What the Bechdel Test Says about Your Favorite Movies

strong female characters

Strong female characters—or even mediocre female characters—can be in short supply in Hollywood, on both the big and small screens. It’s something I’ve become more aware of as the years go by, and it's a bit dismaying. Recently, I’ve discovered that one of the best quick-view gauges by which to determine whether a film has adequate female representation is the Bechdel Test. Named for comic strip author Alison Bechdel, who with a friend devised the criteria back in the 1980s, the test has three really simple steps. First, are there two (named) female characters? Second, do they ever have a conversation with each other? Third, is their conversation about something other than a male character?

If the answer to these three questions is yes, it passes the test.

These three incredibly simple rules, amazingly, ruled out almost every single DVD on my shelf, including some of my favorite films. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Nope. The Lord of the Rings? Not even close. (And that is in spite of the fact that they proportionally really blew up Arwen’s role from Tolkien’s original text.) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? No, because apparently Jeannie and her mom only talk about her troublesome brother Ferris.

It wasn't surprising to me that some of my more man-centric favorite films---The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, In Bruges, The Lord of the Rings---wouldn't pass. But even films with seemingly more positive and more frequent portrayals of women missed the mark in that they were still, ultimately, male-centric.

Blockbusters like the Batman series and The Avengers fail with flying colors (though there’s some dispute over whether The Dark Knight passes, as there is a scene where a female detective is forced at gunpoint to call another female character. Kind of a sad excuse for passing, if so). The only sure bet that a film will pass seemed to me to be if the lead character was a woman—but even that was called into question when I looked up The Little Mermaid (come on, Disney! Not surprising, I guess, when the character's sole motivation is marrying her prince).

The conclusion is that, despite all of the forward progress we’ve made, there are still some substantial holes in our cultural fabric when it comes to diverse and frequent media representations of women. Ensemble casts tend to be “rounded out” with one major female character; all-male leads segment off the female characters into the roles of wife, co-worker, mother, where they all exist only in relation to the male(s); or, as the test rightly points out, when the women do convene they end up talking about that male character.

Does your favorite movie pass the Bechdel test? Is it important to you that it does? Obviously it’s not necessary for every film, but it would be nice to see films outside of certain genres, or outside of the “chick flick” realm of films targeted directly at women, where two female characters talk to each other about things that concern them besides men.

Anna Comnena: Byzantine Princess, Crusades Chronicler

historical woman

I first became acquainted with this historical woman of the day because she was one of the only sources for describing a bunch of historical men. Isn’t that the way the historical cookie always crumbles?

Anna Comnena (1080 – c. 1153) was a Byzantine princess, the daughter of Emperor Alexius Comnenus I, and an eyewitness chronicler of the First Crusade and some of its most prominent Crusaders. In fact, it was her dad that invited those European macho men out East in the first place. It goes like this:

A SUPER SHORT SUMMARY OF THE FIRST CRUSADE Seljuk Turks were expanding out of Central Asia and into what we now know as the Middle East. The Byzantine Empire (Greek Orthodox, concentrated in modern day Turkey, capital Constantinople) started getting nervous. Though loathe to request help from Western Christendom (you know, Europe), who were Catholic, and probably kind of a pain about it, Alexius Comnenus finally felt like he had no other options. “Come over here and help us out, guys,” he said to the Pope. “We’re all Christian brothers and stuff.”

Pope Urban II got excited, because as usual the Church was having a lot of problems in Europe, and having one big CAUSE tends to make problems disappear (or at least go temporarily invisible). So he made this big speech in 1095 and announced that everyone should go on Crusade to the Holy Land. Your soul would get saved, yada yada yada.

So Crusaders poured out of what is now France, and Germany, and England, and Italy, and walked/rode horses all the way to what is now Turkey, and some of them killed a lot of innocent people on the way in what were probably fits of zealotry and testosterone, and then the leaders got to Constantinople by 1097 and (mostly) pledged loyalty to Alexius. They had cool names like Godfrey and Baldwin and Bohemond. Anna provides descriptions of all of them in her chronicle.

But they really wanted to do other things besides just save the Byzantines. Like what was in it for them? So they poured into Syria and Palestine and set up Crusader castles and some of them stayed for like a hundred years or more (their progeny, of course. Though I do like to picture like the Indiana Jones guy sitting around in a fortress in the mountains crumbling to dust). Oh and they also killed more people.

The end. (Until the Second Crusade.)


Anyway. Anna provides the only Byzantine-eye view to this whole saga, in a chronicle she wrote of her father’s reign, the Alexiad. In this she reminds me of Dmitri Nabokov or Christopher Tolkien—forever in their father’s literary shadow, translating his old stuff, writing down reminiscences, safeguarding his estate. Celebrity fathers, ya know?

But Anna was more than just a woman who wrote about men that historians care about, though this is probably why her memory has been kept alive so long. She was also accomplished and educated, serving as a physician in a hospital her father had built for her, specializing in, apparently, gout.

She also had designs on the throne. At the age of fourteen she married Nicephorus of Bryennium, and as her father approached death, she conspired with her mother Irene to have her husband named the next emperor instead of her good-for-nothing brother John. However, she was outmaneuvered, and on his deathbed Alexius blessed John as his successor.

