The Dove Campaign, or Why I Don't Trust Inspiring Messages

strong female characters

In the past week, somewhere between eight and ninety of my Facebook friends posted this video. And then there was the backlash, including this awesome blog post. At the risk of reiterating what has already been said: embedded in this empowering message of confident womanhood is a continued premium on beauty, for one thing—a premium that only seems to important for the female gender—and unexamined assumptions about normative beauty traits, for another. (Most of the women participating are white, blond, and blue-eyed. Most of the “positive” descriptors include the word “thin.”)

These criticisms I unquestioningly agree with—but there’s an ambivalence. Because, as a woman raised on and indoctrinated with such premiums on beauty and complacency about normative beauty traits—as someone who occasionally suffers severe crises of confidence re:said beauty traits-- I also fully understand the impact this message has. Maybe it’s a disjuncture between my intellectual and emotional selves. Or maybe the two are inextricably intertwined.

It’s the emotional response that interests me. Many women reported getting teary while watching this video. Obviously, it strikes a chord. But why? Because it so intensely matters to us what other people think of our face? Because it validates a deep-seated desire to believe that our general attractiveness quotient is between 1.5 and 2 points higher than what we rate ourselves looking in the mirror each day? (Or worse, looking at photographs? It’s the photographs that get you. Forreals.)

I’m not trying to make fun. Because I totally get it. But I think it’s worth questioning: what exactly are we crying about?

What it makes me think of is the fallibility of emotional responses. The way that a strong emotional response tends to project a validity on its trigger. Based on this Dove commercial and its response, I propose an examination of why things like this make us so emotional, rather than taking our emotional response to be proof of the commercial’s poignancy. What nerve does this touch, or heartstring does this . . . pluck? (What a terrible metaphor. I apologize.)

What this, in turn, makes me think of—and forgive me if this seems like a huge digression about horrible human beings—is a particularly hyperdramatic yet affecting John Quinones ABC News special. It was one of his “What Would You Do?” hidden camera pieces, in which he set up some actors to play a white couple, their college age daughter, and the black boyfriend she is introducing them to, and had them enact a very loud, non-PC conversation in a Utah restaurant. The gist of it is that the white father is quite vocally disapproving of the relationship, spewing forth a number of racist statements (“How did you get into my daughter’s school? Basketball scholarship?”), while the hidden cameras wait to see if anyone will intervene.

The reaction that really stuck with me was that of a middle-aged woman sitting nearby, when John Quinones questions her about what she just overheard. Tears streaming down her cheeks, a saintly, long-suffering expression on her face, she laments the plight of this beautiful young girl who is wasting her time with (as a nearby, more vocally racist old woman puts it) "that." (Clearly this special produced its own visceral emotional response in me as viewer. But that's another story.) The woman recounts talking about this "issue" with her own daughter, and seems to acknowledge, in a small way, that it’s wrong to be against interracial couples—but she can’t help how she feels, can she?

You could see it on her tear-streaked, pitiful face. She was practically heartbroken.

For me, this is proof of the absolute unreliability of visceral emotional response. We’re moved, we’re touched, we’re hurt, we’re offended, but this in and of itself means nothing. It’s not just the what, but the why—why does it make us feel this way? Is it really valid?

OK. Huge, barely relevant digression over. (And don't think that I'm comparing the women who watch/participated in this commercial to dumb old racists! It's just my way of thinking through the emotional versus the intellectual responses to issues of self and other.)

To be clear, emotion certainly serves a function in our notions of self, society, morality, and politics—I’m not saying we should be robots. But, to misquote Socrates, the unexamined emotion is not worth having. Our gut responses aren't always the best responses; trusting them keeps us from critically engaging with the thing we are responding to. And I say: if we really pondered why women seeing their faces drawn better when described by a random stranger than when they themselves described it made us, well, emotional, then maybe the underlying problem would become clearer.

Burmese Children

word traveler burma

Before leaving to Myanmar, I had read so much online about it. Mostly, I was concerned about traveling safely in a country where traditions are so different and the political situation quite unstable. We all have heard a lot about Myanmar lately, and not all of it is good news. It seems that Myanmar is heading toward a more democratic government, but still in the outer provinces, those areas that are out of reach for tourists and seem so forgotten, ethnic fighting is happening. While gathering handful information, I learned that Myanmar is quite a bit more conservative than other countries in Southeast Asia, which means I packed t-shirts with leaves and long pants for those days. Knowing that the medical system and the pharmacies are still underdeveloped, I stocked up all the medicines I thought I may need. I learned that banks don’t exist, not to mention ATMs, and that dollars should not be folded or crumpled, or they will not get accepted anywhere. Last but not least, a friend of mine told me that during a trip over there a few years ago he tried to discuss about politics with his Myanmar guide, but there was no way the guy would even start to express his opinion about anything, and he mainly remained silent and looked embarrassed. Therefore, I decided it was wiser not to get involved in a political discussion in public. These tips being absorbed, I considered myself quite prepared to live a nice trip in a mostly mysterious country.

But nobody, no blog, no article, no friend, had prepared me to the real experience and the feelings I would feel once there.

Some journeys leave you the same way you were before, they give you memories of fun things, wild landscapes, or even new recipes. You take tons of pictures, and maybe sometimes you know you will never look at them again. They are stored in your computer, and that’s enough.

But other journeys change you, for they are really meaningful–they touch your heart so deeply you instantly feel will never fully recover. It’s a weird and precious feeling, and this was the first time it happened to me. I started to think: Was this place waiting for me? Will I be the same person again when I go home? How can I tell my family all the details? Can I leave Myanmar and go back to my country like this was a regular fun vacation? Is there anything I can do to give back to these people what they are giving me?

Before leaving, I had also gathered information about orphanages and schools, and learned that Burmese kids are not even eligible for adoption. Myanmar isn’t the only country in the world with such rules, but still my heart skipped a beat when I read this. The only thought that adoption is not a possibility made me feel powerless, impotent. In Myanmar there are some orphanages, and sometimes international foundations are taking care of collecting donations or organizing volunteering experiences (for instance http://www.burmachildrensfund.org.uk/). They support the future of these children in various parts of Burma, and provide kids with shelters and education.

One day Husband and I visited a school at Inle Lake. These students were from two to six years of age, and they had families to go back to at the end of the day. They looked happy, they screamed and laughed all together while the teachers were quietly watching over them. We were strangers at first, but it took them a few minutes to show us how they would push each other on the swing.

And that’s when I started to wonder–those poor children who don’t have parents or don’t know who they come from, can they be this happy? Coming from a Western country, where human and natural rules are quite different, I realized I shouldn’t judge the situation with my old eyes. Instead, I should keep my eyes open while I was there, learn as much as possible about these people and maybe change my way to consider things. It didn’t take long to learn the most important and shocking lesson–Burmese are so welcoming to foreigners, and they are even more welcoming to their own people. There might be severe ethnic fighting going on in some areas, but to me that’s an unfortunate, huge mistake. I saw something inside them, something special I had never seen in others before. I saw families, made of mothers, fathers and children who may be quite unaware of what’s outside their country, but who are still happy, they KNOW how to be happy and enjoy the simple things in life, some authentic way of living that we think we have but in fact we have lost. I had never, ever seen and felt this peace inside myself. So, putting aside my initial reaction towards the adoption issue, I wondered. Would adoption be the best choice? Growing in a natural and beautiful and uncontaminated environment, where relationship bounds are tight and pure, growing in your own country and having the chance to know it and make it better in the very near future… isn’t this the better option? After all, there are so many other ways to help, if we really want to.

I’m not sure what the answer to my questions might be, but I’m sure of one thing–Myanmar is a country that can change you deeply. I changed over there. Like a snake, I left my skin behind, and soon was ready to get warmer under new sun rays, free from the past, eager for a new future and willing to learn how to make a day out of a single smile.

These are more links of interest, to support children in Burma, or just gather information.

The Burma Orphanage Project: http://burmaorphanageproject.org.uk/about/

Myanmar Orphanage: http://www.myanmarorphanage.com/

Stichting Care for Children: http://www.careforchildren.nu/en/

"For millennia women have dedicated themselves almost exclusively to the task of nurturing, protecting and caring for the young and the old, striving for the conditions of peace that favour life as a whole. To this can be added the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, no war was ever started by women. But it is women and children who have always suffered most in situations of conflict. Now that we are gaining control of the primary historical role imposed on us of sustaining life in the context of the home and family, it is time to apply in the arena of the world the wisdom and experience thus gained in activities of peace over so many thousands of years. The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all."

Aung San Suu KyiOpening Keynote Address at NGO Forum on Women, Beijing China (1991)

 

Madam C.J. Walker: Self-Made Millionaire.

historical woman

The first female self-made millionaire in U.S. history. Not too shabby a title. But I think Madam C.J. Walker—born Sarah Breedlove—gets extra points, like exponential extra points, for also having been born the daughter of slaves in the post-Civil War deep South. And still becoming a self-made millionaire. Now that takes some chutzpah.

Sarah was born in Louisiana in 1867, not long after the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus, she was the first of her siblings to be born free. Her parents had been slaves on the Madison Parish plantation. Imagine that generational divide—the brave new world that Sarah faced in the aftermath of the Civil War. She was not a slave; but what options could possibly be open to her, as a woman, let alone a businesswoman?

