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.
When I teach students about social issues I often face some resistance to the topic, particularly when trying to discuss how a phenomenon is impacted by underlying assumptions, stereotypes, or inequalities. Students sometimes resist the idea that an issue is about discrimination against one group and cleave to more surface explanations.
One of the most common times that this occurs is when we discuss rape myths. I read a number of statements and students have to move to different places in the room depending upon the extent to which they agree or disagree with the statement. Some of the statements are fairly noncontroversial and simple—others get more complex. One statement reads “The way a woman dresses indicates her desire for sex.” Obviously the goal is to get students thinking about attitudes that contribute to victim blaming—one of the most common ones being that women “ask for it” because of how they dress, walk, drink, etc.
After students pick their place in the room, we discuss the statement and their reaction to it. This statement often brings up a lot of mixed feelings for individuals. And then I turn things on their head and ask students “How would a man dress if he wanted to indicate his desire for sex?”
Without fail, this statement is followed by laughter. Students’ first reaction to the question is that it is absurd. The same students who might have argued that in some way women should know that how they dress sends a message about what they want suddenly are at a loss for words.
I tell students that this can be a very useful tool when they are trying to evaluate something that is going on in the world and question whether or not it is about discrimination against one group. Simply examine how the phenomenon applies to a different group.
After the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down a Massachusetts law that created a buffer zone protecting individuals entering and exiting abortion clinics I have wondered how to get people to see the underlying issues at hand. The Court argued that the law violated the 1st Amendment and placed too many restrictions on people’s freedom of speech.
Some people have tried to claim that the decision was simply about protecting Americans’ rights to free speech and to protest and wasn’t really about discriminating against women’s reproductive rights.
I have been hoping that someone would turn that argument on its head.
And someone did.
Her name is Rachel Maddow.
In her June 26th show, Rachel outlines the history of violence surrounding abortion clinics and compares it to the violence that has taken place in other areas that have buffer zones. None of those zones are being challenged with this new decision.
Check out the piece—it is an amazingly well researched and thoughtful approach to making sense of this Supreme Court decision. And remember this argument when you hear people claiming that the decision is not about reproductive rights. It just might leave them speechless.
Well, that didn’t last long. And by “that” I mean my recent intention to write more positive blogs about all the wonderful accomplishments happening in social movements.
I really meant that intention.
And then THIS happened.
The Supreme Court struck down Massachusetts’ law regarding a “buffer zone” for women getting an abortion to protect them from protesters.
And THIS happened.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby—whose owners don’t want to provide coverage of certain forms of birth control for their employees, claiming that their right to “religious freedom” should exempt them from the provision in the Affordable Care Act with requires them to do so.
Now, I don’t want to sound like Chicken Little, but I feel a bit like screaming “wake up, everyone! The sky is falling!”
I absolutely support free speech and freedom of religion. But both of those rights have limitations. You are not allowed to falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theater. The freedom to say whatever you want is limited when it infringes on other people’s rights to safety.
Unless, of course, those “other people” are women making their own decisions about their reproductive lives.
And freedom of religion is the right to practice one’s religion—not to impose it on other people. Does anyone think that in ANY OTHER context the court would decide that a small group of people with a lot of power (a.k.a. your bosses) can impose their religious beliefs on a larger group of people with less power (a.k.a. a group of employees)? That is NOT freedom of religion. Anyone who thinks that yesterday's decision is about religious freedom is either lying to themselves or willfully naive.
Both of these decisions are about politics and power.
It became clear to me as I was reading CNN’s report on the latest decision that some see this as a “win” in their battle to oppose anything President Obama supports—that this decision will somehow lead to the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act. There is nothing so childish as making a decision that restricts the rights of women in order to say “take that, Obama!” All I can do is hope that this decision will make more Americans aware of the dangers of having a health care system that relies on employers. If nothing else, this ruling demonstrates the need for a single payer system, one in which no one’s boss gets to have a say in their medical decisions.
