SomeMenA book should never be treated as a statement of some final Truth. Instead, a book is best put to use as moment of condensed insight that focuses and clarifies ongoing conversations. Still, when you are the author of a book, and engaging in such public conversations, you sometimes learn things in the give-and-take that you wish you had known while writing. This has been so in my recent talks with groups of feminist academics and antiviolence activists about Some men: Feminist allies and the movement to end violence against women, my recent book with Max Greenberg and Tal Peretz.

In my presentations, I outline a central story in Some Men: Inspired by the women’s movement, the field of men’s anti-violence work was constituted in the late-1970s primarily by white men (many of them Jewish), whose work with boys and men was limited by their white and middle class origins. As anti-violence work became increasingly institutionalized in the 1990s and beyond, women activists welcomed men’s growing participation, but the growing visibility of men in the field risked eclipsing feminism, and rendering women less visible. On the other hand, the field was expanding to include more men of color, in part due to a public focus on targeting anti-violence programming to “at-risk youth” (often code for boys of color). The young men of color bring to the field different experiences with race and social class, with man-on-man street violence, and with police and other institutional violence against men of color. As such, they introduce to gender-based violence prevention what we call “organic intersectionality,” an approach that helps to re-infuse social justice values into a field that has become increasingly flat in its politics.

On more than one occasion, African American women have asked questions that challenged the assumptions underlying my genealogy of the field of gender-based violence prevention. Following one talk, an anti-violence worker asked me if my historical outline included African American women who may have felt excluded from the feminist movement, and who defined themselves as Womanists? At another talk, a scholar asked me, “I wonder, how do you define ‘the field’? Women of color have been engaged with anti-violence activism since well before the 1970s.” She mentioned Jim Crow era anti-lynching activism, for instance, as resistance to race/gender-based violence. My mind immediately jumped to mid-Twentieth Century resistance against the forced sterilization of poor and incarcerated women in the U.S. and Puerto Rico as a form of resistance against state violence against the bodies of (primarily) women of color.

This same critic sharpened her point with a reference to a slide in my presentation: “You showed a slide that expressed your concern that men’s movement into anti-violence work might result in ‘feminism without women’. My concern is that your definition of ‘the field’ risks positing an ‘intersectionality without women of color’.”

I believe that my co-authors’ and my efforts to deploy an intersectional analysis in Some Men was successful—possibly even insightful—but only, I see now, within the parameters of how we defined “the field.” When we take into account this womanist critique, we can see how our very definition of “the field” had an unintended consequence. Of course, we duly noted the academic roots of intersectionality, citing foundational works of scholars like bell hooks and Maxine Baca Zinn. We quoted Patricia Hill Collins referring to violence as “a saturated site of intersectionality.” But our definition of “the field” also worked to elide activist work over decades (centuries?) by women of color as the front edge of resistance to interpersonal and institutional gender/race/class-based violence.

Our narrow definition of “the field”—likely grounded in our experiences as three white male feminist academics—is not unusual in feminist scholarship. Sociologist Benita Roth argues in her book Separate Roads to Feminism that the common story about second wave feminism—that white feminism emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, with women of color joining in the 1980s and adding race and class to feminism—is wrong. Roth shows that multiple feminist movements arose “roughly simultaneously,” including Black and Chicana feminisms that, even if not integrated organizationally with mostly-white feminist groups, were in critical dialogue with them. As Roth observes of conventional scholarship on the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, “…looking for feminists of color in white feminist organizations, not finding them, and then explaining their absence makes feminists of color invisible: Not only were they not in white feminist organizations; there is no sense in these explanations that they could have possibly been organizing on their own.” (p. 8).

Defining the parameters of a “field” is an issue in every academic book. However, one must also take pains to think about the implications of those decisions. In the case of Some Men, it would not have changed our book much to have included a short, critical-reflexive discussion of how we were defining “the field” of men’s work to stop sexual assault and domestic violence, and then pointing to what might be left out of this picture and how it might distort the historical story we were telling. The fact that we did not do this is ironic, especially given a central message we learned from many of our interview subjects—Being a man who is a feminist ally means, at base, listening to women. But the devil is often in the details; the question of which women to listen to can never be answered finally, with some set formula. Instead, it requires an ongoing process of reflexivity that includes interrogating the ways that one’s own privileged standpoint, however “progressive” or “intersectional” its intent, will retain some blind spots if it is not in continual dialogue with differently situated people.


Messner2013bMichael A. Messner is professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California, and author (with Max Greenberg and Tal Peretz) of Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women (Oxford University Press, 2015).

amrita_singh2Amrita Singh ’15 is a film studies major and an Athena Scholar. She serves as president of Columbia University Film Productions (CUFP), a Barnard Student Admissions Representative, an IMATS Media Technologist, and she’s also involved with the Athena Digital Design Agency. Additionally, she is an intern with Big Beach Films. She’s never been to Paris, but has always admired French cinema–in particular, Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups– and the city’s art scene both past and present. As an Indian immigrant and francophile, she is eager to better understand multiculturalism within a global context and as it relates to the particular history of Paris, France, and also looks forward to participating in the symposium during Barnard’s historic 125th anniversary.

With Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement regarding her candidacy of presidency and the conversations surrounding the current state of female leadership during a period of revived interest in women’s issues in popular culture as manifested in hashtag campaigns and impassioned speeches by celebrities, I find that the movement pushing for gender equality would greatly benefit in the inclusion of the voices of women that often go unheard. For instance, while the more recent HeforShe campaign importantly advocates that women’s rights affect us all and invites boys and men to the conversation, I wonder what more we could gain in focusing on diversity instead. While it’s incredibly important to highlight that gender equality is not strictly a women’s issue but one that affects us all, when we celebrate men as feminists to gain more traction in advancing the women’s movement what voices do we unintentionally drown out? In a patriarchal society where women still remain largely underrepresented in positions of authority, with their presence in top management positions remaining below 9 percent according to a report by the American Center for Progress despite reflecting the majority of the population, its important to bring these experiences to the forefront of the movement to effectively work towards correcting imbalances of power that permeate nearly all industry sectors. Furthermore when considering how women of color fare far worse in claiming leadership opportunities, the question of solidarity takes on a new form entirely.

