Friday, June 13, 2014

The Abortion Movie

Have you guys seen the abortion movie yet? I know we’re not calling it that-- but that’s what it is. The abortion movie—because it is the first movie to treat women who choose to have abortions with the compassion and respect they deserve.

As much as I enjoyed Waitress, Juno, Knocked Up, and every other movie revolving around an unplanned pregnancy, they all managed to stigmatize this safe and legal procedure. Until now, the message Hollywood was sending women who dared to go through those clinic doors was “you made the wrong choice.” 

Given these past offenses, Obvious Child needed to happen. Jenny Slate, the star of this trailblazing movie, described her new film as a modern narrative that “feels good in its own skin.” 

I couldn’t have said it any better myself—but let me still try.

This film contributes to the rise of the regular chick. It’s the way you felt the first time you watched Girlsbefore it got so problematic— observing each character's shortcomings and thinking, “Hey, that’s just like me.”

Obvious Child writer and director Gillian Robespierre said she wanted to put somebody on the screen who was an actual person. Her leading lady is both funny and vulnerable--- a rare combo in a chick flick. But more importantly, she's extremely likable.

“It’s really cool to see an actually funny, actually romantic comedy-- and to see something that feels authentic and real, without shame or regret, but not without a complexity of emotion,” said Liz Holm, the film’s producer, who also happens to be the director of Kickstarter's film program.

Holm got involved because Obvious Child felt like a movie Hollywood wasn’t going to make, supporting “not only the right to choose, but the right to have a complex experience,” she said.

Yes, this movie about abortion is a love story. But the real driving force behind Obvious Child is friendship. Slate and her co-star Gaby Hoffmann play Donna and Nellie, two roommates whose BFF status is so solid, you’ll be asking your own bestie, “Why can’t you be more like her?”

There is no competition, no jealousy—just appreciation and acceptance, not to mention the constant support required to survive adulthood. (Sigh.) Beyond strong relationships with lady friends, there are also dynamic relationships with parents, and complicated relationships with men. Nothing is simple. Nothing is constant. But that’s life, kiddos. 

These inconsistencies and imperfections, the things Hollywood usually glosses over, are what make this movie totally perfect. Embracing every opportunity to do things differently, there are five specific moments that set this film apart from all others.

Donna’s One Night Stand

This encounter includes copious amounts of alcohol, all of the  awkwardness, and a really adorable depiction of immediate “I just met you, this is crazy” attraction. There is no nudity, no thrusting, just nervous feelings. And some dancing. Maybe a little outdoor urination. And one pee-fart.   

Donna’s Visit to Planned Parenthood

Don’t quote me, but I really do believe this is the first time we see an actress actually enter a clinic. Usually, overwhelmed by protesters, they turn on their heels, signaling the start of their journey into motherhood. Not here. Donna knows exactly what she wants, and has an accurate consultation with a healthcare provider whose only agenda is letting women like Donna know all of their options before they finalize their decision.

Nellie’s Impassioned Cunt Speech

Damn, Gaby Hoffmann. I knew I liked you. This actress always plays fearless women who march to the beat of their own drum. First the science-obsessed realist Sam, in Now and Then. Also the sex-obsessed revolutionary Odette, in All I Wanna Do. And more recently, the crazy, crazy, oh-so-crazy “Caroline” in Girls. She is the queen of memorable monologues, and her portrayal of Nellie does not disappoint. Furthermore, Nellie’s wise words concerning women’s autonomy over their bodies should inspire all of us to get up and cheer for reproductive rights. 

Donna’s Friend’s Abortion

Yup. Nellie, Donna’s roommate and best friend, had an abortion. In high school. And she is an endless source of truth, encouragement, wit and support.

Donna’s Mom’s Abortion

Yup. Mom, who Donna does not always get along with, transitions from adversary to ally in this big reveal. Fearing the worst, Donna confides in her mother, who reciprocates wholeheartedly. Turns out, while she was in college (in the 60’s) she terminated a pregnancy. It was no coat-hanger procedure, but it happened on a kitchen table, out-of-state, which was often the case in the days before Roe V. Wade.

The movie excels at unlocking the mysteries surrounding women’s sexualities and women’s health. As statistics go, one in three women will have an abortion, but in this film, it’s three out of three.

“Our idea was to show three different stories women had, in three different ways, and they didn’t define their lives,” said Robespierre. And yet, her movie is not just about abortion:
What we wanted to do was stick to the romantic comedy genre. So it was never gonna be about will she or won’t she have the abortion. She made that choice swiftly, early on in the film, when she discovered she was pregnant. But we wanted to keep to the tropes of the romantic comedy, so it was will she or won’t she end up with the guy.
Holm also emphasized abortion is only part of the whole. “The movie is an honest story about a woman’s experience and her life,” she said. And yet, the media has successfully labeled it the abortion movie-- because it really is the first one.

For Slate, that means her first leading role looks a lot like activism.

According to her, it’s a movie about a woman "just trying to deal with the many moving pieces in her life.” But this isn’t just any woman. This is Donna, a stand-up comedian played by Slate, so it’s funny. Like, really funny. And edgy. Like, really edgy. As Holm put it, “This is not exactly a PSA.”

Some might find a humorous tone inappropriate for the topic. Robespierre defended the character she created, explaining “she’s just a funny person, and she’s going to comment on anything that happens in her life with a little slice of humor."

