Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dunham's Nudity is About More Than Body Image

Flavorwire’s Michelle Dean explained Dunham's nakedness as “pretty clearly weaponized.” Jill Filipovic elaborated, “It's a shot fired right through the neural pathways formed over years of understanding "naked thin women" to mean both "sexy" and "sex."  Dunham is clearly addressing this issue.  But, I’d go one step further.  Her nudity is notable because she is a white woman and it seems to me, that while her show is rightly criticized for it’s (accurate) lack of diversity, her nudity is nonetheless important, because it flies in the face of centuries worth of messages about white girls and the need to protect them. Whether her character’s two episode relationship with a black man is tokenism or not,  every time Dunham’s character takes off her clothes it’s a renunciation of not just of sexism, but of well-entrenched and dominant media narratives telling people that privileged white women are more worthy and superior to dark women, whose bodies have always been available for public consumption: for sale, rape, breeding, medical experimentation and more. Dominant images of black women continue to tell this story and feminists have described, for decades, the necessity of creating alternatives, what bell hooks calls “the construction of a liberatory, black female body politic.” Deliberately or not, Dunham’s nakedness goes hand in hand with that idea by refusing to play up to the idea of reserved, vulnerable, sexualized, white woman as backdrop. We know especially well that that is not always the caseWe are barely able to talk about how sexual objectification works to hurt women, marrying that with race, whether it’s Invisible Man, gonzo porn or Girls is just too much.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What Does it Mean that Most Children's Books Are Still About White Boys?

One day when my daughter was in third grade, she had to explain to a classmate what sexism was. Four kids -- two boys and two girls -- had been put in a reading group together, given a basket full of books and asked to talk about them and decide together which one they wanted to read and discuss.
As they went through their choices, the boy picked up a book whose cover showed an illustration of a woman in a hoop skirt. He quickly tossed it aside. My daughter suggested that it might be good, and asked if he'd already read it, because she would like to. He said no, it was a girl book and he wouldn't read it. Her response was pretty cut and dry: "That's a sexist thing to say," she explained. He was a friend of hers and an intelligent kid. He paused long enough for her to realize he wasn't sure what she meant.
"Do you know how many books with boys in them I read?" she said. "You should read girl books, too. Not reading them just because they're about girls is sexist."
Frankly, today, I'm pretty certain that what she, a 9-year old, told her classmate was more than most adults can muster.
Do you know what percentage of children's books feature boys? Twice as many as those that feature girl protagonists. In the most comprehensive study of children's literature during a period of 100 years, researchers from the University of Florida found that:

  • 57% of children's books published each year have male protagonists, versus 31% female.

  • As with television and film, books with animated characters are a particularly subtle and insidious way to marginalize based on sex, gender and race. In popular children's books featuring animated animals, 100% of them have male characters, but only 33% have female characters.

  • The average number of books featuring male characters in the title of the book is 36.5% versus 17.5% for female characters.

