Fresh out of college, I moved to Philadelphia and joined AmeriCorps. It was easily one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.
I found myself–a young, middle-class, white woman–walking through the toughest neighborhoods of Philly on my way to improve literacy rates among kids. It was daunting. I imagined all sorts of crazy scenarios, but I quickly learned that no one cared about me. No one was going to bother the white girl in her pickup truck, and the schools all had strict security protocols. Funny where your imagination can take you if you let fear guide it, but recognizing that fear and where it comes from makes all the difference.
Every day for the first couple of months, however, I came home feeling sick. The kids I worked with lived in terrible circumstances, and while I got up close and personal with their daily struggles, I got to walk away from them every day. I got to return to my quaint brick building and eat sundried-tomato hummus from my local co-op.
I wasn’t used to being around extreme poverty, and it made me ache. One of the elementary schools I visited regularly was surrounded on three sides by projects and the fourth side by derelict buildings full of squatters, as evidenced by sheets that hung in random windows. There was a high fence all the way around the building, and inside that fence, at one end, was a small playground that was nothing but blacktop.
One sunny afternoon a boy cried when he learned that it wasn’t his turn to work with me. He had told me the previous week that he watched his mother die of an overdose. He was eight. He was black. He had the sweetest heart you can imagine, but just a few years later you’d probably see him as a thug. Because that’s what happens to black boys. They hit puberty, and we decide they’re dangerous. That may as well be the end of their lives.
At Benjamin Franklin High School, the ninth-grade class I worked with read on a third-grade level, yet they all had passing grades. They weren’t being taught; they were being kept off the streets. There were three pregnant girls. One of the boys who’d done the impregnating strutted around the room while the books provided for them sat in plastic baskets in the back, books about Arthur the aardvark, little boys learning how to play baseball, and monsters eating homework.
When we worked on a project that required us to walk around the neighborhood, drug deals went down right in front of them and they didn’t bat an eye. Maybe they were busy thinking about what Arthur the aardvark might be up to.
Every Monday I spent the afternoon with a group of middle-school and high-school Latinas at a Catholic community center. It was my favorite part of the week despite always needing to go out and move my truck closer to the building before it got dark because a car down the block had been set on fire with a person in it a month before I started. One evening when I went out to move my truck, someone was stealing the car in front of mine. I just pretended I hadn’t seen anything.
The girls were lively and fun and full of ideas, but they were also full of the most heartbreaking stories. One girl told me that her uncle had molested her since she was eleven. I had this idea that two super-smart sisters could do well in school and get out of there, but then I learned that they had no concept of getting out of there. They’d never left their neighborhood. Their mom was an addict who lived and worked on the street, and they lived with their dad and his girlfriend, who was always threatening to kick them out. The older one, in eighth grade, lost her boyfriend when he was shot in the head because he had the best corner.
All of the girls wanted to be Jennifer Lopez, but other than that, they had no thought of moving beyond their neighborhood. It was what they knew. So I tried to nurture their inner JLo. I helped them write about their lives, taught them about acting, and choreographed a dance performance. Every Monday they got a little break from their daily struggle to survive; they got to laugh and sing and dance, which is what living is about.
That was fifteen years ago, and I have no idea what happened to any of those kids. I don’t know who made it, who’s dead, who’s in prison.
I think about them a lot, especially when yet another unarmed black teenager is shot by the police.
I probably didn’t do very much for those kids in the long term, but they did a lot for me. They showed me the reality of poverty and racism. They showed me how the justice system didn’t (and still doesn’t) work in communities of color, how authorities and the media have let down communities of color over and over again. Sometimes I knew about violence that didn’t make the news for some reason. Sometimes it made the news in a way that was utterly different from the story I’d heard from people who were there.
I will never stop fighting for racial and economic justice because I know the lives of kids depend on it. But sometimes it’s difficult to know what to do, especially if you’re white and middle class.
If there are demonstrations in your city, go to them. Connect with the people there to work on real change for the future.
