Thursday, February 28, 2013

Preventing (Activist) Burnout

I am tired.

Hammers are heavy.
I have a very fulfilling life. All of the work that I do feels meaningful and important to me. When I am teaching my developmental writing students how to communicate their ideas clearly, I feel like I am making a difference in the world. When I write a post to contribute to the conversation about oppression, I feel like I am involved in an important movement. When I get in a Facebook argument about victim-blaming, I feel like I am taking up the good fight. When I am reading my daughter a story, I feel like I am building a wonderful relationship with her. When I read for my graduate class and come prepared to discuss literary themes, I feel like I'm building my skills in analysis. When I talk to my husband about bad television shows, I feel like I am connected and engaged with him. My life is good. 

But I am tired. 

Maybe this has just been a rough week. In two separate incidents, I've felt completely drained. In what turned into an hours-long Facebook debate over whether or not women should be told to carry guns to prevent rape, I felt exhausted. In the comments of a post by a self-identified feminist defending that tweet by The Onion, I felt exhausted. 

In the midst of the discussion about how today's feminism is largely taking place online, I am happy to be a part of these conversations. This is work I want to be doing. I have met so many wonderful people and started building a community that grows and sustains me. These arguments, these discussions, they matter to me. Deeply. 

But I am still tired. 

In addition to telling people that women are not possessions like cars and that my self is more than my body, in addition to arguing that race and intersectionality matters and finally understanding why so many women of color have felt shut out from the feminist movement (sorry it took me so long!), I still had to live my life this week. I still had to grade papers and do dishes and plan classes and make two thousand trips with a toddler to the potty and feed the dog and sweep the floor and read for class and cook food. 

And I am tired. 

Reading some posts about activist burnout, I can pretty easily put a cause to this exhaustion. Caring about the things I care about is not a hobby; it is a worldview. Once you see, you cannot unsee. But the negative is easier to find and focus on than the positive, and sometimes the contributions that I make to the world around me feel not just like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket, but trying to do it with my bare hands--the results leaking out and seeping back before I even reach the end of a single trip. 

Hands Study 6

So I know that I need to refocus. I know that I need to recharge. I know that I need to find some perspective. And I know that a lot of you face these same challenges, and I want to know how you do it. 

How do you avoid burnout (of any kind)? If you consider yourself an activist, how do you avoid activist burnout? What can those of us who are taking part in the online activist community do to make sure we take time to see the positive as well as the negative? 

Photo: amy palko

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Do You Own Yourself?

(Trigger warning: There is some discussion of rape in this post.)

Last night I was in an exhausting Facebook debate about rape. It started out when a friend of mine posted an illustrated quote from Julie Borowski's speech on how to avoid rape. In it, she counters advice that women who are being assaulted should pee their pants to dissuade their would-be rapists. Her advice: "Don't pee your pants if you're about to be raped. Whip out [a gun] and make your wannabe rapist pee his pants instead." My friend had paired this quote with a picture of wet jeans and it was then shared multiple times by his friends.

I messaged him to tell him that I was disappointed that he was helping to promote messages that women need to prevent rape instead of focusing on teaching would-be rapists not to rape. There are plenty of discussions on why placing the responsibility of avoiding rape on the shoulders of victims is a problem. In short, women have already heard for years and years about how "careful" we need to be. We can't walk alone after dark, wear our hair in ponytails, take our eyes off our drinks, go into big parking lots,  travel unarmed, or put on a short skirt or a tight top without being told that our actions are "asking for it."

Rape pre-dates mini-skirts

Over the course of this discussion, we got off on many tangents, but one of them came up when my friend made two separate analogies defending his position. At one point, another person was arguing on the thread and said that she believed rape was as bad as (or even worse than) murder. The friend I was arguing with took issue with this and said that nothing was worse than being dead. To help drive home his point he said that he'd rather have his car keyed than stolen. 

At another point in the conversation, he compared women taking defensive measures against rape (including carrying a firearm) to "defensive driving," and said that it was a (smart) option, but not a requirement. 

Cuba Car

I maintained that his analogies were inadequate because a human being is not a car. Protecting yourself against assault is not the same as protecting your house against burglary or your car against theft. I am not property. I am not a car. 

This ended up in a winding discussion of whether a person is property. He maintained that he is his own property, that he "owns" himself. I maintained that no one can own me, not even me. I am not a possession, and I cannot "own" myself because without my whole being, there is nothing to take ownership. I can have ownership over my actions or my possessions, but I am not a possession myself. 

This is the point that I want to focus on. Can a person "own" him/herself? Do you "own" yourself?

I found an interesting post on this topic. This author points out that "self ownership" is a particularly Libertarian idea, and I was arguing with self-identified Libertarians, so I suppose that was the tension I was coming up against. He goes on to explain that the legal definition of ownership has to involve a possession and--even then--is not representative of complete control. I own my house, but if I set it on fire, I commit a crime and under some circumstances, it can be seized from me. He concludes that:
“Ownership” is a social/legal construct, and the fact is, at least where I live (in the U.S. of A.), “ownership” is simply NOT something that is explicit applied to human beings in any official capacity. To my knowledge, the government has made no determination as to whether we own ourselves, or whether we are owned by the government. Thus, it’s meaningless to apply the concept of “ownership” to human beings. It doesn’t mean anything to say that we own ourselves, nor does it mean anything to say that we are owned by someone else. The facts of reality are the facts of reality, and in this case, we control some aspects of our own lives, and likewise, the government controls some aspects of our lives. Who exactly “owns” us, is not a meaningful question.
I don't know that I agree that it's not a meaningful question at all, but I do agree that it's not legally a meaningful question. You cannot own a person. We've settled that. There have been times when human beings were seen as property in America, and the concept was vile enough to spark a Civil War to bring about the end of slavery.  

The legal definition of "personal property" clearly does not apply to yourself, but I still think it's worthwhile to question this concept from a philosophical standpoint. The thought behind those belief systems seem largely aligned in Libertarian principles as well, with one of the cited proponents explaining "each person enjoys, over himself and his powers, full and exclusive rights of control and use, and therefore owes no service or product to anyone else that he has not contracted to supply."

