after recent events. The heroine is a powerful white woman. In a reversal of classic damsel-in-distress, she’s rescuing a white man from the title’s “inhospitable environment.” But what ends up being part of the analogy here for the politically inhospitable? Not the right wing pundits or religious hypocrites or MRAs who are the target of jokes in the text: in their stead we have wild animals and dark-skinned people. Spearchuckers. Literally. I have to point out one thing. In the history of this country, there has always been one broad and well-lit path for oppressed classes of people to “better themselves” — side with the oppressors against someone else. That is exactly what these images are depicting: women gaining power through helping men against savage, violent brown people. Again, I can’t believe that the author or publisher would intend this, but how did these images end up in this book?
How did this happen, even after similar criticism of the book’s first cover convinced the author to press the publisher to change it? I never saw the first cover, which apparently featured a King Kong reference with a white woman seized by a brutish black ape. But now we’ve gone far beyond apes as metaphors for black men. The heroine is now beating up an direct depiction of a scary savage black man to help a white man out. I mean, how did this jaw-dropping imagery not get noticed?
Seal Press recently caught a lot of flak after two of their representatives made themselves look very, very bad by thoroughly failing to engage in any kind of productive dialogue with women of color who vocally criticized the lack of racial representation in their catalog. And now this. The publishing world is a hard place these days for a feminist press — it’s hard to figure out how to be an ally to disenfranchised voices and still make ends meet. Yes. But those excuses don’t even make sense this time around. If you’ve gotta put retro cartoons on your covers to sell books, fine. But how many retro cartoon images are there in the world that don’t have hoary old racist, colonialist tropes splattered all over them? Believe me, there are plenty. Not every one is as problematic as these.
The last time this came up, although Amanda ultimately relented and notified Seal Press about the problems with the book, she also claimed:
I think nowadays retro imagery used by avowed liberals can safely be assumed to be at least an attempt at coy irony. I’m not committing to whether it’s successful or not. I think it’s a fool’s errand to lay claim to definitive interpretations of archly ironic imagery.
Sadly, this is also the argument that’s been used for years to defend racist t-shirts. It simply doesn’t work as a way of excusing racism cropping up in a book that’s not even about race. Although Amanda has long been one of my favorite bloggers, any enjoyment I once got out of reading her snappy takedowns of misogyny is rapidly turning to ashes in my mouth. And that’s why I can’t sleep, why I feel like throwing up.
Like a lot of bloggers these days, I’m no longer even sure if I feel comfortable calling myself a feminist, since it seems like the popular definition of that word in so many circles has come to mean “feminism first, every other issue second.” And that’s a formula that inevitably leads to a feminism for the few. A feminism for the small numbers of women who don’t deal with intersections of one, two or ten other kinds of shit getting heaped on us every day, too many to calculate “which is most important.” It’s not a kind of feminism that works for most of the women on this planet. But you know, brownfemipower already said all this in her sign-off, I don’t need to repeat her thoughts. Just add my name to the list of those who are no longer sure if we can simply “take feminism back.” Or even if it’s worth it. It’s not like there aren’t other movements out there that actually respect women — that are led by women and folks of many other genders, that work to improve women’s lives. This exodus from single-issue politics has been happening for a long time.
At the same time, I want to believe that change is possible. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt. I know mistakes are made, and I know mistakes can be repaired — even mistakes that highlight what I believe is the single worst problem inside of “the feminist movement” today. So I would like to call on Amanda Marcotte and Seal Press to do the following — while also keeping in mind that nobody should be making assumptions about exactly who was responsible for what, saw what parts of this book while it was in progress:
1. Please explain what process led to the selection of these images for this book, and what the intentions of those involved in decision-making were.
2. Please tell us whether you think it’s appropriate for a book about feminism, which the author describes as not really covering race issues, to include depictions of white heroines beating up stereotypical violent, spearchucking dark-skinned people, who apparently represent the “politically inhospitable environment.”
3. Please tell us what steps, if any, you hope to take to address the criticisms that have been raised. Can we expect a second printing? A withdrawal of the existing stock? An apology? A comment about how every time someone in the blogosphere succeeds at something, there’s an inevitable flamewar about racism or sexism, so there’s nothing to be done about it?
I’m not going to pretend any of this is easy. Of course it’s hard to figure out what to say when you are under attack, when you feel defensive, when you feel like throwing up your hands and saying “Fuck it.” But of course people are outraged, too. Practically everyone who’s said anything about these pictures has been horrified by them, even previously ardent defenders. We can hardly expect people to bite their tongues, not with the combination of these images in the racially-charged context of the last few weeks, few months, few decades. So I have to say: what’s it going to be? The easy “fuck off” route, or something that takes more guts and courage?
In that last link, Margalis said:
I’d love to hear Amanda say “it was a dumb fucking call to use those images – no excuses.” But in order to do that she has to have a comfortable space and not be on the defensive against what she sees as an angry mob. It’s hard for people to admit error, especially when they are already on the defensive; that’s human nature and we should allow for that and act accordingly no?
Margalis may have a point. But I refuse to accept that defensiveness is inevitable, that it’s something we can never rise above. I would love it if we all had a soothing, comfortable space where we didn’t have to deal with our public mistakes in public, in ways that make us feel bad, persecuted, like we’re up against a wall. But the challenge of dealing with those wretched feelings is exactly what makes it a defining test of character, not a cakewalk. If you can’t deal with the heat, then that inability is the very definition of your limits as authors, as an organization, as public spokespeople, as activists. Nobody will be holding you back from going further except you yourself.
Plus, the issue of racism is never a comfortable space for people of color. Never.
Don’t keep going down this road. The “success” of being a published author isn’t worth it. Even keeping Seal alive isn’t worth it if this slide continues — it’ll become a mass-market zombie version of itself, hemming women’s words into sensationalized boxes pierced with gaping blind spots like this one. Turn around and bring back the feminist press of my mother’s day. Please.
(I can’t believe I posted this on the wrong post, the one after this, for 12 hours…)
UPDATE: For what its worth, and that is something I’m going to leave to individual readers at this point, apologies have now been offered by Seal Press and Amanda Marcotte. The second printing of the book will not contain any of these illustrations, and I hope everyone involved realizes that’s a good thing that those who brought this to everyone’s attention (credited at the top) and spoke out about it helped make happen.
Of course, these apologies mean more to some of their critics than others; there are deep-running wounds getting scraped over and over here that can’t be addressed by a single mea culpa. As for the intentions, according to Seal it was simply witless “this imagery is campy and funny” decison-making of the sort that we usually only expect from Urban Outfitters and drunken Cubs fans, not a feminist press. I am glad to hear that Seal is seeking anti-racist training, because a good training of that sort can really benefit most people; I know I’ve benefitted from both participating in and leading workshops of that sort, and I hope they find a good trainer. For other people’s thoughts, please see the ongoing discussion; many people are making important points.
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