Raising pre-school aged boy/girl twins in a rigidly gender-bifurcated universe where attitudes sloooooowly change is one big gender bender, my friends–I swear. Some days, I get whiplash. Let me show you what I mean.
Last month, the Australian-based initiative called No-Gender December made a valiant stand against the gendered marketing of toys to our children, raising both eyebrows and awareness. I loved it. Huzzah and yay!
But with January comes announcement of the arrival of Heartlake City, a “girl” section of Legoland Florida’s hit theme park scheduled to open this summer. Look at the picture (below, right), and read this post about how the introduction of the girl section (which includes a shopping mall, a convertible where girls can take selfies) implies that all the other sections (dinosaur exploration area, fire station, city streets, pilot school, archeology-themed ride, science area, jousting, playground) are for boys. The creepy tune and lyrics of “Girl Land” from the Free to Be You and Me album come to mind (“you go in a girl, and come out a lady!”). Hiss. Boo.
I love Lego, and so do my kids, and I hate that Lego bricks themselves—that once gloriously gender-neutral toy, a Danish toy, for irony’s sake—now have gender.
But the same day I learned about Legoland’s launch of Girl Land, I came across a poster in a coffee shop located on my town’s main drag announcing that come February, About Face Theater is bringing A Kid Like Jaketo the Greenhouse Theater Center, along with “weekly post-show discussions around the topics of gender development in children, contemporary parenting and discovering identity for young people.” Huzzah and yay!
This play by Daniel Pearle, an urban drama about an upscale couple annoyingly obsessed with getting their kid into prestigious private kindergarten (the kind that cost an annual $40K), is simultaneously a modern portrayal of a kid with enthusiasms for gender-variant play. The poster I saw in the coffee shop features a little boy, backed turned to the viewer, gazing longingly at a wall onto which a shadow image in the likeness of Disney’s Cinderella is projected at five times his size. “Why can’t a boy be a princess?” the caption reads. Right there on Main Street. Granted, mine’s a progressive town. But I still find cause to celebrate the fact this play, and with it its sweet and beautiful poster, is going around the nation. So I repeat: huzzah and yay!
No Gender December. Girl City. A Kid Like Jake. Yay boo, yay boo, yay.
This whiplash reminds me of a handmade book made by some kid in my elementary school (hello Greeley!) and housed in the school’s library. The book’s title was Fortunately, Unfortunately. On one page, something good would happen to the pint-sized protagonist. (“Fortunately, when I woke up today, Mom made me my favorite pancakes.”) The next page featured the reverse. (“Unfortunately, we were out of syrup, so I had to eat them plain.”) Something delicious would happen, then something annoying would happen that would take that deliciousness away.
That’s how I feel about our culture’s one-step-forward, two-steps-back slouch toward a world in which a very young boy (like mine, pictured up top) can wear pink and purple legwarmers without bystanders batting an eye. He’s five, and who cares. And fortunately, my two five-year olds go to a remarkable preschool, where messages like this one are plastered on the walls:
Unfortunately, not everyone in our wider community may feel the same way as my preschool community does. Yet.
Fortunately, my daughter does. When my son told his twin sister he was jealous of her new legwarmers, she let him “borrow” them without missing a beat.
Unfortunately, he came home without them on. (Not sure what happened at school – highly likely he just got hot.)
And for one final moment of whiplash, while walking down a main street in town the other day returning to my office, I passed by the new French bakery, with a sign on its door that read “Nous sommes Charlie.”
It broke my heart. And then my spirits rose again.
Because right next door, at an indoor playspace for babies and tots, I saw this:
“Raise courageous people,” the rainbow-colored sign in the window reads. There’s a second sign above the first, with a quote from Matisse: “Creativity takes courage.”
I have a dream, that my two little children–and all our little children–will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by their anatomy, and what they like to play with, and what they like to wear, but by the content of their character.
Raise courageous people. Raise courage, people.
Though I may have whiplash, I, too, have a dream today.
Once again coverage of rape and sexual assault has devolved into a debate over numbers. Discussions of new studies that claim to disprove previous statistics, disagreements about the size of the respondent pool or other aspects of research methodology, the veracity of a particular incident and, of course, the old saw that victims are simply ‘making it up’ crowd the news media.
And no matter how many times researchers explain that many of these comparisons are of the apples-to-oranges variety — that studies vary in the ways they define rape, in what they consider instances of sexual assault, that even relatively small samples can give important clues about attitudes, we continue on the numbers track. Too often prevalence becomes the central issue. The crime itself takes a back seat. As Jennifer Rothchild did here at Girl w/Pen! last month, activists and researchers repeatedly point out that even one rape is one rape too many. These voices seem lost in the news swirl. For many it is easier to debate the extent of the problem than hunker down and take concrete measures to address it. This has been particularly true on many university campuses. A year ago President Obama announced an initiative to address sexual assault on college campuses and by October 2014 over 80 institutions of higher education were under investigation for possible violations of Title IX related to sexual assaults.
The stories of rape victims who have reported their attackers to college authorities and the lack serious consequences these perpetrators faced are astounding. Such responses further victimize the young women–and men–brave enough to speak up. Many survivors leave school rather than run the risk of encountering their rapists on campus. The lesson is obvious. Speaking up is dangerous. Think carefully before you jump from the proverbial fire into the frying pan. It is not surprising that the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that while sexual assault is a serious problem for all women between the ages of 18 and 24, young women attending institutions of higher education are less likely to report sexual assaults than those not in college.
