what living is about: low-income kids of color in a white world

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.

Here are some other steps white people can take to prevent another Ferguson and work for racial and economic justice.


feminist film: “i don’t remember ever feeling this awake”

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.

 


i am over “strong women”

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.

#YesAllWomen

We live with the threat of violence every day. And we go about our business anyway. You think we’re not all strong?

(If you want to read more on this subject, I recommend Mike Adamick’s “We Don’t Need More Strong Girls in Movies” and Sophia McDougall’s “I hate Strong Female Characters.”)

 


someone’s mother: thoughts on mother’s day

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”.

 


birthdays and poems!

The poet Sappho

The poet Sappho

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.

April is National Poetry Month, and Ms. Magazine is featuring five feminist poems on their blog (the fifth to come soon):

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:

]Sardis
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


native americans aren’t your mascots

I was reading a rather yawn-inducing piece on Jezebel describing the concept of a “basic bitch” and my eyes wandered into the comment section, which is typically fine on that site because most readers are feminist, anti-racist, etc. But I saw something really bizarre happen. A commenter who introduced herself as a Native American woman said she was tired of all the anti-white articles and comments popping up all over the internet, and people responded by challenging her Nativeness, even going so far as to demand to know what tribe she belongs to, whose rolls she’s on, what rez she lives on.

They were doing this because they felt like she was complaining about reverse racism (which pretty much only happens at an individual level and not at a systemic level, so it’s not the same thing as actual racism, which is pervasive and affects every aspect of people’s lives), a reaction they thought was kind of racist in and of itself, so they responded with…their own racism.

Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s not really okay to question how Native someone is just because you don’t think they act or look like a Native person should. Because of the problem of blood quantum, people still think it’s perfectly acceptable to single out Native Americans as the one group that must prove their ethnicity. With blood.

Blood quantum is the measure of how much Native blood a person has. It’s like the one-drop rule, but instead of being used to classify as many people as possible as non-white so they could be segregated from white people and treated like second-class citizens, blood quantum was established by the US government (and back in the colonies) to actually limit the number of Native Americans. The smaller the tribe, the less the government had to offer in a treaty. Even now, government benefits to tribes are measly due to blood quantum. Lived all your life on the res, 100% Native, but descended from several different tribes? Too bad, you don’t have enough blood from this one tribe to be a full member, so the US government ignores you. Old tribal census rolls are incomplete because the US government forced your family off their land, sent their kids to boarding schools where their language was beaten out of them, and your grandfather was delivered in a shack with a dirt floor (by a drunk doctor who screwed up his birth certificate) to parents whose records don’t appear to exist? Sorry, friend, you’re out of luck.

Last week I saw this image of a white Cleveland baseball fan in red face haughtily explaining himself to a Native man. In the middle of the city. At a public event. In red face. Like it’s totally cool.

It’s an understatement to say that Native Americans are only visible in our society as mascots. And even then those mascot roles are often played by white people (see Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger and Rooney Mara’s recent casting as Tiger Lily in an upcoming Peter Pan movie). If you want to see Native people represented as real, multi-dimensional human beings, you have to dig around.

To help you get started, here are a few creative projects that challenge the stereotypes that even some “anti-racist” Jezebel readers perpetuate.

  • The Cherokee Word for Water: This recently released film about Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, focuses on her big impact on a tribal community without water.
  • Reel Injun: Filmmaker Neil Diamond won a Peabody Award for his exploration of Hollywood’s portrayal of North American Natives.
  • Project 562: Matika Wilbur has been photographing people from every federally recognized tribe in the US for this Kickstarter-funded project. She includes this anecdote on her Kickstarter page: “I had this incredible experience at the bottom of The Grand Canyon. The elders appointed a teenage boy to help me carry my equipment to photo shoots (since there aren’t cars down there, and I’m clumsy on a horse). He was kind of quiet at first, standoffish even. But after the first interview and photoshoot, he was excited for the next one. He started suggesting ideas. I could see him listening as we spoke to his elders. That evening, he revealed that he had walked a despairing path, having struggled with depression and his own sense of Tribal identity. As I was leaving, he shyly pulled me aside, and told me that this project gave him a new sense of hope. He said that he believed in me. He said that I was the first lady that he’d ever met that had went on to ‘do something’. He thanked me for giving him hope. He said that his experience with Project 562 had meant more to him than he could articulate.”
  • The Artifact Piece: Clad in a loincloth, performance artist James Luna lies in a display case to underscore the problem of presenting Native people as artifacts of the past instead of living, evolving people of the present.
  • The Round House: Louise Erdrich’s latest novel of an Ojibwe family won the 2012 National Book Award.
  • Crazy Brave: Poet Joy Harjo’s new memoir chronicles her search for her voice and herself. What she’s learned about the debris of trauma: “You can use those materials to build a bridge over that which would destroy you.”

mumbai metalheads: anti-violence as a concept album

Take Back the Night march led by Concordia University in Montreal. Photo by Thien V.

Take Back the Night march led by Concordia University in Montreal. Photo by Thien V.

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 Calamityand 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.

For ideas on how men and boys can get involved in ending violence against women and girls, check out Men Can Stop Rape and White Ribbon.