That’s why I find programs focused on cultivating a group of diverse girls and young women who see themselves as leaders prove incredibly valuable. Given my quiet personality, I certainly didn’t see myself as a leader until I entered Barnard College, a liberal arts college for women based in New York City. As a student pursuing directing and opportunities in filmmaking, a male-dominated industry that notably lacks diversity with a mere 7% of female directors last year according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, I found the space of a women’s college incredibly empowering in demonstrating that leadership takes on many forms and is an ongoing process. I never understood what the big deal was in being a leader, especially since I honestly felt most comfortable on the sidelines. Without having to compromise who I am, in claiming leadership, my voice felt validated. Thus, while many people still question the relevance of women’s colleges today, as an institution, Barnard was founded to challenge systems of inequality and even figures prominently today in the discussion of women’s rights and in addressing pertinent ideas of gender identity. This year marks Barnard’s 7th year in hosting the global symposia series, with Barnard student fellows both interacting with the larger New York community and traveling to Rio, Mumbai and Paris to engage in issues of women and leadership. In exploring feminism within different cultural contexts, the program relies on the diversity of experiences to better understand how identity impacts one’s individual encounter with systems of inequality. By celebrating the importance of including a multiplicity voices, both in theory with inspired discussions relating to relevant social issues, and in practice by way of the vast backgrounds of the leaders participating in the program, the symposium refocuses the conversation on feminism by tackling issues of representation directly. From leading artists including Panmela Castro who engages with activism through her vivid graffiti on the streets of Brazil to Helene Gayle, CEO of CARE USA, an organization fighting poverty, the symposium in New York City draws from the rich experiences of a diverse group of leaders to present a number of perspectives on explicit challenges that women face at a global level.

16618620978_a3a412d9b7_oI had the opportunity to collaborate with high school students abroad in the Paris Young Women’s Leadership Workshop and amplify their voices by encouraging them to embrace their identity as a platform for their leadership. Given the different cultural settings a part of each city explored through the Symposium, the exchange between Barnard students and participating high school students provides invaluable learning opportunities on both ends. Using these interactive workshops to inspire participants in developing social action projects empower these young women to see themselves as leaders who can actually take the steps to bring about this change in their respective communities. In cultivating a global network of individuals who embody what it means to be a leader in this day and age, the Barnard Global Symposium connects women of different ages, backgrounds and beliefs across the globe to take part in the discourse of women and leadership as agents of change, impossible to ignore. As Global Symposium Panelist, Ndili Nwunelli said, “As young people we are told we are leaders of tomorrow. Why tomorrow? We can be leaders of today and tomorrow.”

KelsyBurke.SpringHeadshotKelsy Burke is an assistant professor of sociology at St. Norbert College. Her first book is Christians Under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet (forthcoming, University of California Press). 

The #DuggarScandal is rising once again to the top of media headlines as Jim Bob, the father of Josh who molested his sisters and other underage girls, explained away the incidents of sexual abuse in an interview with Fox News. “They didn’t even know he had done it,” he said about Josh “touching” his daughters after they were asleep.

CJ Pascoe and Sara Diefendorf explained earlier this week in another Girl w/ Pen post the rationale used by religious conservatives like the Duggars to make sense of sexual scandals. For these Christians, sexual sin is an expected and, as Jim Bob’s interview reveals, forgivable offense. Importantly, and outrageously, the sin of sexual abuse may be equivalent to the sin of consensual sex before marriage, pornography use, or masturbation. And while the liberal pundits may cry GOTCHA! in exposing the hypocrisy of fundamentalist families like the Duggars, their beliefs rely on a logic that does not see sexual sin as hypocritical, but rather as inevitable. All of us are sinners.

The long, long list of conservative Christian leaders caught in a sexual scandal is nearly all men (here is a story that details some recent examples). Not surprising, the critical-thinking feminist may observe, given that conservative Christian traditions believe in men’s headship and women’s submission. As one blogger described, the Quiverful movement of which the Duggars belong demands that women “never exercise a moment of sexual agency in her entire life.” Conservative Christian men may be hypocrites, but conservative Christian women are the victims or at least the dupes.

To be sure, the girls abused by Josh Duggar are victims of sexual assault. They did not choose it or deserve it. But let’s think for a moment, feminist readership, about the implication of the attitude that conservative Christian women have no agency or an ability to make choices on their own terms. (To be precise, the blog quoted above surmises that the Quiverful movement itself bars women’s agency, but even this isn’t an entirely fair assessment.) When feminist commentary on conservative religion deals almost exclusively with women’s victimization, we are left to believe that religious women indeed don’t have any agency. Is a feminist dismissal of conservative religious women actually endorsing the attitude of Jim Bob that these women don’t know any better?

What would happen if we acknowledged that women may make choices and feel empowered by them even if those choices seem to defy feminist logic? What would happen if we reimagined the plot lines in the typical feminist narrative of conservative Christianity? Instead of women as dupes or victims for believing in a patriarchal religion, how might these religions serve a purpose in these women’s lives?

Many scholarly accounts of conservative religious women suggest that they find some aspect of their religion to be empowering, all while believing they should submit to men. One of my favorite examples of this is a study of evangelical women who are married to “ex-gay” men (men who admit to, though do not necessarily act upon, same-sex attraction). Through interviews with these women, sociologist Michelle Wolkomir finds that they at first blame themselves for their inability to sexually entice their husbands. Yet Wolkomir finds that women overcome this guilt as they realize that their husbands are engaging in sin. This means that their wives are no longer obligated to submit to their husbands, but rather only to submit to God.

