Tag Archives: gender: feminism/activism

Feminist Options in Vag Magazine

Recently while reading the feminist magazine Bitch, I came across an interview with Leila Cohan-Miccio and Caitlin Tegart, creators of the web series Vag Magazine. The series focuses on three women who buy a fashion magazine and recreate it as a feminist magazine, a la Bitch or Bust. The young women, Bethany, Fennel, and Sylvie, are stereotypical third-wave feminists. The series pokes fun at them specifically and third-wave feminism in general, highlighting the differences between a vision of feminism as empowering women as a group (Meghan, the “normal” character used to ground the viewer, defines feminism as the idea that men and women should be equal) and the idea that empowerment means individual women are free to do “whatever they want” and “have fun”:

The series reveals some of the limitations of “catch-phrase feminism” (to use a term from Brittany Shoot’s Bitch article). These catchphrases echo throughout American culture: “You go girl!” “It’s about choice!” Vag Magazine’s theme song informs the audience, “A girl is a girl, because she is power. Power is power because it’s a girl.” Another prominent pop culture feminist, Lisa Simpson, sums up this vision of feminism: “Well, as a feminist, virtually anything a woman does is empowering” (“The Blue and the Gray,” originally aired February 13, 2011). A viewpoint like this is inclusive, but can also shut down meaningful conversation. For example, the young women have trouble getting anything done (Fennel hires an intern because “We don’t believe in hierarchies, but we also don’t have time to get our own coffee.”) In another instance, Bethany, Fennel, and Sylvie tell Meghan that the skirts she wants to write about aren’t feminist enough, but are unable to clearly articulate what a feminist skirt would be.

Third-wave feminism is sometimes viewed with disdain because it can seem empty: if any choice a woman makes can be construed as feminist, then perhaps no act can be truly called feminist. At the same time, third-wave feminists can be more inclusive than previous generations: stay-at-home moms, working mothers, sex workers, and scientists are all embraced. However, there can be less of an emphasis on organizing and fighting for equality (though recent efforts to support Planned Parenthood and organize Slut Walks shows that third-wave feminists are interested in more than mere slogans).

Various episodes also address the available media options for those looking for a feminist perspective. The main rival to Vag Magazine is Cunt, a magazine staffed by more stereotypically aggressive feminists. The series shows how often women can feel like they are stuck with only two images of feminism: New Age-y “I honor you as a woman” feminists who seem spacey and ineffectual, or the stereotype of the radical man-hater. Episode 4, “Feminist Sweepstakes,” delves into this dichotomy . The episode starts with Fennel wanting to read her poem; she is asked to wait until the designated poetry hour; these women feel so much that they must have an entire poetry hour. Later, the audience is introduced to Jaybird, the editor of Cunt. Jaybird and her followers wear leather vests and jeans, which contrasts with the dresses, pastel colors, and feathers favored by the Vag staff. Only Meghan, the audience stand-in, gets to be “normal” – that is, reasonable.  During the two magazines’ confrontation, Jaybird yells and talks about the patriarchy; Bethany and Fennel use poetry and talk about honoring Cunt’s place. Meghan is the only one who can speak clearly and without rhetoric, transcending common feminist stereotypes, doing so by being clever and critical.

But Vag Magazine is not about putting women down or just laughing at them or feminism. Indeed, there is a lot of love in this series, and a lot to celebrate. The cast is all-female, and all funny. The women are able to buy the magazine thanks to their efforts at selling crafts on Etsy.  They do publish an issue of their magazine: they are, ultimately, successful. Indeed, the women of Vag Magazine act out the inner turmoil about how to present themselves as feminists to the world. The series humorously highlights the bind modern feminists often find themselves in: how to be inclusive without embracing everything, how to be forthright and challenging of inequality but not bullying.

The rest of the series is after the jump. (more…)

Muslim Women and their White Saviors

Recently at Feministing, Maya Dusenbery wrote about an ad from Germany’s International Human Rights campaign that, as she put it, is “a lesson in how not to advocate for women’s rights.”

The translation of the text is “Oppressed women are easily overlooked. Please support us in the fight for their rights.”

