Thursday, November 12, 2009
Gender Studies, Deep Fried
Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations is an outstanding program because it seeks to uncover all aspects of a given culture. Tony is not afraid to experience the entire spectrum when he travels to a strange land, and his articulate, profound voice-overs provide thoughtful insight from the perspective of a visitor in a foreign land. I also happen to love learning about food. I think it's so revealing. At the beginning of the Saudi Arabia episode, Tony is candid in his thoughts regarding the treatment of women who are expected to cover themselves head-to-toe in black, remaining hidden from view while in plain sight. He is disturbed, as most Westerners tend to be, by this custom. By the end of his trip, Tony remains skeptical, but seems placated, generally responsive to the explanations provided to him by his guide. As a viewer, I am not totally satisfied.
Danya takes great care to emphasize the ways in which Saudi Arabia is "normal," inherently referring to the unmarked term "normal" that is defined by Western standards and values. She tells us that Saudi people do all the same stuff that we do in the states, watch Boston Legal and Scrubs on a flat screen TV, sit on couches, hang out in shopping malls, purchase cheap and oh-so-tasteful clothing at fine establishments such as Charlotte Russe and Forever 21. She has not eaten the street food of the Saudi working class. She lives in a very nice home in an up-scale district in Jetta. She is one of the only women in Saudi Arabia permitted to make films. What does she have to complain about, aside from sweating her lady parts off in the unrelenting desert heat, shrouded in a blanket of black?
During their meal at the Saudi version of KFC, Danya reveals her feelings on the status of women, proclaiming that Saudi culture is family-oriented and that it's really single men who are being marginalized and excluded (Which is somehow okay? Marked vs. unmarked terms become probematic here, yet again). All restaurants in Saudi Arabia have separate sections, one for families and one for single men. Men behave badly, Danya says, and need to be isolated from women and children. Similarly, female beauty is a thing to be protected, hence the abaya. Besides, things have always been this way in Saudi Arabia, so change, if it happens at all, will be slow. Danya, it seems, doesn't see any need for reform. Does this, as Diane suggested a couple of weeks ago, translate as a class issue? Would an impoverished or lower-class woman who is oppressed in other, completely universal ways, agree with Danya on this set of issues? Or, are we, as liberal-minded scholars, simply so used to questioning the status quo that we can't possibly fathom the notion that an age-old custom is valid? In class tomorrow, I'd like to talk about how Danya responds to this "elephant in the room" on the show. Are you satisfied with her explanation?