Slate, who is directly responsible for any audience enjoyment, believes funny things can be said without making the whole subject a joke, and laughter doesn’t necessarily mean disrespect. It can also mean relief.

“It’s okay to play boundaries if you play with them respectfully—and have your own identity and a clear place that you’re coming from,” Slate said.

Besides being hilarious, Obvious Child is also authentic. The clinic scenes were shot in an actual Planned Parenthood, giving some viewers their first ever glimpse inside. Intimately following Donna’s experience, this film has the potential to start some much-needed dialogue.

Of course anti-abortion backlash is expected, but the director is optimistic. “We’re really excited for whatever conversations it ignites in the coming weeks. Positive or negative, at least people are talking about it,” said Robespierre.

Slate understands the nuance, as well as the potential of a film dealing with abortion in this way. “It’s important to show flexibility in issues that tend to make us feel closed out, because that’s how they become more normal,” said Slate.

And really, there is no issue more in need of a little flexibility. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Confident Enough to Call It Sexism

If you think the wage gap is caused by discrimination, you're probably skeptical of Katty Kay and Claire Shipman's confidence gap.

For those well-versed in sociology, there are plenty of reasons to question their theory concerning gender and confidence. But sadly, the pair was still able to fill D.C.'s Sixth&I Historic Synagogue with women ready to confront the biological forces supposedly blocking their road to success.

After devouring Kay and Shipman’s cover story for the Atlantic, and ignoring warnings the “confidence gap” was merely an attempt to sell yet another self-help manual, predictable proteges showed up hungry for more.

The journalists were met with eager nods from millennials who had migrated to the nation's capital for gainful employment. But as these recent graduates started navigating the real world, they discovered something college didn't prepare them for-- inequality.

Reaping the benefits of legislation like Title IX, many of these budding professionals were encountering actual adversity for the first time. 

However, in a seemingly post-feminist world where no one's opportunities are restricted on the basis of sex, getting passed over for a promotion feels like an isolated incident. And by subscribing to the confidence gap, each incident will remain isolated-- even though attendants found themselves surrounded by women having similar experiences.

So rather than start this century's largest consciousness-raising group, these women turned inward, missing their chance understand that the personal is still political.     

Kay, lead anchor of BBC World News America, and Shipman, senior national correspondent for Good Morning America, brought anecdotes from their research and copies of their new book The Confidence Code:  The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know.

Many critics had already accused Kay and Shipman of offering fake solutions to women's real problems, while ignoring the complexities of sex, race, and class. But beyond the absence of intersetionality, an additional faux pas ran throughout their one-dimensional exploration of gender discrepancy in the workplace.

Instead of identifying sexism where it obviously exists, Kay and Shipman’s confidence gap fiercely defended the status quo.

Besides the “cultural and institutional barriers” they half-heartedly acknowledged, Kay and Shipman found “explanations for a continued failure to break the glass ceiling are missing something more basic: women’s acute lack of confidence.” 

Exhibiting an unmistakable preference for nature over nurture, they framed behavior aligning with gender stereotypes as simply inherent. And after a month of unflattering reviews, they remained unfazed.

“I don’t think we avoided sexism intentionally,” said Shipman at Sixth&I. “[We] meant to really dig into whatever confidence is and where comes from.”

But their conclusion put the cart before the horse. Instead of women’s lower social status fostering lower levels of confidence, Kay and Shipman believe women’s naturally lower confidence determines their lower social status—at least at work.

The fault apparently lies with women and their timid disposition, because “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.”

Previous attempts to understand women’s challenges in the office were over-thinking it. Women come up short because success “correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels.”

Try applying that logic to the statistics describing women’s reality. There are only 23 women CEOs running Fortune 500 companies— because of insecurity?

Kay and Shipman are not the only ones invested in the confidence gap. They spoke with several male executives who explained “a lack of confidence was fundamentally holding back women at their companies.” More importantly, these men “had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist.” For these men, women talking too little was a big problem:
One male senior partner at a law firm told us the story of a young female associate who was excellent in every respect, except that she didn’t speak up in client meetings. His takeaway was that she wasn’t confident enough to handle the client’s account. But he didn’t know how to raise the issue without causing offense.
However, if this problem truly stems from lacking confidence, consider the alternative. In an experiment conducted at the Yale School of Management, men and women rated a fictitious female CEO who talked frequently:
The result: both sexes viewed this woman as significantly less competent and less suited to leadership than a male CEO who talked for the same amount of time. When the female CEO was described as talking less than others, her perceived competency shot up.
So if women who spoke too much were viewed as incapable, but women who spoke too little were also seen as incapable, what is the proper amount a woman should be speaking to convince others she is qualified?

The only constant is that the woman, in both examples, is a woman. Their "errors" are merely rationalizations for societal feelings towards women in charge. And justifying that prejudice with excuses about women’s confidence, or competence, is sexist.

Most troubling is that confidence isn’t even really the answer. Kay and Shipman admit women can be confident—and still get screwed.
Yes, women suffer consequences for their lack of confidence—but when they do behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences, ones that men don’t typically experience.
There are consequences no matter what. So is this sexism yet?
If a woman walks into her boss’s office with unsolicited opinions, speaks up first at meetings, or gives business advice above her pay grade, she risks being disliked or even—let’s be blunt—being labeled a bitch.
Despite a clear understanding of the inconsistent ways people interpret women’s confidence, Kay and Shipman still prescribe having more of it. But given the contradictory research they used, the only thing Kay and Shipman managed to prove is that the rules are always different for women.

