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.
It was just last summer that Justin Timberlake released his song “Take Back the Night,” and we were like, oh, cool, a song supporting the Take Back the Night movement that’s been huge on college campuses and beyond since the early 70s!
Oops, no. Just a song about sex. Consensual, one hopes, but there are a few questionable lyrics, as it was the summer of rapey songs with catchy melodies.
JT said he’d never heard of the movement or organization until after the song came out, but he went on to approve of their work: “As I’ve learned more about The Take Back The Night Foundation, I’m moved by its efforts to stop violence against women, create safe communities and encourage respectful relationships for women — Something we all should rally around. It is my hope that this coincidence will bring more awareness to this cause.”
You know what would have been nice? More than a couple of sentences. Donating some of the proceeds. Partnering with them to make a serious statement against rape. Actually rallying around the cause.
We desperately need more men and boys working against sexual assault and other forms of violence against cis and trans women and girls. We need visible men like JT do visible work. We need men in music to encourage other men in music to write lyrics and make videos that condemn rather than condone violence against women.
Here’s a great example. One of India’s most revered metal bands, Sceptre, just came out with an album that focuses on the struggles of women in Indian society, including the problem of rape. The all-male band is celebrating their fifteenth anniversary with this concept album, Age of Calamity, and donating all proceeds to an orphanage for girls in Mumbai. That is how you pay more than lip service to a cause.
Drummer Aniket Waghmode said, “After my daughter’s birth, I could actually foresee how difficult it will be for a girl to move around freely, given the situation we are in as a nation.” In fact, men often become more concerned about gender inequality when they have daughters. But loads of musicians are still doing the same misogynistic stuff they enjoyed before they had daughters. Do they not realize that someday their daughters will be the very women they are dehumanizing?
But asking men to think about their wives and daughters, asking boys to think about their mothers and sisters: this is part of the problem. It seems fine, but this idea keeps women and girls as Other, not male, second-class. It keeps men and boys focused on how gender inequality affects men and boys–how it pains them to see their loved ones go through this; how they go without because their mother is paid less than her male counterpart; how they feel like failures because they couldn’t protect their daughters from rape–rather than how gender inequality affects actual women and girls.
What’s better is to encourage men and boys to think about themselves as women and girls, to imagine what it might be like if they themselves had to endure sexual harassment and threats of rape every time they left the house. If they had to take precautions every time they went out at night. This is empathy, and it reminds us that women and girls are humans with the same rights as men but very different experiences. With a little empathy, Take Back the Night goes from being a nice slogan “we should all rally around” to a much-anticipated reality we’re working toward.
Still, whatever Sceptre’s influence, they appear to be fully committed (though I’ve not analyzed their lyrics. Any discerning metalheads up for that?). I’d love to see more music flipping the script (score?) on gender and writing women as people with agency instead of mere objects. I’d love to see popular male musicians questioning sexist behavior that they always accepted as normal or harmless. Bystander intervention through music. I’m ready for that concept album.
The latest on Pussy Riot: Formerly imprisoned members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are coming to New York to talk about political prisoners for an Amnesty International event. Despite Putin’s attempts to silence them, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina remain unwavering in their commitment to social change. Journalist Masha Gessen’s recently published book Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot is at the top of my must-read list.
More riot grrrls: Dazed has an excellent A-Z guide to the women who stomped through the 90s, from Allison Wolfe to zines. Love it. (That’s an expression of my love and a demand for yours.)
Art I’m into right now: Lindsay Bottos offers a clever, artistic response to gendered online harassment. ONOMOllywood, an exhibition from photographers Antoine Tempé and Omar Victor Diop, features iconic film shots re-imagined in Dakar and Abidjan. (It’s sort of an ad campaign for a hotel chain.) The photographs Ibi Ibrahim will soon be showing in the Art14 London Art Fair are a sex-positive response to conservative Islam.