Debates on the prevalence of sexual assault help most when they lead to better data collection efforts. This week I had an opportunity to talk with Jessica Ladd, the founder of Sexual Health Innovations, about procedures to address sexual assaults on campuses. Sexual Health Innovations develops technology to advance sexual health and wellbeing in the US. Their latest effort, Callisto, recently received seed funding from the Google Impact Awards program. Callisto is designed to provide a more transparent, empowering and confidential reporting mechanism for college sexual assault survivors. The website states:
“Callisto allows sexual assault survivors to complete an incident report online, receive a clear explanation of their reporting options, and then either directly submit the report to their chosen authority or save it as a time-stamped record. Survivors saving a record can log back in at any time to officially report their assault or can choose to have their report automatically submitted to the authorities if someone else reports the same assailant.”
The development of Callisto began by listening to the voices of those most involved and affected. The system is based on interviews, focus groups, and surveys with over 50 survivors of campus sexual assaults. Respondents shared their perspectives and the difficulties they experienced in reporting rape. Ladd noted that a critical component of addressing sexual assault adequately is enabling survivors to report their experiences in a timely manner, while also giving them more control and choice in the decision to report as well as in the timing of their reporting. Given the many possible consequences involved in reporting and the traumatic nature of the crime, it is not always a decision that can be made quickly. At the same time, investigators may see waiting to report as a sign of doubt concerning the seriousness and/or the facts of the incident.
A time-stamped, third party sexual assault reporting system such as Callisto provides a confidential record of the attack. Such a report is less likely to be dismissed as a second thought or a reinterpretation of events even if the decision to report is made weeks later. Furthermore, in order for colleges and universities to develop effective policies on sexual assault they must understand the problems on their own campuses. Collecting campus specific information is key.
Better data can foster more effective procedures, but neither data nor policies can ensure redress and justice for students. Ladd points out that Callisto is an aid in the first two steps of what she sees as a five-step process:
Recording and preserving evidence
Reporting the assault
Investigating the incident reported
Adjudicating the case
And finally, reaching a resolution.
Ideally every educational institution would have an advocate available for sexual assault survivors to turn to for confidential information, advice and support. But this advocate would not be responsible for investigating a rape when and if it is reported. Effective support and advocacy require different skills and entail different responsibilities than those of investigation or adjudication. Investigations should be thorough and professional; evidence needs to be considered carefully by administrators who grasp the seriousness of the crime and who are without personal ties to the survivor or the accused. Furthermore, once an investigation is undertaken, a different university staff member may be needed to advise the accused.
These procedures are needed to ensure justice for every student. Institutionalizing them may be complicated. Justice is seldom as simple as we’d like it to be. But fair and just treatment is the only way to assure survivors they will be heard and heeded. The only way to prevent attackers from assuming they will ‘get away’ with no more than a slap on the wrist. Once in place, these five steps can go a long way toward making our nation’s campuses safer for all students.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, writer and Teach For America alum Amanda Machado considered the difficulties of being an LGBT teacher in the contemporary US. Machado spoke to a number of teachers who struggle with how, when, or even whether to come out to their students and colleagues. Their stories closely mirror those of the gay and lesbian teachers I interviewed for my recent book, School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom. I interviewed 45 gay and lesbian teachers for the project; because I was interested in knowing how context matters for their experiences, about half of the interviews were with teachers in California, a state with multiple legal protections for LGBT teachers, and the other half in Texas, a state with none – LGBT teachers (and all non-federal employees, in fact) can be fired for their sexual identity in the state. In addition to varying the legal context, I also varied school level (elementary, middle, and high school), community (rural, suburban, and urban areas), and school size (small, medium, and large student populations). Across these varied settings, a common theme emerged—gay and lesbian teachers struggle to integrate the dictates of gay pride with the demands of teaching professionalism.
Some would argue that LGBT teachers who come out to students violate the expectations of teaching professionalism by exposing children to unnecessary displays of sexuality. Look no further than the comments on The Atlantic piece for ample evidence of this discourse! Of course, this position neglects the fact that heterosexual teachers put their own sexualities similarly on when they talk about or display pictures of their spouses and children. In the US, teachers have always faced intense levels of moral scrutiny. Gay and lesbian teachers feel even more under the microscope than others. As a result, they struggle with unsupportive administrators and fears of discrimination and harassment, just as Machado describes.
What Machado discusses less directly, however, is the countervailing pressure gay and lesbian teachers feel to live up to the expectations of gay pride. Today, LGBTs are expected to be “out and proud” at all times—this 2013 Huffington Post article by Margaret Cho explains why many feel so strongly about it. While there are compelling reasons to encourage coming out, as Cho enumerates, the insistence that coming out is a political responsibility for LGBTs has its drawbacks. Symbolically, it reinforces very black and white definitions of sexuality—the language of coming out suggests an “always was and always will be” model of sexual or gender identity, which may not be true for all people and limits the possibilities of sexual and gender fluidity. On a more practical level, the dictate to be out ignores the high risks associated with coming out for LGBTs disadvantaged by race, class, ability, health status, and a whole host of other factors. LGBT teachers weighing the costs and benefits of coming out consider much more than the psychological and pedagogical benefits of coming out that Machado describes in addition to the costs of potential discrimination. They must also consider the invisible cost of violating the ethic of gay pride. This added burden puts teachers in a no-win situation, stuck between twin uncompromising expectations of gay pride and teaching professionalism.
