katniss and beyond

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.

Geena Davis came up with a simple solution to gender inequality in film.

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!

 

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amplifying quieted voices: elizabeth wright

I have a guest blogger today! Elizabeth Wright is a social worker, musician, writer, and non-profit consultant based in Knoxville, Tennessee. She is the co-founder of KnowHow and serves on the board of Jobs with Justice of East Tennessee in addition to teaching grant writing at the University of Tennessee. Elizabeth previously served as the executive director of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation and the editor of Knoxville Voice.

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Synchronicity is happening with the intersection of feminism and creativity: the same day Sara invited me to write a guest blog post, a reporter from the University of Tennessee’s Daily Beacon student newspaper requested an interview for an article she’s writing on women in music. I also just saw The Pinklets play a show, and was inspired by these three girls under the age of 12 who write their own songs, play their own instruments, and sing songs with lyrics like, “We are entitled to our own opinions” and “You don’t have to tell me I’m beautiful, it’s in my heart and soul.” Feminism, creativity, and discourse are in the air.

I have played music in loud rock bands for 18 years, and while I was comfortable singing on stage hiding behind a bass guitar, it took a long time for me to actually call myself a musician or to feel qualified to speak with authority on the topic. I suspect it’s the same for many women who clearly live with and think about issues related to feminism every day, but it takes a long time for some of us to call ourselves feminists or to feel comfortable speaking with authority about our own thoughts, lives, and experiences. Even if we are moved to speak out, there isn’t always a space where our voices are welcome and heard.

The same is true of anyone whose voice is quieted and who has to fight for equal access and power because of their sexual identity, income level, racial or ethnic background, religious beliefs, ability, or social status. Young people in particular feel the effects of all these forms of oppression and inherit a world that is built around structural inequality, but they often lack access to share their thoughts, experiences, and ideas, contributing to apathy, hopelessness, and disengagement. KnowHow is a new organization I cofounded with a thriving community of feminists, artists, musicians, and social justice advocates to support and empower young people in Knoxville to get involved and to be heard. Our mission is to support leadership development and community engagement among Knoxville’s youth, celebrating art and culture as vital tools to cultivate a deep sense of agency in youth, to amplify their voices as they engage with challenges that affect quality of life for all the city’s diverse residents, and to support them in forming lasting commitments to each other and the world at large.

In working to support youth, we also recognize the importance and necessity of working with and supporting the people, groups, and organizations that work every day to build and improve the healthy communities we all want to live in. One of our goals is to encourage young people to get involved with existing community groups and to facilitate intergenerational leadership that will grow and sustain a local culture of social justice, empowerment, and creative thought and expression.

Toward that goal, KnowHow is co-organizing a free event, “Understanding Place: A Community Dialogue on Race, Geography, and Home” on Saturday, Dec. 7, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center (124 S. Cruze Street). The workshop will provide an opportunity for Knoxvillians of all ages to explore how our city’s neighborhoods and communities have been shaped by local history, government policies, and radicalized development processes that continue to impact where we live today, who we count as neighbors, and the places we feel are “home.”

Urban renewal and gentrification have benefited some Knoxvillians over others, but many of us don’t know or understand how our sense of community is shaped by these dynamics. By coming together to learn from community leaders and each other about our neighborhoods and the places we call home, we will start the process of creating a space where diverse voices and experiences are heard, acknowledged and respected, an important building block toward creating healthier and livelier communities. We will also establish and embody a model for how KnowHow seeks to work with and support youth in Knoxville.

KnowHow will follow up with young people at and after the event to support them in researching their own neighborhoods’ histories and collecting and creating personal narratives of their families, neighbors, local business owners, and unsung community heroes and heroines. Their work and creative output will be the source material for a series of workshops throughout 2014, the KnowHow Sessions, which will delve deeper into underlying social issues they uncover and identify, supporting them in examining and sharing their experiences and ideas, and creating visual, performance, audio, and video pieces to share with the community. This work will ultimately create more opportunities for dialogue, education, and the amplification of quieted voices.

In addition to the KnowHow Sessions, KnowHow is also reviving Knoxville Girls Rock Camp in the summer of 2014 in partnership with the Joy of Music School. Rock Camp brings together girls in collaborative music exploration, encouraging them to pick up an instrument, work together, and be loud and proud in expressing themselves.

The music industry is just one aspect of a society that still sexualizes women rather than appreciates our intellect, that silences our voices or belittles our opinions rather than hearing our valid thoughts and experiences, and that denies women access to traditionally male-dominated fields. There is nothing more empowering than reclaiming spaces where our presence is typically denied or ignored and where others have defined our role and level of participation.