From 6 minutes to 24 hours: Tired of being expected to play a terrorist, Iranian-American actor Jemilah King made a short displaying Hollywood’s narrow view and her much broader abilities. If you’ve got more time, the Global Lives Project curates a collection of films that “faithfully capture 24 continuous hours in the life of individuals from around the world.” It’s a work in progress devoted to cultivating empathy, and there’s a two-week unit for educators to use.
Creativity in places you aren’t looking for it but should be: Women’s World Summit Foundation is seeking nominations for the 2014 Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life, emphasizing sustainable development, household food security, and peace.
A fellow poet and friend once said to me, “For the sake of your writing, I hope you’re as miserable as I am.” This was a few years after college, and, thankfully, I had matured enough not to feel the need to spend late nights holed up in my room, smoking cigarettes and scribbling as though it would save my life. (Though writing did, and still does, contribute to my sanity.)
Indeed, when I was younger, my creative thrust seemed to come from life’s trials, which led me to glamorize the tumultuous and desperately sad lives of writers like Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, and Jack Kerouac. I accepted the popular image of the writer’s life–a constant zigzag of madness, inspiration, misery, success, loneliness, and celebration. All the bad things were simply the price of creativity.
Then I grew up and realized I didn’t actually like wallowing in despair. I stared down some pretty tough things I hadn’t expected to happen and found that I only wanted to get through them and move on. And in my work and my travels, I saw a kind of poverty and despair far worse than anything I’d ever experienced, which is something I remind myself of from time to time. I’m not living in a war zone. I’m not starving. I’ve got warmth and love and organic tomatoes fresh from the garden (well, not at the moment since it’s winter, but I’ve got holly cut from the trees in the back yard). Things aren’t that bad.
Over time, I learned to write when I was happy and when I was bored and when I was just whatever. I realized I didn’t need to use writing like a drug; it could be a normal part of my life, like buying groceries or taking a shower. And still something really wonderful could come out of it.
Two weeks ago I wrote about my apartment block in Poland, which was a concrete box. What I didn’t tell you is that it was one of the nicer places to live. What I didn’t tell you is that my pay as an ESL teacher, though certainly not much in US dollars, was higher than the average Polish salary. So while I felt a bit trapped in concrete painted in soothing pastels, I didn’t mention that my life was pretty comfortable despite the lack of aesthetic.
And that got me thinking about how much creativity comes out of poverty, how if you look at the lives of people who are struggling to make ends meet, you’ll see some pretty inventive ways to get by. But how is the need to be creative different from the luxury to be creative?
I said in that post that I’ve always needed creativity. But that’s more of a mental thing than a physical thing. As I said above and have said in other posts, it has been a part of my survival strategy, but that’s about my mental health, not about trying to put food on the table or keep a roof over my head. I did spend most of my twenties living in relative poverty, however, so I know how “making do” makes you a special kind of artist. I made do for so long that I was well into reasonable comfort before I realized I could just replace the things in my house that I’d rigged to keep working.
So what’s the difference between creative solutions to one’s own poverty and masterpieces created in prosperity?
Much of the art we cherish most has come from times of struggle, but we have to refrain from glamorizing that struggle. I think we need to recognize creativity as a necessary part of life but also think about what fear does to creativity. Sometimes fear sharpens it and sometimes it erases it.
I think we need to emphasize the important role creativity can play in helping people overcome struggle. But we also need to remember that creativity doesn’t require pain. Creativity can come out of poverty, but it can also come out of pleasure. And, more importantly, it can come from somewhere in between.
On any average day. The sky’s a little cloudy, but the weather isn’t too cool. The neighbor’s dog is barking at the recycling truck. I had some work to do today, but I’ve got the rest of the day off. I’ll mop the floors later and do a load of laundry. I’m thinking about lunch, but instead of the kitchen, I head to my desk. I don’t have anything particular to say, but I’ll start writing and see what comes out.
I do this even when I don’t need to figure anything out or make a statement or feel some specific kind of release. I do it because it’s part of my day. It’s a normal part of life.
As we delve into winter and the holiday season, it’s important to remember what poverty means for so many people in the world. I think about people whose lives are full of fear instead of good things and how that affects their inner world as well as their outer world. We all need self-expression even when we are our own audience.
