The Atlantic

On Indian Land, Criminals Can Get Away With Almost Anything

One of the sticking points on the Violence Against Women Act over the last few months has been the extension of jurisdiction for Native American tribal governments to crimes committed on reservations by non-Indians. This article by Sierra Crane-Murdoch for The Atlantic illustrates some of the challenges officials face when confronting crime on tribal land.

In 1978, the Supreme Court case Oliphant v. Suquamish stripped tribes of the right to arrest and prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on Indian land. If both victim and perpetrator are non-Indian, a county or state officer must make the arrest. If the perpetrator is non-Indian and the victim an enrolled member, only a federally certified agent has that right. If the opposite is true, a tribal officer can make the arrest, but the case still goes to federal court.

Even if both parties are tribal members, a U.S. attorney often assumes the case, since tribal courts lack the authority to sentence defendants to more than three years in prison. The harshest enforcement tool a tribal officer can legally wield over a non-Indian is a traffic ticket.

Trigger warning for rape on the full article, but it’s worth reading up on the complexities of this problem, which the U.S. government has essentially constructed for itself.

♀ I Find Your Lack of Sense Disturbing

 Photograph by  Qsimple  via  Photopin  ( cc )

Photograph by Qsimple via Photopin (cc)

Earlier this month Wired published a piece by Laura Hudson called “Leia Is Not Enough”, on the dearth of notable female characters in the Star Wars saga in particular and movies generally. It’s a great article, and you should go read it right now, but in case you don’t, here’s the crux:

As great a character as Leia was, however, she was functionally the lone representative of the female gender in a larger Star Wars universe where every other character moving the plot forward was a man. It’s even sadder when you consider that the dearth of women who play important roles (or any role at all) in the classic George Lucas films from the late ’70s and early ’80s echoes a problem we still have today: Women are dramatically under-represented in films and media.

And they’re even more poorly represented in roles where they are driving forces, not just ancillary characters or love interests for male heroes.

If you’ve never really noticed the absence of women in Star Wars (or movies at large), consider yourself living proof of how the limiting narratives of culture and media can warp our expectations, to the point where the presence of one woman in a cast of dozens of memorable male characters can seem like perfect equality.

A few days later, Noah Berlatsky of The Atlantic’s new “The Sexes” section published a critique of Hudson’s article. While he agrees with her broader point that Hollywood needs to better represent the female sex in mainstream movies, he thinks Star Wars itself needs to push beyond the boundaries of the gender binary, so simply including more major female characters will not suffice.

Star Wars’s lack of women seems linked to a deliberate lack of interest in women. The film franchise is designed to be a series of male genre pictures, and for proof, all you need to do is look at the innovative, non-traditional approaches to gender other sci-fi works have taken—which Star Wars and other Hollywood films avoid.

I won’t deny that seeing some gender-bending science fiction would be interesting, but Berlatsky’s logic is flawed for two reasons. Firstly, he argues that Star Wars faces an obstacle to broader female appeal fundamental to its genre, which he identifies as “boys’ adventure”. Critics have generally agreed that Star Wars is essentially a Western set in space, with accompanying technology. It’s about gunslingers, and everyone knows only boys like movies about gunslingers, amirite? Of course not, and Berlatsky knows that’s stupid, so before proceeding he pays lip service to the idea that girls are allowed to like action movies, too.

The series is devoted to battles, adventure, politics, more adventure, and more battles. Girls certainly can—and certainly do!—like all of those things.

Then he undoes it:

But the fact remains that the genre has historically been focused on boys. Which means that it has been a lot more concerned with providing points of identification for guys than with points of identification for girls. It’s not an accident that it’s Leia rather than Han who ends up in the swimsuit and chains, right? […]

Genre and gender, then, are tied up together. Sci-fi imagines different worlds—but those different worlds are governed in no small part by particular narrative expectations. The galaxy isn’t as far away, nor as teeming with possibilities as it looks.

This makes no sense, even within the context of Berlatsky’s own argument, because just a few sentences before this he takes care to point out that sci-fi opens up new worlds free from the cultural baggage of our own:

If Star Wars were the Western that it in many ways imitates, then of course you wouldn’t necessarily expect there to be lots of female gunfighters, because gender roles back in the time period when Westerns are often set restricted what women could do. But Star Wars isn’t a Western; it’s a science-fiction story, which means anything goes.

So, to review: even though Star Wars belongs to a genre that typically panders to boys, it could change the rules of that genre because it’s also sci-fi, and sci-fi has no boundaries, but it can’t change the rules of that genre because of our cultural boundaries. Also, even though girls can and do like action/adventure, Westerns, gunslingers, and the like, girls will never really like Star Wars because that genre is for boys.

