In Praise of the BFF’s on OITNB

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It’s a goal of mine this year to publish more positive & lighthearted pieces in addition to thinkpieces and feminist critiques. This one felt good to write and I’m looking forward to publishing more on The Frisky.

From the jovial opening scene of Pennsatucky driving with Bell and Maxwell, the two female guards, to the final rush of freedom among the entire group, season three covers a lot of emotional territory, most of it compelled by the unique friendships the women have forged with one another. There is a fragility and vulnerability that informs the way the characters interact with one another and it’s the tenderness, and not the ways the reproduce traditional masculine power dynamic, that make their connections all the more powerful.

Read the full article here.

The Blessing And The Curse Of Famous Male Feminists

Originally published by RoleReboot

In a culture where a woman’s worth has been constructed through the male gaze of desire, where female credibility is constantly questioned, where self-defense gets you incarcerated or worse, it’s really no surprise that women may only come to feminism on a road paved by men.

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The Internet erupted this week when a two-month-old Tumblr post by Mark Ruffalo went viral in which the Avengers star re-posted a passionate statement by blogger Libby Ann Bruce. The original post was written last year as a response to the “Not A Feminist” Internet movement, calling out the ignorance of its participants, primarily women.

When you grin with your cutesy sign about how you’re not a feminist, you ignorantly spit on the sacred struggle of the past 200 years. You bite the hand that has fed you freedom, safety, and a voice.

In short, kiss my ass, you ignorant little jerks.”

It’s a provocative statement that has earned Ruffalo both credit and critique for being an outspoken feminist, though little has been said about the actual author. As someone who has spent her life as an outspoken feminist, this post and the responses to it have me feeling a little incensed. For one thing, Ruffalo did not write this post but, for better or worse, multiple outlets are reporting as if he had. Cosmopolitan UK cited his response as “incredible,” Huffington Post Women dedicated an entire article to identifying the actor’s most feminist moments while those in the “Not a Feminist” camp have condemned Ruffalo for mansplaining feminism and shaming their choices, an inherently anti-feminist move.

Why do we care what Mark Ruffalo has to say about feminism? Because he has the power to instigate change. This is what makes this moment so frustrating and yet so powerful.

Read the full article here.

That’ll Never Be Me: Four of My Favorite Unsung Films About Girls

A fun piece to write for the Chicago Literati Film Issue! Full article here.

What is most revolutionary about Stick It is how the girls became their own agents for change through camaraderie and collective organization. Together they are able to take a stand against a harsh system built on holding them to an impossible standard, and by doing so, they are able to perform for themselves and their peers in a way that satisfies a personal, rather than systematic, goal.

Why it’s time to let go of ‘Let It Go’

 

Image credit: Deviant Art – Adrian Impala Mata

The new year has always been a time for re-evaluating our commitments and seeking out new opportunities—out with the old and in with the new. It is a time honored by many as the space for letting go. Which is exactly the crossroads we find ourselves at with “Let It Go,” the emotionally charged lead single from 2013’s Frozen.

Only Taylor Swift could outsell the Frozen soundtrack, which almost became the best-selling album of the year thanks to the tremendous success of Idina Menzel‘s signature song. It charted as a Billboard top 10 single, spawned countless YouTube videos of both covers and parodies, and spawned numerous live performances by Menzel. But the time has come to, well, let it go. In doing so, let us also relinquish the disproportionate feminist reputation it has earned.

Read the full article here.

 

You Can Ban “Feminist” But You Can’t Ban Me

2014 may very well be the year America found Feminism. Which is exactly why “Feminist” it is leading the Time magazine poll of words to ban in 2015.* Because it’s happening. Empowerment. Consciousness raising. A culture altering shift in our perception of gender roles, sexuality and what makes each of us valuable as unique beings. Among feminism’s most public 2014 moments:

The title of Sarah Seltzer’s response the to the Time list hits the nail on the head, “The Word “Feminist” Isn’t Overused — It’s Winning.” The winds of change are blowing through the status quo and Time is just the latest perpetrator in an all too familiar response by the media to undermine and erase an ongoing and essential movement. A bit ironic considering this is that same outlet who chose Beyoncé, current pop-cultural Queen of Feminism, as the cover for 2014’s Most Influential Person issue.

