Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links for the Week)

Here's what I've read that's made me happy, sad, and thoughtful this week. How about you?

The Good

1) "Why Are We Feeding Our Kids So Much Junk?"- Okay, so the bulk of Charity Curley Mathews' piece examining the amount of junk food kids are getting at home is definitely not something I would put in "The Good" category, as it doesn't make me smile. But she ends so optimistically with a look at how important eating healthy is to her family's sense of community:
I've said this a few times and will probably drone on until the end of time with it (for which I apologize now and in advance and...), but eating healthy, delicious food together is just as important to me as any piano lesson or soccer practice will ever be. Maybe more so.
I've read a lot of articles about raising kids with healthy food habits that suggest making your child responsible for meal planning and preparation one night a week. I'm excited to bring my daughter into these conversations (one, you know, she's old enough not to just smear spaghetti noodles in her hair as "meal prep.")

2) "7 Apps to Help You Eat Better"- Sticking with the food theme, I'm loving EcoSalon's suggestions for apps that help you eat better. I'm particularly excited about Locavore, an app that tells you what's in season in your area and maps out places to buy it!

The Bad

1) "Anti-Gay Marriage Group Looked to Divide Gays, Latinos and Blacks" Though I can't say I'm shocked, I can still say I'm sad to learn that the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), a major force behind California's Prop 8, has made plans to intentionally cause conflict between African Americans, Latinos, and gay people as a way to "protect marriage." In other words, they're intuitionally promoting hostility and hatred to protect a bond that's supposed to be about love and companionship.

2) Jennifer Lawrence "too big" to play Katniss in the Hunger Games- That's what some critics are saying, anyway. And they quote a concern over authenticity for the post-apocalyptic world suffering from food shortages. Somehow her muscular co-star isn't held up to the same standard.

3)  Feministing has a post examining how looking at pictures of friends on Facebook contributes to some users' poor body image.

The Curious

1) Offbeat Mama has a post about how to find "offbeat" mom friends. Making friends as an adult can be hard, and it can be especially hard to find other mom friends if you're the first out of your group to have kids or if your parenting philosophy differs dramatically from your other parenting friends.

2) "A Better Choice: Deer" Jackson Landers says that deer meat is a more ethical choice than soy burgers because hundreds of animals are killed to create a soy burger. He takes a look at the idea that vegetarian diets don't harm animals and explains that--in many cases--this isn't true:
Consider the typical blood footprint of that mainstay of a vegetarian diet, the soy burger. The meal itself contains no meat. But the production of soy and tofu on an industrial scale requires quite a lot of killing. Crop depredation by deer and other animals is a huge problem for most soy growers. The majority of states will issue depredation permits to farmers who are suffering crop damage, and as a result, deer are shot in high numbers in the name of protecting soy and corn crops. Some states require that the deer shot under these permits be left to rot, and forbid any meat from being taken from the animals. Crows, starlings, blackbirds and other birds are shot, trapped and poisoned by the millions every year in North America for the sole purpose of protecting crops. Millions of mice, voles and ground squirrels are trapped, poisoned or otherwise killed for the same purpose.
I'm not a vegetarian, but I do care about ethical practices. I know I have a lot of vegetarian friends. What do you think about Landers argument?

3) "Some Thoughts on Boudoir Photo Shoots"- Blog From Two to One author explains her decision to not participate in boudoir photo shoots as part of her wedding picture package and her explanation touches on a lot of the issues surrounding sexuality and feminism (like in the can burlesque be feminist debate):
It is my personal, informed choice to not do boudoir photographs for my husband.  As a Christian and a feminist, I believe that the net value of boudoir sessions becoming mainstream is negative.  While there may be some positive aspects, namely women feeling empowered and sexy in their own skin,  I consider them overall to contribute to the sexual objectification of women.  For instance, many of these sessions provide professional hair and makeup services to achieve an erotic persona.  The smoldering temptress?  Add some dark eyeliner and red lips. Full-frontal pose.  Click.  Fresh and innocent?  Light blush and natural shading.  Shy look over shoulder.  Click.  Victoria's Secret model?  Push up bra, big hair, and pouty pink lips.  Arch back on bed or kneel legs apart.  Click.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Racism is Alive and Well. Exhibit 1: Twitter and the Hunger Games

Jezebel, using quotes gathered from tumblr Hunger Games Tweets, has demonstrated a disturbing display of racism. Apparently, several people "missed" (or conveniently read over) the fact that Suzanne Collins clearly describes the Hunger Games characters Rue and Thresh as having "dark brown skin" and have reacted with various degrees of shock and disgust to the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, and Dayo Okeniyi as Thresh.

Seriously, several people saw this gorgeous thirteen-year-old's face:
And thought this was the appropriate response:

"And for the record, i'm still pissed that rue is black. Like you think she might have mentioned that . .? Is that just me or. .."- @LexieBrowning

"EWW rue is black?? I'm not watching" @Joe_Longley

"Sense when has Rue been a nigger" @Clif_Ford_Kiger

"I just pictured darker skin, didn't really take it all the way to black" @JBanks56

For a long while, I stared at this in shock. @Clif_Ford_Kigar's is the most blatantly racist, but @JBanks56's remark that he didn't think the filmmaker's would take it "all the way to black" and @LexieBrowning's admission that she's "pissed" that Rue is black are also telling. 

Many of the people highlighted in the article have deleted their Twitter accounts after people began pointing out that their racists outbursts were, indeed, racist. So maybe I should say this is yet another example of social media activism success. After all, it's not like Twitter made these people racists; it just gave them an outlet to express it, and maybe having some very public backlash to what they thought was an acceptable thing to say in an open forum will make them rethink their views, but I'm not holding my breath. 

But I can't see it as a success, no matter how hard I try. In fact, reading these tweets made me cry. As I went through line after line of "shock" over this little girl's mere presence in the world, it was all I could do to figure out what to say about it. 

Do people look at my little girl's face and get "shocked" that she is there? Do they see her pretty brown eyes and big corkscrew curls and get "pissed" that she is in the world? Of course, I know that--for far too many--that answer is yes. And sometimes I don't know how to handle that. Sometimes it's enough to make me want to lock the door to our house and never go outside again. How do I explain to her that there are people in the world who will be outraged at her very existence? 

And make no mistake, that's what these people are saying. They "expected" a white Rue (despite clear textual descriptions to the contrary) because--to them--the default is white. If someone is black, then that "black" serves a purpose. It means something specific about the character. Black people are criminals. Or black people are comic relief. Or black people are the sassy best friend. But for someone to just be black and also a fully developed, complex character? No way. Not buying it. 

Cinna's skin color is not described in the book, so he very well could have been any race. In the movie, he is played by multiracial Lenny Kravitz. Why is this shocking? If someone's skin is not described, that does not mean it is white. White is not the default!

I can already hear the responses. "What's the big deal? It's just a movie." It's not just a movie. It. Is. Not. 