It's not just the quantity, but the quality as well. Female characters in books that are for "everyone" are often marginalized, stereotyped or one-dimensional. Especially in traditional favorites that are commonly highlighted in schools and libraries. For example, Peter Pan's Wendy is a stick-in-the-mud mother figure and Tiger Lily is a jealous exotic. Or, take Kanga, from Winnie the Pooh. There is nothing wrong with these books per se; they are wonderful stories, and they reflect a reality of their times, but continuing to give them preference -- out of habit, tradition, nostalgia -- in light of newer, more relevant and equitable stories is really not doing anyone any favors.
There are so many exceptionally good books with strong female characters, but not nearly enough, and boys are not encouraged to immerse themselves in them. How many people would never consider buying Anne of Green Gables or Island of the Blue Dolphins for their 10-year old boy, but don't pause before giving a daughter Treasure Island or Enders Game? Books featuring girls are, for the most part, understood to be books for girls. Which is interesting as well because, in addition to there not being enough, books featuring girls as protagonists are disproportionately among the most frequently banned children's books. In a recent Buzzfeed list of 15 commonly banned books for kids, almost half were about girls. Girls who do things apparently scare a lot of people.
Researchers of the study above concluded, "The gender inequalities we found may be particularly powerful because they are reinforced by patterns of male-dominated characters in many other aspects of children's media, including cartoons, G-rated films, video games and even coloring books."
This is true of racial and ethnic diversity as well. The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education has conducted a survey of children's and young adult books published each year since 1985. Of an estimated 5,000 books released in 2012, only 3.3% featured African-Americans; 2.1% featured Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders; 1.5% featured Latinos; and only 0.6% featured Native Americans. God forbid you have the audacity to be a girl of color and expect to see yourself as cherished by our culture.
The same statistics are reflected in television programming. In that medium, a 2012 study from the University of Indiana found that, with the exception of young, white boys, children's self-esteem drops the more they watch.
A girl's imagination and literary life would be a stark and barren place if she didn't learn early on to read books about boys, put herself in boys' shoes and enjoy them. As with other aspects of socially sanctioned behavior, children's ability to cross-gender empathize is a one-way street -- girls have to do it and boys learn not to. People are married to enduring ideas about "otherness" when it comes to masculinity and a big part of being a "real boy" is disdaining stories, books, movies, and games -- really just about anything in some families -- about girls.
What was that? "Feminists out to destroy boys blah blah blah blah..." That is nothing but an excuse for a crippling lack of imagination or understanding of the infinite malleability of human culture. Researcher Isabelle Cherney found that half of boys ages 5-13 picked "girl" and "boy" toys equally... unless they were being watched. They were especially concerned about what their fathers would think of them if they saw them. Over time, boys' interests in toys and media become more rigidly masculinized, whereas girls' stay relatively open-ended and flexible. Think of the implications of storytelling on that pattern and what it means for social skills development, adaptability, work-life issues and more.
Neither the studies above, nor frank discussion about their findings, demonizes young white boys, a common retort to pointing out, with blunt language, media inequities and their harmful effects. Boys aren't responsible for the perpetuation of media injustices or their effects. The problem is not boys, but cultural habits that disproportionately favor them.
Media that distorts reality in these ways, and creates imbalanced pictures and ideas, hurts everyone. As children grow up, girls' media marginalization becomes more acute andracialized. We seem incapable and unwilling to deeply consider the societal effects of dysfunctional, stereotype-plagued media. Without fail, when I talk or write about this and focus on girls, the first response I get is "What about the boy crisis?" It's remarkable. So, what about the boys who are over-represented in media as valued and worthy, albeit, too often, hyper-masculinized? I think that while benefits can accrue to them as a class, by imparting a sense of confidence and entitlement, the effects on individual boys can be awful.
Boys who grow up seeing themselves everywhere as powerful and central just by virtue of being boys, often white, are critically impaired in many ways. It's a rude shock to many when things don't turn out the way they were told they should. It seems reasonable to suggest media misrepresentations like these contribute, in boys, to a heightened inability to empathize with others, a greater propensity to peg ambition to intrinsic qualities instead of effort and a failure to understand why rules apply or why accountability is a thing. It should mean something to parents that the teenagers with the highest likelihood of sexually assaulting a peer and feel no responsibility for their actions are young white boys from higher-income families. The real boy crisis we should be talking about is entitlement and outdated notions of masculinity, both of which are persistently responsible for leaving boysconfused and unprepared for contemporary adulthood.
People are quick to provide anecdotal evidence that contradicts the findings in these studies on children's literature and other media, but there really is no getting around the fact that year after year, media corporations, overwhelmingly still led by white guys, have had no real vested interest in making connections between media justice and social justice. Besides, people get what they pay for.
I am not suggesting that writers, teachers and parents create and share these media while thoughtfully planning to perpetuate discriminatory ideas. No one sits down and says, "Hey, what a great way to teach sexist and racist norms to a class full of kids!" I'm just saying that, like so many other aspects of culture, male and white in children's books is considered standard and magically inclusive. Shifting our norms to prepare kids to live happily in a diverse, pluralistic society requires that we stop accepting defaults and seek out alternative media narratives. Seriously, go take a look at your kids media diet from this perspective.
This doesn't mean that parents and libraries create "boy" and "girl" book lists by the way, an approach that exacerbates rather than eliminates the problem of difference. Resources like "Great Books for Girls" are terrific, but they should be for everyone, without shame or revulsion. If you disagree, just change your son's name to "David Gilmore" and call it a day.
Racebending advocates for media equality across a broad spectrum of platforms and is a great resource. The CCBC publishes a helpful guide to multicultural lit for children. TheGeena Davis Institute on Gender and Media regularly shares information about media equality and First Book, a nonprofit that works to get books featuring diverse casts and cultures into the hands of children from low income families, recently launched its "Stories for All" program, which is worth wholesale emulation. Common Sense Media also has a K-9 parents and educator toolkit that helps children understand the media they are consuming.
If you are interested in what this all looks like when children grow up in a world where we haven't nipped it in the bud Women, Action and the MediaWomen and Hollywood, and Anita Saarkeesian's Feminist Frequency critiques of gaming and film are all good places to start.
We are a storytelling species, and symbolic representation and visibility are crucially important to the way we structure society. Exposing children to diversity in media encourages them to learn about people who are "different" and to understand why that difference isn't the foundation of hierarchy, but community. That's an issue that exceeds books for children, to be sure, but stories, especially books while we still have them, are a great way to start. In the meantime, over in Sweden, they're now rating movies based on a gender-bias test.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The MPAA’s backwards logic: Sex is dangerous, sexism is fine