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Photo source: Huffington Post

 

The term backlash is nothing new, but the specific backlash by the media in response to women gaining power is a pattern first brought into the mainstream dialogue by Susan Faludi’s 1991 Pulitzer prize winning book, aptly entitled Backlash. Faludi’s thesis, and the book’s subtitle, calls attention to “the undeclared war against women” being fought by mythical media narratives that enforce patriarchal values that serve to dominate and dismiss women. As the overview points out:

Whatever progress feminism has recently made, Faludi’s words today seem prophetic. The media still love stories about stay-at-home moms and the “dangers” of women’s career ambitions; the glass ceiling is still low; women are still punished for wanting to succeed; basic reproductive rights are still hanging by a thread.

Sound familiar?

The specific backlash Faludi named 23 years ago has been present since the first wave of feminism began in the late 1800s, when women began organizing for their right to vote. In her groundbreaking publication The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf explores the consistent historical connection between women’s progress in the world and the media’s responses to women’s roles, specifically in advertising:

Magazines first took over advertisers at the turn of the century. As suffragists were chaining themselves to the gates of the White House and Parliament, the circulation of women’s magazines doubled.

Distracting women with gendered propaganda aimed to keep them vulnerable, submissive, and distracted from real issues is the primary goal of advertising, both then and now. Most people are familiar with the women’s labor movement during World War II in which women filled the gap left by in the workplace while the men were away. Less known is the post-war response by advertisers such as to get working women back into the homes through sexist campaigns that appealed to curating and maintaining their physical appearance and their natural aptitude for domesticity. This trend that has continued for so long that media scholar Jean Kilbourne has made a 40 year career critiquing the industry, noting:

The average American will spend one and one-half years of his or her life watching television commercials. The ads sell a great deal more than products. They sell values, images, and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, popularity and normalcy. They tell us who we are and who we should be. Scientific studies and the most casual viewing yield the same conclusion: women are shown almost exclusively as housewives or sex objects.

2014, however, was rife with changes in these narratives. A Tide commercial features a father  in the caregiver role with his daughter and responsible for the laundry; stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari discussed and defined feminism on late TV, including admonishing the crowd for their lack of applause after he asked if there were any feminists in the house, and the Internet was ablaze with campaigns like #YesAllWomen calling attention to the commonplace misogyny and violence women experience everyday.

So, it’s no accident that in a year when feminism became, potentially, its most visible would also be the year it was most targeted.

The reason the word feminist is leading this “poll” is not nearly as concerning as Time putting it there to begin with. As Seltzer points out, “Putting ‘feminist’ on the list ignores (or merely fails to perceive) the sea-change in discourse around the word recently.”

The list itself is representative of the insidious nature of patriarchy—the unseen and unspoken rules that apply to us all. Just the suggestion that language is static, not malleable, that a certain cultural moment is not valid or necessary, or that anyone, especially a small group of media conglomerates, can decide who can say what is not only ignorant but unconstitutional. Additionally, many of the words are specific to specific subcultures that have worked their way into the mainstream, making the list not only sexist but racist. The Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen calls attention to proliferation of words that come specifically from marginalized communities and argues:

With better curation, Time’s annual word-banishment polls could function as harmless communal exercises in which we collectively laugh at words or phrases that are past their prime. But after four years of these polls, a worrying trend is starting to emerge, one that runs far deeper than this year’s misguided inclusion of the F-word: The polls inordinately target slang and vernacular used by people of color and young white women.

