Occasionally something happens in the world that gets so much buzz it seems to be talked about everywhere. Last week, that included Emma Watson’s address to the UN about her new campaign He for She. Articles with clips to the video were all over Facebook—being posted by the news sources I regularly read and reposted by friends who were excited about it. A few friends at work were talking about it at a meeting the next morning—numerous people said they played the video in class.
But not all of the talk was positive.
First, there was the ridiculous response which included threats that 4chan would leak nude photos of Watson as “punishment” for her feminism. Although this appears to have been a hoax, it served mostly to prove the point that there continues to be a need for feminism. This negativity only makes me want to support Watson even more.
Some of other not-so-positive responses have come from within the feminist movement. These are the responses that have given me some pause and have made me wonder how we can do better as a movement to find ways to support multiple feminist perspectives and inroads.
Don’t get me wrong. I think there is a lot of merit in most of the criticism. First, I wholeheartedly agree with concerns about Watson's lack of recognition of intersections of identity and criticism about racism within the feminist movement. I am glad that so many people celebrated Watson’s speech, but do think the contrast of public responses to Emma Watson and responses to Beyoncé is disturbing. Despite Beyoncé's numerous public displays of her support for feminism, she has been met with almost endless responses criticizing and minimizing her.
I also appreciated critiques of Watson’s “formal invitation” encouraging men to join the movement, as though men have just been waiting around to get word that they are welcome...
I think it is important for us to be willing and able to engage in self-reflection and offer constructive criticism. But I want to see that happening in a way that supports voices and encourages people to go further, rather than approaches that simply criticize and dismiss.
Yes, it seems so basic for Emma Watson to tell the UN the true definition of feminism. But, as much as I wish it were not true, many stereotypes about feminism persist. If there is anything we have learned from social media campaigns, it is that some people continue to believe the stereotypes. Feminism by many is considered the "F-Word." A little clarification about it can't hurt. For some, Watson's speech was exactly what they needed to hear.
I am a feminist, an activist, and a psychologist. Each of these parts of my self inform the work I do. In this case, I think it is my training as a therapist and teacher that has helped me the most. I accept the fact that people are not all in the same place. They haven’t had the same experiences, and may not all be open to the same messages. If I want to reach as many ears, minds, and hearts as possible I have to be willing to meet people where they are.
Look, I get it. I get frustrated too when men say they can’t be feminist or they are not welcome in feminist spaces. Yes, sometimes that is just a BS cop-out for men who would rather not risk losing any privilege in the process of examining inequality.
But sometimes men say that because it is their very real experience of the world. Now, maybe that is their experience because FOX news told them feminists hate men. And maybe they have been told that they are unwelcome in some women-only spaces. Or maybe that is their experience because they are so used to having male privilege that the discomfort they feel when they enter a room of powerful women is so foreign to them they assume that they are unwelcome in the space. But whatever the reason, getting pissed off at the men who don’t feel welcome probably isn’t helping. Instead, welcome them into the dialogue. Then discuss why exactly it is they needed a personal invitation. And talk about how it feels to experience privilege. And talk about how it is reinforcing stereotypes to expect women to provide a safe and emotionally supportive space in which to have these conversations. And then call on those men to invite more men into the movement. I am not saying that we shouldn’t challenge the assumptions that may accompany a request for an invitation—I’m just saying that we may still have to extend to the invitation for anyone to show up to the party.
I am so grateful for organizations, magazines, and individual scholars/activists who push me and challenge me to grow in my own feminist awareness. Sometimes I need to be in a space where people accept feminism as a given and offer important critiques to keep the movement moving forward. These spaces energize, motivate, and inspire me!
But--introvert that I am-- I want to see those spaces grow. I want more people to come to the table, to engage in important conversations about inequality, and to find a home in the feminist movement.
Maybe our journeys won't all look the same, but when our paths cross I hope we find ways to help each other along. Challenge, support, invite, make uncomfortable, welcome, critique, celebrate-every one of us needs each of these things at different points.
So, can we PLEASE stop insisting that everyone’s feminism has to look the same? I mean, isn’t that kinda part of the goal here? To create a world where people get to be themselves, instead of only having access to resources and social capital if they fit into some cookie cutter mold that the patriarchal system finds to be appealing? How in the world can we possibly dismantle this system if we are insisting there is only one “right” way to do it?
I have never been what you would call a “sports fan.” When I got my current job and told people I would be moving to Pittsburgh I was told that the only thing I needed to know about the city was that is has three seasons: football season, hockey season, and baseball season. I quickly learned the truth of this statement. I walked into one of my first sessions of a night class to discover that the majority of the students were wearing Steelers shirts. At first I thought I was in the wrong place. Surely this was some type of football club, not a counseling psychology graduate course. The students quickly reassured me that I was in the right place—there was just a big game that evening. In the five years I have lived in Pittsburgh, I have really come to appreciate the love of sports here. For many people, supporting the city’s teams is a way of supporting the city itself—people take pride in a place that has struggled economically and worked its way back to (mostly) secure financial footing. I have come to love this city and call it home, and I enjoying seeing such enthusiasm for the place.
