Tag Archives: gender policing

Feminist Friday: Emma Watson, HeForShe and the UN

It’s really, really nice when women my age publicly refer to themselves as feminists.

I don’t know about the other millennials out there, but my peer group seems to be plagued with apathy posing as nonconformity. People my age refuse to call themselves liberal or conservative; Democrat or Republican; political or non-political. I guess they are under the impression that not taking sides is noble and enlightened, instead of uninformed and cowardly. I think my generation is either afraid of offending somebody or is simply convinced that speaking up really doesn’t matter. I, for one, know that my so-called feminist rants and liberal agenda can be off-putting. Occasionally, I do try to reign it in. But most of the time I just go for it. As Emma Watson recently asked, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

As you can see from the preceding clip, Emma Watson of Wingardium Leviosa fame addressed the United Nations earlier this week. She was speaking on behalf of a new campaign that is striving for gender equality: HeForShe. There is so much I love about her speech. The way her voice quivers and wavers, so you know she is nervous and actually gives a shit. Her personal examples of the way gender has repeatedly hindered her and her friends. Her self-deprecating manner as she implores her audience to take her seriously, even if she is only the “Harry Potter girl.” But–more than anything else–I appreciate how she argues that women and men will never really be equal if they do not work together.

I include myself when I say that many feminists and gender activists often ignore or forget men. In my case, it is so easy to only hear the Todd Akins, Mitt Romneys and Rush Limbaughs of the world, that writing off all male input seems to be the best way to preserve my sanity. But that is not right. Because, to paraphrase Gloria Steinem, gender is a prison for women and men. Just like it is unfair to govern a woman’s body and to pay her only 75% of what she should be earning, it is unfair for men to be embarrassed for being their children’s primary caregivers or for wearing something “feminine.” Especially if it is this guy. HeForShe is laudable because it recognizes both sexes as valuable assets for feminism.

And, even though it should not have to be said, Watson and her cause make plain that feminism is NOT anti-men. Giving women power is not the same as stripping men of theirs. I want to say thank you to Emma Watson for being the rare young person to take a stand.  And I’m a little bit in love with her for being the rare young woman who knows what feminism means and is more than happy to give it her support.

(Images #1 and #2 courtesy of facebook.com) 

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The children’s hour

“Instead of making me docile, Lucinda’s curse made a rebel of me. Or perhaps I was that way naturally.”

–from Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

There are several reasons that I am fond of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted. First, it was one of the first books I read in the wake of my father’s death. Reading was a major way I was able to cope with the loss. The protagonist, Ella, was especially comforting because she knew how it felt to lose a parent; the catalyst of her story is the death of her mother. Disappearing from reality and delving into a good story helped me focus on something other than my grief.

Second, the story is a retelling of the classic Cinderella fairy tale. I don’t know if this type of narrative is a genre, per se, but I adore literary retellings. The process of taking characters and plot lines we’ve known our entire lives, turning them on their head and making them modern and relatable is brilliant. Ella’s curse of obedience is a hell of a lot more intriguing than the damsel in distress-and-rags act that the traditional Cinderella has going on.

Finally, I love this story and find it enjoyable even as an adult because it is an example of the hidden depths children’s literature provides. Yes, Ella’s adventures are an entertaining story for a little girl in the midst of bereavement. But they are also critiques of gender roles, patriarchy and personal autonomy. Not exactly child’s play, is it?

Unlike the Disney version of the fairy tale, Ella is not compliant or accepting of her misfortune. And she damn sure is not sweet in the face of adversity. Instead, baby Ella receives the “gift “of obedience from the fairy Lucinda. As anyone with half a brain would realize, this is not gift at all; it is a terrible curse. Ella has to do as she is told, no matter how humiliating, unethical, silly or just plain evil the command. She has no real free will, choice or personal autonomy. Even her thoughts can be controlled. If someone tells her to be happy, her mood automatically brightens.

