Just a few days after my wedding in the summer of 2012 I decided to go for a run through the neighborhood while my husband slept in. I wasn’t gone for long, but I returned to my street to discover that it was blocked off by police. A crowd of people were standing near the blockades and when I asked what was going on, someone said that a young man carrying a gun was walking up and down the street. The street right in front of my home, where my new husband was resting. I didn’t have my phone with me (the point of running is to leave some things behind…) but luckily I was able to borrow a phone and called my husband to learn that he was safely upstairs. He didn’t know what was going on, but there were cops in front of the house. A few minutes later a neighbor who lived on a different street showed up to fetch me—I spent the next hour or so hanging out at their house, playing games with their young daughter.
That hour ended with a loud bang. After about a 90-minute stand-off, a police officer shot and killed 19-year-old Odell W. Brown.
We slowly learned about the facts of the case as they unfolded in news reports. Brown was distraught over a recent breakup. Someone called the police when they saw him in the street with a “gun” that later turned out to be a pellet gun. Brown refused to drop the weapon and eventually aimed it a deputy who then shot him.
“Suicide by cop” they called it.
Those three words haunt me.
The fact that a young African American man was so certain of the police’s response to him that waving around a fake gun was an effective means of suicide says something profoundly disturbing about the state of racism in our country. The fact that I had never before heard of “suicide by cop” says something profoundly disturbing about the privilege I am afforded by my whiteness.
On Sunday, a 12-year-old African American boy was shot and killed by police officers in Cleveland, Ohio while he was playing at a rec center playground. He allegedly had a fake gun that the officers mistook for a real one.
Last night, the grand jury in Ferguson, MO decide not to indict police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown—a black, unarmed 18-year-old.
I could go on—listing story after story of young, unarmed, black men being killed. One study by the Malcom X Grassroots Movement found that in 2012 alone, 313 African Americans were killed by police officers, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes (think George Zimmerman).
There is a problem in this country and it is not a Pittsburgh problem, a Ferguson problem, or a Cleveland problem. It is a problem that every single one of us need to face and take responsibility to change.
The response in Ferguson last night was understandably one of anger and frustration. And yet, today I keep hearing more about the responses to the decision than the injustice of the decision itself. Obviously, I don’t think looting, causing fires, or throwing objects at people is the best reaction here. But it seems that those who want to avoid conversations about racial profiling, the prison industrial complex, and police brutality are using the bad behavior of a few individuals to justify their own denial. They seek to minimize, suppress, and ignore the thousands of voices of protesters around the nation who are asking for answers and demanding justice and change.
Enough is enough. It is time for white Americans to stop relying on the tired rhetoric of “equality” and instead engage in a heartfelt (and probably heart wrenching) assessment of the entrenched inequities and systems of oppression that persist in this country. It is time for white anti-racists to step up—there is much we can do.
The first step is to listen.
Hands up, don’t shoot. Hands up, don’t shoot. Hands up, don’t shoot.
Have you ever had one of those moments when you were watching something and thought “surely, this must be a Saturday Night Live skit?” You know that feeling I am talking about. On some level you are fully aware that the media you are consuming is intended to be serious, but it is so ridiculous that a tiny part of your soul is hoping it is really satirical. If only to restore your faith in humanity…
Well, I had that experience a few weeks ago while visiting my family in Salt Lake City. My dad was watching television and I entered the room just as this commercial was airing:
At first I couldn’t figure out what the ad was for. It was weird and creepy—that much was clear. When it became evident that this was an anti-Obama add (and not some commercial for a new dating website, a PSA for interpersonal violence, nor sadly, an SNL skit) I was disgusted.
The commercial—put out by Americans for Shared Prosperity—basically portrays President Obama as bad romantic partner at best, at worst as a controlling and abusive partner. Which is troubling on so many levels. First, everything about the ad screams of a lack of respect for Barack Obama as president. Second, it undermines work being done to raise awareness about intimate partner violence. Finally, it implies that women don’t know the difference between voting and online dating and the only way they could possibly assess a politician would be to treat them like a potential date.
