Archives for category: Feminism

In which Lindsay reveals that her muscles are made of CGI.

Hollywood hates women” is the line going around this week, thanks to Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece (sorry dudes, behind a paywall) about comedienne Anna Faris and the commentary (which I like to call “Internet dust”) it’s kicked up. Though it’s nice to see this conversation taking place in the mainstream media — and Friend’s article is thoughtful and refreshingly plaintive (“Studio executive believe that male moviegoers would rather prep for a colonoscopy than experience a woman’s point of view, particularly if that woman drinks or swears or has a great job or an orgasm.”), it all just prompts me to say, “Well yeah, duh.” Those of us who follow the Women and Hollywood beat know the drill: every year or so, we are treated to one of these State of the Lady in Hollywood exposes, replete with all sorts of quotes and statistics that make us feel totally helpless, and then up from the comments sections spring all sorts of well-intentioned but maddeningly vague rally cries about how we can make it better. “We just need more strong female characters!”, goes one of these refrains. And Hollywood, on the rare occasion that it acknowledges the sound of tiny people shouting, replies with a wave of its hand, “Strong female characters? We’ve got those! Have y’all seen Tomb Raider? And…like…Tomb Raider 2: The Cradle of Life?” Which makes obvious something that we’ve always known: Hollywood has no idea what a strong female character actually looks like.

Blockbuster Hollywood’s idea of a Strong Female Character involves some kind of hybrid between brute, male strength and hyperfeminized sexuality: an Uzi-toting Rosie the Riveter with a 16-inch waist and CGI boobs. In recent years, Hollywood has inundated us with representations of this particular vision of strength, from the aforementioned Tomb Raider (and, for that matter, the entire cult of personality surrounding Angelina Jolie) to Charlie’s Angels to Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle right up to Sucker Punch (the latter of which Sady Doyle terrifically skewered in an Atlantic piece last week).

The problem with this definition of “strength” is that it’s rooted in the patriarchal notion that bigger is better, might is right, and that “weakness,” its opposite, is inherently feminine. For these characters, strength is one’s ability to step in line with a paradigm that is already tainted with misogyny; feminine strength is one’s ability to, in the elegant words of pop phenom Jessie J, “do it like a dude.” (Interestingly enough, this is also the problem that Anna Faris and others experience in the realm of comedy; in Friend’s article, a director praises her for not being “light and sweet…she’s funny like a guy would be funny.”) Once those muscles have been sufficiently flexed, the only “feminine” traits that these Strong Female Characters are allowed to exhibit are those which have been pre-approved by the patriarchy; so, namely, CGI boobs.The Strong Female Character is not one who’s able to provide a personal revision as to what strength is and what it looks like, but one who’s able to successfully navigate the narrow channels in which she’s allowed to be visible in the mainstream Hollywood film.

So if we can’t look to Hollywood for unproblematic views of female strength, can we find them instead in the margins? Not really, says Elizabeth Greenwood, who recently proposed that indie cinema kind of hates women too. In an article entitled “Why So Many Boring Women in Indie Film?” she implicates a number of supposedly more enlightened films for portraying female characters as “meek,” “mild” and “utterly forgettable”  and accuses both male and female filmmakers of “hav[ing] shown little regard for their young female protagonists as people.”

It’s a brave and noble piece, one that articulates something I’ve felt but haven’t quite been able to name — but I only agree with her to a point. First of all, I’ll acknowledge the false dichotomy I’m setting up between “Hollywood films” and “indie films” here; in film as in music, “indie” is no longer synonymous with a  counterculture or a space in which the greater forces of sexism and other forms of oppression are challenged (plus, most of the films she mentions have relatively huge budgets and big names behind them). Greenwood calls out some female characters whose one-dimensional emptiness I find worthy of critique, from the title character in (500) Days of Summer to Michelle Williams’s Cindy in Blue Valentine. But I think she’s too quick to lump a large and varied group of films together — and in some cases her definition of “boring” relies on yet another preexisting paradigm.

“Some of the women Greenwood calls out as boring are deeply sympathetic, brave characters, even if the people around them on-screen don’t always see them for who they are,” Alyssa Rosenberg writes in a response to the original piece. She goes on to defend some of the characters Greenwood initially criticizes. Margot Tenenbaum, for one, she sees as a character who hides her inferiority from those who seek to externally define her. (And of course she’s successful. “What do you know?” her husband is asked right before seeing a dossier recounting the secrets about her love life. “Very little, I’m afraid.”) I’ll extend the defense along to Greta Gerwig’s Florence in Greenberg, a film that Greenwood also faults. Having seen the film twice now, I find Florence’s inarticulateness hugely sympathetic and relatable — even though she’s not a “strong female character” in the sense that she’s ambitious, has a “good job” or could kick your teeth out. Her tangential anecdotes and eccentric sense of humor don’t serve to fetishize her into the film’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but rather convey a disconnect between her and the rest of the people populating her world.  And in contrast with the film’s titular male protagonist, something about her has stuck with me. As my friend Kristen said upon rewatching the film last week, “That movie really should have been called Florence.”

