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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Here I sit contemplating equality, the topic of a panel I’m on tomorrow, surrounded by jubilant Bears fans streaming out from Soldier Field. My partner and twins are busy visiting penguins, dolphins, and whales, while I’m illegally parked, waiting in my car. Who else but a non-jock family (and recent Midwest transplants) would head for the Shedd Aquarium on a day when the Bears were playing on home turf next door? For my New York friends, this is equivalent to shopping at Macy’s during the Thanksgiving Day Parade, hoping for a place to park.
Pondering the question, “Is what you do about equality, liberation, or both?” in such an atmosphere feels a bit like being teleported to the 50 yard line and declaring to the crowd, “Which way to the fish?”
And yet. I’ve been caught up with the question of women’s representation for a few decades, and with the question of women’s “equal” representation on the page now for a while, through my work with two initiatives—one focused, for starters, on changing the gender ratio of bylines at the world’s opinion forums (The OpEd Project) and the other on disrupting publishing by creating supportive community and, later, “a third way” (She Writes / She Writes Press). Tomorrow’s panel is asking me to interrogate, with precision, what all that effort means.
So allow me, while Bears fans leap over my car and my family enjoys the fish, to think about these and some related ventures together, and out loud.
The OpEd Project (founded in 2008), She Writes (2009), and VIDA, also known as Women in Literary Arts (2009), emerged in the wake of the creation of the Women’s Media Center (2005), an organization that “makes women visible and powerful in the media” and works with the media “to ensure that women’s stories are told and women’s voices are heard,” and in the wake of the earlier Women in Media and News (2001). All these initiatives assume that, in VIDA’s phrasing, “voices change worldviews, and those voices should be multiple and varied.” My OpEd Project sisters and I, in the words of our mission statement and our founder Katie Orenstein, “envision a world in which the best ideas—regardless of where or whom they come from—will have a chance to be heard and shape society and the world.” Kamy Wicoff and I, in our She Writes credo, believe in “empower[ing] and amplify[ing] the voices of women and girls who have not otherwise have been heard” and “in building a platform upon which all of us can stand.”
How do these ventures seek to accomplish these goals? They “increase critical attention to contemporary women’s writing” and “further transparency around gender equality issues in contemporary literary culture” (VIDA). They protest the omission of women’s writing from the pages of career-making journals (VIDA) and from the front-door forums that feed other expressions of thought leadership, punditry, and public influence (OEP). They forge relationships with editors and media institutions that share the mission of changing who narrates the world (OEP). They disrupt the very system they believe excludes women (and others more traditionally without ‘connections’) by creating an alternative press (SWP, led by Kamy and the indomitable Brooke Warner).
And in this multi-faceted fight for women’s share and shaping of public voice, what constitutes a quest for equality and what constitutes a quest for liberation? Feel free to share thoughts here, if you have them. Join us* at Roosevelt University tomorrow, if in Chicago, and tune in later to an NPR station (I’ll post the link here in this space) for more.
*Fellow panelists are:
Jill S. Tietjen, President, Board of the National Women’s Hall of Fame; Author “HerStory: A Timeline of Women who Changed America,” electrical engineer and CEO of Technically Speaking; Inductee of Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame
Carol Adams, PhD, President and CEO, DuSable Museum of African American History; Ebony Magazine’s “Power 100,” Crain’s “2012 List,” the Illinois Arts Council Governor’s Award in the Arts, and the Outstanding Humanitarian Award from the NAACP
Cecilia A. Conrad, PhD, Vice-President, MacArthur Fellows Program; chairs the Congressionally mandated Committee on Equal Opportunities in Sciences and Engineering, an advisory committee to the National Science Foundation; Author “African Americans in the U.S. Economy”
Marjorie Jolles, PhD, Associate Professor and Acting Director, Women’s and Gender Studies, Roosevelt University, Author “Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style”
Moderator: Betty M. Bayer, PhD, Senior Fellow, The Martin Marty Center, University of Chicago; Professor, Women’s Studies, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Co-sponsored by Roosevelt University, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Illinois Institute of Technology, Shimer College
I remember thinking to myself when I first came out, “Thank God I don’t have to deal with women like straight men do.” Identifying as a gay man meant I could hold on to the aspects of relationships with women that I enjoy and not have to “deal with the rest.” I admit this is quite shameful for me to say so publicly. However, the more I pay attention, the more I realize how easy it is to be sexist as a gay man. I learned from Madonna that I knew what it felt like for a girl (here). Or so I thought. Because I had experienced homophobia at a young age and realized that being gay was a threat to manhood, I thought I understood sexism. It turns out, I understood more about homophobia and masculinity than sexism.