If you work with low-income kids, find ways to nurture their creativity, which can give them solace from the difficulties in their lives and effective ways to work through those difficulties.
If you lead camps or workshops for kids, find ways to make them accessible to low-income kids. Make sure your group is diverse in terms of economic background and race/ethnicity. Get white kids accustomed to diverse environments so they question situations where everyone is white.
If you’ve got some time to volunteer, find an organization or collective that works with kids in low-income areas. Read with kids. Let them sing and dance and paint.
But don’t go in thinking you can save them. They don’t need to be saved, especially by a white person. Think of it as skill sharing or knowledge sharing. You’re going to share what you know with them, and, in turn, you’re going to learn a hell of a lot about the rest of the world.
And then share what you’ve learned with other people. Apply it to your work. Use it to change systems that have long been mired in racism and aren’t doing anyone any good. Use it to increase diversity among decision-makers. Don’t let kids get out of third grade without meeting appropriate reading levels. Question why law enforcement is mostly white in a mostly black city and the effect that has on both police and those being policed. Use strategic creative action.
When I look at pictures of Michael Brown, the young man shot in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, I see that eight-year-old boy crying because I don’t have time for him that day. What do you see? Don’t let fear drive your creativity and overrule your empathy. Look beyond the characteristics you have been taught to fear. Imagine that little boy and how different his life could have been.
Said Thelma to Louise in a film that still stands as the seminal feminist big-screen journey. Because movies featuring or made by women still get far less investment than they should.
USC’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative released a study on more than 25,000 speaking characters in 600 of the highest-grossing films of the past seven years, and, unsurprisingly, the results for women are dismal. While women made some headway in comedies with a whopping third of characters, they represented less than a quarter of action-adventure roles. The number of women directors dropped, and women characters were sexualized three times as often as men. (There are even financial reasons why this should be otherwise.)
Add to that, the vast number of movies that perpetuate gender norms and contribute to rape culture, and we’ve got a pretty sorry picture.
But there are films out there that challenge traditional ideas of women, give women voices and agency, and explore women’s experiences. We can argue all day about what definition to use to categorize a movie as feminist and you’ll be disappointed if you’re favorites were left off of this list, but I’m really digging Flavorwire’s “50 Essential Feminist Films” and am ashamed to say that I’ve only seen fourteen of them. Now you know what’s on my Netflix queue.
To give you an idea of what’s on the list, here’s what I’ve seen: Meshes of the Afternoon, All About My Mother, Daisies (a feminist, anti-capitalist frolic; you too will long to stomp around in cake at a wealthy shindig), Orlando (my introduction to the incomparable Tilda Swinton), Alien, Wendy and Lucy, Female Trouble, Morvern Callar, I Shot Andy Warhol, Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains (a young, punk Diane Lane!), Nine to Five, Clueless (yes!), A View to a Kill (an unexpected pick, but Barbara Broccoli produced and Grace Jones kicked ass), and The Punk Singer (which I wrote about recently).
This is truly an excellent list: science fiction, transgender stories, female magistrates in Cameroon, women in Tehran, Cuban revolutionaries, Maggie Cheung, Catherine Deneuve, Pam Grier and bell hooks in the same film, Margarite Duras, Margarethe von Trotta, Jane Campion, Agnès Varda. Cassavetes, our best frenemy, makes an appearance. And Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, which I’ve wanted to watch ever since I read about it in college.
There are also great suggestions in the comment section. So is your favorite missing? What else would you recommend?
As for the future of film, and feminist film especially, check out these fine organizations and projects: Black Feminist Film School, Athena Film Festival, Women in Film, Women Make Movies, Reel Grrls, PODER!, and, of course, from Thelma herself, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
Today is Malala Day, the birthday celebration of Malala Yousafzai, the girl the Taliban shot in the head because she wanted to go to school. That was two years ago, and I am still moved by everything she does. It’s so easy to let life unravel in the face of horrible circumstances, and yet she kept going, keeps going. Her continued existence would have been enough to fight back. Going back to school would have been enough. But Malala skyrocketed, becoming an advocate for girls’ education and a role model for girls all over the world.
