Superbowl 2014 is less than a week away. As many in the country gear up to watch the game—and/or the commercials and the half-time show—there is much buzz about the sport. Most of that has focused on the weather and the possibility of moving the game to a day with not plagued with freezing cold or blowing snow (April, anybody?), and of course lots of talk about the two teams, the players, the strategies—basically lots of football chat I don’t understand. Even those who are not football fans are usually aware that the game is coming and talk about their plans for the day. Lots of organizations that have no association with football build off of the event in various ways. Pittsburgh’s local independent music station is hosting an alternative “souper bowl” including a fundraiser for a women’s shelter. This time of year is a reminder to Americans that football holds a spot in our cultural milieu. Which also means it is a great time to talk about one of the problems plaguing the sport—the use of racist mascots.
Last fall Mother Jones announced that they were joining a few other news organizations in their decision to stop referring to the Washington Redskins by name, as a small but significant gesture meant to protest the continued use of the racist term. When I first read the story on Facebook I was thrilled and thought “It’s about time!” Despite decades of protest from American Indians and non-native allies, the Washington pro-football team continues to use as its mascot a term that most consider a pejorative against Native Americans. The issue has recently received new steam as a result of a federal lawsuit, Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football Inc., in which a group of five American Indians are fighting to have the trademark rights removed from the team. Daniel Snyder, the current owner of the team, has responded that the team will never change its name, arguing that it has a longstanding tradition and the fans know what the name represents. Do they? And if they do, does that make it ok?
I first learned about the fight to get sports teams to stop using native mascots during a class I took in college about the American Indian Movement. I was somewhat familiar with the topic already, being part Cherokee myself and attending a college that had a nickname based on a Native American tribe (The University of Utah’s Running Utes). By the time I was in college, the University of Utah had already dropped the use of a native mascot and urged students to not dress in native garb. There are new rumors that they will be dropping the name altogether and adopting an entirely new mascot.
My firsthand experience with the mascot issue continued when I completed my predoctoral internship at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, a school that continues to struggle with mascot related turmoil. U of I had an 80-year tradition of using a native mascot, Chief Illiniwek, which they “officially” dropped in 2007 after the NCAA deemed it to be an offensive use of American Indian imagery. The NCAA banned the school from holding any postseason event until they changed the mascot. Before this time, students would don buckskin outfits and perform made-up dances at athletic events. I say that they “officially” dropped the mascot because during my time on campus (in 2008-2009) you would have been hardpressed to guess who the mascot was if it was not Chief Illiniwek—“Chief” gear was everywhere. Students wore regalia with the chief image, yards had signs saying “keep the chief”, and like most college towns there were numerous small shops filled with college gear—most of it had the chief on it.
During my time at the University of Illinois I served as the liaison between the Counseling Center and the Native American House, a cultural and resource center on campus. The center brought in the renowned Cheyenne-Arapaho artist, Edgar Heap of Birds, whose installation piece on campus was vandalized five times. There was a student group whose sole mission was to reinstate Chief Illiniwek as the mascot. The atmosphere was often charged with tension around the issue—it was a challenging place to be Native American.
Change is hard. People often only see things from their own perspective. Many of the students at U of I had family members who had attended the school. They grew up watching the school’s sports teams, hearing stories about family members’ adventures, and looking forward to one day becoming a “Fighting Illini”. As Snyder said of the Washington team—the fans saw the name as part of the tradition. While they genuinely felt a sense of loss of not having the mascot they anticipated, that loss is far outweighed by the costs of keeping the mascot.
In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the removal of all American Indian mascots and symbolism from schools, organizations and athletic teams. APA has referred to numerous research studies which demonstrate the harmful effects of native mascots on American Indians. The practice also reinforces stereotypes about Native Americans and traditions of oppression against entire groups of people. The fact that so many White Americans think that Indian mascots are “not a big deal” or that tradition should overrule the requests made by many Native American individuals and nations reminds us all that privilege is a powerful weapon. Snyder and many of the students who fought for a native mascot at Illinois argued that such mascots are a way to “honor” a group of people. Just for future reference, if a group of people assert that a practice and/or a term is offensive, continuing its use is not honoring them.
The fact that the football team housed in our nation’s capital continues to hold tight to using a racial slur as a name is a disgrace. It is time for the team to make a change that many other professional sports teams, schools, and universities have chosen to do. It is time for fans to step back from their desire to support tradition and see the need to support human dignity. At the end of the day, isn’t the right for equality for all the bigger American tradition?
So this year when talk of Superbowl Sunday rolls around, consider opening up a dialogue about retiring Native American mascots. The issue may not trend like a Janet Jackson half-time show, but let's see what we can do if we put our minds to it.
This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty in the USA announced by President Johnson in his first State of the Union Address. Most of us agree that we are not much closer to winning that war than we were in 1964. While the conditions of abject poverty may have changed (most housing today has indoor plumbing, for example), many measures suggest that the current economic conditions are even worse than they were when Johnson became president. In particular, some argue that in addition to continuing the war on poverty, it is time for our nation to go to war on wealth inequality.