Later, she was busted for conspiracy to commit regicide or its twelfth-century Byzantine equivalent, and spent the rest of her life in a convent. This is where she hunkered down and wrote the Alexiad. Which ended up not being a bad use of her time.

So as a woman of the medieval Byzantine court, she was able to carve out an occupation, some expertise, a decent education (although she was forbidden from reading classical poetry because it was indecent), and even came thisclose to becoming Empress, courtesy her own ambition and wile. We don’t know a ton about her, but what we know is pretty impressive.

Though why do these stories always have to end in a convent?

Mother-in-law May I

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

My husband and I met our senior year of college and got married a few years later. We've now been together for almost a decade and I still feel lucky that we happened to meet and that circumstances allowed us to grow as people and build a life together. Our families, both immediate and extended, are an important part of our lives. We hang out with our siblings often and we're happy that our two-year-old daughter can experience the joys of a close family.

Here's the problem: From the earliest days of our relationship, my husband's mother wasn't warm or welcoming to me. Maybe it's her personality; maybe it's that my husband is the oldest of 5 and she didn't have experience with how to treat potential new members of the family; maybe it's that she and I just didn't click because we're incredibly different people with very different approaches to the world. At this point, I'm obviously part of the family, so I don't think she realizes that my perspective is colored by how she treated me for the first few years of our relationship, basically until we were married.

In many important ways my mother-in-law is a generous person who certainly has the best of intentions. I recognize that and I want to focus on it, especially since my daughter adores her. Unfortunately, when we're together for extended periods of time, like family trips, I find myself getting increasingly annoyed and frustrated. We're always going to do things differently. She's always going to correct me. She's always going to insist that she's right about everything. I can't change that, so I just need to accept her and not let all these little things bother me. Any tips?

Thank you,

Throw Grandma From the Train?


Dear Throw Grandma From the Train,

Recently, I went to a panel discussion of faith leaders who are seeking non-violent resolution of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank.  The theme that kept coming up was forgiveness.  I rose my hand, and asked my burning question, the one I keep returning to in my life, “How do you love people that are hard to love?”  The answer I got was to try to find the humanity in that person, to separate their actions from who they are, someone worthy of love and in need of care.

I think that is what you've been trying to do with your mother-in-law.  You've been trying to see the bigger picture, be the bigger person, just enlarge everything until it all doesn't bother you anymore.  But it's not the big things that get us, with those people that are hard to love.  It's the little, petty, constant shit that wears on us until we just can't take it anymore.

I actually don’t think the key here is accepting your mother-in-law.  It sounds like some of the things she does to you are simply unacceptable.  It is not okay for her to just decide not to like her daughter-in-law, and to correct everything you’re doing in your home.  It’s okay for you to be really frustrated when she does those things to you.

But you’re right that you need to let go of them, after you feel your feelings around them.  Another thing I heard at this discussion is that holding onto resentment is like eating poison, and expecting the other person to die.

So my advice to you is: stop trying to accept your mother-in-law.  Put all of those acceptance efforts towards yourself.

Accept the way you love your husband.  Accept it so much that it can never be questioned, never be swayed even the tiniest bit by your mother-in-law.  Let it live in the swing of your hips and in your thoughts when the two of you are apart.  Love the shit out of the way you love your husband.

Accept the way you run your household.  Accept your habits, even the ones you secretly think are gross.  Accept your home just as it is.  Accept your choices for food and work and daily routine.  Meditate on your imperfections, embracing all the very things about you that she criticizes.

Accept your parenting.  Celebrate your relationship with your daughter.  Let your acceptance for how you are raising your child ooze out of you to the point that your mother-in-law’s comments about it are deflected, as if your love for your daughter is suit of armor, gleaming and true.

I say all of this as a person who has gone toe-to-toe with her own mother-in-law several times over 13 years.  Early on, I realized this woman was never going to understand me.  But she didn’t have to, because her son did.  I realized this woman was never going to agree with me about most of the choices I made.  But she didn’t have to, because I wasn’t asking her permission or even her opinion.  I brazenly made mistakes, apologized when necessary, kept my distance when I needed to, or called her every week when I felt the desire.  I know for a fact that she doesn’t accept me as I am.  But I am certain that she respects me, and even loves me.  And the reason for that is that she knows I’m not waiting for her approval, and I love her even without it.

So, you have to be your own existential detective.  What are you insecure about?  Is your mother-in-law putting her finger in some open wounds?  Then do more work in those areas, until you can shine out your acceptance of yourself so boldly that she’s blinded by it.

And for the rest, for the hurts she’s inflicted on you in the past, and the ones that she’s sure to incur in the future, forgiveness is the only sane option.  Not just acceptance, but deep, life-altering forgiveness, that does indeed bring your mother-in-law’s humanity to the fore so her actions lose their sting.

The way to love people that are hard to love, like so many mother-in-laws, might just be to love yourself harder.



Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

On Taking Responsibility for our Young Girls and Women

In the Balance

Like many of you, I was riveted this past week watching the story coming out of Cleveland unfold.  The rescue of three young women who had been held hostage for ten years by a brutal perpetrator is both utterly surreal and devastatingly sad.  It is virtually impossible to integrate the details of this story.  The facts of the case continue to emerge but we do know that these women were kidnapped, held for a decade against their will, starved, beaten and raped.  We know that they were bound with ropes and chains.  We know that they were not permitted to leave the decrepit house in which they were imprisoned. There is no way for any of us to comprehend the terror that they have suffered or the trauma that they have endured.  How were they able to maintain sanity or hope?  Perhaps they didn’t. I find it unbearable to even imagine their lives over the past ten years.  Denial is such a powerful buffer that I am desperate for them to tell us it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.  I want them to say that they were able to at least bond with each other and never felt totally alone.  I want to fast-forward to three years from now where one of them has written a memoir in which she describes her miraculous new life where all her wounds have been healed.  But achingly, these women---girls at the time of their capture---may never find peace.

The person responsible for this unspeakable horror is Ariel Castro, a marginal being with (at a minimum) mental illness and masochistic sexual deviance.  I suspect there will be months of speculation by FBI profilers and mental health professionals around what factors contributed to his executing this nightmare.  We will feverishly seek to understand “what to look for” when it comes to identifying potential future offenders.  Possibly some of the post facto analysis will make us feel like we are learning something valuable from this tragedy about the human condition.  But what kind of lessons can we glean from the behavior of an obvious sociopath?  Perhaps energy would be better spent on evaluating the routine, daily and casual attacks that are committed against women and girls.

Consider for example, that every two minutes, a woman in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. Forty-four percent of all victims are under the age of 18.  Fifty four percent of sexual assaults are never reported and by one estimate, 97 percent of rapists will never spend one day in jail.  Learn more about sexual assault statistics here.  What can we do with this information?

And what about the more subtle ways in which women are put at risk? Women continue to be regularly objectified in mass media. Such portrayals range from thoughtless characterizations of women as weak and dependent to victims of explicit and excessive violence in horror movies.  The message seems to be that women are not worthy of protection when we have ineffectual domestic violence laws on the books and inadequate community resources with which to respond to their urgent needs.  It appears that women cannot be responsible for their own bodies and must be subject to controls when we chip away at access to safe and legal abortion, Plan B, contraception and sex education (all the while, a 15-year old boy can buy condoms without restriction or consequence).  We demonstrate disregard for women’s humanity when we hold up unrealistic standards of beauty and encourage them to destroy their own bodies in the name of fashion.   We have normalized and mainstreamed pornography and disturbing video games in which women and female characters are often humiliated and treated viciously.

All of these realities are absorbed by our young boys and men.  All of these realities condition our young girls and women.  All of these realities imprint strongly on the broken mind of a potential perpetrator.

It is obviously critical that we acknowledge, investigate and unpack the horrific events experienced by these three women in Cleveland, Ohio.  Although it feels voyeuristic, I, too, feel a frantic need to understand what happened and how it might have been prevented.  What may be even more important to the larger cause of safeguarding girls and women is to address some of the more mundane ways in which we subvert and dehumanize them.  We might never be able to prevent the rare psychopath from kidnapping women, but we certainly have the power to improve social norms and strengthen legal protections.  We can teach our young girls and boys about equals rights and more generally how to treat one another.  We can empower young girls to learn about and appreciate their bodies and develop clear emotional and physical boundaries.  We can remind young women to maintain an acute awareness of danger and never accept assistance or a ride from a stranger.  The lessons coming out of Cleveland are not new---they are prompts to re-engage with bolstering the status of girls and women in this country.



American Apparel-style creeper advertising

strong female characters

A couple weeks ago, I complained about the Dove campaign and its pseudo-inspiring message of “You are more beautiful than you think.” While there are definitely merits in this message, and there are definitely some refreshing strategies that Dove employs—showcasing women of different shapes and sizes, for example; focusing on empowerment rather than sexualization—it continues to prioritize women’s looks, and their relationships with their looks, which subtly bolsters their own goal of selling beauty products. Not to mention the corporation that owns Dove also owns Axe, which has plenty of problems in its sexualized representations of women. Now I want to go to another extreme of problematic advertising. I call it: Is there anything creepier than American Apparel ads?

Gah. American Apparel ads. They make my skin crawl every time they pop up in the upper right hand corner of a Gothamist website or on the inside partition of a downtown bus stop. All of the photos of the female models look like they were taken by a ‘stached man who picked up underage girls in a windowless van and then used a low-fi camera as he posed them across a bedbug infested mattress in his roachy partly-furnished apartment, giving them the creepiest stage directions possible. (Have your mouth hang open. Spread your legs really awkwardly. Give us some armpit.) The models aren’t actually underage, of course, but they tend to be non-professionals and styled in a way that makes them look adolescent. Their hair is bedheaded, they wear no makeup, and they style the mostly innocuous American Apparel catalog (though they do tend towards the super short, and I still don’t get what a “bodysuit” is for) in the most sexed up way possible.

So the plus side of this creeptasmagoria is, I guess, the realism. In the age of Photoshop and flawless, fat-repellent models that were born without hair everywhere except the tops of their heads, it’s mildly refreshing to see the super-unretouched photos of women with a bit of back flab, child-bearing hips, the occasional unsightly mole. It really is. To the extent that it’s presenting women as they really look, it’s a good thing.