Well, early on, not a lot. She married at the age of 14 and had a daughter, A’Lelia (Lelia for short) at 17. Her husband died when Lelia was two years old, and Sarah moved, daughter in tow, to St. Louis.

Sarah later remarried. Her husband was one Charles Joseph Walker (see where she got the name!), a newspaper advertising salesman. It was about this time that Sarah, now Madam C.J. Walker, got her big American business idea. Taking into account her own experiences and difficulties with her hair—hair loss from an unhealthy scalp, “kinkiness” of her ethnic hair—she whipped up her own special shampoo and tonic, which she then decided to sell to the general populace. Or at least, other African-American women.

This is, I think, a really interesting point. First of all, there is an intense politics surrounding ethnic, and in particular African-American, hair. Consider the normative follicle beauty ideal in our society, which centers on lush, shiny, long, and, importantly, smooth hair. For many women, with a bit of brushing and shampooing, this is the natural state of their hair. For many others, this is something that can only be achieved through arduous styling, product usage, and manipulation. And yet it is still expected of them, somehow. How many African-American female celebrities wear their hair “au natural”? What kind of media buzz is created when they do?

This is a problem and, judging by Madam Walker’s success, not a new one. While the politics are questionable, Walker was able to smartly fill a need in an era when the African-American woman consumer was increasing her buying power. Capitalism! Free enterprise! In 1908, Walker and her husband moved to Pittsburgh and opened a college to train “hair culturists,” then resettled in Indianapolis where Madam C.J. Walker’s hair enterprise headquarters and factory were established.

Walker wasn’t just some money grubbing capitalist, even though that was clearly the vogue at the time (see: John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford). She was also interested in politics and social causes, and regularly contributed money to the NAACP, the NACW (National Association of Colored Women), the YMCA, and other organizations. Among her pet projects: making lynching a federal crime (one of those things where you look back and are like: HOW WAS THIS AN ISSUE WITH TWO SIDES), the education of young black people (she sent six students every year to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute), saving Frederick Douglass’s house (!!).

Then, like any self-respecting upwardly mobile American, she built her own estate, and moved into it. In 1917, she relocated to Villa Lewaro, designed by the first licensed black architect in New York state, in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. According to her New York Times obituary, the estate was three stories and had over thirty rooms. It also had an $8,000 organ, which, after a well-stocked floor-to-ceiling mahogany library, would be the first thing I would get as a millionaire too.

Madam C.J. Walker died in 1919 at the age of 51, many more years of fabulous hair-empire-running and nouveau-riche-living before her unrealized. Her daughter Lelia took over the company upon her death. In 2010, New York City named a street (or technically, a “place”) in Manhattan after the two of them.

I love how Madam Walker resides at this fascinating intersection of race, class, and gender—capitalizing on raced and gendered products, born into the aftermath of America’s worst raced sin, giving large sums of her substantial fortune towards the advancement of its victims. I admire her gumption (synonym to chutzpah) at the same time that I recognize that her ability to navigate post-bellum America’s racist, unabashedly capitalist system was unique and exemplary. She made it. Most people didn’t.

But then things took a turn

If you know me, or have been reading this column, you know that I spent a year living in Bangladesh.  It was wonderful and fantastic and a hundred other adjectives.  Bangladesh is close to my heart not just because of my time spent there, but it’s also the place where my husband grew up and where his family lives today. Bangladesh has not had a peaceful spring.  In early February, masses of people gathered in central Dhaka to protest what they felt were light sentences given to war criminals. The protest grew and became a hub of music and thought and peaceful demonstration.  Parent’s brought their children and it seemed the country was really banding together.

But then things took a turn. Political parties started shouting about favoritism and unfair practices, and the strikes began.  Countrywide strikes, or Hartels, have been used for decades in Bangladesh as political bargaining tools.  In their early days, they were a way of making those in power take notice and negotiate with other parties. By virtually shutting down the capital city, the organizers gained a chip to bargain with: Meet with us, hear our demands, or nothing gets done.  It’s not pretty or particularly practical, but it worked.

As time moved on, the hartels became more and more symbolic; a way to be seen as doing something and being present, flexing political muscles.  When we were in Dhaka, strikes were called about once a month, sometimes more often if there was a particular issue at debate. But they were relatively tame and never reached our corner of the city, home to all the embassies.  In recent months hartels have been called on an almost weekly basis and with increasing violence.

What was originally a political debate about justice has been taken by some and made to be a fight over religion.  A ‘with us or against us’ mentality has spread as more and more people feel slighted. As the original protest is drowned by shouting, fear, and a mob mentality, the future is unclear. Many of us who hold Bangladesh in our hearts are anxiously watching and hoping for level heads and peace to prevail.

I’m not an expert, just a writer with an opinion---for further reading and other opinions see here and here, or check out the Guardian, The Daily Star, or The BBC 

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TV Dinners, Game Developers, and Female Objectification

strong female characters

There’s that moment, and I’ve gotten pretty used to it, when you’re watching TV or you’re at a party or a club or you’re listening to a comedian, and you have a sudden realization: Oh. They’re not talking to me anymore. Sometimes it’s a little thing, and sometimes it’s not, but we’ve all been there—knowing, with certainty, that the tone has shifted from one of universal nature, to one that addresses solely the heterosexual male contingent of the audience. This is evidenced by the way that women are being represented, employed, talked about.

My “they’re-not-talking-to-me” senses were triggered by the most inane, the most ridiculous thing the other night—a Hot Pocket commercial—but maybe because of too much stress, maybe because of not enough sleep, I subsequently flew into a rage.

The gist: A really, really plain-looking guy and a hottified girl (makeup, voluminous hair, perpetual narrow-eyed come-hither expression, tight shirt, slinky walk) enter a room and approach a second plain-looking guy, who is holding a somewhat phallic-looking Hot Pocket, which the girl proceeds to put in her mouth in a fairly suggestive way as the guys look on, wide-eyed.

Then I flew into a rage.

That’s a slight exaggeration.

I just suddenly felt, I don’t know—fed up? “They’re just putting shit into the world,” I raved at my poor boyfriend. “Shit!” Besides for giving vent to my need to curse, I guess what I meant by that was: something extraneous, with a wholesale negative impact. This Hot Pocket commercial wasn’t doing anything that Carl’s Jr. (Hardee’s for you East Coasters) campaigns hadn’t done before, and better/worse/horrifyingly worse. Paris Hilton writhing around in a bikini, washing a car and stuffing a burger in her face. Miss Turkey strutting down a pier holding (what else) a turkey burger, with the camera squarely focused on her ass.

I’ve hated Carl’s Jr. commercials for a long time.

But those are really only the most egregious, honest, overt, self-conscious examples. Women’s bodies are regularly put on display as if that will please, titillate, enhance the experience of the average viewer. No matter how random the product. No matter how wide the audience.

Recently, at a game developers’ conference in San Francisco, outrage was had over the presence of scantily clad women dancers. Female attendees felt uncomfortable, and an IGDA chairwoman resigned in protest. This was an especially sore point because the game developers field has long been dominated by men—and instead of making efforts to include women and make them feel like respected and valued colleagues, a major professional conference instead “included” women as entertainment and decoration. This isn’t for you. We’re not talking to you.

It’s not that I have a problem with women’s bodies, or showing skin, or what have you. And it’s not that women can’t be entertained by scantily clad women. It’s more that such women, in the public sphere, in media, tend to represent a wider attitude about women, an accessibility, an empty vessel-hood, that is conceived of, produced, and enjoyed by the heterosexual male gaze. It’s this pervasive sense that, unlike men, women can be expected to provide sex, entertainment, decoration, inspiration, that they are bodies and not subjects, not actors, not people. These women are not participators in the conversation, but rather objects and symbols that sit voiceless on the sidelines while men bandy them about. And those women who do participate have to accept that they are exceptions.

This type of problem ties into wider issues of gender inequality and attitudes towards women, and, as ridiculous or harmless as it may seem, I believe it has the potential to at least indirectly promote or condone some really, you know, evil, effed up shit---misogyny, discrimination, rape culture. It’s an all-consuming, insidious problem that I don’t expect to change overnight, but that, I hope, will slowly fade as women continue to expand their influence in related fields. In the meantime, I'm dealing in two ways: I wrote this blog post, and I’m not buying any Hot Pockets.

Marriage Equality

equality

This week, the Supreme Court is hearing cases that will determine the constitutionality of DOMA and the legality of Prop 8. It saddens us that we have to even write this, but we believe in the fundamental equality of all human beings. Love is love is love. Here are three pieces from our archives on the subject: Renee explores the difference between Civil Unions and Marriages: The Same, But Not Equal

Nora ponders what she and her wife will tell their son about marriage inequality: On Inequality

Miya argues that marriage equality is about families, and has ideas about what laws should come from this battle. Family Equality and the Legacy of the Struggle

Please read, enjoy, discuss, and share.

Dressing Like a Princess, and Other Concerns

strong female characters

I recently read Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which examines the numerous sociological trends that affect the upbringing of the young American girl, from Disney Princesses to an obsession with pink to the unhealthy emphasis placed on beauty and romance. Orenstein posits that while there have always been difficulties in raising confident, not-defined-by-gender-stereotypes daughters, there has been a recent turn towards “pink power” that sees hyperfemininity as something to be celebrated and—also—commodified. She asks: what harm are we doing to our daughters by allowing them to buy into this type of girl culture? And is there even a way around it?

