I'm Lena Chen, a writer, activist, and media producer who's been called a "skank" (by Bill O'Reilly) and "a small Asian woman" (by The New York Times). My favorite part of my workday is the hate mail.For the unlikely story that is my life, read on.
I once had a domestic squabble over the purchase of a deep fryer. I am a big fan of fried food. When I want comfort food, I think of golden brown man tou under layers of sticky condensed milk and crushed peanuts; chicken wings submerged in garlic and sesame oil, crackling under the heat of my broiler; silky delicate tofu hidden in a crispy exterior of panko. The Roomie, on the other hand, does not like fried food. He would be perfectly happy with salads and steamed vegetables and all those healthy things that are supposed to be good for me but which I don’t actually ever crave. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem, and because I’m the chef, I usually get my way anyway when a particularly powerful urge hits. (I just try to cook really fast and cross my fingers that by the time Patrick smells it, it’s already too late.) Plus, I like healthy food too! Just not all the time, and certainly not when alternative hankerings develop. And Patrick is more than willing to accommodate my sometimes bizarre cravings.
That said, the one thing I haven’t managed to convince him of is the need for us to purchase a deep fryer. Really, it’s a need! Most of my fried favorites can be obtained in Boston somewhere, but fish tacos are out of the question. There’s simply nothing here that even compares. I specifically wanted a deep fryer so that I could make fish tacos. I could also make other things with them, but really, I just want fish tacos on demand. I crave them whenever I see fish, whenever I think of Los Angeles (which is often), whenever I eat Mexican food (and especially when it’s shitty Mexican food). And unlike all my random Asian recipes (most of which I make up out of online recipes and phone calls with my mother), I am totally unable to replicate the taste of the crispy, golden fish I’m used to sandwiching between handfuls of corn tortilla. Sadly, the Roommate loathes the smell of evaporated oil. He cringes at the thought of a layer of grease settling into the kitchen countertop and the stove. He hates the oil about as much as I love the taco. I begged and pleaded and even found a "healthy" fryer (which sadly, does not do fish). But in the end, the Roommate got his way; I am still deep-fryer-less.
This is a very long way of saying that there are not a lot of things I wanted for my birthday this year (the presence of my friends, the end to this debilitating writer’s block, the return of my sex drive) but what I really, really want is a Crock Pot. A kitchen appliance. And possibly a new casserole dish. I truly believe this will turn around my mood, possibly my life. Surely, he can’t refuse me this one, non-fattening desire?
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I know I’m not the only one who read this piece by Tami Winfrey Harris yesterday and thought, “THANK YOU.” (Though I gotta admit, I own exactly one romper which I have worn outside my home exactly once, and I already feel enough residual shame over that incident to last any trend-chasing gal a lifetime.)
One of my friends noted a while back, “Sometimes, our culture makes you feel like you are not Performing Femininity unless you just looooove pink, Hello Kitty, cupcakes and macaroons and whatever else is the default Chick Petite Pretty Snack, and teetering high heels.” I consider myself rather feminine, but I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment that society tends to reward proper ladylike behavior, while devaluing those who don’t fit into that particular image of womanhood. Think about the type of cultural archetypes that are even available to most women who aren’t white and middle-class. Hand-knitting mittens is trendy when you’re young, upwardly mobile, and financially well-off enough to participate as a consumer in the increasingly lucrative crafting industry. But if you’re a single mother sewing clothes because her kids can’t afford department store wardrobes, that’s not celebrated; it’s looked down upon. Justine Sharrock writes in Bitch Magazine:
"The struggle against the obligatory housewife role has always been situated in a middle- and upper-class, mostly white world, so it’s meaningless to hordes of women around the world who never had the luxury of “choosing” to stay at home. As many of our mothers and grandmothers would be happy to tell us, being a housewife isn’t about the martini-drinking, clean-apron-wearing, high-heels-in-the-kitchen diva we’re being sold. Being a housewife is, in reality, all about working your ass off for no pay, no recognition, and usually no appreciation."
So how is it that domesticity has actually become something of a fad? I try to question where my habits and preferences originate from, because they certainly weren’t present in utero. In part, they have likely been influenced by those with a financial interest in my consumption of traditionally feminine goods. There’s a host of magazines and products and lifestyle brands devoted to transforming this trend into profit. As Sharrock notes, “By turning the accessories of the housewife into hip fashion items, these entrepreneurs are both idealizing and capitalizing on a role that once symbolized economic dependence.” That doesn’t mean my appreciation of Hello Kitty and cupcakes is entirely inauthentic nor am I dissing feminine behavior altogether. Rather, this is about analyzing the origin of these preferences (i.e. getting real with ourselves) and critiquing whether they’re really as harmless as they seem. I told a self-described feminist “hardcore DIY-er” back in October:
"Your decision to turn doilies into lampshades and mine to don sequin-covered skirts are not decisions that we’re making because we believe they’re integral to our value as people. We’re not doing it because it’s expected of us and we’re not doing it because we want to please our partners. You presumably find genuine enjoyment in DIY projects and retro fashion just as I view cooking and home entertaining to be fulfilling activities. But neither of us is suggesting that these are the only appropriate interests a woman should have and that we are somehow superior to others for doing these things well."