As Dusenbery writes,

It seems the folks who created this ad not only have a hard time seeing agency but actually went out of their way to erase it as thoroughly as possible and then stomp on it some more. And then equated women who wear the burqa with bags of trash. Literally.

I completely agree, and would like to add some broader context.  This is not at all surprising, given the recent of attempts in the West to obscure the agency of Muslim women in juxtaposition to their white, Western saviors. One of the more blatant examples of this was the discourse of the United States government that it was going to war in Afghanistan in part to save Afghan women from the Taliban. Laura Shepherd argued in an excellent 2006 article in The International Feminist Journal of Politics (which I’vecited before) that the US discursively constructed Afghan women as the “Helpless Victim” that was submissive and lacking agency, under the oppressive control of the “Irrational Barbarian.” This discourse, was used, of course, to posit the United States (specifically, its military) as the saviors who could rectify the situation for these women. Much as the agency of the women in the German PSA was erased, this narrative denied the agency of Afghan women, who, as Shepherd writes, are afforded “only pity and a certain voyeuristic attraction” (p. 20).

Of course, this specific discourse hasn’t ended. As this TIME Magazine cover from last year shows, it continues to serve as a means of justifying the US occupation of Afghanistan.

(Cover to the August 9, 2010 edition of TIME)

This discourse assumes, obviously, that the US presence in Afghanistan is a clear benefit for women in the country, a position at least some women’s organizations in Afghanistan contest. Samhita Mukhopadhyay at Feministing had an excellent post on this issue last summer.

I should also mention France’s recently-instituted ban on the full-faced veil, which Dusenbery argues – citing Jos Truitt – is a similar erasure of agency. I agree with her, and again would add that this fits in with this general (Orientalist) discourse about Muslim women, their uncivilized oppressors, and their White saviors.


John McMahon is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where he also participates in the Women’s Studies Certificate Program.  He is interested in post-structuralism, issues relating to men and feminism, gendered practices in international relations, gender and political theory, and questions of American state identity.  John blogs at Facile Gestures, where this post originally appeared.

See also our post in which we criticize a set of public service ads that compared women the genital cutting to blow up sex dolls.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Resistance, Language, and the Toronto SlutWalk

Christine sent us a link to some fabulous photos coming out of Toronto. In January a member of the Toronto Police force, Const. Michael Sanguinetti, suggested to students at York University that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized” (source).  In response, SlutWalk was born.  The SlutWalk, which strode just yesterday, was a march designed to draw attention to the way in which the term “slut” is used to stigmatize and invalidate women.

As Leora Tanenbaum argues in Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, the term is used to control all women, not just women who want to have sex, because it can be applied to girls and women regardless of their sexual activity (as any virgin with a slut reputation can tell you).  Young girls grow up using, and fearing, the slut label.  And that label continues to be used against them as adults, even when it comes to sexual assault, as the police officer’s comment makes clear.

In an effort to bring attention to word and  its use as a mechanism of control girls, women and men of all sexual activity levels came together on Sunday, re-claiming and diffusing the “slut” label.  Images from the Vancouver Sun:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Is True Grit’s Mattie Ross NOT a Feminist Character?

In the six-and-a-half minute video below, Feminist Frequency‘s Anita Sarkeesian makes the controversial argument that True Grit‘s Mattie Ross is not a feminist character.  Her argument revolves around an important distinction: the difference between admiring women for doing masculinity and admiring them.

Our instinct to see Ross as a feminist character comes from her performance of masculinity: she is aggressive, tough, and vengeful.  But is the valuing of masculinity feminist?  Some say no.  Instead, such detractors might argue, a true feminist perspective involves not just valorizing women who do masculinity, but coming to value femininity.  In fact, valuing masculinity over femininity might be part of the problem.  On this blog, we call this “androcentrism.”