People are responding so viscerally to Rue's race because Rue is one of the most sympathetic, innocent, and heart-grabbing characters in the book. When they read, they felt for her. Maybe they cried over her. Maybe they imagined their own little sisters or nieces or selves in her place. And when they saw that her skin wasn't white, they couldn't jibe those images with those emotions. What does that mean? 

That means that we are less likely to care about people of color. And that's not okay. 

It reminds me of the closing speech from A Time to Kill of the lawyer responsible for defending a black man who kills two white men who brutally raped and assaulted his little girl. He knows that the jurors suffer the same moral defect as these Hunger Games commenters; they can't muster the same emotional response for a person of color that they can a white person. So he uses that defect against them. He describes the little girl's beaten, bloody, violated body until every person in the courtroom is near or at tears. And then he pauses. "Now imagine she's white." The defendant walks. 

But it's not just something that gets depicted in fictional accounts (though these fictions reflect heavily on our realities). Consider these facts:
  • African American children made up 33.2% of missing children reported to the FBI, but only 19.5% of media coverage on missing children. (To put it another way, white children made up 66.8% of the missing children, but received 80.5% of the coverage). 
  • Baby Lisa Irwin and Baby Jahessye Shockley went missing within a week of one another, yet Baby Lisa's story dominated news cycles while Baby Jahessye received very few mentions. 
  • An analysis of George W. Bush's presidential pardons revealed that white people were four times more likely to get a pardon than people of color, even when controlling for the type of crime. 
  • Several doctors tested as having a racial bias against black people, and that bias correlated with the type of treatment they gave black patients. 
  • I've seen comments over the past few days that Trayvon Martin's circulating pictures are old and "misleading" because he's now bigger and a football player, as if being tall and black makes it okay to shoot him. 
All of these incidents (which are just a sampling of the ways that racial perceptions affect the real life interactions of people on a day-to-day basis) are connected to the inability to link adequate emotional responses with people whose skin happens to be a different color. 

The outrage over Rue makes this connection abundantly clear. No matter how much I can recognize this, repudiate it, try to fight against it, I still don't know what to say to my daughter. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Pinterest, Intention, and Making a Difference: Complications in Social Media Activism

In case you missed it, Belvedere Vodka decided it would be a good idea to tweet this ad and post it on their Facebook page:

As should be obvious, it was not a good idea, and several people immediately called them out on it. They tried to pull the ad down as fast as possible, but not fast enough in our highly digital world, and the screenshots people took began circulating immediately. 

Then, social media activism took off. 

People took to Belvedere Vodka's Facebook page to tell them what they thought of the ad, but many of those posts were deleted. People on Twitter criticized the ad harshly. 

Belvedere reacted to the backlash by posting a pseudo apology on Twitter and Facebook, saying they were sorry that people were offended, which is worlds away from admitting that they did anything offensive and sounded a lot like the people who were defending the ad by telling us complainers to "get a sense of humor" and "find something better to do." 

People used the comments on that "apology" to continue voicing their disapproval on Facebook, though it also devolved pretty quickly into some bickering among the commenters. 

Then, today Belvedere's president made a more substantial apology and bolstered it with a donation to RAINN

This is about the best possible outcome I can think of from this fallout. Yes, of course, I wish the ad had never been promoted in the first place. In fact, I wish very much that we lived in a world where the mere thought of joking about rape would be so appalling that no one would think to create this ad in the first place. In fact (while we're getting all best-case-scenario here), I wish that we lived in a world where there was no rape, and that would make the very premise of this advertisement moot. But, considering that we live in a world where rape is often promoted and glamorized or ignored and dismissed in popular media, ads like this one are going to be happen. When they do, we have a right (and I'd say a responsibility) to call the companies out, to tell them it is unacceptable, and to spend our dollars elsewhere. 

With that reality in mind, a substantial apology, a look into future advertising practices, and a donation to a sexual violence support group is definitely a step in the right direction. And it wouldn't have happened without the collective outrage harnessed and demonstrated through social media. 

Yesterday, Ms. Magazine had a post titled "Future of Feminism: The Hashtag is Mightier than the Sword." Author Catherine Scott uses the success of the recent #FlushRushNow campaign as well as social media outrage over Komen's decision to defund Planned Parenthood to support her claim that social media provides a tremendously powerful outlet for feminist activism:
In a world that spends ever more time online, the power of a blog post or a tweet cannot be underestimated, and the Internet couldn’t make it easier or more convenient to get politically active. The revolution may still not be televised, but I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t at least trend on Twitter.
Social media has the potential to be extremely powerful. With it, we are no longer disparate objectors cursing to our walls about the inequality in the world (that's not just me, right?) Instead, we can see that we are not alone in our objections. Our voices become stronger. We can make a difference.

But are all social media platforms equally capable of harnessing this power?

I ask because I added that Belvedere Vodka ad to my Pinterest board Problematic Visual Media. As the title suggests, I use this board to keep track of visual media that I find problematic, be it ads that promote sexual assault, toys that reinforce a gender binary, or magazine covers that compare LeBron James to King Kong. I truly believe that it is important to share these images and spread the concern over their implications. I don't think any changes will happen in our culture by pretending that these messages don't exist.

But someone immediately commented on my pin. She asked "what made you think it was a good idea to keep it circulating?" I responded with some version of what I just said above. If people don't know this ad existed (and Belvedere clearly didn't want us to know, as they deleted it as soon as they got backlash), then we can't see the way that this speaks to a larger rape culture, and we can't fight against it. We don't know not to buy Belvedere Vodka. We're not informed enough to consume ethically.

At the same time, I noticed that my pin of the ad had been repinned by three other people. The boards they pinned it to? "Products I Love," "so funny," and "Quotes." My comment about ethical consumption and the problem of the visual didn't matter when they repinned it. They created different contexts and I provided an image for those contexts. Did I do more harm than good?

I still believe that we have to know about these clear violations of equality and hold the companies and people who commit them responsible, and I still believe that social media is a powerful way to do so.

So, what do you think. Is Pinterest not a good medium for social activism (I think that it can be, as Sociological Images Pinterest boards are excellent places to look for commentary on visual rhetoric)? Or is people taking things out of context always a risk (someone could easily find the ad through Google Images on this blog post and pin it to Pinterest, for instance, and the context of criticism would equally be lost)?

Is it worth risking your message being used against your cause if it also reaches people who hear what you meant?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Hunger Games Debate: Is Reading Less Graphic than Viewing?

According to this Boston Globe article, disputes are popping up across the country between parents and children. While the battle may be nothing new, the particular catalyst is. The premiere of The Hunger Games has parents questioning if their children can handle the violence. What's interesting to me is that many of the children have already been exposed to the violence through the books:
A big part of the problem is that many fourth- and fifthgraders have read the novels and therefore feel they have earned the right to see the film.
Personally, I would have a hard time telling my child that she couldn't see the film adaptation of a book I allowed her to read. That's not to say that I accept outright that fourth- and fifth-graders should all be reading the book. It is definitely violent--though I wouldn't say it's particularly graphic. I've only read the first book in the series, but I thought it had a lot of complex messages about social practices and, depending on my child's individual level of maturity and comprehension, I'd let her read it, but I can see how other parents would make different decisions.