 


who’s the perfect feminist?

I try to keep up with feminist discussions online, whether through articles, opinion pieces, blogs, or social media, though I am less inclined to follow Twitter debates. A few weeks ago, someone pointed me to Dare to Use the F-Word, a podcast from Barnard College. I listened to an episode that featured Debora Spar, Barnard College president and author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, and Jamia A. Wilson, feminist media activist, organizer, and storyteller, discussing young women and perfection.

Spar penned a follow-up on young women and feminism–some college women embrace it while others are reluctant or dismissive and fail to see that their opportunities are feminism’s legacy–and it got me thinking about feminism and perfection. Specifically, if today’s women are driven to perfection, how does this simultaneously motivating and debilitating concept affect their feminism? To answer this question, I’d like to look at digital interaction because I think gadgets make it easier for us to believe in perfection, fake perfection, and maybe even convince ourselves that our carefully curated avatars accurately reflect us.

The more time I spend online, the more frustrated I get with the tone of our conversations. By “our,” I don’t simply mean feminists. I mean everyone. Anyone exposed to US media for two minutes will witness the divisiveness that drives many stories. Even on very reputable and beloved sites, some of the pieces seem designed to trigger furious argument, perhaps for the sake of driving more people to the site. And then there are comment sections, which I inevitably read even though I know I shouldn’t. I go in looking for thoughtful dialogue, which can occasionally be found, but I usually come out feeling the urge to throw my laptop across the room and never touch it again.

I’ve come to believe that sitting behind a computer screen is akin to sitting behind the wheel of a car. We get road rage. We get far angrier at people when there is a physical divider. Someone cuts me off; I yell from the safety of my car, windows closed so they cannot even hear me, heart racing, desire for vengeance taking control. That’s pretty similar to how I feel when I read something online that pisses me off. In person, when someone is rude to me, I feel upset, hurt, angry, confused–a much wider range of emotions. I scan their face and body language for cues that they didn’t realize what they were doing, didn’t mean it, or feel remorse. If I have the guts to take action, I do so in a calm, rational way. If I don’t have the guts, I momentarily feel stupid for not doing anything and then I tell myself not to let it bother me. I think of the Dalai Lama and let it go. (Sometimes that actually works.)

Online we have knock-down, drag-out fights, and I’m not sure they’re very useful. When I participate in one, I don’t feel any better at the end. I think real dialogue, hard dialogue, is best achieved in person. And this is why I don’t really follow Twitter debates. I think it’s silly try to have a meaningful, life-changing exchange through a platform that only allows you so many characters at a time, though I do understand that it’s a place where anyone can have a voice, which is particularly important for people who have been marginalized. But we have this idea now that we have to convince using sound bites or minimalist infographics. Is this a response to our presumably shrinking attention spans, or is it the reason we think our attention cannot be held for very long?

So what does this have to do with feminism? I see feminists waging these battles against each other. I see feminist pieces that seem to be more about driving traffic than taking a thoughtful look at an issue. There’s a lot of misogynistic drivel out there. Why bother responding to all of it? If some sexist loser who is not viewed as an authority writes a blog post that irritates me, why would I waste my breath (or swollen typing fingers and carpal tunnel wrists) on him? There are a lot of mouth-breathers out there that we would do better to ignore. In fact, when we respond, we’re probably given them exactly what they want: the satisfaction of knowing they’ve gotten to us and loads of page hits.

But what does this have to do with perfection? In many of these battles, the outright point is to define what feminism should be. It’s one person or group saying to another: you aren’t feminist enough, you aren’t really a feminist, you aren’t the right kind of feminist, your feminism is not perfect like mine is. (Additionally, our cultural conversation about motherhood boils down to: who is the best mother?) And it is exhausting. I say this as someone who believes wholeheartedly in intersectional feminism; gender must be viewed through the the lenses of race/ethnicity, sexuality, ability, income, and other cultural categories that define our experiences. But if someone else’s feminism isn’t intersectional enough for me, I don’t see how it helps to lash out at them or make them feel like an idiot.

By saying this, I don’t want to undermine the concerns some women of color have about some white feminists; rather, I want to be sure that those concerns get somewhere. When I talk about teaching moments below, I do not believe that women of color have any sort of duty to teach white women about race and ethnicity. As a white woman, I have a duty to educate other white folks on these issues.

Rather than help this person see the error of their ways, an attack or backlash usually puts them in a defensive mode. We end up with some white feminists scrambling to prove that they aren’t racist, for example, when they (and I) should be rooting around their own lives for racism they’ve left unchecked. It also leads people to just leave the fray altogether. I can see that a lot of young woman would be reluctant to call themselves feminists  and become a part of this movement when we make it clear that if they aren’t perfect, they will be eaten alive or at least considered a failure. And with conflicting opinions about what makes a perfect feminist, what young woman could have confidence that she’s doing it right? Is Beyonce really a feminist? Is Miley Cyrus really a feminist? Is Lena Dunham really a feminist? Can a man be a feminist? Can a black woman identify as black first and woman second and still be a feminist? Can a trans woman be a feminist? Was it unfeminist of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to criticize Taylor Swift? ZOMG, can they still be feminists?