Her brave yet peaceful response to the Taliban, and to all who try to hold girls back, is a great lesson for our warmongering leaders, if they took the time to really listen to girls. She doesn’t fight violence with violence; she fights it with education and, more precisely, books. Check out this new video where she explains how books are stronger than bullets.
Malala just turned seventeen. My niece is going on fourteen, and the night before she came to visit us last week my partner and I watched The Punk Singer, the movie about Kathleen Hanna. It got me all fired up about making a mix CD for my niece. (Side note: since the 80s and 90s are back in, will kids start making mix tapes again? Pretty please?) My partner and I started talking about how so much of our values and world views came from the books we found at the library or borrowed from friends, the records we collected from thrift stores and out-of-the way shops, and the zines we traded when we were kids.
My feminist life, for instance, started when I cracked open The Bell Jar and discovered that someone had put my feelings into words. The Color Purple started me on the path to racial and economic justice. When I listened to “Rebel Girl,” Kathleen Hanna was the queen of my world. I devoured these books and records and then I learned about the women behind them, and I finally had an image of the kind of woman I wanted to be.
I wanted to create, to agitate, to express myself. Each book or record was like a window to what could be.
By the end of my niece’s visit, we walked out of a used bookstore, arms piled high with books and CDs. Malala had to face gunmen to get to books; we only had to stroll into a shop the size of a warehouse and take our pick.
Though we in the US are lucky to have access to free public schools, there are a lot of arguments about the state of education here today. Teachers have their hands tied by nonsensical standardized tests that leave children of color further and further behind. To make matters worse, attendance and performance here are affected by everything from street violence and school attacks to dating violence and bullying.
But there is one way we can help young people get at least a little of the education they need. For Malala Day, think about the things that helped you find your way when you were younger, that helped to define who you are today–a book, record, print, poem–and give a copy to a kid.
Books are #strongerthan bullets.
I’ve written before about the need to do something creative every day. It’s how I take care of myself, how I keep from getting stuck. If I’m creating something — whether writing an essay or singing while making dinner, knitting a scarf or turning an old drawer into a nightstand — I’m giving instead of taking, building instead of wasting or wallowing, meditating instead of worrying. What I create might be for someone else or for myself, but the time I spend working on it is all for me. I’m giving back to myself.
The current issue of TRIVIA: Voices of Feminism features Monica J. Casper writing about exhaustion in “Toward a Theory and Praxis of Sustainable Feminism.” We work and tend and advocate, and even when faced with grief and disappointment and health problems, we keep working and tending and advocating. We keep going because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. We take care of everyone but ourselves. There are women in my life who are unable to slow down even though they are getting older. They aren’t interested in humoring the increasing limitations of their bodies because they’ve spent their lives taking care of everyone, so they push through.
At 22, I was at a young women’s leadership workshop in Seattle, and I remember one of the other attendees reacting negatively to the idea of self-care. She said it felt wrong to spend time on herself — get a massage, say, or buy a special dress — when there were people who needed her time and could make better use of the money she would have spent. She didn’t think social justice had room for self-care. Doing something for herself made her feel guilty.
In a world where women have been taught from a young age to tend to the needs of others at all times, self-care is a radical act. And it’s certainly a feminist act.
Likewise, I know people who think creativity is a luxury. They feel guilty spending time on things like writing poetry because it’s something that’s just for them and not anyone else. But that’s self-care, and we truly can do more for others when we have taken care of ourselves.
I’ve been active in the feminist movement for nearly twenty years, and I definitely feel exhausted sometimes. I get tired of politics and want to run away to the mountains to never hear another word about legislation and demonstration. In these moments, diving into a creative project is like finding sanctuary. If I don’t do it, I can’t go back to work. My work is emotionally draining; at some point, the tide goes out. To make it sustainable, I have to find a way to pull the tide back in. My way is art.