Again, from a legal standpoint this is clearly not true. There are laws governing whether or not we can sell our organs or even just walk around topless. Suicide has often been criminalized. We are required to pay taxes. Legally, we clearly do not own ourselves even in this philosophical way. 

So I guess the question is then is it even possible to own ourselves? If all of the laws were set aside, could we claim ownership over our selves?

I still argue no. 

In order to take possession of something, I have to have an embodied entity to take control of that possession. Since I cannot separate my self from my self, there is no self to take ownership of the self. I know that was a confusing sentence, but I think that's because this is an impossible concept. There is no self I can separate out without losing myself, and if I am no longer a self, then I cannot possess anything. Creating a possession to take hold of would necessarily eliminate my ability to take possession of it. Self-ownership is a philosophical impossibility. 

I think it's a good thing that it's an impossibility because I think the implications of viewing a human being as a possession (even if only of one's self) are highly problematic. If I am a possession, then perhaps arguments that it is my responsibility to protect myself from a would-be assailant make some sense, but that mindset would also explain why we're putting so much energy into preaching "protection" rather than respect. If we see human beings as possessions, it is a lot harder to get across the message of respect of humanity for humanity's sake. In addition, the message of "protection" is clearly not working when it comes to rape and sexual assault, and perhaps this philosophical foundation has something to do with why it is failing. 

What do you think? Can you "own" yourself? 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Yes, That Onion Tweet is Racist: Intersectionality and the 'C-Word'

Since my initial rage over that tweet by the Onion, I have done some reflecting. I realize that practically everyone on the internet has also done some reflecting, but here's some more.

There have been some people to come to The Onion's defense, including several people I respect. Friends of mine and several online articles have said that The Onion had a positive intent. They were attempting to skewer the misogyny that's rife in Hollywood in general and the Oscars in particular. By calling Quvenzhane Wallis a "cunt," The Onion was pointing out the incongruity. No one would really call that sweet child such a vile thing, so by pointing out the ludicrousness of the statement, we're supposed to reflect on how awful it is to treat any of the actresses in Hollywood with such misogyny.


I get that. I also admit that I think that was The Onion's intention. I don't think that whoever wrote that tweet was consciously trying to abuse a child, but I think that this tweet is a prime example of why intersectionality is so important and how whoever wrote that tweet did so without any regard for it. 


Intersectionality is the framework Kimberle Crenshaw developed for viewing oppression. This framework recognizes that systems of oppression intersect. Our world is set up in power-filled binaries.  In a patriarchal society, men are given more cultural power than women. In a racist society, white people are given more cultural power than people of color. In an abelist society, able-bodied people are given more cultural power than people with disabilities. And so on and so forth.

At any given point in our lives, we are operating within these different systems of power. Often, we are privileged in some ways and oppressed in others. We can also slip in and out of some categories over the course of our lives. We could be able-bodied one day and then suffer an injury that leaves us disabled later. We could start out in a lower class and then end up with more economic power later in our lives. Sometimes we exist in a position with less power, but it is invisible, so we can choose when we admit that position. Sometimes the position with less power is obvious or read upon us whether we claim ownership of it or not. 

One of the points of intersectionality is that we cannot ask individual people to ignore the other parts of their identities in favor of the one that we want them to identify with most strongly. 

This has particularly been an issue for feminism, where many women of color have seen white feminists as asking them to set aside their focus on racial identity in favor of focusing solely on gender identity. 

But our lives don't work that way. We are more than the sum of our identities, and we cannot just ignore pieces of ourselves because it would be more convenient that way. Furthermore, we cannot do that to other people or ask them to do that to themselves. People are whole and complicated, and any social act that doesn't start from that premise is bound to fail. 

Back to The Onion

(Warning: there's going to be some pretty strong language in the next part of this post.)
Perhaps The Onion was attempting to make a commentary on one system of oppression: misogyny. I think that they intended to point out a misogynistic pattern in Hollywood, and the Oscars was a good platform to deliver this message because it was certainly fitting the bill

This feminist defense of The Onion points out that intention and suggests that it worked to reach its goals. The author does this by putting in other actresses' names and demonstrating that the "joke" wouldn't work if we used, say, Kristen Stewart's name because many people were saying such vile things about her for no good reason. By pointing to the youngest, most innocent person in the group, they were able to make their point. 

I'm interested, though, in why the author doesn't try swapping out the word "cunt" for anything else. Yes, choosing Wallis was an important authorial decision for whoever wrote that tweet, but so was "cunt," and that's the part that I think has really upset people. 

It is also the pairing of Wallis with "cunt" that points to the reason their joke failed. They pointed to misogyny by choosing a girl, but they also stepped into issues of age and race by choosing the youngest  nominee and the only person of color nominated in either the Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress categories. Quvenzhane Wallis was representative of more than just her gender, and The Onion tweet ignored that. 

"Cunt" carries a connotation that other possible gender-based slurs do not. "Bitch," for instance, doesn't carry that same weight. (Please note: I am not saying that The Onion should have just called a nine-year-old a a bitch and everything would have been fine. I'm just trying to point to specific problems in the language). 

In the Oxford English Dictionary, "cunt" is defined as a taboo meaning for female genitalia. It is also defined as a term of "vulgar abuse." It includes usage such as "cunt-struck" to mean coarse slang for "sexually infatuated." The literary examples--dating back hundreds of years--frequently signal that a woman tries to lure men with her "cunt," or sexual prowess. 

"Cunt" does not mean the same thing as "bitch." Calling someone a "cunt" has specifically sexual overtones that suggest not only a sexual appetite, but one that is to be feared or disgusted. 

The fact that The Onion chose to pair this word with a little girl of color is intersectionally important. Black women are notoriously sexualized in our culture. The trope of the jezebel and the image of the Hottentot Venus are parts of our cultural past that frequently show up in our contemporary media

In addition, as the youngest nominee, Wallis' presence at the Oscars was representative of our future, of our youth. In a world where young women are sexualized at younger and younger ages and shows like Toddlers in Tiaras are so popular they get spin-offs, we have to pay close attention to what it means when language like that is applied to a girl that young. 