By supporting all young people in spaces where change can happen and by amplifying their voices through art, culture, and media, KnowHow seeks to improve quality of life for all the city’s diverse residents and communities. We hope to engage young people in creating the Knoxville we all want to live in together. We’d love to hear your voice, and we welcome your feedback, thoughts, and ideas. Contact us at knoxknowhow@gmail.com.


digging up dead women and rewriting history

cover-full-204x300I used to write in a graveyard. I went to college in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and there was a little Episcopal church in that town with an old cemetery and a small labyrinth made of stones. I’d sit on a bench and write, and when I needed a break or inspiration, I’d walk the labyrinth or wander among the fading tombstones. One day I discovered the grave of the man who had been mayor in 1869. W.B. Scott was the second black mayor in the US, and here he was leading this rural Tennessee town just a few years after the Civil War.

East Tennessee was mostly pro-Union with all kinds of slavery opponents, but it still surprised me to see that a predominantly white town had a black mayor. The place was clearly proud of this fact all these years later because they’d erected a fancy new tombstone that also mentioned his work as a newspaper editor. I was mighty impressed until I noticed a crooked, faded, half-sunken stone next to it.

Who do you think that grave belonged to?

His wife.

The woman who fed him, sewed and washed his clothes, bore and raised his children, and kept his home clean and his bed warm. The woman who likely listened to his concerns, fears, and ideas; buoyed him when he faltered; and gave him advice and an idea or two of her own.

To leave her grave that sad while her husband’s positively sparkled was a shame. I haven’t been back to that cemetery in years, but I hope they’ve rectified their mistake.

It made me think of Shakespeare’s sister. Virginia Woolf imagined that William Shakespeare had an equally talented sister named Judith. The young woman’s story goes something like this: forbidden to study and married off too young, she ran away, but her inability to get work in the theatre and subsequent impregnation led her to commit suicide. Woolf wrote:

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

 

The point is that there may have been all kinds of female Shakespeares, Raleighs, DaVincis, Copernicuses, etc., but we never had the chance to meet them because society did not deem it appropriate or beneficial to invest in women’s intellect and creativity.

Not only that, but history is missing women’s voices from all walks of life. History is made up primarily of men’s stories; the whole narrative of Western history is shaped by men, and white Western men at that. Even women who achieved have been written out, erased, forgotten. Women are responsible for the DNA double helix, signal flairs, and computer programming, to name a few, but you wouldn’t know that because men got credit for the hard work of these innovative women.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been fortunate to serve on the advisory council of the Tennessee Women Project. Led by American Association of University Women of Tennessee, this project resulted in a book that highlights women who are missing from Tennessee’s history text books. The book, Tennessee Women of Vision and Courage, just came out, and it includes an essay I wrote on social reformer Fanny Wright.

When I was given the assignment, I knew nothing about Fanny Wright–or many of the other women included in the book. I didn’t grow up in Tennessee, so I didn’t learn state history in school like kids do around here. Over the years, I’ve gleaned bits and pieces, attended history museums, and read essays, but women were often missing from the story. And then I was offered the chance to dig them up and restore them to their rightful places.

The niece of moral philosopher James Mylne, Frances “Fanny” Wright was born in Scotland in 1795, but the promise of egalitarianism led her to the US, where she did decades of work for racial, gender, and economic justice. She created Nashoba, an intentional community outside of Memphis, devoting her attempted utopia to ending slavery and promoting racial integration.

In my research, I discovered that Fanny spent the final years of her life in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. In fact, she’s buried in historic Spring Grove Cemetery, where my grandfather and uncle lie and where I will someday go to visit the graves of my mother and stepfather.

She came all the way from Scotland to Tennessee to work for freedom, and I had to come to Tennessee to find her when she had been in my back yard my whole youth. I’ve worked for women’s empowerment and the elimination of racism for years, and nearly 200 years after Fanny’s arrival, it’s still an uphill battle sometimes here in the great state of Tennessee.

But now I have Fanny’s words to remind me how relatively easy my battle is: “I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked my fortune on it, my reputation and my life.” True indeed, as you’ll see when you read the essay.

These words are engraved on her tombstone, which, unlike Ms. Scott’s, is prominent and tended. May her memory be as well.

Want to know more about Fanny? Check out the Tennessee Women Project and buy the book from Amazon or CreateSpace.


for further exploration: los muxes, street harassment, and frieze

Jesusa by Nicola Ókin Frioli

Jesusa by Nicola Ókin Frioli

It’s that time where we take a look at a few things we should learn more about, so let’s have at it.