In a captivating interview in The Paris Review, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says, “One of the reasons we admire or like art, if we do, is that it reopens us in some sense—as Kafka wrote in a letter, art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us. It reminds us of sensitivities that we might have lost at some cost.”
Take some time this week to think about the ways you reenergize or heal or reclaim yourself. I’m not talking about drinking a bottle of wine and slurping down a pint of ice cream, although those things are enjoyable (until the next day). If you don’t have healthier ways of dealing, try a new creative pursuit. Sketch what you see from your window, go to a salsa dance class, start a journal, make something.
Do something creative every day. Keep it to yourself or share it with others, but keep doing it. Make time for yourself. Cultivate serenity and carry it with you. Be radical.
As I write this, I keep peeking at the #YesAllWomen Twitter conversation, where women are explaining what it’s like to live with the constant threat of male violence thanks to misogynistic attitudes that caused a young man to kill seven people and injure several others at UC Santa Barbara. He was angry that women wouldn’t sleep with him. See, we never know if this guy is lurking inside the dude who harasses us on the street or sidles up to us at the bar, so we say, “I have a boyfriend” and grip our keys between our knuckles.
Recently, on a late-night walk with my partner, I thought we’d walked enough and wanted to go home and sleep, but he wasn’t done. He said he could just meet me at home. I said, “Uh, it’s a forty minute walk back on dark streets where no one walks, and I don’t even have my phone or ID. You think I’m walking that by myself?” He does it all the time, so he didn’t think twice about it. Must be nice, I thought, to not live with the kind of fear women live with for good reason.
This isn’t what I want to talk about this week, but I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s constantly under the surface as I do other things. I’m so relieved that people are having this conversation instead of ignoring the reason this guy plainly gave for his actions and the reason women die at the hands of men every day around the world.
But what I want to talk about isn’t totally unrelated.
My subject today is “strong women.” Please, can we stop saying it? Screenwriters and directors who care about female characters just a little more than the average filmmaker use this term a lot. So do the people who interview them, stunned that someone might see women in complex ways. And so do people who want to see more of these women on screen. It’s become shorthand for fully drawn female characters or female-driven stories. I was going to give you a few examples, but there are just so many and if you haven’t come across this term a hundred times in the last year, then you probably don’t have a TV anyway.
It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the sentiment. I get what these people are saying and appreciate what they are doing.
The problem, however, is that the still fairly new idea of making movies with “strong women” implies that such women are a rarity. That there are loads of women out there who are little weaklings just floating around waiting for a big, strong man to reel them in and protect them from all the harsh difficulties of real life. That most women don’t know how to handle life on their own.
What is the male corollary of the strong woman? In film or fiction, it’s just…a man. No one says, “Gee, I love that this director focuses on strong male characters” because that wouldn’t make sense. Men get to be who they are and women, if they are lucky, get to be strong women. I asked my partner to tell me the first thought that came to him when I said “strong man.” He said, “A man in a striped, old-timey bathing suit with a waxed mustache and a heavy barbell.”
Need I say more?
Honestly, I don’t know any women who aren’t strong. Do you? Every woman I can think of–whether family, friend, colleague, or acquaintance–is strong in her own way. I used to work for a nonprofit that housed women who had faced intimate partner violence, sexual assault, addiction, prison and other problems that totally disrupted their lives. Some of them had worked or lived on the streets. Many had lost their children. Nearly all had faced sexual abuse when they were young. You might assume that these were weak women. That might be what you associate with drugs and domestic violence and prison and sex work. But they were the strongest people I’d ever met in my life. Each one was working to overcome a series of debilitating problems that all began when someone they trusted had hurt them in ways many of us couldn’t imagine. They had reached rock bottom and gotten back up. I’d say that’s as strong as it gets.
You don’t have to kick someone’s ass to be strong.
What we really mean when we say a film or TV show has strong women characters is that we’ve been shown a more comprehensive view of those characters’ lives. Someone has taken the girlfriend of the hero and shown us other parts of her life. We can see that every minute of her life does not revolve around the hero, that she has agency, her own concerns and interests and desires. By showing us other sides of the usual narrative, we can see her as the hero of her own life. This isn’t anything special. It’s every day for more than half the world.