Here’s how Sarkeesian makes the argument:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

2011 International Women’s Day Round-Up Post

As a number of readers emailed us to point out, yesterday was International Women’s Day, designed to highlight both women’s accomplishments and the persistence of gender inequality worldwide. Ben Buursma noticed an ad in an Indonesian newspaper celebrating International Women’s Day and marketing “Books to empower all women,” though it turns out what they empower women to do is “look into the minds of men” and “find, keep, and understand a man”:

Emma M. H. sent in a link to the the White House Council on Women and Girls report on the status and well-being of U.S. women on a variety of social indicators. Interestingly, while both men and women are waiting longer to get married, the gender gap in age at first marriage has remained relatively constant for decades:

Men are more likely to be either married and never-married, while women currently more likely than men to be divorced or widowed:

Over time, the percent of women who have never given birth has gone up, particularly for the 25-29 age group, though in the last decade there has been a slight downward trend for women aged 30-44:

One note about that graph: the report uses the phrase “had a child” and “childbearing,” so I think this data would include women who have adopted children but never given birth.

I was surprised to see that rates of Cesarean sections have gone up in the past decade:

Women are now outperforming men in terms of educational attainment, earning the majority of bachelor’s degrees, though notice the number of degrees in engineering/computer science earned by women hasn’t increased since 1998:

However, women still make less than men at each level of educational attainment:

The report has lots more data on family life, work, education, health, crime, and so on. I’ll post on other topics in the future.

Finally, Ben N., Kay C., Gregory S., and Dave Z. all sent in this video starring Daniel Craig that highlights global gender inequality (though unfortunately I can’t find any reference that provides sources for the statistics in the video, so take it for what it’s worth):

Facets of the Women’s Suffrage Movement

The décor in my childhood home was unusual. Interspersed with photographs of my sister and me were vintage political posters, inherited from my late grandparents. The most startling of these were the posters promoting women’s right to vote: as I grew up, I realized that the viewpoints they depicted contrasted starkly with the narrative of women’s suffrage that I had learned in my history classes.

This poster supports women’s right to vote not by asserting their equality with men, but by appealing to their ability to bear children:

By contrast, this poster actively highlights woman’s ability to contribute to society beyond stereotypically female roles: women were not only nurses and mothers, but doctors and mayors. Yet at the same time, the image disparages the mentally and physically ill by painting men with these conditions as inherently lesser.

Lastly, a picture that speaks for itself.  Women should have suffrage, says the poster, but they must always remember where they truly belong.

Although the right to vote politically empowered the women of Western society, many of the proponents of the women’s suffrage movement espoused ideologies that would not be considered feminist or politically correct today. My history classes dwelt only briefly on these unpalatable schools of rhetoric, but the images in my home allowed me to glimpse a debate that was just as complex and fragmented as the political disputes we face today.


Alison Marqusee is a high school senior from Massachusetts.  In addition to sociology, her interests include linguistics, psychology, and physics.  She looks forward to attending Haverford College.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Women’s Media Visiblity in Egypt’s Protests


Coverage of the Egyptian protests this week disproportionately interviewed and photographed male protestors, occasionally using the terms “Egyptian men” and “protestors” interchangeably (excellent example here).  What images we did receive of women depicted them as separate from the demonstrations if not dependent on male guardianship.  The paucity of images or stories about women activists excludes them from the national uprising and silences their protests.

The caption is this example caption reads ” A woman crosses a street as demonstrators flee from tear gas in Suez, on Jan. 27″ (Foreign Policy):

Outside of the mainstream media a widely circulated photo album, available to anyone with Facebook, collected over a hundred pictures of Egyptian women demonstrating. Curation of this album during the internet blackout, when nearly all images were filtered through the media, serves as a testament to the value of diaspora and transnational networks.  Additionally, placing these images side by side becomes a powerful counter to women’s media invisibility and highlights diversity of backgrounds, opinions, and forms of protest undertaken by Egyptian women.

It might be worth nothing that we’re seeing more stories about women since a You Tube video (below) of a woman calling for people to join her in protest on January 25th caught the attention of the media.  Namely this excellent NPR story and an AFP article.  Lastly, anyone interested in social media should visit this Facebook group.


April Crewson is completing her masters in Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Myth-Making and the “We Can Do It!” Poster

A polished version of this post was published in Contexts. You can download it here.

Most of our readers are probably familiar  with the now-iconic “We Can Do It!” poster associated with Rosie the Riveter and the movement of women into the paid industrial workforce during World War II:

It is, by this point, so recognizable that it is often parodied or appropriated for a variety of uses (including selling household cleaners). The image is widely seen as a symbol of women’s empowerment and a sign of major gender transformations that occurred during the 1940s.