So then, if it’s not the machine gun or the combat boots or a well-articulated interiority, what exactly makes a strong female character? Is it the character’s ability to evade a simple answer to that very question? Maybe. I’m not even sure. But, paradoxically, I have always felt a weird strength in not feeling sure, so maybe there is potential in that: characters who appear before us in the process of working things out. Or maybe, better yet, the word “strong” is too entangled in false, rotted-out visions of masculinity to ever do us any good. To end Hollywood’s hatred of women, I don’t think we don’t need more strong female characters — we need a complete reimagining of what strength is.

For the record, the tattoo on Kristen Powell’s stomach is a hamburger, not a cheeseburger.

In some bored Internet surfing not long ago I stumbled upon a picture of Maud Wagner, the first female tattoo artist in the U.S.

There’s no mincing words about this: girl is fine. From her Gibson Girl hair to her completely covered décolletage, aesthetically she’s a woman I look up to. And I can’t help thinking she helped pave the way for me, as well.*

I got my first tattoo when I was 18. It was on this list that I had of things to do before I died. And since it didn’t seem like I’d be headed to Paris anytime soon, I decided that getting tattooed would be one of the easier things to cross off the list. Now, I’m finishing up a full sleeve and have a good handful of others. It’s hard to say why I can’t stop getting tattooed.

In reading up on Maud Wagner, I discovered an article by Christine Braunberger that was published in the National Women’s Studies Association Journal (now called Feminist Formations) in 2000. Entitled “Revolting Bodies: The Monster Beauty of Tattooed Women,” the article was like a warm inky hug to this monster beauty.

The piece delves into the cultural history of tattooed women in the U.S. and the different reasons women got and continue to get tattooed, what getting tattooed means to them and how society then reads them. Ultimately, tattooed women are troubling because tattoos highlight and hypersexualize women’s bodies, but they also are a masculine text.

The first heavily tattooed women in America were sideshow tattooed ladies and they’re an excellent example of this confusing dichotomy. Braunberger refers to them as “self-made freaks.”

Tattooed women had to work to be freaks; tattoos are not formed by an errant allele.** Sideshow ladies were allowed to show more skin than other women of the period which literally and figuratively exposed them to male gaze. But they also had significantly more financial and geographic independence than the vast majority of Victorian women.

Stories of “tattoo rape” usually accompanied these women. More often than not, they had supposedly been forcibly tattooed by Indians, their abusive father or both. In reality, these women chose a tattooed life consciously and were supporting themselves. What’s more, thanks to Victorian fashion, when they weren’t performing, their tattoos were usually covered.

Perhaps though, their hidden tattoos were more terrifying. After all, what’s more dangerous than a women with a secret?

Basically, Braunberger’s look at tattooed women calls to mind an anthropological mixed bag of terms like “agency,” “talkback” and “Introjection.”

As a modern-day tattooed lady, this piece meant a lot to me. I don’t know why getting tattooed is so appealing to me. I will say that the first tattoo I got below my wrist came in conjunction with the decision that I would never work a desk job. And that crashing the veritable dick-fest that is the back of most tattoo shops often feels like a subversive experience in and of itself.

My tattoo experience is probably best summarized with a conundrum I recently presented a tattoo artist. “How am I supposed to make an anchor girly?” he asked, responding to my request.

I don’t know; I’m figuring it out.

*In some moderately bizarre facet of “noble savage” ideology, tattooing was actually relatively popular among upper class women and men in the second half of the 19th century in Europe. Winston Churchill’s mother had a snake tattooed around her wrist, guys. But you probably wouldn’t know that, because it seems “wrong.”

**Though prominent tattooed lady Artoria Gibbons once told a reporter that she was born covered in tattoos because her mother saw too many movies while she was in the womb

Lindsay returns to her alma mater, reveals her love of manatees.

“8 boys are having a craft night. If each boy knits 2 baby hats, how many baby hats will the boys knit in all?”

For D.C. teacher Jessica Hall’s second graders, this is an average, everyday math problem. “As teachers, we get to create what is normal,” she says. “And I want them to see that [boys knitting baby hats] is totally normal.”