This got me thinking about my own childhood, and the gender stereotypes and plastic role models I was raised on. Was it better or worse than what’s available to girls today? Walking around toy and kids’ clothes aisles in Target, everything seems familiar: Barbies, Polly Pockets, Dream Phone (yeah I totally owned that). But is Orenstein correct in saying that this lifestyle, these values, are more insidiously ingrained than they were in the 1950s to early 1990s? (Yeah really—the 1950s??)

In response, I did a quick mental review of all of my Halloween costumes from childhood to high school. Halloween costumes are the one time a year that all children, and not just those attending Disney On Ice shows, exorcise their inner aspirational identities whether those are found in the professional (astronaut, cheerleader, ballerina) or the fantastical (princess, skeleton, Muppet) worlds. And it's surprising how many of these aspirational identities reflect the desire to properly align with gender conventions as displayed by both role models and peers, even in the so-called pre-"pink power" era. I realize it's a little early (late?) to be talking about Halloween, but bear with me-- let's just say I'm keeping the whole post in the strictly anti-normative mode---rejecting media---and commodity-driven holiday industries---yada yada yada.

Kindergarten: Cat. Because my parents chose my costume. I vowed never to do it again because I couldn’t deal with the face paint. Question: have you ever seen a boy dress as a cat? Why the close association between the feline and the feminine?

First grade: Princess. Really, the pinnacle of my aspirational fantasies, not duplicated in subsequent years only because I didn’t want to copy myself. My princess image was ripped straight from the pages of early ‘90s Mac kids’ computer game Storybook Weaver: a long white dress, a tall pointy damsel-in-distress hat with a delicate veil flapping from the top, loose flowing hair. I was, for that night, I think, truly happy.

Second grade: Fairy. Because I couldn’t be a princess again. Blue wings, a silver-pipecleaner-encrusted wand (something I for a brief time collected at every street fair my family took me to).

Third grade: Ballerina. I knew how to be a ballerina because I took ballet for two weeks when I was five. I actually quit because they told me we couldn’t wear tutus, which I had mistakenly thought was what ballet was about. Took the cheap route and wore my never-used tutu over my hot pink one-piece bathing suit.

Fourth grade: Witch. Major paradigmatic shift. I was getting older, and it was starting to be cool to be not-pink. Instead I went all-black.

Fifth grade: Cowgirl. My gender-based evolution led me to privilege chic fashion over ultra-femininity, and I felt like with a cowgirl costume I could show off my cute denim skirt, throw on a cute denim vest, and accessorize with a charming cow(boy) hat, Western-style kerchief, and boots. I felt pretty good about this one. I felt grown up.

Sixth grade: Gypsy. My rejection of commercialism (not wanting to call the store-bought costume an “Esmeralda” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame) led me to label it in an ethnically essentialist way instead, but what is Halloween if not a whole bunch of essentialism/racism? (I don’t do this anymore.) Same thing happened in eighth grade when I labeled my I Dream of Jeannie costume a “harem girl” (yikes).

Seventh grade: Sorceress. Honestly, I was just lazy and wanted to reuse my witch costume. I wore more makeup. My mom wouldn’t let me on normal days.

Eighth grade: See sixth grade.

Ninth grade: Geisha. Yes, I lampooned my own ancestral culture. I just happened to have an ornate kimono-style dress from my grandma lying around, and I stuck two chopsticks in my hair and called it a costume. Troubling that two of my childhood costumes involved ethnic caricatures that imply prostitution and sex work.

Tenth grade: Buffy. Finally, I got it right. . .

Who did you dress up as as a child, and what do you feel like that says about your particular upbringing? It’s kind of an interesting exercise. Especially when considering the (much thornier) question of, how did I turn out as a result?

Meet the Local: Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, meet Neno, who was born in Sarajevo and has lived there ever since, including four years spent largely underground during the siege.

What do you like about the place you live?

I like, first of all, the people.  The people and the size of the city.  Sarajevo is a quite good city to live because it’s quite a small city---it’s only 400,000 people---so you know everyone.  It’s like one big family.  And also the history, the culture.  But mainly the people.  The people are very friendly in this city, so you can always count on someone helping you in the city.  I like that feeling.

 What don’t you like so much?

I don’t like politics in the city, and the politicians.  It’s affecting the every day life---we could have better public transport, we could have more investments, we could improve many things in this city.  But unfortunately we have a lot of bureaucracy.  We have three governments, and three presidents.  It’s a small country---only four million people---so to make one decision when you have three presidents. . . it’s quite impossible.  Nothing gets done.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I drink tea, or sometimes coffee.  Then scrambled eggs, with cheese.  No pies!  Because people think we are eating the pies for the breakfast.  The pies are more for the lunch or for the dinner.  People think we are eating pies every day, but it’s very, very heavy on your stomach.  It’s more like a fast food things.  I eat pies only maybe two times in a week.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m a student of political sciences and diplomacy and international relations, getting my masters.  I lead walking tours when I have free time from my studies.  I think I will stay in tourism.  I’m studying political sciences, so people always think I will be involved in political life but I think I like history, I like the political philosophy, but I don’t see myself in a political life.  I want to send a message from this city, this country.  I think we have more to offer than just the recent history.  That’s the reason I started doing walking tours.  Unfortunately, this country still has a reputation as a war torn country.  When you say Bosnia, the first image people have is the war in Bosnia, Sarajevo under siege, but I truly believe this country is a country with a long and rich history, friendly people---I think we have a lot to offer.

My job is very important to my sense of self.  It’s very difficult life in this country.  You know, I’m 27 years old and I’m still living with my parents.  But in some ways, I have freedom because I earn all of my money.  So for my self-confidence, it’s very important that I also earn something.  Most people live with their parents till they are married, because they are close with their family, but also because of the economy.  It’s a very high unemployment rate---43% at the moment.  So unfortunately people can’t afford to have their own flat.  And also Sarajevo is a very small city, so even if I rented a flat, I would go every day to my mother’s to eat something.  So at the moment, I think it’s better to stay with my family.

What do you do for fun?

I like to hike, when it’s sunny weather, in the [1984 Sarajevo Winter] Olympic mountains.  I also like photography---I like to walk around and take photos.  I like to bicycle---there’s one part of the city that has bicycle infrastructure, so I go there and I bicycle.  I also like bowling, so I go there with my friends for bowling very often.  I also like to read, and to travel.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I live with my family.  We are very close, because I was here during the siege so we were always together then.  The sense of community in this country is very strong.  The people are close to each other; the neighbors are close to each other.  The siege made us closer, because we survived together the most horrible moments. I think the siege of the city affected people in a positive but also negative way.  I think that people in this country appreciate small things more.  Maybe like some other countries or the younger generations in this country, one small thing is nothing.  For example, I like to eat everything.  I’m not choosy, but I have a niece, and she was born after the war.  And we all have a Sunday lunch together and she is so picky---I don’t like that, I don’t like that---and I get so frustrated, like, you need to eat everything, because you don’t know the feeling of when you have nothing to eat at all.  I appreciate the food.  I try to enjoy small things.  But also the war had negative effects---like, I never celebrate New Year’s Eve on open squares.  I don’t like fireworks.  Whenever I hear fireworks, I get flashbacks, because it’s the same sound as the shells exploding.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

To travel around the world.  Now, I’ve traveled almost all of Europe, except the UK and Ireland.  Personally, I think that’s the best spent money.  When you learn about other cultures, you start to appreciate more about your own culture, and your own life.  But after traveling, to again always return to this country.  No place like home, no place like home.  I experienced the worst things in this country, so why not stay?  I think this country deserves a better future with smart and educated people.  We will not have a bright future if all the smart and educated people leave the country.  So we need to stay, and we need to fight for the changes.

 If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I like Spain and Portugal.  The people are very similar to us here---they’re also very friendly, very open.  They also have not very good economy, like this country, but they’re like, let’s enjoy life!  Things will improve!  I can imagine myself living in Lisbon for one or two years, but like I told you, I then want to come back to Sarajevo.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of my family.  I’m proud of my mother, my father.  Because I think they directed me in a good way, they raised me to be a good guy.  My mother for me is like a big hero because I was with her during all of the wartime.  She was also working every single day, walking back and forth through the snipers, because she needed to do something, to occupy her mind, to not be in a basement all the time.  She was working not to lose her mind, and a little bit to keep her job position. She was working for free.  Sometimes she got paid in cigarettes.

How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I am very happy because I have a good family.  I have my mother, my father, my sister, my niece.  It’s a very small family, but we are very close to each other.  That’s my biggest happiness.  Also, I’m happy because I live in Sarajevo.

To read the answers of a local Londoner, click here to meet Carleen.