My simultaneous dismissing of and identification with women exemplifies what Jane Wardcalls “queer sexism”. Because some gay men have been denied aspects of male privilege does not mean they don’t still have male privilege, or that they are free of masculine expectations and hang-ups. This type of thinking “obscures the ways that gay men, like heterosexual men, have the privilege of making agentic choices about whether to support or reject feminism, whether to listen to or ignore women, whether or not to leave the party when women arrive, and what to say to the men who do.” (here: 158-9).
Gay men’s well-intentioned yet lopsided relationship with straight women has received a lot of attention in the last few years. Interestingly, they commonly argue for straight women to change their thinking and behavior in order to accommodate gay men. For example, this post (here) on the gay guy/straight girl contract reminds straight women that gay men “don’t want to go shopping” with you; that we are fine with “giving sex tips” but not hearing about your “lady business” (vagina); that “your boyfriend drama bores us”; that you shouldn’t come to our clubs; and that “you are not a gay man in a women’s body.”
Why is it easier to recognize when a straight man reinforces sexism than when a gay man does it? This becomes even further complicated considering that gay men have different experiences of race, gender expression, class status, culture, and regional identity where the enforcement and ideals of masculinity and femininity vary dramatically for people in different contexts. As a well-mannered Cuban-Mexican-American man, with a very proud Mom, I thought I stood for women and anti-sexism. But as my confession exposes, I wasn’t really fighting for women; I was fighting for acceptance of homosexuality and men’s diverse gender expressions. I now understand that sexism and homophobia are different things.
Consider a conversation I had with Thomas, from San Francisco. He told me he had few female friends and that they “are like gay men in a woman’s body.” (It’s a well-worn trope; think of Mila Kunis’ recent claim about “being a gay guy trapped in a women’s body.”) Thomas explained that these women are empowered because they have adopted a form of toughness that keep them from accepting the “bullshit” in the world by standing up for themselves. Thomas made it clear that he has no interest in being friends with women weren’t like “gay men trapped in women’s bodies.”
To illustrate his point, he told me about his co-worker, Jane. “Jane likes to touch men, be aggressive, and do whatever she wants at work.” This sort of aggressive, boundary-crossing behavior led to her termination. Though Thomas found her termination to be unjust, more importantly he was disappointed in her for not fighting her termination. “I cannot stand women like that. In fact, I want nothing to do with women who don’t stand up for themselves, especially when it’s because of discrimination [in his opinion]. I only keep women around who ‘get it’ and don’t take bullshit.” For Thomas, Jane fell short of the gay-man-trapped-in-a-woman’s-body standard. She wasn’t changing for “the better” because she didn’t fully adopt a “gay man’s” “I don’t give a shit” mentality.
For Thomas, “Women have to choose to be liberated in order to deal with the ‘bullshit’ of the world” (sexism). And while he was also dealing with “bullshit” (homophobia) it was clear that he didn’t understand the distinction. For Thomas, it is a women’s “successful detachment” from patriarchal confinements that make her worthy of his friendship. In other words, if a woman could adopt a gay man’s perspective, defined and approved by gay men, then she’s living the way a woman “should.” However, this mentality seems, to be little more than doing what one wants and not having to deal with complaints (a luxury of male privilege). So, while some women are highly empowered and praised for being a “gay man trapped in a women’s body,” those who do not are excluded labeled as women who just “don’t get it.”