This weekend, I attended a workshop that Hall and fellow D.C. teacher Julia Hainer-Voiland lead as a part of the 11th annual Visions in Feminism conference at American University, my and Mia’s beloved alma mater. We spent the day attending panels on activist filmmaking and the racial issues surrounding reproductive rights, as well as wandering the grounds to revisit as many of our favorite campus bathrooms – an experience we found weirdly and profoundly evocative of college’s long-forgotten mundanities. Upon entering a particular bathroom next to the site of a business class I once hated, I felt the back of my neck prickle with a familiar dread at having to spend another hour and fifteen minutes discussing the success of Dunkin Donuts’ branding campaign. But there was something different about the bathroom where I used to flee for a brief moment of respite from my senior thesis seminar: the ViF organizers had turned it into a gender neutral facility. For that afternoon anyway, we feminists were taking over.

Hall and Hainer-Voiland’s talk was called “Teaching from the Margins: Feminist Theory in the Classroom” and it explored the challenges and triumphs they’ve experienced in trying to get elementary school aged students to think critically about gender, race and class. Now, I’m not a teacher myself, but that made the workshop all the more fascinating to me; they brought up a lot of questions about feminist theory and pedagogy that I’d never explicitly thought about before. How do you instill in young children an understanding that history is multivalent rather than one-sided? How can you “run a tight ship” in the classroom without succumbing to traditional models of hierarchy? And, perhaps the trickiest question of all: what are the most effective ways to get young students thinking critically about the gender binaries that pervade our culture? As Hall and Hainer-Voiland demonstrated, it’s not easy. It’s not like you can make a fifth grader to do a book report on Gender Trouble or something.

Instead, they emphasized the importance of thinking critically about the role of the teacher. Not just a neutral figurehead bound to tradition, the feminist teacher understands that s/he is a “transmitter of knowledge, cultural expectations and strategies to gain or access knowledge.” Discussion, they stressed, is one of the most important components of the feminist classroom. Inspired by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings that “to listen is to love,” Hainer-Voiland explains to her students the importance of what she calls “brain listening” – being mentally present while other people are talking. She also encourages her students not only to speak up, but to be aware of how often they’re speaking – and who in the room they’re silencing when they exert too much control over the conversation. It might sound like a theory overload, but trust me, it works! Hainer-Voiland showed us a great video of her kids role playing as a group of union workers on strike. They each took turns speaking and listening, and before one of the group leaders spoke, he handed the designated “talking bean bag” to another student, explaining, “He hasn’t spoken yet.”

One of my favorite of Hainer-Voiland’s feminist classroom practices involved – yes – manatees. When the kids were going to learn about those cuddly cows of the sea (and, if you couldn’t already tell, one of my top 3 favorite animals when I was a fifth grader), she did an interesting thought experiment.  “As a teacher, it’s not just my role to decide what we learn,” she says, “but also how we learn it and from what perspective.” She gave the kids a list of options  of what they’d like to learn about manatees, among them a fact-based approach (“How long can manatees hold their breath underwater?”) and an “emotion”-based approach (“How do manatees care for their young?”). She polled the students on what they’d like to know about manatees, and then she asked them to predict how they thought their male and female peers would answer. Almost unanimously, the class predicted that the boys would vote for the fact-based approach and that the girls would want to know facts about child-rearing and families. In reality, it was the opposite. Interactive exercises like this allow teachers to effectively demonstrate kids the gap between gender roles and reality without beating it over their heads – because no matter what they’re still learning some awesome facts about manatees, too.

At the end of the workshop, Hall and Hainer-Voiland asked us all a question: “If all classrooms were grounded in feminism, what would our future look like?” It’s certainly an inspiring scenario to consider. As they showed us, small changes in traditional classroom dynamics can make great, tangible impact on the way children think about and formulate gender. It’s hard to imagine all teachers exhibiting such a laudable commitment to bringing feminist theory into the classroom, but of this part I’m sure: at this workshop and all the others, Visions in Feminism 2011 provided a space for discussion, community and a whole lot of brain listening.

Annie Rebekah Gardner is a grad student and frequent Canonball contributor. She writes for us from Cairo, Egypt.

As a once-self-professed-woman-hater, I think there was a time in my life where I would have relished being One of the Guys, especially One of the Guys With a Doctorate, but those days are long-gone, and besides, the meme as told by the fine Ms. Molly Lambert is already several weeks old, so I needn’t elaborate on the whys and wherefores of the problematic nature of the Boys’ Club, or the mad sisterhood I have with my female colleagues. Instead, I’ll discuss the Boy’s Club that I’m presently trying to break: The Academy.

“Do you have any comments on Academia being a Boys’ Club?” I asked a colleague and good friend on G-Chat. “Perhaps you want to mansplain it to me, even?” Colleague/Good Friend kept it concise. “It’s true,” he responded. This particular Dude is emblematic of the type of academic social circle – or cozy little bubble, as the case may be – that I generally inhabit. In my particular graduate program, our demographic is composed of guilty white girls and men of color. The male students of other disciplines with whom I rub shoulders more or less share similar politics to mine. My thesis committee is composed entirely of women (in the fields of history, gender and women’s studies, and sociology, respectively), and the male professors I have had are committed feminists. (Also, there’s something about living in Egypt that makes one – male or female – a more radicalized feminist, but I digress!)