Really?!? Is this how the GOP thinks they are going to attract women voters?
Just in case you thought it couldn’t get worse—it does.
That’s right. The Rick Scott campaign is trying to capitalize on the popularity (?) of the show “Say Yes to the Dress.” Because everyone knows that choosing a candidate to vote for is SO TOTALLY EXACTLY like picking out a wedding dress, am I right? And since all women LOVE shopping for wedding dresses, this spin is the perfect way to attract women voters, right? What could possibly go wrong?
Other than everything.
TIME Magazine dubbed the “dress” ad the “most sexist republican ad of the year.” If these ads convey what some members of the GOP think about women when they are actively trying to reach out to them, what could they possibly think about women when that they are not saying? Frankly, that thought terrifies me!
There’s a really important election around the corner. The fact that some republicans seem to think that the best way to attract women voters is by using sexist, patronizing, and insulting messages is sad and shows just how out of touch they are. Women care about real issues and make informed and thoughtful decisions about which candidates to support.
If Republicans want to attract more women voters they should start with the basic premise of treating women like people. Just a thought.
Luckily we don't have to just watch this videos and roll our eyes. We can use our political will to send a message about what women really care about. Use your voice. Get out and vote on November 4th.
Britney G Brinkman, Ph.D.
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.
Today is the 94th Anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment which gave white women in the United States the right to vote. Just in case you forgot. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like much is being done today to celebrate or recognize this date—so many seem to take this right for granted.
My earliest memory of learning about the 19th Amendment occurred when I was 11 years old. Our social studies teacher decided to do a “mock” election at school that day to see who we would vote for if we could: Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, or Ross Perot. I did not vote. I cannot remember exactly why—I was not taking a stand against voting. A few people in my class decided not to vote. I can remember watching the debates with my dad who was at the time a supporter of Bush (at least according to my memory…). Maybe I didn’t want to publicly vote against my father (the votes were by show of hands). I certainly remember thinking Ross Perot was kind of a joke. But I don’t really remember why I decided not to vote. It just didn’t seem that important.
When I got home from school that day I told my mom about what had happened and she was appalled. I think my assessment that it didn’t matter because it was just a school activity anyway might have upset her most of all.
That was the first time I remember learning about women’s struggle for the right to vote. Maybe I knew before that day that there was a time when women couldn’t vote, but it didn’t mean much to me. But that afternoon, my mom explained to me how much it meant that women had won the right to vote and how important it is. She told me that I should ALWAYS exercise that right—even in a silly classroom activity.
I have thought about that day a number of times since then—mostly during times when I wondered if my vote mattered. Times when I felt pessimistic about our electoral system. Times when I questioned whether my voice had any chance of being heard. Those are the times when I need to hear that voice in my head, when I need to remember how crucial the right to vote really is.
So many things are going on within the USA today that remind me why my vote is needed. Voter ID laws have popped up around the country, making it more challenging for the elderly, minority and low-income individuals to vote. Anti-choice laws are making their way through state legislatures, slowly but surely whittling away women’s rights to control their own reproductive health. The gender wage gap continues with many estimates indicating that women make 77 cents on the dollar of what men make. Attempts to address this disparity (like passing the Paycheck Fairness Act) have been unsuccessful.
The 19th Amendment was an important marker on the road to women’s equality in this country, but we have much further to travel. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and to question whether any one person's vote can make a difference. But it matters who we elect to make, amend, and enforce our laws. Let's celebrate today the battle that was waged to win the right to vote, and honor that battle in our continued work to protect, cherish, and exercise that right.
-Britney G Brinkman, Ph.D.
Mo’Ne Davis is challenging many people’s ideas about what it means to “throw like a girl.” The 13-year-old pitcher for her little league baseball team has a 70-mile-per-hour fastball.
You read that right.
Mo’Ne Davis and her team will be playing in the Little League World Series that starts on Thursday. While many are celebrating her amazing sports prowess, she has certainly faced some critics. One person commented on the ESPN video of her performance that she should be proud of her work but
“she took the spot of another male player, and while she was obviously better than any other male that would have replaced her, no male would ever be allowed to join a girls team. Politically correctness has gone too far. Men and women are different and that's all there is to it.”