Don’t even get me started on the “corporations as people” slant…
Clearly, there are a lot of political implications of this court decision.
But this decision is also about power. The case was not brought by a company owned by Scientologists who want to limit their employees’ access to anti-depressants or by Jehovah's Witnesses attempting to restrict worker access to blood transfusion. This was a case of conservative Christians opposing women’s reproductive rights.
And the decision was another in a dangerous pattern of laws, policies, and court decions that have sought to erode women’s reproductive rights within the USA.
Placing limitations on reproductive rights has been--and always will be--about placing limitations on women’s power.
We should all be concerned about this. And by “we” I don’t mean just women. It is time for more men to join the fight to protect reproductive rights in the USA--as they impact everyone. Safe and affordable access to birth control allows women and families to make decisions about when/whether to have children. Such power decreases infant and maternal mortality rates, increases women’s utilization of educational opportunities, increases women’s employment choices, and on and on. Several studies have shown that the status of women in a country is an important predictor of the general quality of life
My favorite history teacher in high school taught us about the social conditions needed for revolutions to occur. To sum it up in a grossly overgeneralized way (sorry, PVO!) revolutions require people to be at a “sweet spot” of discontent. When things are really terrible people are too busy trying to meet their basic needs they don’t have the energy to fight for more. And when things are “good enough” people don’t see the need to revolt. It takes just the right amount of excess resources and discontent to produce the conditions needed for people to work for change.
I can’t help but wonder where the sweet spot will be in regards to reproductive rights. When will we wake up and realize that the sky is falling—not all at once, but cloud by cloud as lawmakers and the courts erode reproductive freedoms in the USA? Let’s not wait until birth control becomes illegal in the country to stand up for reproductive rights.
Speak out. Protest. Sign petitions. Boycott companies. Support pro-choice legislation. Today is the day.
Recently I have become concerned that my blog posts are consistently rather negative. I have asked myself why that might be. Am I only motivated to write about things I want to change? Don’t I want to contribute to conversations about positive things? Am I trying to depress my readers?
The answers to those questions are: Maybe (uh-oh), absolutely yes, and no.
So I am pleased to take this opportunity to write about some good news. Last week, the United States Patent and Trademark Office canceled six federal trademark registrations for the name of the "Washington Redskins." The ruling came 8 years after the petiition was filed, and the office determined that the name is disparaging to Native Americans.
Unfortunalty, this does not mean that the team will be required to change their name or to stop using the current one. However, it could end up costing them enough money that they would be motivated to make a change. The owner continues to argue that he will never rid the team of their racist name and the team plans to appeal the decision.
We will have to wait and see how the story unfolds, but I am hopeful that this is a sign of improvement. Although activists have spent decades fighting to rid schools of Native American mascots (see my earlier post for more) there does seem to be new traction now and the movement has gained momentum. Many more people are talking about the issue than I have ever heard (I overheard a couple of college students dsicussing it in the Dallas aiprort last week).
The tide is changing. Although some Americans are holding strong to their desire for tradition, many are invested in supporting equality and don't think the tradition of a name should outweigh the dignity of a group of people.
Every day that we walk closer to a vision of an inclusive and respectful world is a good day in my book.
Walk on, America.
We've come a long way, baby....or have we?
This blog post is one that has been long coming. As various events have unfolded over the past few months I have contemplated writing this post, yet continued to hesitate. "Do I have anything new to add to the discussion?" I have asked myself. "Will I just be too cynical?" I have wondered. But it seems that everywhere I look there are signs pointing to this topic: sexual assault on college campuses.
I am writing this post on an airplane on my way home from vacation. In the airport I snagged this picture:
Looking at this cover, I asked myself the same questions, but also one that I can't figure out how to answer. So many of the articles, stories, and discussions I have heard lately have suggested that there is a new wave of activism challenging sexual assault on college campuses: suggesting both that sexual assault and the activism to stop it is a "new" phenomenon. We've come a long way, baby! Right?! Or have we?