This next part should come as no surprise, then. I recently attended my first Big Academic Conference (by virtue of the fact that I have a really gracious advisor, and by no particular accomplishment on my own, I want to add) and discovered that, although women increasingly constitute the world of the Academy, it remains, for all intents and purposes, a Boys’ Club.

On my last afternoon, two well-accomplished conference attendees who are not in my field told me over beers that, when it comes to professorial positions, women are more likely to take on more work and more menial tasks (there was even a conference panel on it!), and all the more likely to get pigeon-holed into teaching or researching subject matter that doesn’t concern them. In the meantime, university departments with faculty composed almost solely of men are trying desperately to recruit women, and with difficulty: a) women are less likely to “progress” in their academic careers because of outside issues (families, for one) and b) Boys’ Clubs actually suck, no matter how much you loved The Little Rascals.

My primary field, Forced Migration and Refugee Studies, is a female dominated space, but one that more often than not is geared towards practitioners. As someone from the theory end of things, my interests lie more in the critical aspects of the field, and as such, I’ve gotten myself swept up in other, related critical fields – borderlands theory (which caters greatly to the gender studies lens), citizenship studies (again, easily accessible from a feminist standpoint), and security studies (Ding ding ding! Boyzone. Doybomb). It should come as no surprise, then, that a panel dealing with security studies – even a panel on the critical theory end of things – is going to be a male-dominated space.

“What did you think?” A colleague asked wryly after sitting in on my first critical security panel. “Well, it’s definitely a Boys’ Club,” I replied. I’ve never given thought to pursuing this line of critical theory seriously (like, say, in a dissertation), but after seeing a (presumably well-meaning) group of dudes listen to themselves wax poetic on the topic, I started to feel a little bit contrary. On one such panel, the discussant even noted that though the audience was split 50/50 sex-wise, the bulk of questions asked were by men. Is it a coincidence? Is it that these particular dudes liked hearing themselves speak? Is it that women are more afraid of being judged for asking a stupid question (I will readily admit as a fledgling academic that this is usually my fear, and always has been)?

Contrast, then, to the only feminist panel I attended (I’ll say that fortunately, there were many at the conference). Though it had the best attendance of any of the panels I went to, it was crammed into a tiny afterthought of a conference room, with about 15 chairs total. Attendees, myself included, had to sit on the floor. Of course it follows that it was the best panel I attended, and ironically enough, several of the panelists discussed the phenomenon of fratriarchy. As defined by the International Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinities, “fratriarchy” was coined by one John Remy and expresses “a rule of brotherhoods or fraternities…based on a fictitious kinship.” As a phenomenon, fratriarchy is a less decentralized element of patriarchy, occasionally expressed via social deviance (the public displays of faux homosexual acts in hazing rituals, for example).

There are plenty of salient examples of fratriarchy. I mean, fraternities, the military. Duh. In the context of the Academy, long painted as the way nerdy side of the masculine, it’s not an outright formal fratriarchy – homosocial hazing rituals have been replaced by grilling panelists at conferences, for example – but I think that as another Boys’ Club, it serves as one more exemplar of a patriarchal world. Academia already has its long-standing issues tied with racism and elitism. Its continuing to be a Boys’ Club just further cements the fact that an Ivory Tower is still standing, no matter the claims otherwise.

As a co-opted capitalist entity, the present university system, in all its moneyed, Polo-clad glory, is already in crisis. The job market for people like me, who will emerge from my cloisters in four or five years and find myself paying off loans and battling for uninsured adjunct positions in Tea Party-ville (the irony that this will fall right around the time that I want to start birthing children is not lost on me, my friends), is abysmal. The dominant discourses of the Academy are still very much skewed in favor of its bachelor bros (I mean like the unmarried dude, not the degree. Ha, ha. Puns!!).

I wish I had a better answer for what those academics amongst us should be doing about this. As a less-cynical-than-I-am-now 21-year-old, I bopped around at college keggers speaking of knocking down the Ivory Tower and radically redistributing the bricks, and out of college immediately took a job at that most hated of Ivory Tower institutions (yeah, I won’t link it, I’m that embarrassed. I will, however, link one of my favorite Ivy League Internet feminists). I think one important step, and one that I’ve been very fortunate to have learned by my professors, both in undergrad and now, is to view the Academy as one more site of struggle and contestation. Like a streaker on the quad, inequalities run haywire, but we have the great challenge and privilege of living in the midst of uprisings (seriously, I never thought I would see a 1968 in my lifetime, and yet! Every day! From Tahrir to Trafalgar!). The world is a Boys’ Club. It’s time to change that.