Shipman agrees there is “no question” that sexism is an issue. “It’s there. And we really felt we were addressing that. But at the same time, we didn’t want that to be the subject of the book.”

But how can you address sexism without ever using the word sexism?

Even though the language was absent, Shipman believes they effectively tackled sexist attitudes in their book, the Confidence Code. “We weren’t pussyfooting around when we called one chapter dumb ugly bitches,” she said, referencing a nickname for female students at the US Naval Academy. 
The cruel nickname stuck with Kay as well, who confessed she found it “more shocking than the current brand of sexism.” 

But no matter what Kay and Shipman title their chapters, the confidence gap is a symptom of inequality—not an explanation. And that’s where the conversation should begin. They owe it to the women following their “code” here in Washington, and everywhere else, to let them know what they are really up against. Given how well their book has been received, shouldn't they be confident enough to call it sexism by now? 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hard Out Here for Lily Allen

Behind every successful woman, there is an even more successful man. Just ask Lily Allen.

BBC Radio 2 recently afforded the controversial pop star an opportunity to ask the questions, rather than answer them. Yet even during her “trading places” moment with British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, Allen gave the most memorable quotes.  

When Shulman observed most of Allen’s fiercest competitors in the music industry were women, Allen responded, ''You'll also notice, of those big, successful, female artists, there's always a man behind the woman-piece."

She continued to discredit every songstress imaginable by listing their puppet masters; "Whether it's Beyoncé it's Jay Z, if it's Adele it's Paul Hepworth, with me it was Mark Ronson, same with Amy Winehouse."

So there you have it. No matter how accomplished the lady, there is always a gentleman nearby, pulling her strings and facilitating her fame. These cringe-worthy statements came directly after Allen’s ShortList takeover, where she professed her distaste for feminism, and women in general.

While collaborating with the UK’s lifestyle magazine for men, Allen was asked to address double standards affecting women in music. Hinting at some of her more recent lyrics, ShortList suggested Allen was often critical other female artists. Taken aback, Allen explained:
It just dribbled out! It’s not supposed to be provocative and it’s not attacking anyone, although it does namecheck a few people. [like Katy Perry] It’s about how girls are pitted against each other, unlike men. I know you had it in the Nineties with Blur versus Oasis, but it’s not the same thing. It’s like ‘Who looks the best?’, ‘You’re getting too old to do this, you shouldn’t be doing that’. There seems to be a moral undertone when women are concerned that doesn’t happen with men, and that’s what that song is about. Stop this now [laughs]. 
Excellent observations, but Allen continued-- perhaps overcompensating for her previous statements when she set her sights on feminism and its futility:
Feminism. I hate that word because it shouldn’t even be a thing anymore. We’re all equal, everyone is equal so why is there even a conversation about feminism? What’s the man version of feminism? There isn’t even a word for it. There’s no reason for it. Menanism. Male-ism. It doesn’t exist.
Unfortunately, Allen is unaware there certainly are men’s rights activists. It’s just no one takes them seriously. When you’re a member of the dominant group, you cannot be oppressed.

ShortList positioned Allen as some sort of gender authority because she usually has such honest, insightful things to say about women. Even they seemed confused by the contradictory stance she took during her interview: 
The theme of Lily’s ShortList is ‘How To Be A Man, By Women’, which is done in the spirit of improving gender relations. However, she is quick to say, “I’m not an archetypal woman. All my best friends are boys.
Known as a red flag, “all her friends are dudes” is less about preference, and more about self-hatred. Sisterhood is powerful, and if you can’t relate to other women about your shared experiences, that's just sad for you. Also, who will you borrow tampons from? 

Women who don’t trust women aren’t to be trusted. But Allen takes her insults even further, revealing that she is an adult operating like an insecure adolescent:
It’s much the same. But I don’t think men are the enemy, I think women are the enemy. I know that when I’m sitting in a restaurant and a really beautiful woman walks in, who’s skinny, I instinctively think, “Oh she’s really skinny and beautiful and I’m really fat and ugly.” Every man I speak to always says they find that kind of woman gross, and they prefer a bit more meat on their ladies. So it’s more of a competitive thing. It’s weird. It’s just really unhealthy and we’re our own worst enemy. We should stop being so horrible to each other.
Once again, she pledges her allegiance to the mens. But more importantly, why is she mad at that stranger? Is it because you've internalized the idea that all women get out of bed every day to fight for male attention like the hunger games

The worst part is when she admits that only reassurance from her gentlemen companions can restore her inner peace. Their approval is everything. So Allen does not want to be a feminist, and yet her negative body image is a problem for which feminism is the remedy.

We live in a patriarchal society where men’s perspectives are valued over women’s, and their preferences are prioritized as social norms. Those standards affect how we feel about ourselves and, as Allen described, how we interact with others.

Allen’s recent controversies stem from the release of her new album Sheezus. And “Hard Out Here,” was the empowering single announcing her triumphant return. Or at least it was, until she unveiled the accompanying video.

With better words than visuals, it was all sorts of problematic. Even though Allen claimed it was oh-so-unintentional, there was something unsettling about a fully-covered white woman surrounded by scantily clad women of color-- twerking, of course.