But whoa. That’s the only “good” I can come up with here. Because everything else about it is so wrong. The realism in question is ultimately employed to give the viewer the impression that there’s a semi-conscious high school teenager in their bedroom waiting to be seduced. It’s hypersexual and extraordinarily male gaze-y, and it’s a major contribution to the objectification-of-women canon that American advertising seems intent on compiling an epic volume of. Not to mention, it feels like we are seeing way more of American Apparel CEO Dov Charney’s deepest fantasies than we ever wanted to, way more than should ever be made manifest.

Which begs the question: if Dove overemphasizes a normative “beauty,” and American Apparel oversexualizes a physical “realism”—if Dove plays into the insecurities of the female gaze, while American Apparel plays into the objectification of the male gaze---where is the happy medium? What kind of advertising could possibly get it right? It’s hard to say. As it is, advertising is so much an extension of our culture’s already existing ideas about beauty, sex, and women that it’s hard to know where problems begin and end.

It's also quite the sad state of affairs when one has to go to an American Apparel ad to find "realism" in women's advertising. My ending request, the potential for compromise: could we have some of the unretouched-ness happening in ads other than Dov Charney's artistic vision of barely legal 1970s porn?

Umm Kulthum: Singer of a Nation, Star of the East

historical woman

I was thinking today—if the U.S. had a “national singer,” who would it be? You know, someone iconic and quintessentially American and a part of our history? Though I don’t particularly care for either, my mind went first to Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. They conjure images of America's golden age of rock and roll and lounge singing, burgers and casinos and whatever else we're famous for. I suppose a case could also be made for Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Madonna. I don't know. It's hard to say?

Anyway. Whoever our American national singer might be—which is maybe tougher to tell when you actually live in the U.S.—I like the fact that Egypt’s is a woman.

Known as kawkab al-Sharq (Arabic for “star of the East”), Umm Kulthum is arguably the most famous Egyptian singer in history. Her life and career spanned most of the twentieth century, from circa 1900 to her death in 1975, and she was a huge influence on both her own countrymen and –women and on foreign artists as well.

She was born Fatimah Ibrahim as-Sayyid al-Bilagi in a small village in the Nile Delta. Like many successful historical women, her father treated her like she was a boy. An imam at a local mosque, young Fatimah’s father instructed her in memorizing the Quran (a mark of distinction for any young Muslim) and later disguised her in the clothes of the opposite gender so she could enter a performing troupe.

She was discovered for her singing talent early on, and by the 1920s was already one of the most famous singers in Egypt. Her music merged the stylings of classical and traditional Arabic music and the wide appeal and accessibility of popular music. Umm Kulthum songs were typically set against large orchestras, with songs that went on for hours (I’m barely exaggerating). For a very short clip of one of her songs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FX6stbbhUI

The early to mid twentieth century saw an Arab world in a strange transition. Egypt itself was under British occupation from 1882 until the 1930s, and the monarchy was overthrown in 1952 with the Free Officers coup. Then Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hero of Arab nationalism, took control of the country, nationalized the Suez Canal, joined Egypt with Syria, antagonized the West by being non-aligned (Cold War and all that), and finally lived out his days in disgrace after a crushing defeat by Israel’s armies in 1967. It was an exciting, and traumatizing, time for Egypt and the Arab world.

Umm Kulthum’s music didn’t stop at Egypt’s borders, just as the political turmoil described above was not particular to Egypt. She was a famous and beloved figure throughout the Arab world. Despite the Western instrumentation, her music was staunchly "Eastern," with lyrics derived from classical Arabic poetry. Most of her songs were about love and longing, though some listeners read a cultural and religious undertone in the words.

I'd like to share this funny opener from her 1975 obituary in Time magazine: "Few Westerners ever fathomed the appeal of Umm Kulthum, the buxom, handkerchief-waving Egyptian singer who was known to her Middle Eastern fans as 'the Nightingale of the Nile.' She had a stentorian contralto and a quavering wail that grated on the ears of those attuned to the trills of opera divas. But her voice was a near-perfect instrument for expressing the sinuous quarter tones of Arabic music."

What a backhanded compliment, amirite? There's definitely a qualitative difference between "Eastern" and "Western" music, and sometimes "Westerners" tend to take for granted the universality of their own chord tones and vocal stylings. "Eastern" scales and harmonies—and sometimes, "wailing," as this journalist so tactfully put it—have historically been used as symbols of difference and exoticism in Western media, and even in Western classical music. But there's no reason you shouldn't be able to appreciate it anyway, in my opinion, and not just from a "world-music" standpoint.

Throughout her illustrious career, Umm Kulthum maintained a careful self-image, espousing conservative values and emphasizing her origins in the authentic heart of Egypt—as opposed to, you know, some bourgeois city-dweller.

Her influence also extended into America and Europe. Luminaries from Bob Dylan to Bono, Maria Callas to Jean-Paul Sartre were fans. And speaking of fans—when she died in 1975, millions of people turned up for her funeral. If we’re measuring popularity by funeral attendance, she was way more popular than Egyptian national hero (though also, by that time, loser of the 1967 war) Nasser.