However, I'm not sure I agree with the parents (and experts) who feel that seeing the violence on screen is worse than reading it:
Children don’t like to hear it, but specialists say that reading about violence isn’t as scary as watching it. “It’s a gut experience as opposed to a head experience,’’ said Michael Rich, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center on Media and Child Health. “A movie is very direct. You are seeing it, you are hearing it, as compared with translating it from black ink on a page into something in your own mind.’’
I won't argue that our brains don't process words and images differently, but I can't believe that "translating it from black ink" isn't a heart-wrenching and emotionally-involved process.

It makes me think of my first time reading The Giver, another dystopic young adult novel with some very complex social commentary. I read The Giver as a child, probably around fourth or fifth grade myself. I remember the scene where the protagonist views his father injecting a baby (one of a pair of twins, and twins aren't allowed) with a serum to kill it. The book describes the needle going into the vein on the baby's forehead. It describes the baby laughing and cooing and then going still. I vividly saw that scene play out in my mind. I can still vividly see it when I think about it now. Seeing it on a screen could not have been any worse.

In fact, growing up watching films where violence was frequently glorified or played up for pure entertainment value, I have become a little desensitized to seeing it on the screen. Here, for instance, is a scene from Jurassic Park where a t-rex devours a guy on a toilet, legs swinging from his mouth.

Basically, if The Hunger Games are too violent for my child to see, then they are also too violent for her to read. I believe her imagination is capable of more than Hollywood special effects.

What do you think? Is written violence easier to handle than filmed violence? How do you decide what you'll let your children read/view? How do you respond to media violence yourself?

International Anti-Street Harassment Week

The other day, I was running the 5k route that cuts through and around the campus I work on. Near the end, I pass some sort of warehouse where there are frequently men loading and unloading things from the back of trucks. I've been running this route about once a week, and every time I get to this point, I notice the men staring at me. I notice them elbowing one another and nodding their heads in my direction.

Two weeks ago, when I ran past these men, one of them did more than watch me. He stared long and hard, looked me up and down, and then gave me a thumbs up, staring directly at my chest. I--as I always do--kept running and moved past them, not glancing back to see if my leaving had generated as much attention.

It's not the worst thing that's happened to me. I don't feel physically threatened. I don't think that these men are going to climb off of the truck and attack me in broad daylight. But it is annoying and insulting. I may be running in a public space, but that does not make my body public property. That does not make me a display for critique.

This week is International Anti-Street Harassment Week.

Though the studies on street harassment are limited and the term itself is amorphous, research and anecdotal evidence suggest it's incredibly common. In some locations 100% of women report being a victim of street harassment.

Plenty of women have taken to the internet to share their stories. Some of them, like me, feel annoyed and disrespected, but not necessarily threatened. Others, like this writer, have more threatening encounters.

That same writer goes on to say that she doesn't feel comfortable shouting back to the harassers (a potential tactic), and she doesn't think that legislation is likely to be very effective. I agree with her on both counts. The only real way to combat street harassment is to make more people recognize that women are not objects. Here's a video to get us started:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Trayvon Martin and the Polarized View of Racism

Do you want to make a white person really mad? Call him a racist.

"Racist" has such a specific connotation that it can sometimes make the term virtually useless. It's why we get so many sentences that begin with, "I'm not racist but . . ." and then end with some clearly racist observation. (Here's a blog that collects evidence of this on Facebook posts. It hasn't been updated in a while, but you get the idea).

In my personal life, I've had family members that completely repudiated my interracial marriage, and sincerely said that they're not racist. They have black friends. They just think that in marriage we should stick to our own kind. And I believe, really and truly, that they believe, really and truly, that they are not racist. Even though that is obviously not true; they are clearly racist.

In some ways, we've gotten a lot better at pointing out overt racism. Most people with exposure to American culture will recognize that images like Bugs Bunny in blackface are unacceptable. We can tell you that shouting the n-word at someone is not okay. Clearly, signs that say "Whites Only" are a problem.

That doesn't mean that these things have been eradicated from our culture. In January, a landlord in Ohio tried to defend a "Whites Only" pool sign as decoration. Of course the n-word gets used as a slur every day. And our cartoons are far from free of racially stereotyped images.

The Cajun firefly from Disney's The Princess and the Frog
But, often, we are at least able to recognize these things as racist. And when we recognize and condemn these acts, we feel like we are making strides toward eliminating racism. We feel like we are fighting back against the last remnants of a shameful legacy. We feel like we're winning the fight.

So when someone calls us "racist," we get up in arms because there are very few options in this situation: get defensive so that we can continue believing that we are winning the fight or recognize the reality that we are not winning the fight at all. 

Even as we've identified and removed some overt signs of racism, we frequently allow that to stand in as a scapegoat for the more subtle, more systemic racism that impacts our entire culture. 

What does that have to do with Trayvon Martin, the black 17-year-old who was gunned down by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman for doing nothing more than walking back from a store with Skittles and iced tea? A lot. 

In an article about the media bias on stories about the Martin case (CNN covered the story 41 times, MSNBC 13 times, and FOX News just once), Julian Sanchez said this:
In itself, that's a matter of news judgment that could probably be defended. But I want to suggest that the disparity here may have something to do with whether one thinks institutional racism remains a serious problem in the United States. Conservatives often seem to think it isn't, and that if anything, the real problem is how often spurious charges of white racism are deployed by their political opponents, while liberals more often tend toward the opposite view. Maybe both groups are drawing justified inferences from the data they're seeing.
Like child labor, institutionalized racism -- in the form of quiet bias as opposed to overt proclamations of white supremacy -- can be hard to detect and quantify rigorously. In both cases, the people closest to the problem have strong incentives to obscure and deny it.  So people tend to fall back on what psychologists call the Availability Heuristic, a rule of thumb that says the frequency of an event should correspond to how quickly you can think of examples of it. We automatically pluralize anecdotes into data. Like much of our cognitive toolkit, it often misfires in the age of modern media--it's why people tend to be irrationally concerned with extremely rare threats, like child abduction by strangers, that draw disproportionate media attention.
And the Availability Heuristic is really important to the narrative that we are winning against racism, especially for white people. If you are a white person, then chances are you aren't on the receiving end of the kind of bias that makes up institutional racism. You probably haven't had to worry about whether your name alone is enough to get you disqualified for a job. If you are not a person of color, you may not notice that the people of color around you are up to 4 times more likely to get pulled over while driving. You may not notice that people of color are more likely to be followed while shopping, or that many people would stand by idly while they were harassed for doing nothing wrong. You might not know (as I didn't, until I went into a Barnes and Noble and could only find one age-appropriate book for my daughter that featured black characters) that children of color are often marginalized in media portrayals. Speaking of media, you might not notice that characters of color are often portrayed in negative or minimal roles. Maybe nothing has drawn your attention to the fact that whites are 4 times more likely than people of color to get a presidential pardon for a crime, even when the crimes are nearly identical. You may not have seen that (as of 2007) a black person was incarcerated at a rate 5.6 times higher than a white person or that a Hispanic person was incarcerated at a rate 1.8 times higher. You may not know that studies have found all shooters (regardless of race) are more likely to shoot unarmed black men and less likely to shoot armed white men.