In their article, “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster,” James Kimble and Lester Olson argue that our current interpretations of the poster don’t necessarily align with how it was seen at the time.

While the poster is often described as a government recruiting item (Kimble and Olson give many examples in the article of inaccurate attributions from a variety of sources), it was, in fact, created by J. Howard Miller as part of a series of posters for the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company — the Westinghouse logo is clearly visible just under the woman’s arm, and the badge on her shirt collar is the badge employees wore on the plant floor, including an employee number. The War Production Co-ordinating Committee was an internal Westinghouse committee, similar to those created by many companies during the war, not a government entity.

The assumption of current viewers of the image is usually that it was meant to recruit women into the workforce, or to rally women in general — an early example of girl power marketing, if you will — and was widely displayed. But the audience was actually only Westinghouse employees. The company commissioned artists to create posters to be hung in Westinghouse plants for specific periods of time; this poster specifically says, “Post Feb. 15 to Feb. 28″ [1943] in small font on the lower left. There’s no evidence that it was ever made available to the public more broadly. For that matter, the poster doesn’t identify her as “Rosie,” and it’s not clear that at the time she would have been immediately identifiable to viewers as “Rosie the Riveter”.

The image that was more widely seen, and is often conflated with the “We Can Do It!” poster, was Norman Rockwell’s May 29, 1943, cover for the Saturday Evening Post:

Here, the woman is clearly linked to the idea of Rosie the Riveter, through both the name on her lunchbox and the  equipment she’s holding. She is more muscular than the woman in Miller’s poster, she’s dirty, and her foot is standing on a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Rockwell’s image presents the woman as a vital part of the war effort; her work helps defeat the Nazis. The image also includes fewer details to make her look conventionally attractive than Miller’s, where the woman has emphasized eyelashes and visibly painted fingernail.

Most interestingly, Kimble and Olson question the female empowerment message presumed to be the point of the “We Can Do It!” poster. We see the poster on its own, through the lens of a narrative about World War II in which housewives left the kitchen in droves to work in factories. But Westinghouse workers would have seen it in a different context, as one of a series of posters displayed in the plant, with similar imagery and text. When seen as just one in a series, rather than a unique image, Kimble and Olson argue that the collective “we” in “We can do it!” wouldn’t have been women, but Westinghouse employees, who were used to seeing such statements posted in employee-access-only areas of the plant.

Of course, having a woman represent a default factory employee is noteworthy. But our reading of the poster as a feminist emblem partially rests on the idea that this female worker is calling out encouragement to other women. The authors, however, point out a much less empowering interpretation if you think of the poster not in terms of feminism, but in terms of social class and labor relations:

…Westinghouse used “We Can Do It!” and Miller’s other posters to encourage women’s cooperation with the company’s relatively conservative concerns and values at a time when both labor organizing and communism were becoming active controversies for many workers… (p. 537)

…by addressing workers as “we,” the pronoun obfuscated sharp controversies within labor over communism, red-baiting, discrimination, and other heartfelt sources of divisiveness. (p. 550)

One of the major functions of corporate war committees was to manage labor and discourage any type of labor disputes that might disrupt production. From this perspective, images of happy workers expressing support for the war effort and/or workers’ abilities served as propaganda that encouraged workers to identify with one another and management as a team; “patriotism could be invoked to circumvent strikes and characterize workers’ unrest as un-American” (p. 562).

And, as Kimble and Olson illustrate, most of Miller’s posters included no women at all, and when they did, emphasized conventional femininity and the domestic sphere (such as a heavily made-up woman waving to her husband as he left for work).

Of course, today the “We Can Do It!” poster is seen as a feminist icon, adorning coffee cups, t-shirts, calendars, and refrigerator magnets (I have one). Kimble and Olson don’t explain when and how this shift occurred — when the image went from an obscure piece of corporate war-time propaganda, similar to many others, to a widely-recognized pop cultural image of female empowerment. But they make a convincing argument that our current perceptions of the image involve a significant amount of historical myth-making that helps to obscure the discrimination and opposition many women faced in the paid workforce even during the height of the war effort.

[The article appears in Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9(4): 533-570, 2006.]

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.