Bottom Line

The defenders of The Onion say that the point of the joke is that no one would dare say such a terrible thing about Wallis, and so the incongruity made it work. However, people do dare say such terrible things about people like Wallis everyday. In fact, the host of the Oscars, Seth MacFarlane, sexualized her earlier that very night by suggesting she could be George Clooney's girlfriend. 

The Onion could have chosen other words to put in that tweet, but they chose "cunt," and that has a very particular, very sexualized meaning. They then aimed it at a nine-year-old. A nine-year-old girl. A nine-year-old black girl. All of those things matter, and together they demonstrate why we cannot ignore intersectionality. 

The Onion may have meant to call one system of oppression into question, but they (perhaps unwittingly) embodied simultaneous oppressions in their message. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Why the Oscars Terrifies Me as a Parent

I tried starting this blog post out with some context and setup. I tried to make this about seeing the way we treat our celebrities as a window into our cultural value of humanity. I tried to make this sound intellectual and analytical with some distance between myself and what I was talking about.

But I couldn't.

The truth is, when I saw The Onion tweet that called nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis a "cunt," my reaction--at least my initial reaction--came from only one place, and that place is not intellectual or analytical or distant. That place is raw and visceral and very, very close. I am the mother of a little girl of color, and I was enraged.

Angry tigress

Sure, I could draw connections from this incident to Ms. Magazine's recent victim-blaming of Rhianna to those horribly racist tweets about Amandla Stenberg a while back. I could draw those lines and make some comments about how all of these young, black women are being denigrated in the media in ways that show a lack of value for their humanity. I could then talk about how horribly misogynistic the entire Academy Awards were last night and how the very first thing I heard when I tuned in mid-way was the host (a man chosen to represent us on this night to celebrate our mainstream media) congratulated women on successfully suffering from bulimia in order to meet his standards of beauty. I could talk about the measures taken to combat that and how we need to do more, and I could give signs of hope and signs of despair.

But, at the end of the day, as I watched my own little girl sleep, none of that felt adequate because none of it gave me any real answers in how to protect her from the horrible, vile, dehumanizing things that are waiting for her. Nothing can keep me from realizing that the days where she's oblivious to these forces are numbered, and that I'm the on the front lines of keeping it at bay and arming her for the inevitable battle. 

I can read posts like this one and take heart that she will not fight that battle alone. I can teach her how strong she is and encourage her to grow stronger still. I can read her books and sing her songs and take her to tumbling class and pray and cry and write and scream, but I can't fight in her place. 

I can't fight in her place, and I--a white woman--can't even understand all that she faces. 

But I understand enough to know that the battle will be hard, and long, and painful. I understand because the evidence is everywhere. The Onion, thankfully, issued an apology. As far as apologies go, it's a pretty good one. They take ownership. They lay out future actions. They are direct and do not say that they're sorry we got offended instead of concentrating on the actions they made. But the comments under that apology on their Facebook page point to the real problem

So some rogue social media writer for The Onion got carried away and made a horrible, terrible joke. If that's where it ended, then it would be over. 

But there are so many (mostly white, mostly male) people who are outraged that The Onion would dare apologize for calling a little black girl a perverse, sexualized, derogatory term that I know it doesn't end there. I know that they are outraged because they are trying to maintain a power that keeps them on top and keeps little girls like Ms. Wallis on the bottom. I know that they are outraged because even the tiny shred of human decency in apologizing is seen as a threat to their privilege. 

And I can't fight in my daughter's place, and that hurts. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

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

After two unexpected snow days, I'm feeling a little stir crazy and desperate to get out of the house. Here's what I've been reading in my isolation that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious). 

The Good

A marriage proposal via snarky internet sites about cakes? What's not to love?

Ozy Frantz's post about grammar is fantastic:
I have gotten into shouting arguments about the Oxford comma. I take grammar seriously.
Which is why some people may consider it odd that I think grammar Puritans should shut up and fuck off.
Not everyone had the benefit of a house full of books and parents that encouraged the love of language and their very own copy of Strunk and White. Some people had to try to learn grammar from (gasp) English class.
Louis CK taking a simple question about how his kids are doing to explain white privilege:

 The Bad

Robert Saylor, a twenty-six year old man with Down's Syndrome, has died in police custody and his death has been ruled a homicide.

This xoJane post about a father who was fired for taking time off after his child was born demonstrates one of the many things wrong with the US maternity/paternity leave policies. Also, it's worth reminding everyone that we're one of the few countries that seems unable to handle the fact that babies require some attention:

Read more from the NYT here
The Good Men Project (a site whose mission I once really admired, back before they started publishing rape apologia on a regular basis) has a recent post bemoaning women for being "complicit" in bringing out the "inner chauvinist" in men by daring to wear yoga pants and forcing them lust after us. The Frisky has a much more nuanced response to this than I can muster.

The Curious

This aggregated data from the professional profiles of 10,000 porn stars is . . . interesting.

PhD in Parenting has a great post on how important breastfeeding is and what we can do to help.

This Salon article explains why the philosophical approaches of the millennial generation are positive:
This approach comes from a mindset that I call pragmatic idealism. Millennials definitely have high ideals — and a strong commitment to those ideals, values and beliefs. But they also know their ideals must be actionable and realizable. They therefore tend to be comfortable and confident taking small, steady, incremental, practical steps to accomplish their goals — even when their goals are ultimately big, ambitious, idealistic visions.  
I've been watching Scandal and find myself pretty drawn to the characters, so I read Christiana Mbakwe's explanation of why she loves the main character, Olivia Pope, despite the "problematic" plot lines with great interest:
In case you didn't know, Olivia Pope is the fast-talking, flawless suit wearing, hair looks like Jesus pressed it, formidably intelligent, the word FIERCE does not suffice, protagonist of Shonda Rhimes’ hit show “Scandal.” She fixes problems. Not normal problems. Olivia rectifies the type of problems that could spark civil wars and crash the stock market.
On the surface of things, she’s the perfect post-feminist icon (whatever that means). She’s strong, fearless and effortlessly bends the universe in her favor. She also happens to be having an affair with the president of the United States.
This Sociological Images post about the use of "uptalk" (raising the intonation at the end of sentences) indicates different things when used by men than it does when used by women . . . at least on Jeopardy!