Evangelical women married to ex-gay men are certainly a small group, but the lesson here is far reaching: In patriarchal religions, God is the ultimate patriarch. Especially for religions in the Protestant tradition, women believe they connect directly with the final authority, the one who is In Charge. Converting to Christianity has the power to help women feel more, not less, in control of their lives: to have the strength to speak up to a cruel co-worker or to be optimistic about a recent divorce. Conservative Christianity may not change women’s life’s circumstances, but it can help women change their perception of those circumstances.

A common feminist mantra on the choices of other women, in the words of Amy Poehler in her book, Yes Please, is “Good for you, but not for me.” Yet feminists commenting on stories like the Josh Duggar scandal are quick to point to Christianity’s flaws, never its virtues for some of its followers. Women who are complicit in religions that appear to many feminists as anti-feminist seem to cross a line that has no defense. But why can’t feminists take up the attitude, “Good for you, but not for me.”? Of course there are obvious answers to this question: because these religions perpetuate ideas about gender and sexuality that harm us, especially women and queers. Gender-based violence, though, is a social problem that is not limited to fundamentalist Christianity. And don’t we live in a world where nearly all dominant ideas about gender and sexuality harm us? How can we defend Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian and nail art and not at least acknowledge that for some women, conservative religions are “good for you, but not for me.”? We may learn from these women that we all must make our own choices in a world that tries to limit them.

We imagine most are now aware that the Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting fame has come under criticism for their handling of their eldest son, Josh’s, behavior. According to police reports, Josh Duggar engaged in nonconsensual sexual contact with several younger female children, at least some of whom were his sisters. You can see the details here, here and here.

The Duggars have a record of anti-gay, anti-birth control, anti-choice and anti-trans stances. Michelle Duggar even recorded robo-calls for a discriminatory statute aimed at denying equal rights to trans citizens of her state. These public stances, along with their encouragement of sexual abstinence until marriage and a prohibition on cross-sex touching until engagement, seem incongruent with their public “forgiveness” of Josh for his sexual transgressions. Jessa Duggar’s father-in-law stated, to much condemnation:

Many times it is simply lack of opportunity or fear of consequences that keep us from falling into grievous sin even though our fallen hearts would love to indulge the flesh. We should not be shocked that this occurred in the Duggar’s home, we should rather be thankful to God if we have been spared such, and pray that he would keep us and our children from falling.

This seemingly quick forgiveness and “there but for the grace of god go I” attitude toward sexual sins appear incompatible with the family’s harsh stance regarding other sexual or gendered behavior they regard as sinful.

luker coverIn response to the Duggar’s handling of Josh’s behavior, critics suggested all or some of the following: the family is a sex cult, hypocrisy is endemic to religious zealotry, and abstinence and strict sex practices are forms of sexual deviance just like child molestation. We would like to add to these analyses and provide a slightly different read by suggesting that the Duggars are not outliers—but perhaps illustrate best the argument that Kristin Luker made in her book When Sex Goes to School about sexual conservative and sexual liberals.

In investigating American adults’ views on sex education, Luker documents two camps that emerged after the sexual revolution of the 1960s: the sexual liberals and sexual conservatives. These liberal and conservative positions do not map neatly on to political perspectives, but are rather divided by their views of sex. Luker found that conservatives believe that sex is inherently sacred and meant for marriage. To keep sex within the confines of marriage, conservatives focus on rules and boundaries to control individuals’ out of control sexual natures. The assumption is that people are fallible and without these regulations they will fail. Sexual conservatives are very focused on the danger in “letting pleasure loose”. In the Duggar’s world, this letting loose could be something like holding hands before marriage. Liberals, however, view marriage as just one of many acceptable options for sexual activity. Sexual liberals focus on making good decisions. They believe that humans can make good decisions when they have the information they need to make that decision. In terms of sex, this means knowing about sex, its pleasures and its dangers.

In this sexual conservative perspective, there’s little to distinguish different forms of sexual “fallenness.” For instance, Sarah’s research among evangelical Christian men who were, like the Duggars, invested in sexual abstinence until marriage, indicates that masturbation, lust, pornography, and same-sex desire, are all sins that, to borrow Luker’s language, if “let loose”, can disrupt the goal of abstinence until marriage, thus also disrupting the notion that sexual pleasure is exclusive to heterosexual marriage. When the men in Sarah’s research were tempted by, or engaged in such sinful behavior, they were not met with scorn, hatred, or abandonment, but with understanding and recognition of the struggle they were enduring.

From this perspective, when a distant family member talks about Josh’s fallibility and indicates that without the proper social controls any of us could be in his position, this statement is congruent with the perspective of sexual conservatives. From the sexual conservative camp, the quick forgiveness of his actions is not incongruent or hypocritical when juxtaposed with the Duggar’s views on gay marriage or trans rights, but completely consistent as they are all examples of sexual fallenness. In other words, repentant pornographers, ex-gays, and apologetic adulterers are totally fine. Josh repented. The Duggars and their supporters are not being hypocritical, they are being consistent with views of sexual conservatives.

It is important to see the Duggars not necessarily as a “cult” or as sexual outliers, but as a very provocative example of the logic of sexual conservatism and all that entails. This episode represents a line of thought that is more common than it seems when we pathologize the Duggar’s behavior rather than investigating it.

Recently I’ve been researching the life of my childhood friend, Miss Georgiana Fulton. It’s been a welcome distraction from news filled with stories of urban protests against police violence and continued assaults on women’s reproductive rights. Battles once considered fought and won are again bitterly contentious. The 1967 Kerner Report on the despair inducing conditions prevalent in many cities reads as if written weeks, rather than decades, ago.   State and national legislators propose—and pass—all manner of legislation that eats away at women’s freedom to make decisions about our own bodies.

Miss Fulton’s life spanned nearly a century. She was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1869 and died near Mystic, Connecticut in 1967. Research on her life underlines the significant progress women have made in the past century and a half. It also reveals continuing gender bias throughout our society. Miss Fulton was an artist—a painter and illustrator. Looking at her life highlights challenges women confront in the world of visual arts, reminds us that no profession, no institution is free from gender related segregation and hierarchy.

