Garment Workers Overseas: Unpacking the Feminist Politics of Clothing

Over the last year or so, U.S. companies, including brands like Gap, Joe Fresh (JCPenney), H&M, and Faded Glory (sold at Wal-Mart) have come under increasing pressure to increase the safety standards for the workers in their garment factories overseas. Recent disasters, including the factory fire in Bangladesh (on India’s eastern border), in November 2012 that killed 112 and the collapse of another building that houses five garment factories near Dhaka (in Bangladesh) in May of 2013, which killed 1,127 workers have brought worker safety to the forefront of global conversation.

Why would these disasters be of especial importance to feminists? For one, the majority of the workers are women.

Here is some context for our reading of Cynthia Enloe’s “Blue Jeans and Bankers” from her book Bananas, Beaches, and Bases.

The collapse of the factory in 2014 is one of the worst industrial disasters in history–and some U.S. corporations,  most notably Wal-Mart, still refuse to sign off on the safety regulations for overseas factories that Europeans have already agreed to.

A garment factory in Rhana Plaza, Dhaka collapsed in May 2013. Over 1,000 workers were killed, and it has been called one of the worst industrial disasters in history.

A garment factory in Rhana Plaza, Dhaka collapsed in May 2013. Over 1,000 workers were killed, and it has been called one of the worst industrial disasters in history.

 

These recent disasters have fueled ongoing labor protests and other areas as workers demand safer working conditions and better pay.

Bangladeshi garment workers demand better wages and safety regulations after the industrial disasters of the last year that have left thousands of workers dead.

Bangladeshi garment workers demand better wages and safety regulations after the industrial disasters of the last year that have left thousands of workers dead.

 

If companies like Wal-Mart have gotten themselves in trouble for exploiting their workers abroad, they’ve also come under fire at home, as American workers have participated in ongoing strikes and boycotts for a livable wage and benefits. (FYI: Wal-Mart remains staunchly anti-union.) In fact, despite mounting evidence of Wal-Mart’s numerous abuses (labor, environmental, etc.), celebrities like Tom Cruise have praised the company for improving women’s lives all over the world (Democracy Now, “Striking Workers, Bangladeshi Activist Challenge Wal-Mart”).

This haunting photograph was taken in the aftermath of the garment factory collapse in Dhaka, India, earlier this year.

This haunting photograph was taken in the aftermath of the garment factory collapse in Dhaka, India, earlier this year.

LEARN MORE…

Watch the full story of the Bangladesh garment factory disasters on Democracy Now, including a report from global labor activist Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and Scott Nova of WorkersRights.org.

Read an interview with a garment industry labor activist involved in the protests, who spoke to Purdue’s own Tithi Battacharya.

Homework Due Wednesday, April 15th

In preparation for a more in-depth discussion about globalization and low-wage labor overseas (Cynthia Enloe), visit the following site and answer the questions to see how many slaves work for you around the world.

Slavery Footprint

Write up a lecture card – question, comment, quote – about the experience, and be sure to include your number! We’ll begin class with these on Wednesday.

Controlling Images: Welfare Reform, Work Ethic, and the “Welfare Queen”

Toward the end of the presidential election in 2012, Mother Jones journalists released the following footage of Mitt Romney meeting behind closed doors with some of his inside supporters. Listen especially to his characterization of President Obama’s supporters and how he uses the accusation of “entitlement.”

FYI: he’s not just talking about those on welfare and programs like SNAP here. He’s also talking about anyone who gets (“feels entitled to”) money from the government, including, for example, those of us using students loans or veterans receiving benefits.

At the core of Romney’s speech is the beloved “boostraps rhetoric” – the idea that if an individual starting with “nothing” can just work hard and “pull himself up by his bootstraps,” he will be able to “make it”; and that success is so often defined in a narrow, profit-driven way, that is, as the accumulation of private wealth and material goods. Much of the time, the people who invoke a bootstraps story about their immigrant grandparents, for example, don’t recognize that those relatives may still have come to the U.S. with racial privilege, support from family already in the country, political rights, a knowledge of English, etc. (Here’s another controlling image: who do we picture when we think of an immigrant?)

What stereotypes of poor and/or working class Americans does Romney invoke in his speech? How do such stereotypes connect to public arguments about welfare reform?

STEREOTYPES VS. CONTROLLING IMAGES

One of the most pervasive controlling images that exists at the intersection of race and class is the image of the welfare queen. First, let’s clarify, stereotypes are:

implicit biases about how a person’s race, gender, class, or sexual orientation influences the individual’s behavior that become strong beliefs that influence individual or collective behavior.

A controlling image goes farther than a stereotype and its effects are more insidious. A controlling image is:

a stereotype that has become so ingrained in thought that it becomes a means to control those who are stereotyped and justifies the beliefs of those doing the stereotyping.

In other words, a controlling image is one that has a cumulative effect, that we see over and over to the exclusion of other images or narratives, until we internalize it and believe it to be true.

Such images have the ability to “guide behavior toward and from those persons [depicted], constrain what is seen and believed about them, and when internalized, profoundly influence the self-perceptions of the marginalized” (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman).

THE WELFARE QUEEN IN THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION

Let’s think more specifically about how the stereotype of the welfare queen is often used to justify cuts to welfare programs and other restrictions on the poor and working classes.

A political cartoon of the stereotypical image of the welfare queen living off the government, linked also with Democrats, who have historically been defenders of welfare programs.

A political cartoon of the stereotypical image of the welfare queen living off the government, linked also with Democrats, who have historically been defenders of welfare programs.