Even when profound art comes out of struggle, we shouldn’t let that justify poverty and pain. I’ve had good things come out of horrible experiences, but I’d still choose to keep the horrible experiences from happening in the first place. Instead, we should imagine what that artist could have achieved with everything they needed, learn the lesson they are sharing, and resolve to make things better for the next generation. Because my average day would be a blessing for many.
I was busy working on an international campaign to end gender-based violence when Catching Fire came out. My colleagues and I were in a rush to meet deadlines–chatting and emailing from Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa, Lebanon, and the US–and suddenly all we could talk about was Katniss.
Jennifer Lawrence, at only 23 years old, dominated the box office. Finally, studios are starting to understand that a woman can lead an action film and that audiences want female superheroes with their own stories. Catching Fire, like the rest of The Hunger Games trilogy, is all about Katniss. There are no subplots that are not part of her overall narrative, and she is a strong, independent, and dynamic protagonist. She is proving to the studio system that men and boys can care about the stories of women and girls. At the theatre I visited, the crowd was actually split pretty evenly.
I’m sure it’s been said many times that Katniss is the antidote to Bella, Twilight‘s insecure, moony lead whose vampire boyfriend won’t sleep with her because he’s afraid he’ll kill her. There may be a love triangle of sorts, but Katniss is no one’s girlfriend. In fact, as NPR pointed out recently, Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, takes on the role of movie girlfriend.
I was thrilled that my colleagues around the world felt as inspired by Katniss as I did, so I appreciated Black Girl Dangerous‘s post about disidentification and how “character subtleties can be reinterpreted and radicalized” by readers and audiences. She describes her identification with Katniss and JK Rowling’s Hermione, especially as Hermione’s hair struggles are shared by many girls of color.
That girls of color have found ways to make iconic characters their own really speaks to how pervasive the straight white male narrative remains in our society. Women and girls are used to reading themselves into male narratives, to finding something in any story to identify with, because that’s always been the expectation. But women and girls of color are further out in the margins, forced to also read themselves into white narratives. Have you seen these “10 life-changing books” lists going around Facebook lately? Yeah, Nabokov’s prose was stunning, but, white friends, can you start reading books by people who aren’t white men? There’s a whole world out there.
I love Katniss. LOVE. And I love Hermione. But we still need to make heroes of black girls and brown girls. If they zero in on Katniss’s olive skin in the books and decide she looks kind of like them, that’s great. But they could use someone who really does look like them. They deserve to see themselves on the big screen.
Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?
Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.
And there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.
The same could be done to include more people of color. It’s really that easy. If we start to see more women and girls of color onscreen, even in crowds, it will be seem natural when the next big trilogy premieres with a black girl as the hero. Studios just need to take some simple steps in that direction.
Men and boys should be expected to appreciate the narratives of women and girls, and they’ve proven they can by supporting movies like Catching Fire, The Heat, and Bridesmaids. But we also need to encourage white folks to support narratives of people of color. If we can all identify more with each other’s stories, more gender, racial, and economic equality will follow.
And that reminds me: I’ve been waiting for Dear White People to come out, and it’s on its way!
Do you watch television? I’m sure many of you don’t, and I get that. We don’t have cable because we’re not interested in being sucked into TV all the time, but we do watch some. We catch the big cable shows later on Netflix or DVD, and I watch a few network shows in addition to PBS. I often like to follow a good story and compelling characters while I’m knitting a scarf or folding my laundry or painting shutters (which we have too many of), so I don’t care so much about whether the medium is film or TV. Plus, television is a great place for women these days, far better than film.
I’m not going to pretend that these shows are ideal. Or that even their feminism is ideal. But I appreciate the changes I’ve noticed in television the past couple of years, especially the increased focus on narratives of women of color. It’s not just women actors who are benefitting from these changes. I’m also noticing more women writers and directors. Yes, women directed some of your favorite episodes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men. One of my favorites is Agnieszka Holland, who directed episodes of The Wire, Treme, and The Killing. Then there’s Deadwood, the filthy, brilliant western, with an unusually high number of shows written by women. Even if the popular cable epics aren’t strong on complex women characters–where’s our female Walter White, Don Draper, or Tony Soprano?–women are increasingly making decisions behind the scenes.