Thomas’ struggles with women are part of queer sexism. His story highlights one way some gay men feel license to define and hold women accountable for what is and what is not “right for women.” While it has the superficial vestiges of a progressive and empowering stance on women, Thomas’ assertions are consistent with what Ward calls “queer sexism”—a veiled form of patriarchy that privileges gay men’s ideas of how women should behave and based off how gay men experience oppression.
In order to avoid queer versions of sexism, gay men must be more aware of the power imbalances in their relationships with women, and think critically about the expectations they do and do not have of women. Gay men must be more in touch with how our gay all male contexts often makes women seem invisible or irrelevant to our lives. Fighting for an anti-sexist culture requires more than just fighting for a non-homophobic one.
Andres Lazaro Lopez is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at Iowa State University in Ames, IA. His research exames the intersections of race and gender in work and culture from a pro-feminist perspective. @alazarolopez
In the last 24 hours I’ve seen a range of responses break out in reaction to this video: “F-Bombs for Feminism: Potty-Mouted Princesses Use Bad Word for Good Cause.”
Some commenters fall immediately into the “cursing = bad” camp and are offended by the language, but for those not turned off, the other initial reaction seems to be glee. There’s an “I can’t believe they’re saying that!” kind of catharsis that accompanies watching little girls drop f-bombs all over the place and show some righteous rage over the injustices they are bound to face due to gender inequity. What seems less present in the general reaction, and concerns me the most, is how these girls — and these causes — are fundamentally being leveraged by a T-shirt company.
For years I’ve written about what I call “fauxpowerment” — the “rah-rah, you go girl,” feel-good phrases and gestures that are meant to pump girls up with confidence or a newly varnished sense of self-esteem (often enough through a makeover) but, in fact, undermine any real confidence building as these messages reinforce that girls’ looks are paramount or that a quick, pink band-aid slapped over a deep wound makes everything better. For those in the Girls’ Studies community or who work at well-developed programs designed just for girls, these attempts are not only insultingly facile, they are understood to be downright harmful and counterproductive. Worst of all is seeing corporations leverage girls for commercial purposes, a tradition, maddeningly, that seems ongoing. That’s the category in which I would put the “Potty-Mouthed Princesses” advertisement — what it fundamentally is.
FCKH8, the company behind the ad, initially responded positively to my queries about their intentions, what charities they are donating proceeds of each sale to, and if the girls in the video were tightly scripted or had any input into the video, but I have not heard back again. I hope to update this post if I do. On their home page they cite their mission as being a “for-profit T-shirt company with an activist heart and a passionate social change mission: arming thousands of people with pro-LGBT equality, anti-racism and anti-sexism T-shirts that act as ‘mini-billboards’ for change.”
A quick look on the FCKH8 website reveals they barely sell T-shirts in children’s sizes. So, why use child-models in what is essentially an ad? The answer seems painfully obvious. Anxiety about girls is pervasive in American society, if manifested through various channels. The value of seeing girls, in princess costumes no less, letting loose about the gendered inequities they face, never mind parade across the screen asking which one of them will inevitably be raped in her lifetime, is designed to shock. FCKH8 is tapping into a cultural zeitgeist by putting girls in princess costumes and then breaking with stereotype by having them swear up a storm and shout out their fury, complete with very adult-like, fed-up gestures and the waved middle finger.
The reaction FCKH8 has carefully cultivated is the drama that results from presenting such high contrasts — furious princesses calling out the system in which they are entrapped, flipping off the patriarchy, and angrily speaking out. The power of seeing this dramatized speaks to how coded and closed these systems are — “little girls” under most circumstances would hardly be allowed to swear with such abandon, if they even wanted to.