Moreover, every other word on this list is slang, fleeting, and temporary. There is no need to ban those words, because they will become obsolete on their own. They will find their way out of the collective vernacular when a new word that means the same thing is ushered in by cultural trends and in the end, those other words don’t really matter that much. No matter how someone who identifies as “feminist” defines their personal feminism and yes, there are multiple definitions, one thing is certain: To call oneself a feminist means you align yourself with the a human rights movement and the umbrella under which all of these things may fall is in no way shape or form on par with “om nom nom nom.” No matter how you identify, whether you claim the word or not, suggesting it need not exist undermines, devalues and discredits all those who do claim it, who do believe it and who benefit from it’s presence. As Seltzer’s critique suggests:

If you’re getting tired of hearing the, “Is X feminist? Is Y feminist enough?” debate, try actually being a feminist. You will have that debate with yourself and your friends every waking minute of your life. Then see if you get tired of it.

There is no one more frustrated by, in the word’s of Time’s list writer Katy Steinmetz, “throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade” then actual feminists. Feminists who risked, and lost, their lives for women’s right to vote, right to choose, right to say no. Feminists who have advanced degrees in gender studies and teach at a public higher education institution in one of this country’s largest cities yet cannot pay their bills on those wages.

In her blurb suggesting feminist as an option, Steinmetz’s annoyance with feminist is that it became a thing that “every celebrity had to state their position on” and, ironically, cites a Time interview with Shailene Woodley in which the actress rejects the term but the only reason it is even discussed is because she is asked. Choosing to ask someone who clearly has no real understanding about feminism if they are feminist is a clearly a set-up to attack the word. Why not ask Emma Watson or Jennifer Lawrence or any other number of young celebrities who embrace the term not just as a self-identifier but also in their career and life choices?

Because it’s not the word they are trying to ban, it’s the mindset. It’s the spreading of ideas. It’s the right to a self-determined and chosen life for all of us.

Feminist is more than just a word, it is who you are. And that will never be banned.

Photo by Elizabeth McQuern TShirt by Tracers Book Club

Photo by Elizabeth McQuern
TShirt by Tracers Book Club

*Time Magazine has since apologized but it’s my blog so there.

A Girls’ Guide to Slut-Shaming At The Movies

A very brief history of some of my favorite films. Originally published on Thought Catalog and then unpublished at the writer’s request on account of Thought Catalog being a host for racist, sexist and downright horrible writing.

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If you grew up in America chances are you’ve either been called a slut or called someone a slut. If you’re a girl, it’s probably both. If you grew up watching movies, as I did, you have been inscribed with images that encourage a slut shaming mentality. Slut shaming is rooted in conventional (biblical) wisdom that values a woman for her purity and deference to male sexual desires as opposed to supporting a woman’s choice to be sexual active in any way and with anyone she pleases. It’s the difference between treating someone as a sexual being versus a sexual object. We all know the difference between a being and an object, right?

In Hollywood films, slut shaming most commonly appears in the form of punishment of the character, like in every horror movie ever made where as soon as a girl has sex she dies, or an overall positioning of the character as bad, dirty or inconsequential. Basically, if you’re a girl and you have sex in a movie you’re either evil, unimportant or are going to die. The slut character has become a norm in films that focus on adolescence just as the term has become common vernacular in high schools across the globe. It seems you can’t have a story about girls lives without also encountering a slut and Hollywood has done it’s best to remind us why it’s not worth it to be “that kind of girl.”

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Y’all, remember Shag (1989)? It’s the story of four girls about to graduate high school and spend one last weekend together at the beach. The character of Melaina is a rule breaker from the beginning, a preacher’s daughter who has to sneak out to spend the weekend with her friends. While all the girls are having sexual experiences and awakenings on the trip, Melaina is the only one assertive and confident in her sexual interests. In turn, she is nearly date-raped and “saved” only by the two “girlfriends” of the guy who in a jealous rage Melaina out of his car, force feed her booze and after covering her with shaving cream and toilet paper, abandon her in the woods. Melaina is judged and punished and what about ol’ boy? Oh, he just drove off.