It’s hard to imagine that kind of love being shown for any of our singers. Maybe it’s the times—it’s hard to be a universally beloved celebrity in the age of short attention spans and exposed minutiae about celebrity’s relationships, diet habits, and up-to-the-minute Twitterized thoughts. Hence, the carefully-maintained self-image probably came in handy. Regardless, whether it was by fate or intention or some combination, Umm Kulthum became Egypt’s singer, and the Arab world’s singer, and that hasn't been forgotten to this day.

Healing: A Sense of Community

memory and loss

A new sense of community emerged this week in Boston. Last Monday we watched in fear as tragedy marred one of the most beautiful, treasured days of the year in our city. We held on through an anxiety-ridden week, hugging our friends a bit tighter and smiling warmly at strangers. Friday night closed with the end of a day-long manhunt and city-wide lock down. The city breathed a collective sigh as the suspect was caught. People ventured out into their neighborhoods, finally turning off the news.

This week, signs of strength are everywhere. Café signs show love for the city scribbled in chalk hearts, restaurants offered free meals to law enforcement personnel, and Syrians sent a message love through a painted sign---that was shared thousands and thousands of times on Facebook. The spirit of this city is still here, yet the questions of mourning and healing are only beginning to emerge:


As a community, how do we grieve? How do we heal?

Acts of violence, so close to our home affect us. The effect may be new or it may trigger old emotions. In the past week, I have watched those around me struggle with emotions spanning from indifference to shock to deep sadness. I urged my immediate community to be compassionate with the experience and allow yourself to be affected:

It is okay if you feel off this week. It is okay that you can’t concentrate or don’t want to sit in the library, even though you have so much to do. It is okay if you feel grief, or emotions you can’t identify, even though you don’t know anyone who was physically hurt or weren’t even at the event. It is also okay if you don’t feel anything. It is okay if this tragedy reminds you of other losses in your life. It is okay to miss people or moments that have nothing [on the surface] to do with what happened on Monday.

In consideration of healing, I return to stories. The world of grief and healing is full of stories. Stories that make our hearts ache and bring tears to our eyes. Stories that touch us deeply, resonating with our experiences, bring our losses closer to the surface, and in their own way, heal us. My own story of the Boston Marathon encapsulates one of my best memories: the spring, the sheer accomplishment of running 26.2 miles, and, which I did not know at the time, my last day with my father. In honor of that experience and the events of the week, this past Tuesday, I put on my running shoes and Red Sox shirt, and headed out the door into the spring air. What I needed to do was run, remember that joyful day, and spend time feeling through the grief that bubbled up out of the surface in the face of new tragedy.

Feeling, hurting, and all the other associated emotions are signs of life, signs of caring for one’s community. Be compassionate with yourself in this process. Do what feels right for you. Heal through allowing yourself to engage with the process. This is our first step as individuals that make up a truly wonderful community. As a community, we can soak in the love pouring from all corners of the world. And, within our responsibility to love these “corners” back, as individuals did by holding up a sign sending love back to Syria in Davis Square, we can reflect this sense of healing and hope.

The city I envision heals fear through love and community.



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.

I Read The News Today, Oh Boy

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sybil,

What is twisting my gut is what is also twisting the gut of the nation. My issue is that I am so very, very sensitive to human-caused tragedies, so much so that even a headline can send me toward panic-attack-ville. I've dealt with this by avoiding the news in general (my husband keeps me up to date on disturbing events using gentler wording buffered on either end with a hug) but I still want to be in the know.

Also, avoiding Facebook is much more difficult than avoiding the news; and so I see articles that friends post that I shouldn't click but sometimes do. I am repulsed, deeply saddened and deeply scared by tragedy, but also curious about how terrible things happen (and how I can avoid raising a child that would act in those terrible ways.)

How can I honor my tender self but still stay informed and educated?  Maybe there are others in the same boat that would benefit from some words of wisdom!

Thank you,


Dear Tender-oni,

When a tragedy of this magnitude rocks our nation, every sentient person feels it in some way.  It sounds like you have the beautiful yet difficult experience of being someone extra attuned to the fragility of life, which means you need to take even more care to be kind to yourself and others in the wake of the Boston bombings.

Hearing tragic news is really unsettling, and it takes us out of our bodies.  The most important thing to do is to get grounded, connect yourself to the earth, and back in your corporeal being.  Wherever you are right now, feel your feet on the floor beneath you.  Imagine there is a connection between the soles of your feet down to the core of the earth, and that a vibration of light is running up through you, lengthening your spine out through the crown of your head.  Put your hands on your thighs, and press.  Then place your hands on your belly and breathe deeply, in and out, until you can feel your breath steadying, and you feel connected to all your limbs from your center.

Now that you are grounded, go ahead and let yourself feel whatever you are feeling.  If you're sad and need to cry, let the tears roll down.  If you are angry and need to punch a pillow, or yell into a cup, do that.  If you are scared and need to call your loved ones, please do.  Let them know you love them and you need them right now.