Is there something cathartic about hearing these injustices called out and denounced with anger? There is. For those furious about gender inequality it can be gratifying hearing these issues called out — when the adult women in the ad step forward. This isn’t how most girls under 10 would speak and the girls used, albeit likely paid models or actresses taking on a role, are props. While many commenters reported that their (usually teenage) daughters expressed delight at seeing girls let loose with things they cannot say — again a moment that reveals how girls are stifled — there is hardly any empowerment when the girls didn’t write these scripts themselves and are, fundamentally, co-opted into a purportedly radical company’s for-profit campaign through their “walking billboards” which work to questionable effect.
Criticism of the companyhas been swift, and wide, but the click-bait appeal of this video will probably outnumber its detractors. A few years back the video “Riley on Marketing” went viral as the outraged Riley decried the limitations imposed upon her by gendered marketing. There was nary an f-bomb in the mix. This was a real girl, speaking out unscripted about the injustices she knows. The authenticity in her voice and in her message garnered almost 5 million YouTube views and carries far more power than FCKH8’s gimmicky, egregious act.
Remember Catalyst’s Bottom Line series? That groundbreaking research series that first explored the link between gender diversity and corporate financial performance? Well, this is of that flavor, but focused on the bottom-line benefits of retaining working parents, and based on stories from accomplished, successful professionals in their thirties and forties in dozens of industries. As Ellison notes, “In order to create or sustain family friendly workplaces, you need buy-in from organizational leadership, effective manager training, and employee accountability. Most companies don’t have all three, and as a result they lose their top talent. And, it’s costing them a fortune.”
Ellison is working on a book, REworking Parenthood, for which she is currently collecting stories from parents in the trenches, that will help us understand how companies are succeeding and failing in supporting employees’ lives.
The film tells the story of Anita Hill’s testimony during the October 1991 US Senate hearings for President George H. W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. Hill’s testimony, carried on live television, reverberated throughout the country. Never before had the sexism and racism of the overwhelmingly white male majority of the US Congress been so publically exposed. The all white, all male Senate Committee quizzed the young University of Oklahoma Law School professor relentlessly. They repeatedly asked her to re-state the precise details of the sexual harassment Clarence Thomas had engaged in when Hill worked for him at the EEOC and the US Department of Education. To a man, the Committee simply ‘didn’t get it’. Across the nation tempers flared, women were energized and far too many men joined the Senators as members of ‘ Club Clueless’.
One of the most moving lines in the film is Hill’s recollection of her mother’s proud words of support, “You know who you are.” The movie ends on a hopeful note– scenes of Hill working with young women, helping them find their own voices.
I was still lost in renewed anger as the film ended and a distinguished panel took the stage. Watching members of the Senate Committee asking whether anyone else had witnessed the exchanges, implying that Hill’s word could not be trusted, hearing Senators dismiss Thomas’s behavior as ‘only words’ was infuriating. I found myself seething as Senators harped on the fact that Hill had not immediately reported the harassment—as if doing so were the easiest thing in the world.
It all should have felt like old history. It didn’t.
Ignorance of the reality and impact of sexual harassment might not play out on televised Senate hearing in 2014, but the same lack of understanding surrounds us today. It’s in the entertainment media, in the comments from professional sports spokesmen and military commanders, in the judgments of school and university officials, in the denials of work place supervisors. After all, the response too often goes, ‘its just words, or horseplay or something the girl/woman provoked.’
We’ve made progress. Private conversations have turned into public ones, but as Hill pointed out, the past twenty-three years have been replete with brief moments of public engagement with the issue that then fade, only to be repeated when a new outrage occurs. We haven’t yet found a way to move beyond sporadic points of awareness to more sustained, effective action. Stein noted that with all forms of gendered violence increasing in severity and occurring at younger ages educators cannot hide behind the term ‘bullying’. Bullying is not illegal under federal law, but sexual harassment is. We owe it to our children to name the offense clearly in order to provide appropriate avenues of redress.