And while they twerked, she barely moved, making her "feminist anthem" more like a disappointing example of mindless appropriation. Yes, it IS hard out here for a bitch. But it’s even harder for the back-up dancers you just exploited and objectified. Not very subversive. In fact, mostly just more of the same. 

Allen is not the first seemingly feminist pop star to take an inexplicable stand against feminism. And she certainly won’t be the last.  Her supposed adversary Katy Perry had a similar guffaw, completely unprovoked, when she accepted the Billboard “Woman of the Year Award” in 2012. While distancing herself from the f-word, she assured the audience she did believe in the strength of women.

Even Gwen Stefani, with her timeless battle cry “Just a Girl,” rejected the label in a devastating interview with Bust back in 2007. Sure, this is all kinds of frustrating, but do we really need our pop stars to be well-versed in feminist theory? Should we care if celebrities are feminists?

Yes, and no.

Personally, I’m tired of expending the effort to determine whether or not celebrities are feminists. Seriously, it’s exhausting.

Remember how upset we were when Beyoncé showed up on that Ms. Magazine cover? Who did this “Mrs. Carter” think she was? But then her secret album dropped. And she became a spokesperson for Sheryl Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” campaignNow, she’s our favorite feminist icon, not to mention the patron saint of lady business. Who knew?

Let’s be clear. I don't really care if Lily Allen, Katy Perry, or Beyoncé call themselves feminists. Their identities do not affect my own feminist beliefs. At all. But their declarations do have the ability to influence young girls. And this is where the explicit aversion of public figures to feminism begins to matter. From princesses, to pop stars, to CEOs, role models are important. And girls need them, because you can’t be what you can’t see

Beyond recruitment, and the satisfaction of mainstream validation, there are other benefits to Top 40 representation. Feminism is rooted in academia, perpetuated by individuals fortunate enough to take a gender studies course. But it desperately needs to be more accessible, beyond the ivory tower. Women in pop culture openly identifying as feminists could advance the conversation, making the ideology more inclusive. 

But let’s say the Katy Perrys and Gwen Stefanis of the world continue to throw feminism under the bus. Can art be feminist, without the artist identifying as a feminist? If the piece provokes a “click” moment, unleashing the consumer’s feminist consciousness, must the creator also own the label to certify the authenticity of the recipient's relationship to the work in question?

Writing, painting, music—it’s all subjective. Sure, lyrics might seem to touch on women’s issues, like wanting “to eat spaghetti bolognaise and not feel bad about it for days and days and days.” But even that is open to interpretation.

Pop stars are pop stars because they can sing and dance. Not quote Judith Butler. And it’s terribly limiting to only consume products aligning with your political ideologies. However, I’m growing very tired of celebrities denouncing feminism without really understanding complicated power structures or the world around them.

Every time Allen sings about body image, women's sexuality, and the challenges of being female in the music industry, those are all feminist acts. That being said, there are a few things she should consider before her next interview. So Lily, this last part is just for you.

You see men helping women get ahead? Great. Nobody ever got anywhere completely on their own. When men get help from men, that’s called mentoring. Their connections are seen as assets. Why should the assistance women receive from men discount their accomplishments?

And you hate feminism? Guess what—some days, so do I. But men don’t need their own version because male privilege is real and the odds are already in their favor. Don’t ever say male-ism ever again. Otherwise, they will know you are simple and they will drown you in the river.   

And yes. Women compete with other women. But there is a man in a very larger corner office somewhere, counting the money he earned peddling needful things for the beauty-industrial-complex, and that is a very important concept for you to understand.

And women aren’t born hating other women. That is a learned behavior. If I were you, I would begin seeking lady-friends immediately. When you find the right ones, they will provide you with the most rewarding relationships of your life. Trust me. 

Your subjective experiences are valid. The personal is, in fact, political. And it is most definitely hard out here for a bitch. Because you’re not really supposed to be “out.” Typically, women are confined to the private sphere. Feminism means knowing your actions are meaningful and just walking out the front door is a rebellion.

Never forget that. And never stop singing your truth—no matter what you call yourself.   

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

One is Not Simply Born a Mean Girl

Exactly one month ago, the Daily Mail published a predictable analysis of female behavior titled "Young women use gossip to shun pretty rivals when looking for a sexual partner." And then they explained how women are smart, diverse and complicated, living anything but a monolithic experience. 

Just kidding. 

The anonymous Daily Mail reporter led with the truism, "All's fair in love and war – and women aren’t above using  dirty tricks such as gossip and spreading rumours to get a man, according to research." 

That's right-- research. Thanks to Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa, you might think the movie Mean Girls was re-released as a documentary. 

After studying the way 20-25 year old undergraduates react to a scantily clad peer, Vaillancourt concluded all women use "indirect aggression" to police the sexual behavior of others. This includes laughing, eye-rolling, and statements suggesting their adversary is ugly, slutty, or the well-known hybrid "fugly slut." 

Identifying competitors as unattractive or unchaste is how women limit "the sex." Keeping supply low and demand high, the vag becomes an all-important tool to negotiate with men, and the world makes sense-- according to heteronormativity and traditional gender roles.  

When it comes to clickbait, nothing beats bad science supporting widely-accepted beliefs. This media pastime generates headlines with sweeping generalizations, like poor people are lazy. Or millennials are entitled. Or women are bitchy. 

