Can a movie change the world? Does raising awareness about the conditions of girls you will never meet motivate you to create change? Girl Rising is hoping the answer to both of those questions is “Yes!” I saw the film last week in a theater with about 200 other people, including adult men and women and a number of children and adolescents (mostly girls). My brilliant former student started the campaign to bring the film to Pittsburgh because many of us missed the chance to see it in March. The filmmakers explore the role of education in the lives of girls all around the world. They showcase a number of girls who team up with women writers in their home countries to tell their stories. While each story is unique, they share the characteristic of highlighting the importance of education in the lives of girls, often by describing the consequences girls face when they do not have access to education. Throughout the film, statistics on the rates of education and how that relates to other markers of emotional, physical and financial well-being were shared in creative ways by girls and young women. All of the features sought to tell the story that education is important to girls and many of them are denied access.
While the movie has many strong points, there were some limitations. At one point the narrator said something like “Girls are not to blame for this situation” (I am paraphrasing here) to which I said, out loud, “Duh!” But this moment pointed out the thing that was missing from this movie: a thorough explanation of the cause of this problem. To be sure, each story had a description of the particular circumstances facing that girl. Usually the girls were not able to get an education because it 1) cost too much, 2) the girls were working to help support their families or 3) it was not seem as important for girls to be educated (often, as opposed to boys who were getting an education). While these aspects of the stories were important and true, they did not necessarily explain the bigger picture. As one of my colleagues who saw the film commented, there was not a discussion of the larger forces at play (aka sexism and patriarchy) that united each of these stories. It is not a coincidence that in countries all over the world, girls are being denied education more often than boys are. In many societies, girls and women are considered less valuable than boys and men. In some, they are treated as property that can be bought and sold. In many they are subjected to physical, emotional and sexual violence. And when resources are limited, it is more often the needs of girls and women that are sacrificed.
And yet, many studies show that when girls and women prosper, an entire society prospers. As girls’ and women’s access to education and reproductive medicine (and dignity and respect) increases, the infant mortality rate decreases, the lifespan increases, the economic stability increases, and there are a number of other boosts to public health. This is NOT a zero sum game, where boys and men must suffer in order for the lives of girls and women to improve. It is in the best interest of us all to support girls worldwide.
Overall, I liked the movie. It was well produced and the stories were compelling and moving. It made me reflect on my life as an American woman and think about what I could do to make a difference, not only in my community but worldwide. I wish it would have given more suggestions as to how to support change (the two listed were; bring this movie to your community and donate money) but I am trying to spread the word in my own way. And while I don’t think that awareness alone is enough, it is an important first step.
Have you ever wondered where Wonder Woman came from? I don't mean within her universe (she is an Amazon woman from Paradise Island), I mean where the character originated. Well, I just found out by watching the new PBS documentary; Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. The show chronicles the saga of the character including her creation (the intention was for her to support feminist values), through the dark ages of the 50's (Wonder Woman as a house wife? do they make an apron of truth?), her cultural fame in the 70's (Lynda Carter tells all), and where she is today. While much of the focus of the show was about Wonder Woman, it raised the question of why there are so few superheroines in American culture and discussed other iconic figures (from Xena to Buffy to Sarah Connor). Throughout, experts in the film commented on how girls and young women have been impacted by Wonder Woman over time, and discussed the importance of having superheroines to look up to.
On any given day, this show likely would have appealed to me, but it hit home especially this week. I have spent the last four months working with three students on a paper on just this topic; how representations of girls and women in the media affect the way girls think about what it means to be powerful. We submitted the article yesterday for consideration in a journal. Poor Sam had to hear me say numerous times during the show, "hey, hey, we talked about that in our paper" and "we referenced that sociologist’s work in our paper." Needless to say, I was breaking our unspoken house rule about not speaking during shows or movies; but I was too excited to stop.
The whole premise of the topic is so interesting and so important. Superheroes feed our imagination. They allow us to expand our thinking to consider all the possibilities of what we can become. The superhero reminds us how to be strong in the face of adversity, that being different can be a good thing, and that people care about others (and usually that "good" prevails over "evil" although I won't get started on a rant about the limitations of black and white morality in media). Girls and women have so few superheroes to look up to, even during this time of revitalization of comic books, graphic novels, and blockbusters featuring famous comic characters. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Avengers (more about the awesomeness that is Joss Whedon to follow) but there was only one female superhero whose powers were--what exactly? Catwoman is always a disaster of a character. I have nothing against cats, (one of mine is lying on my lap as I compose this), but come on.
Even when strong women are showcased in film, on TV or in comic book form, their representation is not exactly ideal. Strong female characters are often hypersexualized, needing to balance their strength with stereotypical femininity or just plain "hotness". I have watched many an episode of Buffy or Alias (both shows that I love) thinking, "There is zero chance she could actually kick someone in those shoes. How is she even walking in those shoes?" Not to mention that things don't usually end well for these strong women, who often sacrifice their lives for the "greater good." So while these characters provide much appreciated inspiration, they still remind us that women can get away with kicking ass if they are also pretty and that there may not be a place for strong women in the real world.