Love, Joy, Feminism asks bloggers and activists to examine when we should point out the horrible things that fringe individuals say. Do we risk giving credibility to a voice that wouldn't have otherwise been heard?

The New York Times has an interesting post about advertisers' desire to court the dad market.

Armed Venus writes about the decision to break up with The Walking Dead. I sympathize.

That's what I've been reading this week. What about you?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Rhetorical Theory is My Best Self-Help Book

If you are at all involved in higher ed, you probably know there's a graduate school crisis, especially in the humanities. I am not ignoring those concerns, and I am not here to tell you there's not a crisis, but I do want to talk about something I got from a humanities graduate program that can't be measured in job placement rates or money: a better life.

Storm Clouds 2

Anyone who knew me in high school could tell you that I was not a happy person. In fact, I was diagnosed with clinical depression in eighth grade. I went through a bout of insomnia that lasted a solid year. I had suicidal thoughts, and I didn't take care of myself. 

There are lots of things that help explain the state that I was in. I was a teenager, for one, and being a teenager is hard. I was in a small town and constantly surrounded by the judgment and gossip of people who watched my parents' marriage fall apart like it was a soap opera designed for their entertainment. I was a weird kid who didn't really fit in. 

I also crafted a worldview that had me constantly focusing on other people and their actions. 

I didn't carry the depression with me all the way to graduate school, but the worldview stuck around. Like this gorgeously-crafted video demonstrates, high school problems tend to get better if you just make it out of them, and that was true for me. I was happier and healthier in college. I enjoyed my life more. I liked myself more. But I was still stuck focusing on other people and their actions whenever I was in conflict. 

Let me give you an example. 

If I got in an argument with a friend, I focused so fully on the friend's feelings and perspective that I never took the time to think about my own. I would end up apologizing profusely or screaming incoherently, whichever one I thought would make them act in a way that was more favorable. All I could see was them, which is unfortunate, because all I could control was me. 

This is where rhetorical theory started to seep in. 

I read that communication "is a presentation of reality that gives life an overall form, order, and tone" and that through the communication we receive we craft "a new dimension of reality, symbolic reality, and it is through the agency of this capacity that existence is produced."*

I found out that we make sense of our life through codes and that they "ultimately have to be explained by something more than pictures, that is, either in words or in a total human context, humanly understood."**

And I learned that when we are able to interpret things differently, when we put new meaning to old symbols, there is a "changed behavior that goes with a new meaning" and that the inability to create new meaning in new situations, the desire to hold onto previous interpretations without testing them can be a liability: "past training has caused them to misjudge their present situation. Their training becomes an incapacity."***

I learned a lot more than that, but the key thing that I learned is that I am (as Burke puts it) "a symbol-using animal." We make sense of our world through the meaning we assign the things that we see, read, and interpret. When I speak, I am an encoder, putting meaning into the words that I send, and when I listen, I am a decoder, attempting to get meaning out of the words that I hear/read.

Learning that helped me to see that things don't just happen to me; they happen with me. Understanding that I had the power to interpret the messages I received as well as the power to carefully encode the messages I sent gave me an agency in my own life that I had never had before.

Seriously. When I was in high school, my motto was "people are bad." I focused so much on the bad people doing bad things that I couldn't figure out how to pay attention to how I reacted to those people or how I placed myself in situations with them. It was as if I was a piece of furniture on a stage that just had to wait for someone to come into the scene to put me into action. I could be sat upon, flung against the wall, or sit mutely as other people acted around me, but I couldn't figure out how to act for myself.

My sophomore yearbook photo.
This mentality left me powerless, a ship on the waves. When the seas were calm, I was happy. When the storms came, I was miserable. I could only focus on the external things that "caused" my happiness or sadness, and I had no idea how to be an agent in my own life.

Studying rhetorical theory changed all of that. If we are symbol-using animals (and we are) then our brains are like a television screen that's constantly on. We are taking the information that we receive from our life experiences and crafting them into a story in our minds.

Before, I could only focus my camera externally.

Let's say that there is a conflict going on between me and someone else. The other person is joyfully saying something mean, and I am upset about it. If it were taking place on a stage created entirely in clipart, it would look like this:

But because all I focused on was the other person who was sending me the messages (not my surroundings, not the context, not even how I was receiving it) all I saw was this:

The only way I could react to that was by trying to change what the other person was doing. I could get upset and hope that my anger or pain motivated them to change. I could apologize (whether or not I did anything wrong) and hope that would make them stop. I could be silent and hope that they just changed on their own. 

But once I was able to see that there's a whole stage out there, there's a context for every interaction, things changed. There is someone sending messages, sure, but I'm also receiving them. Perhaps most importantly, I have the ability to act within that space. I can change how I am sending messages. I can change how I receive them.

This was an amazing (if perhaps obvious) revelation. I was no longer a piece of furniture on the stage.  I could focus on me and my actions, the messages I was sending. I could broaden the lens and look at the entire act in order to figure out what was the best course of action. Action, of course, is the keyword. Once I broadened by lens to include myself in the picture, I actually had some options on how to act. Before, all I could do was watch someone else and hope that their actions would align with my wants. That's a disappointing way to go through life. 

This new perspective does not always make life easy. There have been times when my broadened lens has given me a variety of actions and none of them worked. There was someone whose actions were upsetting me. I tried changing the way I received the messages, but I was still upset. I tried sending messages in different ways to see if that would change the interaction, but I was still upset. Thankfully, I still had an option. I could exit stage right: 

Sometimes, I just have to go find a different stage.

Here's that revelation in song form:

My mantra is no longer that "people are bad." People are people. They are (almost always) acting in the world to the best of their abilities, but those abilities can be clouded when their own meaning-making systems aren't operating optimally. I can't make other people happy. I can only make the best decisions for my own part and hope that the decisions I make help to make my stage a better place. Or, as Gnarls Barkley put it: "I'm going on, and I'm prepared to go it alone. I'm going on to a place in the sun that's nice and warm. I'm going on, and I'm sure they'll find a place for you, too."