Once the Daily Mail struck familiar narrative gold, the appropriate reaction came from an unlikely place. Controversial new addition Bustle delivered the sharp wit and logical arguments one might expect from, well, any other feminist blog. 

Premiering as a laughable institution of mansplaining, Bustle's ability to identify and dismantle patriarchy came as a pleasant surprise. Elizabeth Brown not only questioned the data, but evolutionary psychology as a whole, with a heavy dose of sarcasm:
And if women are being nasty to other women, it must ultimately relate to the deep and almighty quest to keep them from stealing the sperm we have an eye on. Everything in ev-psych basically comes down to women's quest to get pregnant and then keep a mate, and men's desire to spread their seed far and wide.
Brown argued the women in this study were set up to react a certain way. Vaillancourt crafted her experiment to yield the results she desired. But more importantly, the Daily Mail failed to mention opposing viewpoints, which were readily available. 

Other evolutionary scientists believe adult men and women use equal amounts of indirect aggression, especially at work, or anywhere it's unacceptable to be confrontational. And with that, the study was dismissed as nonsense rooted in ridiculous sexist stereotypes. 

Just kidding. 

Last week, the Atlantic expanded these ideas in "The Evolution of Bitchiness," with more input from additional scientists. Olga Khazan even used a source Brown suggested. Unfortunately, Khazan misinterpreted the research, weaving a tale that merely supported her seductive headline. 

Contrary to Vaillancourt's methods, a psychologist at Durham University carefully considered the affects of both evolution and culture on women's intrasexual aggression. Dr. Anne Campbell's conclusion stated that patriarchal cultures treats women's aggression as unnatural, even pathologizing it, and societal constraints drive women to participate in indirect aggression instead.   

So "bitchiness" isn't really evolving, it's being socialized. And it isn't reserved for matters of the heart. But Khazan dismisses Campbell's cultural arguments, keeping her story rooted in essentialism.

Even after talking with an anthropologist from the University of Notre Dame, she remains unmoved. Despite Dr. Agustin Fuentes' insistence that slut-shaming is a social construct, and men gossip too, Khazan still ends the piece "Human nature is a bitch," re-committing to her theme. 

The next day, the Week picked up where the Atlantic left off-- offering one important reality check. Until data proves indirect aggression can successfully eliminate the competition, we cannot call it an adaptive trait. And that means it's not really evolution.

Still, Emily Shire built "The evolutionary roots of Mean Girls" around (you guessed it) the movie Mean Girls. But the pop culture reference doesn't exactly parallel Vaillancourt's evolutionary study.

While scientists said women attack each other's fidelity and appearances, this isn't how Regina George thwarted Cady's budding relationship with Aaron Samuels. By exaggerating Cady's amorous feelings, Regina painted Cady as a weirdo, and Aaron ran right back into Regina's arms.

Secondly, the movie's "bitchy" circumstances were not always sexual. The entire Burn Book was devoted to classmates admittedly weaker than the plastics. Cady even "burned" Ms. Norbury, a teacher who gave her a bad grade. These young women employed indirect aggression in every conflict, usually as a way to reassert their power.

Lastly, for all the direct comparisons to  Mean Girlsit seems the media forgot the premise of the cult classic. Living in Africa and being home-schooled did not prepare Cady for "girl world." She's unfamiliar with the rules, because talking shit and spreading rumors to achieve desired results is a learned behavior. If evolution had anything to do with it, we would all be quoting a very different movie.

Despite the many holes in Vaillancourt's theory, this never-ending story managed to stay relevant one more week, which says more about our fascination with gender-specific behavior than its actual newsworthiness.

On Monday, Businessweek asked "Why are women so 'bitchy' to each other?" while describing this skewed science as somehow empowering.

After quoting Vaillancourt's belief that her work is forcing the scientific community to take women's evolutionary traits seriously, Claire Suddath warned women that bad-talking each other will only get you enemies, not boyfriends. Yet another assertion that women's brains will forever function like teenage girls, because biology.

Supposedly, we're born this way. But bitch, bitchy and bitching are all gendered words. Openly ascribing them to the behavior society demands of women reveals more about the evolution of our culture than the women who live in it.

Unfortunately, when women's disagreements are "cat fights" and the tumultuous relationships of real housewives are "typical," those messages are internalized. Women end up believing all women act this way-- even themselves.

This distorted reality might lead a woman scientist to unknowingly manipulate her own study of other women's behavior. And this self-fulfilling prophecy might encourage women journalists to present those findings as the truth.

Unless they work at Bustle, where evolutionary bitchiness is so last month.  

Friday, October 25, 2013

Naughty Leopards, Sexy Vaginas, and Frog

Photo by Richard
A wise woman once said "Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it."

And while October nights don't seem conducive to bare skin, most women will end up scantily clad and disappointingly cliche this season.

Sexy costumes can be fun, flattering and even clever. Unfortunately, the option to dress slutty has become more like the rule.

Earlier this fall, Wal-Mart pulled a controversial costume off its shelves. Intended for toddlers, the "naughty leopard" was deemed too suggestive because of sexual connotations surrounding the language.

But this was no isolated incident. Girls of all ages are sold sexy costumes everywhere. For instance, can anyone really tell the difference between this child-sized police officer and this adult police officer? It's certainly not the amount of material used to make their uniforms.

For mothers, it can be a real struggle keeping daughters from products marketed with problematic messages about sexuality and gender.