So while I have yet to fully embrace any of these sports, I have learned to better appreciate others’ love of the game(s). Unfortunately, the events that have unfolded around the NFL over the past few weeks have reminded me of some of my concerns related to professional sports.
Two high profile domestic violence cases have spurned on lots of debates about how the NFL handles players who commit such crimes. Ray Rice (formerly of the Baltimore Ravens) had his contract terminated after a video was made public in which he punched in girlfriend until she was unconscious. Adrian Peterson (of the Minnesota Vikings) has been suspended from play pending an investigation regarding whether his discipline of his son constitutes child abuse.
Sadly, these two cases are not isolated. Although they have perhaps received greater levels of publicity than other incidents (possibly because of the release of the video of Rice), NFL players have been involved in numerous other domestic violence cases, as well as cases of sexual assault. And it is not just the NFL. One need only reflect for a moment to bring to mind numerous occurrences of athletes engaged in violence against women, girls, and children. Think: Steubenville, Ohio; Penn State; the Duke Lacrosse team. I could go on, but I won’t. This list is depressing enough.
Now before I hear a bunch of cries of “not all men!” or “not all athletes” let me say I am well aware that not all men nor all athletes engage in violence. In fact, most research suggests that a small percentage of men commit a large percentage of the violence against girls and women. The point here is not that all (or even most) male athletes are committing violence, but it is about examining the culture around sports that may lead to the perpetuation and dismissing of violence.
Critiques about the ways in which football (and other sports) promote messages of hypermasculinity in which violence is not only tolerated but celebrated, are not new. Scholars like Jackson Katz (a former football player himself) have been speaking out for decades about ways in which sports may perpetuate cultures of violence and the need to reexamine messages about masculinity. While some amazing work has been done on this front, clearly we need to do more.
We also can do a better job as a society of not tolerating and condoning violence through inaction and silence. Much of the public outcry surrounding the recent cases in the NFL has been less about the specific individuals involved in the allegations, and more about the ways in which coaches, owners, and the NFL commissioner respond to these events. Although the NFL seems to be responding to pressure from the public and advertisers to take domestic violence seriously, in the past the policies have often amounted to a “slap on the wrist.” It is unclear whether these dismissive approaches were the result of a genuine belief that domestic violence is not a big deal, whether they stemmed from a perception that “boys will be boys,” or if the inaction is linked to men’s own fears about the repercussions of challenging the code of masculinity. Regardless, they allow violence to continue instead of creating structures which demand change and support individuals in getting help to do so.
We all can play a role in shifting cultural norms about masculinity, whether it is by putting pressure on a system like the NFL to approach things differently or changing our own interactions with the boys and men in our lives.
The use of violence to prove oneself is a dangerous aspect of traditional masculinity. But the tacit support that results from the code of silence is perhaps more deadly.
Come on, men. It is time to speak up.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a tipping point as being “the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place.” Lately I have found myself wondering what it will take for our culture to reach the tipping point to eradicate sexual violence.
I recently joined the board of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR) and during orientation all of the new board members shared a bit about their reasons for joining. I have been involved in the sexual assault prevention and intervention work for many years, working as a volunteer doing prevention programming, staffing a crisis hotline, and even doing individual and group therapy at a sexual assault victim advocate center. In doing this work I have found that individuals often (but not always) get involved because of a personal connection to someone who has experienced sexual violence. For many people, one’s personal “tipping point” seems to involve putting a face on something they might otherwise wish to avoid.
But how many small changes and publicized incidents are needed to create larger, more systemic change?
Sometimes it seems that we are treading water (at best) or taking steps backward. The much publicized “anti-date rape” nail polish (called Undercover Colors) has received a lot of media attention, with some supporters praising the group of four men who developed it, but others criticizing the underlying approach to rape prevention. The nail polish is intended to change colors if exposed to drugs that are commonly utilized in “date rape.” While the group of inventors likely has good intentions, this product seems to be another in a line of approaches that emphasize ways that women are supposed to avoid sexual assault, rather than an attempt to actually prevent sexual assault. Unfortunately, these messages can lead to victim blaming—questioning women after an assault about whether they did “enough” to keep themselves safe.
But I want to be hopeful that the tide is changing. The White House has put together a task force to address sexual assault on college campuses, with the Not Alone campaign designed to provide recommendations, resources, and support to students and universities. California passed what is being called the “yes means yes” law—a law that changes the standard for what is considered consent to sexual activities. The new law requires an active form of consent rather than relying on antiquated policies which asserted that the absence of a clear “no” implied consent.
Some days I just wish that someone could tell me what it will take to change hearts and minds on a massive level. Until then, I find hope in the small changes. I take heart in the community response at Columbia University, where a group of students have joined one rape survivor in her campaign to raise awareness on campus about sexual assault and to demand better responses by the administration.
When she learned about Emma's project, fellow student Allie Rickard responded with a call to action. She urged others to help Emma carry her mattress around campus.
Help her carry this weight as a survivor, ally, supporter, activist, artist, advocate, or friend.
It is movements like these--movements where the community comes together to support survivors and demand change that just might be what we need to push us over the edge. If we all carry the weight of sexual assault, it just might tip us over.
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.