If I were twenty, I’m not sure I’d be able to find room in there. Thankfully, I haven’t been twenty in a long time. Sometimes I want to stop worrying about every possible inequality and just watch TV, and even when Olivia Pope‘s badassery takes a back seat to her love for President Grant, I’m still digging every minute of Scandal and matching her red wine intake glass for glass (okay, not really because I have to actually get out of bed the next day). But I don’t worry about my feminist credentials even though there are feminists who dislike Scandal because of the love story. Sometimes I think and even say things that aren’t very feminist because I’ve lived my whole life in a patriarchal culture and those biases are deeply imbedded, but then I recognize them and do a little thinking about how that idea didn’t get exorcised before or how that phrase (e.g., “He’s all boy”) slid effortlessly from my mouth even though I don’t like what it means. 

What purpose do these online attacks serve but to tear down people who are doing good work, even if they sometimes make mistakes? I wish that instead of calling someone out, we’d look at the incident as a teaching moment. We’d share resources and connect them to people in their community who can work with them. I think we would get a lot further that way. Behind the relative safety of our laptops, we are all (not just feminists) quick to attack, but holding someone accountable does not have to include attacking and shaming.

Increasingly, the reaction I have to this divisiveness and bitterness and spectacle is to stop blogging, shut down my social media accounts, and read only print because I don’t want to contribute to that atmosphere. All I’m left with is negativity, and then I go about my day with discomfort, pessimism, and anger lodged in my chest.

Let me be clear: hate and co-opting should be called out. Rallying women around the feminist pole when you are making policy decisions like defunding Planned Parenthood is co-opting feminism for anti-woman purposes, which should absolutely be called out.

But if you believe in and work toward gender equality, but you’ve made mistakes or had moments where you didn’t fully understand your own privilege or had trouble shaking a patriarchal idea that was so normalized you didn’t realize there was an alternative, you don’t have to lay down your feminist burden and run away. Give a genuine apology and say you want to learn. Then be sure you do learn. It’s on the rest of us to be mature enough to accept your mistake as part of the learning process and support the changes you want to make. There is no perfect feminist. This is no excuse, however, to stop learning and striving.

Part of what youth is about is making mistakes and learning from them. If we demand perfection from our fellow feminists, we are pushing a lot of young people away before they have had the chance to make a difference. If we don’t believe in binary thinking, why do we view feminism in black and white? We know better. We know that, just like everything else, there are multiple forms of feminism. Why isn’t that okay? If we could drop this charade of perfection in every aspect of our lives (a more feminist venture, surely), we’d be a lot happier and we’d get more accomplished. We can have high expectations of each other, but disappointment is no excuse for abuse.

I think our devotion to image fuels the lie of perfection in all facets of life. I think it’s easy to pretend online that we’re perfect in some way because that’s precisely what we perform. We are always choosing what we reveal. I want there to be room for real dialogue in digital culture, but is that possible? Or are we just shouting at each other through closed windows? 


for further exploration: music, art, film, and creative solutions

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. 


expanding the “beloved community”

446px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS_4Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the US, so I want to point you to some excellent creative work being done to change power relations in different parts of the world. King was adamant about recognizing how injustices around the world are connected, reminding us that the “destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation.”

No matter where you are in the world, decide today to make your work less insular. Find similar groups in other countries, explore art from a different continent, and notice how the same themes resonate. Paying attention to what people are doing on the ground thousands of miles away can change the way you see your community, your work, and the world.

First, reconciliation through music! Drumming is traditionally a male activity in Rwanda, but twenty women, both Hutu and Tutsi, came together to form Ingoma Nshya, a powerful drum ensemble spreading a message of healing. These are women who lived through the Rwandan genocide, and they came to the group  with no musical background. Now they play all over the world and have even performed in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo several times.

Next, Mary Sibande is a South African artist working in Johannesburg. Her mixed media installations feature Sophie, Sibande’s alter ego, a domestic worker whose fantasy world reveals the queen inside. In numerous countries, women of color are seen primarily as domestic workers, but Sophie shows us layers and depths that cannot be ignored. Full of life and energy, Sibande’s work demands attention, and Sophie’s shocking blue dress stays with me, as though printed right on the brain. I love them all, but particularly Her Majesty Queen Sophie and I’m a Lady.

Finally, New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas‘s paintings explore female identity and redefine beauty. Her colorful, pulsing work makes me want to dance, and, in fact, she did the cover art for Solange’s EP True. She’s inspired by the kind of women she grew up around, especially her mother, saying, “It’s what I know and what I respect—someone who believes in herself and stands her ground, who doesn’t act according to what society deems as acceptable and expresses herself, her sexuality, her femininity.” Thomas uses the afro to represent that kind of empowered energy and rhinestones to question beauty standards. I love her 2008 album; A Moment’s Pleasure Number 2 and Tamika Sur Une Chaise Longue are standouts.

So whose work are you celebrating today? What other artists, writers, musicians, actors, dancers, crafters, and the like infuse their work with themes of justice, equality, freedom, peace, and love? How are you growing your beloved community?