That's why, despite the crisis, I think humanities graduate studies are still valuable. 

Photos: mcdett, philipbahr

*From James Carey's "A Cultural Approach to Communciation" Communication As Culture
**From Walter J. Ong's Orality and Literacy
***From Kenneth Burke's Permanence and Change

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Strippers for Teens (or, How the Internet Always Manages to Shock Me)

Apparently, the mother of a 16-year-old boy decided it was a good idea to hire strippers for his birthday party. She has since been arrested for that decision, and now news of this incident is spreading across the internet which is, incidentally, what brought about the arrest in the first place. See, her 16-year-old son was not the only one at this party. In fact there were 80 (80?! I had like seven friends when I was sixteen) people at this party, some of them as young as 13. Several of the other party-goers also received lap dances. Once the photographic evidence of this celebration showed up on social media, parents of the other attendees began to get upset. One eventually called the police, and now the mom is facing up to a year in jail for child endangerment.

Birthday Candles
Apparently this is no longer an acceptable way to celebrate your birth. 
I have come to understand that the way I see the world is not always within the realm of the majority view. I get that I'm slightly more sensitive to some issues, especially those pertaining to things like objectification and what I perceive to be prejudice. I thought I had come to terms with the fact that things that upset me just aren't going to upset a lot of people. 

But I thought, honestly, for real, that we could all pretty much agree that buying lap dances for middle schoolers isn't okay.

I was wrong.

There are people who say they don't get what the big deal is. Sure, these are internet comments, so we always run the risk of getting some bizarre outlier, but it's not just one person, and it's not just anonymous people. If you take a look at the comments on this Gawker piece, you'll see the following:
"Uh how is getting strippers at a party for teenagers endangering the welfare of children? Am I missing something here?" -Pepper_Ann
"By the time I was 12, I was already looking at dirty magazines (the internet then still needed those annoying phone-line modems) so a stripper at 16 doesn't seem so crazy. Plus, don't most kids have sex around this age anyway?" -Punaki
"The 13 year old should've been taken out, but come on. I'm sure those boys have watched porn more vulgar than what was going on at that party.
What are the courts thinking in jailing her for a year? Are they bored? Are they that clueless when it comes to teenager's sexuality?" -bcagrey
"As in "endangering" the kid's likelihood of never been called a "pimp" at his school?" -Cam/ron
"My best friend's dad got us a stripper on my friend's 16th birthday. It was awesome. At no point did I feel endangered. At many points did I have a boner." -T. Pain
I just. . . what?! Seriously. These comments go on and on and on. The primary defense for this being "no big deal" seems to be that 1) teenage boys are already seeing porn 2) teenage boys are likely already having sex.

I am not trying to demonize sex work. I understand that the intersections of feminism and stripping/pornography/prostitution are complicated and that people far better-versed than I am have taken a look at those intersections before.

Without trying to gloss over those complications, can't we agree at the very least that a healthy approach to sexuality that treats people as human beings shouldn't begin with lap dances before we've gotten through puberty?

While there are some dissenting commenters in the bunch, many of the people talking about this incident seem focused only on the momentary pleasure the boys got from being fondled during their interactions with the strippers. Very few people seem concerned about the things that concern me the most, namely 1) how did the strippers feel about having to perform for a room full of children 2) what did this party teach the boys about how to interact with women and 3) what does the general public response to this story mean for how boys and girls are learning about sex?

This last question brings me to a post I read at Love, Joy, Feminism earlier this month. As part of a series called "Forward Thinking," a variety of bloggers responded to a prompt asking them what they'd tell teenagers about sex. The themes that emerged from these conversations are important ones. The writers talked about the importance of teaching consent and bodily autonomy. They also talked about the need to arrive at sexual encounters in safe spaces. They talked about how sex can be a rewarding, pleasurable, and loving experience. They talked about how sex is a mutually arrived at interaction. They talked--many, many times--about respect.

One respondent (Miri) had this to say: "You don't owe anyone sex or intimacy. . . You don't owe it to anyone to stay in any situation that you feel weird about."

We can agree on that, right?! We can agree that that's a good lesson!

How can we simultaneously say that we should be teaching our children (and yes, 16-year-olds are still children, even if they are sexually active children) that they don't owe anyone sex (also, that no one owes them sex) when we are literally buying them sex? Here were a pair of women who literally "owed" these young boys sexual acts because of a purchase, and they performed in a room full of fledgling men who would take this lesson forward into the rest of their lives.

I am not saying that the boys in that room are all going to grow up to be sexual predators, but I am saying that we need to recognize the way that our cultural participation in these discussions shapes the world we live in. If we laugh off how these young boys could go back to school and be "pimps," then we're part of the problem. A problem that manifests itself in very real, very scary ways.

Here's an infographic that shows the alarming statistics about sexual assault on college campuses, the place that most of the young boys in that room will end up in just a few short years. Notice that it ends with tips on how women can get out of scary situations, including calling ahead to your apartment to have someone watch you walk from your car to your door, never going out alone, and keeping a mobile app open that will allow people to track you by GPS if you get abducted.

I can't even count how many times I've seen these tips called "Through a Rapist's Eyes" being shared through social media. In addition to keeping our GPS trackers on and being watched as we walk from our cars, us women are also supposed to avoid wearing our hair in a ponytail because it can be grabbed, avoid going out between 5 and 8:30 am (or, you know, the time most of us have to go to work), avoid grocery store parking lots, and always carry an umbrella.

While I think it's wise for people to be proactive about their own safety, perhaps we'd have to spend a lot less time trying to advise young women on how to avoid being raped if we spent a little less time defending young boys getting trained in how to objectify women.  

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What I Love About Toddlerdom

My daughter turned two in December, and I braced myself for the "terrible twos."