The lucky few teachers in my book who were out to their students and maintained a good reputation as educators had a number of characteristics in common—all but one worked in California (where the right to be out is legally protected), they were mostly white and thereby able to avoid the added burden of racial discrimination, and they were all partnered and conventionally gendered, meaning they weren’t easily read as gay or lesbian by their look or comportment. These commonalities point to both institutional and cultural factors that shape LGB teachers’ experiences. First, the fact that only one teacher in Texas in my study was out to his students suggests the power of the legal context to shape LGB teachers’ decisions about whether or not to be out. (Indeed, even that Texas teacher happened to work in one of the few counties in Texas that had local nondiscrimination protections at the time.) The other similarities amongst the out teachers—that they were white, gender normative, and partnered—reveals something troubling about the kind of LGB visibility that is achievable in schools. Just as with coming out, LGB visibility is shaped by pride and professionalism. Not only do schools exert pressure on teachers to meet narrow and normative standards of appearance and comportment, but so does the mainstream gay rights movement. In recent years, there’s been a notable turn toward what scholars call “homonormativity” within the LGBT movement, or the insistence that LGBTs look, act, and live just like their heterosexual counterparts. As a result, teachers who don’t fit the ideal archetype of the LGB teacher face the doubly constraining expectations of the teaching profession and of the LGBT movement.
To promote LGBT visibility for some at the expense of less privileged or normatively presenting others is not the sexual justice I envision for a more equitable future. But given these challenges, how can we get there? First, we need comprehensive, enforceable, and accessible nondiscrimination protections for all LGBTs. Not only were Texas teachers hindered by fears of termination and on-the-job harassment, but many California teachers were too, simply because they didn’t know about or understand the legal protections afforded them by the state! Accordingly, widening that safety net and making sure LGBT workers know about it is an important first step. But that’s just the beginning—the teachers in my study and in Machado’s article also contend with more subtle forms of exclusion and censure, including judgmental expectations of what an “acceptable” gay, lesbian, or bisexual teacher looks, sounds, and acts like—expectations that come not just from the school environment, but from the mainstream gay rights movement as well. Changes in the norms of teaching professionalism and gay pride are necessary to enable sexual justice in schools, for teachers and students alike.
Catherine Connell received her PhD in sociology from the University of Texas Austin in 2010 and is currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University. Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and work and occupations. She is the author of School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom (UC Press) and is currently beginning a research project on the legacy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell within the US military.
* This post originally ran in the Ms. Magazine blog. And I can’t help but post a link to father-of-two-girls President Barack Obama who made news recently for sorting toys outside of the expected gender box — literally!
More recently, a new set of princesses came onto the scene who are also stealthily undermining stereotypes. The Guardian Princesses, who made a splash with their debut last year, are back with newly released titles just this past week. The series is the brainchild of UC Riverside Professor of Media and Cultural Studies Setsu Shigematsu, who found herself at a loss when her daughter began to succumb to the ever-present influence of princess culture and denying access to it only seemed to make things worse. Not unlike Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and her suggestion to “Fight Fun with Fun” through alternatives to princess culture, Shigematsu wrote a different princess story and, after reading it to her daughter’s friends, a new legacy was born.
The Guardian Princesses are presented in a range of body styles and are of diverse ethnicities and there’s no fighting the long dresses, necklaces and flowing hair that’s considered part of the princess look. The approach of the Guardian Princess Alliance is firmly in the “ease in and then make a change” camp, something they are likely to be critiqued for by those who see capitulation in any form as not radical enough and even pandering. But, as their peppy video (below) reveals, despite their poufy dresses, the princesses are unhindered in their mobility and the rhetoric used about their mission is hardly passive.
The newest series released features Princess Ten Ten, who is the most gender-fluid in appearance of the lot (or “gender independent” as they term it) and who is bullied and faces rejection within her family. In a wise move, all of the Guardian Princess books are compliant with Common Core standards, meaning they can be adopted for classroom use, and there is a distinctive environmental focus to their stories. One risk with this new series might be making the stories too didactic or pitting the princesses against the evils of corporate greed every time, but, overall, the shift in what these princesses do and what is valued is an exhilarating breath of fresh air. How well they sell, and how long the Guardian Princess Alliance can keep up with demand and generate new work, are perhaps the issues at hand. The desire by visionary small business ownersto put what are still alternative toys, books and gender messaging out to the public seems an uphill battle, one mitigated by energy, perseverance and available funds when up against so many cultural barriers, which is all the more reason to celebrate those that do.
This month, I bring you a guest post that reminds us of a prevalent crime which is often kept secret, causing both physical and mental health issues for survivors. I welcome Jennifer Rothchild, PhD, to Girl w/Pen. She is Associate Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies (GWSS) Program at the University of Minnesota, Morris. One of the founders of the American Sociological Association’s Sociology of Development section and author of the book Gender Trouble Makers: Education and Empowerment in Nepal (Routledge, 2006), she researches gender and development, families, childhoods, and social inequalities.
One in five women will be assaulted in their lifetime. But in my story, it was 3 out of 5 women.