While a number of people disagreed with the post, these sentiments capture the views that are unfortunately held by many in our society and which can and often do lead to the devaluing of girls and women.
The phrase “like a girl” has long been used by boys to insult each other. During my time working at a therapeutic boarding school for adolescent boys I often heard boys saying some version of this to each other during games of capture the flag or ultimate Frisbee (e.g. “you run like a girl!” or “you throw like a girl!”). You can be sure it was never intended in a positive way. As one of the few “girls” (I was an adult woman at the time) around, I asked the boys if they ever thought about how it might make me feel that they were insulting each other in that way. They were genuinely shocked that I called them out on it and tried to explain to me that it had nothing to do with me. I explained to them that it sure did.
Tony Porter, the co-founder of A Call to Men: The National Association of Men and Women Committed to Ending Violence Against Women recently said in a Ted Talk: "If it would destroy [a 12-year-old boy] to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?"
The lessons that girls learn from this practice are not much better.
Always recently unveiled their “Like a girl” campaign, in which they asked older girls and adult women to do things “like a girl” including running, throwing, hitting, etc. Most of them performed in ways that were overly clumsy, goofy, or intentionally incompetent. One girl was asked directly “Is ‘like a girl’ a good thing?” In her response she said, “It sounds like a bad thing. It sounds like you are trying to humiliate someone.” Younger girls were asked to do things like a girl and they are strong, fast, and try their hardest. It is evident that girls are given messages throughout puberty that doing things like a girl is a problem. It is something they learn—not something they are born with.
There have been some important critiques to the Always campaign and others like it, calling into question whether advertising that is trying to capitalize on girl power is effective and warning of possible dangers of co-opting messages of empowerment in order to market something.
But I have to say, if you keep watching that video you just might not care. Watching young women be challenged about their internalization of the devaluing of doing something “like a girl” and seeing them embrace their own strengths is pretty amazing. It made me think about the ways in which I have internalized that same message, despite all the work I do around gender equity. That video makes me cry every time a watch it.
Just like a girl.
-Britney Brinkman, Ph.D.
As a Social Action Rep for the Representation Project, I was recently asked to reach out to men in my life and encourage them to sign the pledge:
“I pledge to use my voice to challenge society’s limiting representations of gender.”
This seemed like a great reminder to take stock of what men are currently doing to battle sexism, challenge stereotypes about gender, and speak out against violence.
It is amazing to me how many people think that feminism is only a "woman's issue"--men have always been part of the feminist movement, and I personally have had the privilege of working with a number of men who are fiercely dedicated to work for gender equality. Yet, stereotypes about feminism being "man-hating" or anti-male persist. As such it does seem to be particularly important to highlight ways in which men are, and can be, engaged in the movement.
The Representation Project sought to highlight the work of Tony Porter, the cofounder of A Call to Men: The National Association of Men and Women Committed to Ending Violence Against Women. Porter is committed to challenging violence against women and challenging stereotypes about masculinity which can reinforce violence. I recently joined the board of directors at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR). One of the things I am most excited about is PAAR’s work implementing Coaching Boys into Men a national program designed to educate coaches and athletes about how they can stop sexual violence.
The Huffington Post recently did a story in which they highlighted 28 male celebrities who have openly advocated for women in some way. The range of celebrities highlighted was important to notice--they include athletes, TV and movie stars, comedians, and politicians. These men have been outspoken about a variety of issues including ending violence against women, decreasing the sexualization of women, and decreasing discrimination against women. It was interesting to note that many of these men referenced women in their lives who helped them develop their consciousness about these issues. They all shared the assertion that men should be involved in these issues, with many pointing out that everyone would benefit from a world without sexism.
Check out the article—the range of work being done by these men is inspiring. Here some of my favorite quotes:
“All men should be feminists. If men care about women's rights the world will be a better place... We are better off when women are empowered -- it leads to a better society."
“I think [misogyny] is like a disease that needs to be cured. And if we could eradicate Polio, I don’t see why we can’t eradicate misogyny."
Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition.
Next week I will be attending the American Psychological Association conference in Washington, DC. While I am there I will attend a number of events hosted by the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity (SPSMM; Division 51 of APA). Many of the members of this division have dedicated their professional lives to examining the ways in which gender shapes and constricts men’s lives. The board members recently produced a statement addressing the intersections of masculinity, violence, and mental health.
These examples highlight the huge range of ways that men can be involved in challenging sexism--whether they identify publicly as feminist, dedicate their careers to examining gender, or simply support their son’s decision to wear a dress. Men have an important role to play in the movement for gender equality. And not just because it is good for women—feminism is for everybody! As the SPSMM’s mission statement affirms:
“..the empowerment of all persons beyond narrow and restrictive gender role definitions leads to the highest level of functioning in individual women and men, to the most healthy interactions between the genders, and to the richest relationships between them."
Have you ever experienced street harassment? Have you played the game Cards Against Humanity? Well-if you said no to either question then 1) you are probably not a woman but should still read this post, and 2) you should get that game for your next gathering—it is loads of fun.
If, however, you said yes—then have I got something for you!
Or more accurately—the creator of Cards Against Harassment—does.
These cards are a new and creative way to deal with street harassment—an old and uninspired form of sexism.
According to her website, these cards were developed as a way for individuals to respond to street harassers. The cards are funny, imaginative, and get right to the point.
As I read through the cards I found myself saying, “No—this one is my favorite!” I could absolutely remember scenarios in which each would have been the perfect response. Because I run as a hobby and bike or walk to commute, I found this one especially relevant:
Ahh, Summer: the perfect time to get outside and get active. Too bad you had to go and ruin it.
The cards can be downloaded and printed from the website. People can choose to make them two-sided with options for the back to include either “Keep it to yourself” or “Next time, just say hello.”
Which I also love—not only do the cards point out how a behavior is making a women feel, they give suggestions about what to do differently. It is ok to be polite and say hello to strangers. It is NOT ok to make harassing comments, gestures, noises, etc.
Love, love, love all of it!
The women who developed the website has also started a project where she videos her interactions with strangers who harass her and how they respond when she gives them one of her cards. She points out in numerous places on her website that she does not think that all women should confront street harassment all of the time, but that women should make their own decisions about their safety and how they want to respond.
That being said, some of the responses of the men she confronts provide insight into why this project is even needed and is a depressing depiction of some men’s feelings about women (check out this article on Jezebel about the videos).
The website also includes an FAQ section that well articulated the issues around street harassment. Two of the points made stood out to me in particular.
“A handy (although problematic) rule of thumb for many men is: if it's a comment you would make if she were walking arm in arm with a male companion, then it's probably an actual compliment.”
This quote was taken from an explanation about how street harassment differs from genuine compliments about women’s fashion choices (e.g. complimenting a woman’s outfit in some way). I think the advice is useful in providing some guidance, but really this comment stood out to me for another reason. It provides an important reminder that woman almost never experience street harassment if they are walking with a man. Which does NOT mean that women should always walk arm in arm with a male companion. What it DOES mean is that many men are probably not aware of how often street harassment occurs, how degrading it can be, and how it can make women feel.
This is another reason that this project is so important—it serves as a way for men to learn about street harassment: either as the recipient of a Card Against Harassment or when women share them with their male friends, colleagues and family to help educate them about harassment.
Recently, I was talking to my husband about street harassment. I told him that while I was walking home that day someone honked at me and I couldn’t figure out who it was. This led to a discussion about the fact that I used to always ignore honking—that I would sometimes show up to work and have someone tell me that they “saw me running the other day and honked” but I must not have seen them. I didn’t see them. Because I didn’t look. It was interesting for me to realize that since moving to Pittsburgh I have experienced such a decrease in street harassment that my first instinct when someone was honking at me was to assume it was someone I knew. That is such a huge shift from how I felt anywhere else I have lived and is a result of experiencing so much less street harassment. I have yet to completely understand why—I am certain the street harassment occurs here and I do occasionally experience it myself, it is just not a part of my daily life in the way it used to be.