Tellingly, Levine often depicts Ella’s forced obedience and actions in terms of gendered behavior and social institutions. For example, after her mother’s funeral, Ella’s father decides that she will attend finishing school. Thanks to the curse, Ella excels in etiquette, because she is literally educated against her will. As Ella recounts, “My progress in all my subjects astounded the mistresses. In my first month I did little right. In my second I did little wrong. And gradually, it all became natural: light steps, small stitches, quiet voice, ramrod-straight back, deep curtsies without creaking knees, no yawns, soup tilted away from me, and no slurping.” 

Yes, on the surface this is a tale about hardship, perseverance and magic. However, if you compare Ella’s newfound skills with the contents of a Women’s Studies textbook, you will discover the real world themes throughout the narrative.  Ella is learning to be a lady, learning how to perform her femininity. In her essay “The Social Construction of Gender,” Judith Lorber argues that gender is learned and “creates the social differences that define ‘woman’ and ‘man’.”  She further describes how “gendered norms and expectations are enforced through informal sanctions of gender-inappropriate behavior by peers and by formal punishment or threat of punishment by those in authority…” 

In this case, Ella’s punishment for deviating from the mistresses’ wishes would be nausea, migraines, dizziness and the inability to breathe. She is physically obligated to obey every command; if she doesn’t, the curse provides consequences. Acting like a socially acceptable “lady” is not something that comes to her naturally; it is something that she is forced to learn. If her story lacked a curse and took place in our world instead of the land of Frell, then Ella would probably shunned, mocked or verbally abused for rejecting the standard gender norms.

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Just as the curse of obedience trains Ella to be someone she is not (and has no wish to be), it also takes away the little power she has under the patriarchal thumb of her father. When Sir Peter makes a bad investment and is forced to auction off all of his belongings, he sees his most valuable asset in his daughter. He tells Ella, “I shall have to sell you, in a manner of speaking. You must marry so that we can be rich again.” Even if this story is meant for children and takes place in a fantasy land, this scenario is completely reality-based. Throughout history–and even in contemporary times–daughters have, in effect, been traded for cash. This is disturbing enough in and of itself, but Sir Peter’s plan is even more sinister because Ella cannot resist. Of course, all the daughters that have been sold have little choice in the matter. If they run away, they could face a life of poverty, social ostracism and violence. Unfortunately, Ella does not even have that dismal option. The curse gives the patriarchy even more influence over her life.

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This is all a really in-depth way of saying that children’s books are not without their own metaphors, messages, social commentary and complexity. Ella Enchanted is a delightful spin on a fairy tale that everyone in the Western world knows by heart. It’s funny, interesting and upbeat. But Gail Carson Levine’s writing style provides so much more than a story about magic, fairies and the power of love. Her prose is also an astute analysis and indictment of the way we train girls to act a certain way and how the institution of marriage still has the potential to be an economical, patriarchal ritual cloaked in the charade of romantic love. After reading between the lines of this particular interpretation of the classic fairy tale, one thing is definitely clear: It puts Disney and that Anne Hathaway piece of crap to shame.

(Image #1 courtesy of goodreads.com; #2 courtesy of gailcarsonlevine.com ; #3 courtesy of paperdollromance.blogspot.com; #4 courtesy of jaime-morrow.com)

This is Janis. She’s almost too cool to function.

“Boys fuck things up. Girls are fucked up.”

–Louis C.K. 

Get in, losers! We’re going to discuss Mean Girls!

In honor of this genius movie’s upcoming 10th anniversary, I am going to analyze an Outside Girl that is so obvious that she is actually easy to overlook: Janis Ian. This character was created by the amazing Tina Fey and portrayed by the equally inimitable Lizzy Caplan. I’ve watched Mean Girls at least once a year since I saw it on its opening weekend (at the probably-too-young age of 12), and I cannot believe that Janis was not my favorite character from the beginning. Because she is definitely the smartest, funniest and most powerful character in a movie with a bunch of strong, funny, intelligent women. Hell, it was even written by one. I mean, just consider the line “You smell like a baby prostitute.” It’s brutally honest, unnecessarily graphic and is aimed to deflate someone’s super-sized ego. What’s not to love?