Here are a few of the shows I’m watching because they feature fantastic women characters, especially women of color, and they’re entertaining.
If you watch TV, how have you not become one of Olivia’s gladiators? It’s such a relief to see a strong black woman as the center of a show. Olivia Pope is a game changer for women in TV, a sharp, sophisticated political genius who fixes every problem Washington, D.C. throws at her. Her team will do anything for her, and men keep risking their careers to be with her. I tire of Olivia’s star-crossed love with Fitz (aka, Mr. President) because it occasionally turns her into a wobbly pool of jello, but all the other scenes make up for it. Plus, Olivia Pope, the fixer, is based on a real black woman, Judy Smith, America’s #1 Crisis Management Expert.
Have I told you how much I love Kerry Washington? She proudly identifies as a feminist and womanist, actively engages in politics, and talks wisely about important issues in interviews. And this season’s addition of Lisa Kudrow as Fitz’s opponent in the upcoming election is divine. As Congressperson Josie Marcus, Kudrow recently got to deliver a whopping, off-the-cuff feminist speech that shames the sexism of her opponents and the media so deliciously that it must be right out of Hillary Clinton’s fantasy world. It doesn’t hurt that the show was created by Shonda Rhimes, herself a black woman who happens to be one of the most successful show runners in the business.
Mindy Kaling didn’t just play Kelly Kapoor on The Office; she was also one of the writers and directors. Then she published Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). And then she created The Mindy Project: she produces, directs, writes, and stars in this sitcom about Mindy Lahiri, a successful OB/GYN trying to figure it all out in New York. She’s the very first South Asian-American woman to have her own show. Her character is confident about her work, loves her body, and says what she thinks. And she’s Hindu. And she’s sex-positive.
Kaling and the show have had to deal with some backlash, and there have been some weird moments. But I’m holding on because there are many more smart moments and her character is really new and fresh. The show’s heavy on the cameos, but some of the best episodes involve Anders Holm, of Workaholics, as Mindy’s boyfriend. The two have great chemistry, and their tent scene in “Take Me With You” of Season 1 had me giggling for days. The Mindy Project also rescued Adam Pally, whom I’d been missing since Happy Endings was canceled.
Additionally, I love how Kaling has been calling out the sexist, racist, and image-obsessed media lately. She’s tired of being asked about her weight and her ethnicity instead of her work. If you need more of a reason to like her, check out Lena Dunham’s interview with Kaling for Tavi Gevinson‘s Yearbook 2.
This show is a total guilty pleasure. My sister and I text each other in the midst of it: “Did she really do that?” “But how is he alive?” “Noooooooo!” Like Scandal‘s over-the-top plot lines, Revenge is designed to be somewhat absurd. That’s what makes it fun, especially when Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) comes face to face with her nemesis, Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe, who is active in women’s rights, by the way).
Emily is secretly destroying virtually every evil rich person in the Hamptons, and I love it when the girl next door kicks ass (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Now, I don’t normally like revenge stories because I think revenge is a useless concept, but this is basically an evening soap opera. And we frequently see the downside of vengeance with deaths and broken friendships. Emily comes complete with ninja skills, a mentor who trained her at a revenge school(!) in Japan, a British revenge companion, and an endless supply of complicated emotions.
One of the best parts of this show, however, is Nolan, Amanda’s closest friend, confidante, and partner in crime, played by Gabriel Mann. A tech genius and hacker, Nolan is equally sweet and sly, and he’s bisexual. Those around him treat his sexuality as completely normal, not batting an eye when he goes from pining over Padma to falling hard for Patrick. Yes, television, you can have characters with diverse sexualities and not make their stories all about said sexualities.
So what would you add to this list? Or remove?