We need more superheroines in our comics, our television and our movies so that girls (and women) can dream about what we can become. But we also need representations of girls and women that are realistic and meaningful. But how can this change happen? Some people say, “the media is driven by the consumer, it will provide people what they want.” But the reality is that a very small group of people make the decisions about what makes it on the air. As one of the experts from "Wonder Women" noted, 97% of executives making the decisions about what gets on tv or in the movie theaters are men. This is not to say that men can’t create fantastic superheroines. Joss Whedon is one of very few show creators who is willing to (and I think wants to) create female characters with strength. Despite some limitations to the show, the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was this feminist’s dream ending. *spoiler alert* Buffy decides to share her slayer powers with all potential slayers; empowering girls and young women to work together to rise up against evil. I still jump up and cheer (with tears in my eyes) when I see this episode. But moments like this are so rare. We need more women making media and we need more men in media who are willing to challenge the status quo.
So, I am going to dig out my Wonder Woman t-shirt to wear in the Superhero race next weekend and practice my spinning. And I am going to keep writing about and working for change, so just maybe the next generation of girls can grow up knowing that they can be heroes. That they can be anything.
Anyone who logged into Facebook during the last week of March likely saw a huge number of red and pink human rights campaign logos (and many variations) as people changed their profile pictures to show their support for marriage equality. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) urged their followers to upload the symbol the same week the Supreme Court heard two important cases on the subject; California's Proposition 8 and the national Defense of Marriage Act. While this was certainly not the first time that a group or organization attempted to utilize Facebook to drum up support for a cause, the fervor with which this change happened was rather astounding. Facebook released stats on the matter and found that 2.7 million more people changed their profile picture (although they can't say to what exactly) on the day of the second Supreme Court hearing than had done so the week before (a 120% increase). My unofficial and unscientific poll showed a similar thing: I was astounded and moved by the number of my Facebook friends who changed their profile pics. With tears in my eyes I thought, "Maybe there is something to this social media thing!"
You see, I am a bit of a in internet skeptic. It is not that I am afraid or incapable of using technology. I am just leery about how it is being used (to sell people crap they don't need, to make people feel bad about their bodies, to make people addicted to their phones). I get really bothered when I see two people having a meal in a restaurant and both of them are texting or surfing the web on their phones instead of talking to each other. I have been known to refer to memes as the new "opiate of the masses." I try not to roll my eyes when my husband tells me about something he saw on reddit. And too many unfortunate souls have tried to show me something "really cool" on the internet only to be rewarded with a response about how people should probably have something better to do with their time than demean their own pets. (My apologies to all who have been subjected to such rants).
Now, you might be thinking, "but aren't you writing this blog? Isn't that a bit hypocritical?" The truth is that this blog wouldn't exist it if wasn't for my amazing and talented student who created it and others who remind me of all the ways that the internet can be used for good and not evil. So, I have done my best to appreciate the good things that the internet has to offer. This blog is actually a product of a class I taught last year in which we discussed media activism and how facebook, twitter, change.org, etc can be used to promote social change. I know, I know the whole Arab Spring and Occupy Wallstreet thing. I get it. I talk about it. I even kinda believed it. But part of me was still skeptical. Does it really work? If someone sees a petition on their Facebook page and they sign it because they would rather do that than work on whatever they are really supposed to be doing; is that really social change? Even it if does work (and I want to believe it does) does it outweigh all the negatives?
Something changed for me last week. Seeing a sea of red equal signs posted by friends, family and acquaintances from around the country changed something inside me. Maybe my little grinch heart grew two sizes that day....
Now, I have read the critiques of the campaign. I get that HRC is far from perfect (they need to work on their inclusiveness in regards to people of color and transgender individuals). But let's face it, most people didn't change their facebook pic as a sign of support for the HRC as an organization, they changed is as a sign of support for marriage equality. They changed it to show their belief that it is time for this country to change. That discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation is wrong. That everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and to have the right to marry the person they love.
This moment in time has been LONG in coming. I remember being at the pride parade in SLC in 2003 when the Supreme Court decided Lawrence v. Texas, a ruling which made same-sex sexual activity legal in every U.S. state and territory. The celebration and excitement was unbelievable! I remember thinking (with my youthful optimism) that marriage equality would not be far behind. Ten years later, here we are. Only time will tell what the Supreme Court's decision will be. But change is coming. The sheer volume of Americans who said (in pictures and words) that they are ready gives me hope. And maybe some people who needed a little nudge in the right direction saw that sea of red and wondered whether it was time to get on board.
So, I have had a change of heart (at least slightly). I won't stop asking questions or being concerned about Photoshopped models and thongs for 6-year-olds. But at the end of the day, I am willing to do (almost) anything it takes to fight for the dignity of all. Even it that means fighting fire with fire. Or posting stuff on Facebook.
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.