Sung and unsung

Mrs. Ericson used to stand solid as a rock between the rows of high school desks and compel us through the sheer force of her love of literature to love it too. I never read willingly before she was my teacher, and I never stopped devouring books after.

She popped into my head the other day, as random memories do, though accompanied by an unusually strong feeling of appreciation and love. It took me by surprise.

What followed was a meandering of memories—the people, famous and unknown, for whom I hold the deepest appreciation. In this season of thanksgiving, it seems fitting to call a few of them out.

Thank you Joseph Campbell, who with Bill Moyers shined a brilliant light on myth and the hero’s journey. I think their messages are more relevant than ever as men struggle with the purpose of violence. Though Joseph Campbell did not speak of the heroine’s journey and was decidedly a man of his time in his use of gender pronouns, I remember feeling remarkable resonance with his ideas—compelled to listen as though he were speaking directly to me.

Thank you Thich Nhat Hanh and Jack Kornfield for putting me solidly on the road to exploring what mindfulness, as the Buddha taught it, has to do with violence and the end of violence.

Thank you Norma Wong and Ellen Pence for your deep and wide understanding of domestic violence. Today I am especially aware that what the two of you have in common is, yes, brilliant minds, but also an enduring curiosity and loving engagement that helps all of us think more critically and act more courageously.

And finally thank you Mary Oliver and Rumi for poetry. A long time ago, I was driving down the road listening to a poet reading his work. It was a beautiful autumn-roadday and I was transported by the magic of the words, even as I became vaguely aware of a funny burning smell. I’d like to tell you that self-preservation trumped the ethereal moment, but it didn’t. I ended up with an expensive tow. But that experience was a reminder about the power of beauty, art, and words; as important to our humanity as food and shelter.

So hurray for the teachers, the authors, and the poets—for the bloggers and the readers. May you find joy in remembering your people. Gratitude abounds.

Yay for feminist teens!

I spend my life working on women’s rights, so when I heard my daughters talking about the Feminist Union club at their high school I couldn’t wait to hear more!  What on earth was this? Their answers filled me with joy! Sixty-six people showed up (about 1/3 young men)—the room was overflowing into the hallway.TIWAFLL-Shirt

The first meeting was action-packed. They all answered the question: “What is the first word you think of when you hear the word feminism or feminist?” My girls said “It was actually kind of fun,” and a chorus of “Ooooh, that is hella deep” spontaneously erupted over and over again. Then they watched 50 reasons why I am a Feminist and shared their own similar experiences.

Future topics were suggested ranging from what feminism looks like in other societies to misconceptions about feminism and domestic violence. Ground rules were covered and they all agreed: you don’t have to identify as a feminist now; maybe you will eventually, but it’s okay if you don’t.

And they even made some real change. After one of their teachers overheard them discussing gender neutral language: “Try not to say guys for everyone. Try saying beings, peeps, y’all, people, beans instead,” he changed his usual “See ya later guys” to “See ya everyone” as his class ended.

I am so proud of the young people who have organized the group and are coming together. So much happened in 30 minutes. Why can’t I get this much done in a workday? Our community is in good hands with this rising group of thoughtful leaders!

Frozen in time

Thanksgiving weekend I found myself in a long line at the movie theater, waiting to see the newest Disney princess flick, Frozen. So much of the movie buzz was about whether boys would watch a “princess movie.” Conventional marketing wisdom has been that girls will watch movies about boys, but boys won’t watch movies about girls. I saw it with a ready-made focus group—five boys ranging from preschool to pre-teen. Their reviews were glowing (“awesome!” “hilarious!” “the snowman said ‘butt’!”) and had nothing to do with the gender of the main characters. But let’s get real: on day 7 of a 10-day school break, none of us were that picky.

So what is it about “girl movies” that boys supposedly find so unappealing?