It is okay to try to get the truth about what happened, to allow your brain to make as much sense as possible of such mind-boggling violence.  However, with all the ways of receiving news now available to us, choose wisely.  First of all, avoid visual and aural news.  Receive your facts in words, in the form of complete sentences.  It is impossible to un-see images of bodies mangled, and to un-hear screams and cries.  News that has already been filtered through the brains of professionals into sentences are designed to inform you in the least traumatizing way possible.  Therefore, if you must follow the news, read it in article form, and don’t sign up to be notified every time events unfold---be as in charge as possible of when/how you receive the latest updates.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help if you are indeed having panic attack symptoms.  Call your therapist, or if you don’t have one, contact Disaster Distress, a program of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Support Administration: http://disasterdistress.samhsa.gov/  You can call 1-800-985-5990 toll-free to talk with a crisis counselor, who can help you deal with the normal reactions to such troubling events.  There is nothing wrong with you if you are having triggering responses to such horrifying acts---it just means you are human.

Being human sometimes means being scared, but it also means being able to love.  Do something today that makes you feel really alive, and connects you to the love in your life, and the kindness of humans.  You have to counterbalance the horror with reminders that we are all held together with heartstrings.  This may be as small as creating some art to immerse yourself in beauty, or as large as volunteering to help others even more in need than you are.

I don’t know how long it will take, or what will transpire before we get there, but love will win.  I have had too many wonderful experiences with humans to discount them in the face of tragedy and say “people are terrible.”  I don’t believe that.  Some people are sick and need help and love, so that they can see how alike we all really are, and that there is something of value in each of us.

There will come a day that we will all look in one another’s eyes and see our own spark staring back at us.  In order to make this vision a reality, to end violence everywhere, we have to let the love we hold in our hearts wash over all we come into contact with, until it is a tidal wave, consuming the fear and leaving us ashore at last.



Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Look to the Best

I was a freshman in college when the twin towers fell.  I didn't know anyone in New York then, and I hadn't yet met my husband who has family throughout the boroughs and an uncle who worked at the WTC.  I watched news reports with my roommates, in shock like the rest of the world. My university didn't cancel classes that day or the next---the decision was left up to the individual professors.  Many professors called off their lessons, but not mine; the next morning found me taking my seat in my art history class.  Before she turned on the slide projector my professor stood for a moment and spoke briefly about her decision.

'Sometimes' she said 'After seeing the worst humanity can do, it's important to take time and look to the best we can do'.  And then she started class, launching into slides and a lecture about great painters and the masterpieces that still awe us centuries later.

I don't watch the news, it's a personal choice and the reasons are longer than I will get into here.  I prefer to seek out written reports and monitor my consumption.  But Monday evening I was feeling like most people---wondering Why, and so I turned on a national broadcast, searching for answers.  I watched for about 20 minutes---long enough to realize that no matter what was said, the television could likely never answer that question to my satisfaction.

As I turned off the television, I remembered those words from my professor, more than ten years ago.  I sat in my living room and listened to a record and the rain outside.  And I thought of the coverage I had seen, the videos I watched, the stories I read, the photos I saw.  The images and words that I kept circling back through.

Soldiers pulling down barricades to clear the way for medical help.

Medical staff prepared to treat muscle cramps and fatigue launching into action against injuries they could never have anticipated.

Police officers in florescent yellow vests running towards the smoke.

It's important to take a moment and look at the best humanity can do.

If you haven't already, I encourage you to read Roxanne's essay, Boston: Stories of Compassion and The Atlantic's post Stories of Kindness

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.

Boston: Stories of compassion


Earlier today, explosions rocked the Boston Marathon, resulting in deaths, injuries, and widespread fear through the city I now call home. I have never quite known what to say in the wake of a tragedy and my inclination has always been to say very little and, instead, to watch, to hope, to hold humans in my heart.

As phone calls and text messages started pouring in, the irony was not lost on us or on most of our friends that we have had to do this before: The shock after a bombing, the cycle of calling and texting, the confusion, the indignation at injustice. The brain has a way of linking these experiences together and every image of the blasts in Boston calls back the sounds of blasts in Uganda and Gaza and Bogotá and Jerusalem.

We are safe, and blessed with love---and, as we heal, we count those blessings.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that the Red Cross blood banks are full, only hours after the events transpired.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that some marathoners ran straight from the finish line to the hospital to donate blood.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that Bostonians are opening their homes to stranded runners, spectators, and their families who may need a place to stay for the night.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that in my graduate school community, within minutes of the explosions, students created a spreadsheet to track down runners and spectators, offered one another rides to get out of the blast zone, tracked down those who were momentarily unaccounted for, and held one another in kindness as we struggled to process what happened. Boston is a home full of humbling compassion.

The Atlantic is compiling these stories of kindness here today, and it is to these that we turn for hope in the wake of tragedy.

So now we wait. We share meals and feed one another. We watch TV together because companionship alleviates pain, and we turn it off when solace and quiet serve us better. We resist the inclination to judge or to jump to conclusions or to spread rumors. We photograph the beautiful sunset, or walk our dogs, or fold the laundry, in search of beauty or normalcy in the face of injustice. We shower our first responders with gratitude, and we are thankful for those who keep us safe and informed under these circumstances. We hold the wounded and those whom we have lost in our hearts, and open our hugs to those still in shock or grieving. We mourn together, as a community. We look for the light in our collective home. We ask questions, with patience through the slowness of the answers. We extend compassion. We love. We keep our hearts soft, stirring for hope and for the stories that will continue to fuel our faith in humanity.