When one mom decided to dress her daughter as several iconic women, the photoshoot quickly became an internet sensation. Her project now serves as a template, inspiring young girls (and their parents) to reject consumerism and come up with their own meaningful costume ideas.

While stores offer trick-or-treaters "naughty leopards," Amelia Earhart is a refreshing change of pace.

But that little leopard costume cut to the heart of a much bigger issue. Sexy or not, Halloween costumes for women are dumb. The ears were the only indication, amid a corset and tutu, that the "naughty leopard" was a leopard at all. And what about those lady cops? How can they serve and protect in skirts and knee high boots?

Women know, no matter what generic thing they're trying to be, the attire is short and tight, paired with stockings and heels.

But more creative websites like Take Back Halloween and the Feminist Halloween tumblr are trying to change those expectations. Both encourage women to think outside the clear packaging containing a predictable sexy nurse, sexy maid, or sexy referee. And as they take on misogyny, they're also addressing racism, because ethnocentric costumes, like Geisha, Eskimo, and Indian Princess, are sold every year.

What's worse-- people actually wear them.

These caricatures are beyond insulting. They're dehumanizing. Relying on stereotypes to inspire costumes is wrong. Mocking the identities of people corporations choose to label the "other" should not be a widely-accepted Halloween tradition.

Maya Behn, a teenage girl wanting more from the polyester providers, petitioned Party City asking for better costumes. Focusing on super heroes, she explained why women's choices were insufficient:
While men get to actually don the character's uniform, women wear dresses with character icons on them. There's no reason why women can't wear Batman's uniform with the pants. In addition, a glance at the 'women's careers' section makes it clear the only job for a woman is a prostitute. 
What a novel idea. As a consumer, let the supplier know your demands. Yes, some girls will always want to be slutty. And that's okay. But other girls want to be funny, or even frightening.

For those who remember the Mean Girls quote, Cady had an incredible costume. She was a zombie bride, otherwise known as an ex-wife, who had everyone asking, "Why are you dressed so scary?"

The Halloween-industrial-complex has replaced scary with sexy, and it's ridiculous. We've ruined a perfectly good holiday reserved for ghosts and goblins with cleavage and crotch shots.

But we've also determined that public displays of sexiness are only acceptable once a year, much the way stuffing one's face is only excusable on Thanksgiving.

Sexy isn't something you pretend to be. It's something you are and own.

You express it as an individual, all year long. It doesn't have to be extreme. It doesn't have to meet anyone else's standards. And it doesn't merit slut-shaming or sexual assault when displayed after October 31st.

But the real confusion lies in contradictions surrounding "sexy" costumes that aren't really sexy-- which is why no one ever forgets this video, or sexy mustard.

As indicated by the Girls's Costume Warehouse, when we examine a large sample of women's costumes, they range from nonsensical to insane. And they only seem to be getting worse.

No one knows this better than Daily Show senior women's issues correspondent Kristen Schaal, who took Halloween for ladies to the next level. She introduced the ultimate costume, the sexy vagina, and something tells me we're gonna be seeing a whole lot of those. Which is great, because isn't walking, talking genitalia what we were alluding to all along?

So this year, try something new. Be sexy mustard. Or frog. Be whatever you want. Just avoid purchasing something in a plastic bag, because it's probably unimaginative and offensive. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

International Day of the Girl

I think we can all agree, this year's official girl is Malala Yousafzai.

Watch this interview. Read her book. Donate to the Malala Fund.
And never take school for granted again. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Repo Rights: Sluts, Whores, and Bullies

You don't have to have sex to be called a slut or a whore. Any girl who survived middle school can tell you that. But bullies rarely consider accuracy before they resort to name-calling.

According to many conservatives, women who have abortions are sluts and whores. And women who support access to abortion are sluts and whores. Regardless of their sexual activity. 

Additionally, women who use birth control are sluts and whores. And women who support access to birth control are sluts and whores. 

Do we see a pattern? Women who believe they have the right to control their bodies and reproduction are intimidated with insults usually reserved for bathroom stalls. What used to be a predictable, not to mention hurtful and damaging part of socialization is now very political.  

In Texas, a 14-year-old girl was called a whore for the sign she held outside the state Capitol advocating for abortion. It said"Jesus isn't a dick so keep him out of my vagina."

After watching the epic Wendy Davis filibuster, this teenager was inspired to exercise her first amendment rights. Determined to keep church and state separate, she created a sign expressing her opinion.

Taking turns holding the masterpiece, she and a friend were exposed to counter-protesters so offensive police had to step in. But the real backlash came from the internet
One person said that my parents should be arrested for child abuse and in another unbelievable comment, someone suggested that my dad must invite all my friends over to "play abortion clinic."
Her father remains supportive, defending his daughter and her rights. Luckily, she has a strong role model, and a nation full of allies, while she doesn't "look up to anyone who says they are Christian but treats women the way I've been treated these past few days as a teenage girl."

Some bullies hide behind the anonymity of screen names. Others have turned public-shaming into a profitable career. But professional bully Rush Limbaugh, may finally be silenced-- or at least contained. 

Limbaugh has been losing sponsors since he called Sandra Fluke a slut. When the Georgetown law student argued birth control should be covered by health insurance, Limbaugh insisted Fluke was having so much sex, she couldn't afford birth control and that taxpayers should get to watch her have sex, if they were expected to foot the bill. 