We live with the threat of violence every day. And we go about our business anyway. You think we’re not all strong?
On a lovely May afternoon a couple of years ago, my partner and I headed to a popular brunch spot in our city. When we arrived and saw dozens and dozens of families in pastel dresses and button-down shirts, we remembered it was Mother’s Day and realized we’d never get a table. But they sat us immediately. There were virtually no other couples there, so they had plenty of two-tops. At some point, I went to use the unisex restroom, and a boy–probably ten or eleven years old–kindly gestured for me to go ahead of him. I shook my head, but he insisted. When I returned to our table and related this incident to my partner, commenting on how sweet it was, he said, “Oh, he thought you were someone’s mother.”
Once he said it, it became obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to me in the moment. I’m not someone’s mother, so I don’t realize that’s what strangers assume about me. I immediately thought, oh god, do I look like a mom somehow? (Cut to a stoned Abbi Jacobson rolling on a waiting room floor after being asked how many kids she has in Broad City.) And then I felt a strange sort of guilt because I took a place in line that was meant for someone’s mother, which was not me.
I’m always happy to recognize my mom’s hard work in birthing and raising me. I was a real bitch at thirteen, so I can’t imagine why she put up with me. But have you ever thought about the fact that the only US holiday that honors women in any way is about motherhood? Men are honored for being fathers, yes, but also for being founding fathers, soldiers, workers, presidents, pilgrims, genocidal maniacs, civil rights leaders, and the son of god. Okay, it’s likely that in a few years President’s Day will include a single woman (though some states just celebrate the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln) and technically women are included as soldiers and workers, but they have not been included historically and popular images of Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Labor Day do not include women. Their work, outside of motherhood, was usually forgotten or erased.
There are four states that celebrate Susan B. Anthony Day, and one state, Ohio, now honors Rosa Parks Day. Can we make those federal holidays? Can one of them replace Columbus Day?
I have some additional suggestions for holidays honoring women with stunning accomplishments, especially for the times in which they lived, that changed this country for the better. Some managed these achievements because they did not have children, while others somehow balanced both.
- Anne Bradstreet Day: First American poet, author of The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, who somehow found time to write while raising eight children and struggling with frequent illness (1612-1672)
- Phillis Wheatley Day: First black American poet, former slave whose art countered racist expectations and worked to undermine the institution of slavery (1753-1784)
- Sojourner Truth Day: Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist who gave the phenomenal speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1791-1883)
- Harriet Tubman Day: Underground Railroad “conductor” who led hundreds out of slavery, abolitionist, Union soldier, suffragist (circa 1822-1913)
- Jane Addams Day: Founder of Hull House, the first settlement house in the US, first US woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, first woman public philosopher in the US (1860-1935)
- Zitkala-Ša Day: Sioux writer, musician, and activist who worked to pass the Indian Citizenship Act and co-founded the National Council of American Indians (1876-1938)
- Alice Paul Day: Suffragist and women’s rights activist whose civil disobedience, including the first political protest outside the White House and hunger strikes that led to force feeding and psychiatric treatment, secured votes for the Nineteenth Amendment (1885-1977)
The Feminist Wire has a great piece on the problem of Mother’s Day (even though, yes, it has somewhat feminist beginnings). It’s a holiday that reinforces traditional ideas of motherhood. Shouldn’t we be emphasizing parenthood over motherhood and fatherhood? We need dads to be equal parents, to be, in a sense, mothers as much as women are mothers.
Since this is a blog about feminism and creativity, I feel obliged to mention some of the poems that come to mind when talking about motherhood. First, of course, is Robert Hass’s “Mother’s Nipples.” Indeed. Is there a better poem for Mother’s Day?
Next comes “Morning Song” from Sylvia Plath, which is not the typical first-day-of-motherhood-joy-and-ecstasty dream we have been sold. Rather, this poem reflects a complicated reaction to birth: confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, attentiveness. “We stand around blankly as walls.” This creature is here; what the hell do we do now?
