As the calendar reminds us that one year is coming to close and another is about to begin, many of us will pause to reflect on the past year and consider what is ahead for us in 2014. One of my yoga teachers remarked that this is a time of year where we try to seek balance between the past and the future. If we spend too much of our energy focusing on either we will find ourselves off kilter. But there is much we can learn by reflecting on the past while being mindful of our hopes for the future.
As I write this, there is a paper taped to the wall next to my desk—it is titled “Britney’s 2013 Intentions.” I wrote the document one year ago and today I took the time to reflect upon the past year with these in mind. Some of them (“learn how to use my new camera”) I am proud to say that I accomplished. With others (e.g. “learn basic Cherokee”), I fell short of my goals. But many of them (such as “pick my battles”) are not things that can be accomplished. There were written down as a reminder of the importance of practicing these intentions each day.
In addition to considering my personal goals, I reflected on our progress at becoming a more just society. Some big accomplishments come to mind right away. The dual Supreme Court decisions (one regarding Proposition 8, the other DOMA) which drastically changed the landscape of LGBT rights within the USA will be forever remembered as an accomplishment of 2013. As this year closes, 18 states have legal same-sex marriage, and the year ended with an unbelievable turn of events in Utah. The momentum developed in 2013 can lead us into 2014 with fervor to continue with this fight. I hope that this time next year my home state of Pennsylvania will be added to the list.
In 2013 we also experienced the loss of Nelson Mandela—an event that brought sadness and mourning, but also the opportunity to celebrate the life of a man who did so much for the cause of justice.
Sadly, there were many areas where we fell short. The lack of an immigration bill being passed by Congress means that thousands of individuals must continue to live with the threat of deportation and the upheaval of their life and the lives of their loved ones. The vitriolic response to the crowning of Nina Davuluri as Miss America was a painful reminder of racism that persists within the nation.
There were also moments that remind us of what we need to keep working on—areas where we can build on past success. SPARK followed up their 2012 campaign to get Seventeen magazine to decrease photoshopping with continued work challenging media that sexually objectifies girls and women and marketing that places the bottom line above all else. The strike by fast food workers was an important step in the movement to secure a fair, living wage for all—but much more needs to happen.
As you make your list of goals/resolutions/intentions for 2014, I encourage you to consider adding what you plan to do to make the world a better place. You might choose a measurable goal like starting a GSA at your school or a safe zone training a work, volunteering for a social change organization, supporting a candidate’s campaign or writing letters to support legislation. Or maybe you will add an intention about how you will treat others in your day to day life. Maybe you will commit to challenging people when they make sexist/racist/classist/homophobic jokes. Or practice saying “partner” instead of “husband/wife”. Or support your children when they express interests that don’t conform to gender stereotypes. Or challenge yourself when you make a judgment about others based on bias.
Tonight I will ring in the New Year with a wonderful group of friends. Tomorrow I make my list. I don’t know what 2014 will bring, but I intend to face the year with an open heart, with continued passion working to support the dignity of all people, and a plan to learn Cherokee.
Happy New Year everyone.
If you have been hanging around the Internet the past few weeks, you may have stumbled upon some of the R. Kelly controversy. In mid-December, the Village Voice published this article interviewing journalist Jim DeRogatis about his work exposing R. Kelly’s history of sexual predation. This was prompted by R. Kelly’s release of a new album, Black Panties. Jezebel, the feminist-oriented blog, at first heralded the new album. Following the Village Voice blog post and a much needed reality check from readers, bloggers, and media figures, Jezebel changed their tune.
Since then, celebrities have weighed in on the topic. Bloggers have given advice to those who want to listen to R. Kelly without supporting R. Kelly. News sources have questioned our continued support of the celebrity. R. Kelly even responded to the controversy, with the tact and remorse anybody who has been following the case would expect. Ms. Magazine questioned whether you can be a decent person and still listen to R. Kelly. (Their response is a definitive “No”).
I know I said this blog wasn’t about R. Kelly. It’s not. It’s about this blog post: “Can feminists enjoy R. Kelly’s music? Short answer: No.” The blog rehashes some of the same ideas and points made by other media outlets. However, the title specifically targets feminists.
I am not here to say that entertainment figures should not be held accountable for the violence against women, harassment, or sexism portrayed in their personal lives or through their work. I am not here to say that fans should not be accountable for the choices they are making as consumers. But feminist identity is not contingent on one single quality, choice, or decision.