From time to time here at Second Look I’ve mentioned Miss Fulton, the example of she set of an independent woman, the lessons in the struggle for women’s suffrage she insisted I learn and not forget:

“Don’t you ever let anyone say women were given the vote, child. Women fought for that right!”

“Not everyone will agree with you when you speak your mind, girl. Remember that. Be prepared; keep your facts straight.”

“If you want to do something and you’ve thought it through, do it, child. But be ready for all the consequences, you hear me? Sometimes things don’t end up the way you plan.”

All good advice for anyone of any age—but especially good for a girl growing up in small-town Connecticut during the 1950s. The social rules were clear: be polite, smile, help others—and wear a hat to church. When, at age twelve, I decided not to join the Congregational Church my family attended because I wasn’t sure what I believed, most people were puzzled. Everyone else my age was going to stand up on Sunday morning and become a church member. And after all, hadn’t I been the angel in the Christmas pageants every year? Miss Fulton nodded when I told her. “Well, girl, you’ll ruffle a few feathers, I suspect, but it’s fine to do that now and then. Good practice.”

Practice for what I wasn’t quite sure. My parents were as puzzled as everyone else but agreed—it was my choice to make.   I can’t recall if I ever did decide to join the church. What I do remember is that with Miss Fulton’s help I had questioned something I’d been wondering about. The only significant consequence was the chance to say out loud thoughts I’d been keeping in my head and my diary. It was good practice for all sorts of future situations, even if I had to relearn the lesson more than once. Speaking up for what you believe isn’t always as easy as it can seem.

Miss Fulton left Shreveport to attend Wesleyan Female Institute in Virginia, graduated at sixteen, went on to study art, train as a teacher and received a graduate certificate from the Women’s Art School at Cooper Union in 1899. She sailed for Paris in the summer of 1900.

In the decades before the First World War, Paris was the destination of choice for American art students. But studying in Paris was more difficult for young women than for their male colleagues. Women weren’t admitted to some schools and were often charged higher fees for the classes they could take. Living expenses were also higher. Women encountered issues of propriety and safety few men ever considered. The Art Student in Paris published in 1887 noted that “while there are twenty cheap restaurants that men can go to, there is but one for women.”

The most blatant of these societal barriers fell years ago, but concerns about safety are as pressing for young women today as they were in 1900. The latest statistics on violence against women indicate that 1 woman out of 5 will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. Comments about how foolish a woman is to walk down such and such street alone or to dress in such and such a manner are still commonplace. And what about the art profession?  Today more than fifty percent of students graduating from art school are women, but women head only a quarter of major art museums, those with budgets of over fifteen million dollars. Women are under represented in solo gallery exhibits and in museum collections. We are far from the equality Miss Fulton hoped for when she told me, “Well, there’s no real equality yet, child, not in art, not anywhere. But the day will come,” Then she added, ”But it will take energy, lots of energy.”

Reflecting on Miss Fulton’s life, immersing myself in census data and old newspapers, talking with archivists at institutions where she may have studied is fun. But in the end my explorations bring me back to the challenges still in front of us. Stereotypical views linger, gender violence is rampant, and while feminists have worked to pass the Equal Rights Amendment for almost a century, the ERA is not yet the law of the land.

We’ve struggled and pushed ahead. We’ve seen important progress. But women and men are still working and waiting for Miss Fulton’s ‘real equality’.



Experimenting here a bit, so GWP readers and writers, bear with me! For a piece I’m writing, I’m collecting all the metaphors scholars and advocates use to talk about the “straightjacket” that gender identity can be. Like, well, “straightjacket.” And “box.” What else are people using these days? Please share, in comments, on my FB page, or tweet me @girlmeetsvoice –Gender box GO!

Now that the one day of celebrating motherhood is behind us, many women will go back to silently doing the unrecognized, steady work that keeps the wheels turning forward that make a family work.  With this in mind, it was a pleasure to attend last week’s screening, “Breaking the Silence: A Celebration of Healing Through Our Mothers’ Narratives” — a series of short films made by teenage girls between the ages of 14 and 18 who live in the Eastern Coachella Valley in California, a rural desert community which is 99% Latino, with a high rate of poverty and a low rate of education.

It was powerful to witness the sense of release many of the adult women expressed on film by having the chance to tell their stories, and having them recognized as important, as well as the obvious desire to connect with a daughter, often across cultural and generational boundaries, and to convey how each woman’s opportunities, choices, and constrictions formed who she was at her daughter’s age.  In some of the films the mothers reveal wrenching stories of abuse, hidden first marriages, and the difficulties of escape during emigration.  The revelations of the past are like long-held ghosts released and highlight a hard-won resilience.

The project is facilitated by Global Girl Media, an organization helmed by filmmaker and visionary Amie Williams and doing amazing cross-cultural work in the US and overseas, with the aim of expanding into even more countries.  By giving girls the tools to take charge of media production, GGM aspires to promote girls’ voices by giving them access to technology and cultivating leadership.  This project seems thoroughly in the spirit of their mission to recognize the voice of “the invisible majority, particularly young women,” who would otherwise pass “silently under the radar.”

After the screening there was an excellent panel which reiterated the need to encourage women to believe they matter — such a familiar refrain, yet so poignantly evergreen. Lian Cheun, the Executive Director of Khmer Girls in Action, based in Long Beach, CA spoke impressively of working with girls whose families might still be suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, the challenges of assimilation, and how to unearth family stories when there is a cultural onus against speaking out. She revealed how she began to connect with her own mother through cues or clues such as deciphering a grunt, or interpreting the food served, or vegetables chosen to grow in a garden. Cheun also spoke about her organization’s calculated decision to admit boys into their programming to further recognize and affirm the experiences of girls and women as part of their mission to fight for “race, class and gender justice.”