His outrageous statements indicated how little he understood about women's health. And sponsors who knew better began to pull out

This week, Politico reported Cumulus will not renew its contract with Limbaugh. Following this story since May, the blog revealed
The host was considering ending his affiliation agreement with Cumulus because CEO Lew Dickey was blaming the company's advertising losses on Limbaugh's controversial remarks about Sandra Fluke... On an earnings call two days later, Dickey reported a $2.4 million first-quarter decline in revenue related to talk programming, which he attributed, indirectly, to Limbaugh's remarks about Fluke. 
While the satellite radio provider is ready to break ties, Cumulus affiliate Clear Channel will remain Limbaugh's conservative soapbox. But this broadcast company is currently under fire after refusing to air commercials for the South Wind Women's Center (SWWC) in Wichita, Kansas. 

Many have commented on the irony. Somehow, a media outlet supporting offensive opinion-leaders like Limbaugh found it "indecent" to say the SWWC is "committed to providing quality reproductive healthcare" or that the medical facility "trusts women to make the best decisions for themselves and their families."

Maybe the words "reproductive" and "women" have finally become synonymous with "slut" and "whore," making them unfit for the airwaves. Or maybe Clear Channel is simply opposed to women making their own decisions. 

Another form of bullying is silencing your target, with force or manipulation. The feminist group Women, Action, and the Media (WAM) recognized this immediately, and responded. 

"Women’s health care is never indecent, and everyone has the right to know where they can get medical care," WAM said. They are encouraging people to sign the SWWC petition and contact Clear Channel's general manager to reverse the decision.

The company hasn't been swayed yet. And from radio stations that suppress the truth, to hosts that spread lies, to listeners who take their hate to the streets, they're all a bunch of bullies.  

The way bullies attack other people usually says more about their own shortcomings. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't stand up to them. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Opposite of Entitlement

It's hard to imagine Questlove could go unrecognized anywhere. The very tall, very brilliant musician has one of the most famous afros regularly appearing on late night television. 

Known as a member of the Roots, Jimmy Fallon's bandleader, and now an author, the beloved celebrity in anything but threatening. However, a recent editorial proved even an  outspoken social advocate, and talented drummer, can still be reduced to a mere stereotype. 

In response to George Zimmerman's acquittal,  Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson wrote a Facebook post describing what he calls a "pie-in-the-face" moment. Re-published by New York Magazine, the most-viewed story hurts much worse than being struck with an unexpected dessert. 

Thompson begins by explaining how he purposely avoids places. He rejects invitations, not because he is averse to parties, but because he anticipates party-goers being averse to him. 

"I'd say 'no,' mostly because it's been hammered in my DNA to not 'rock the boat,' which means not making 'certain people' feel uncomfortable," he said. 

Certain people are white people. And mostly white women, as we soon find out. Seem ridiculous? Thompson thought so too.

"I mean, that is a crazy way to live. Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people's safety and comfort first, before your own. You're programmed and taught that from the gate. It's like the opposite of entitlement," he said. 

The opposite of entitlement is oppression. It's feeling like you don't belong, standing out in a way you never wanted; policing your actions, limiting your movements, and inevitably just staying home.  

When we discuss women and violence, we often talk about appearance, instructing them not to look like victims. But what about the other side? What if you look like a bad guy? What if your physical characteristics match what most people see when they imagine a criminal?

Women strive to appear alert and uninviting. Meanwhile, there are men walking slower, smiling more, or just removing themselves from public space so they don't seem to be targeting women. 

"My friends know that I hate parking lots and elevators, not because they are places that danger could occur, but it's a prime place in which someone of my physical size can be seen as a dangerous element. I wait and wait in cars until I feel it's safe for me to make people feel safe," he said. 

While at first this is the good-natured consideration many would expect from the man known as Questlove, his self-conscious thoughts are actually heart-breaking. While women clutch their keys, trying to look tough, this man is trying his hardest to look approachable.

Surely, Thompson can let his guard down somewhere. But his story suggests no such place exists. 

In his own building, where he eats, sleeps and pays the rent, he encountered a woman in the elevator. As a formality, he asked her "which floor"-- and she ignored him. He assumed, by her silence, she was headed his way. So when the doors opened, he said "ladies first." But she didn't get off. It wasn't her floor. She kept quiet because she was afraid of him. 

This fear is all too common-- and it has turned us into assholes. As Jessica Valenti wrote for the Nation, the Zimmerman trial was framed less as a man senselessly murdering a child, and more as a hero protecting white womanhood. 

"Yes, white women-- all of us-- are taught to fear men of color. We need to own that truth, own that shameful fear. Most importantly, we need to name it for what it is: deeply held and constantly enforced racism," Valenti said. 

Amanda Marcotte expanded on this at Slate, explaining how an all-woman jury, who many assumed would follow their maternal instincts, fell back on fear and let Zimmerman go free. 

"This myth that the world. is full of scary people who are out to get you white ladies works. Plenty of white women are so worried about the imaginary threats lurking outside their door that they don't pay any mind to the real problems that threaten us: economic inequality and lack of health care access," Marcotte said. 

No one on that jury saw Martin as a boy. By high school, he was already perceived as dangerous. From AlternetDeborah Small wondered at what age black men become a threat. 
Fearful for her grandson, a toddler who says "hello" to everyone, Small described most people as receptive, but knows it won't last forever.  