I was one of the lucky ones. There are five of us best friends. Three were raped. Their stories are their stories, and not mine to tell. But I will and want to tell you, as I tell my students when we talk about intimate violence, it could have very easily been me. My friends’ stories and mine are exactly the same: Our families and home lives were similar, we went to school together and had the same classes. We went to parties together, and we more often than not drank at those parties. We wished for the same boys to notice us, to like us. We all flirted with the really cute ones. Our lives were mirrors of one another. The only difference: One other friend and I just got lucky. She and I do not have our own story of rape.
That was the 1980s and 1990s. Flash forward to today: Those women and I are still best friends. We are professionals, partners, mothers. Are my friends who were assaulted “over it?” No. They are happy and successful, but they never will be “over it.” The White House Council on Women and Girls (2014) reports that sexual assault victims often suffer from a wide range of physical and mental health problems that can follow them for life – including depression, anxiety, chronic pain, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are also more likely than non-victims to develop alcohol and substance abuse problems and attempt or consider suicide.
Again, 1 in 5 women – or nearly 22 million – have been raped in their lifetimes. In calculating the prevalence of rape, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) counts completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration. Like other researchers, the CDC considers attempted forced penetration to fall within the definition of “rape” because that crime can be just as traumatizing for victims. As the CDC further explains, the most common form of rape victimization experienced by women was completed forced penetration: 12.3% of women in the United States were victims of completed forced penetration; 8% were victims of alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration, and 5.2% were victims of attempted forced penetration. These are lifetime estimates, and a victim might have experienced multiple forms of these subtypes of rape in her lifetime.
By now, most of us have heard the story of “Jackie” who claims to have been gang-raped at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia and the fallout from her story in Rolling Stone magazine now under dispute. Less well known is the story of Emma Sulkowicz, a visual arts major at Columbia University, who is carrying around her dorm mattress until her rapist is removed from campus. Sulkowicz says she was raped in her dorm room bed when she was a sophomore, and as her senior thesis project, she carries her mattress everywhere as a visual representation of the violence she bears.
What’s happening here?
As a sociologist who focuses on gender and sexuality, I argue that there is a confluence of sex and violence. Specifically, the way we socialize girls and boys about sex has deep and intractable roots in violence. I assert that in order to address and understand this we need to put our sociological imaginations to work.
C. Wright Mills’ “sociological imagination” begins with his concept of “a personal trouble,” what one thinks of as a private matter, exclusively their own and not experienced by anyone else. For my best friends, my students, and the women whose stories have been splashed all over the news and the sexual violence committed against them—each woman could think of her story as a personal trouble of her own. Mills notes:
…people do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction… Seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history, ordinary people do not usually know what this connection means for the kinds of people they are becoming and for the kinds of history-making in which they might take part. (1959:3-4)
But the troubles for these women are not only their own. Mills would contend that they are also “public issues,” reflecting just one of many such “troubles” that comprise a complex organization “of an historical society as a whole… [troubles that] overlap and interpenetrate to form the larger structure of social and historical life.” As such, personal troubles such as “Jackie’s” are connected to public issues, such as gender inequality and the way we define sex in our society.When we situate individual stories like “Jackie’s” in a broader social-historical context, we can visualize the intersections of individual biographies within social structures. We are then, as Mills argued, better equipped to not only understand society, but also to transform it.
In my individual biography, I was lucky, and still feel lucky. I am also angry. I am angry that my friends were hurt. I am angry that people I care about are still being hurt. I teach about intimate violence, and every year, I talk about trigger warnings and offer students an “out” if the material is too painful for them. I Every single year, I have at least one or two students come forward and explain that they have been victimized—either directly or as a secondary victim—and would like to not participate in my section on intimate violence.
And just last week, a student in another class came to my office to tell that she had been gang raped last year, and also a former student emailed me to share the story of her having been recently sexual assaulted.
I was lucky, but whether or not individuals are sexually assaulted should not be about luck. Not just sociologists, but all of us need to think critically about how we socially construct both gender and sexuality and how we socialize youth to think about sex and violence. Using our sociological imaginations we can move towards positive social change. Because, in the case of sexual assault, one is too many.
Hanukkah, then Christmas next week, followed by the start of a new year—a time of hope and beginnings. Why doesn’t it feel that way? For the past several days I’ve been searching for the bright spots. The ones that can provide the energy we need in the midst of so much darkness. Not an easy task. Each day new horrors erupt: the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre and still no reasonable national gun control legislation; free passes for racial biases and deadly police brutality; the sickening slaughter of school children in Pakistan; ongoing revelations of rape in the US military and on university campuses. Negative news can so easily obliterate positive signs in the struggles for equal rights.
But all around us there is tangible evidence of the many ways feminist work contributes to positive progress for everyone. The 2014 successes range from long overdue firsts ( the Fields Medal in Mathematics went to Maryam Mirzakhani) to innovative group actions led and powered by women (the National Coalition of Nuns support for women’s right to contraceptives; the creation of the hash tag #YesAllWomen and the responses of millions of women following the deadly rampage in Santa Barbara by a man angered when women turned down his advances). These examples are familiar to many, but countless other stories of women’s efforts are less well known:
Women around the globe rose up in protest against those who blame the victim in cases of rape. Young US activists like Wagatwe Wanjuki worked with Congressional leaders to address how colleges handle sexual assault cases. Nana Queiroz in Brazil initiated a photo campaign on Facebook in response to a survey where sixty–five percent of the respondents agreed “…that if dressed provocatively, women deserve to be attacked and raped.” And in Kenya women took to the streets wearing mini skirts to protest the rape of a woman who was stripped and raped in public because she was wearing a short skirt. Conversations about rape are no longer hidden, ignored or silenced; they are public, viral and loud.