This is all nonsense. A film, or series of films, doesn’t have to pander to boys[1] just because other films in its genre traditionally have; in fact, Star Wars has already stretched the boundaries of the Western/adventure movie genre by setting it in space. The way that Star Wars actually panders to men is by casting mostly men; women would probably like Star Wars better if they saw more women doing all the gunslinging.

Having backhandedly reinforced gender stereotypes, Berlatsky proceeds to argue that Star Wars should emulate other, edgier works of science fiction literature by playing with the boundaries of gender itself.

Way back in 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness imagined a planet where the human-descended inhabitants had only one sex; it is only during the monthly mating time that they take on gender identities and sexual urges. In Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987–2000), a post-apocalyptic Earth is invaded by aliens with three genders. There are males, there are females, and there are ooloi, a sex of genetic mixers and manipulators, who are able to mate with, and thereby reengineer, human men and women. More recently, Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s comic book series Y: The Last Man imagined a world in which a plague had wiped out all males on earth except one.

Those stories all sound cool and interesting. I wouldn’t be at all upset if Star Wars ventured into exploring this sort of territory, and I don’t think there’s anything stopping the producers from doing so. The series could include elements like this without straying from the action/adventure genre, although Berlatsky does not appear to think so:

You could certainly argue, I suppose, that the public wants space opera and not gender exploration—Han Solo shooting storm troopers rather than tentacle brain intercourse with aliens. To me, though, looking around, it doesn’t seem especially clear that violence sells better than sex.

Firstly, I think this underestimates the Star Wars franchise, which is more than dumb, schlocky action; the films’ ability to include substantial thematic material without needing to compromise the fun contributes to their lasting appeal.[2] Secondly, the sort of gender exploration Berlatsky seems to be advocating isn’t “sex”; it’s sociology. Watching ooloi re-engineer humans through sexual intercourse would be fascinating, but it wouldn’t get me turned on. I don’t think it’s prurience that keeps mainstream sci-fi movies from engaging with these kinds of subjects.

In any case, this whole argument that Star Wars needs to push the envelope on genre misrepresents the mainstream of feminist goals. We don’t need androgyny, asexuality, or polyamory to be portrayed as the norm; we mostly just need equality between the sexes. Putting more women in the roles typically occupied by men would go a long way toward achieving that. If “anything goes” in sci-fi, Star Wars can certainly do a simple thing like cast more women.

This whole article is such a mess, it’s hard not to think that Berlatsky manufactured a controversy just so he would have something print in response to Hudson’s article.[3] It wouldn’t be totally surprising for him to opportunistically miss the point of a feminist message. Even if his criticism is genuine, though, I disagree entirely. We don’t need every work of literature to accomplish every worthwhile goal. Star Wars does not need to engage in hard-core gender-bending; it can just be a good space opera, but it should be an egalitarian one; considering the scope of the Star Wars universe, gender parity seems a reasonable baseline to require. And people—particularly those who, like Berlatsky, write specifically about sexual politics—need to stop reinforcing stereotypes about what women do and don’t like; that sort of behavior is why we need feminism in the first place.


  1. Okay, can we stop saying “boys”? It’s belittling to grown men (and women) who love Star Wars and other action/adventure movies of the kind. From now one, we’ll be using “men” to describe male fans of Star Wars in this post.  ↩

  2. I really question whether Berlatsky even likes or knows much about Star Wars.  ↩

  3. Because, obviously, simply agreeing or building on her point would just not be journalist-y enough.  ↩

Not Just a "Rich Girl" Problem

Phoebe Maltz Bovy at The Atlantic explains how unpaid internships negatively affect all workers, not just young women from wealthy families who can afford to work for no pay:

Unpaid work exists, of course, well beyond creative fields and coastal glamor. One can be an unpaid intern with a Nebraska police department, or at a Minnesota restaurant. Young adults in general, particularly students and post–2008 college graduates, face a “job” market that doesn’t necessarily promise an ability to pay one’s own bills. But if unpaid internships continue to be so closely associated with Carrie Bradshaw wannabes, it’s understandable that the issue would be ignored in favor of the plight of tomato farmers.

The majority of unpaid internship positions do go to women, but those women aren’t always rich. The entertainment business is rife with this sort of thing, and I can testify firsthand that many of the people trying to break into the industry barely scrape by.

Let's Not Panic Over Women With More Education Having Fewer Kids

Philip Cohen feeds my voracious appetite for data with a series of charts showing that educated women are actually having more children than they used to, while less-educated women are having fewer. Here’s why this matters:

The general relationship between the number of children women have and their relative status in society is clear: Fewer children means higher status. And the relationship is reciprocal: Higher status for women also leads to lower fertility.

Further, the relationship appears at both the individual level and the societal level. Countries with lower fertility levels have, on average, less gender inequality in the realms of education, income, political and social power.

If you like to make decisions or form opinions based on numbers, you really must read this.