Prop Up

In the Balance

A lot of hay has been made this week in reaction to the release of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In.”  As appears to be the case whenever any notable woman tries to impart a few kernels from her experience, Ms. Sandberg has been met with a range of zealous responses---from impassioned support to bitter resentment.  As these things go, water coolers everywhere have been trembling with activity and public focus has turned once again to the struggle of women to advance educationally and professionally in stride with men.  Inevitably, the word “feminist” enters the picture (at times, spat out like so much epithet) and questions abound as to whether the Facebook COO should be identified as such and whether she is the appropriate person to take up this mantle. Let me be perfectly clear: Sheryl Sandberg is a feminist.  I am a feminist and chances are, if you are reading this, SO ARE YOU.  According to Merriam-Webster:

Definition of FEMINISM

1

: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes

2

: organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests

In fact, we might be hard pressed to locate any person willing to go on record denying her feminist credentials based on the actual definition.  Imagine even Melissa Mayer, (I discuss her role in this conversation in a previous piece) with cameras rolling saying, “No, I don’t believe that women should have political, economic and social equality with men.”  And yet, when presented with the “feminist” moniker, in her interview for the film, Makers, she immediately rejected it as something toxic that didn’t apply to her and to which she couldn’t relate.  And she is not alone.

According to a Time/CNN poll conducted in 2009, only 24% of American women self-identified as “feminist” and only 12% considered being called a feminist a compliment.  Meanwhile, 82% of the women polled said their overall status was improved relative to 25 years ago and 69% had a sense that the women’s movement, in particular, had directly improved their lives.  Despite this, less than half the women believed that there remains a strong need for the women’s movement.  It would seem that many women understand the concrete ways in which the advocacy of “feminists” has created meaningful and positive change in their lives and simultaneously consider “feminist” a dirty word.  They also aren’t clear as to whether the movement is pertinent today.  What’s going on here?

My sense is that it is a confluence of factors. Conservatives have done an excellent job portraying feminism as something radioactive.  Women are still expected to subscribe to traditional roles and any deviance from the placid maintenance of home and family is seen as damaging to the fabric of society and even the well-being of children. Even with more subtle messages about returning America to its “former promise,” they describe a collective yearning for a tranquil era-gone-by, one in which women, people of color and “others” did not have a place at the table.

Women, themselves, appear to have internalized the notion that there is some archaic version of feminism that has 1) ruined the label for modern women and 2) might not even be necessary anymore.  Could it really be that our generation believes the problem is solved?  And why don’t we recognize how we got here or the work still to be done?  To decide that we no longer need people safeguarding the progress of women in this society is like a diabetic thinking that because she now takes insulin and her blood sugar is stable, PROBLEM SOLVED.  Somebody has to keep manufacturing that insulin, testing it, packaging it, selling it and you have to keep taking it.  Institutional inequality and gender bias still exist and still require the vigilance of activists on both a macro and micro scale. 

Sheryl Sandberg, then, is perhaps the perfect torch-bearer for the new movement.  She is a woman who has had phenomenal success and achieved impressive accomplishments akin to any and all male peers.  She has done this with many fewer barriers than the women who have come before her, but grants that the system remains stacked against her and conveys how conscious she has had to be along the way to claim her status.  She is receiving flak from every direction, including a most refined criticism that her message is only relevant for women of a certain social class.  I actually love this---the fact that there is an entire category of women with privilege to whom she might be speaking, is, in itself, a huge enhancement.  I also think it is false---she is specifically interested in shoring up women at all levels of the workforce (as well as domestically) and much of what she promotes requires more of an internal shift than access to actual resources.  Her ideas don’t solve the whole problem or even many of the problems, but they are a fine place to start.

I believe that with a message to women already in positions of power about reaching out to peers and subordinates still striving, Ms. Sandberg reminds us all that incorporating more traditionally “female” qualities, such as being supportive vs. cut-throat, lifts up everyone of any stratus.  Her ideas about women owning their authority, taking appropriate credit, keeping the pedal to the metal in their career trajectory and demanding better support at home and at work during the child-bearing years is at least 40 years old and still fresh as a daisy.  When a woman who has attended the finest institutions and flourished in the most demanding jobs stands on her pedestal, leans into the microphone and tells us we have a ways to go, we had better listen.

 

My Celebrity Best Friends, Emma, Jennifer, and Anne

strong female characters

As Lindy West put it best: “Fuckin' Emma Stone. So good at her job and so nice and cute. So funny! So getting to make out with Ryan Gosling that one time. What a dick. JK, I love her. (Dick.)”

The first time I watched Superbad on Netflix around 2008, I remember I was simultaneously underwhelmed and diverted by the sophomoric teen-boy humor of Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, but more than that I remember encountering Emma Stone (as Jonah Hill’s much hotter love interest Jules) and thinking, “Who is that awesome girl who I’ve inexplicably never seen before and who I have an irresistible compulsion to hang out with?”

She was funny. She was charming. She had a deep tomboy voice. She was gorgeous. And yet she also looked like a regular person.

Since Superbad, Stone has pretty much carried all of that currency straight to the bank and general superstardom. And while it’s easy for starlets who enter the Hollywood machine with trace amounts of spunky individuality to get assembly-lined, streamlined, and de-interesting-ized, she’s come through it all remarkably well.

The other day, three years late, I finally watched Easy A, which was Stone’s big breakout leading-lady role. The movie was fun, if a bit uneven, but again, Stone basically made the whole thing. And again, I felt that odd compulsion where I wanted her to be my best friend at the same time that I wanted to be half or one-fifth as cool as her.

The tomboy/best friend/still irrepressibly talented and gorgeous shtick is big in young female Hollywood right now. Jennifer Lawrence is currently riding a wave of adulation with her self-deprecating, down-to-earth manner and her cool-girl vibe. She’s been nominated for two Academy Awards, she just won Best Actress, she’s played fantasy characters like Mystique and Katniss, and she’s starred romantically opposite the likes of Bradley Cooper and Michael Fassbender, and yet we still feel like we kind of know her. Why?

I’m just gonna take a moment to say that I love Emma Stone. I love Jennifer Lawrence. I love Mila Kunis, who has also recently re-launched her cool-girl brand (though I’m kinda like, Ashton Kutcher? Eh.) But I also love Anne Hathaway, who is riding a media wave going in the exact opposite direction, mostly because of what was deemed a disingenuous, cloying Oscar acceptance speech. Why?

Anne Hathaway is gorgeous, but relatable. She’s funny (watch how amazing she is hosting Saturday Night Live). She’s incredibly talented. She’s hard-working. And she really, really seems like a nice person. So sometimes she comes off like that overly bubbly, overly earnest girl at your high school who was always running for and/or organizing things. What’s so bad about that?

To me, it seems like there should be room for admiration and affection for multiple types of Hollywood personalities. You don’t have to like them all. To use an over-used cliché, if these girls were my best friends and we were on Sex and the City, Jennifer would be Samantha and Emma would be Miranda and Anne would be Charlotte, who can be annoying sometimes but we still love her and value her as part of the group.

But this whole anti-Hathaway movement feels incredibly mean-spirited, spiteful, and very, very high school. It feels like resentment of too much success; it feels catty. Anne has become a lightning rod for people’s general, often unfocused dislike of the rich and the successful in Hollywood, a transference for personal problems and shortcomings, a target for some kind of chorus of real-life comments sections, and, as this New Yorker blog points out, an embodiment of the "happy girl" who doesn't know her place. Think about this: how many male actors have engendered a similar reaction when their Oscar speech wasn’t pitch-perfect? I mean, why was Ben Affleck so surprised and emotional that he won an Oscar for Argo—he’s won before! What a phony. Not to mention the fact that he let slip an uncomfortable comment on the “work” he has to put into his marriage to Jennifer Garner. Yet no one’s attacking him.

I’m over it. I’m so over it. Anne Hathaway doesn’t have to be universally liked, the way Stone, Lawrence, Kunis seem to be. But she certainly doesn’t deserve to be universally reviled. When are we going to stop vindictively policing the behavior of women in the public eye—or at the bare minimum, policing members of both gender to the same degree? Why can't we all be friends?

International Women's Day Art

poster art

Happy International Women's Day. As is true of many struggles, the women's movement has inspired some amazing poster art. Enjoy.

Original Source Unknown
Faviana Rodriguez
Lenthall Rd WorkshopArtist Unknown
European Parliment; Artist Unknown
Marc Rudin, 1981

Finally, not really poster art, but an amazing photograph. Hat tip to Elise Peterson.

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, taken by Dan Wynn

Celebrating International Women's Day by Respecting my Girl's 'No'

equals iwd

By Rhea St. Julien “Can you hold my hand to cross the street?” I implored, my arm stretched back behind me to my two year old, Olive.

Her hands were crammed in her peacoat like a mini Bob Dylan. “Not today.” she said, not looking up.

My husband and I cracked up in laughter, at how serious of a refusal she gave me, and since street safety is important, I grabbed one of her little hands out of her pocket to skip to the other side.

We retold the story several times that day, of how adorably earnest she was about not holding hands at that time. But I felt a ping of guilt, as all the feminist texts I read about raising a strong daughter tell me not to laugh at my girl’s “no”s, but to respect them.

It’s good advice. In my life, I have had people be shocked, offended, and outright dismissive of my no. I had my share of experiences in the young days of burgeoning sexuality in which boys did not listen to my no. But in many ways, I was able to get through those body manipulations less scarred than the times my no has been rebuffed in educational, professional, and personal settings. The power of a woman’s no. What is it worth?