My husband and I hosted our family’s Christmas celebration and had a number of family members staying at our house. My family and I tend to talk about current events (among other things) and one night we had a long conversation about the state of the economy, the declining middle class, and the future of the country. I was raised in a working class family, by two parents who highly valued education. They worked hard to provide my brothers and I with resources to increase our opportunities to access education and find a career path that suited our interests. My mom went to college after having us and worked her way through a Ph.D. program and all three of my brothers and I have or are completing Ph.D.’s. We are what some refer to as the “bridge” class. Most people today would classify me as middle class (based on my education, current job, and annual income), yet I continue to hold many of the values (as well as some of the anxieties) that I acquired growing up in a family where it was hard sometimes to make ends meet. In many ways, like President Johnson, my personal experiences with economic insecurity have increased my interest in resolving issues of poverty and wealth inequality.
One of the things my family discussed was the way in which wages have changed over time, including the widening gap between those at the top and those at the bottom.
When my dad was born in the 1950’s, the wage gap ratio between the average CEO and the average worker was about 20-1. In 2012, that gap was 354-1, according to the AFL-CIO. And since that is an average, it includes CEO’s who make 19 times their average worker (companies like Whole Foods) and those that make 1,795 times. This huge discrepancy in the difference between the pay of the average employee and the head of a company is related to two phenomenon: 1) the rise in wages granted to those at the top and 2) the stagnation of minimum wage.
These trends have huge repercussions for individuals and society as a whole. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Despite the increase of minimum wage in some states as of January 1st, most are not above the federal amount, and Washington state has the highest minimum wage at $9.32. Some cities have decided to make increases above this, but these movements have been slow and only reach small numbers of people.
Just in case you think that $7.25 an hour is “just fine and dandy” I encourage you to run a little online experiment. Go to http://livingwage.mit.edu/ and search for your city. The chart will show you what the estimated wage is and how much it costs to live—but only factoring the bare necessities (ok, not even the bare necessities because the budget doesn't include clothing). The site will also list the average wages for a number of jobs and how many of them are below the living wage for one adult and one child. In Allegheny County where I live, almost half of the fields listed fell below the living wage minimum. Many more likely would if the calculation was based on a more realistic representation of one’s living expenses.
No wonder people are going on strike!
What I find more surprising is the fact that there are not more discussions about these issues and how to change them. It seems like Miley Cyrus can’t open her mouth without the whole world talking about it, but very few people were discussing the anniversary of Johnson’s speech or what it means for us today. While NPR and other news stations covered it (as well as some current politician’s responses), it certainly did not get the airtime (or social media time) that many of our pop culture figures take for granted. In fact, in many ways it seems that most media forms are invested in sending the message that no one need worry about poverty (unless they are making fun of or criticizing those who live in poverty), and that America is a country basking in wealth. Marketers certainly benefit from convincing people that they should focus their time, energy and money on acquiring more goods. Children (especially girls) are told that they should incorporate materialism into their identity—being a “shopper” is one way to be “empowered.” Shows that glamorize excess and wealth serve to distract people from the realities of the disparities that exist and often send them false hope about the likelihood that they will “make it” someday.
The numbers suggest otherwise.
Some people are outraged by the current economic system and using all tools they have available to them to get their voice heard. Occupy Wallstreet continues to use social media to inform people about poverty and econo, and others and finding news ways to fight for equality.
Let’s hope we don’t spend another 50 years losing this war.
I went to see “The Punk Singer” last night, the documentary about Kathleen Hanna. Punk scenes have always felt like a boys club to me, so Bikini Kill and rrrriot girl make me feel nostalgic for a scene that’s never really been mine to begin with.
But mostly, I find myself craving feminist stories and depictions lately. I wasn’t born into feminism. I have had a lot of feminist mentors in my life, but I didn’t start calling myself a feminist until college, and have since attempted to incorporate it into as much of my life as I can. Something clicked for me. Feminism made sense as a movement, but it also gave me lens with which to view and understand the world. It was like all these things that did not make sense in our culture suddenly fit together, and I had a language to talk about it. All these social justice issues that seemed disconnected aligned with feminism in a way that I understood.
So I was able to create these kind of feminist “bubbles." I surrounded myself with awesome, inspiring women who encouraged me to be a better feminist through their actions and their lives. It was in part because I wanted to be like these women, but it was also that I was these women. I am opinionated. I am loud and eager, and sometimes I have an urgency of wanting to talk and share. I am defiant. And I want so badly to do something that has a positive impact on people. These qualities are not always appreciated in the dominant culture, but they can be helpful in feminism. So I gravitated towards these feminist circles.
Early in my feminist identity, I was arguing with someone I was dating and they told me they were tired of my “nitpicking feminist bullshit.” And in the back of my mind, I thought maybe it was true. But I was working in a domestic violence shelter. And I was doing gender research. And I had a community of feminists reminding me that no, it wasn’t true. That advocating for social justice and equality isn’t “nitpicking.” And feminism wasn’t “bullshit.”