The other panelists, Monique W. Morris, co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, among other impressive achievements, and Sara Haskie-Mendoza, who runs the program, Xinachtli Rites of Passage for the Los Angeles Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance, spoke meaningfully about the need for intergenerational healing, particularly in the communities they serve.

The program ended with the projection of questions to ask any mother about her past, her wishes, her left-behind dreams.  No matter the cultural background or hidden history, it became clear that silences or gaps transmit from generation to generation and, unless mended, become sewn into the fabric of a family.  Don’t wait a full year to recognize a mother’s legacy — as the program emphasized — now is the time to begin to heal.


The new Avengers movie just came out. I haven’t seen it yet. But I’m a fan of superhero movies. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of as a feminist. But I’ve been reading comic books since I was a kid and seeing some of those characters on the big screen brings back lots of memories and childhood fantasies about superpowers. The interwebs have been alight with discussions about women superhero characters in this movie and whether those of us who care about gender equality ought to be happy about them or not. Some have argued that Black Widow and the Scarlet Witch are feminist heroes we ought to celebrate. Others have been more critical. Regardless of which side you fall on, it’s hard to deny that the cast of superhero men standing alongside Scarlett Johansson (who plays Black Widow) casts her as a bit of a Smurfette.


Over at, Walt Hickey has written a series of posts of gender representation in comic books (here) and comic book movie portrayals of (see here and here). In his initial post, Hickey collected data from DC and Marvel Wikia databases to get a sense of all of the characters each comic book publisher had produced.* More characters have been produced than you might imagine. DC has created just shy of 7,000 characters.  The Marvel database includes more than 16,000.  Using this data, Hickey made some basic claims about the entire comic book universes each publisher has produced. One fact we learned from this is that the ratio of women characters to men has been slowly improving. For instance, in 2013, the Marvel universe was about 23.3% women, while the DC universe was approximately 28.5% women. But, the graphs show that the ratios appear to be leveling out shy of 30%. Men are more likely to be deceased than women. Women characters in both universes are most likely “good” (as opposed to “neutral” or “bad”) characters, while there are more “bad” men than “good” ones in both comic book universes. While there are some signs of change in this data, it doesn’t come close to achieving gender parity.

Using Hickey’s data, I’ve graphed the proportions of women in each comic book universe along with the proportion of women in Congress over the same period of time (below).  One fact immediately apparent is that superhero women seem to be faring a bit better than women in U.S. politics.  In fact, the proportions of women in many of the “heroic” professions in the U.S. fall well below Marvel and DC’s universes. Women in the U.S. comprise less than 25% of federal law enforcement, less than 15% of local police and sheriff’s officers, and less than 10% of state police and highway patrol (here). Women comprise less than 4% of career firefighters in the U.S. (here). Similarly, women are less than 20% of the U.S. military as well (here). Virtually all of the jobs in the licit economy that involve higher than average work-related death rates are—perhaps unsurprisingly—dominated by men (here). Certainly, which occupations are deemed “heroic” in the first place is also important to consider. Indeed, the idea of a “hero” seems already gendered.

Comic Book DataSuperheroes are important for lots of reasons. The stories we celebrate tell us important information about the societies in which we live. The characters we celebrate and those we oppose provide us with information about what we value. As Arthur Berger writes, “There is a fairly close relationship, generally, between a society and its heroes” (here), to which Jon Hogan adds: “The superhero comic book is part of popular culture because it can help us better understand what traits we value and why we value them” (here). Berger and Hogan seem to be asking us to consider what comic books are doing, rather than what they should be doing.

I used to assign a short reading by Ursula K. Le Guin to students at the conclusion of a gender studies course I taught. Le Guin is a science fiction writer (a genre dominated by men). She’s perhaps best known for The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)—a story about an alien society without gender. The alien race in the story shares the biological and emotional characteristics of both sexes, only adopting sexed characteristics (both embodied and emotional) once a month. After writing the novel, Le Guin was often asked whether she believed we were headed for a post-gender society. She responded in the Introduction to subsequent editions:

Yes, the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborate circumstantial lies.

Comic Book Kevin Bolk - Sexist AvengersPerhaps when we celebrate comic book universes, we are not imagining future societies and futuristic possibilities. Perhaps they are best thought of as stories about who we are today and what our society actually looks like.  Le Guin argues that science fiction is better understood as descriptive than predictive.  Perhaps, in other words, comic books are “elaborate circumstantial lies” about who we actually are.

Beyond the numbers, however, there are also other features of gender that are difficult to ignore. Men and women superheroes are also depicted in patterned ways that reinforce problematic assumptions about gender. Artist Kevin Bolk re-imagined the poster for the original Avengers movie depicting Black Widow in a “masculine” pose and Hawkeye, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Hulk in stereotypical “feminine” poses. The image attests to the fact that the number of women is really only the tip of the iceberg when in comes to addressing gender inequality in comic books.

Comic book universes (particularly those that have become famous outside comic cons and fan circles) exaggerate and celebrate gender differences.  There are writers and artists who push back against this tendency in the industry.  And important strides have been made.  Women writers and artists are receiving more recognition and support.  Both DC and Marvel have introduced gender and sexual minority characters.  But, which of these characters will achieve fame and fortune is more of a question.  I don’t know of existing data on the comic book characters about which movies have been made, but my hunch is that that sample would include a higher proportion of men and fewer non-white characters than each universe boasts.


*The data are publicly available at Github if you’re interested in playing around with it. The data are only collected through 2013 and only for a single continuity for each publisher – Earth-616 (Marvel) and New Earth (DC).

