So, last week. Last week! We had a Theme Post Party! I was called a militant radical misandrist lesbian recruiter by (some of) the readers of The Atlantic, for disagreeing somewhat on the finer points of Ms. Caitlin Flanagan’s Boyfriend Story! My gentleman caller and/or a puppy arrived in my living headquarters, and it was very exciting! Also, in Things That Happened Last Week: I ended up giving not one, but two interviews. And filming a panel. And at a certain point in this process, Dear Reader, I began to flip the fuck out.
It didn’t help that I read the Lynn Hirschberg profile of M.I.A. that ran in the New York Times Magazine recently. That piece: It got under my skin. It disturbed me, in many visceral and icky ways. It seemed, to me, exemplary of the ways and means by which women who use their voices politically are knocked down, knocked over, and fucked up for the public’s entertainment. And people liked it. People I like, people I admire, at least one person I’m particularly close to: They responded, joined in the group-kick, were eager to denounce M.I.A. as a liar and a fake and a fraud and a bitch and a bad activist. And over what? Over passages like this:
Unity holds no allure for Maya — she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. “I kind of want to be an outsider,” she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
The fact is, valuable things were uncovered in that piece. M.I.A. has been inconsistent, and misleading, about her father’s involvement with the Tamil Tigers. And I appreciated that voices other than M.I.A.’s were given the chance to speak out, in a widely read forum, about Sri Lankan politics and the Tigers; the allegation that she’s being overly and dangerously simplistic, in her unconditional support of the Tigers, is probably true. What I don’t appreciate, however, is the fact that these things were only brought up as a means of destroying M.I.A.’s political credibility — shortly before attacking her credibility on more or less every other front.
M.I.A. is a fake, the article more or less says; no matter what she says or writes or records about global capitalism being a bad thing, no matter how fiercely she would seem to defend marginalized people, she’s just a shallow, narcissistic, bossy, stupid woman who only wants your attention, only wants to be famous, only wants to be a star. And did you hear that she was having contractions when she sang “Paper Planes” at the Grammys? Shocking! Provocative! Fame-whorey! Regular-whorey! Unfeminine! Selfish! Bad mother!
Although her publicist had a wheelchair ready and a midwife on call, Maya, who has a deep and instinctive affinity for the provocative, knew that this Grammy moment was not to be missed. It had everything: artistic credibility, high drama, a massive audience. The baby would just have to wait. The combination of being nearly naked, hugely pregnant, singing incendiary lyrics and having the eyes of the world upon her was too much to resist.
Granted, there are a few common-sense things to be pointed out here: That it’s not unusual for women to work throughout their pregnancies, that lots of women go to work on the day that they’re scheduled to go into labor, that labor itself is a long process (the profile even notes that M.I.A.’s son wasn’t born until three days after the performance) and so many women often continue to work throughout the early stages of labor, especially if they’re doing something important or time-sensitive that can’t be re-scheduled — like, say, performing at the Grammys. Or, for that matter, the fact that implying that a woman ought to neglect her job because she’s knocked up is the flip-side of the rationale that says it’s okay to not hire or promote women because they will have to neglect their jobs once they get knocked up. But never mind all that: I mean, the wheelchair was right there, but instead M.I.A. was up on stage, almost naked, singing her violent lyrics about murdering people, because she cares more about performing and being famous than she does about her poor little helpless baby boy. What a monster.
In fact, the same common-sense issues keep cropping up, as you read the article. For example: Is it really that surprising that a performer, signed to a major label, wants attention? Is it surprising or exceptional that such a person has money? Is it surprising that a person subjected to constant scrutiny from millions of people has crafted a public face, a version of herself that she puts on when she’s being observed by strangers that is noticeably different and more suited to mass consumption than the one she wears when she’s alone, or with her husband and child, or with her best friends? And: If you were trying to get attention at all costs, if you were coming up with a fake personality that was guaranteed to garner acceptance and approval from the largest possible number of people, would “radical woman of color allied with militant groups” really be the one you’d pick? Because I can think of a ton of more palatable personas. I really can. In fact, it seems to me that M.I.A.’s radicalism — which is pretty much guaranteed to earn her much blowback, from many different people, at many points along the line — might be something that she does because she cares about it. It might just, conceivably, be for real. Because I imagine that it’s a fuck of a lot harder to live with than many of her other options.