This week in Mindblowingly Regressive Attacks on Your Reproductive Rights, South Dakota governor Dennis Daugaard passed a statewide law mandating a veritable legislative obstacle course for any woman seeking an abortion. Women in the state will now be subjected to a three-day waiting period before they’re able to get an abortion — and they must also visit a crisis pregnancy center (which, by the way, are privately regulated facilities and thus under no legal obligation to keep your medical information confidential) and listen to a lecture about why abortion is evil. Really. Suddenly that old South Dakotan law that bars you from falling asleep in a cheese factory sounds relatively rational. Amanda Marcotte explains why this law is more than an attack on reproductive rights, but on individual privacy at large:

Republican state senator Al Novstrup claimed the bill is somehow protective of women, offering them a “second opinion,” which indicates not just his disrespect for religious freedom but his profound ignorance of options counseling typical to abortion clinics, especially Planned Parenthood, which runs the sole abortion clinic in the state. I don’t imagine he’d see it that way if the state required citizens to hear a “second opinion” about other private decisions based on personal religious beliefs (or lack thereof). Would Novstrup enjoy having to listen to a lecture from an atheist or Muslim group before joining a church, getting married or making plans for his own funeral? Why then is it appropriate to force women to listen to religious lectures before making a decision that involves their own religious beliefs about life?

In The New York Times, Kate Zernike reported good news and bad news for female professors at M.I.T. and beyond. The good? There are more of them, they’re ascending to more prestigious positions in greater numbers, and they’re winning more awards. But, says M.I.T. associate dean Hazel S. Sive, “Because things are so much better now, we can see an entirely new set of issues.” The situation described at many top universities speaks to the residual and harder-to-define effects of institutional sexism that linger long after equality has, ostenisbly, been “achieved.” Zernike notes:

[W]ith the emphasis on eliminating bias, women now say the assumption when they win important prizes or positions is that they did so because of their gender. Professors say that female undergraduates ask them how to answer male classmates who tell them they got into M.I.T. only because of affirmative action.

Finally, Akoto Ofori-Atta asked an important question in a must-read piece at The Root: “Is Hip-Hop Feminism Alive in 2011?” Ofori-Atta revisits the ideology of hip-hop feminism that writer Joan Morgan coined over a decade ago in her exquisitely titled book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. Hip-hop feminists have always had to grapple with a rather difficult question: “How do women actively participate in a culture that seems to hate them so vehemently?” There are no easy answers, but Morgan has found that ambiguity both challenging and freeing:

The manifestoes of black feminism, while they helped me to understand the importance of articulating the language to combat oppression, didn’t give me the language to explore things that were not black and white, but things that were in the gray. And that gray is very much represented in hip-hop.

This weekend we’ll be returning to our beloved alma matter to attend the Visions in Feminism Conference. Let us know if you’ll be there too! We’ll report back next week with what we’ve learned.

Amelia Long lives in Austin, Texas. She is a volunteer coordinator by day and a volunteer with her local abortion fund by night.

Because of recent rightward shifts in political power, both federally and in my home state of Texas, staying up to date on women’s stuff in the news has become increasingly distressing.  More than once, I have found myself deleting the entire blog feed from RH Reality Check in my Google Reader after looking at a single headline.  As a feminist who cares a lot about access to birth control and safe, legal abortion, I feel stressed out that most of the people who govern me don’t understand women’s bodies, think we can’t make our own decisions, and feel they deserve to have a say in something that is a legal and private medical procedure.

So I stopped reading the news for a while.  But I couldn’t stop seeing this billboard every day on my commute:

[Billboard reads,   “The most dangerous place for some children is in the womb.”]

At first, I thought this smiling African-American boy was warning pregnant ladies not to forget their pre-natal vitamins or something.  Then I learned that his image is part of a nationwide anti-abortion media campaign which began last year with similar ads in Atlanta.  It is hard to summarize all the ways in which this campaign is completely messed up, so I’ll just quote from SisterSong’s October 2010 policy report on race, gender and abortion:

These stunning billboards attempted to use the history of medical mistrust in the African American community to accuse abortion providers of racism and genocide in a bizarre conspiracy theory. Not so coincidentally, they launched a misogynistic attack to shame-and-blame black women who choose abortion, alleging that we endanger the future of our children.

[For an excellent discussion of this issue, click through to Miriam Zoila Pérez’s article.]

Seeing this billboard always makes me mad, and last week I was already in a bad mood while driving downtown.  When I saw it this time, I reflexively threw up my middle finger and waved it around, swearing.

I immediately felt like an idiot for getting mad at a picture and hoped no one had seen me.  But then I thought, what if the woman in the next car did just see me giving the finger to a billboard?  Maybe she’ll wonder what the billboard is all about.  Maybe she’ll get mad too!