But then I moved across the country. And so far, the feminist community has not manifested itself the way it has for me in the past. So it has become increasingly harder to filter out the negative messages I receive constantly about feminism.
Last week, I was talking with one of my coworkers, who I have known for months and with whom I have a positive relationship, and he was surprised to know that I call myself a feminist. He asked, “Are you an equalist or a feminist?” So I told him that I was a pretty big feminist, and he replied, “So, like wanting to bring men down, man-hating….” And I was floored. I carefully explained that that’s not really what feminism is, encouraged him to take a women’s studies class, and told him we could get coffee and talk about feminism sometime.
What bothered me was that I could tell instantly that his opinion about me had changed. I like to believe that if I live as a positive example of what feminism is, that it can change people’s perspectives like it did my own. In some cases it does, but other times people allow their misconceptions to fill in the gaps about what they don’t know. I wish I had felt angry or complacent, but I just felt bummed. And this time, I didn’t have a community of feminists to go to reminding me how valuable what I am doing is.
So seeing “The Punk Singer” now, particularly, was emotional for me. On screen, illuminated, were so many things that I admire and aspire to, all in one person, one woman, and one feminist. There are lots of ways to engage in feminism. What I am most interested in is sharing feminist stories. Yes, as a movement (and as individuals) we have to be critical and self-aware. But we also need to be constantly reminded of what brings us together. We have to actively work to create a community that welcomes the voices, experiences, and truths of all women.
At the end of the film, Hanna says, “I don’t care if people don’t think feminism is important, because I know it is…and other people can think whatever they want. My problem is when people get in the way of feminism…If they don’t want to believe in it and they don’t want to care about, that’s totally fine. But they should have to stay out of my way.”
I am nowhere near as badass as the feminists I have had the privilege of knowing, listening to, or reading about. But spending my time trying to live up to their legacies sounds a lot more worthwhile than shrinking so that I don’t offend others. So yes, I’m a feminist. You can spend all day debating what that means and if it matters, but the rest of us have work to do.
I was checking Under the Radar magazine’s website for their yearly music review when I found this blog discussing the ways in which feminism is failing at highlighting sexism in the music industry (and in general, really).
“…how many times is someone going to read the absolutely valid comment that “I was objectified and this is absolutely not on” from a female singer before they feel a sense of déjà vu? Whilst it’s unfair to criticise anyone for speaking out against objectification, the very nature of ‘everyday sexism’ means that the subject will become repetitive and, without adding anything new to the debate, the point cannot help but become belaboured and overwhelming.” –Dan Lucas
You know, part of me gets it. I feel his pain. I’ve read so many articles about the sexism and harassment female musicians experience while on tour. I’ve read multiple articles about the lack of female-fronted bands at music festivals. I’ve read countless articles about the problematic portrayal of women in the music industry. Add in other aspects of identity (women of color, lesbian/queer/trans- women, older women, etc.) and the picture gets even more dismal.
Where the author and I disagree is the target of our frustration. I, too, get that “not this again” feeling when reading/hearing about yet another experience of sexism. But my frustration is not at the individual sharing their story. My frustration lies in the fact that it is still happening. Despite the fact that gender discrimination and feminism have become more mainstream to talk and write about, the pervasiveness of sexism in our society is still deeply entrenched in our culture. And I know that, for as many individuals courageous enough and able to speak out about their experiences, there are countless others whose voices are never heard.
I agree with Lucas that the hypocrisy of whom we pick and choose to villainize in the media is problematic. But the solution is not to refrain from being critical. It is to spend more time understanding why some artists get a free pass and others are scapegoated. It means spending more time having conversations about the greater structures and norms that allow sexism in the media to exist at all levels. It requires more conversations and greater reflection, and then it requires action.
So in 2014, I encourage you to continue to speak out against oppressive systems. Share your stories. Share your experiences. Use your position to help expose discrimination and give a platform for those who may not have the social capitol to speak. Support awesome organizations like Girls Rock.
To those who find the conversations mundane: We are not sharing our stories to entertain you. We are not sharing them to show you how unique our experiences are. It is the repetitive, redundant experiences of sexism that women (and men) are living every day. I assure you—it is as belabored and overwhelming to live as it is to read about. If you are tired of hearing about sexism, then be an ally. Find ways to promote and book female-fronted bands in your city. Make shows a safe space for women to both play and attend. Have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment at your local venue.
I don’t know what will eventually get people to pay attention. But I know for a fact that silence doesn’t work. And although the author did not want to write “an ill-advised ‘men’s rights’ column,” he may have fallen into his own category of “ the well-intentioned who fuck up their own arguments.”
The author does seem to respect the feminist opinions of Miley Cyrus:
“The evidence, from her original and intelligent thoughts to her cynical-but-correct unspoken acknowledgement that the controversy she generates benefits her career, suggests that Cyrus is a far more astute woman than she gets credit for. We could learn a lot from her.”
Reminding us, yet again, that the voices are women are best heard and recognized if they come paired with hypersexuality and scandal. Apparently Dan Lucas, like much of America, can’t be bothered with our everyday sexism. It’s just not…sexy enough.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.