I love the day that my Ms. magazine arrives in the mail-- I look forward to my Saturday morning of drinking coffee and reading magazines. Ms. is one of the few that I read cover to cover. The current issue features none other than Beyonce; a face that many are familiar with and a woman who has received increased media attention in the past few months. Her half-time performance at the Super Bowl brought the house (lights) down. A recent photoshoot and interview in GQ magazine along with her decision to name her latest tour "Mrs. Carter" have led to criticism about whether she is a "true" feminist. Yet these same venues have emphasized her feminism; her remarks in the GQ interview focused on gender inequality in the music business. She and her husband (Shawn Knowles-Carter, a.k.a. hip hop mogul Jay-Z) both hyphenated their last names when they got married. All these factors (and more) have led to numerous "is she or isn't she" articles, blog posts, facebook status updates. Some adamantly defend her as a feminist. Others assert that she is either not a feminist or if she is feminism itself is in trouble. Others have done an incredible job discussing Beyonce (see the aforementioned Ms piece as well as an article in Bitch magazine) and I encourage you to check them out. Reading these articles made me think about the bigger issue here, what I call the "feminist police."
Because that is what is happening here, right? The debates, and the questions and the assertions all come down to the question, who decides whether Beyonce (or anyone else) is a feminist? Does saying "I am a feminist!" make you one, regardless of what you believe? What about all the women and men who say "I am not a feminist, but...." only to espouse their passion for gender equality? Is there only one way to be a feminist? While I think it is important to have conversations about the meaning of feminism (and to question "empowerment" that is sold to us), I think it is dangerous when we start to become the feminist police--deciding when and how someone qualifies for the label. Being a feminist isn't like being in the Girl Scouts--you don't get a badge after completing a designated number of tasks. Feminism grows and changes and adapts with us. And I am thankful for that. Otherwise, feminism dies.
Don't get me wrong, there is a utility at times to measuring someone's feminism. I am a researcher and a psychologist and I know the importance of being able to quantify variable A (feminism) to understand how it relates to variable B (say, well-being). But I am at heart a constructivist. I don't believe there is one Truth out there to find. What we are measuring is just a snapshot in time, and one defined by the photographer (or researcher, as the case may be). The person in power decides what it means to be a feminist in that moment and for that purpose. Ultimately, I think that research is more meaningful when it connects back to the lives of people and acknowledges the limitations of any one definition.
The reality is that being a feminist, like being anything else, is messy, complicated, and dynamic. Being feminist in a sexist world requires lots of negotiations (internally and externally) and navigation through murky waters. Many of the criticisms lobed at Beyonce focus on what people consider contradictions, as though you can't be feminist and sexy. Or you can't be feminist and in a heterosexual marriage. It is these arguments that upset me the most. Being a feminist isn't about trading in one set of expectations (patriarchal definitions of femininity) for another (one woman's definition of the liberated woman). It is about being authentic and honest, celebrating differences, expanding options of who and what we can become, creating a world based on equality and dignity for all people. Which is WAY harder than just following a step-by-step guide to being the perfect feminist. It requires choosing your battles, listening to others, questioning your own motives, weighing the costs and benefits of different choices. Sometimes it means being criticized for doing something that others think is "traditional" or not feminist; but doing it anyway because it is the right choice for you.
While the goals of feminism (a world without sexism, racism, classism, homophobia...) may be aspirational, I don't believe that being a feminist is. Being a feminist is about facing the day to day struggles head on. It is about believing in something bigger than yourself, and being willing to fight for the dignity of all people. My feminism isn't something I try to live up to; it is something that provides me hope and strength when things get tough. My brand of feminism doesn't forgive us our humanity, it is built upon it.
Last weekend I participated in a Girls on the Run 5k with my husband and two of our friends. We have done a GOTR race before (in Atlanta) so I should have been prepared for the event, but I found myself amazed nonetheless. Girls on the Run is a non-profit organization for girls in the 3rd-8th grades and uses an experiential curriculum to inspire girls to be healthy and confident. The program culminates in running a 5K race, but the training leading up to it consists of both running as well as mentoring and educational workshops about promoting healthy self-esteem, developing life skills and encouraging healthy living.
I participated in a similar program as a coach while I was attending graduate school in Fort Collins, Colorado and hope to become a GOTR coach in the not-so-distant future (when I magically have more free time). So while I have a frame of reference for what the program might be like, the mere experience of participating in the race is enough to convince me of the importance of the program.