"Right now when people see him they see a cute, well-dressed little boy with a winning smile and engaging personality, his blackness is a matter of minimal significance. Unfortunately, I know at some point that will change," Small said. She's already preparing "for the day he walks up and says hello to someone and they look away in fear." 

Thompson is familiar with this reaction. As an adult, it happens all the time. It happened that day in the elevator.   

"Inside I cried. But if I cried at every insensitive act that goes on in the name of safety, I'd have to be committed to a psych ward," he said. 

Beyond the sadness, this "pie-in-the-face" is a teachable moment. It's the ultimate walk in someone else's shoes. Thompson's internal monologue following the incident sounded like this:

Those that know you know that you're cool, but you definitely know that you are a walking rape nightmare — right, Ahmir? Of course she was justified in not saying her floor. That was her prerogative! You are kinda scary-looking, I guess?
His piece is titled "Trayvon Martin and I Ain't Shit." Thompson concludes that when you look like him, you're a criminal, or nothing. And after so many years of either being closely watched or completely ignored, he's beginning to feel sub-human.  

It's time to check ourselves. Valenti and Marcotte invited white women to examine how they feel about black men-- and why. For anyone interested in doing the same, Thompson's piece is an excellent place to start. This discourse is necessary if we're ever going to co-exist in elevators-- or anywhere else.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Your Chance to See Girl Rising this Weekend

In the inspirational documentary Girl Rising, nine different girls from nine different countries share one dream; to go to school.

Each girl was paired with a writer from her country, to help tell her story. Then, the voices of celebrities like Meryl Streep, Selena Gomez, and Kerry Washington, bring these stories to life.

But the true stars are the girls, as they overcome adversity and pursue their education. As we learn in the film, "educating a girl is one of the highest returning investments in the developing world."

CNN International is airing the film this weekend. You don't want to miss it.

Magnetic and resilient Wadley lives in Haiti; her world decimated by the earthquake. Her mother has no money to send her to school. Knowing she hasn't paid her dues, she bravely takes a seat in a makeshift classroom, and tells her teacher "even if you send me away, I will come back every day, until I can stay."

Being a student improves the status, health, and safety of girls. Otherwise, they can end up enslaved, performing domestic work, raising children, or even lost to sex trafficking. The less educated the girl, the bleaker her future.

Finding comfort in song, Suma sings of her experiences in Nepal. Too poor to afford a daughter, her family "bonded" her at age of six. Even though kamlari, a form of slavery, was outlawed in 2000, it remains a prevalent reality. Suma was freed by a social worker, and now that she understands the law, she is pursuing justice for the many girls imprisoned all around her.

While sending girls to school is a human rights issue, many of the film's arguments are framed in health or economic policy. Others simply remind us what the alternative could be.

150 million girls have already experienced sexual violence, Half of them, like Yasmin, are under 15. In Egypt, with no access to school, she belongs to the streets. Just 13 years old, she is already a rape survivor. Yet she considers herself a super hero. And once you hear her story, so will you.

As mothers struggle to protect their daughters, marriage is considered a way to keep them safe. 13 girls are married every 30 seconds around the world. Azmera comes from Ethiopia, a country of "split girls." Her mother thought marriage would protect her from this fate. Her brother, knowing better, helped Azmera refuse the proposal of a much older man. Now she attends school. But others are not always so lucky.

Many cultures prioritize boys, when they are forced to choose between educating their daughters and sons. As a result, there are 33 million fewer girls in school than boys.

Yet, there are parents determined to give their daughters a chance. Ruksana, featured in the video above, is from India. She lives with her family in a tent city, far away from her village, so she can have an opportunity to learn-- and draw. If India increased the amount of girls in school by just one percent, the country's GDP would rise by billions.

Poverty is frequently the greatest obstacle standing in a girl's way. Senna comes from Peru.While she lives in a community of poor gold miners digging for other people's riches, she uses poetry to persevere. Mariana works for her school's radio station in Sierra Leone; the land of the blood diamond. In a war-torn country determined to rebuild, Mariana dreams of rising to stardom and hosting her own talk show.

However, some girls have no dreams left. Amina's heartbreaking story comes from Afghanistan. She is "a girl masked and muted," hidden beneath a burqa. In a notoriously patriarchal culture, she was considered "unworthy of record."

Married to a cousin at the age of 11, her dowry was used to buy her brother a used car, she describes her body as a resource. Shortly after her wedding, Amina became a mother. She survived, but the number one cause of death for girls ages 15 to 18 is childbirth.

While the film is unapologetically shot through a Western lens, and seemingly puts words in the mouths of the girls they follow, it's still an excellent place to start a necessary conversation. Palatable for all ages, it's an excellent way to introduce young people to global issues.

Girl Rising was created by 10x10, a global campaign for girls' education. They are spreading the message that educating girls can reduce poverty, child mortality, population growth and HIV infections, as well as curbing terrorism and corruption. One seemingly small act can have a huge and lasting impact. Sending a girl to school can increase the well-being of her family, her community, and her country.

Donations to the 10x10 fund are distributed to non-profit partners, including CARE USA, World Vision, United Nations Foundation/Girl Up, and several others working to improve the lives of girls.

If you'd like to watch the film in a theater, you can request a screening of Girl Rising where you live. Otherwise, you can see it on CNN International tomorrow, just before they release the follow-up documentary, A Girl's World, next week.