Originally published in Salon 

Last week, Manhattan’s IFC Center ignored the Motion Picture Association of America’s NC-17 rating for Abdellatif Kechiche’s critically acclaimed film “Blue is the Warmest Color“ and allowed teenagers to see the film. The Parents Television Council is now objecting to the theatre’s decision.
The PTC wants the movie theatre to fulfill its entirely voluntary obligations to adhere to MPAA standards, which are supposed to reflect the opinions of “the majority of American parents.”  That’s a big job.  What if these opinions are discriminatory and perpetuate a sexist, racist, homophobic status quo? The MPAA is regularly ridiculed for the incoherence of their ratings, as well as a bias against independent films.  The documentary “Bully,” for instance, was released with an R rating for profanity. Its core audiences, young teens, could not see the film without an adult.  AMC theaters released the movie with no rating and allowed teens to see it unaccompanied by an adult.  PTC head Tim Winter warned at the time that this incident could set a precedent that would “derail the whole ratings system.”


Sounds like a plan to me. While I understand and sympathize with parents’ concerns about the sexualization of younger and younger girls in media, the PTC and MPAA seems to make little distinction between sexualization and objectification and expressions and depictions of healthy sexuality. The real problem in movies today isn’t sex, it’s sexism — often coupled with racist caricatures for even greater effect. Imagine if our movie ratings considered sexism and racism as content that children should not be viewing without parental input. Just a thought.
The MPAA’s NC-17 rating, specifically designed to “protect children,” reveals the association’s sexist and patriarchal view of what content is allowable and what is “objectionable.”  The MPAA fails completely to take into account sexism and content that objectifies girls and women, turns them into commodities, employs them as props, represents them as property and prizes, and makes them the target of sexualized and domestic violence as a plot device to demonstrate the hyper-masculinity of male protagonists. And most protagonists are male.  As NPR’s Linda Holmes described this summer, “Of 617 showings [in nearby multiplexes], 561 of them — 90 percent — are stories about men or groups of men, where women play supporting roles or fill out ensembles primarily focused on men.”  There were, as she pointed out, “nearly six times as many showings of ‘Man Of Steel’ alone as there [were] of all the films about women put together.” Every year the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism also documents this onscreen gender gap.
Nor is the problematic depiction of girls and women limited to films for adults. It starts in children’s programming, where women rarely have jobs or a real purpose and where female characters are either hyper-traditional (Madonna) or hyper-sexual (whore). Portrayals of women in American film have degenerated over time, not improved.
The MPAA does not make movies, but they do rate them and generally fail spectacularly to consider sexism and the portrayal of women when they do. This is even more glaringly obvious in films it has deemed acceptable for children. For example, the PG-rated movie “Shark Tale“ can contain songs such as “Golddigger” (lyrics include, “When she look at you she only see ‘ching-ching’…Mill around your neck, mill around your arms… Look you in the eye, and tell a boldface lie… She’s a pimpstress…she’ll seize your assets like the I.R.S.”)  Does the message that all women are manipulative, greedy, money-obsessed whores work for you? What is this song doing in a G-rated kids film?  Last year’s popular “Monsters University“ was an animated frat competition in which the few female characters were eliminated before the main plot began. The opening scene of Michael Bay’s “Transformers 3,” rated PG-13, is shot a crotch level from between the long naked legs of an ex-Victoria’s Secret model (she’s one of two women who occasionally speak out of fifty cast members), and that’s just the start.
At the same time, MPAA ratings clearly reveal a serious discomfort with adult women as sexual actors, with depictions of female pleasure, and with portrayals of men as objects of desire.
As Ryan Gosling explained after the 2010 film “Blue Valentine” received an NC-17 rating, in an interview that sparked Danielle Henderson’s terrific Feminist Ryan Gosling cottage industry, “You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen. The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It’s misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman’s sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film.”
There are alternatives to the MPAA system. Common Sense Media, a non-profit children’s media advocacy group, has a detailed and considerate rating system for parents, as does the website Kids in Mind. And last month several Swedish theaters unveiled a new movie rating system that incorporates the Bechdel Test, a measure of the presence of women in films. Their explicit goal is to identify gender bias in films with the intent of promoting gender equality.
Recently several films, notably “Concussion“ and “Afternoon Delight,” have told stories in which women explore sex, from women’s perspectives. But not very many movies do this, and certainly not many rake in millions.  The MPAA’s use of the NC-17 rating makes sure that this stays the case.  Because of the MPAA’s biases, movies that challenge patriarchal norms are more likely to fail because NC-17 movies are not distributed widely. The IFC’s decision aside, it’s a rating that can still hurt a movie.
The fact that people can take their 14-year olds to R-rated movies that feature beheadings, severed limbs, bloodied torsos, rapes, decapitations and worse but not to a movie that shows two women enjoying consensual sex is a serious problem.  And just because we live in a sexist, hyper-masculine culture damaging to both boys and girls doesn’t mean that we also have to accept a media rating system that perpetuates sexism and violence.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the rating of “Shark Tale.” It is rated PG.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