If you are not (and never have been) a teenage girl, let me clue you in on something that should not be a secret: it sucks. Speaking your mind marks you as crazy, bitchy or, my personal favorite, “someone who can’t take a joke.” It doesn’t matter how smart, athletic, creative, nice or otherwise gifted you are; if you are not pretty by conventional standards, your romantic stock automatically plummets, along with your self-esteem. Oh, and your “best friends forever” often turn out to be your worst enemies. With all of this information, it is a mystery to me why there are always reporters with extensive research stories with the same, groundbreaking conclusion: aggression is not an exclusively male trait.

Although Mean Girls ends with a funny and disturbing physical fight/riot among all the female junior class members, most of the movie portrays what psychologists and sociologists call “relational aggression.” This is how you work out your issues in ways that slowly destroy your friendships instead of openly expressing your emotions. The more acceptable definition, according to Dawn H. Currie and Deirdre M. Kelly in Girlhood: Redefining the Limits, is “related to indirect aggression that includes covert behaviour…that allows the perpetrator to avoid confronting her target, and to social aggression as behaviour that intends to damage self-esteem or social status within a group…” Instead of just coming out and saying what they want, girls often resort to underhanded methods to work out their social problems. Our culture’s version of femininity “emphasizes the importance of relationships in women’s lives,” so actually having it out with a friend seems much less appealing than bitching about her behind her back and solving virtually nothing. And the sick thing is that we know we are being passive aggressive, but it physically feels like we have no other option.

The reason I consider Janis an Outside Girl is not just because she understands that clique culture and Girl World both are really, really messed up.  Instead, I like her because she is the only teen girl in this movie that strays from relational aggression without being instructed to do so. Ms. Norbury leads a workshop to try and build up the high school girls’ self-esteem and strengthen their communication skills and mutual trust. Unsurprisingly, Janis steals the show. (“It’s probably because I’ve got a big, lesbian ca-rush on you! Suck on that!”) Her honesty and willingness to verbally express her grievances separate her from the crowd in a healthy way. Often, being an Outside Girl means being lonely and feeling misunderstood. In Janis’ case, her outsider status could save her thousands of dollars in therapy bills. Because there is no way Regina, Gretchen or Cady will grow up to be well-adjusted. Karen won’t grow up to be well-adjusted either, but she is too stupid to notice. So I’m gonna call that one a draw.

I also like the character of Janis (and I could go on about this forever) because of her relationship to the LGBTQ community. Janis’ best friend and confidant is Damian, who is openly and proudly gay. Janis is not a lesbian, but her peers mock her as butchy because of the way she dresses, her friendship with Damian and because she takes female friendship very seriously. This is another super fun aspect of being a teenage girl. If you are independent , don’t smile constantly, publicly identify yourself as a feminist or have a close female confidant then, duh, you’re gay! In the eighth grade, a hurt Janis confronted Regina about her friend’s neglect and how she felt like she came in second to Regina’s new boyfriend. And Regina, being a relational aggressive, told Janis that she could not come to her pool party because girls would be there. In their swimsuits. It would have been pandemonium, obviously.

In any case, Janis is on the outside because of her clear, assertive communication skills, her willingness to align herself with other outcasts, and because she deviates from accepted gender norms and cannot prove she is not a lesbian. But I don’t think it matters too much to her. She realizes that the Plastics are psychotic Barbies. Like I said before, she is the best character in this amazing movie. And she is the one who really wins in the end:

Do you have any favorite Janis moments? Which Mean Girls line do you use on a daily basis? It would be so fetch if you left your opinions in the comments!

(Image #1 courtesy of scriptsit.tumblr.com; #2 courtesy of rottentomatoes.com; #3 courtesy of wemediacritics.blogspot.com; #4 courtesy of rottentomatoes.com)

What’s in a name? Quite a lot.

“Imagine being born with a name like Miles Davis. You’ve already got it made.”

–from Trumpet by Jackie Kay

During my second year of college, I went to Ireland for spring break. I returned with a souvenir pin bearing my mother’s maiden name.  According to the back of this pin, her former surname is Gaelic for “troublesome” or “light-haired.” Coming from a family of sarcastic blondes, I was delighted to learn that little fun fact. Really, it shouldn’t matter to me one way or another. It isn’t my last name and I could just as easily be a pleasant (ha!) brunette. But our names–whether we acknowledge it or not–influence our identities and even our dispositions. In short, our names are more than something listed on our birth certificates.