My response to the cover was such a bittersweet one. It is great that a magazine like Rolling Stone is covering sexual assault on college campuses (and the article is actually pretty good). Perhaps this is a sign that anti-violence initiatives are becoming more mainstream. Perhaps the activism taking place today on college campuses is new or more effective than ever. Yet, I can't help but hear the nagging voice in the back of my mind warning me that the situation is not so straightforward. Suggesting that there may be some danger to believing that today's activism has raised awareness in a way that has never before been seen. My husband who was with me was subjected to my impromptu rant (a phenomenon to which he is well accustomed) about how the cover that included the story about sexual assault on college campuses also included a stereotypical photo of a woman, somewhat scantily clad, placed in an awkward and vulnerable position and almost certainly photoshopped. Maybe I was overreacting. A quick glance at the other magazines in the little shop verified that this photo was far from the most offensive of the bunch, and I have seen worse. Is that really what conversations about violence against women and sexual objectification have come down to? "I've seen worse." Are our expectations really so low?
Which brings me back to the reasons I have waited to write this blog post. As I write this post I am asking myself three questions:
1. Can I add anything to the conversation?
2. Is there anything "new" about sexual assault on college campuses and/or the response to this crime?
3. Is it simply cynicism that keeps me from celebrating small victories?
Well, I finally decided that I can't definitively answer the first question and I have to leave it up to my readers to be the judge. I am, however, very grateful that so many others are writing thoughtful and interesting pieces about this issue and I hope if you are reading this you will find your way across those other writings as well. If my voice does more to echo that of others rather than change the direction of the conversation I am ok with that. In so many ways the conversation about sexual assault requires individuals to break their silence and contribute the dialogue.
So, on to questions two and three.
Is anything really new? I suppose that my hopeful answer is yes, but my fearful answer is no.
I hope that change has happened and is happening. It is meaningful that the Obama administration has demonstrated support for victims of sexual assault. Joe Biden has long been an advocate for ending violence against women. Social media has allowed survivors to share their stories with a larger number of people, expanding awareness and building networks of advocates who are fighting for better laws and policies. Discussions about shifting masculinity have called into question dangerous beliefs about aggression and attitudes suggesting "boys will be boys." Maybe something new is happening.
On the other hand, some of the conversations about the "newness" are a bit disturbing. In early May I was listening to NPR while getting ready for my day (my usual routine) and David McCullough Jr. was being interviewed about the controversial graduation speech he gave in 2012. My breath was caught when the interviewer brought up the recent trend of conversations about sexual assault on campus and asked McCullough if he thought the rise in campus sexual assault is related to the attitude of millennials who are "entitled" and “special” with the assumption being that a rapist feels entitled to another person's body.
WTF? Now, I have to remind myself that it is very hard to get an accurate count of the frequency with which sexual assault occurs because so many people never report it or wait years before telling anyone. Maybe sexual assault is on the rise. But the implication that the sexual assault epidemic is new really blew my mind.
The fact is that I don't know many women my age without stories of very personal connections to sexual assault. Stories. Plural.
The day in my freshman year of college that a young woman living on my floor came to my room crying and telling me she had been raped the night before at a frat party is forever burned into my brain. Her roommate and I accompanied her to the hospital. I don't know whether she pressed charges-- we were not especially close and didn't stay in touch after our first year of college. I am not sure why she came to me that day, except that she knew I wore my feminism on my sleeve and suspected that I would help her without judging her. Try telling her that sexual assault on college campuses is a "new" trend.
In the letters to the editor in the summer issue of Ms. Magazine a few people wrote responses to their article "Blowing the Whistle on Campus Rape." Ms. is one of few magazines that I read cover to cover. And today I am glad that I do. One letter came from an unnamed woman from Pittsburgh (my current hometown). She wrote about her experience being the victim of date rape in her first year of college and becoming pregnant as a result. Her mother arranged an abortion for her. She is soon to be 84 years old and had her abortion before Roe v Wade. I can't help but wonder if she was once a student at the university where I teach. Maybe she even lived in the dorm room that is now my office.