We are the Daughters of the Witches You Didn't Burn

I recently attended a lunch with a group of women to talk about food and health. I’d come to the conclusion that my health would be better served doing this than talking to my doctor. He was unable to answer questions about studies that included women participants and how the findings might differ from the research he was citing, all of which only studied men. I now have a new doctor and we get along just fine.
Less than 400 years ago, I, and every woman at that lunch with me, might very well have eaten our heart-healthy meal then been merrily immolated as a coven of witches. There we were, taking about herbs and using our senses to achieve healthy outcomes. Maybe salad dressing is a potion. Who knows.
As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English explain in the 2010 revision to their classic book “Witches, Midwives & Nurses,” between the 14th and the 17th centuries, tens of thousands of people were killed as witches. Estimates range, but the latest scholarship puts the number at roughly 100,000 people, 80-85 percent of them women. By the mid-16th century there were villages where all but one woman had been killed for practicing witchcraft.
The 400-year period of witch panic was rife not just with misogyny, but with political and class struggles that created a petri dish for people to act on it. It was a time of massive social upheaval, marked by the Reformation and the rise of capitalism. While the Catholic Church is sometimes blamed as the sole instigator of witch trials, Protestants and civic authorities were central to the elimination of women accused of “dark magic.” As Salon’s Laura Miller put it in an essay on the topic, “It takes a village to burn a witch.” Or 100,000 of them.