We may not have noticed these things not because we're horrible people, but because these aren't in our immediate view. And, truth be told, it's a lot easier to not look at them. There are days when I really wish I could believe that all I had to do to combat racism was not shout the n-word at anyone. It's a lot easier to think about those overt signs of racism that we can feel like we're conquering. How do you conquer statistics like this? How do you react to a system of oppression that is that deeply seated?

As this article from Love Isn't Enough points out, we often portray racism as something that bad people do, an individual flaw:
It fails to grapple with the ways in which all of us are socialized to play roles based on the racial group(s) we belong to. It doesn’t address institutional racism, white privilege, unconscious bias, or the influence of the dominant racial culture, all of which are far more pervasive than individual acts of personal racism.
 And, of course, a lot of racists are bad people. But a lot of good people are acting within that racist system, too. So what can we do? We can learn how to accept that we have a place in that system and begin to change it. We can learn how to talk to other people about their places in this system as well. Here's a great starting point from Jay Smooth's TEDx Talk.

And what does that mean for Trayvon Martin? Whether Zimmerman had a racial motive for shooting or not (though new analysis of the 911 call suggests he was muttering racial slurs in the final moments of the tape), Trayvon is dead. His life has been taken from him.

In some conversations about the incident--which have brought me to tears multiple times--I have heard people defend Zimmerman's actions by saying he was "defending his neighborhood." Some have told me that, though he may have overreacted, he had the right to confront this young man if he thought there was a potential for crime. They have said that Zimmerman was right to confront him and that Trayvon's decision to run was the wrong one. After my head finished exploding, I tried to think through these comments. Someone said to me, "If I wasn't doing anything wrong, I wouldn't run." Oh really? Cause I would. If a man was staring at me and following me at night, if he had a gun, I would try to get away. And if that didn't work? I would fight and--sadly--that might mean that I, too, would die for doing nothing more than walking down the sidewalk. And maybe my killer, too, would walk free without so much as an arrest.

But probably not. I'm not a black male. I am a white female. Trayvon had an entirely different context to operate within. Many young males are coached by their parents on how to handle conflict, which will almost inevitably arise at some point. Maybe some wouldn't run from a confrontation because they do not have the same culture of fear surrounding them.

Like many others, I am struck to the core with the thought that Trayvon could have been my son. If I have a future son, his skin will be dark. He will likely be read as "suspicious" a lot more easily and a lot more often than he should be. How do I deal with that? How do any of us?

And beyond the individual emotions, I mourn for what incidents like this one mean for our collective society. As Shanelle Matthews writes:
It is disheartening how people have desensitized themselves to the plight of communities just because they don’t look like their own or how the lives of Black children are so undervalued, not because of something they’ve done but simply–just because. I can’t reconcile how some people have positioned themselves to make ethical decisions about who is and who isn’t deserving of safety, security, and justice and how those decisions magnify and shift culture, leaving entire communities on the fringes and moving targets for the Zimmermans of the world.
When we ignore the contexts in which other people live, when we are only capable of applying our own experiences to a situation, we lose sight of what's at stake: freedom, justice, and our very lives.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Livestock and Women: Some Reflections on Reproductive Politics

I'm reading The Hunger Games, and I got to a scene where the protagonist (don't worry, no spoilers) Katniss, is showcasing her combat skills for a group of "Gamemakers" who could prove instrumental in her upcoming performance in a fight-to-the-death battle that will be broadcast on national television. She's the last one to perform for these Gamemakers, and they are tired and distracted by a roast pig that's been laid before them as dinner. Katniss gets frustrated:
"Suddenly, I am furious, that with my life on the line, they don't even have the decency to pay attention to me. That I'm being upstaged by a dead pig." 
Oh, Katniss. I hear you.

Last week, Terry England, co-sponsor of Georgia House Bill 954, compared women to pigs and cows and suggested that because these animals carry stillborn fetuses until they go into labor and deliver "naturally," that women should, too. Anything else, apparently, is "playing God."

Wait. Isn't it "playing God," then, to remove a cancerous tumor? To wear eyeglasses? To put on a coat so you don't freeze to death? To take Tylenol to break a fever? It seems to me that we "interfere" with God's "natural" plans all the time. Why is this particular intervention--which, again, is not aborting a living fetus, but removing dead (and potentially harmful) tissue--different?

Regardless of your stance on abortion (and my own is complicated), this--to me--is completely illogical and a clear attack on women. A nationwide attack that comes along with bills making it legal for doctors to withhold medical information from their pregnant patients, all-male panels deciding the availability of birth control, and women voicing their informed opinions derided as "sluts" and "prostitutes" by powerful Republican figureheads.

So, yes, when Katniss says "they don't even have the decency to pay attention to me," I empathize.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Good, The Bad, and the Curious (Links)

Things that made me smile, cry (for real), and think. What have you read this week?

The Good

"I want to raise boys who are nurturing, who work hard to figure out what others need and to care for them in the ways they require. I want to raise boys who are gentle and loving, who think deeply and who strive to articulate their thoughts and feelings clearly. I want to teach my children empathy and kindness, regardless of their gender."

  • Birthing Beautiful Ideas has some words of encouragement for everyone who feels like it's all falling apart (and, let's face it, isn't that all of us at least some of the time?) And it starts with this description of putting an edited version of yourself online, and I completely get this:

"Someone then suggested that I deserved this sort of admiration.  I believe the exact words were, “Yes, you are rockin’ it with three!” 
I immediately dismissed this statement with the following response: “No, not rocking it.  That’s only my internet persona rocking it with three.” 
This wasn’t just a matter of modesty.  I meant what I said.  Because the snarky, funny, rainbows-and-unicorns blogging me?  She might seem like she’s rockin’ it. 
But that “me” is an edited me.  And on most days, the unedited me doesn’t feel like she’s rockin’ it at all. 
Not.  At.  All. 
In fact, I sometimes feel like I’m only hanging by a thread."

"It was an awesome experience. I was never scared, I was never suffering, I was never angry with myself for not being able to push out my baby. Choosing surgery was absolutely a wonderful way for me to heal my emotional wounds from my last unwanted c-section, which left me feeling like a failure" 

  • Sonja Sohn (the actress who played Kima from The Wire) has co-founded a nonprofit called ReWired for Change. It helps young people on parole straighten out their lives, and I love how she reflects on her experiences (both in real life in her childhood and on the set of the show as an actress) that led her to this decision.