President Obama selected Vanita Gupta to head of Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. She will be at the forefront of the Department’s investigation in Ferguson, Missouri and as well as the federal lawsuits in North Carolina and Texas on voter ID legislation. Women with law degrees were few and far between forty years ago. Today Gupta’s gender is a non-issue.
Olive Bowers, a thirteen-year old surfing enthusiast in Australia took on Tracks magazine for their treatment of women. Her letter read in part: “I clicked on your web page titled “Girls” hoping I might find some women surfers and what they were up to, but it entered into pages and pages of semi-naked, non-surfing girls. These images create a culture in which boys, men and even girls reading your magazine will think that all girls are valued for is their appearance.” Her words may still illicit backlash, but they’re more common sense than radical in today’s world.
And as an example of an innovative effort to ensure that women’s work is not lost, women across the US and Canada took part in the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a thon. The Edit-a thon addressed gender bias by bringing together volunteers to add more, and more accurate, information to Wikipedia. In 1980 women in California noted that only 3 percent of history textbook content included women. They founded the National Women’s History Project. Much has been accomplished, but the Edit-a thon is evidence of work still needed.
Each of these stories is about things only dreamed of by feminists who entered the US struggle for equality under the banner of women’s liberation back in the 1970’s. Most reasonable people now take for granted that women belong in schools of law, medicine and business; in every field of academic inquiry and artistic endeavor; and in every type of occupation and employment. There’s a long way to go but women understand persistence, know how to organize and innovate, and have no intention of withdrawing from the struggle for a better, safer, more just world.
Yes, there will be set backs. Some are frightened by expanding equality, challenging patriarchy and questioning traditional concepts of gender. But I am certain that a year from now old binaries will have loosened a bit more. There will be feminist progress to celebrate. That is, I am certain of this if we each take a deep breath and dig into the work ahead.
Guest blogger Rebecca Hoffman asks: Is Lena Dunham’s new memoir feminism for a new generation? Or something else?
It has been said by women’s historian Laurel Thatcher that “well-behaved women seldom make history”. Lena Dunham’s new book, Not That Kind of Girl, depicts early womanhood as a time fraught with adventures that dance with danger, emotional upheavals that rival any that a woman could imagine and an overwhelming immaturity that is perplexing to the central character of the book – Lena Dunham herself.
As I wrote this review, Dunham was ensnared in a media frenzy regarding the question of whether she had engaged in sexual misconduct with her younger sister. The public and media were reacting to passages from this book in which Dunham describes interactions with her sister that struck the public as being unusual or inappropriate.
In case you may have missed it, a few links to current coverage to help give a context to the brouhaha here, here, and here.
It would be easy to say Dunham is badly behaved but it is more like she is filled with a self-loathing that allows her to get plunged into various circumstances which imperil and injure her emotionally and sometimes physically. It’s almost as if she finds herself so unattractive and unimportant that the world just acts upon her and her role as a writer and thinker is to process these experiences without ever demanding something better for herself.
Dunham may or may not be making history but she is creating a highly readable, relatable story of her life that is often hard to read – especially the passages where she is interacting with her sister in ways that are generally deemed socially inappropriate. She’s like a tall glass of water spilling over its edges and puddling on the fine wood table below it. The same cringe we have for the water on wood we have for Dunham as she recounts her various misadventures to the reader.
If this is feminism of the 2014 era, then I am scared for young women everywhere. How will they survive their younger years, gain insight and correct their life courses to make a strong mark without destroying everything around them? How does a strong woman emerge from such a variety of traumas? Or are we confusing strong women from damaged, hurt women who have a capacity to endure any unpleasant circumstance that life throws her way. I’m not sure which way the text is pointing.
Had I merely picked up this book without knowing about Dunham’s successful show, “Girls”, I might have stopped reading partway through as her narrative, while very easy to read and very well written, traces the path of a person who simply does not seem to ever gain insight from her actions nor of their repercussions. What’s particularly fascinating to me is how the show so closely mirrors the passages in the book and I wonder how much is truth and how much is fiction both on television and in the book. Perhaps it does not matter but it is hard to separate an artist from her art and not wonder at least a little about truth versus creative license.
Curiously, this volume is a good read. I found myself reading it with a hopefulness that Dunham would finally turn an emotional corner, find true love, contentment and settle enough to enjoy a life she deserves and gain all the power, credit and fame she is so hungry for. Yet the narrative bumps along from one uneasy story to another tracing her emergent sexuality, her confusion about the world of work and how to build herself a good career and her “art” which could roughly be defined as her dogged determination to remain her “authentic self” while presenting her life without any filter to the audience. What lays exposed are her tales of family, her relationship with her parents, her sister, her friends and with men who often treat her so badly one wonders how she manages to remain upbeat about each subsequent relationship.
Dunham is a good writer. She writes in a beautiful, plain language that completely brings a reader close. But would she lose more audience than other authors would were she to write about other topics besides sex, family dysfunction and her inner psyche? I bet not.
What she is providing, I fear, is a perspective on early womanhood today and the true confusion many young women feel when they are trying to define themselves, make it in the big city, hone their skills, present themselves in the workforce and more. What appears is a person who seems sort of half-baked, she seems like a terrific person who would benefit from a trusted mentor who could guide her to make choices that will not injure her and help her find the types of success and adoration she so deeply craves.