What were these women burned (also strangled, hanged and beheaded) to death for? Well, first, charges often amounted to condemnations of being female and sexual, two qualities that even today, religious fundamentalists of all stripes tend to deplore. Elaborate fantasies about women engaging in intercourse with the devil were a regular feature of witch trials. Second, women were persecuted for associating with other women, accused of forming covens or holding parties with Satan. Women who came together to celebrate holidays or to share information, trade herbs, gossip or otherwise, you know, hang out together were considered dangerous. Third, women were punished for being poor and helping the poor. As Ehrenreich and English point out, the church was inclined to instruct the desperately impoverished, who made up the vast bulk of the population, to bypass the ministrations of women healers and look to the afterlife for solace while, at the same time, supporting medicine and medical help for the nobility. “Male, upper-class healing under the auspices of the medieval church was acceptable, female healing as part of a peasant subculture was not,” Ehrenreich and English explained. Fourth, they appear to have been particularly maligned for providing obstetric support and for using empirical reasoning. Lastly, women were charged as witches because they were successful. Take the case of Jacoba Felicie, who was tried in 1322. Her accusation read, “she would cure her patient of internal illness…visit the sick assiduously and continue to examine…in the manner of physicians.” No less than six witnesses described how she’d successfully treated the when “doctors” had failed. This was evidence against her, by the way.
Why did the time-of-great-transition panic manifest itself with such unrelenting misogyny? The period of witch hunting coincided with several simultaneous challenges to the “natural” world order – religious, social and political, including, very importantly, traditionally prescribed gender roles.
The rise of Protestantism represented a revolutionary challenge to the church in many ways, not the least of which was in its redefinition of women’s roles. While Protestantism confirmed women’s individuality and autonomy in matters of faith, it also rapidly renewed focus on women’s domesticity and provoked debate about and rejection of the notion of women as leaders (during a time when Elizabeth I was Queen). In 1558, John Knox wrote “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” to explain why the Bible made it clear women could not and should not lead. Fifty years later William Gouge’s popular “Of Domesticall Duties” detailed why wives should be subservient to their husbands and the father figure should be “a king in his owne household.”
At the same time, the rise of commerce and a commercial class led to a greater focus on gender differentiation and hierarchical sex-based work. Women, unpaid and paid, fueled the agricultural labor market while being restricted in commercial endeavors.
In addition, as Ehrenreich and English explain, a newly developing male medical profession benefited economically from the demonization of female healers and midwives, many of whom were poor and derived their only income from healing. Not only was the division between “witches magic” and “men’s medicine” gendered, but also it was classed. Newly minted male-only university doctors in the employ of the nobility were happy enough to eliminate illiterate female competition for their services. Professional doctors could not, however, act alone in violence against women who presented challenges and obstacles. Widespread witch hunting required that the church, the state and the medical profession come together in agreement and lend institutional support and leadership to the petty squabbling and vendettas of neighbors that often fueled witch hunts. Similar themes can be seen in the Salem witch trials.
The church, first Catholic, and then also Protestant, came up with elaborate reasons for suppressing the influence of wise women and female leaders. Central to witch hunts of the time was the oft-cited “Malleus Maleficarum,” without a doubt, one of the more misogynistic and influentially destructive texts ever written about women. Its purpose was to educate people about women’s inherently base, craven and evil natures. Heinrich Kramer, a German prelate, published it in 1486 and it became the inspirational text for centuries of witch hunts. The Malleus Maleficarum made connections between midwives, wise women and witches, and these appear, in turn, in trial records from the period. The text took pains to distinguish between the medical “profession” from which women were barred (they could not attend university, study, train or otherwise receive qualifications) and the “demonic” healing work and knowledge of laywomen and midwives. “No one,” it explained, “does more harm to the Catholic Church than midwives.” This might go a long way to explaining why today, in Sweden, one of the most secular countries in the world, midwives thrive and the gender gap between men and women is among the smallest in the world. It is rated the second best country in which to give birth and become a mother.
It’s also important to note that the peak period of witch hunting was the 17thcentury, when both the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution posed great challenges to religion’s dominance. Women healers whose powers and successes were based on empirical study presented many layers of threat. Instead of faith, “witches” derived conclusions from their study and applied their knowledge accordingly (often to far greater success than university-trained doctors). The church was not interested in women who were effectively practicing observation-based science and providing alternatives to faith-based “medicine.”
Older, assertive, knowledgeable, authoritative and respected women were not welcomed in a fast-changing world in which many forces were aligned against them. They were a constant challenge to men’s power. This appears, still, to be a problem for some.
The effect of all of this was to cull women from medicine and care, except as handmaidens. The long-term result was male-dominated medical profession that, while changing, is still with us. In the United States a mid-19th-century American Popular Heath Movement was driven largely by women, especially working-class women, trying to find ways to develop preventative care so that they would not be subject to loopy medical “cures.” During that time the medical profession was increasingly monopolized by upper-class, educated white men, a situation only now changing. The first medical school in the United States waited 80 years before admitting a woman in 1874. In 1910, an evaluation of medical schools resulted in the closing of six out of eight schools for African-American students and most schools that allowed women. Midwifery in particular was targeted as dangerous and unprofessional, a particularly damaging effect considering that poor women, and especially African-American women in the South, relied on midwives almost entirely for medical care. As recently as 1970 women made up only 7 percent of U.S. doctors. It was not until 1989 that the AMA named a woman to its board. Today, women make up 30 percent of doctors, primarily white women, but still more than 91 percent of all nurses. The percentage of men who are nurses has tripled between 1970 and 2011. In the past two decades women have made monumental strides in the medical profession, despite which they face obstacles in pay, tenure and leadership.
However, one of the real lasting and harmful legacies of this history is that, in 2013, women’s health and reproductive rights remain stubbornly under the influence ofconservative, religious men, from Todd “women’s bodies have a way of shutting that down” Akin to Sheikh “driving hurts women’s ovaries” Saleh Al-Loheidan, with zero understanding of science, medicine, biology or, really, modernity.
Amazingly, this week, I could not easily find a doctor costume for women. Not even a sexy one. Lots of nurses and witches, however. The truth is, witches loom large in our imaginations and remain a source of fear for too many people. Anyone who doubts that this is the case should consider that Erica Jong’s most banned book is not the “Fear of Flying” of “zipless fuck” fame, but her 1999 illustrated compendium “Witches.”
My former doctor is a living example of a problem with deep cultural and historical roots. During our conversations it became evident that he had never taken the time to consider why men’s bodies might not be the standard by which to gauge women’s or why basing prescriptive decisions for women on male norms was a problem. How this can still be the case is astounding. Indeed, he argued with me, because how could I, a non-doctor, presume to have greater insight into my own health or feel that expressing curiosity about bodies like mine was a legitimate route. As I left his office for the last time, I thought to myself, “Women like me are the daughters of the ones you didn’t burn.”