When we arrived at the event we were amazed at the number of cars there. As we parked and walked up to the pre-race area, we saw hundreds of girls and their adult coaches in their GOTR t-shirts hanging out in groups, talking nervously and excitedly (many GOTR programs take place after school). Some of the groups had found ways to distinguish themselves; wearing matching colored socks or tie-dying their official shirts. Suddenly a voice came over the loud speaker. It appeared to be the race organizer and in addition to giving some directions, she got the crowd motivated. "If you can hear me, yell 'I am strong!'" The shouts of the hundreds of girls gave me chills. Wow! There was some kind of magic happening here.
As the race started, we moved out into the woods along a dirt trail. It was a beautiful day and the scenery was amazing. We moved along pretty slowly--the trail was crowded and some people were walking. My friend (a mother of an almost 3 year- old daughter) talked about how great the race was and I wondered whether her daughter would participate some day. We overheard the coaches giving words of encouragement and pointers to the girls ("Remember what we talked about when running uphill"). We overheard a few concerns about the length of the race--one girl asked if we were at mile 2 yet--about .5 miles into the race. But what stood out to me even more was what I didn't hear. I didn't hear girls talking about their weight, or how they looked, or what they should eat. I didn't hear girls criticizing themselves or others. The girls seemed to be focused on running, on paying attention to how their bodies felt, on accomplishing the goal of running 3.1 miles.
I have been running since my last year of college (plus a brief stint on the track team in high school) and I know how beneficial it has been to me. I am proud of my big muscular thighs that help me power through a hilly run (which in Pittsburgh means almost all runs). I view food as fuel for my body (and a source of enjoyment)--not as my enemy. I don't care how I look when I am running, I focus on how great I feel and what a stress reliever it is. I hope that the girls participating on GOTR find these same benefits from running. Because the truth is that they are growing up in a world where they are more likely to be told to care about how their body looks than how it feels and what it can do. The media hypersexualizes girls and encourages them to buy products to make themselves "just right." Research suggests that participation in sports can protect girls and women from having a negative body image or developing an eating disorder, but it is no guarantee. I have run with friends who spend their entire run obsessing about their weight and worrying about what they are going to eat. Running can help girls develop confidence and an interest in healthy habits, but the support of adult mentors and education is also crucial to combat the contrary messages most girls are bombarded with every day. Girls on the Run is striving to provide just that combination.
So check out the organization. Consider encouraging a girl you know to join, or participate yourself as a coach, volunteer or runner. Think about the messages you are sending to girls (and women) in your life.
See you on the trail.
Recently I started reading memoirs. In particular, I have become just shy of obsessed with reading memoirs written by women who are exploring their identity, pursuing happiness or on some sort of journey of self-discovery. Books like "The Happiness Project," "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Rim Trail," and "Poser: My life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses" have made their way to my bedside table. This is surprising because these books do not belong to my usual genre of reading. I grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries and Madeleine L'Engle. I still love mysteries, fantasy, and (some) science fiction. I mostly read non-fiction books for work (even if I enjoy them) and shy away from the modern American novel. I never even considered memoirs as a genre worthy of my time. That changed when a good friend recommended "Wild." I shouldn't have been surprised, I suppose, because I loved "Eat, Pray, Love" (like most American women) but must admit I naïvely thought it was some weird wonderful fluke.
What has changed? Maybe it is just the existential angst of my 30's that makes me want to read about self-discovery, but I suspect it is more than that. As I have studied representations of girls and women in the media, I often find myself frustrated, alarmed or annoyed by what passes for female characters. There are a few exceptions, but mostly I gave up hope on seeing a realistic representation of women. But these books have made me think twice about my reading habits and my feelings about the media. They portray real women with their actual struggles, joys, surprises and questions about life. These women are not overly-idealized characters, but authentic and complex human beings writing honestly about life. The kind of human being I strive to be.
These books have reminded me of what books (and other genres of the media) can be--inspirational. Reading these books has inspired me to consider my own life, to turn challenges into opportunities, and to be flexible. I am branching out and being adventurous; from the small things in life (drinking lavender vanilla lattes at a new coffee shop) to career changing moves (I started writing a book). I think about what makes me happy and how to be true to myself. These books show that media can represent women positively. And I am enjoying that refreshing change of pace.
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.