I know the world Olive will grow up in is not much different than the one I did. And despite the fact that people are often appalled when I say no, I keep doing it. My parents can attest to the fact that I was born with a certain strain of defiance, a gene from my father, a steely commitment to protection, of myself and my loved ones, when that is needed. I want to impart this to my daughter as well, though I think all I’ll need to do is nurture what is already within her.

“Mama, can you not sing that right now?” She looks up at me, a concerned look on her face. I was grooving, but she’s asking me, seriously and politely, to stop. I let out a chuckle, at how much it means to her that I stop singing my silly little song in that moment, but I say, “Okay.”

I’m trying to cut out the laughter, and skip right to either telling her, “I hear that you don’t want to wear your coat, but you have to, it’s cold out!” or saying “Alright, you don’t have to go upstairs yet. We can wait here until you’re ready.” It’s hard, since she’s so flipping cute, her eyes big and imploring, her unibrow knitted into an expression of concern, or determination.

"No Mama, I don't want to smile right now." "Oh, alright.  No smiles."
“No Mama, I don’t want to smile right now.” “Oh, alright. No smiles.”

Today, that meant not getting a kiss goodbye when she left for preschool. I wanted one, and asked for one, but when she said no, I decided, in honor of International Women’s Day, I wouldn’t steal one. I’d let her no be no. And off she went.

This piece is also running on Rhea's blog Thirty Threadbare Mercies today.

Semiramis: Ancient Woman of Mystery.

historical woman

The first reason I wanted to write about Semiramis was because of her cool name, and the second was because I hadn’t written about an ancient historical woman since my first post on Hatshepsut. Lack of sources and all that.

But after just a cursory scan of her Wikipedia page, my interest was very much piqued, more because of what wasn’t there than what was. It’s true that with ancient figures, as opposed to modern ones, the lack of sources can be crippling. Photographs and phonographic recordings are certainly easier to interpret than crumbling papyrus scrolls. But even as far as ancients go, Semiramis’s life is a complete mystery. And yet, this hasn’t prevented a whole bunch of people—mostly men—from liberally inventing her life story in a whole bunch of ways.

The real Semiramis was probably actually an Assyrian queen named Shammuramat who, following her husband Shamshi-Adad V’s death, ruled as regent for her young son from 810 to 806 BCE. Her actual looks, personality, and accomplishments are shrouded in that aforementioned mystery—though, at the very least, we know she spent a few years in charge of the Neo-Assyrian Empire at its powerful height, with a rule spanning from Asia Minor to western Iran. The neighboring Greeks, Iranians, and Indians probably fueled the Semiramis legend due to their contact with the Assyrian empire during her reign. Average Greek/Iranian/Indian guy: “Those Assyrians are badass and they’re ruled by a woman? Man, she must be super hardcore, bro.” (It’s my theory that bros are not a new phenomenon.)

Beyond that, Shammuramat/Semiramis’s life gets murky. But like I said, a whole bunch of people over the centuries—mostly men—can tell you plenty about her. Here’s a brief rundown of the, shall we say, creative Semiramis interpretations:

Ancient Greeks and Persians believed her to be the legendary queen of king Ninus of Babylon, who oversaw the building of the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who lived in the first century BCE, devoted a lot of ink (or stone chisels, or whatever) to Semiramis in his The Library of History. According to Diodorus, she was the daughter of a fish goddess (!) that was raised by doves (!!) and then married to the Babylonian king Ninus. When Ninus died, she pretended to be her son for forty-two years (kind of a more soap-opera version of serving as regent), and during that time commanded armies, conquered Libya and Ethiopia, built palaces, and waged an unsuccessful campaign in India which included an army of mechanical elephants (!!!). However, Dio S. refuted the popular claim that she built the Hanging Gardens, noting that these were built after her time by Nebuchadnezzar (owner of one of the best names any king has had, period).

Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman historian, claimed Semiramis invented eunuchs— yes—initiating the practice of castrating male youth. Others also said she invented the chastity belt. (I hear those words, my mind still goes to Maid Marian’s steel padlocked underwear in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.)

Armenian tradition depicted her as a harlot—in a traditional story, she killed the Armenian king Ara the Beautiful after he refused her hand in marriage.

Dante put her in the Second Circle of Hell, along with Helen of Troy, in his Inferno. Probably another one of those “harlot” things.

Alexander Hislop, the 19th-century Protestant minister, wrote about her in his The Two Babylons (1853) and placed her in biblical tradition. According to Alex H., she was the consort of Nimrod, builder of the Tower of Babel, and she deified herself as the Sumerian goddess Ishtar, mother of Gilgamesh. Later Catholic tradition was based on Semiramis’s Ishtar legend—including the Virgin Mary—which, essentially, allowed Hislop to equate Catholicism with paganism. (Which leads me to question, where does that leave Protestantism? But I haven’t read this masterpiece of theological inquiry, so I won’t judge, beyond the fact that I just sarcastically called it a masterpiece of theological inquiry.)

On top of all this, Semiramis has been the subject of silent and talkie films (Queen of Babylon, 1954; I am Semiramis, 1963), operas (Rossini’s Semaride; Meyerbeer’s Semaride), plays (Voltaire’s Semiramis, a brief mention in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus), and 18th-century paintings (both paintings shown here; Jean-Simon Berthélemy’s Semiramis Inspecting a Plan of Babylon), among other things. Now all that’s missing in terms of namesakes is a feminist pop culture website (a la Jezebel).

Like Jezebel, Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, and a host of other ancient women, Semiramis has become synonymous with female licentiousness and sexual immorality, a symbol of woman’s role as earthly temptation. But she has also been attributed qualities of leadership, daring, ambition, courage, and empire-building. She’s even been called a fish goddess’s daughter---which sounds like the name of an Amy Tan novel.

So the stories are obviously all a little different. But for me, the striking common thread is, again, the way that Semiramis serves as an empty vessel, whether that’s for themes of sexual immorality, leadership, divinity, or what have you. Basically, she served whatever purpose the dude---storyteller, scroll-writer, Enlightenment playwright, or silent film director---had in mind, informed by the cultural context of the times through which her legacy was passed down. And these contexts tended to be supremely male-centric, Bible-obsessed, and probably Orientalist.

In this, then, Semiramis's story is not so different from the story of women today. Sure, we’ve come a long way. Yet women often continue to serve as symbols of societal morality, to be talked about with or without women’s participation. There are public debates about how women should dress, how women should behave sexually, how women should balance work and home life. There are political debates about rape, birth control, abortion. There are humanitarian debates about women in other countries---most recently, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky made a splash---and how their dress, rights, cultural roles represent the relative freedom and, perhaps, morality of their societies. (And maybe whether or not we should invade them.)

So as awesome as all the stories about Semiramis are, as an ancient woman of historical legend, I think the most interesting thing about her is that she has secrets. That, maybe, I can relate to.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading Petya

Petya Grady writes about books, art and style at The Migrant Bookclub. The Eastern Europe of her childhood is a frequent point of departure as she explores issues of place, identity, memory and (un)-belonging. She currently lives in Memphis, TN with her husband. I am on a Jackie O kick recently. This comes as a surprise to me so, naturally, I want to talk about it. I grew up in Bulgaria and moved to the States for college in '99. I went to a small private school in rural Tennessee and even though I majored in Political Science, there was not a single thing in my life that ever signaled to me that I should be curious about the former First Lady. Heck, I didn't even care much for her style. Where I come from, a black turtle neck is considered the epitome of chic and although I don't think Jacqueline would have hated that, I did not think we would have much to talk about if we were to ever meet. Until.

About two years ago, I noticed that the New York Times was reviewing not one but two biographies of Jacqueline that focused on her years as a book editor. It came as quite of a surprise to my bookish self. Not only had I never even heard that Ms. O had ever held a job in her life but now I was faced with the very rare experience of having to choose between two books on that very same subject, coming out at the exact same time. What were the chances?!

I picked up William Kuhn's "Reading Jackie" because I liked the cover better. (Please tell me you do that too!!!) Kuhn is straight-forward about the fact that he never had any personal contact with Jackie and that he had very limited access to any of her personal artifacts and/or memorabilia. Jacqueline after all is notorious of her privacy. However, he makes the argument that when one looks at the books she worked on as an editor, first at Viking and then at Doubleday, one can learn quite a bit about her taste, her interests, and her personality. It's the autobiography she never wrote, he says! Reviewers have questioned the rigor of Mr. Kuhn's research and described his work as quite speculative, BUT, the book did leave me with this great feeling of wonder and surprise about its famous subject---a woman touched by so much sadness and tragedy and yet unchanged in her appreciation for beauty, literature and art. What books did she edit, you are probably wondering? William Kuhn's has shared the complete list on his website but here are some highlights: The Firebird and Other Russian Fairy Tales by Boris Zvorykin, My Book of Flowers by Princess Grace of Monaco, Secrets of Marie Antoinette by Olivier Bernier, Blood Memory by Martha Graham (Graham's autobiography). The range in format and subject matter is astounding and Jacqueline comes across as a woman of infinite curiosity and professional drive---so different from her rather vapid public image as a stylish {but somewhat ostentatious} woman.