What insights did I gain from this book? More than anything I am reminded that early womanhood is filled with conflicting societal expectations: that women can be highly educated but a biological clock ticks louder and louder as years go on for many, that women and men are equal yet men often get the better of women when emotional or physical abuse enter the equation, that family often does not protect and boost a young woman into a position of power for her life to come, and that friends often will encourage each other to do outrageously stupid things. Dunham shares so much with the reader, without filter, and I’m grateful to her for her viewpoints. However I am not certain her intimates will be equally delighted with her book.
Reading this book galvanized my thinking about girlhood to womanhood. As a working mom with a daughter and a son, I see a real need to imbue each of them with a sense of personal self-respect and respect for others so that when they start to head toward adulthood they do it with heads up and awareness of the troubles they could encounter along the way.
I give Dunham credit for taking big chances by writing this book. Yet I do wonder by writing this what she has gained. Perhaps it is relief from unbearable memories—memories that may resonate with more women than we can even imagine.
Rebecca Hoffman is Principal at Good Egg Concepts. She’s passionate about fostering creativity wherever in every aspect of life. In her spare time Rebecca loves fine art and low culture, sketch comedy and travel to anyplace with better weather than Chicago.Follow her on Facebook.
“But can’t nobody protect our sons, not even the president.” While Mr. George, an African American resident of a large east coast city, uttered these words years ago, they seem oddly prescient given President Obama’s recent comments about the death of Michael Brown. Last summer, as Ferguson responded in protest to Darren Wilson’s murder of an unarmed African American young man, I gave the following comments on the book in which Mr. George appears, sociologist Alice Goffman’s, On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. For a summary of the book (and the controversy that surrounds it) please see here, here, here and here. I am sharing my comments now, in the wake of the grand jury investigation and an emerging national discussion about racial inequality, because it is important to think seriously about the criminalization of young, black, poor, urban men. It is important to think seriously about how these young men are represented in academic research as well as popular culture. It is important because how we know what we know about race, gender, and class shapes solutions to inequality. These reflections are part of a way in to that conversation:
Comments* on Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City Author Meets Critics, American Sociological Association Meeting, 2014
In honor of what I found to be one of the most compelling parts of On The Run – the raw, present, seemingly unfiltered voices of the residents of 6th Street, I’d like to start with a quote from Mr. George. He is someone Professor Goffman highlights as a “clean” resident of 6th street. In talking about his grandsons Mr. George says, “They say it’s changed now with Obama. It’s a new era. But can’t nobody protect our sons, not even the president. I’m telling you, if I was thirty years younger I’d be praying for girls. If I had a son I’d be done lost my mind now. I’d start mourning and praying the day he was born.” (80).
Professor Goffman spends On The Run detailing the lives of Mr. George’s grandsons and their friends, the 6th Street Boys. In many ways, the stories in On The Run validate Mr. George’s concerns, outlining the way in which the lives of young urban African American men are shaped by mass incarceration and state surveillance. The experiences of the young men of 6th street are deeply circumscribed by state surveillance and control – such that their lives are characterized by immobility even as they are on the run, a contradiction that defines their existence.
Professor Goffman’s fieldnotes are so vivid, the stories she shares so dramatic, that many readers may find themselves drawn in, as I was, to the lives of these young men – the dramatic, breathless escapes from the police, the games played with younger brothers to teach them necessary evasion skills, the dramatic and suspenseful wars between the 4th street boys and the 6th street boys, the adventure of the drives to visit friends and relatives in prison, the tediousness of waiting for loved one’s numbers to be called in state institutions. Indeed readers may feel, though many likely have never experienced first hand, the adrenaline rush of those escapes, the cockroaches crawling on one’s skin in a drug addicted mother’s house, the pain and fear of having ones body physically punished by police, the particular pacing of a day, a week, a life shaped by one’s son’s interactions with the criminal justice system. While we are reading the book we are all on 6th street. These dramatic, evocative and compelling stories, invite the reader to deeply feel what it is like to be “on the run” while simultaneously being immobilized, frozen in place by state surveillance…
…On the Run is one of those books that gives us the chance to have a dialogue about the role of ethnography, its relationship to social theory, and the position of the ethnographer in his or her research, reflexivity and relations with the researched…I suggest that the beauty of this book is in the details, and that linking these details more directly to social theory and empirical context would provide deeper, more contextualized understandings of these stories and fend off misinterpretations, readings of the data likely not intended by Professor Goffman.
…Take, for example the story about Tim catching a case. 13 year-old Tim left school in the middle of the school day. His teacher followed him out of school and on to the street. Tim threw rocks at the teacher, though none of them hit her, but she did apparently twist her ankle in pursuit. For this infraction Tim was not suspended, expelled, or given detention. He was charged with assault.
Like so many of the stories in On The Run this one appears in a larger narrative that brings the reader into the courtroom as well as to the post-courtroom celebration of the fact that Tim’s “victim” didn’t appear to press charges in court. We feel the tension, the boredom and the relief along with Tim’s community. I would like to suggest that this story, compelling as it is, is one of those stories that, much like a single brush stroke in an impressionist painting, needs context. That is, any particular dab of paint may be a color that touches one’s soul, but a viewer cannot comprehend that stroke as one of many that makes up a pond of water lilies until one steps back and looks at that particular point of color in the context of other brush strokes.