The welfare queen was coined by President Ronald Reagan during the late 1970s and was based on a specific Chicago woman, Linda Taylor, who was clearly a grifter and con artist, suspected even of homocide and baby trafficking, and an exception. In an article for Slate, Josh Levin sums up the power on Reagan’s controlling image, embodied by Taylor, who was tried and sent to prison in 1977:

With her story, Reagan marked millions of America’s poorest people as potential scoundrels and fostered the belief that welfare fraud was a nationwide epidemic that needed to be stamped out. This image of grand and rampant welfare fraud allowed Reagan to sell voters on his cuts to public assistance spending. The “welfare queen” became a convenient villain, a woman everyone could hate. She was a lazy black con artist, unashamed of cadging the money that honest folks worked so hard to earn.

Taylor’s story was picked up and carried widely in national newspapers, and her story made a lasting impression. Listen to NPR’s interview with Josh Levin on All Things Considered.

POLICING THE POOR BY CONTROLLING CHOICE

On November 1, 2013, welfare recipients saw dramatic cuts amounting to a total of $40 billion to their SNAP (or food stamp) allowances. More recently, states like Maine and Missouri have passed bills that prohibit individuals on SNAP from buying particular food items, including cookies, chips, soda, canned tuna, steak and seafood.

welfare queen before and after birth

And many states continue to enforce mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients, despite the fact that such tests have proven to be a monumental waste of government money (typically less than 1% of those on welfare ever test positive for illegal drugs, and in some states, certain prescription drugs found in urine can still be grounds for losing one’s benefits, even if that person has a prescription from a doctor).

According to Lister, who recently published an article in The Washington Post, writes of her own experience:

When I drive my 19-year-old car, with its drooping bumper, peeling paint and loud muffler, the police follow me. Utilizing American safety-net programs (which, by the way, I paid into for years before receiving any “entitlements”) requires that I relinquish my privacy multiple times. I have to reveal how much I pay to live where I live, the amount of my utility and medical bills, what car I own, even whether I have a plot to be buried in when I die. I have to update the local office any time my income changes, or if a family member moves in or out, and even when my college-age children come home for the summer.

Why would policy makers and government officials spend so much money policing the bodies and choices of poor people? Why do we believe that some citizens are more deserving of privacy than others, and who gets to determine this?

Last year, Congresswoman Speier (D-CA) gave this speech in an attempt to put such cuts in perspective, especially in an age of “austerity panic”:

Do you think you could take the SNAP challenge and eat on just $4.50 a day?

Want to now more about common myths the media uses to undercut welfare and perpetuate those stereotypes of the poor that Adair talks about? Read “What the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Welfare: 9 Myths Exposed.”

Student Activism at Purdue: Dana Smith and Caleb Pirtle for Student Government

Since all of you are working on your final Community Action projects, I thought you could use a little inspiration from other student activists at Purdue who are working to create change by running for Purdue Student Government on a progressive platform that highlights many of the issues that student activists, particularly members of the Purdue Social Justice Coalition, have been working on for the past couple of years.

Dana Smith is a WGSS minor at Purdue. Do you notice anything feminist about her campaign?

 

Reading Fat and Slender Bodies: Diet Culture and Capitalism

JOY NASH – “A FAT RANT”

 

In her video above, Nash points out how often people who are perceived as overweight or fat are belittled, shamed, or insulted “for their own good” or out of well-meaning “concern.” Consider Bordo’s anecdote about the woman on the television talk show whose audience insisted that the woman could not be both fat and happy (pp. 203-204). What is it about “fat” bodies that makes people so nervous…or worse, downright hostile?

Particularly fat female bodies.

Since women are often judged first and foremost by their appearance, it is also often deemed acceptable for others to comment on women’s bodies; and one of the easiest ways to cut a woman down to size – physically, intellectually, emotionally – is to call her fat.

And as a culture, our obsession with diets – and a medical community that often equates weight loss with better health and a quick fix to all sorts of symptoms and complaints –  only fuels this fat-shaming culture. Consider how, more than individuals, such body-shaming actually profits corporations:

“HOW DIETS HURT YOU (AND HELP CAPITALISM)”

 

Remember that definition of feminism from bell hooks? People, not profit.

“READING THE SLENDER BODY” – SUSAN BORDO

As Susan Bordo argues in her chapter “Reading the Slender Body,” we read others’ bodies, and our own, as cultural texts, especially as women, and we often connect all sorts of personality traits or characteristics with those bodies based on their shape, weight, and perceived slenderness or beauty.

QUESTIONS

  1. How are unattractive women or women who were perceived as overweight generally portrayed in advertising?
  2. In American culture, what judgments do we often make about people with “fat” bodies? What characteristics do we assign to “fat” female bodies?
  3. According to Bordo, what is our culture’s obsessions with “fighting the enemy flab” really about, if not simply about health or weight management, as we’re so often told?
  4. How are eating disorders – the “extremes” of obesity and bulimia/anorexia – a logical symptom of this cultural obsession?
  5. Historically, how have the cultural politics of fat bodies been connected to socioeconomic status, or class?

Your Weight Doesn’t Matter as Much as You Might Think: “Health at Every Size”

Aussie Marie Claire

The Australian Marie Claire magazine recently published this image in their pages, which received a lot of attention. The kicker? Despite their different body types, all of these women weight the same!

For a more balanced campaign on weight and health, check out Health at Every Size.

 

“Killing Us Softly 4″: Images of Women in Advertising

Let’s continue our discussion of representions of women’s bodies this week by thinking about how we “read” bodies (Susan Bordo) and about what bodies we see, value, and/or use and how this affects how we relate to our bodies and how we move through the world.

Watch jean Kilbourne’s (in)famous video lecture below. You’ll never look at advertising the same way again:

“KILLING US SOFTLY 4″ – JEAN KILBOURNE