Trust me. I know how they got this reputation. There are times when her ability to express herself is inadequate and she becomes so overwhelmed that she absolutely melts down into a fit of crazy. There is no predicting when this might occur, unless it is bedtime; then it is a certainty.

And sure, she takes forty-five minutes to climb down the stairs, won't let me help her with her coat (and proceeds to wear it upside down), puts her shoes on the wrong feet and screams if I try to fix them, looks at me defiantly and dumps her plate on the floor after I have the audacity to not take it away the moment she says "I done," and absolutely tortures the dog.

These things are challenging. I'm not denying that, and if you catch me in the right moment, I'll probably have the wild look of a captured animal in my eyes, the sheer exhaustion of wrestling her to sleep overwhelming me so much that the thought of spending the few quiet moments of the evening doing anything other than falling into bed is out of the question.

Still--even with all of that--this is my favorite age (you know, so far).

1) Even the hard times are good signs. 

Yes, my child insists on wearing her shoes on the wrong feet and might have a thirty minute breakdown over the fact that her cup lid is the wrong color, but beneath the crazy is a shimmer of her future: a strong, independent future.

All of that passion comes from her trying to figure out her world and how she fits in it. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing her realize that she has control over who she is.

I took her to the children's museum the other day. The last time we were there, I wouldn't let her climb the beanstalk because it was a weekend and really busy. I was afraid she wouldn't be able to do it on her own and would get stuck in there with a crowd of bigger kids. But the last time we were there, it was a weekday and empty. She asked to climb. I let her.

She didn't quite make it all the way down. A particularly far drop intimidated her, and I had to climb up and guide her feet to the next step, but she was so damn proud of herself when she got out. "Mommy, I climbed the leaf all by self!" All of that defiance is setting her up to be a strong person, the type of person she'll need to be to tackle the world ahead of her, and I'm hopeful. 

2) She's so funny!

I'm obviously biased, but this kid is hilarious. She tells jokes. She has timing and delivery down. She loves to make us laugh. Sure, sure, even at one year old (or two days old, for that matter) she was adorable and I was filled with overwhelming love for her, but I have to admit that it's only now, as her personality flourishes and grows, that I can say I absolutely like spending time with her, like, as a person, not just as an extension of my own self, my own flesh. 

Seeing her interact with the world around her reminds me to take the time to think about how I interact with the world around me, too. She's got this entire lifetime of finding her own style, making people laugh, making friends. I feel honored to be someone who gets to guide that journey. That might sound too touchy-feely, but it's true. 

3) I get to share my world. 

I have already started debating with myself what the appropriate age is for introducing her to all of my favorite things. Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Eight year olds can watch that, right?  The City Museum (for you non-St. Louisans, this is the best place ever. You should visit.)? I don't know. Five? The Beatles? The Last Unicorn? Totally fair game already. 

This doesn't always work out, though. Here's a conversation we had in the car:
Her: "Mommy, want to listen music."
Me: (Gesturing at the CD player while Bob Dylan is playing.) "This is music!"
Her: (sadly) "This not music."
What a hater. 

But in addition to getting to share my world with her, I get to share hers, too. Here she is reading (more or less) Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See?:

So, maybe this post is just an excuse to gush about how awesome my kid is, but I also want to remind other people how awesome your kids are, too, especially if you're about to hit the bedtime meltdown in an hour. 

If you're a parent, what age is your kid(s)? What's the best part of it? 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Women in Gyms: Working Out in Safe Spaces

Kendra Lee is a law student who is also recovering from an eating disorder. While she was working out at her school's gym, she encountered a man wearing a shirt that said "Please don't feed the sorority girls" on the front and "Campus beautification" on the back.

Lee wrote about the incident in an opinion piece for her school's paper and the general reaction was--like most internet comment reactions--not pleasant.

She explains why the shirt was so triggering for her by connecting it to a larger misogynistic culture where women are seen as objects and not humans. That this shirt showed up in a gym was further problematic because gyms are often places where women feel marginalized and intimidated.

Somewhat ironically, I read about Lee's letter over at xoJane immediately after reading this post about a woman who is using weight training to recover from an eating disorder.

So now I've got this tangled mess of thoughts running through my mind. A gym can be an incredibly empowering place. It's a place where women can get in touch with a physicality and strength that aren't often part of the "feminine" script, and it's a place where we can see how powerful our bodies can be for ourselves instead of only for consumption by others.


At the same time, gyms can be incredibly patriarchal places where women often feel intimidated, harassed, out of place, and unwelcome. Also, the ads for gyms and the primary motivation for many women going to one is focused on (often unattainable) patriarchal standards of beauty.

I really sympathize with Lee. The shirt (obviously) is disgusting and sexist. I understand fully why seeing the shirt would be insulting to anyone, and I understand how it could be particularly damaging to someone who is in this space to begin with as an attempt to recover from an eating disorder.

Lee suggests a ban on offensive shirts in the gym or--as some gyms have done--a set number of hours that are devoted only to women.

Lee's school is private, so this particular incident isn't really a free speech issue (since the First Amendment is only about government-imposed sanctions), but if it were to take place on a public campus, it certainly could be.

My goals are the same as Lee's. I want the gym to be a place free from discrimination, a space where all people can go to feel empowered and strong.

What's got me stuck, though, is that I don't think her proposed solutions actually solve the problem, and I don't know what to propose in their place.

Gym Segregation

Lee's suggestion that the gym propose certain hours for women only is a complicated one. 

I certainly see that some people may feel more comfortable working out in an environment where the gender dynamics are simply removed. When a San Diego YMCA offered a women-only swim time to accommodate Muslim patrons who were unable to swim in front of men, I saw that as a positive decision. 

There were others who disagreed with me. Many people commented on the story to say that it was racist and that we'd never accept a "whites only" swim hour.

Obviously, the people who are making these comments are completely ignoring the power of privilege. A "whites only" swim hour is about giving people who are already in a position of power more power. It does nothing to create equality and only exacerbates the problem.

But people are equally upset about these "women's only" gym hours. Posts like this one decry us feminists of using "reverse sexism" to enact our "double standards" because there was a section of the gym roped off for only female weight lifters.