My guess? The girl protagonists we are used to being served up are just boring. It’s not their fault—they have been imprisoned in the towering failure of imagination that is the “princess movie” formula. It isn’t really a fair comparison. Boy characters (be they humans, cars, monsters, whatever) have their own story arc complete with character motivation, challenges to overcome, and quests to fulfill. Even in title roles, girls are more often objects than subjects, serving as the motivation, prop, or reward for someone else’s heroic deeds.

The question isn’t why don’t boys relate to these movies, but how can anyone?

It is amazing to me we are still having this conversation. That it is actual news when a girl character is a person instead of a prop. Girls as objects; boys as subjects. Snooze.

Another person who can’t believe we’re still talking about this is the namesake of the Bechdel Test, a set of three criteria for movies that have women characters who are more than mere objects. It first appeared in Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. To pass the test, a movie must (1) have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other about (3) something besides a man. In case it isn’t obvious, this a low bar. It doesn’t make a movie feminist, or worth $8 at the matinee. It just means the women in it are people.

Although being famous for the rule doesn’t do Alison’s work justice, it is fitting. What made Dykes to Watch Out For revolutionary and revelatory in the 1980s is that its cast of characters are lesbians who are fully formed human beings. The relevance of the “test” shows just how little has changed. After a recent round of media attention, Alison pointed out that her critique is at least as old as Virginia Woolf. Frozen’s head animator pointed to the technical challenge of creating female characters who are expressive and individual, yet faithful to the “pretty” princess mold.

But Frozen promised to be different. So I watched the movie in actual suspense: Would the princess (once again) be rescued by the heroic prince? Or does she get to be the hero in her own story? Is happily ever after defined as romance and marriage? Or is there another story about happiness, friendship, and love? If two women share the same space, does one have to be evil?

Spoiler alert: The girls are people. Two sisters are the main characters; the boys are sidekicks. A major plot twist turns on the idea that fairy tale romance is a scam. The act of true love doesn’t climax in a shimmery wedding scene. And the snowman says “butt.”

Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)

Que tienen en común Gwyneth Paltrow y Jennifer Lopez? (What do Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez have in common?)

Lopez photo public domain; Paltrow photo by Andrea Raffin
Lopez photo public domain; Paltrow photo by Andrea Raffin

Tal vez estás pensando dinero, fama, o quizás que las dos fueron novias de Ben Affleck. Todas estas respuestas son correctas, pero aún tienen algo más. Durante el pasado mes de Abril Gwyneth Paltrow fue la más buscada en todas la páginas web debido a lucir un vestido súper transparente. Por esta misma razón Jennifer López fue la más buscada en el 2000. Era prácticamente imposible navegar el intranet sin ver todo el comentario y furor acerca del vestido transparente de Paltrow. ¿A este punto tal vez te estas preguntando, porqué debiera de importarme esto a mí? ¡Esa fue exactamente mi primera reacción! Yo me encontré molesta con toda la atención que los medios de comunicación le estaban prestando a la estrella de Hollywood y sus piernas largas, para más tarde darme cuenta cuál era la razón por la me encontraba tan molesta Todo el comentario de la media era acerca de que tan perfecta era “ Paltrow. ” Perfecta de acuerdo a los estándares de bellezas impuestos por los medios de comunicación. Inclusive Paltrow hizo broma de su situación contando que para poder lucir el vestido transparente su asistente tuvo que salir a las apuradas a conseguir una afeitadora. También Paltrow comento que se sintió avergonzada por no haberse afeitado el día anterior (no solamente se refirió a sus piernas).