John Tucker Must Die (2006) is the perfect example of how slut shaming is reserved only for women. It is the Hollywood version of the Stud vs. Slut mindfuck. The plot revolves around three women fighting for the attention of one guy who has been secretly dating them all simultaneously. Each girl is a recognizable trope: the smart one, the cheerleader, and, of course, the slut, and John Tucker is the stereotypical embodiment of a “man” – athletic, charming and sexually insatiable. In the scene after all three girls have just broken up with John, the “slut” character, Beth, laments that she “couldn’t even enjoy the break-up sex.” When the other girls turn to her with accusing eyes, or perhaps jealously, Beth proclaims, “Oh my god, I am a slut.” Whether she truly believes it or not is unclear but the message that she should be ashamed of her behavior is not. In an earlier scene, Beth also confesses to compromising her vegetarianism stating, “I can’t believe I ate meat for him.” Not only another tongue in cheek dig at her “sluttiness” it also further affirms how her character is lacking any moral values. You know, because she’s a slut. Beth’s self-identifying as a slut speaks the double bind that girls face when exploring sexuality. Especially from other girls.

One of my favorite scenes in Dazed and Confused (1993), because it’s just so real, is when Simone begs Shavonne to tell her what the other girls have said about her and Darla and promises she won’t get mad. Shavonne relays the gossip: “She called you a bitch and you a slut.” Darla laughs in response to being labeled the bitch while Simone has an immediate defensiveness to being called a slut, which she quickly covers up with a hair flick and breezy “I’m not mad.” This is the nuanced aspect of slut shaming that poisons girl’s relationships to themselves and to each other. (begins at :38)

Simone is hurt that girls who likely engage in the same behavior perceive her as a slut. It also suggests that she is aware of the detrimental affects of the term. Slut isn’t the same as bitch. Anyone can be a bitch, but when someone is calling you a slut they are making a very specific claim about the kind of person you are. And it ain’t good. Nor is the validity of any consequence because sometimes it only takes the allusion of promiscuity, or a certain cup size, to earn the slut badge.

Easy A (2012) is a modern adaptation a classic slut-shaming tale, The Scarlet Letter. And in the end, Olive is a prude in slut’s clothing; she hasn’t actually done the deed with anyone. However, the belief that she has participated in sexual behavior forces a responsibility upon her that culminates in the scene between her and a male friend. Throughout the film, Olive has created this reputation of being sexually active as a farce and then she is faced with a guy who expects her to behave a certain way because he thinks she has behaved that way with others. This is a dangerous area because it is directly related to sexual assault and rape. It’s entitlement. Plain and simple. Here’s the thing, dude. It doesn’t matter if I have had sex with one or a hundred guys before you. I can still not want to sleep with you. Deal with it.

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While it is kind of weird to think of slut shaming someone who has not had sex it goes back to the root of the issue: making a negative judgment and devaluing a woman based on her sexual behavior. When Cher questions whether Tai and Josh would be good together in Clueless (1996), Tai is offended. She retorts by attacking Cher for the one thing that now alienates her from her peers: “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.” Simply insulting Cher’s driving ability does not yield the same power as calling into question her attractiveness to the opposite sex. Cher is being shamed either for her choice to not have sex or the fact that no one wants to have sex with her. What’s a girl to do?

Do what, and who, you want – safely and respectfully. Hollywood will catch on.

Why ‘Maleficent’ is important for #YesAllWomen

Originally published by The Daily Dot.

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Angelina Jolie is talking about rape.

Last week the Academy Award-winning actress all but took over the Internet when she joined Foreign Secretary William Hague in leading the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The summit came just days after the opening of Jolie’s current film, Maleficent, which opened at no. 1 at the box office and has since grossed over $150 million worldwide. The Disney production is a retelling of the 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s point of view, one that has received mixed reviews among critics but garnered significant attention in feminist circles for its provocative storyline.

As Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart describes:

The moment that transforms Maleficentfrom a fun-loving, quirky woodland fairy into cruel, pissed-off sorceress is an act of violence. The man she thought was her friend drugs her, and while she is unconscious, he saws off her wings. She wakes up bleeding, in pain, a part of her destroyed. Sobbing. It feels like a sexual assault.

Yes, it does, and according to Jolie (who also serves as the film’s executive producer), it was meant to. During aninterview on the BBC Woman’s Hour, Jolie was explicit that the integral scene was intentionally written as a metaphor for rape.