I am obsessed with this collection of photographs from Nicola Ókin Frioli. Los muxes, gay men in the Mexican town of Juchitán, are beloved by the community. Families consider them a blessing, a good luck charm. They drink, work, and legislate in traditional Oaxacan dress: flower-embroidered blouses, brightly colored skirts, and scarves wound through long hair. Yet another reason I should figure out how to retire to Oaxaca.

When the subject of street harassment comes up, people usually argue about how best to deal with it. I’ve tried ignoring it, yelling back, giving the finger, and looking straight at them to ask why they think it’s okay to talk to women that way. David Cross has a hilarious joke about what these men might be thinking when they holler at us, but what I really want to direct you to are two women’s artistic responses to street harassment. In City of Brotherly Love, Hannah Price photographed Philadelphia men just after they harassed her. She captures an interesting moment; some guys look uncomfortable with the lens on them, while others don’t seem to care. Likewise, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh captioned her drawings of women with the things she wanted to tell harassers and then hung the posters around Brooklyn. They sparked a community conversation as people scribbled their thoughts in the blank spots.

Finally, Frieze Week–with two major art fairs and countless gallery openings–just happened in London, and it highlighted more African artists than the city had ever seen. Included as a Frieze Master was feminist artist Nil Yalter. Yalter’s photographs, drawings, paintings, and installations typically focus on aspects of the lives of women and immigrants.


malala yousafzai: seeing girls differently

I was momentarily disappointed that the Nobel Committee did not award Malala Yousafzai with the Peace Prize. Then I realized that she’s bigger than that prize and certainly bigger than the Nobel Committee’s narrow view of peace work. In fact, I’m glad they didn’t choose her because that would imply that she needs to be chosen by a select group of aging white politicians, that her work is not valuable unless deemed so by an institution. So congratulations, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, for, you know, doing your job like the rest of us!

Only fifteen women have won the Peace Prize since it began in 1901, compared to 85 men and 25 organizations. Still, that’s significantly better than the scientific awards, where women aren’t even close to double digits:

  • Chemistry: 2%
  • Physiology or Medicine: 5%
  • Physics: 1%
  • Economics: 1%

Women fare the same in Literature as they do with the Peace Prize, a very modest 12%. Alice Munro is the finest short-story writer around, so I’m always happy to see her work lauded. It’s important that we recognize Munro’s stories of the inner lives of women in quiet towns as worthy of attention, but her Nobel Prize in Literature does not make these numbers go down more easily. The Nobel Committee’s gender problem reveals a long history of ignoring women’s work and devaluing women’s stories.

Take Malala. What more inspiring story could you possibly find? But she’s just a girl. How could they give such an important award to a little girl?

She’s just starting out and has her whole life to win such a prize!

Malala has already done more than any one person could ever be asked to do. When I was sixteen, I was pretty much a self-absorbed twit who thought she knew everything. How many pundits, commentators, and editorial writers have decried the so-called apathy of today’s young people? How many have said, in my day we marched for civil rights, we marched against Vietnam? How many have criticized digital activism as comparatively lazy and wished kids would get up off their butts and do something?

Then comes Malala, who risks her life  to write about education for the BBC. She gets shot in the head, recovers, and holds no grudges. She keeps working to support education. She talks like the Dalai Lama. She wows Jon Stewart with her dedication to peace at all costs, saying about the Taliban’s death threats:

I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’  But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’ Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that ‘I even want education for your children as well.’ And I will tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.’

She starts a foundation. She gives a speech to the United Nations Youth Assembly. She writes a book. This girl is unstoppable.

Meh, she’s just a girl.

There’s always been negativity around the world girl. It’s often used to insult or belittle. It’s associated with disempowerment. But maybe being a girl can finally be an amazing thing.

Malala works to ensure that girls all over the world have access to education. Experts now agree that the most important thing organizations and governments can do to promote peace and improve life in low-income populations around the world is to educate girls. Malala’s work gets to the root of why we don’t have peace. And, of course, why so few women have won Nobel Prizes.

At 36, I find myself wanting to be one-tenth as amazing as that sixteen-year-old girl. The Nobel Committee doesn’t deserve her. We don’t deserve her. But she keeps working for us anyway.

This brave Pakistani girl. Let’s appreciate her while we can. Let’s remember that all Pakistani girls–all girls–are potential Malalas. Let’s follow her lead and give them all a chance.


for further exploration: frida’s love letters, playwright amy wheeler, feminist comics, artist larissa sansour

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Badass Frida Kahlo in a family photo

A few things you should know about before you take this day any further:

  • Frida Kahlo is one of my ultimates. Every move the woman made was pure art–paintings, clothing, homes, relationships, politics. Given the amount of physical and emotional trauma she faced, it’s amazing that she insisted on seeing life through so much color instead of turning to darkness. It turns out that she could have been a damn fine poet too.  Somehow I had no idea that there were facsimiles of her diaries floating around (see The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, but, look, I hate to link to Amazon, so see if you can find it somewhere else). From this book, Brainpickings offers a few images of Frida’s letters to her husbandDiego Rivera, and they are divine. Here’s a peak [capitalization hers]:

“Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.”