Some say, “Well, verbal harassment isn’t the same as rape or battering.” But while words may leave less physical damage, they leave lasting scars, can effect careers and stunt emotional and intellectual growth. Ignoring or belittling any form of sexual abuse provides fertile ground for the escalating gender violence all round us. More than 60 colleges and universities are under investigation for their handling of campus sexual assaults. This week the Huffington Post reported that less than 30% of students found guilty are expelled.
Hill addressed another aspect of the hearings: the extent to which progress in public discussion and understanding of acts of gender based harassment and violence has not been matched by similar progress in discussions of gender and race. No one watching the original hearings or viewing the film can forget the words with which Clarence Thomas stopped the Senate Committee in its tracks, effectively intimidating them from calling other women waiting to testify about Thomas’s behavior. Categorically denying all charges, Thomas called the hearings a ‘high tech lynching”. The Committee backed off.
In popular parlance, only black men are lynched. The Committee feared being labeled racist, but never seemed to consider their behavior toward Hill. And yet part of the reason they could bagger, doubt and ignore Anita Hill was exactly because she was black. If a young, white female lawyer had given the same testimony would the Committee have found it as easy to dismiss? I doubt it.
By changing the discourse, Thomas succeeded. The Senate confirmed his appointment 52 to 48. Pundits labeled the hearings a case of ‘he said, she said’—-something no one could unravel.
But the outrage and the conversations continued and grew. In Hill’s words, “It was the wisdom of women rather the opinions of pundits that proved to be correct.” It was not that no one had addressed sexual harassment and gender violence before the Senate hearings. Stein noted that in Minnesota in 1991 high school student Katie Lyle had finally won some measure of redress for the savage sexual harassment she had endured at her school. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence had formed in 1978. But Anita Hill’s courageous, clear words in front of some of the most powerful men in the country had been witnessed across the nation. The hearings galvanized women.Female candidates ran for office at every level; several won.
October marks the 23rd anniversary of the 1991 Senate hearings. It is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. New White House initiatives and public service ads addressing gender violence are underway. We cannot let these initiatives be simply one more ‘point of engagement’ that flares, then fades.
Charles Ogletree concluded his remarks by reminding the audience that in 1991, ‘Women stood up.” There is more work to do. It is again time for women and men to stand up and speak out. To sit silently is to condone behaviors no one should endure.
A young woman in my Sociological Theory class yelled those words as soon as she saw me pull up a clip of Emma Watson’s speech at the UN for the class to see. We were covering Charlotte Perkins Gilman that day, and I showed the video because I thought she articulated the core tenets of contemporary feminist theory pretty well. For ten minutes, my students sat in rapt attention as Watson explained how (1) gender inequality still exists, (2) gender binaries are socially constructed, and (3) masculinity isn’t healthy for men, either.
While these ideas aren’t new—Perkins Gilman voiced many of them over a century ago—Watson’s speech caught fire both in my classroom and on social media. What attracted the most attention was her call for men to join the HeForShe campaign as advocates for change. Within minutes, #HeForShe started trending on twitter. Within hours, male celebrities began posting pictures of themselves holding handwritten #HeForShe placards. This made me feel good about the world.
But it also made me sad.
The reason for this is because the statistics Watson outlined in her speech have been articulated at conferences, panels, and rallies across the country for decades. In terms of pay, power, and prestige, women almost always lag behind men. Nearly a quarter of women in the US will experience severe physical violence from their intimate partners in their lifetime. However, people aren’t retweeting and sharing Watson’s speech solely because of the facts she cited. Instead, her speech went viral because of the audience who finally listened: men. And this is what made me sad.
We all know that the fight against domestic violence will never be won by women alone. Men need to be an equal part of the movement. Yet, the question of how to get them involved is still a subject of debate. One way to recruit them is to praise their presence and applaud them for voicing their solidarity. This is an effective strategy to get more men involved. It works.