The Bad

  • I'm sure you've already heard about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old boy who was gunned down by a vigilante neighborhood watch patrolman (after police told the patrolman to back off) for doing nothing more than walking back from the store with Skittles in his pocket. Trayvon was black, and the racial tension in this case is mounting as signatures appear on the circulating petition and the shooter (George Zimmerman) has still not been arrested, despite testimony from witnesses and 911 calls he made to the dispatcher before getting out of his car and approaching Martin. This story makes me sick. Every day I check the news thinking "Surely he's been arrested today" and every day I see that he hasn't. The facade of justice and safety is growing thinner with each passing moment. My heart aches for Trayvon's family, for that community, and for all of us.

The Curious

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Woman on Woman Action Part 3: Defensive Attacks

We looked at duets where women fought over a man. We looked at songs where women flaunt their superiority by claiming they are  able to take a man. The third part of this series investigating popular songs about women attacking other women as part of a love triangle focuses on the ladies who take the defensive stance.

These are the women who were playing by the rules. They thought they were in stable relationships until something (sometimes something subtle, sometimes something unavoidably overt) tipped the balance. Now they have to fight, not only for their men, but for the identities they crafted as part of that relationship. And the ones they fight are almost always the other women, not the men themselves.

"Jane Doe" Alicia Keys

This speaker has been confronted by another woman who says her man is cheating on her. But the speaker is not convinced. She knows that this other woman is just trying to trick her into leaving an opening that she can wedge herself in:
I caught you trying to check my man out/How bout you explain what that's all about/You think you slick like I wouldn't know/But I got something for you Doe/Mess around end up in a choke hold 
This threat of physical violence is common to the defensive position. These women who feel their position of a stable relationship upended react primally. Interestingly, very few of the lyrics focus on why this man is worth fighting for (especially since he apparently can't be trusted not to stray on his own merit). The only hint we get is the line "Listening to you will leave me lonely/That's not what I'm trying to be."

The thing that has this woman ready to physically fight another woman is the threat of loneliness. Nowhere does she defend this particular man and his individual qualities so much as the idea of a man to begin with. The stability of a relationship, the guarantee of companionship, the social norm that comes along with being coupled--those are the things the other woman threatens, and those threats are not taken lightly.

"You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)"- Loretta Lynn

It takes a certain degree of cognitive dissonance to watch smiling, perky Loretta Lynn sing these lyrics:
It'll be over my dead body, so get out while you can/Cause you ain't woman enough to take my man
Later, she tells the woman who has threatened to take her man "Women like you are a dime a dozen" and this is eerily similar to Alicia Key's assertion that the "Jane Does"--faceless, personality-void women--are trying to take her man. These women see their position as half of a stable relationship as evidence that they are not like these other vapid women. Their relationship gives them purpose, but it is a very fragile purpose, one that can be ripped away from them if they cede their ground to these threats. Instead, they must be ready to fight.

"Getting in the Way" Jill Scott

When an ex-girlfriend calls her house and hangs up the phone, the speaker calls back and confronts her. 
Sugar honey girl, fly fly away/I've been a lady up to now, don't know how much more I can take/Queens shouldn't swing if you know what I mean/But I'm bout to take my earrings off give me some Vaseline
This song, too, focuses on the threat the other woman imposes rather than the actual relationship at stake. Even more interesting is the way the impending violence is glorified in the video. An entire neighborhood of people follow the speaker to the confrontation where they jeer and egg her on. A child pulls up a plastic chair to watch the argument as if it were a television show for his entertainment. The other woman gives dismissive body cues but she isn't given a voice. When the speaker humiliates her by tossing her fake hair into the crowd, the other woman runs into the house and slams the door. The crowd cheers, the child on the chair applauds, and our speaker walks away victorious. The threat--which the whole neighborhood recognized as the other woman's fault--has been disarmed. Order has been restored.

"The Earrings Song" Gretchen Wilson

Over on the opposing end of the musical genre, Gretchen Wilson similarly prepares to take her earrings off to physically battle a woman who threatens her relationship.

Our speaker sets herself up as a very sympathetic character. She just wants to spend a Friday night out with her husband, having found a babysitter and stepping out of the kitchen. She's just trying to wind down and reconnect with her man. And here comes a woman "slinking by" and "stealing his attention." By now it should come as no surprise that she's not angry at him for letting his attention be "stolen." No, it's the other woman's fault. And she's not afraid of her:
Don't make me take my earrings out/Cause I'll show you what a cat fight's all about/I'll throw you down and mop the floor/A man like mine's worth fighting for/So don't make me take my earrings out

The Wildcard- "Jolene"- Dolly Parton
Smash over at smashthep has a great post about this song (which is actually what got me thinking about this entire series).  She examines the way that a woman's dependence on a man can be economic and reach much deeper than it might appear.

Here the speaker confronts the potential other woman, but she has none of the fire and anger that the other women on this list have. Instead, she is pleading and she is scared. 
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene/I'm begging of you please don't take my man. . . Please don't take him just because you can
Your beauty is beyond compare/With flaming locks of auburn hair/With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green/Your smile is like a breath of spring/Your voice is soft like summer rain/And I cannot compete with you Jolene
The speaker goes on to say that she can "easily understand" how Jolene could take her man, but she begs her not to anyway. She doesn't try to assert herself as dominant. She doesn't threaten physical violence. She appeals to Jolene's human side; she appeals to her as a woman. Toward the end she says:
I had to have this talk with you/My happiness depends on you/Whatever you decide to do, Jolene 
And here, in a few simple words, is the message that runs underneath all of the rest of the songs on this list. These women are terrified by the power the other woman yields. They react with threats of violence because they see no other way to combat this very real threat to their relationship and the status and identity that relationship affords them. By recognizing that, by giving it a name aloud, "Jolene" casts a new light on all of these songs.

What happens if women stop trying to break one another down? What happens if they respect one another? What happens if they--above all--talk to one another?


This series was about the messages women are sent about how to deal with one another through songs about love triangles, but that's not the only place we get these messages, and it is certainly not the only place they play out. I started looking at this because the dichotomized rhetoric of the birth wars is so disheartening. Women rip each other to shreds over how and when and where they give birth. The same is true over breastfeeding v. bottle-feeding. Or between having kids or not. Or between staying home and having a career. Or what body type gets to be sexy. In the end, tearing each other down has become a part of our common vernacular. It's not only acceptable, but encouraged. Too often, women are shown that their strength must come at the expense of another woman's.

Success and strength are not zero-sum games. In fact, the sum of our whole can be greater than our parts, but we must first be willing to subvert the narrative that tells us otherwise.

Intro- Woman on Woman Action: Why Do We Tear Each Other Down?
Woman on Woman Action Part 1: Direct Competition
Woman on Woman Action Part 2: Offensive Threat

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

PETA, I Am Not Convinced

I've written about PETA's degradation of women in the past. For some other commentary on PETA's issues with misogyny, you can look at the F-Word, Feminist Looking Glass, Viz, and Bitch Magazine.