Anyone who identifies as a feminist knows that it is an ongoing process of unlearning. It requires constant negotiation between what we think to be righteous and just and what currently exists in our society. We are working against the dominant culture while also living within it, creating a constant cycle of adapting to and dismantling of culture.
I am not going to ask anyone to hand over their “FEMINIST” card because I do not agree with their choices. We persecute feminists, then wonder why prominent figures do not support feminism. The minute Katy Perry decides she actually is a feminist, the Internet will ask in a frenzy, “Can Katy Perry be a feminist?”
Yes. Katy Perry can be a feminist. And Sheryl Sandberg. And Beyoncé. And people who dance to “Ignition” when it comes on the radio. Your feminist identity is a culmination of an ongoing effort to unlearn culture, critically address structures and institutions of oppression, and liberate those around you. That does not happen overnight, and it is not retracted by a single misstep.
So what should you do when you meet a fellow feminist who makes choices that seem contradictory to those goals? Instead of asking, “Can you really be a feminist and…” I suggest trying the following response: “I’m curious how [INSERT TOPIC] fits in with your feminist identity?”
You might learn that they have thought about it and have come to a conclusion that fits in with their feminist framework. Or maybe the conversation will give them (and you) an opportunity to process the issue in a different way. Or maybe you will learn that they have thought about it, and they know that it is problematic, and they are not ready at the moment to change that specific behavior.
So who gets to decide who is feminist and who is not? Who are the gatekeepers of feminism, protecting it against the wolves disguised in feminist dialogue? Because certainly, those people exist. I mean, Robin Thicke claimed “Blurred Lines” was a feminist movement. Sure, there are behaviors and decisions that are anti-feminist. There are individuals whose track record reveals a consistent support of misogyny and oppression. But I am not talking about those individuals. I am talking about our allies. I am talking about creating a subculture that values curiosity, discussion, and awareness over persecution and alienation. I think it is absolutely necessary for feminists to be critical. I am asking for compassion and understanding so that, as individuals explore and grow in their feminist identity, they have room to make mistakes, compromises, and negotiations while they are figuring it out.
R. Kelly is a person. His actions are part of a greater culture that supports violence against women and hypermasculinity. It is from that culture that our music industry capitalizes off of sexism and the exploitation of women. That music industry is part of a greater economic system that values profits over people, with the most vulnerable and oppressed populations suffering the most. Patriarchy is the problem, and we are all a part of it. We are also all (potentially) part of the solution. So instead of casting stones at each other, I recommend finding the common ground and aiming it at the glass ceiling above.
You may have seen this video of an advertisement for Pantene that examines labels often used for women and men; and how different they can be.
If we set aside for a moment (although I don't think we should do so completely) that this is an ad about women's hair, the video does a nice job exploring the double standard often facing women in the workplace. It explores the way that women and men who are seen as competent and successful may be judged by others. Even when engaging in the same behaviors, men may be called persuasive while women are deemed pushy; men are dedicated when they stay up late to work while women are selfish; men neat and women vain; the list continues. This phenomenon is often found in studies where participants are given a vignette of a character--half of the participants are given a story that refers to a man. The other half have a story that refers to a woman. All other details (besides gender) are exactly the same. As in the Harvard case study, women may be judged as competent in the circumstances, but are often viewed as much less likable than men.
The Pantene commercial puts forth the solution that women shouldn't "let labels hold them back" and instead they should "be strong and shine." Like "beautiful" hair.
If only solving the double standards facing all successful women was as simple as changing our shampoo.
So, while I appreciated the ad's attempt to highlight how ridiculous these stereotypes are, I balked a bit at the victim-blaming solution. Oh, us silly women. Lettin' those labels hold us back. No more! Let me shake out my hair and take 100% responsibility for the double standards I struggle with constantly.
Putting all sarcasm aside, I truly wish it were so easy. I often tell my students that one of the difficulties of studying gender and social justice issues is that I still face the same stereotypes as other women--and while I may be more aware of them than some, that doesn't fully protect me from their impacts. I know how hard it is to feel like I have to choose between being seen as the "nice" professor or the "smart" one. My male colleagues are not struggling with this same false dichotomy.
The reality is that sexism in the workplace is way more complicated than simply changing the labels we use for women and men. Those labels reflect underlying assumptions that people are often buying into without questioning them. Luckily a number of scholars have done extensive work to unravel these often unintentional but powerful biases AND have proposed ways to combat them. Stephanie Shields, P.h.D. and her colleagues at Penn State University have developed the WAGES project "designed to educate individuals about the sources and cumulative effects of subtle gender bias." Joan Williams developed the Gender Bias Learning Project to facilitate a greater understanding of patterns of gender bias.