I don't think this is "reverse sexism" (mainly because I don't think that reverse sexism exists anymore than I think reverse racism exist. Prejudice is prejudice, and prejudice plus power equals oppression). The fact that women are often willing to pay more to work out at female-only gyms or to squeeze their workouts into limited time slots suggests that the intimidation in coed environment is real. There are plenty of gyms where men are the primary (if not sole) patrons, but because they don't run the risk of having that space taken over by women, that segregation remains unstated whereas this one becomes policy.

No. My problem with these decisions isn't with whether they are "sexist." It's about whether they are productive.  Over at Feministing, there's a thread about whether these decisions are actually progressing equality.

"Separate but equal" is not equal, and if these "women only" hours are being used as a way to address the bullying and intimidation that takes place in coed gym spaces, that's exactly what they're becoming. We can't make people be nice to one another with rules. We can only do that with cultural changes, and creating parallel spaces where women can be sent when their desire to not be harassed overcomes them does nothing to change that culture.

The problem is that the only other option requires sending individual people onto the front lines of a battle they may not be willing (or even able) to fight. And while this post is specifically about women because that's what the story that sparked it centered on, this could be about any person who doesn't fit the traditional male-dominated mold of gym-goer. Anyone who doesn't seem strong enough, masculine enough, or tough enough might get bullied out of a space that--by all accounts--could offer them a wealth of personal opportunities for growth.

Telling those people that they can have their own space might address the problem immediately, but what does it do in the long run? And whose responsibility is it to fight that fight? (And if we can't go to the gym in the meantime, how are we supposed to be strong enough to fight it?)

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

Here's what I've been reading for the past week (or two--I think I might have missed one) that made me smile (The Good) cry (The Bad) and think (The Curious). What about you?

The Good

Fox News, trying to be horrible bigots, accidentally ran a picture of a same-sex couple as an accompany to their article on why traditional gender roles are necessary. And it was hilarious. (Links to Feministing, not Fox News, in case you want to avoid giving them pageviews). 

Girl on Saturday joined the roller derby! I read her updates about this journey with equal parts awe and jealousy. 

Roller Derby (2)

This pit bull saved everyone in the family (even the other dogs) from a fire. 

Our Feminist {Play} School has a great list of books about feminist parenting. What would you add? 

"Carpe diem." "Curiosity killed the cat." You're doing it wrong. 

The Bad

Slactivist's post about the three-fifths voting proposal out of Virginia is well-written and insightful, but the fact that this was even a possible party "strategy" makes me so sad I can barely even read it. 

Before you judge yourself against pictures of celebrities, you should watch these Photoshop before and after GIFs. You're a real person; what you see usually isn't. 

Author Terry Deary thinks that libraries are "no longer relevant" and that they need to stop stealing all his hard-earned money. The internet was not amused. 

A white man on a plane in Atlanta slapped a 19-month-old baby while calling him "that n****r baby" and only one passenger stepped in to help the mom. Sickening. 

The Curious

This Racilicious post about the author's changing views on Beyonce and a discussion of intersectionality is really good:
Such doubting of the Knowles-Carters’ decision in configuring their family as they see fit from a white woman reminds me of white feminist Jaclyn Friedman’s now-notorious (and since apologized-for) unsolicited advice to them: it’s the racialized position of white people outside of the Black familial unit perceiving themselves to know “better” than the Black parents who are handling the child-rearing decisions. I call it The White Social Worker Syndrome.
And that syndrome dovetails into respectability politics–and the latter definitely showed itself when some people of color I know on Facebook started mom-shaming Beyoncé for wearing her Super Bowl costume, stating that “she’s a mother now!” and–like taking on her married name–she shouldn’t sport such an thing.
Ozy Frantz's discussion of choice feminism left me thinking:
My feminism is about people having freedom from the constraints of gender norms. Freedom means that no choices are off-limits. Freedom means that my wife can stay home with the kids, or we both can work, or I can stay home with the kids. Freedom means that I may choose to wear natural lipstick or no lipstick or bright purple lipstick. Freedom means I can have kinky sex or vanilla sex or no sex. Freedom means I can change my name to my husband’s name, or his to mine, or we can invent our own surname.
All Things Beautiful post about being married to an introvert is great, and it's part of a larger series about marriage that I'm really looking forward to reading.

Both the post and the discussion in the comments of this piece about objective morality are thought provoking. 

Photo: 4nitsirk

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

About Those "Ugly" Beyonce Super Bowl Pictures

You may have heard that Beyonce performed at this little thing called the Super Bowl recently. You may have also heard that she pretty much dominated that performance, with many calling it one of the best Super Bowl halftimes of all time.

Love her, hate her, or love to hate her, you have to admit that performance was full of a superb physicality that demonstrates athleticism and talent. (How did she get to the ground (gracefully even) in those boots?!) Immediately, people began to cry that Beyonce's performance was "too sexy" for primetime. As several smart people have already pointed out, the cries of "too sexy" are just the same tones of slut-shaming and body policing that permeate our overall culture on a daily basis magnified to Super Bowl proportions. 

Perhaps my favorite response to this criticism comes from David R. Henson (If you don't click on any of the other links, you should still click on this one. It's really good.), who explains that Beyonce's performance was not about sex, but about power:
That a Black woman claimed and owned her power during the misogynist, consumerist celebration known as the Super Bowl only highlights Beyoncé’s brilliance and boldness.
It’s no wonder some people attempted to wrest back control over her and her body by marginalizing her performance by sexualizing it.
He goes on to say that (emphasis mine):

Beyoncé declared ownership of that stage — that stadium — and, more importantly, claimed ownership of her own body in the most misogynist and objectifying four hours of mass culture.
It takes a warrior to be able to do something like that.
A warrior. That's powerful stuff.

That's why I am somewhat frustrated to find out that Beyonce's publicist is trying to get some pictures of her performance removed from the internet because they are "unflattering." These pictures (which you can see at that link), are mid-action shots that have left her looking slightly less polished than usual. These pictures have since started cropping up in memes across the internet, like these:

Sure, these are not the glamour shots that usually represent Beyonce in the media, but they are most definitely shots that demonstrate a powerful performance. Just look at the memes! They're comparing her to Conan (a warrior!) and having her heft Olympic-worthy weights. Those faces are the faces of someone using their strength to perform. 