I realized that if other people could see me getting mad, they might join me in protest.  I decided to call the billboard company to complain and to pass along what I learned to my friends.  The next time I drove by, I took down the advertising company’s phone number listed on the billboard frame.

I called them and said I found their billboard racially offensive and insulting to women.  I asked them to log my complaint in their company’s records.  And I asked them whether they planned to take the billboard down any time soon.

Then I went online to tell other people how they could do what I did.  I created a petition at explaining why I think the billboard should come down.  My petition includes a phone script and contact information for Dinosaur Outdoor Advertising, the company that owns the billboard space.  It also includes contact information for Heroic Media, the Austin-based “pro-motherhood” (read:  anti-choice) organization behind the billboards.  I sent out an email telling about 20 friends about my petition and inviting them to call Dinosaur Outdoor.  Several of them did, and then they emailed, facebooked and tweeted about it, using’s helpful widgets. My petition got 100 signatures in just over 24 hours.

Seeing signatures come in from all over reminded me that so many people do support women and abortion rights. It also made me feel like people aren’t giving up on Texas as some black hole of anti-feminism – like they weren’t saying to themselves Why should I even click on this because how will the internet ever change anything about that terrible, backwards place. Complaining – and seeing that others agreed with me – made me feel a lot better about things.

It also had an impact. When I first called Dinosaur Outdoor, they told me there was no timeframe for the removal of the billboard.  When my friend called one day later, they said staff would be meeting to discuss the billboard and they’d make a decision in a few days. (If you want to check in with them and suggest they decide against the billboard, you can call Dinosaur at 512-272-8887.)

In light of this experience, here are my suggestions on how you can make change in your community:

Speak out.  If something sucks in your community, find out who has the power to change it and speak to him/her.  If you’re contacting a business or an elected official, find out how they log complaints and make sure yours gets counted.  And think strategically about how you can get what you want – people may not care deeply about feminism, but they care about profits/reputation/reelection.  Point out to them how they will lose money, standing in the community or votes if they continue to be anti-woman jerks.

Coordinate. Tell your friends what it was like to contact that business owner or elected official so they’ll know what to expect.  Give people a script and contact information.  Tweet, post on Facebook, blog, email your friends, make a video. You can also create an online petition like I did. This article at Socialbrite discusses pros and cons of nine different petition websites – you should be able to find something that works for you here.

Connect with local groups and organizations. You’re probably not the first person to get mad about this issue. Figure out who else is doing something about it and work together. When I emailed friends about my petition, I learned that NARAL Pro-Choice Texas is working to track locations of Heroic Media’s billboards across Texas using Google Maps. Kailey Vollinger, an intern at NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told me that allies in several states have rallied against these billboards. She says, “we hope to assist fellow Texans and advocates for choice in the same type of campaign.  We are currently updating our website with information about where these billboards are located – as well as how you can help defeat this racist anti-choice messaging campaign.”

Smart organizations like NARAL in Texas are increasingly crowdsourcing information and ideas through grassroots contacts.  Organizations can list crowdsourcing and other virtual volunteering opportunities through Sparked, a website where nonprofits post their “challenges” to an online volunteer community. (Hint:  even though they don’t show up on Sparked’s front page, you can search for “women’s issues” volunteer opportunities. You just have to log in first. However, at this time there are not a lot of feminist challenges listed.)

If you find a really great organization working on your issue, you can start your own fundraiser to benefit them. If you want to manage your fund-raising online, I recommend checking out websites like FirstGiving. They’ll allow you to list information about your fundraiser, post pictures and videos, collect donations and communicate with supporters.

Lastly, consider attending a conference. It’s energizing to meet new people who care about your issue and learn about how things are done in other places. I’m looking forward to attending the National Network of Abortion Funds’ National Organizing Summit this summer, and would love to make it to the annual Reproductive Justice Conference at Hampshire College sometime.

Are there any great grassroots opportunities where you live? Are you mad about something but don’t know what to do about it?  Have you made a feminist improvement in your community? Tell me in the comments. Let’s make this a conversation.

James Worsdale is ready to stop being polite and start getting fired!

At the Worsdale home on a Sunday afternoon, it’s not unusual to walk into a scene where my three sisters and myself are leisurely enjoying an ANTM (America’s Next Top Model) Obsessed Marathon on Oxygen (that’s: television for women, for those of you at home who resist the weapon of mass distraction). Always while watching this show, I cringe and guffaw at the lunacy of the judges panel, the blatancy of the product placement throughout everyday interactions and challenges the contestants go through, and the uncomfortable line it teeters on as existing as harmless fashion camp or feminist backlash and exploitation.

So much of these neuroses and the reasons behind why critical readers of the media experience them while watching reality television programming are thoroughly discussed from a structural standpoint in Jennifer Pozner’s Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV. The book chronicles her analysis of reality television shows from her viewing hours of programming from the years 2000-2010. She comes at most of it from a Marxist-Feminist angle saying that, “reality television is intentionally cast and edited to get us to think less and buy more.”