Both of these projects acknowledge that both men and women need to examine the stereotypes they have internalized about gender which contribute to sexism in the workplace. However, they do not assume that women simply need to rise above such assumptions. Instead of telling women to just "ignore others" who may call them a bitch for being opinionated, it is on all of us to shape a social structure that does not punish women for being competent and smart (nor men for being sensitive; but that is another blog post for another time).
Today I had the great pleasure of attending the graduation of the first PsyD students to complete the Counseling Psychology Program at Chatham University. All three of them are women--smart, talented, successful, dynamic, kind, multifaceted women. As I am the academic advisor for two of these women, I have certainly had conversations with them about navigating the world of work as a woman. We have talked about the labels they might face (and some they have already experienced) and how they might cope with sexism in the workplace. On this day of their graduation, I refuse to tell them to just ignore these experiences and shine anyway.
Instead I say to the world:
Make way for powerful women.
Make a way for powerful women to be respected, liked, treated with equity and dignity.
Don't build a box that you try to force these women into.
Don't ask them to choose whether they want to be liked or respected.
Don't sell yourself short by missing out on anything they have to offer.
Make workplaces for them where they can feel at home and shine.
Don't get out of the way of these women, but rather welcome them with excitement and enthusiasm they deserve. Appreciate all of the dimensions they bring to their interactions, both their compassionate and loving selves, and their smart and witty selves.
Make way for powerful women. For they are coming your way.
-Britney Brinkman, P.h.D.
I first learned about Nelson Mandela as a child. I was fortunate to have an elementary school teacher who believed it was important for kids to be well informed on social issues happening around the world (she also taught us about the Berlin Wall). I remember being amazed and inspired by his words. And also being saddened by his situation. He was still in jail at the time, but the pressure to release him and end apartheid was increasing. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to spend so many years in jail for fighting for equality.
To be honest, I still can’t.
Mandela’s passing last week has resulted in an outpouring of sentiment from around the world. Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days, followed by a funeral that is expected to be one of the largest in modern history. Political leaders (including those from countries who once deemed Mandela a “terrorist”) from around the world are making plans to attend. It is truly incredible to see how one man has touched so many lives—both directly and indirectly.
As we contemplate the loss of Nelson Mandela, let us first remember the man—a friend, father, husband, grandfather. Those who knew him will mourn the loss of the him in their life. Let us not forget that he was a person—one who his family described as “a caring family leader who made time for all and on that score we will miss him dearly.”
Let us also celebrate what he helped to achieve—an end to apartheid in South Africa. The importance of the work he did to rid the country of such a policy and to avoid civil war in the process cannot be overstated. During this time of reflection, I encourage all of us to learn more about how apartheid came to be and the work Mandela did to battle it. As the saying goes, those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. Many of the individuals attending the events in South Africa belong to the “born free generation”—people who have lived their lives with freedoms and opportunities that were hard won.
Finally, let us not forget to honor the legacy that Nelson Mandela left for us. Those of us who never knew Mandela and were not directly impacted by apartheid (although such inequality anywhere has ripple effects for everyone around the world), have been touched by what Mandela represented. His work as a political activist inspired others around the world to fight for their own causes. But I fear that we will allow Mandela to become a symbol—while forgetting the call he charged us to follow.
"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."
We can do better.
We must do better.
The same day that Mandela died there were strikes at fast food restaurants around the USA—workers who are demanding a living wage. There is more work to be done in this world—and every one of us can play a role. But we have to be willing to take up that charge.
Fortunately, most of us will never be called upon to spend 27 years of our lives in jail for the causes we believe in. But let us not use that as an excuse to ignore the sacrifices that we can make. All of us can give a bit (or more!) of time, or energy, or patience, or money, or love to fight for a just world. To make the lives of the people around us better. To dismantle systems of oppression. Maybe that involves escorting women as they visit an abortion clinic, providing support with one’s presence. Or boycotting a company that funds anti-LGBT policies and groups. Or registering people to vote. Or writing a petition. Or challenging someone when they make a racist, sexist or homophobic joke. No one of us can change the world alone--but we can each take actions that will make a difference.
May Mandela’s spirit rest in peace. And may his legacy live on, burning brighter with the sparks of change each one of us brings.
"It always seems impossible until it is done. "
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.