And if you're in doubt that PETA is exploiting women, just look at their ad campaigns and publicity stunts:

PETA has (again) come out in defense of their decisions in an interview, claiming that they only use these images of women's bodies to get attention and that it's really the media's fault for portraying the misogyny over all of their other good work. In this interview, they directly address the issue of their campaigns and feminism:

First of all, I’d just like to point out that our president and co-founder is a woman, and she considers herself a feminist. And if you look at our staff, especially compared to other social justice campaigns, it’s a lot of women.

And you know, any of the women who appear in our ads are volunteers, who want to use their bodies and their pens and their Facebook, and their Twitter, and their voice to help animals and promote education on these issues. And we think that’s great! No one’s making them do it. They want to help, and that’s how they do it.
Years ago, it was disgraceful for women to show their knees and we all laugh at that today. And I think that some day, nudity will stop being interesting…and when that happens, we will stop using that tactic. But right now, it’s a really fun way to grab attention, and get people on the site. And that’s why we do it.
I think a lot of other people who are critical of that tactic maybe don’t notice how much we use men in our ads, too. And I think it speaks to the fact that the media really loves it when we use women. For example, we had [an anti-fur ad] with a man and a woman sitting up in bed together, and we did it around Valentine’s Day, and they were like, right next to each other. And then one media outlet actually cropped the man out and wrote about how negative it was to women. So, that’s an example of how the media looks for PETA’s sexism, even when it isn’t there.
I don't buy this argument. Yes, PETA's tactics "work" in the sense that it brings them attention (in fact, I'm inadvertently helping them right now by writing about this). But if they truly want to be known for their resources and the programming they do, aren't these tactics a distraction? And if they truly want to work to end speciesism (which this post uses to call feminists who are against PETA's misogyny hypocrites), then shouldn't they care if their approach is alienating large segments of their potential audience?

PETA admits that when nudity "stop[s] being interesting," they will "stop using that tactic." To me, this means that they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo that places women in the role of sexually objectified playthings. After all, they've got a whole arsenal of tactics that only work as long as women continue to be degraded by the society at large. They're right to point out the role the media plays in this objectification, but that doesn't make them mindless pawns in the system. They are making conscious decisions to exploit women because they have access to media outlets that reward that exploitation. They ignore any moral repercussions of that decision even as they purport to be a foundation based on extending moral protections to all living creatures.

I'm particularly interested in PETA's claim that these women are volunteers who want to use their bodies to spread a message that's important to them. In some ways, I see this argument as the flip side of the debate about burlesque that I wrote about a while back (which produced some very enlightening comments). The question then was "can burlesque be feminist?" I definitely see the complications in this question, and the debate in the comments teases out a lot of those problems, but for the sake of simplification, one of the main issues is one of rhetorical positioning. If we give the audience the full power to determine what a burlesque act is for (that is, if we allow men who watch women perform in order to objectify them to determine the meaning of the exchange), then burlesque cannot be empowering. It denies the women (and men and transgender people) who perform burlesque the right to have authorial control over their message. When the role of authorship is negated, it essentially takes away the power of a performer. If a woman cannot feel empowered by her own sexiness in performing burlesque, we admit that the audience has more power, and that her job is to submit to that power by not performing (because her performance can never mean what she wants it to mean).

I don't buy that argument, either. I think that authorial control over a message is important. If a woman performs burlesque to communicate her own empowerment, that matters. That means something.

But PETA makes it clear that we can't ignore the audience, either. Here, PETA's argument is that because the women whose bodies are exploited are willfully exploiting themselves for a cause, then no harm is done. But that completely ignores the reason exploiting their bodies works to begin with. Painting their skin and squatting naked in a cage isn't an effective tactic because of the strength of their message; it's an effective tactic because women's bodies are a commodity. These ads work to reinforce that system.

In order to determine the way that a message works, we can't make sweeping generalizations about the author or the audience. We have to look at the contextual elements surrounding both. And in PETA's case, those contextual elements are highly disturbing.

Yes, PETA, in a world where women's bodies are no longer offered up like a buffet for consumption, you probably will stop using these tactics, but--in the meantime--you're going to work awfully hard to make sure that's not anytime soon. 

Woman on Woman Action Part 2: Offensive Threat

Part two of my series analyzing songs where women fight over a man looks at songs told from the offensive position (here's the intro and part one), women who are staking claim to a man who, by all social conventions, is already spoken for. These women are after some other woman's husband/boyfriend, and the fact that they are dismantling another woman's position is perhaps even more important than the "love" they feel for the men they are trying to claim. These songs may be the most overtly aggressive examples of women tearing each other down over a man because they are not provoked.

While we often think of "the other woman" as a negative stereotype in popular culture, these singers push back against that portrayal, claiming that their competitors are simply weak, unworthy of the men they have. By positioning men as mere prizes in a Darwinian battle, these women attempt to proclaim themselves as powerful. What we can lose focus on in these claims of self-importance is that the power comes at the expense of other women, women who have done nothing wrong, who have only tried to play the game the best they could. 

"Girlfriend" Avril Lavigne 

The speaker of this song sings directly to her potential conquest, and her message is clear:
I don't like your girlfriend . . . I think you need a new one. . . I could be your girlfriend
While the speaker does focus on some of her own positive attributes to make her case (most notably that she's "damn precious" and "the mother fucking princess"), most of her argument is based not on her own value, but on her competitor's weaknesses:
She's so stupid, what the hell were you thinking? 
The video is even more disturbing. Avril Lavigne plays both characters: the speaker and the "stupid" girlfriend. She plays up stereotypical portrayals for each. The speaker is dressed in black, playing on Lavigne's image as "punk rock," while the girlfriend is more traditionally pretty with long, flowing hair and dressed in pink "preppy" clothes. Over the course of the video she is physically assaulted by the speaker and her friends, mocked, and demeaned--all for having a boyfriend. The boyfriend is portrayed as some passive prop with no agency in his own decisions. While he seems amused by and attracted to the speaker, he shows no signs of leaving his girlfriend (as he is continuously out on dates with her throughout the video) and doesn't end up with the speaker until she literally gets rid of the girlfriend by hitting her in the head with a golf ball and knocking her into a lake.

Both the song and the video demonstrate that this power play is not really about the boyfriend, but about breaking down another woman. Since Avril Lavigne plays both women in the video, it could be read as the need to break down the traditional stereotype of woman in favor of a more authentic self, but the fact that the "authentic" self is just as much a stereotyped persona does not bode well.

"Don't Cha" Pussycat Dolls

I suppose I should give this song some credit. After all, it doesn't end with a cheating lover. The speaker goes on at length about how she knows the man she's pursuing wants her, but she also recognizes that "if it ain't love, it just ain't enough to leave [his] happy home." 
Maybe next lifetime . . . Possibly . . . Until then old friend your secret is safe with me 
So, this speaker is not actively trying to take a man away from his girlfriend. That's good, right? Especially considering some of the other songs we've seen in this series. Even still, this woman is getting her value from direct competition.
Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me/Don't cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me/Don't cha
She clearly sees herself as sexually adventurous, and that makes her superior. She admits that she would be willing to share the man with the girlfriend, but she knows that the girlfriend won't go for that, presumably because she's not a "freak" like the speaker. Here, her sexual willingness is portrayed as power, and the girlfriend's adherence to a monogamous relationship is seen as weakness.
I know you like me/I know you do/That's why whenever I come around she's all over you
While this song may not end with a direct betrayal of another woman's trust, it does center around one woman needing to break down another in order to find self-confidence and identity.