The problem is that the acts authentic to one woman’s preferences are not always what’s authentic to another, and not everyone embracing these activities does so with full political awareness of the history behind domestic labor. To be fair, many third-wave feminist crafters see their art as inherently anti-capitalist (because crafting allows one to obtain goods without resorting to mass production), but the political intent behind their hobby is only possible because of their economic privilege. So while choosing DIY and cooking isn’t always at the behest of the patriarchy, choice itself is also a luxury. I cook at home even though I could eat out, because I have the time to prepare a labor-intensive meal and the money to pay for organic produce and retro aprons. These endeavors would be far less glam if I were tossing together frozen veggies because I lived in a food desert and didn’t make a living wage. Those who engage in traditionally domestic activities as a matter of necessity (and in addition to working class day jobs) likely scoff at the concept of “choosing” femininity.
To take this all down to a more superficial level, I really doubt that every girl who emulates Katy Perry is doing so because that’s what she really, really wants. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Katy Perry didn’t spring from her mother’s womb thinking that a whipped-cream-spraying cupcake bra would make a great fashion statement. That said, banning all women from liking cupcakes would be as restrictive as telling them they must bake sugary balls of fluff. So, really, all we can do, given the limits of our economic and political system, is to encourage women to make informed choices while acknowledging the circumstances that grant them choice in the first place.
A tenant on the third floor just buzzed us to ask if someone could help her open the door from the inside, since it’s frozen. The German has been sent.
A lot of people assume that a couple consisting of a German and a sex blogger must surely engage in plenty of Kinky Fun Times, right? The truth is much more boring than the perception.
If a debate is started in our apartment, it will be finished, so all the more reason to not start it in the first place when there’s work (in the most liberal sense of the word) to be done. Tonight, we got to discussing Jessica Valenti’s piece on why she’s not participating in tomorrow’s More Magazine panel about young feminism. I’ll be there, as planned, but Jessica is opting out because she does not wish to legitimate a conservative panelist’s claim to “feminism”. The conversation about her blog post somehow devolved (or evolved, depending on the point of view) into a two-hour debate about whether ideological labels serve any purpose or whether there is such a thing as the feminist movement and if one actually exists, whether women constitute a useful analytic category. Also, we conducted an exegesis of Catharine MacKinnon’s Toward A Feminist Theory of the State, which I originally thought was a good summation of all the running arguments we’ve had over the course of the past two years. (FYI, I was wrong and I now think the book is kind of a cop-out, but I can still see the purpose of MacKinnon’s attempt to reconcile Marxism and feminism.) And then we talked about what actually constitutes activism and whether activism — in its current incarnation in the democratic, capitalist system — is an effective political method. Simone de Beauvoir, for example, was not an activist, and yet she is indisputably one of the greatest contributors to feminism, is she not? This point, like many others, was abandoned as a tangent to a bigger debate about whether the feminist movement is one worth fighting for. And that bigger debate, of course, has been unresolved and going on between us for years. Two steps forward, one step back, every time.
While I would not quite characterize the first year of our relationship as a “reeducation” per se, dating, living, and talking with Patrick is certainly responsible for elevating my feminist views from the self-centered personal to the universal political. We didn’t know anything about the other’s political philosophies when we met. I could barely articulate my own. I knew intuitively that my experiences with sexual double standards and slut-shaming were not unique, that they represented a widespread problem confronted by many women and queer people, yet it wasn’t until I started dating Patrick that I really thought about the roots of sexual repression and oppression.
That first year, the German and I argued endlessly about education, marriage, pornography, sex work, welfare, the American Dream, employment, and democracy. He has a few years and a Master’s degree on me, so I scoured the shelves at Strand for classic feminist texts, reread my coursepack from Introduction to Studies Of Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, and tried to reconcile the often opaque theory of academia with the imperfect practice of activism. I came to a conclusion — not entirely, independently — that the root cause of the silencing and stifling felt by women like me isn’t a vague and shadowy bogeyman who goes by the name of “Patriarchy”. “Patriarchal” is just a description, nothing more than an adjective; it’s not an explanation in and of itself. I had to concede that gender-based oppression is, in fact, just another expression of the consequences to a market economy that does not recognize sex differences, such as a woman’s biological inability to participate in the labor market when pregnant or after childbirth. Equal treatment, in other words, does not lend itself to equal ends. To me, this dilemma represented the continued need for feminism — perhaps a feminism that is awakened to its anti-capitalistic roots — but to Patrick, this demonstrated the movement’s futility and failure.
Our first year together was the same year I spent on academic leave from Harvard, and I maintain — even after my insane senior year schedule of intensive German classes and thesis writing — that the time I spent falling in love contributed more toward my intellectual and ideological development than all of college up to that point. I don’t know if this says more about my relationship or higher education.
Chicken tikka masala! It’s the first Indian dish I’ve attempted. Pictures to come, obviously.