I've read parts of the book many times since and gifted it more times than I care to remember. I obsessed over it so much that it wasn't actually until I started writing this piece, that I recalled I never went back and picked up the second book that came around that same time---Greg Lawrence's "Jackie as Editor." I've been re-reading some of its reviews and realizing that it may actually be the stronger book of the two. It documents Jackie from the perspective of her co-workers and HER BOSS and is based on Lawrence's meticulous study of her in-line edits, letters and notes she sent to numerous writers, artists, photographers. It sounds so delicious (if a little gossipy) that I am fairly certain I will go ahead and order it as soon as I am done telling you about it.

The book that got me back on this track, however, is Alice Kaplan's recent "Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis". Kaplan draws a surprising group portrait of three of America's most memorable women and sets it in the beautiful, romantic, daunting, lush, and sometimes seedy city of Paris where all three spent significant amounts of time in their most formative years. Each part of the book is wonderful for so many reasons but Jacqueline, again, charmed me most completely for her earnest pursuit of PARIS and herself. Of her time there, she would write later in her essay for a Vogue student writing contest, "I learned not to be ashamed of a real hunger for knowledge, something I had always tried to hide." Which, of course, broke my heart a little bit but also made me so happy for her because I knew that after college, after Camelot, and after always being defined as some important man's beautiful significant other, she would grow old in a way that completely nurtured her constant hunger for knowledge without even trying to pretend it was necessary to hide it.

Marissa Mayer's Easy, Breezy Climb

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In the PBS Documentary that premiered this week called, Makers: Women Who Make America (about the history of feminism in this country), Marissa Mayer, President and CEO of Yahoo! and the 14th most powerful business woman in the world (according to Forbes) said that she does not consider herself a feminist.  In her brief interview, she went on to associate feminism with a “militant drive,” a “chip on the shoulder,” and with a perception of negativity.  You can watch exactly what she said here: Her comments came to my attention because my husband’s Twitter feed was all aflutter (also, aTwitter) with varied responses to her statements.  I had intended to see the documentary the night before, but ultimately decided to save it for the weekend, so I hadn’t seen the clip.  He asked me if I had heard what she said and wasn’t I outraged?  My initial response was tepid — after all, I have heard women (and men) talking about feminism this way my whole life.  I totally understood and in some way related to her desire to dissociate herself from the more “outlandish” or “angry” version of feminism, so dismissed by the mainstream.  After all, this version of feminism is threatening and flips the script on men in traditional positions of power.  The more we discussed it, the more I wondered if it was that Ms. Mayer had been so privileged in her career and social trajectory that she had truly never experienced barriers or that she had so internalized the narrative that women should “go along to get along” that she sincerely couldn’t empathize with “radicals.”

Marissa Mayer, you stand on the shoulders of the women throughout our history who acted out in a way that you might consider ugly.  By all accounts, you earned the daylights out of the position in which you find yourself today.  You are eminently qualified for your job in terms of your education and experience.  You have a reputation for being an unapologetic workaholic.  And yet, you don’t seem to realize that the reason you had access to your education, any of the jobs you have held or the resources and social sanctions to work as hard as you have is because of feminism … the bra-burning kind.  Or, even worse, you are so disconnected from that struggle and have no sense of why women have been forced to be so reactive, that you don’t want to affiliate with that identity.

I want to say here quite clearly that I obviously don’t know Marissa Mayer at all.  I don’t have true insight into what she was thinking when she said those words (that I now can’t stop watching on YouTube).  I also haven’t seen the entire context of the interview, which might soften the seemingly cut-and-dried indictment of her sisters in arms.  I do know that when you have achieved that kind of status (breezily climbing the ladder, she seems to believe), the public has a tendency to hang on your every word, particularly in the context of being interviewed about your extraordinary accomplishments in a documentary about FEMINISM.

This also comes on the heels of her establishing a company-wide ban on working from home.  Flexible scheduling and telecommuting have been cornerstone achievements in establishing equality in the workplace.  Introducing the idea that the work environments could and should be more flexible has boosted the careers of both women AND men in recent decades and allowed both parties to be more available for childcare, among other things.  Many studies, including this 2009 study by major corporate employer Cisco found that people are actually more productive and satisfied with their jobs when they have this flexibility.  This is particularly salient for women, for whom the traditional work structure is still punitive when they have children and prevents them from keeping pace with their male counterparts in terms of advancement.

And what about Marissa Mayer and her own, personal, work-life balance?  She made history when she was hired by Yahoo! as the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company ever and immediately announced that she was also five months pregnant.  Working mothers everywhere glommed on to her story, waiting with bated breath to see how this would all play out.  She ended up working from home during the end of her pregnancy, took only two weeks of maternity leave and had a special nursery built next to her office at Yahoo! so she could be close to her newborn after her lightning fast return to work.  I don’t have to tell you what a poor model this is for working women and how nobody else on planet earth has the money or power to build a nursery next to their office and bring their infant to work.  Maybe Oprah or Martha.  Maybe.

I write this on a day when Congress has finally voted to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act.  Shockingly, despite the description of what the act aims to prevent being right in the title, this wasn’t remotely a done deal.  In fact, it was kind of a squeaker.  138 Members of Congress (Republicans, all) ultimately voted against it.  It sort of makes me wonder where we might rustle up a bunch of feminists to demonstrate the appropriate level of fury?

I hope that as Marissa Mayer evolves in her career, she might reconsider her notion of feminism as negative.  It is, rather simply, the entire reason she has a career.  I get that she pictures feminists only as wearing combat boots and reading poetry about their vaginas.  But, she is in a position of vast power and has great wealth and we could use her in the trenches.  We could use another woman who fits all the classical norms of beauty and prominence to publicly recognize that there is still so much work to be done.

 

I've Got a Perfect Body

strong female characters

The title of this post most definitely does not reflect my personal relationship with my own body, oh no of course not, though (as we will discuss) I wish it did. It’s a line from a Regina Spektor song (“Folding Chair,” from 2009’s Far) that rolls through my head sometimes, which I absolutely love:

“I’ve got a perfect body / But sometimes I forget / I’ve got a perfect body / ‘Cause my eyelashes catch my sweat”

I love how this little sentiment subverts our expectation as to how one’s body should be judged. What is the “perfect body” anyway? Who is it for? Yourself, or everyone else?

Last week I visited the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, a dark and morbidly fascinating collection of medical specimens and wax models of human oddities housed in a physicians’ college. Most of the specimens date back to the early twentieth century and have that curio cabinet look about them, though they were ostensibly used for legitimate research purposes.

A lot of it was interesting—all of it left me feeling a little queasy. The models and specimens were, for the most part, divorced from the experience of the human who was afflicted, and were presented as isolated parts (syphilitic skulls, tumored eyes). Cold, scientific. But one exhibit I found to be sympathetic and particularly heartbreaking.

This exhibit showed a series of photographs of a boy who lived in the middle of the twentieth century. In the first photograph, he is a beaming 5-year-old boy who has just recovered from a fractured leg bone and is standing tall in his little 1940s shorts. In the next photograph, he is about 7, and we can see that something is wrong with his leg—it’s growing a bit crooked, skinny, weak. The photographs continue over the years, and soon we see that the malformation of his leg has also affected his posture. He can only stand with his head stooped forward, one shoulder collapsed, as he shoots up over six feet with one healthy leg and one long, crooked, bone-thin leg. In each of these later photographs he stares straight at the camera, stoic, defeated, with an air of despair. He died when he was about 40.

This was someone who would not be able to walk through a crowd without attracting strange looks, revulsion and/or pity. This was, I suppose, an imperfect body, one that had trouble functioning, one whose skeleton (or a facsimile thereof) was placed on display in a goddamn curio cabinet. Because of one long, pronounced flaw.

On the other end of the spectrum is the story of the Ukrainian Barbie “trend” that’s been circulating on the Internet—girls who are quite literally striving for physical perfection. Through plastic surgery and hardcore makeup regimens, women like Anastasiya Shpagina and Valeriya Lukyanova attempt to achieve the exaggerated proportions and pert, doll-like features of Barbie dolls and anime characters. It’s alarming and simply cannot be healthy, physically, mentally, or emotionally—yet this is their choice. This, according to their interviews, is what makes them happy and comfortable. Including possibly having ribs surgically removed to get that perfect tiny waist.

What is perfection? I think it’s worth asking ourselves that question. Whether or not we admit to it, there must be some idea of “the perfect” that we consciously or unconsciously believe in. If there was no “perfect,” there would be no such thing as flaws. Or if there were, they would be things like a malformed leg that made walking difficult and required medical attention---not a bit of cellulite or ears that turn out too wide.

In a recent Jezebel piece, Tracy Moore points out that it is often realism, not insecurity, that informs women’s reluctance to describe themselves as “pretty” (or, when they do, to qualify it with their numerous flaws or non-normative traits).

“For them, it wasn't that they couldn't think they were pretty. It was that they all knew, after lifetimes of being shown images of what is pretty, cute, beautiful or not in staggering detail, EXACTLY what kind of pretty they are or aren't, to what type of person they were most appealing, to what degree their prettiness abounds. Just saying they were pretty without acknowledging the exceptions seemed to be like admitting that you didn't understand how pretty works. And ‘pretty’ isn't a permanent state, either: it's a complicated, evolving assessment, discussed with a detached, almost economic appraisal.”