"If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" Meshell Ndegeocello

This video is interspersed with clips of women talking about cheating, jealousy with other women, and loneliness. These clips underscore the theme that we're really looking at in this series. How do these messages about how women are "supposed" to interact with one another break us down? How do they impact the friendships we make and the way that we look at the world?

If the lyrics of this song are any indication, not in good ways. 
Now late at night he calls me on my telephone/That's why when you call him all you get is a busy busy tone/Grew upset cuz you one stuck up bitch/Maybe he needed a change, a switch/Who am I not to oblige/Especially if the man is fly/So call me what you like/Go ahead call me what you like/While I boot slam your boyfriend tonight/Boyfriend, boyfriend, yes I had your boyfriend/If that's your boyfriend/He wasn't last night 
This speaker indicates no responsibilities to the girlfriend. "Who am I not to oblige?" she asks. She sees it as her right to follow her sexual desires, and that right centers around the fact that the man approached her. She is adamant that she didn't seek out a man to steal, but now that he's come to her, she feels no sisterly bond that requires her to respect the bounds of the relationship he's formed with another woman.

On top of that, she feels the need to tear the woman down: "you one stuck up bitch." Her tone is mocking and, like in "Don't Cha," the other woman is portrayed as prudish and weak.

Underneath this current, though, is a more subtle one. The speaker is not (like the women from the duets in the first post from this series) trying to claim the man as her own. She's merely in it for the fun and the sex. She's not defining herself off of this relationship, and she sees the other woman's need to label herself as "girlfriend" as a sign of weakness. While her complete disregard for that label and what it means is disrespectful, it is also a nod to self-assurance and possibly even insecurities. She does not need to be anyone's "girlfriend," and that's empowering. But if she was someone's "girlfriend," another woman could come and do the same thing to her that she's doing, and that's terrifying.

Wildcard- "Booty" Erykah Badu

Erykah Badu steps in and subverts the theme of offensive attacks on other women over their men. 

Your kisses might be wetter/But your nigga likes mine better/But I don't want him
Ya got the beans and rice and the hot ho cakes/But ya nigga still over here in my plate/I don't want him
Ya got a PhD, Magna Cum Laude/But ya nigga love me with a GED/I don't want him
On the surface, this doesn't seem much different than "Don't Cha." Here's a woman who could have another woman's man if she wanted to. She chooses not to, and--in doing so--affirms her own power.

The difference comes in the reason she's making that choice. The speaker in "Don't Cha" chooses not to break up a happy home, mocking the girlfriend for not being as "freaky" as she is. Badu's speaker has a different reason.
I don't want him cause of what he doing to you/And you don't need him/Cause he ain't ready/I don't want him if he ain't made no arrangement with you/I hope you would've done the same thing for me too 
With that last line--"I hope you would've done the same thing for me, too"--Badu subverts what could be a woman tearing down another woman over a man into something more. While, yes, there are still definitely elements of competition ("Your booty might be bigger/But I still can pull your nigga" is the opening line, after all), that competition is ultimately dismantled when the speaker admits that she's not more powerful than the girlfriend. She's simply got the upper hand in this particular exchange. Some other time down the line, the roles might be reversed. She sees a sense of responsibility to respect the boundaries of the relationship while simultaneously telling the woman to get out and take care of herself, to get with a man who respects her back (a man who is "ready").

The video I included is a mashup with another Badu song--"Kiss Me On My Neck"--and I think that it's really fitting that these two go together. "Kiss Me" is a positive affirmation of sexual security and self-worth. I can't help but believe that respect for other women is a step toward that kind of positive outlook.

All of these songs represent the offensive attack, women who are able to take another woman's man away from her. When women see this ability as a power, they undermine a sense of community and respect for one another, they turn dating into a dog eat dog competition that tears other women down and leaves men unaccountable for their fidelity. Ultimately (as Erykah Badu's song and Meshell's video point out) this hurts all women.

Intro- Woman on Woman Action: Why Do We Tear Each Other Down?
Woman on Woman Action Part 1: Direct Competition
Woman on Woman Action Part 3: Defensive Threat

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Some More Thoughts on Fitness

Back in January, I made some fitness goals. These goals were complicated by my (probably way over-analyzed) thoughts about feminism and weight loss. Though not the whole problem, one issue of this complication was that I had a hard time staying motivated without focusing on physical goals (like pounds or inches lost). But whenever I focused on physical goals, I felt guilty. I felt like I wasn't appreciating my body for what it is, and I felt like I was participating in a larger system of oppression based on body size.

(For the record, just because I felt this way about my own goals does not mean that I think someone else who is trying to lose weight or inches is doing these things. Like I said, it's complicated. Under scrutiny, it probably doesn't even make sense, but that doesn't mean it wasn't negatively impacting my ability to work out. I was pretty thoroughly in my own head.)

Since then, I've been running. It started with a lot of walking and a little running, and now it's a lot of running and a little walking. I'm also lifting weights. The running is going well, and I've promised to run a 5k in June and a 10k in October.

So what happened? How did I go from not being able to stay motivated without psychoanalyzing myself into paralysis to signing up for a 10k? I found some other reasons to work out that have nothing to do with weight loss and body size.

1. My Daughter Sees Me Enjoying Exercise- Growing up, I had no positive images of people working out. I didn't really interact with people who worked out for health's sake on a regular basis. In my mind, working out was something you forced yourself to do, usually so you could look better, often temporarily.

I'm measuring my goals with the use of a pedometer (I don't usually do plugs for products, but I'm using FitBug and I really, really like this program). I run over my lunch break and consciously try to take some extra steps during the day so that I get to 10,000. Sometimes, when I get home, I'm short. In these cases, I walk around the house or jog in place to get the steps I need.

My daughter thinks this is hilarious, and she's started stepping with me. She swings her arms and stomps her feet and laughs and laughs. I also just bought a jogging stroller. She loves getting to ride while I jog, and she's excited to go to the park where we run around and fall in the grass.

My husband is also a regular exerciser. He takes boxing classes and runs on the treadmill. She sees this, and loves to carry around his boxing gloves.

"I work out."
I hope that seeing physical activity as a regular habit and not something to struggle through will give her a better relationship with fitness than the one I had.

2. Running Forces Me to Slow Down- Not physically. That would be silly. In case you couldn't tell by the rant about how I was inside my own head at the top of this post, I tend to overanalyze things. I don't do it on purpose; it's just part of who I am.

But not when I'm running.