Alike of the film Pariah (which you need to see) knows something about the complexity of identity. She is a seventeen-year-old poet and Brooklynite who also happens to be a lesbian. Her sexuality is never really the driving conflict of the film. Alike knows who she is and accepts it. The problem is that her parents refuse to see or support her sexuality. Her constant shift from the person she wants to be (complete with a girlfriend and masculine clothing) to the person her parents expect her to be (complete with a pink, clinging shirt) is the movie’s main source of tension.  Like so many other girls on this blog, Alike is caught between her parents’ ideologies and her own evolution.

I could go on and on about how Alike’s constant clothing changes symbolize her struggle, but I would probably bore you. Anyways, everything you need to know about the protagonist’s journey can be found in her first name. It is pronounced ah-LEE-kay, but is also visually semantic. For all you English majors out there, the OED defines alike as “Of two or more things: like one another, similar, of identical form or character.” Alike’s gruff-but-loving father and her flinty, worried mother have certain standards. They want Alike to adhere to the strict gender code that other teen girls seemingly follow without issue. Arthur and Audrey  see that Alike is physically uncomfortable in frilly clothes. They sense that her friendship with another girl from their church congregation is more than platonic. But they simply cannot handle it. Despite alike‘s coded meaning for conformity, their individual daughter will never act exactly as they planned.

For she is Alike with a better, bolder pronunciation. She deals with heartbreak, isolation and insensitivity from her parents, but you can’t help but feel happy for Alike throughout the movie. Even though she has to hide herself from her parents, Alike is decidedly living on her own terms. After an intense verbal fight between Alike, Arthur and Audrey, Alike decides to move out and attend a prestigious writing program on the other side of the country. Film critic Stephen Holden argues that “Alike does a better job than many young women of negotiating life…while protecting herself until it is time to break free.” That is true–to an extent. I am just as excited for Alike as Holden is, but her identity is not as simple as free/not free. Like her name, Alike’s role as an Outside Girl is up for multiple readings and interpretations.

Yes, Alike’s decision to break away from her family is agentic, independent and the best decision for her. But I have to mention that her otherness is not fully self-inflicted. Most of the other girls I have discussed on this blog are white and upper middle class. They have the freedom to buck tradition for awhile and can return to the status quo if they ever need to. However, Alike’s outsider status is threefold and the most complex: she is black, she is gay, and she needs to get away from her family’s constraints and gender policing. Yes, her family is middle class, but there is a distinct urgency to the way her parents behave. Arthur perceives Alike as “Daddy’s little girl,” but her burgeoning masculinity is a threat to his own. Audrey is so afraid of what other people will think that she sees Alike’s sexuality as a personal affront. How can she build a happy life for Alike when her daughter insists on wearing butch clothes and actively “turning into a man?”

I don’t say any of this to undermine Alike’s journey. The truth is that choosing to walk away from your social circle (with the full knowledge you can waltz right back) is another unfair privilege of being white or having money. Alike is a great character who decides to leave her community instead of waiting around to be pushed away. If I was in her position, I would do the same. But it is important to note that this isn’t just another case of getting bored and making a change in your life. This is a case of leaving everything you love behind and knowing full-well that it is for good. Director Dee Rees might have named the film after a social outcast, but I probably would label Alike “Brave as Hell.” Then again, her awesome name already says it all.

(Image #1 courtesy of en.wikipedia.org; #2 accessatlanta.com; #3 courtesy of usatoday.com)

The cat’s in the cradle and the (antique) silver spoon

“Not only were we inverts. We were inversions of one another. While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him…he was attempting to express something feminine through me.”

-Alison Bechdel in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

A few examples of the inverted nature between Alison and her father, Bruce:

As we have previously discussed, Outside Girls often reject the ideology of their class and peers. When I think about the women I’ve written about thus far–like Lindsay, Angela, Daria, and Jessica–I think about how they also write off their parents as clueless and hopelessly unaware of what it’s like. What is “it,” you ask? Everything. In. Life.