I get that “pretty” or “beautiful” are extremely abstract signifiers that we never like to imagine ourselves as fully qualifying for. But if not us, who does? Hypothetically, what would the erasure of all these supposed “flaws” get us to? A fake Barbie?

Whether it’s insecurity or realism, I don’t think there’s any problem with celebrating the body and face you have. It’s not perfect in the literal sense, but it’s not supposed to be. If it works, for the most part—if you ever feel good about yourself—if anyone has ever paid you a compliment—you might as well have a perfect body.  The women who started and/or participate in The Nu Project, a photography blog of female nudes who embrace and celebrate their bodies as they are, seem to know this. (Warning: NSFW.) What I love about this project—besides for these women’s bravery in bearing all despite deviations from supposed “perfection”—is the sheer diversity of their bodies, the oft-needed reminder that there’s more ways to be and to look and to appear than the narrow parameters of beauty presented to us in the media.

Maybe all of us are perfect. Or maybe none of us are perfect. All I know is, it's a waste of time to feel shame---whether that's shame at feeling unattractive, or shame at feeling attractive and expressing that confidence aloud.

But also, I think it’s important to remember: we have bodies but we are not bodies. We are more. Accept the physical reality, then concern yourself with more important things, like being an awesome person. Right?

The end.

Josephine Baker: Dancer. Spy. Subverter of Racial Assumptions.

historical woman

 

About six months ago, I wrote about the racist moments that cropped up on the latest cycle of “America’s Next Top Model." (I realize in reality TV-land that this might has well have been the last century, and that about seven seasons have aired since then.) One of the moments that struck me as the most insanely questionable was when a designer dressed up black British model Analiese in a skirt of dangly plush bananas, while he dressed the other two models—both white—in more traditional, Marie Antoinette-style outfits.

It was pointed out to me that the tropical getup may have been purposely evocative of today’s Historical Woman, the amazing Josephine Baker: an American-born French singer, dancer, and all-around entertainer who fought Nazis and racists on the side. One of her most famous stage costumes was a skirt made of dangling bananas, usually accompanied by a complete lack of a top. This throws the whole ANTM affair into a much more complicated and ambiguous place—especially considering Ms. Baker’s agency in marketing her act and image in this way. How to feel about it now?

Let’s start with the banana skirt. The garment has been alternately described as problematic and empowering, as an accessory of European colonialist fantasy and as a tool that Baker knowingly used to subvert racial and gender categories. In this way, the skirt is really a microcosm for her entire career, at least in the early decades.

When Josephine Baker, born Freda McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906, arrived in Paris in 1925, France was obsessed with black culture. For them, Josephine—who appeared in a show called “La Revue Nègre”—was a safe venue for their fantasies about “the savage,” a figure often extolled as the antidote to a spiritually oppressive civilization. That Josephine was from Missouri and not deepest Africa seemed to mean little to her French fans and critics.

“The white imagination sure is something when it comes to blacks,” Josephine quipped. I like to think she meant: “White people sure can be racist!”

Baker appeared in a number of shows in which she was usually scantily clad, often portraying a “savage” who meets a French colonial explorer and dances to the accompaniment of African drums. See a video of one such dance here. Critics rhapsodized about her primal vitality and her exotic looks. Picasso extolled her “coffee skin, ebony eyes, and legs of paradise,” and she was admired by everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Jean Cocteau (oh, Paris in the 1920s!).

While the banana skirt and the “primitive” dances, as well as the audience reaction, may induce discomfort in a modern mind (like mine), it’s possible that in the context of her time Josephine was exercising an unprecedented kind of power, even as she reproduced the stereotypes that still popularly characterized her race. Her particular brand of entertainment was insanely marketable and earned her great success and admiration. She herself may have been the one who invented the banana skirt—thus it was not, as the liberal imagination (like mine) might like to infer, foisted upon her by a racist white stage manager. Either way, she certainly took advantage of its popularity, advocating for everything from banana moisturizers to pomades to custards that bore her name. (This last was actually created by Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s GFF. Oh, Paris in the 1920s!)

Josephine Baker’s crazy whirlwind of a life was by no means limited to her stage career. During World War II, Josephine was a spy for the French Resistance movement. Thus, she joins Julia Child in the “unlikely spy” category. (Waiting for Josie & Josephine.) Her Europe-wide performing career was the perfect cover for her to casually participate in—and then remember-- all sorts of important conversations, and she passed the info on to the Allies, aiding Charles de Gaulle and his Free French buddies.

What motivated this singer/dancer to enter the world of political intrigue? It’s true that she was a devoted nouveau francaise and that she loved her adopted country—but even more, Josephine hated Nazis. “The Nazis were racist,” she told Ebony magazine in 1973. “They were bigots. I despised that sort of thing and was determined that they must be defeated.”

As a result of her service to France, Josephine became the first American woman to receive a full French military funeral upon her death in 1975, an event that shut down the streets of Paris. She even got a 21-gun salute, which, apparently, is more than just a Green Day song.

There’s really too much more to say about Josephine in this confined space. For example: She adopted twelve children from different countries and called them her “Rainbow Tribe” (way before Angelina Jolie). She lived in a fifteenth-century French castle. She had pet cheetahs. She participated in the Civil Rights Movement and was asked by Coretta Scott King to help lead it following the assassination of King’s husband. (Baker declined, probably for safety reasons.) She refused to play to segregated audiences on her U.S. tour and thus helped accelerate integration.

Josephine Baker’s legacy continues to inspire many women to this day, and her image—often, but not always, including that infamous banana skirt—pops up in the most unlikely of places. Look for her cameos in Midnight in Paris, The Triplets of Belleville, and the animated Anastasia. Even Beyoncé has paid tribute.

I wonder now what Josephine would think of where we are now, both in the U.S. and Europe. She was happy with the progress that had been made even in her own lifetime. But how far have we really come? To what extent do we still exoticize women of color? Even as overt, sickening racism becomes less frequent, what subtler forces are at play that continue to reveal and reinforce power imbalances between whites and minorities?

I’m optimistic that, at the very least, the visceral discomfort induced in liberal-minded minds (like mine) by seeing a black woman dressed in a banana skirt by a white man on TV means we’ve at least made some progress.

Can I Hate Chris Brown?

strong female characters

For the record, I don’t hate anybody. Some celebrities—Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher, Kim Kardashian---get on my nerves. And there are other male superstars who have mistreated women, physically, sexually, and/or verbally---Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Sheen—who piss me off/gross me out/don’t deserve to be successful.

But hate is such a strong word.

The titular question flitted through my mind as I viewed the recap of his latest douchebag escapade on E! News. Chris apparently got into a dust-up last week with singer Frank Ocean over a parking spot outside Frank’s studio. Shoves/punches may have been thrown, including one from Brown at Ocean. Of course, it doesn't sound like the fight was as crazy as Drakegate 2012, which had Brown and Drake and their respective crews throwing shit from across an NYC dance floor at each other, apparently in a tiff over Rihanna. Which was then, as any good fight is these days, taken to Twitter.

But while Brown-Drake 2012 was like, WTF, Ocean-Brown 2013 is like, Chris Brown just go the fuck away. First of all, I love Frank Ocean. He’s adorable, he’s subverting heteronormative sexuality, and he sings beautiful songs that make me cry. (See here and here. Gah.) Second, Chris Brown took it—yes—to Twitter and posted a photo of Jesus on the cross and noted “the way I feel today”. Obviously, this is completely ridiculous in this context, but let’s zoom out a second and remember that there is literally never a situation where you compare yourself to Jesus that doesn’t make you look like an asshole. Which is what he is. GO AWAY.

This is by no means the first time I’ve pondered whether I really hate Chris Brown. The last time was on Halloween, when he and his buddies decided it was a clever idea to dress up as the Taliban. Long, shaggy beards, dusty turbans, rags, AK-47s and all. On top of being tasteless, there’s more than a whiff of casual racism happening here, as tends to happen whenever the “terrorist” costume idea pops up.

Then there was the time he said this to comedian Jenny Johnson on Twitter: “take them teeth out when u Sucking my dick HOE” Sure, she had just called him a worthless piece of shit, but it doesn’t need to be reiterated that misogynistic, sexually threatening insults are not the correct response. Especially when you’re Chris Brown, and you a) are already known to have beaten a woman, and b) do, in all truth, deserve to be called a WPOS.

And yes, lest we forget, God forbid, the number one reason why anyone should ever feel like hating—or, serious minimum, hating on—Chris Brown: he brutally beat his then-girlfriend* Rihanna and did no jail time**. Nothing will ever make that okay, really. He’ll always have done that, and that will always be unacceptable. That it was such a public escapade, and that Rihanna herself was arguably even more famous than him, made it a much greater lightning rod for outrage than aforementioned messrs. Sheen, Schwarzenegger et. al. who have also mistreated women less famous/powerful than themselves. This is true.

*And now-girlfriend. But that’s an outrage for another day. **He may have also not done the community service he was sentenced to. Let's just add that to the outrages.

But the fact that certain crimes draw less outrage doesn’t mean we’re making too big a deal over Chris Brown’s criminal douchiness. It means we’re not making a big enough deal about all the rest. And: Chris Brown still lives his life unmolested. Chris Brown still has a career. Chris Brown still got to perform at the Grammys last year in a “comeback” tour that seemed to have amnesia about why he had to “come back” at all.