This doesn't mean I don't think when I'm running. I do. I think about all kinds of things. But the focus it takes to run means that I can't ever quite get into that over analytical groove. I have to think about the surface or just under the surface of things. It's nice, and it often means that I think pretty positive thoughts (or even pretty, positive thoughts) because I can't get into that hypercritical space.

3. I Am Upping My Chances of Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse- I've been watching The Walking Dead (only Season 1! Don't ruin it!). Those people run! A lot! When the zombies come, my over analysis of pop culture might be helpful, but only if I survive long enough to get to some kind of camp or lab or something.

Seriously, though. I'm stronger. I feel more capable. I can carry heavier things and walk longer distances. I feel better.

I'm excited about finding a mental place that makes working out a habitual part of my life. At the end of the day, though, I still feel a little like Miriam from Femamom, who said this about rejoining Weight Watchers:
At WW last week, I stood at the scales, surrounded by other women. While we waited to be weighed in, we shed sweaters, socks, coats, jewelry, wedding rings and hats. I looked down at the flickering number and winced. I was there for my health (and a bit for my vanity). In the past, vanity led the way and health was a footnote. But I’ve matured
Yep. I've definitely tilted the scales (see what I did there) toward health, but there's still a bit of vanity hanging on.

What about you? What motivates you to work out? What doesn't motivate you to work out?

Woman on Woman Action Part 1: Direct Competition

As part of my series analyzing songs about women competing over men (see intro here), I'm going to examine songs where both women get a voice. These duets bring us a raw, passionate fight over not just a man, but status. Each woman presents herself to be worthy of the man's attention but because success requires the man's faithfulness, it becomes a zero sum game. In order to "win," the man must choose her.

Ultimately, this gives all of the power to the man in question, but these women can't let that position of powerlessness consume them. Instead of focusing on the man (who presumably has been unfaithful or at least may soon be unfaithful) and his relationship to her, each woman instead focuses on the other woman. If she can prove her worth to the other woman and to the audience of the song, she feels like she has controlled the man, forced him to make the "right" decision.

"The Best Woman Wins" Dolly Parton and Lorrie Morgan

As the oldest song on this list, it's perhaps fitting that these two ladies are very conscious of their position of powerlessness. 
I'll beg and I'll plead/I will suffer and bleed/But he must make a choice between us
Neither woman makes a direct attack on the other's character, but both maintain that she is the "best woman." They also each make it clear that "I'll never give up or give in." It is perseverance that is rewarded in this game. The lyrics also suggest that these women recognize the level of performance surrounding their situation:
This soap opera play that we're in/Is just like you watch on TV/But I never thought that I'd ever get caught in it/Starring you, him, and me
Each woman has staked her claim to "best" on the decision of a man, and now there is nothing that either can do but wait and see if that man will affirm her claim, choose the other and forever deny her, or leave both of them waiting, unable to think of anything but their positions to each other and to him.

"Does He Love You?" Reba McIntire and Linda Davis

The women in this song are not stuck in limbo the way that Dolly Parton and Lorrie Morgan were. They are not waiting for the man to place them in their roles; their roles are already solidified. The woman voiced by Reba McIntire is firmly placed as the wife, as her rival points out:
But you're the one he rushes home to/you're the one he gave his name to
At the same time, she recognizes that her position as mistress, as plaything is also set:
You have his mornings, his daytimes and sometimes I have his nights 
The roles that they are playing are all-consuming in this song. Reba's character reminds herself "I should not lose my temper. . . because I have everything to lose." Linda's character reminds herself "I should not be ashamed . . . I have nothing to gain."

The tension in this song is less about one of them coming out on top and more about each of them recognizing that they are defined by the other. Reba is now "wife" not only in the sense that she is paired with her "husband," but she is also "wife" as opposed to "mistress." This new dimension to her identity leaves her dependent upon Linda's presence, and she doesn't know what that means for her. Likewise, Linda can only be "mistress" because there is a "wife." Both women are left wondering if the love they feel from the man is real. And the question "Does he love you like he loves me?" is partially rhetorical, but partially earnest. Can he love both of us? Can we all exist this way?

The song gives no answers to this question, but the video is fascinating. As Linda and the husband get into a boat for a rare daytime tryst, Reba's character stands on the shore and watches it explode into a ball of flames. Immediately, we are whisked out of the scene with a dramatic "CUT!" where we see all three actors--Reba, Linda, and the husband--laughing together as they look at footage from the drama they're shooting. Just like Dolly Parton and Lorrie Morgan, these characters are intensely focused on the roles that they have to play within this triangle. Turning it into a (literal) fiction by making the whole interaction part of a movie disarms some of the tension, but if we just look at the lyrics, there's no end for that tension in sight.

"The Boy is Mine" Monica and Brandy

This song takes the now-familiar problem of two women battling for the same man, but each of these women thinks she has already won the battle. Instead of waiting for the man to choose (like Dolly and Lorrie) or recognizing that they are stuck in oppositional roles (like Reba and Linda), Brandy and Monica each maintain the primary position, choosing to believe that the other woman is simply delusional and jealous. 
I'm sorry that you seem to be confused/He belongs to me, the boy is mine 
But when will you get the picture/You're the past, I'm the future 
Each woman ascribes so fully to her version of the truth that she purposefully ignores the very real warning signs of infidelity. Instead of seeing the other woman as an equal victim of a cheating boyfriend, each must see herself as superior to the other woman. Though the video suggests the two women do come together long enough to confront the man (and slam the door in his face) the lyrics give us no such finality.

(To be fair, they just debuted their reunion track, "It All Belongs to Me." Fourteen years later, these women are no longer fighting over a man. Instead, they're focusing on all of the things they bought that man and how--at the end of the relationship--they get to keep those things. Maybe maturity brings the ability to put aside the woman-on-woman bickering--or maybe it's just money.)

The Wildcard-"Beautiful Liar" Beyonce and Shakria

What would happen if the women didn't tear each other down and instead focused on the real problem: the cheating man? Beyonce and Shakira give us some insights. 

Tell me how to forgive you when it's me who's ashamed/And I wish I could free you of the hurt and the pain/But the answer is simple, he's the one to blame!Hey!
Ay! Let's not kill the karma/Ay! Let's not start a fight/Ay! It's not worth the drama/For a beautiful liar
Oh! Can't we laugh about it?/(Ha ha ha)/Oh! It's not worth our time/Oh! We can live without him/Just a beautiful liar
Though both women feel scorned and hurt and both are tempted to blame the other ("You stole everything" "Tell me how to forgive you"), they ultimately recognize that those thoughts of jealousy and anger are blinding them to the truth: the man is a cheat, and he's "not worth the drama." These women represent what can happen when female communication is not centered on breaking each other down, but building each other up. While all of the other pairs of women (Dolly/Lorrie, Reba/Linda, Brandy/Monica) are left in limbo, constantly wondering how to define themselves, these two are able to move on.

"We can live without him." And it's communication with other women that helps us get to that cathartic point.

Next up is Part 2, a look at songs where women send offensive attacks to communicate that they can take a man if they want him.