Habiendo sufrido horas de dolor por vestir unos tacones altos en mi boda y solamente porque lucia bien con mi vestido, me puedo identificar con  el deseo  de satisfacer las expectativas. ¡Mejor dicho… las expectativas de presentarnos  convencionalmente femeninas! Algunos pueden decir que ésta manera de conformarse a estos estándares de belleza son opcionales para las mujeres en el 2013. ¿Pero es esto verdad? Las bromas acerca de las mujeres que no se afeitan las piernas o las axilas continúan siendo muy comunes. ¿No te preguntas que tan larga y que tan profunda es la lista de expectativas que nos acompaña por el hecho de ser mujer? Cosas que van desde afeitarse las piernas hasta dejar que tu pareja tome control de la relación. Yo trato de transformar mi relación con esa lista de expectativas cada vez que algo interfiere con mi capacidad de ser un ser humano completo. ¿Cuál es la expectativa de roles de género que afecta tu vida que te gustaría cambiar empanzando hoy?

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You may be thinking money, fame, or even Ben Affleck as an ex. These are all true, but there is more. Last April Gwyneth Paltrow made the top of every search engine with her see-through dress, just like Jennifer Lopez did back in 2000. It was practically impossible to go online without seeing the uproar about Paltrow’s dress. You may be asking, “Why should I care?” That was my exact reaction! I was really annoyed by all the media attention to the Hollywood star and her long legs. Then I realized why I was so annoyed: all the commentary was on how ‘perfect’ she was, according to conventional standards of beauty imposed by the media. In fact, Paltrow made a joke about her assistant running to get a razor to eliminate the unwanted body hair and how she felt ashamed for not having shaved the day before (hint: she was not just referring to her legs).

Having experienced hours of pain myself standing in tall heels during my wedding just because it looked good, I can totally relate to feeling like you have to live up to certain expectations. Specifically, a conventional feminine look! One can argue that this is optional for women in 2013, but is it really? Jokes about women who don’t shave their underarms or legs are still common. Doesn’t it make you wonder how long and ingrained the list of expectations is that we carry through our lives as women? Things that range from shaving your legs to letting your partner take control of the relationship. In my life, I try to challenge those expectations whenever they interfere with my ability to be a complete human being. What is one gender expectation that you want to challenge starting today?

Today is my birthday

Day one of my 60th swing around the sun. I’m pretty excited about it.

So I hope you will forgive me as I indulge in a brief feminist retrospective of my first six decades. I was thinking about it on my way to work today, specifically about:

SPORTS. Huge progress.

I missed Title IX by only a smidge. This is a great sadness to me. People often mistake me for a coordinated person (and a vegetarian). Sadly, I am neither, but I often think that I would have benefitted enormously from playing full court basketball, hanging in the outfield, diving headfirst, slaloming a steep course, running fast. I live vicariously through my friends’ daughters who joyfully play, experiencing the rough and tumble, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. This is no idle nostalgia or longing. Girls today are healthier, safer, and more self-possessed because they play sports. And it was not an accident. It was not an idea whose time had come. Women fought for and won the right to play.

JOBS. Pretty good progress.

Della Street, secretary, Perry Mason - Jessie Brewer, nurse to Dr. Hardy, General Hospital – Victoria Winters, vampire victim to Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows
Della Street, secretary, Perry Mason – Jessie Brewer, nurse to Dr. Hardy, General Hospital – Victoria Winters, vampire victim to Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows

In the 1960s, my dad encouraged me to be an oceanographer. I thought he was nuts. I knew my only real options were secretary, nurse, or vampire victim. An enduring love of office supply stores is all that remains of this particular personal legacy, because the women’s movement flung hundreds of doors wide open to us. It’s not all roses. We know that, but oh, what a difference half a century makes.

RAPE. Standing still.

I am sure people are going to disagree with me here, because we have so many laws on the books now about rape. Right? But functionally? How much have things really changed? When I was a young teen, my dad’s lone foray into sex ed was an off-hand warning—something like “once a man gets started, he can’t stop.” Start? Stop? What? I didn’t have the foggiest idea what he was talking about. But he was very much speaking from fear for his daughter, and the social norms of his day. These norms have not changed in significant enough ways. There may be more talk, but there is also a wider variety of fail. That we have made so little progress in ending rape is the biggest disappointment of my feminist career.