Wishful Thinking“That’s your solution?,” asks a character in my She Writes co-founder Kamy Wicoff’s debut novel. “Time travel is easier than passing affordable childcare?” Rarely do we cover novels here at Girl w/Pen, but given the subject matter (and, full disclosure, the fact that I think Kamy is the bomb), I’ve become interested anew in the question of fiction as a mode of advancing public conversation. As someone who once considered writing a dissertation on popular feminist fiction from the 1970s, I’m obsessed with the portrayal of women’s issues — and working mothers’ issues in particular — in popular discourse, imagined and real. Can fiction centered on work/life issues bridge research and reality? Here’s how our conversation went down. -Deborah

DS: Wishful Thinking joins working-mother dramadies like Alison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It and Where’d You Go, Bernadette–a contemporary genre in which a middle- or upper-class protagonist tries and fails to “do it all,” breaks down, puts herself back together. What do you see as the advantages, and limitations, of fiction as a mode of advancing the conversation around working mothers’ dilemmas? Is this a domestic drama, or a social one?

KW: Is the pressure to have, do, and be it all so great that only science fiction can solve it? In a way, I wrote the book as an argument against the notion that the increasingly impossible demands placed on working parents are each individual’s problem to solve, by showing how crazy it is that my protagonist, Jennifer Sharpe, thinks forcing her body through a wormhole is a perfectly rational response to her out of whack work/life balance—more rational than trying to reform the out of balance system itself. (One of my favorite lines in the book comes from Jennifer’s coworker, Alicia, who, when she finds out about the app, says, “That’s your solution? Time travel is easier than passing affordable child care?”) Jennifer believes it is a domestic drama, but it is absolutely a social one, and I think by writing a novel rather than a nonfiction book on the subject, I was able to underscore that in a fresh way.

The other inspiration for Wishful Thinking was very personal, and inspired by fiction—I was reading the Harry Potter books with my older son, and I thought, I love this, but I wish it were about a woman my age, not a ten-year-old boy. And then I thought, if I could give a working mom any power, what would it be? The answer, the ability to be in multiple places at once, came immediately, because it’s a need I and every mother I know shares, whether she is juggling a job and kids or raising her kids full-time. But even that first impulse was feminist and socially conscious. I hungered for a fun, fanciful but thoughtful and grown up book about someone like me, by someone like me—not something written for a YA audience or with yet another male protagonist I couldn’t relate to—because in the current fiction marketplace I was starving. (I Don’t Know How She Does It came out fourteen years ago, if you can believe that. And I have never gotten over the fact that they made Multiplicity about a man. Really? It’s the guy who feels like he has to be everywhere at once?) The premise I instantly arrived at is in itself a critique.

Overwhelmed, by Brigid SchutleMom's RisingNonfiction, of course, can be more explicit in its critique and its calls to action. In an ideal world, a working parent would read Wishful Thinking, then read Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love And Play When No One Has The Time, and then join MomsRising and start petitioning her Congressperson like mad.

DS: When we first created She Writes, we were two entrepreneurial mamas on a mission to start something and simultaneously be there for our very young kids. You, in fact, were an early model for me of what living two passions looks like. (Recall those staff meetings on my bed while I was on bedrest, carrying twins!) Five years later, I look around me and see mothers of all stripes struggling as if the decades of advocacy for better workplace policies in support of working families hasn’t moved the dial. What’s it going to take, other than wishful thinking? Any latest initiatives you’re aware of that you’d like to shout out here? 

KW: It is easy to be discouraged, isn’t it? (And how could I forget those staff meetings?) One of the things I liked most about Overwhelmed, however, was Brigid’s determination to tell success stories, most prominently in her “When Work Works” chapter, providing models for change rather than only pointing to what, in workplaces, is broken. (And that’s a lot, like the fact that America is one of only 4 of 167 countries in the world with no paid leave for parents—the others are Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.) It was through Brigid’s book that I found out about MomsRising, and also about A Better Balance, founded by Dina Bakst in New York. I also love, with its circles for peer support. And for many years I was on the Advisory Council for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, which does fabulous work under the leadership of Shelley Correll on supporting scholarship and research designed to move that heavy, heavy dial—and gets that research into the hands of people with the power to make change. I’m also looking forward to Laura Vanderkam’s upcoming I Know How She Does It, for some practical, actionable tools to alleviating some work/life stress.

DS: As much as your novel is a comment on work/life condundrums, it’s a satire of app-for-that culture and technology. Are our hyperconnected lives fuller lives, or lesser lives? Are we more connected to each other, or just to our apps?

KW: This is so hard to answer. On the one hand, I witness, as I think we all do, the clearly deleterious effect of our devices on our personal relationships; the other night my son and I were at a restaurant and the entire family at the table next to us was glued to their devices, oblivious to one another—I’m happy to say my son noticed first, and was appalled! The book is certainly about that, and a commentary on our addiction to our phones. (In the first scene Jennifer realizes she’s lost her phone, and the panic and despair she feels are emotions I have to confess to having had in the same situation.) I’m pretty good about managing my use when I’m with my kids, but the pull to check email, Facebook, and the rest is very powerful, and does feel like an addiction at times, which is scary. On the other hand, my dad, who lives in Austin, can read stories to my kids, in Brooklyn, on Skype, which is magic. We have a shared family photo stream we all subscribe to, and I just saw my nephew have his first bite of rice cereal. I know what’s happening in the lives of many more people than I would have ever thought possible, and am alerted to news, social justice issues, and causes I might never have been exposed to, through these platforms. Yet I fret about it. I feel often feel that while I may have more knowledge about more people in my life, I don’t have richer relationships with them for it. (And as we all know, Facebook posts notoriously skew sunny.) Our generation is in a funny spot, not having grown up with any of this, but being so fully immersed in it now as adults, and as parents. Sometimes I wonder if our fretting will someday sound like the worries that television would spell the end of culture…but maybe television has done that. Ha.

DS: I don’t want to give too much away, but a significant plot line in your book concerns a brilliant female physicist whose discovery goes unrecognized by the scientific authorities. What was the impetus for a strong woman scientist at the center of this text?