But not according to the profile. The profile presents a series of choices, a standard of purity, which almost invariably excludes and diminishes the perspective of the woman it claims to be telling us about. I always read M.I.A.’s Grammy performance as a goddamn beautiful piece of synthesis: half-naked, hardcore, and pregnant, telling the world that she could function as a sexual person, as a political person, as a mother, and as someone who was better at her job than anyone else. She wasn’t giving up anything; she didn’t have to; she could be all of it, at once. But no, she can’t, says the article: She had to make a choice, and she made the wrong one, the bad one, the one that makes her a bad woman. I read M.I.A. as a person in a difficult and contradictory position: Someone who’s come into a huge amount of privilege, after growing up without it, someone who’s benefiting from the very system she condemns, and is attempting to use her position of power to bring attention to the problem. But the article says there is no contradiction: She’s privileged, full stop, and as such is a hypocrite if she even attempts to care or speak about people who are in her former position. As the sub-hed apparently runs: “Is the Sri Lankan musician’s political rap more than just radical chic?” You never ask that sort of question if you want your audience to answer “yes.”
If it’s okay to do this to M.I.A., it’s okay to do this to anyone. And the good news is, you basically could do it to anyone. Speaking out about politics is tricky; as anyone with even marginal self-awareness knows, it requires you to be more or less constantly opining on morals and an ideal future world, while also being a person with moral failings (I have them, God knows) who has made plenty of compromises or choices about how to live in the world as it presently exists. Hence, my flip-the-fuck-outery over being interviewed; being regarded as an authority is a little hard to take, given how familiar I am with my own imperfections. But lots of people on this here planet are privileged in one way or another, including people who speak out against privilege. Lots of people are inconsistent, incapable of being hardcore moral vegans at all times; pretty much everyone has unpleasant aspects to her personality. If we make personal perfection a prerequisite for speaking out, the result will be silence. It simply will be. There will be one woman, living alone and off-the-grid in a yurt, eating nothing but pickles, interacting with no-one but the squirrels, who walks out to her favorite pooping tree every morning and delivers a brief monologue to it about social justice. She will be the Perfect One, the Chosen One; she will be allowed to speak. And it won’t be a problem. Largely because no-one will actually hear her.
I learned … years ago that women had always been divided against one another, self-destructive and filled with impotent rage. I thought the Movement would change all that. I never dreamed that I would see the day when this rage, masquerading as a pseudo-egalitarian radicalism, would be used within the Movement to strike down sisters singled out… I am referring … to the personal attacks, both overt and insidious, to which women in the Movement who had painfully managed any degree of achievement have been subjected. These attacks take different forms. The most common and pervasive is character assassination: the attempt to undermine and destroy belief in the integrity of the individual under attack… If you are [an achiever] you are immediately labeled a thrill-seeking opportunist, a ruthless mercenary, out to make her fame and fortune.
That’s Anselma Dell’Olio, giving a speech on the state of the women’s movement. In 1970. If things have changed at all, it seems, it’s only insofar as the lingo has penetrated the mainstream. You can’t attack M.I.A. head-on. You can’t say that it’s a problem that she is being heard. But what you can do is attack her reasons for making herself heard; you can take her to task for being selfish, for being ambitious, for not being pure or authentic or poor or unknown or selfless enough: Call her a thrill-seeking opportunist, a ruthless mercenary, out to make her fame and fortune. I should be clear: I don’t think that Hirschberg was somehow doing this on purpose, trying to silence M.I.A. or shut her down because she consciously perceived her as a political threat. I just think it was inevitable that our cultural discomfort with someone like M.I.A. would eventually surface, in a piece that looked very much like Hirschberg’s. She was the one to write it — and to get her phone number Tweeted, which: BOOOO, bad pool Maya — but it had been a long time coming. It was inevitable. And that’s what makes me sad.
Because no-one, in the wake of this piece, is talking about the Tamils. No-one’s talking about Sri Lanka. No-one’s talking about M.I.A.’s most provocative belief, the one that’s really threatening: The idea that violent oppression can and should be met with violent resistance, which is a complicated and scary proposition, one that people have been evaluating and fighting over for a long-ass time, one that we’re nowhere near figuring out as yet. No-one is talking about that; no-one, to be blunt, really cares. What we’re talking about, instead, is a plate of fucking fries.