Pozner’s book begins with the exposure of the fairytale values that drive the genre’s dominant narratives, and how advertisers and television producers manipulate viewers’ emotional attachment and naiveté towards potential truth in those conservative and idealistic tales. This presentation of the fairytale as truth then becomes justified to the producers to present:

The secret to airing a successful reality TV show is create a premise that is ‘steeped in some social belief.’ And, as we’ll soon see, similar stereotypes about race, class, beauty, and sexual orientation are endemic, even necessary, to reality TV—in all its forms.

This inherently manipulative formula by production discounts the theory of the genre’s longevity being based in a closer resemblance to human tendency as proposed by Chuck Klosterman. It is more exploitative of cultural biases and heightened stereotypes than reflective of social truths and cultural accuracy.

Pozner goes on to articulate the disproportionately negative depictions of women, people of color and queer people in the format and talks about the dangers of reality television becoming the bulk of mass media because of mass media’s contemporary existence as “the prime purveyor of cultural hegemony.” She also discusses how the portrayal of these groups aids in the maintenance of the patriarchal structure by turning us against one another.

Much of the fault in this, according to Pozner, lies in advertisers’ deeply embedded interest in this type of programming and presentation. By positing the shows within the perceived realm of “reality,” brand integration feels like a piece of that reality that then drives the necessity to buy products and brands featured on the program to ascertain some semblance of that reality. (Can you wrap your head around THAT Naomi Klein?!). Of course, that reality is always already within the realm of the fairy tale.

So what? Everyone knows it’s fake. Besides, I’m too smart to fall for product placement. Pozner addresses this attitude as well explaining, “Plainly put, advertising doesn’t work despite our belief we are above it—it works precisely because of that belief.” I know what you’re thinking, but Peggy Olson did not ghostwrite this book, I promise you. Pozner also includes a breakdown of the leadership in media and telecom executives, noting that “women are only 3% of top-level decision making” in those companies, which drive programming and advertisers.

I really can’t recommend the book enough, especially for how well it illustrates the genre’s bigoted exterior and gives context to its sinister undertones. Pozner closes with possibilities for action and resistance, including a highly inclusive resource guide in the end. She highlights several reinterpretations of the narratives provided by reality television programming, including the hilarious Queer Housewives of NYC at Pop Culture Pire by Elisa Kreisinger, and encourages projects such as Seattle’s ReelGrrls, both of which I strongly recommend checking out. The need for critical filters is huge, but snarky snickering will only take us so far.

Reading this book as a queer guy, rather than just as a culture critic, was particularly upsetting, especially one who so avidly enjoys television and media and once saw (and maybe still sees a little) potential in the idea of reality television as a mechanism for building empathy and driving social change. I think a lot of what Pozner critiques is how unregulated the infrastructure that creates and maintains so much of the programming has a lot to do with its shortcomings. Few if any of the programs’ writers (and they all have writers) are unionized and, honestly, did you ever think the participants were protected from exploitation in any way? Perhaps with more regulation it could be better, though I have to be honest and say probably not.

To me it’s particularly disappointing in the case of The Real World, the lost child of reality television. Now they provoke and galvanize oftentimes hatefully ignorant sociopaths rather than give a platform to brave individuals seeking a chance to provide a face and a voice against prejudice. Though it is perhaps equally insulting that in Project Runway, a show with a nearly dominant gay fan base, gay men are allowed to be boundlessly talented, excessively flamboyant, tragically and heroically ill, but never romantic.

So if I’ve sufficiently piqued your interest and you need a reason to quit ANTM besides Rich from fourfour no longer posting recaps (and really, without those there is no reason to watch the show), then check out Pozner’s book and you too will understand why the last time I was in DC there was a line around the block to Georgetown Cupcake (spoiler alert: as Joan Rivers quipped, “What’s wrong with this country? The evening news is down to 30 minutes a day but we have 85 reality shows about midgets making cupcakes?”

Lindsay revisits a Doris Lessing classic.

Doris Lessing insists that she’s not a feminist. And though some people consider her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook to be an iconic work of feminist fiction, Lessing’s quick to correct those who interpret it that way. In her 1971 introduction to the text, she speaks about the many letters she’s received over the years (from both women and men) thanking her for writing a definitive tract about “the sex war” of the 1960s; but recalling these letters, Lessing — who also intended The Golden Notebook to be “about” a number of other things like Communism, mental illness and the writing process — bemoans the fact that the feminist reader often “can’t see anything else in the book” other than a treatise on gender politics.