What other brush strokes might be important here? What sort of theoretical frame might shed light on Tim’s experience? What sort of empirical context could help us understand his story? I suggest we look to some of the ways scholars understand and analyze the experiences of young men of color in urban areas. For example, in his book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, Victor Rios brings us a compelling analysis of the ways in which young men of color experience state surveillance. He argues that multiple institutions in these young men’s lives (schools, community organizations and of course the courts) collude in a process of criminalization, literally producing these young men as criminals regardless of their actual behavior. While Tim was pushed out of the school system of punishment and in to the criminal justice system for throwing a rock, the lives of young men of color in Punished indicate that even if their behavior is seemingly benign, it is difficult for young men to escape similar processes of criminalization – either formally (state level punishment) or informally (through labeling processes).
The case of Ronny in Punished exemplifies this informal process of criminalization. Ronny, a young African American man interviewed for a job and then declined to shake the hand of the white woman who was interviewing him. What was likely perceived as rude behavior by the white woman, to Ronny was logical, drawing on knowledge that white women see black men as physical and sexual threats. He didn’t get the job.
This model of criminalization takes into account both the behavior of those who are criminalized, the responses of those around them and the institutions in which they find themselves. According to this approach it would not really matter whether or not Tim caught a case for throwing rocks, because likely at some point he would be criminalized for something, even if that something was nothing.
To speak to this point, sociologist Ann Ferguson, in her seminal book Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, describes a process she calls “adultification” distinctly related to intersections of age, gender and race in the criminalization of young men of color. She argues, writing about African American middle school boys, that their “transgressions are made to take on a sinister, intentional, fully conscious tone that is stripped of any element of childish naïveté” (83). Ferguson found that young black boys did not benefit from the “boys will be boys” frame often used to casually excuse white boys’ more socially undesirable behavior, an analysis that is born out by recent findings that African American young men are seen as more adult and dangerous by police (Goff et al 2014). Indeed, in my own research on young men and homophobia I found that African American boys were punished by school authorities for engaging in sexist and homophobic behavior regularly expressed by white boys who were never once punished for it.
Research on school punishment indicates that these gendered and raced processes are widespread, beyond ethnographic findings by Goffman, Ferguson and myself. In general African American students are disciplined more in schools. African American students are overrepresented in so-called “discretionary” expulsions, or expulsions for offenses that are subjectively, rather than objectively judged. Recently Hannon, Defina and Bruch indicated the centrality of intersections of race and gender to these punishment practices. Their research indicates that while skin tone plays a key role in the likelihood of suspension for black girls (i.e., girls with darker skin are suspended at significantly higher rates), African American boys are simply at a higher overall risk for suspension for any infraction regardless of skin tone.
Given that information, let’s pull back the lens on On The Run’s findings. What does it do when we place Tim’s experience in this theoretical and empirical context? It does a couple things.
First it may indicate that whether or not Tim throws a rock at a teacher while skipping school may be irrelevant. He would likely be drawn into the crimininalization process anyway. Focusing on the process of criminalization suggests that Tim’s violent behavior may be less important than the reaction of other actors and institutions which already frame young men of color as dangerous, predatory and criminal. Something that we perhaps saw play out devastatingly in Ferguson Missouri, with the murder of Michael Brown.
Second, placing the vivid and compelling stories in On The Run in theoretical and empirical context may also suggest slightly different interpretations of some of these stories. For instance, the problem of the “manly flaws” explanations provided by the men for their failings. Professor Goffman finds that the men of 6th street sometimes use an updated version of what Leibow termed “manly flaws” to explain their “personal inadequacies.” They could not be a good father, find a good job, finish a degree because they were wanted by the police. They were “on the run.” In this line of thinking, being “on the run” serves as a way to save face. But to return to Ronny’s story about shaking the hand of the white woman, or rather not shaking the hand, we can see a third explanation – the criminalization process. Whether one is actually under state control or not certainly isn’t the only factor that determines one’s ability to perform one’s social role successfully. One can be criminalized without actually being directly subject to state control. To suggest otherwise relies a bit heavily on individualized explanations at the cost of systemic and structural ones.
Finally, placing these stories in theoretical and empirical context raises questions about the nature of ethnography, the role of the researcher and how one writes up one’s ethnographic findings. As I said earlier, one of the strengths of this book is its immediacy. I’m sure I was not alone in the end as tears filled my eyes when Chuck passed away, his too short life a testament to the immorality and injustices of racism, policing, and poverty that defines contemporary America. The rage, helplessness and grief shared by Professor Goffman over her friend’s death immediately called to mind another ethnographer’s experience with death. Renato Rosaldo lost his wife Michelle Rosaldo while she was hiking members of the community they researched. A decade later he reflected on that experience, using psychoanalytic, sociological and anthropological theory to understand, explain his grief and range. The community he had been studying practiced headhunting, a ritual he had a hard time understanding, until he experienced his own personal tragedy. In analyzing his grief (and accompanying rage) years later he was able to understand the strange, the foreign, perhaps what seemed deeply immoral, as familiar, understandable, as perhaps, normal.
This of course, is the job and the challenge of the ethnographer – to render the strange, the foreign, the problematic as familiar. And the familiar – strange, problematic and foreign. What is the role of the evocative story in ethnographic research – the breathless escape from the police? The moment when the cop steps on your neck? The shooting of a friend? Can these stories be rendered in a way that underscores the persistence of inequality, racism, and institutional and personal violence while not reinforcing tropes of the savage, the lawless or the failed man?