And finally PINK AND BLUE. Going backwards.

Come on now. This is ridiculous. This whole pink and blue genderfication thing is just plain wrong-headed. Two good books make this point. Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America and Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It. As gender becomes more nuanced, more complex, we get nervous and try to get all binary again. This is not good for girls and women. It’s not good for boys and men. It’s not good for intersex and trans people. It does not help us express our humanity as individuals and it’s not good for our relationships.

Perhaps if I live to be 70, or even 80, I’ll be able to shop for baby presents in all colors of the rainbow. Maybe all genders will give and get consent. Maybe there will be a Madame President. Maybe I’ll get my knees replaced and run a marathon (just kidding).

News you can relate to

Some news stories that caught our eye this week:

  • An incredible high school senior local to us here in the Seattle area shares her personal story to get teens talking about domestic violence.

The great sports bro debate of 2012

Like many kids, my son likes to dress up. He has a special fondness for very tight-fitting clothes. For example, he yearns for a wrestling singlet. I think his fashion sense is quirky, imaginative, and overflowing with childish joy—as it should be.

So I was not the least bit worried when my son developed a fascination with my sports bra and decided to fashion one for himself out of a cut up pair of boxer briefs. In fact, I was quite in awe of his intuitive skill at working the fabric.

He was so darn happy about his new “sports bro,” that I didn’t even bat an eye the next morning when he chose to wear it under his t-shirt. We did have a short chat on the way to school about the fact that some of the kids might find it unusual, and did he have a plan for what he would say if anyone asked him about it? He confidently and enthusiastically replied, “I’ll just tell ‘em it’s my awesome sports bro!”

Forward to that night, when I found out my husband was very worried and strongly believed that our son should not wear it to school. He wasn’t constitutionally opposed to boys wearing anything that resembled “girl” clothing. He wasn’t second-guessing what this meant for our son’s gender identity or sexual orientation. But he was terrified that other kids—and especially their parents—would make those assumptions about our son, and that our son would face terrible teasing and bullying.

I was not bullied as a kid. I definitely wasn’t part of the popular crowd—anyone who knows me now will not be surprised to learn that I was a solid member of the dork crew—but I wasn’t teased or bullied. My son has such a solid self-assurance that I am usually more worried about making sure he is paying attention to other people’s feelings. So it never occurred to me to fear for him and the sports bro.

But my husband WAS bullied and teased growing up—terribly so—and those memories have stayed with him. He knows intimately how life-altering it can be to get teased for how you look or dress.

We did not arrive at agreement about how to handle this. I felt very strongly that we need to live in a world where our son can wear a sports bro and not have it be a big deal. My husband felt just as strongly that we do not yet live in that kind of world, and he was very unwilling to put our young son forward as the trailblazer. We are both coming at it from a place of love. And I think we’re both right.

At the end of the day, the only thing I could really think was, “Sexism and homophobia ruins everything!!”

And that is also true. Sexism and homophobia ruins everything.

Battle vs. Love

Want to see, at a glance, a summary of the messages boys and girls get every day about our expectations for them? Crystal Smith at The Achilles Effect analyzed the words used in television ads marketing toys to boys vs. the words used to market toys to girls. It won’t take more than one look to figure out which is which.

Battle vs. love. Competition and violence for boys vs. cooperation for girls. Competence for boys vs. style for girls.

Marketers are not just selling toys; they are selling a world where boys are strong and forceful, and girlhood is much more about how you look than what you do. Whether toy manufacturers create these gendered expectations or simply reflect the values of the broader culture, the messages are powerful. The average kid watches hundreds of television ads every week, from toddlerhood through teen years.

So, how many dating violence prevention campaigns do you think we have to run to balance this out? How many posters in high schools about equality in relationships will it take? Is there any way we can prevent domestic violence when this is the landscape we’re working with?