For the most part, I feel grateful for this shift. It is a relief to not leave the house “bracing” myself for street harassment. It is nice to actually wave to my friends when they drive by, instead of avoiding eye contact with drivers.
However, I also find that I am caught off guard when street harassment does happen. I have come to anticipate that most of my interactions with strangers will be pleasant and well-intentioned. In fact, during my recent travels this summer I found myself truly surprised by an interaction I had with a young man. I was visiting Fort Collins (where I went to graduate school) and walking to one of my old favorite cafés to eat lunch and do some work. It was a beautiful day and I was listening to music on my headphones—enjoying the nostalgia of being back in a town where I spent some formative years. A young man walked up to me and I assumed he was going to ask for directions (which I would find amusing as once-native-now-visitor).
Instead he made a comment about my looks and insisted that I should go on a date with him. When I said “no thanks” he asked why not and I walked away.
Suddenly my beautiful, fun day felt icky.
Which brings me to the second point made on the Cards Against Harassment website that really hit home for me:
“At worst, it makes women feel unsafe because it forces them to wonder: if this man feels entitled to comment on my appearance, what's to stop him from trying to touch me, or follow me?”
Yup. I found myself being very relieved that it was the middle of the day and I was heading to a public place. Had I been walking back to my hotel I likely would have circled around or found a public place to go to instead.
That’s the thing that some men don’t seem to understand about street harassment.
That’s what makes it about privilege.
It is not just that some people (i.e. most men) rarely experience the “annoyance” of street harassment. It is that they don’t have to live with all the other implications that come with it: the fear of violence, the expectation that women’s bodies exist to please and entertain men, the sense of entitlement that some men feel to treat women however they want.
It is the cumulative effect which makes street harassment a big deal.
Living in a place where I enjoy not anticipating street harassment in my daily life has made me appreciate the value of feeling safe. I want more of it. And I want everyone to feel that way.
Check out the website. Share with your friends. Print out the cards. Design your own. Let’s see what happens.
By sheer coincidence, I have a number of friends with preschool aged daughters. As a result, over the past couple of years I have engaged in numerous conversations about princesses. As a researcher of Girls’ Studies I had already thought a lot about princesses and read some great pieces of research examining the impact of them of children (one of my favorites being “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” by Peggy Orenstein ). Despite this, I have often found myself amazed at the scope and depth of princess mania. Just this summer I interacted with friends’ children in Northern Ireland, Colorado, and here in Pittsburgh, and all of them brought up the movie Frozen. Maybe I was inadvertently prompting them, but mostly I just asked them the standard kid-questions: What are you doing? Watching Frozen! Do you want to play a game? Let’s play Frozen! and on and on.
Every conversation I have with a parent about their child’s (usually, but not always their daughter’s) interest in princesses is unique, as every family is unique. But there are some important themes I have heard: 1) parents are concerned about princess mania and the possible negative impact on their child, 2) parents sense that banning princesses outright will not be effective or possible, and 3) parents wonder if they are overreacting to princess mania. Each family has found their own way to cope with their concerns, but the fact that I have had so many conversations about this topic suggests to me that there is a lot of continued anxiety about what to do.
Now, of course this is a limited scope of people (my friends!) but these themes mirror those raised by parents during more systematic and scientific data gathering approaches (i.e. research studies).
Parents might wonder if they are worrying too much because any one princess story is not that bad (ok, except for the Little Mermaid. I mean, come on. She has to give up her voice so she can find a man?!? Using nothing but her good looks and her infantile charm that is a product of the fact that she just learned to walk!!) But I digress. Many of the traditional stories do contain nuggets of positive features. Belle is able to see the best in the Beast and help him become a better man (of course, she is his slave—but there I go again!).
Now, obviously princesses are not new. Most of the princesses that children today are exposed to are the same ones that Disney portrayed when I was a kid—most of those existed as legends shared in spoken and written formats for centuries.
If I am in a charitable mood, I will even say that Disney has made some attempts to add in non-traditional princesses to their lexicon. Mulan wants to be a warrior (of course that movie sets ridiculous expectations about masculinity); Repunzel is clever, and Tiana was the first non-White princess.