Mary Walker's Quest to be Appointed as a Union Doctor in the Civil War

Alexis Coe tells the story of an abolitionist surgeon eager to serve in what she was convinced would become a “war of liberation”. Denied a commission in the Union army, she took to dressing as a man, working without pay alongside less-qualified male doctors.

By 1861, the Sanitary Commission recommended amputations be conducted when a limb had serious lacerations or compound fractures, but the practice was controversial, with disconcerting mortality rates: Nearly 60 percent of leg amputations done at the knee resulted in death, while less than 20 percent survived hip-level amputations. Walker observed her colleagues senselessly amputating for want of practice. She wrote, “It was the last case that would ever occur if it was in my power to prevent such cruel loss of limbs.” She began double-checking their work, surreptitiously counseling soldiers against the surgery when appropriate. Many wrote her thankful letters after the war, reporting their limbs to be fully functional.

Great story, and the money quote is here:

The [New York] Tribune continued to criticize the military’s reluctance to recognize her efforts, asking “What ‘ism’ is more absurd than Conservatism? If a woman is proved competent for duty, and anxious to perform it, why restrain her?”

The Second Shift

Alexis Coe at The Atlantic reports on sociologists’ finding that women who earn high wages do not necessarily outsource the cooking or cleaning at home either to paid employees or to their husbands or children.

Housework has a performative quality to it, and conforming to traditional gender norms may produce social and psychological rewards. This is true for [sociologist Alexandra] Killewald, who said while she and her husband often cook meals together, when her mother-in-law is expected for dinner, she not only cooks the meal, but urges her husband to make it clear that she was the chef. “That’s important to me because I’m showing [my mother-in-law] that I’m a good wife,” she said. “Those expectations don’t fall on fathers and men.”

I work fewer hours than my wife, but if she sees me washing a big stack of dishes she’s still all too likely to engage in some sort of self-condemnation.

There's No Perfect Age to Find a Husband

Phoebe Maltz Bovy, writing in The Atlantic’s new “Sexes” category, perfectly describes the 1-pixel-wide boundary between “too young to marry” and “spinster”:

A young woman hears from friends and family that she needs to focus on her career or education, not some guy. She is warned of certain dangers: unsolicited male attention; unintended pregnancy, as if intended pregnancy were also a thing; and the desire hardwired into all straight men to turn their girlfriends into 1950s housewives. To entertain the possibility of it being difficult to find a husband, to even utter the expression “find a husband,” is to regress to another era. And this advice is incredibly appealing, a rejection of the quaint notion that female heterosexuality is the desire not for men, but for a white picket fence.

And then, suddenly, the message shifts. A not-quite-as-young woman will learn that rather than having all the time in the world to start a family, her biological clock is about to strike midnight. That even if she doesn’t want children, she is now on the cusp of being too old to find a husband.

It’s hard not to read this and think the solution is pretty simple: stop telling women how to live and let them make their own choices.

Height Differences Between Spouses, Actual and Randomized

Philip Cohen, writing for The Atlantic, examines the height differences between husbands and wives and how they match up to the spread of height differences between men and women as a whole. There’s no big idea, no real takeaway—just interesting data (in graphical form).

America Has an Incest Problem

Okay, actually, this op-ed piece by Mia Fontaine for The Atlantic is scary:

Here are some statistics that should be familiar to us all, but aren’t, either because they’re too mind-boggling to be absorbed easily, or because they’re not publicized enough. One in three-to-four girls, and one in five-to-seven boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, an overwhelming incidence of which happens within the family. These statistics are well known among industry professionals, who are often quick to add, “and this is a notoriously underreported crime.”

You don’t want to click on the words “an overwhelming incidence”. You really don’t. It will make you feel so sad and helpless. But we can’t afford to be helpless:

Ninety-five percent of teen prostitutes and at least one-third of female prisoners were abused as kids. Sexually abused youth are twice as likely to be arrested for a violent offense as adults, are at twice the risk for lifelong mental health issues, and are twice as likely to attempt or commit teen suicide. The list goes on. Incest is the single biggest commonality between drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, teenage and adult prostitution, criminal activity, and eating disorders. Abused youths don’t go quietly into the night. They grow up—and 18 isn’t a restart button.

Saudi Arabia's Timid Flirtation With Women's Rights

On Friday, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah made history when he named 30 women to the kingdom’s Shura Council, an appointed advisory body that cannot enact legislation but is still the closest institution to a parliament in that country. He also amended the Shura Council’s law to ensure that women would make up no less than 20 percent of the 150-person council going forward.

Isobel Coleman’s article explores the extensive ground still left to be covered in securing equality for the women of Saudi Arabia, but she seems to think—and I agree, for whatever my opinion adds to hers—that this is certainly a step in the right direction.