This is no small feat in a feature film by one of America’s most prominent and beloved studios, known for its portrayal of women as lovesick, house-arrested, eye-candy. Jolie’s participation in lobbying for legislative change on a global front is inspiring, though it may be Maleficent that is challenging the most insidious of oppressors—the Hollywood feature film. As the L.A. Times’ Betsy Sharkey points out, “It’s one thing to speak in front of global dignitaries about the need to combat rape; it’s quite another to slip that message into a global blockbuster.”

It is no secret that there is tremendous gender disparity in Hollywood—where the stories of men are told in the words of men, through the lenses of men, and about the desires of men. In 2013, the MPAA reported that 52 percent of movie going audiences were women, yet of the year’s top 500 grossing films, women comprised only 30 percent of speaking roles, only half of which were protagonists.  When women are present (as characters who are predominantly written by men), they are often regulated to the usual roles of ingénue, mother, or wicked witch/queen/stepmother.

This is a pattern so consistent that The Atlantic‘s Raina Lipstiz argued Thelma & Louise was the last great movie about women. That was 23 years ago.

Combating this is one of the ways Maleficent creates real change, as making a truly progressive film for women means more than just passing the Bechdel TestMaleficenthas two female protagonists, and the majority of the film focuses on the relationship they develop with each other. It was written by a woman, Disney veteran Linda Woolverton,who credits the film with one of the most emotional moments of her career, the kiss scene between Maleficent and Aurora/Sleeping Beauty.

You have to rewrite these things 100 times, and every single time I wrote it I could barely get through it. I did Homeward Bound, you know that dog movie? Every single time I wrote the moment over the hill when everyone comes back at the end, I would cry into my hand over the keyboard. The kiss scene was like that for me.

Woolverton’s emotional attachment and her assertion that 20 years ago she couldn’t have written “as complex a lead character” is a reflection of the rampant sexism in Hollywood, echoing the growing frustration of female moviegoers who yearn to see characters in their likeness and stories that mirror their own experiences.

Of course, the film has it’s flaws and allows ample opportunity for feminist critique. It is, in fact, a fairy tale created in the same old storybook of kingdoms and hierarchies and colonization, one so lackluster in creativity that blogger Lindy West asks, “You could have built any world you wanted to—why choose one ruled by the same regressive, white-washed mid-century morality as every other ‘modern’ fairy tale? Aren’t thou bored?”

West goes on to note the glaring acceptance of gender normativity by the female characters who exist as “moldy feminine tropes—the sullied innocent, the abandoned lover lost without her man, the evil ex-girlfriend, the overreacting harpy, the broken woman redeemed by motherhood.”

It’s true. West’s analyses evoke Audre Lorde’s assertion that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. But focusing on the ways Maleficent reinforces stereotypical images of women distracts from the vital moments when it does not, most notably the conscious choice by the writer and executive producer to create a national dialogue about rape and sexual assault, in a country where it largely goes unspoken. Fairy tale or not, Maleficent is reflective of the experiences of #YesAllWomen.

“The Longest War” is what writer Rebecca Solnit calls America’s cultural relationship between sexual violence and gender:

At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.

The feminist lessons in Maleficent may not have the same magnitude as those taught in college classrooms or published in scholarly journals, but they are reflective of a common experience among American women and girls. These women, though they may not live in a categorical warzone, live in a country where one in four experience teen dating violence, one in four are abused by a partner in their lifetime, and one of six are survivors of rape or attempted rape.

These are the women who cheered when Aurora saves Maleficent by rescuing her wings, the same way that a generation of women before erupted in bursts of support when Louise shoots Thelma’s rapist. It more than just a climactic plot twist, more than just character redemption, and way more than revenge. This is a chance for real women to access and feel their right to a self-determined life. Through these characters, a silenced majority is given a voice that is resonating beyond the silver screen.

After all, the Global Summit to End Violence During Conflict didn’t take place in Fairy Tale Land.