This essay was originally posted on Stories of Conflict and Love.

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.

If not now, when?

In the Balance

‘I need a mental health day,’ I thought to myself in the late afternoon.  This desperate impulse came after the last in a series of indignities, mounting responsibilities and frustrations surrounding work, travel and family.  I was standing in line, waiting for coffee, when I realized my breathing was a little too shallow and my stomach was churning.  My mind scrambled and slid over panicked thoughts of work that would get pushed forward yet another day.  I clutched my iPhone in a death grip and it felt white-hot in my hand, having already recharged it once since pulling it from the wall eight hours earlier.  DING, went the insistent alert tone, indicating another new email.  When it occurred to me that I am my own boss and I could technically, literally fold the laptop closed and shut it all down for the day, I felt a glint of relief.  Of course, if you ask any person who works for herself, you will hear about the sensation of near constant pressure and generalized anxiety that does not defer to the bounds of the hours between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM. As you might expect, despite a clear recognition that I am suffering the ill effects of stress, I didn’t turn tail at that point and head back to the apartment.  I persisted in working through the day and even felt some perverse sense of exhilaration knowing that I had beat back the creeping beast.  There is apparently some distinction in ignoring the warning signs of a mind and body teetering on the brink of collapse.

While this may sound melodramatic, I am ripe for a break down.  I tell you this not to burden you or try and arouse sympathy.  I have a superb and dynamic support system.  I say it because we all have to start taking better care of ourselves right this very minute.  Most of you are like me and you don’t do it well enough---it might even be something that never enters your conscious thought.  You might never have deliberately considered, ‘How am I doing?’

I was reminded this week---in the way you hope you never have to be---that life is invaluable and that the people living it are fragile.  It can be a slippery slope from suffering the strains of the daily grind to taking your own life.  When something like that happens, it feels irresponsible, disrespectful not to take a personal inventory.  You owe it to yourself and the people that love you.

The Fundamentals (I am not a doctor.  I am not a sleep expert.  I am not a nutritionist.  I am a clinical social worker, but mostly these reminders are derived from my personal investigation.):

1)   Get enough sleep.  I am averaging 5-6 hours these days and a grown adult needs more like 7-9.  Even an hour or two less than your body requires can have devastating effects, including putting you at increased risk for a range of psychiatric conditions.  Learn more about your sleep needs here.

2)   Drink mostly water and lots of it.  Stay hydrated.  Your body uses water for everything and needs at least 8 glasses a day to run effectively.  Sugary, caffeinated drinks do not count toward hydration (my delicious afternoon coffee notwithstanding) and often serve to dehydrate you.

3)   Eat in a way that nourishes your body.  Eat frequently – small meals with protein, fresh fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates.  Eat what’s in season.

4)   When you begin to feel overwhelmed in whatever domain in your life, stop and reprioritize.  Figure out only what absolutely needs to be done.  Then give yourself even more latitude with that short list.

5)   If you are experiencing physical symptoms---headaches, stomachaches, short of breath, ruminating instead of sleeping---take immediate action.  Take a day off, if you can.  Consider yourself in a state of emergency and respond proportionally.

6)   Reach out to others.  Instead of caving inward, turn to those around you and ask for help.  Particularly if you are person who is stoic or simply presents well under duress, you would be surprised to learn how few people close to you are aware of your struggle.  This is partly true because each of us is so immersed in our own.

7)   Talk to a professional.  You and I and a million people like us can help de-stigmatize therapy.  We can say out loud that we are vulnerable and benefit from added support.  If you had heart disease, you would go straight to the cardiologist.  If you are struggling with your emotional or mental health, why wouldn’t you go see a therapist?

I am going to get through this weekend’s big deliverables and then take some time for self-care and family travel.   Just knowing I am going to do this with intention is already helping.  I am also going to see my therapist when I get back, because why wouldn’t I?  What could possibly be more important?

From Higher Learning to Simply Earning

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I've been teaching upper elementary school for over a decade.  I usually love teaching, although I have gone through some tough situations that have shifted my view from teaching as a calling, to teaching as a job. My question is: my enthusiasm for teaching upper grades is waning, and I'm wondering if a grade change is what I need to bring back my passion for teaching, or is it just gone? What do you think?


On The Fence


Dear On the Fence,

You’ve hit on a central question to many people in the workforce today: “Does my job need to be my calling?  If not, then how do I get through it?  If so, how the hell do I get out of this job?”

Let’s set that huge question aside for a minute and just talk about your circumstances.  It sounds like, even though you no longer feel jazzed about teaching, you are currently looking for ways to bring the magic back.  You’ve been burned by some bad experiences, and are wanting to turn things around before you get too jaded.

This is completely possible.  It will require a good amount of change, but if you can be open to the changes, it could be beautiful.  You can still be a teacher and not do exactly what you are doing now.  I encourage you to consider ALL the options: a grade change, a school change, an entire genre change---you are a teacher, but do you need to teach in schools?  What do you love to teach, and is there a market of people who would be interested in learning that from you?