And then I think of Sharon Olds and her collection The Unswept Room, so much about dealing with her own mother, about being a mother to a grown daughter. As we think about Mother’s Day–about mothers who never stop working, about mothers missing their daughters in Nigeria, about fathers who are mothers too–these poems can remind us that motherhood is a complicated thing. That there are children who are motherless and mothers who have lost children or never had their own in the first place. That motherhood has nearly erased women from historical record. That women still die doing their sacred duty. That women’s ability to choose motherhood or not is threatened every day in the US and around the world. That there are many ways to be a mother. As Hass says, “There are all kinds of emptiness and fullness / that sing and do not sing”.
I’m very excited to tell you that this week is my blog’s first birthday! Happy birthday, little blog!
There have been several times where I felt like I had run out of steam because you know I get frustrated with how divisive and nasty and downright mean we can be to each other online. I don’t want to feel like I’m contributing to arguments that don’t get us anywhere, and I definitely don’t want to feel like people read my posts and like them but leave the ideas tucked into this virtual space instead of carrying them into the physical world. I also get a little anxious about all of my online activity and feel like I need to run away to live in an off-grid cabin in the woods.
Do you have anchors that keep you from living your entire life online? For instance, my dad still reads a real newspaper cover to cover every morning with his coffee. He could so easily, lazily even, go online to get all the news he wants, but even when he’s visiting me he’ll walk down to the sketchy gas station and buy the local paper to read on my porch. I love that he does that.
I like the internet in a lot of ways, but I always want my life to still be fulfilling without it. I secretly yearn for a future without electricity, where I have to be clever and resourceful and self-sufficient. Okay, I don’t really want to give up movies and records and my washing machine, but I would totally do one of the PBS shows where people pretend to live in Victorian England or colonial Virginia and they have only what people had then.
What I’m saying is that sometimes I think I’m finished with blogging, and then I run into a friend at a bar or an old colleague on the street and they say, “Hey, I love your blog.” I had no idea they were even reading it and am always thrilled to think that perhaps I am taking up some space in this virtual world in a way that has value.
So I will try to keep going. But if you want to do some crazy old-timey things in a culturally progressive atmosphere, count me in.
Anyway, for my blog’s birthday, let’s spend the day reflecting on my first love: poetry.
- “The Hawk” by Verónica Reyes
- “Rose and Snow Tell the Field Their Troubles” by Jenny Factor
- “Invisibility Terror: a prose poem” by Cheryl Clark
- “4. From ‘Fleet of Nouns'” by Sina Queyras
The Toast, which is my favorite blog right now, has this amazing article on Elise Cowen, a mostly forgotten Beat poet. You knew there were women Beat poets, right? I wouldn’t kick you out for not knowing that because they’ve been treated like Kerouac’s dregs. But now you have no excuse, and you should really know Elise Cowen, who wrote lines like “Frankenstein of delicate grace” and “Heavy as winter breathing / in the snow.”
Megan Keeling’s article describes the barriers faced by Cowen, other female Beat poets, and women interested in joining the fray. In the words of Gregory Corso, “In the ‘50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up.”
So that’s why you’ve never heard of her, or only knew her as Ginsberg’s girlfriend (yes). Lucky for us, Tony Trigilio has recently edited a collection of Cowen’s poetry.
But all this history talk has left me wanting to go far, far back in my time machine, so I will leave you with one of my favorite poets, the tenth muse. This is a fragment of Sappho‘s, translated by Anne Carson in If Not, Winter:
often turning her thoughts here
you like a goddess
and in your song most of all she rejoiced.
But now she is conspicuous among Lydian women
as sometimes at sunset
the rosyfingered moon
surpasses all the stars. And her light
stretches over salt sea
equally and flowerdeep fields.
And the beautiful dew is poured out
and roses bloom and frail
chervil and flowering sweetclover.
But she goes back and forth remembering
gentle Atthis and in longing
she bites her tender mind