Even with Lessing’s insistence in mind, many readers continue to look at The Golden Notebook through a decidedly feminist lens. After all, I was inspired to pick up a copy of the book after reading Annie and Kelsy’s discussion about it on this very blog. Given that I’m a sucker for “writing about writing” novels and, like the protagonist Anna Wulf, a keeper of many different colored notebooks, their enthusiasms about the book made me assume I’d fall head over heels.

But I didn’t, exactly. Don’t get me wrong, I was sucked in at first: the 50-page dialogue/gossip session between Anna and her best friend Molly is irresistible and almost painfully honest, and the form (which splits the book according to Anna’s compartmentalized notebooks: the black for her writing life, the red for her experiences with Communism, the yellow for autobiographical fiction and the blue for a journal) intrigued me with its musings on the power of the written word. My issues were less with the narrative and mood of the book as a whole and more with the central protagonist herself.

My relationship with Anna Wulf is complicated. In some ways, I can see many feminist readers closely identifying with her. She’s articulate about the glories and the trappings of being a “free woman,” a single mother and a writer; she speaks with wry candor about losing the illusions of youth and idealism; and she’s utterly unsentimental about love, nostalgia, or basically anything in her life at all. In some ways, I don’t know that I can think of a female literary protagonist who speaks more precisely about the peculiar predicaments of being a modern woman. But after a while, Anna’s wryness and unsentimentally started to feel bleak and almost stiflingly humorless. I realize that the novel is, in part, a chronicle of Anna’s “cracking up,” but there comes a point in this novel became downright arid to me — when hope, humor and even the possibility of meaningful social change vanished into a fine mist. Anna looks back upon her idealistic days as a young activist and writer with unforgiving scorn. Maybe, I thought, this just isn’t one of those books you’re supposed to read in your twenties?

Still, having had a few days since finishing to sit with it and revisit all of the pages I dog-eared and underlined, I’ve come to respect The Golden Notebook as something more complex than a one-note, feel-good feminist tract. It’s an examination of the not-so-feel-good parts of what it means to be a “free woman:” the anxieties, the doubts, the childrearing issues, the annoying booty calls from married dudes (“Four men, and I haven’t even flirted with them before, have telephoned to say their wives are away, and every time they have a delightfully coy note in their voices. What on earth do you suppose goes through their minds?”) It’s a book about failings and misgivings, exposing the cracks and fissures in progressive ideologies, feminism included.

I’ll admit that I slogged through much of the “difficult” part of the novel (I won’t say much more in the name of spoilers, but suffice to say you’ll know it when you come to it), until I was struck by a particular image right at the end of this section, as one character describes the plot of a book he’s writing:

This young man…complained that he was in an intellectual prison-house. He recognized, had recognized for years, that he never had a thought, or an emotion, that didn’t instantly fall into pigeon-holes, one marked “Marx” and one marked “Freud.” His thoughts and emotions were like marbles rolling into predetermined slots, he complained…he wished that just once, just once in his life, he thought something that was his own, spontaneous, undirected, not willed on him by Grandfathers Freud and Marx.

Of course there’s a danger in conflating Anna and Doris (and, even here this image comes to us a few voices removed from even Anna), but this passage struck me as the reason why Lessing is reluctant to identify as a feminist. She’s said in interviews that she resists all labels and -isms, and her anti-feminist stance doesn’t mean she’s against women’s rights. But she seems to be against this “pigeon-holing” of ideas that fit too neatly within an ideological framework, and in my own personal anxieties about feminism, this was a topic to which I had no trouble relating.

The thing is, I worry about that stuff too. I worry that feminism sometime limits my criticism — that my knee-jerk reaction is to take the “feminist angle” when writing an album review or a personal essay. I worry that I’m not arriving at the answers on my own but rather following in the well-worn neural pathways of Grandmothers Woolf and de Beauvoir and hooks. I worry that this blog post is a foregone conclusion.

But at some point, I stop worrying. Because when I thought a bit more about Lessing’s image of the marbles and pigeon holes, I realized that that’s now how feminism works for me. Feminist thought, to me, moves like a marble wielding a machete, and maybe also a tiny jackhammer in the other hand, recreating the shapes of the pigeon holes, and drilling new ones when it’s so inclined. I’ve found that it’s hardly sectioned off, too, but rather that feminism has been for me an entry way into thinking about other strategies of resistance and the interconnectedness of all systems of oppression.

If Anna and Doris see feminism as just another ideological label holding them back from thinking freely, that’s fine too! Maybe my idealism’s showing, but at times I found the mood of The Golden Notebook to be too pessimistic for my own enjoyment. (In reading from the responses to the book on this blog, I tended to agree with their assessment that some of it feels outdated.) But in spite of all this — and Lessing’s instance that it’s not a feminist work — I still found The Golden Notebook to be incredibly valuable in the ways it got me thinking about my own political convictions, my writing and perhaps most importantly, (plug your ears, Doris) exactly what it means to be a feminist.