It made me think about other times when we see "unflattering" faces on our pop culture icons. 

I wonder if Lebron James' publicist is upset about these magazine covers:

Or this one of Kobe Bryant:

Or this one of Tom Brady:

No. For those men, those pictures of "unflattering" faces are on the covers of magazines. They weren't arbitrary shots in a series of still frames from a larger performance. Those shots were chosen specifically  because they exude power. When people are famous for their physicality (among other attributes), then that physicality often shows up in their faces. It is the way that we can recognize the physical power of exerting energy in the otherwise insufficient medium of a single photo. 

Those "unflattering" photos of Beyonce are anything but unflattering. They serve to display exactly what she did during that halftime performance: she used her body to be powerful. 

The reason we don't like those photos is the same reason so many people called her "too sexy." Beyonce's body was no more on display than most of the cheerleaders on the field. We are not denouncing her because we've caught a sudden case of Puritanism. Culturally, we denounce her because she refused to give her body up for consumption. She was on display, to be sure, but there was no doubt that she was the one in control of that display, and that's the thing our patriarchal culture doesn't like. (It's the same reason people get up in arms about breastfeeding pictures on Facebook, but seem to have no problems with entire Facebook groups dedicated to "Big Titties" or "Bikini Girls"). 

I understand that the publicist of a megastar like Beyonce has a tough job, but I really believe that her image is better served with these pictures out there. When I look at those pictures, I see a woman who is not afraid to use the strength of her body. That's a good thing. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Lena Dunham Doesn't Speak for Me, But I'm Glad She Speaks For Someone, I Guess

Hey! Not enough people have said things about Girls, so I'm going to say some things, too!

I am a white, college educated, twenty-seven-year-old woman who is a writer with a double-digit dress size. If I'm not in Girls target demographic, I don't know who is. 

I watched all of Season 1, which means I have no foothold for the most recent Girls debate over the inclusion of a potential token black character. Chances are I'll probably never have anything to say about that because I'm unlikely to watch Season 2. 

A friend of mine posted a Facebook status about Girls last week that said she was unable to find any sympathy for the characters because of their hypocritical class privilege. She said she was only a few episodes in, and--to be sure--those first few episodes made me really, really dislike the protagonist as she whined and hemmed and hawed through the horror of her parents deciding they were no longer going to support her aimless drifting through New York City in the name of existential discovery. My friend went on to talk about how working through crappy jobs in our twenties is how we build character for the work that we'll do later in our lives and that this show just fell flat for her. 

Some of the comments I've seen about Girls lament that "this generation" just doesn't get the value of hard work. 

I am one year older than Lena Dunham, so we're squarely situated in the same generation, but she definitely does not speak for me. I tried to figure out why I failed to find connection, and the comments about work really summed it up. 

I am twenty-seven years old and I have worked well over twenty jobs. I have bussed tables, worked drive-throughs, changed diapers (of children and adults), cleaned houses, listened to customers complain, and scrubbed toilets. I have worked double shifts, overtime, and gone weeks on end without a day off. I have worked while going to school full time, while parenting, and while sick. Sometimes, I have complained, but always I have done it. 

I am not the only one. 

The characters on Girls are no more representatives of my generation than the characters on Sex and the City are representatives for the previous one. They are escapist fantasies predicated on a class privilege that has to be elusive and elitist. That's the point of the escapism. 

That Girls bills itself and has been touted as a "real" Sex and the City is the part that bothers me. "Real" for who? 

This is why I can't completely write off the show even though I didn't really connect with it personally. It's clear from the conversations the show has generated that it's real for someone, and it's real for people who didn't feel that they had representation before. 

When Dunham won the Golden Globe for Best Actress for her show, she said that "This award is for every woman who felt that there wasn't a space for her. This show's made a space for me."

Later, when she also won Best Comedy, she said that "Making this show and the response to it has been the most validating thing that I have ever felt. It's made me feel so much less alone."

Many people took issue with these comments because, as has been very well documented (also here, and here), Lena Dunham's fictional world (which she says she based on her real-life one) is awash not only in class privilege but in all kinds of racial privilege. They said that Dunham had done nothing to make a spot for them and that while she might feel much less alone, her success had only further highlighted how unrepresented many, many people across America truly are in our pop culture. 

Without a doubt, the fact that this particular story got funding when there are so many other stories that do not get such major network support is a problem that is firmly rooted in our prejudicial society. (That Lena Dunham is already being picked up to write for a second HBO show highlights that further). There is a finite amount of time and resources for the major national networks, and when all of that time and resources goes to one kind of story--usually rich and white--that's a problem. 

Still, as frustrated as I am with the privileges I see seeping out of Girls and as much as I don't see myself anywhere in these characters, I can't fault Lena Dunham for telling her story, and I can't hate on her for the success she's getting. 

I also can't ignore that her story is sparking some important conversations. Even the conversations pointing out the lack of racial diversity are putting the underrepresentation of authentic interracial interactions into mainstream discussions. 

On top of that, Girls has sparked many excellent conversations about body image. Dunham's character Hannah laments that being "11 pounds overweight" has made her life miserable, and we're supposed to think that's a ridiculous thing to say. However, when her real-life counterpart is being harassed over her body on a daily basis, how ridiculous is it, really? And if being 11 pounds overweight is enough to bring on the type of cruel bullying that would send most people reeling from the limelight, don't we have to say that standing firm in the face of that cruelty is at least doing something for our culture? 

All of that to say that even though Dunham doesn't speak for me, I'm glad she's speaking for someone. I hope that the criticism of the show continues because I think its weaknesses are weaknesses in our culture as a whole, and they need to be examined. I also hope the praise continues because what the show is doing right points to weaknesses of our own as well, and no one person's story is going to address it all. 

Are there any TV shows that you think are "real" for you? What have you most seen as a true representation of your life? Is "realness" a requirement for a good show?