Reminds me of Pablo Neruda. Did they inspire each other? Someone research this and write a lovely essay on it.

 

“I believe creative work is the way. Stories connect us and cause us to experience empathy, to imagine what it feels like to see the world through someone else’s eyes, or walk in their shoes. And this is key: we have to understand and believe that we are deeply, irrevocably connected; that we are more alike than we are different from each other, and that our interconnectedness is our strongest asset as animals on the planet.”

 

  • Warning bells go off in my head and my belly immediately begins stoking dragon fire whenever I hear, “I’m a feminist, but….” Comics are safer than dragon fire, however, so feast your eyes on The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism. I’m not going to pretend not to notice that the afterward comes from the controversial Hugo Schwyzer, but don’t let it stop you from at least taking a look. It’s poignant and clever.

 

“The issue of women’s rights is not only necessary to address for its own sake, but also because it opens a magnitude of questions as to how we perceive reality and why it is important to question the very system by which our humanity is constructed and by how we perceive things.


black boy: images and imagination

“But the color of a Negro’s skin makes him easily recognizable, makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.”

–Richard Wright, Black Boy

I’ve had friends tell me that they can’t imagine wasting their time with fiction when there is so much going on in the world that they need to learn about, so they read only nonfiction. I don’t understand why we need to make such distinctions, but I say, if you really want to understand an experience, read fiction. Susan Sontag once described reading as “an education of the heart.” She said, “Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too.”

Imagination often gets trapped in the realm of fear mongering. Over and over, we see carefully constructed images that are meant to stoke fear in our hearts, and our imagination runs wildly through the forest of racial profiling, xenophobia, nationalism, etc. If we deconstruct those images instead, we find common ground, people who love and mourn and work and play just like we do. But that takes a different kind of imagination.

Iris Murdoch wrote: “In intellectual disciplines and in the enjoyment of art and nature we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly. We use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.” In other words, through art, we are reconnected to the world–we gain empathy, the ability to imagine ourselves in the life of someone whose experience is very different from ours and to feel what they feel.

I’ve heard from white people who have a hard time seeing the problem of race in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the police response, and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman. Since it’s clear to many of us that there is pervasive racism involved, from beginning to end, I can only guess that these folks don’t have a good understanding of systemic racism and have not put themselves in Trayvon’s place, that is, have not fully imagined what it might be like to walk down the street as a black boy in a world that criminalizes black bodies.

I’ve also heard from white people who do see racism in this case and keep thinking about the experience of boys like Trayvon and their parents. One of my good friends, who is white and has a white baby boy, said last night that she thinks of the parents of black boys and the fear they must feel as their sons grow up. One of her black friends once said to her that she worried constantly about how best to raise her sons in an environment where they are set up to fail.

Like black girls, black boys have no voice. They are silenced. We, as a culture, do not seek metaphor in the language of black kids; we hear only noise and shut it down. (See Rachel Jeantel, for example.) Our institutions have created a fictive black boy that permeates our consciousness and convinces us that black boys aren’t worth saving, or even worse, they are worth killing.

I include the arts, particularly in terms of popular culture, in those institutions. A few years ago, The Guardian published a piece on the lack of popular fiction for black men, and the author, Aaron Akinyemi, said: “When [Michael] Obiora pitched his novel to a television executive, the producer liked the story but told him bluntly that mainstream audiences would be unwilling to see a black character without a gun in his pocket.”

bell hooks wrote in Reel to Real: “The process by which any of us alter the way we look at images is political. Until everyone can acknowledge that white supremacist aesthetics shape creativity in ways that disallow and discourage the production by any group of images that break with this aesthetic, audiences can falsely assume that images are politically neutral.”

Assuming these images are politically neutral is like believing that race played no part in what happened to Trayvon Martin. In light of the violent death of yet another black boy and the subsequent absence of justice, I offer some fiction, poetry, and film that can help us understand why these things happened, and continue to happen, because Trayvon is only one of many. May these works counter the usual images, enhance our empathy, and encourage us to fight fear.

And here’s a good soundtrack (which I found in Crunk Feminist Collective’s post today) to listen to while you’re reading. Please feel free to offer more suggestions in the comment section.