Despite these new (and improved?) princesses, it is the ways in which princesses haven’t changed and the ways in which princess mania HAS changed that gives parents reasons to be concerned.
Princesses continue to reinforce traditional gender roles and the sexualization of girls and women, almost without exception. Even those princesses that are given opportunities to demonstrate strength and courage are often drawn with traditional notions of beauty in mind. It is this persistent presentation of a limited view of girls, women, and femininity that is the problem.
One example of this that I found rather startling was in the film Frozen—yup the one that kids seem to love. There are certainly many great points about the movie. Personally, I get the biggest kick out of the snowman who loves summer.... The film’s hit song “Let it Go” has received critical acclaim and even won an Oscar for best song. It is a catchy song and has an empowering message about being yourself and not hiding who you are from others. Great, right? Kids around the world seem to be obsessed with this song in particular (I know my friends’ daughters do an amazing rendition of it).
If only it were that simple.
Recently, my husband happened to catch a glimpse of the film during the performance of the song (how he managed to avoid it until now I will never know) and asked with all genuine curiosity, “Why did the princess suddenly transform into a skinny blond?”
Yup. That she does. Well-sort of.
You can watch for yourself—the transformation takes place at about 3: 15
She was actually always blond, but suddenly in the song she shakes out her hair (really!), is suddenly wearing a slim fitting dress with a long slit up the leg, and sways her hips while she walks.
Of course parents are worried about princess mania!
I get that the filmmakers wanted to demonstrate her transformation in a visual way. Fine. But there are SO MANY options they could have taken. But they opted for the classic hypersexualization approach—because being sexy means being empowered, right?
Wrong--that’s what we call “empowertainment"--using themes that appear to be empowering but with the intention of entertaining others or selling something.
So. That hasn’t changed much. Now, what has changed?
Princesses mania is not new but seems to have grown—likely as a result of increased focus on consumerism. Scholars have argued that the big change we have seen is an increase in marketers working to sell stuff to children, and reinforcing many traditional ideas about gender in the process. (See the books Packaging Girlhood and Packaging Boyhood for examinations of the intersections of marketing and gender). These days it seems almost impossible to go anywhere without seeing products being sold that have a “princess” spin on them.
This summer I visited Yellowstone with my family. I grew up in the Western USA and we went to Yellowstone almost every year during my childhood (sometimes more than once a year). One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to participate in the “Junior Ranger” activities that were available in the visitor centers and earning a badge for doing so. This year, I noticed a “new” line of products: Park Princess. In one gift shop there was a big section of Junior Ranger gear and another section next to it that was covered in pink “Park Princess” gifts. They even have vests: a green one labeled “Kids’ Park Ranger Vest” and a pink one called the “Girls’ Yellowstone Park Princess Vest.”
I was sad to see that princess mania had invaded my beloved national park.
If you have read this far into the blog, you might not believe what I say next, but it is true.
I have nothing against princesses. Or the color pink. I think hearing fairy tales and playing princess can be a healthy part of any (female or male) child’s development. It is the mania part that concerns me. The emphasis on one way of being in the world that has permeated all areas of a kid’s life. The exclusionary nature that sends the message that girls should focus on being pretty above all else.
Luckily, some people are working to challenge this narrative.
The Princess Free Zone includes a blog and a brand designed to provide options for girls beyond the typical princess gear. Rejected Princesses is a new blog developed by an illustrator who is developing pictures and telling the stories of women who are too powerful or offbeat to fit into most people’s definitions of a “princess.” My husband and I love the show "Once Upon a Time" which puts a new spin go
Sadly, there are few other female protagonists in children’s media, so it makes sense that lots of girls would be drawn toward princesses. And princesses can be part of a really good story. But girls deserve to have a wide range of female icons to look up to—they deserve to see diverse perspective about what it means to be female and to imagine themselves in lots of different roles and excelling in many different areas. Kids have the potential to dream big--both for themselves and the world. Let's stop limiting them with our need to fit everything into a tiny, pink, princess box.
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.