Sexual assault on college campuses is not new. Its dark tentacles run deep, connecting women (and men) around this country. Activism fighting it is not new either. My concern about these assumptions is that you cannot solve a problem if you don't understand it. Blaming sexual assault on the millennial generation will get us nowhere.
Perhaps it is cynicism, but this is part of my hesitance to celebrate the recent victories. I do believe that change happens incrementally and movement in the right direction is better than no movement at all. But I just can't manage to throw a party for those who are finally doing the thing they should have done all along. I like the fact that famous male actors joined the White House PSA about stopping sexual assault. The cause to eradicate sexual violence will go nowhere without men being on board.
But I also can't find it in my heart to congratulate them for doing the right thing.
Men SHOULD be opposed to sexual assault. They SHOULD vocally speak out against it.
Treating men like they are heroes for doing so inadvertently suggests that men who don't oppose sexual assault are the expected norm.
Forgive me if I want something more.
I have worked in collaboration with numerous sexual assault treatment organizations and groups (most working within college campuses). Every single one I have been associated with has the goal of eradicating sexual assault. I hope that we are entering a new wave of awareness, that we are finding better ways to connect, educate others, and prevent sexual assault. I want SO badly to be unwaveringly positive about these accomplishments.
But I fear we must tread carefully. We must hold onto a healthy amount of skepticism. Addressing sexual assault should not be relegated to another facebook fad. It is not enough to include an article about sexual assault in a popular magazine while also supporting rape culture in other subtle (and not so subtle) ways. I fear that the movement to end sexual assault has been met with so much resistance over the years that we will grab up any crumb of support that we can get, thinking that we are having a great feast. But to avoid future famine we must grow stronger, continue to move forward, and plant seeds. Let's nurture new allies as they join the force, but not allow them to grow so self-satisfied that the movement stops with a few recommendations and everyone feeling like they can sleep better at night because they are doing “good”.
As long as 1 in 5 women on college campuses are being assaulted, we should all lose a little sleep.
News broke yesterday out of Salt Lake City, Utah (where I was born and raised) that Wasatch High School had photoshopped a number of year book pictures without the permission of the students and/or their parents. A number of students expressed concern when they flipped through the year books to discover that their pictures had been digitally altered. In particular, several girls in the school reported that their photo had been changed to add sleeves and/or raise necklines. The students indicated they were especially upset because the changes seemed to happen randomly. Some students’ photos were changed while others wearing almost identical tops were left in-tact.
The school district has “apologized” [sorry-not-sorry] in a statement saying, “In the application of these graphic corrections, the high school yearbook staff did make some errors and were not consistent in how they were applied to student photos and the school apologizes for that inconsistency."
Really?! It seems fairly apparent from this response that the school truly does not understand what the outrage is about.
According to the school, students were warned that their photos might be digitally changed if they were not dressed in a way that conformed to the school’s dress code. The dress code repeatedly refers to the importance of “modesty” in dress and bans items of clothing that “cause an actual and/or perceived disruption of the educational environment or activities.”
From all the reports I have seen, only female students’ photos were altered.
Sadly, this story is not altogether surprising although it is rather disturbing. Similar events have happened in schools around the country where girls' clothing has been targeted because it is deemed as "distracting" to the male students. This new story comes less than one week after Elliot Rodger’s deadly rampage in Santa Barbara. The last few days have been filled with people’s attempts to make sense of that incident. As more and more info comes to light it appears that there were likley many factors leading to that deadly event: lack of gun control, reinforcement of a limited and stereotypical perspective of masculinity, mental illness. But it is most definitely clear that Rodger’s sense of entitlement about women and objectification of women (attitudes which he conveyed in his writings and videos) contributed to his decisions to act so violently.