KW: There was never any question in my mind that the physicist who invented time travel would be a woman, for a variety of reasons. The obvious one, of course, is that the story of science and its major breakthroughs is told by and about men, leaving countless brilliant and deserving women out. Physics is particularly bad—the Nobel Prize in Physics has only been awarded to two women in its history, and hasn’t recognized a female physicist’s work in fifty years. In this notoriously sexist field, I wanted to create a character who had fought her way through, and in some cases inventively worked her way around, a system stacked against her. (I’m also an amateur physics lover. Have you see Particle Fever? There are some fabulous female scientists featured in that movie.) I also chose to make her a passionate collector of artifacts of female scientists who had come before her; for Dr. Sexton, these women are the muses. Researching that part of the book was a delight—did you know Florence Nightingale was an accomplished mathematician, and invented infographics? Or that Hedy Lamar co-invented spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology? I also felt strongly that I didn’t want to have magic in this book—there’s enough of that mushy, bibidi bobidi boo stuff out there already featuring women. Who needs a fairy godmother when you can have the greatest physicist of all time at your side? There was another, very compelling reason I wanted a strong women scientist at the center of my book. So I could make a Larry Summers joke. Which I did.

DS: Virginia Woolf wrote, “A woman writing thinks back through her mothers.” You’ve had some terrific literary mentors in your life—Diane Middlebrook, Nancy K. Miller, Alix Kates Shulman, Francine Prose… Barring (ha!) for a moment the complicated maternal metaphor, in what ways have these women influenced your writing or your sense of yourself as a woman who writes?

KW: Well the late, great Diane, of course, is the model for Dr. Diane Sexton, the physicist who invents the app in the book. (Diane Middlebrook wrote the seminal biography of Anne Sexton, hence the name as homage.) I miss her every single day, and writing this book was a way of having her voice, her presence, and her inimitable style close to me for the year and a half it took to write it. Diane completely changed my life. She was the first person to look me in the eye, when I was a young graduate student who felt that, without an agent or a book, I could not call myself a writer, and say, “You are a writer!” in a way that made me believe it. She told me to write the truth about my life, and I have tried to honor her ever since then by doing it. We founded the Salon of Women Writers together in London in 2003 (again, when I was a young nobody, and she was an established badass, but she saw what a good team we’d make), which led to my founding with you, and ultimately She Writes Press with former Executive Editor of Seal Press Brooke Warner.

Diane believed that as a woman who writes, it’s pointless to insist on being viewed simply as a “writer” because the world doesn’t view you that way—the best thing is to resist that prejudice by critically responding when it inevitably rears its head, and always to combat it with wit, fearlessness, and of course, brilliant writing. Francine, Nancy and Alix all do that too. I derive so much courage and strength from their example. Hopefully I can do the same for a young woman writer or two someday. But as a debut novelist at forty-two, I’m a little behind in the game.

For more, check out Kamy’s post on Moms Rising. Visit Kamy’s website. Meet her on a stop during the She Writes Press National Spring Book Tour – coming to Chicago on June 29 (I’m hosting!). And go buy the book.

And as always, I invite you to join my Facebook community, pin with me on Pinterest at Tots in Genderland, follow @girlmeetsvoice, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on coaching, workshops, writings, and talks.



The Princess Problem
The Princess Problem

As the mother of a preschooler who’s enjoying princesses while her mama tries to make sense of it all, I’m more than pleased to bring you this guest review of Rebecca Hains’ The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years, penned by Susan Sapiro. Susan is a New York-based grant proposal writer with a background in program development in womens and girls issues.  Enjoy! – Deborah

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“That’s the problem,” said Olivia. “All the girls want to be princesses. At Pippa’s birthday party, they were all dressed in big, pink, ruffly, skirts with sparkles and little crowns and sparkly wands. Including some of the boys.” (Olivia and the Fairy Princesses)

This profound comment, spoken by the porcine heroine of Ian Falconer’s series of books (and a Nick Jr. TV series) stayed in my head as I immersed myself into feminist media and communications scholar Rebecca Hains’ new book The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years. What is the Princess Problem? According to Hains, a children’s media culture expert and a professor of media studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts, it isn’t so much actual princesses who are the problem – many cultures have princess figures and stories. Rather, it’s the Disneyfication and branding of princesses, the large-scale marketing of Princess culture, which has become such a prevailing force in the lives of preschool girls that parents are troubled by how all-encompassing Princess culture has become in their daughters’ lives. They are concerned by how limiting its imagery of beauty, romantic relationships, and racial representation are to contemporary girls in North America. They are alarmed when their daughters who dont participate in Princess Culture are shunned or bullied in school or on the playground. And they are desperately seeking alternative images, products, and media to show the breadth and depth of real girls and women’s lives.

For her research, Hains interviewed over 50 parents psychologists, educators, media-literacy experts, girl empowerment advocates, and academics that focus on popular culture and race issues. She also did participant observation research for her study, working as a princess birthday party performer, dressing up in shiny ball gowns and blond wigs, and entrancing young girls by reading them fairy tales, painting their faces, and making them balloon animals. The money she made from these parties helped to fund her research trip to Walt Disney World where she observed “the Disney brand of princess culture in action”(xiii). Her undercover work also helped her gain an appreciation on the importance of princess culture in girls’ lives.

As Peggy Orenstein before her has made profoundly clear, the sheer vastness of princess marketing, mainly by Disney, is responsible for the seeming every-where-ness of princess culture. In 2012 Disney Princess – the brand – sold $1.52 billion US in licensed merchandise in North America, more than Star Wars and Hello Kitty! Hains explains how since Disney has created or rather, re-created the princess brand, other brands from Barbie, to Dora the Explorer, to animal characters like My Little Pony have seized on the princess premise as the holy grail of marketing to the target demographic of young girls. Yet, not only has the Princess brand been absorbed by Disney’s competitors in the toy industry, it has also oozed its way into products in every area of life, becoming a “lifestyle brand” – featured in food, clothing, home goods , making sure that today’s preschool princesses turn into lifelong loyal Disney consumers. (A search on for “Disney Princess” yields an astounding 64,979 items in 31 departments.)