Take your career to couple’s therapy.  Sit down with a pad of paper and a pen (not a computer---the brain works differently long hand), set your watch for a 50 minute session, and write, stream-of-consciousness, a conversation between your Teacher Self and your On The Fence Self.  Go ahead, ask TS all your hardest questions, answer “Yeah, but what about the time. . .”, and hash it all out.  Notice what voice Teacher Self takes on.  Is it a tone you recognize from another part of your life?  Are there action steps you can take to salvage the relationship?  Can you seek out training, a teacher support group, or go to some of the galvanizing events groups like Yes World provide to support people doing good in the world?

Let’s say, at the end of all this soul searching, you and Teacher Self decide to break up.  You want to discover your true/new calling.  You won’t be alone.  More and more people are spending their nights and weekends working on the things they are passionate about, either to eventually make their living off of those things, or just because it feeds their everyday experience that much more.

You can’t stay on the fence forever.  At some point, you’ll have to jump one way or another, and my advice to you is to do so with both feet, whatever direction you choose.  You might find yourself dismantling the fence, slat by slat, despite the splinters incurred, in order to find a new, less polarizing way to live.



Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here

Marriage 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?

Kids Say the Darndest Things

Asking For It with Sibyl

Hi Sibyl, I was at brunch the other morning with some friends and my husband and our 4-year old daughter. When we got up to leave the restaurant, there was a woman seated at a table with her friends who had no hair, eyebrows, or eyelashes. My daughter proceeded to laugh (I don't think in a mocking way---just surprised), and yell "Look, Mom! She's not real! She's not real!"

My solution was to hurriedly pick her up and carry her out of the restaurant (as she was making a beeline towards this woman's table--perhaps a better verb than "pick her up" would be "tackle her"), explaining that the woman was real and that she just looks different and pointing and laughing like that can be really hurtful. I was also mortified, and didn't know whether to address the woman and apologize or just pretend like my daughter was talking about something else or to just abandon her at the restaurant and pretend like she wasn't mine.

I know I could have handled it better, but I don't know how. What's your advice for these types of situations that are definitely teaching moments, but where the teaching happens at the potential embarrassment of someone else?


Abashed Mommy

Dear Abashed Mommy,

First of all, I understand your reaction and love that you still want to do even better.  Let’s break down why you were so mortified.  The honesty of children can be adorable, but not when it is public, culturally inappropriate, and has an implied power imbalance, like the situation you wrote in about.  But you know what?  It’s not just kids that say seemingly-ignorant things to perfect strangers—adults do this all the time, too, so it is great that you are the kind of person trying to navigate such situations with consciousness.

My family is multicultural, and not a week goes by that some nice, well-meaning person, usually from the race that holds the most power and privilege in our society, says some stupid racist bullshit to one of us.  They are not racists, but, speaking from their own ignorance, social awkwardness, and unconscious internalized racism, my husband is jokingly called a token minority, I am assumed to be the nanny, and our child is considered "exotic" for having brown skin and a big blonde afro.

It is exhausting to hold all these projections, and though I usually find a way to forgive the perpetrator of these (and many more) awkward statements, I really wish someone would, in the moment, acknowledge that they said something messed up and that they still have some work to do on themselves.  But then I think, how could they, if it has never been modeled for them?  They are like little children who have never been taught to handle faux pas in a graceful way.

I think we can change this, starting with our own children.  In the situation you wrote in about, you and your daughter, who assumedly have all your hair, are in a position of privilege in regards to the woman with alopecia.  You have the expected, preferred amount of hair on your body, she does not, and it's not because of a fashion statement.

Therefore, it could have been a powerful statement to your daughter, and to the woman without hair, if you had been able to manage your own shame in the moment and, in front of everyone, say to your girl, "Honey, I know you are surprised to see someone that looks differently from you.  You didn't mean anything by it, but that woman is a person, just like you, and calling her ‘not real’ could have hurt her feelings.  Now that I know that you have never seen a person like her before, I’ll teach you all about it when we get home.”

Then you take your cues from the other woman.  Is she pointedly ignoring this conversation?  Then just smile apologetically at her and leave, as it’s clear she doesn’t want to interact.  However, if she is paying attention to what you’re saying to your daughter, address her, “I’m sorry if we surprised you in the middle of your brunch.  My daughter is still learning about people who look differently from her, and I’m doing my best to teach her.  Enjoy your meal!”  Then go on your way to answer the myriad questions your daughter is bound to have outside the woman’s earshot.

I know that this approach seems like it will be awkward.  However, it’s already awkward, for all of you, so you may as well name that, and approach it head-on.  Through doing this, you’ll be showing your daughter that mistakes happen, and it’s best to stay calm about them but admit them, apologizing but then moving on.  She can then use this experience whenever she makes a well-meaning but still offensive social faux pas, in any arena.

Which is going to happen.  There is no way to avoid, sometimes, putting our foot in our mouths, in ways that offend due to differences in ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, politics, age, size, or health.  That is part of being human in a diverse society.  However, if we can start recognizing power and privilege in even the most innocuous environments—like Sunday brunch—and doing so publicly, perhaps our kids will grow up in a more self-aware society, seeking to make changes that start within.



Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here

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.