However, there is a downside to this approach. Namely, celebrating the presence of allies can sometimes exacerbate the same inequalities that organizations like HeForShe are trying to combat in the first place.
I’ve seen this process firsthand. As a sociologist who spent roughly a year and a half doing ethnographic field work inside an agency that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, one of the most common questions I get about my research is, “so, what is like to be a guy in a place like that?” Not many men work inside rape crisis centers or battered women’s shelters. Most of the time, when I was answering the crisis-hotline or helping clients fill out legal forms, I was the only man in the building. And while many people presume that this would make my research harder, it had the opposite effect. It made it easier.
You see, like Emma Watson said, domestic violence victim-advocates and counselors aren’t man-haters. This caricature is completely inaccurate. You know why? Because stereotypes like “feminazis” make it harder for them to help their clients.
The more judges and cops see staff at these agencies as spiteful and biased, they less likely they are to sign their clients’ Orders of Protection or dispatch officers to enforce them. Advocates and counselors don’t worry about what people call them—they have thick skin. What they care about is their clients’ safety. Debunking these “anti-male” myths is a way to help their clients.
So, how do they prove they don’t hate men? They applaud men who help out the least bit.
In many ways, this strategy makes sense. Staff at agencies like the one I studied are typically underpaid and overworked. Pats on the back are sometimes the only thing they can afford to offer in exchange for men’s help. In my book, I call these symbolic rewards “progressive merit badges,” and they were given to men who understood how domestic violence was really just a means for abusers to exercise power and control over their intimate partners.
While it might be easy to dismiss the progressive merit badges men can earn for helping out as inconsequential, that would be a mistake. In some careers, these stamps of approval have real value. I watched the men who earned them climb their career ladders quicker than their peers.
During my research, I watched male sheriff’s deputies promoted into better paying liaison positions because of their affiliation with the agency. I watched an assistant district attorney leverage his years of work with victims of domestic violence as a feature item in his successful campaign for judge. I watched a “batterer intervention facilitator” parley his experience counseling abusers into his own private practice.
In these cases, being an ally paid off—not just symbolically, but economically, too. This isn’t an isolated case. Privileging allies to combat social problems is, well… problematic.
To understand my concerns, first consider what it means to be an ally. An ally is someone who helps others solve their problems. Whites who fight racism, straight folks who battle homophobia, the wealthy who seek to end poverty; these actions are considered virtuous because of their presumed selflessness. We expect people of color, those who identify as queer, and the poor to fight to improve their condition. For whites, straight folks, and the wealthy, their privileged positions make their acts voluntary—they do it because they want to, not because they have to.
Second, under what conditions do allies become valuable commodities to social movements? Short answer: when others members of their privileged group behave badly. Without racism, there is no virtuosity in whites taking a stand against discrimination. Without homophobia, being a straight ally would be a meaningless term. For allies, their value is inversely proportional to the harm done by their social group.
To see this at work today, think about the recognition earned by men who declare their support for Emma Watson. The more credible we perceive the threats by some men to post nude pictures of her on the internet as revenge for her speech, the more valuable her male allies become. In other words, the more we fear gender terrorism by some men, the more we applaud other men for denouncing it.
The answer to this dilemma is not for women to do all the work themselves. Obviously, men’s presence is needed. Instead, the solution is to reflect on why male allies become such precious commodities in the fight against domestic violence.
Remember, not everyone has spare time, money, and energy to give; and not everyone can protest without fear for their personal safety. Conferring progressive merit badges to those who already have these privileges—especially considering their value in some career tracks—can unintentionally exacerbate the same state of gender inequality that is the root cause of domestic violence from the outset.
There is a lot of work to do, we need all hands on deck. Men’s help should be applauded just as any woman’s. But being a member of the group who created a mess should not be the criteria for celebration when a select few of them offer to clean it up.
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.