Answering these questions suggests that linking ethnographic data to social theory is not merely an intellectual exercise. Rather theory provides context, deepens the analysis and can protect against interpretive distortions. Connecting the compelling evidence from 6th street more intimately to social theory as well as other empirical findings on racism, inequality and gender helps to underscore that these young men are not suffering from their own series of particularly poor choices, but because of their position in larger structural inequalities…
[On the Run] raises important questions about the role of ethnography in examining inequality, racism, punishment and surveillance practices. It highlights the multiple relationships between ethnography and theory. But most importantly, On the Run provides dramatic and compelling evidence for the daily interactional ways in which young urban men of color are surveilled, criminalized and punished.
*These comments are edited. Please email CJ Pascoe at email@example.com for the full text.
As Deborah Siegel points on in her latest post here at Girl w/Pen, there’s an abundance of not very helpful ‘noise’ in the media these days about feminists and feminism. My vote for the most unhelpful contribution to a serious discussion of feminist goals is last week’s inclusion of ‘feminist’ in Time magazine’s 2015 annual online poll “Which Word Should Be Banished”.
Reaction to the poll was swift. Time quickly apologized in the wake of protests from groups and individuals proud to identify with the rich history and ongoing work of feminists. (see a few examples here, here and here) Time also published a thoughtful, powerful essay by Robin Morgan, “Feminism is a 21st Century Word”. Morgan discussed the history and definition of feminism, noting the simplicity of the dictionary wording: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.”
Time’s apology for the inclusion of ‘feminist’ in their poll included the following statement, “While we meant to invite debate about some ways the word was used this year, that nuance was lost, and we regret that its inclusion has become a distraction from the important debate over equality and justice.”
So, end of kerfuffle, on to the next news cycle, right? Not so fast. Aside from the fact that Time apologized but didn’t actually remove ‘feminist’ from the list, anyone who thinks the episode was an isolated, unimportant case of poor judgment runs the risk of engaging in wishful thinking. The poll “…meant to invite debate about the ways the word was used this year” did nothing of the sort. Yes, it was an opportunity for feminists to speak clearly and publicly about the legacy and the work of feminists. But reasoned debate that included those outside the feminist community? Not so much. Rather, the poll provided a revealing glimpse of the depth of misogyny embedded in our culture. Too many still think it’s fine to denigrate women and to dismiss objections to the trivialization of ‘feminist’ as ‘humorless’, or angry man hating, or the knee jerk reactions of rigid ideologues.
I’m disheartened that the experienced journalists at Time were unable to foresee the impact of their word choice. But, then again, power can be a blindfold. The inclusion of ‘feminist’ among trivial phrases such as “ I can’t even’, and ‘sorry not sorry’ and words like ‘kale’ and ‘influencer’ fostered ridicule rather than thoughtful debate. The list was a perfect opportunity for those who troll the Internet with snarky remarks about anyone who is not a white heterosexual male. The ones who attempt to disguise hatred as humor and fool no one.
And yes, I know, I get it, this is the tone of many discussions these days: take no prisoners, relentlessly ridicule anyone you disagree with, and never allow data or conflicting evidence to creep into a viewpoint. In such an environment, the idea that feminism is not women against men, but a complex belief in the equality of women and men is lost. Those in the ‘be sure, hang tough, any disagreement is a personal attack’ crowd rarely see the worth of a discussion in which various perspectives are heard, viewpoints are expanded and mutual learning takes place. Forgetting the full range of responses generated by the poll and what they reveal about our current cultural divides is dangerous.
My father liked to quote “sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you” in advising his children to ignore the teasing of friends. I’m not so sure. Words can hurt. Either/or dialogue kills discussion, shuts off communication, amplifies disagreement, and obscures commonalities. Without thoughtful dialogue, dialogue that includes respect for differing perspectives and experiences as well as a tolerance for ambiguity, I fear we will never achieve the just and equitable world so many of us envision.
Here’s a graph, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.
The story the WSJ tells is about the descending steps of income for post-BA degree recipients by “tier” of the institution from which they graduated. The tier captures how elite the institution is considered. This article by Joni Hersch at Vanderbilt is the basis of the article.
Follow the red bars (for men) across from left to right, as the WSJ suggests, and you see inequality. Follow the yellow bars (for women) across from left to right and you see the same pattern of inequality. What makes the higher tier graduates “worth more”? The discussion of it asks us to consider that the value added might not pertain to explicit “merit,” but rather other kinds of cultural “merit” that produce those distinctions. Stuff like where your parents vacationed or what your taste in wine is. This is an important topic of examination.
Meanwhile, the red and yellow bars within each tier demonstrate a whopping gender gap. And that gap is left unremarked. When we look at a graph like this without putting this larger gender inequality up front, we inure people to categorical inequalities, and it makes it easier for readers to persist in seeing such inequalities as natural. Which is, by the way, the root of inequality. Seeing it as natural.
It reminds me of this graph from a recent briefing report about an end to the stall in progressive gender attitudes. What I see is that there’s no convergence. The gap persists. And that isn’t natural.
About Girl w/ Pen
Girl w/ Pen, founded by Deborah Siegel, publicly and passionately dispels modern myths concerning gender, encouraging other feminist scholars, writers, and thinkers to do the same.
The views expressed in posts are those of the columnists and do not represent Girl w/ Pen at large.