Obviously photoshoppping students’ high school photos pales in comparison to Rodgers’ violent behaviors, but the similarity in the underlying beliefs about women should worry all of us. Dress codes that imply (and sometimes directly state) that girls are responsible to cover their bodies in order to prevent “disruption” in the environment teach young women and men very dangerous lessons. They reinforce ideas that girls and women are objects and that boys/men are not able to control their sexuality.
I get that schools need to have dress codes. But there is a difference between creating a positive learning environment and reinforcing rape culture. Schools can (and should) be a place where students are taught to challenge harmful stereotypes about women and men. It is time for them to stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.
Today hundreds of same-sex couples in Pennsylvania are applying for marriage licenses, following Tuesday’s court decision declaring the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Somewhat surprisingly, the conservative governor, Tom Corbett, has announced that he is not intending to challenge the decision. When I moved to Pennsylvania five years ago, marriage equality in the state seemed to be a pipe dream—it now appears to be inevitable. The announcement was accompanied by much excitement and celebration, and shock for some who thought they would not see this day arrive. While I certainly felt the joy that others experienced, I think I used up much of my shock in December when a similar event happened in my birth state—the ultra conservative Utah.
In addition to celebrating and supporting couples who are now getting married, this is a great time to reflect on the ways in which social change happens. PA is now the 19th state in which same-sex marriage is legal. Interestingly, in 8 of those states the decision was made by a court ruling, while 8 states legalized same-sex marriage by an act of state legislature and 3 by popular vote. While each of these methods lead to similar results as far as the legal rights of couples are concerned, they are accomplished in different ways and may carry varied implications.
The Pennsylvania decision came at in interesting time, about a week after the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education. This anniversary was an important reminder of the supreme court ruling which declared that the principle of “separate but equal” as it related to education and race was unconstitutional. These two court decisions, occurring over half a century apart, have important similarities and speak to the power that the US court system can have in implementing social change. In many ways the court system is uniquely positioned to push our society toward equality on topics where public opinion is mixed or even leans heavily in the direction of injustice. Courts are called upon to make decisions not based on popularity but based on the constitution, an aspirational document describing the nation’s support of equality for all—a value that is not always accompanied by action. The federal judge who made the ruling in the Pennsylvania decision, Judge John E. Jones III, also noted this similarity. He wrote within his decision, “In the sixty years since Brown was decided, 'separate' has thankfully faded into history, and only 'equal' remains. Similarly, in future generations the label 'same-sex marriage' will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by 'marriage.'”
While I appreciate the judge’s sentiment and celebrate the win of equality on paper I must question whether this statement is held up by the facts. Although school segregation by race is no longer “technically” legal, one need only do a cursory examination of the educational system within the USA to see that it is far from “equal.” There are huge disparities in the quality of public education and access to resources in schools in different neighborhoods, often with the divides occurring on racial and social class lines. I point this out not to in any way diminish the importance of the Brown decision, but as a caution that we not hold up the “mission accomplished” sign prematurely.
Equal treatment under the law is incredibly important and we should continue to celebrate the legal wins toward marriage equality within the USA. We should also continue to check the temperature of the larger cultural climate in which LGBT individuals live. The movement toward legalization of same-sex marriage is likely the product of decreased homophobia. Hopefully, it will also continue this trend by challenging people’s stereotypes (in much the same way that school desegregation changed attitudes by giving people more opportunities for inter-group contact). But marriage equality will not protect children from homophobic bullying in schools or eliminate workplace discrimination. If our goal is to move beyond tolerance to embracing and celebrating the dignity of all people then we must remain diligent.
During Chatham’s commencement speech on Monday Denis Hayes cautioned graduates not to “sacrifice the good in pursuit of the perfect.” I appreciate this sound advice, but also add that we not hide behind the “good enough” at the expense of people’s dignity.
So let’s celebrate! Revel in the accomplishments and continue to live our values. Supporting equality is not rhetoric. It is an ongoing way of life.
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.