As much as I love all these characters and the texts they come from, it’s sad that  I, as the reader, never find out whether they ever end up giving their parents the benefit of the doubt. With Fun Home, I found out. Bechdel’s memoir tells the story of her childhood growing up in a funeral home, but it is from an adult’s vantage point. Years after her coming out and her father’s suicide, Bechdel looks back and attempts to make sense of her family. This hindsight gives her a deeper understanding of the volatile, closeted Bruce and her own coming of age.

Alison and Bruce are frequently at odds with one another in the text, but there is an underlying mutual understanding and affection. Bruce recognizes Alison’s sexuality will be a site of struggle in their small town world; he’s lived with this struggle all his life. In fact, I think he knows she will be an Outside Girl before she does, and his constant criticism and insults are his way of protecting both of them. As scholar Robin Lydenberg points out, “their common struggle over gender identity puts father and daughter alternately in conflict and in cahoots.” As cruel as he can be, Bruce considers gender policing the sole way to prevent his daughter from future pain, even as it repeats patterns he must have experienced from his own parents.

Unsurprisingly, this plan does not work. It further drives apart the father and daughter and results in even more familial isolation:

As the home gets less and less fun, the Bechdels become increasingly interested in their solitary artistic pursuits. Bruce’s love of antiquing, restoring furniture and decorating is his way of curbing his desires, while Alison’s drawing is her way of surviving until she is able to leave. Likewise, her mother’s music and brothers’ respective guitar and model airplanes are the only way they are able to find pleasure in the fun(eral) home. On top of this self-induced quarantine, Alison and her family are trapped in a house that her mother describes as “a tinderbox.” Alison herself sees it as something akin to the Addams Family‘s home with its “dark, lofty ceilings, peeling wallpaper, and menacing horsehair furnishings.”

Is it any wonder that Alison chooses to walk away?*

In college, Alison finds a way to embrace her sexuality, is passionate about learning, and manages to reject the repressed, desperate parts of her childhood. And her acceptance of who she is–as something different from her family and the rest of Beech Creek, Pa.–is when she finally sees her father for who he is.

Like so many solid relationships, Bruce and Alison find a way to connect through their mutual love of literature. In fact, Alison takes a suggestion from her father to read Colette‘s autobiography. He appears to recommend it because he wants his daughter to “learn about Paris in the twenties. That whole scene,” but I’m sure the book’s lesbian presence is no coincidence. At this point, I believe Bruce accepts that Alison has chosen to live the way she wants: out of the closet and in exploration of her own sexuality and identity. As Lydenberg opines, Bechdel “is able to cross boundaries her father never dared to transgress.” Bruce recognizes that Alison’s life will be quite different from his and I think this actually gives him joy. Bruce can’t protect her from the inevitable ignorance and intolerance she will face, but he can enjoy the fact that her life as a gay women coming out in the 1970’s will be easier than his life as a gay man who dared not express himself in the 40’s and 50’s.

After her father is hit by a bread truck, Alison and her girlfriend attend his funeral in Beech Creek. As the mourners try to comfort the bereaved family, Alison thinks what she cannot say: “I’d kill myself too if I had to live here.” This is the most memorable part of the story for me. Not only does Bechdel pinpoint the raw honesty that plagues a grieving family, she highlights why she is an Outside Girl. In Beech Creek, she would suffer and could end up just like her father. But she decided to leave all of that shame and repression behind and is the happier for it. I won’t say that Bruce Bechdel was a good father. I will say that Fun Home suggests that he was miserable in his life but was relieved his daughter wouldn’t be miserable in hers. As Alison explains in the narrative’s conclusion, her father “was there to catch me when I leapt.”

*Be advised: I am not saying that Alison chose her sexuality. That is something she was born with, explored, and embraced. Alison’s choice was to extricate herself from a life and community where her sexuality  and identity would not be tolerated.

(Image #1 courtesy of funhomememoir.blogspot.com; #2 courtesy of tcj.com; #3 courtesy of dykestowatchoutfor.com; #4 courtesy of cognitivedissident.org)