One of Hains’ most intriguing points is that princess marketing is so effective because it takes advantage of a stage of childhood in which boys and girls start to focus on gender. The way they try to figure out what it means to be a boy or a girl is to hone in on external and stereotypical qualities – short hair for boys, long hair for girls, skirts and frills for girls, superheroes and blue for boys. Researchers cited by Hains note that many 3-4 year old girls and 5-6 year old boys develop “appearance rigidity,” which means they become, in Hains’ words, “completely obsessed with wearing stereotypical clothing – which for girls often equals pink frilly dresses.” I was amused to learn that there’s even an acronym for this in scholarly literature – PFD. This phenomenon may be familiar to readers who have or may know three-year-old girls who refused to wear pants for a certain period of time, a phase that occurred with both of my daughters. (Reading Hains’ book, I was pleased to learn this was a developmental stage, not a moral failure on my part as a feminist mother trying to push her gender-neutral views on a reluctant preschooler.) During this phase of “appearance rigidity” among preschoolers, each gender celebrates their own types and fiercely rejects the other. Disney has exploited this with its pink frilly princess marketing extravaganza to girls but still hasn’t been quite as successful in marketing cars, pirates, and superheroes to boys.

Go! Go! Sports Girls
Go! Go! Sports Girls dolls

Subsequent chapters of the book focus on various aspects of the Princess Problem. The “Pretty Princess Mandate” is harmful to young girls, who end up focusing on appearance, to the exclusion of active play. The princess narrative makes the equation that beauty = happiness and goodness, and young girls who become women spend countless hours of self-scrutiny (and judging other women), trying to live up to an unrealistic beauty ideal. Hains’ personal example of how hard it is to fit into this ideal is amusing. When she worked as a birthday party princess entertainer, she found it difficult to fit into the princess costumes she was required to wear, because the measurements were based on the company owner’s teenage daughter. Hains offers good examples of how parents can combat the Pretty Princess Mandate, including not discussing your weight or dieting and buying realistically proportioned dolls such as the Go! Go! Sports Girls dolls instead.

As has been well documented, on this blog and elsewhere, outdated gender stereotypes abound in the traditional princess narrative. In a chapter titled, “The Problem with Gender Stereotypes, “ Hains writes about how parents have noticed their daughters’ play changing from active to passive after they enter the Princess stage. One therapist she cites chronicled her attempts to recover her daughter’s spunkiness after she saw her formerly active toddler engage in a new form of play – sitting and saying, “I’m waiting for my prince.”

While a number of anti-Princess books, such as Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Jennifer Harstein’s Princess Recovery touch only briefly on the racial issues inherent in the Princess Problem (i.e. all of the Disney Princesses, except Tiana from the recent The Princess and Frog, are white), Hains, a self-described white academic, devotes a chapter to race and diversity issues raised by Princess Culture. Hains acknowledges her own privilege and calls for alternative models for girls of all colors. Included in the book are a critical discussion of how children learn both racial prejudice and acceptance, the history of Disney’s problem with racialized characters, and strategies for encouraging children to become increasingly conscious and respectful of racial diversity.

Bridging academic and popular realms, Hains’ response to the negative lessons taught by Princess Culture about consumerism, gender stereotypes, beauty ideals, and racial stereotypes is a method she calls “Pop Culture Coaching.” In Pop Culture Coaching, parents start by reflecting on their own values and issues relevant to girls. Then they coach their children to think critically about media – its content and the messages conveyed. Hains assures readers that this is not to show girls that princesses are negative or to “‘de-princess’” them. Instead, media literacy will help girls see the complications with princesses and realize that there is a multiplicity of ways to be a girl today.

The Princess Problem is filled with practical tips: Diversify our daughters’ media diets to show them a range of images of women and girls. Read books that offer alternatives to traditional princess fairytales (she includes a list). Teach children about how media is created and the thinking behind advertising. Her website ( she includes parent-child discussion guides for all of the Disney Princess films and other types of movies. A discussion guide for the recent Disney Princess hit, Frozen, is included as an appendix in the book.

In a refreshing twist, Hains doesn’t think that there is anything wrong with princesses, sparkles, frills and pink. In her words, “Princesses are pretty, and sparkles and frills are fun! Girls have been playing princesses for generations.” What she objects to is the marketing of frilly pink princesses as the only type of girlhood available to young girls, especially as compared to a wider range of choices for boys.

Parents are right to be concerned, she notes, about what their daughters are learning from the ever-widening reach of the frilly princess culture. As the mother of two young daughters, one kindergartner still in the throes of princess-preoccupation, one third-grader now thankfully (and disdainfully) past it, I can confirm with hindsight what the scholars find: that it seems to be a developmental stage that passes. Yet, that doesn’t negate the harmful impact it can have on young girls, influencing not only what they wear, but also how they play, who they play with, what they watch, and how they think about their looks, and what they want to (or want their parents to) buy.

Even those who rail against Princess Culture can find it hard to refuse their children these sparkly indulgences. When friends offered us free tickets to Disney’s Frozen on Ice this past fall, after much internal debate, pleasure won out over principle. Earlier this winter, as I watched the graceful skaters ins Frozen on Ice with my daughters , a line from the show’s dialogue struck me as the essence of Hains’ book. In the scene, Anna is explaining to Kristoff why her sister Elsa froze the land of Arendelle:

Frozen on Ice
Frozen on Ice

Anna: Oh well, it was all my fault. I…I got engaged, but then she freaked out because I’d only just met him, you know, that day. And she said she wouldn’t bless the marriage, and…
Kristoff: Wait. You got engaged to someone you just met that day?
Anna: Yeah. Anyway, I got mad and so she got mad and then she tried to walk away, and I grabbed her glove…
Kristoff: Hang on! You mean to tell me you got engaged to someone you just met that day?!
Anna: Yes. Pay attention!

Pay attention. Pay attention to the media children are consuming. Pay attention to the problematic messages for girls in seemingly benign but ever more all-encompassing Princess Culture. That is what Hains wants readers to do.