All the other stuff is just frosting on a bad-person cake. Also, let’s not forget that by continuing to support him, when he hasn’t made any significant public effort to address and apologize for his actions, we send a message that what he did was okay. . . that it was on par with (or even, less than) those times Lindsay Lohan drove without a license, or Winona Ryder shoplifted. Just another oops! celebrity screwup. (Which, incidentally, is probably a countdown show on the E! network.) For proof, view this disturbing assortment of statements from (where else) Twitter, collected after his Grammy’s performance last year, where various women say something to the effect that "Chris Brown's so hot he can beat me any day." Takeaway: We all still have work to do.

Hate is a strong word. But it’s definitely okay—maybe even necessary?—to hate on Chris Brown.

Hungry Hungry Humans

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, Is it me, or does everyone and their uncle have a food allergy/aversion/snobbish avoidance these days? I've found it increasingly difficult to share meals and prepare food for others without objections from gluten-free, only-eat-local-everything, on-a-cleanse, vegan, paleo-diet friends and family members.  I used to crave the communal intimacy of a shared meal, but now it seems "what I'm not eating" dominates the conversation (and makes my allergy-free, trying-to-stay-sane self question if I really should be eating that dairy/gluten/egg-rich muffin). Am I being insensitive?

Signed,

Eating the Damn Muffin Already

Dear Eating The Damn Muffin Already,

I wish you were my dinner guest.

Recently, we had a couple we were getting to know over for dinner.  I had baked a delicious dessert, since they were bringing the food.  The meal was saucy take out, rich in butter and spices.  When I brought out the salted caramel cake I had made from scratch, I was shocked that neither one of my guests were willing to try it.  They demurred, saying that "Sugar is poison, you know", and that they are cutting it out of their diet completely.

Stunned, I set my cake back on the stove, and, due to the calls of my toddler, who had been promised a special treat in honor of our guests and had even helped to bake it, I cut the members of my family slices and passed them out, leaving our guests to watch us consume a whole bunch of homemade poison.

Their choice to eat greasy take out and then refuse cake baffled me, but everyone deserves to do whatever they want with their body.  Really what bugged me were their terrible manners.

We live in a time of shifting ethics about food.  There used to be a cuisine that was considered "American", that everyone was expected to eat.  In an age of growing education about where our food comes from, who benefits from our consumption of it, and how to best feed our bodies, people are making more informed decisions about food than ever.

This is a really positive thing.  I would like nothing better than to use only local ingredients, from companies that respect the land and pay their workers a living wage.  I want to serve my family healthy food that will help our bodies grow strong.  However, I am not willing to give up the common decencies of community to do so.  My motto is "People are more important than things."  And that includes my current food philosophy.

So, what to do, if you have been invited over for dinner, and you know your hosts do not eat the same way as you?  First of all, ask what's on the menu, and what you can bring.  If you are a strict vegetarian, tell them so ahead of time.  If you have no food allergies, but would like to eat a certain way, offer to bring a salad or special gluten-free bread, and make that the focal point of your meal, eating sparingly what your hosts have provided for you.

Sharing food is such an important part of community building.  Another vital aspect of community is truth telling.  So, if you're on a diet, say you're on a damn diet.  Don't couch it in New Age terms, and definitely don't judge other people's food choices, especially not in their home.

So, to answer your question, are you being insensitive by not loving all the new diets people are trying?  Well, unless you are placing a pig on a spit in front of your vegan friend or inviting your gluten-free buddy over for Bread Fest 2013, nope.

If you find yourself irked by Macrobiotic Mary on your friend list, why not do something with her that is not centered around food?  I'm sure you can agree on an indulgent movie to watch together, to make up for the decadence missing in her diet.  Just make sure you order exactly what you want at the concession stand, and stand by your choice.  But get the small popcorn---she’s not going to share.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

An education

In the Balance

Sometimes it is really hard to be a Liberal. Lately, some of my doggedly-held values around social justice and being part of a diverse community have been challenged.  I am learning that when you become responsible for sending a small person out into the world, it can lend a highly specific perspective to what were previously only abstract concepts.  I am not particularly comfortable with some of what I am discovering about myself but I think it is important to ponder. So my husband and I have just hopped on the loopy carnival ride that is securing an education for a child in New York City.  While clearly this process is mystifying in many urban centers, NYC has a famously complex network of public neighborhood schools that are either failing miserably or so successful, such bright spots in a dreary oblivion, that people buy and sell apartments, use the address of a deceased relative, beg, borrow, steal, WHATEVER IT TAKES to gain entry.  And even then, they are not guaranteed a slot in the local school because of overcrowding or their kid may end up in a kindergarten class “annex” in a bodega around the corner.

I would like to state for the record, that our child just turned 1 and so in this moment our focus is on preschool, which doesn’t happen for another full year and yet somehow requires our urgent attention.  I feel whiplash, like I just recovered from having an infant and I haven’t had time to put my purse down before we are off to research schools.  There is pressure where we live to tour preschools, apply and get on the waiting lists NOW, even though because of a late December birthday, our daughter won’t even be eligible for preschool until 2014.  As an aside, our day care of preference (if we had chosen the day care route or would want that to bridge our daughter until preschool) has a 1-1.5 year long waiting list and the people we know whose kids go there now had the good sense to apply when they were newly pregnant.  And they still waited.  And oh by the way, you tour, interview and apply to these places that you then have the privilege of paying for. . . the amount of money varies from modest rent to modest salary. 

Now that we are in this process, we are naturally having to look at our daughter’s future options for school where we live.  Our values dictate that our child will go to public school.  I was educated in an excellent public school system in California and I grew up with this idea that you build community and strengthen local schools by participating in them.  Even if we had the money, private school was not a value of ours.  My husband went to private school because there was no appropriate public option where he lived and he came out of that experience enriched, but feeling like he wanted something different, something more inclusive, for his children.

Diversity is a buzzword, but it also means something to us.  We live in New York and in Brooklyn, specifically, because we want to live among a wide range of cultures, races, ethnicities, walks of life and we want this for our daughter, as well.  But the fact is that we live in a “burgeoning” neighborhood in Brooklyn that has mostly deficient, even sometimes dangerous public schools.

The de facto segregation that the school struggle creates here is widely known and continues unabated and we are likely on our way to contributing to it.  What happens in our community is that the poor children (almost exclusively of color) go to these lacking public schools in the neighborhood and get an inadequate start right out of the gate.  There are also charter schools with limited spaces (also a much-talked-about phenomenon) and these schools are not a panacea.  Charter schools are controversial in a number of ways (Do they really educate kids better?  Are they creating their own form of urban flight?  Are they bad for the neighborhood schools that the children “abandon?”).

We live in a building that is like an island in our neighborhood.  It is full of upper-middle class folks who moved in when this warehouse building was converted to loft condos 7 years ago.  This is the story of so many historic ghettos in Brooklyn.  The affluent people get pushed out of Manhattan and/or choose a different lifestyle and begin changing the face of the neighborhood.  We see the seeds of inequality every day, right outside our door.  Across the street from our island, we have a poorly-rated and, at times, unsafe public school.  In our entire district, there are maybe 1-2 schools that we would consider, none of which are near us and all of which would all require an exceptional process if we were to apply.

What most people on our island do is game the system in some way: they apply to schools using a different address; they happen to know someone somewhere; they apply to a million places outside the district and are willing to wait until August to get a “yes” if the school has space; they have their child tested for “gifted and talented” status and ship them off to a school with a program, etc.  All of this is not only exhausting it has the effect of landing like-people in like-places.  Here we are, priding ourselves on living our diverse experience and we will almost certainly usher our kid toward a school or a classroom where she will be surrounded by kids that are almost exactly like her in most ways.  We will recreate the island and we don’t feel we have any choice about it.

I have begun to call into question what I mean when I say I value diversity.  It is easy to say this academically, and it is quite another to live in a neighborhood where there are shots fired 25 feet behind you when you are 8 months pregnant.  It is easy to say that you want your child to be exposed to every kind of experience until you watch the kids from the local school hang out just steps from the entrance, in broad daylight, smoking weed and let’s just say “talking disrespectfully” about women.  It is easy to say that you love the many threads of our beautiful fabric until you feel so intimidated by the guys on the corner that you walk the long way, and then cross in front of the police station, to get to the subway.  Of course, these experiences are not reflective of the entire character of the neighborhood, but they are an undeniable fact of the culture here.  I want to believe that people of every background can be truly integrated, but sometimes I feel like we all just end up living parallel lives within the same space.

We sat in a classroom with 60+ other parents on Monday to begin the tour of our desired preschool FOR 2014.  I looked around the room and saw lots of hues, heard a few different languages, noticed some non-traditional parents and felt a little better about myself.  Of course if you pay attention for long in a situation like that, you start to realize that everyone is talking to their children in the same way, using the same phrases, asking the same questions, carrying similar gear, coming to and from similar jobs.  It seems like this level of diversity will have to do for now until I can come up with a way to feel more “of” our neighborhood.  And so (if we get in!), we will travel back and forth from one island to another with our daughter and hope that the trip along the way becomes smoother sailing.