Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Fantasy Feminist

I promised Emily I'd write a holiday-themed post this year, but clearly that didn't happen. Instead of dedicating my mind to the intersections of feminism and Western holiday culture, I delved back into one of my favourite fantasy series: Harry Potter. And now, to make up for my sloth, I bring you some of the stray feminist thoughts that wandered through my brain.

First, I'm well aware that the Harry Potter series isn't the perfect feminist story. Its primary hero is male, most of the characters are White, cis, and able-bodied-and-minded, the only confirmed LGBQ character was outed after the series ended, many of our current stereotypes continue to exist in the book's alternate goes on and on. When I re-read that list, I feel like I should probably dislike the series a lot more than I actually do! So here are some of the highlights of the series and author that have kept me going.

Bitch Magazine recently had an article out about the strengths of JK Rowling's "non chosen ones"- her female characters, especially Hermione, Luna, and Ginny. While the article was a little superficial, especially about Ginny (her strong point is that she dates a lot of boys?), it did highlight the ways in which the female characters tend to make the series. Rowling once stated that "I find that all the time in the book, if you need to tell your readers something just put it in [Hermione]," which is telling when one considers that the character whose wisdom is most often recognized is Dumbledore. Add to that the strong social justice components to the books, from artificial distinctions between magical folk to the role of house-elves, and Hermione in particular shines as a strong role model for all readers- especially female ones. Another interesting tidbit I didn't know- apparently very few people were afraid that Rowling would kill off Hermione during the last few books, mostly because they "see her as someone who is not vulnerable." So while the other female characters on the list (and in the books) are definitely worthwhile, Hermione's character will always stand out.

Let me backtrack, though, to the social justice stuff. The Potterverse (yeah, I just used that word, so what?!) deals primarily with the whole Pureblood/Muggle-born concept- a thinly-veiled allegory for pretty much every blood-based "science" we've embraced in Western history, from racial distinctions to developmental distinctions- but gives many others the limelight, house elf rights probably being the most notorious of these. One of the least mentioned by critics, though, is how Rowling's characters generally refuse to be black-and-white in their thoughts and behaviours. Think about Dumbledore, and how manipulative and power-hungry he turned out to be. Or think about Snape, who was equally power-hungry but prepared to do the right thing anyway. Or even consider Sirius:

"Sirius is very good at spouting bits of excellent personal philosophy, but he does not always live up to them. For instance, he says in "Goblet of Fire" that if you want to know what a man is really like, 'look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.' But Sirius loathes Kreacher, the house-elf he has inherited, and treats him with nothing but contempt. Similarly, Sirius claims that nobody is wholly good or wholly evil, and yet the way he acts towards Snape suggests that he cannot conceive of any latent good qualities there." (from Rowling's website)

With the exception of Hermione and Voldemort (and even then I'm sure I just need to think harder), none of the major characters exhibit flawlessly aligned thoughts and actions. Even characters that we've been conditioned to hate- the Malfoy family or the Dursleys- behave ambiguously when push comes to shove. They make make "good" choices for selfish reasons, such as when Narcissa Malfoy saves Harry's life out of fear for her own son, but the point is that her negative ideology doesn't always prevail in her decisionmaking. Personally, the moral ambiguity of everyone made me love the series a lot more- if only because it's far more realistic to imagine finding global justice in spite of everyone's shortcomings than to imagine finding it when everyone's already perfectly good or evil.

Finally, as the Bitch article mentions, Rowling has sought to promote the fight for social justice in her post-Potter career. Her Single Mother's Manifesto, a scathing review of Tory campagin promises this past spring, ends on a particularly stirring tone when she discusses her sense of responsibility to repay the system that helped her out when she was financially strapped. In addition, she's spent a lot of energy drawing attention to the impact that poverty has on children, using her Potter fame to generate funding for organizations in the U.K., and uses her website as a way of reaching out to girls (presumably cis) about bodies and brains. I think a lot of people have been impressed by Rowling's "rags to riches" pre-Potter history, but I'm continually more impressed by what she's made of herself in the aftermath. And I'm looking forward to seeing what else she contributes to a more feminist-friendly future pop culture.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

One Spunky Bloggess + 400 donors + 600 recipients = Christmas Miracle

Earlier today, one of my friends posted a link to this article about an unexpected Christmas miracle. Basically, Jenny (a bloggess), earned $600 on Christmas cards of her boar head. Rather than spend that money on herself, she decided to donate it to others by offering a $30 gift card to each of the first 20 people to let her know that they didn't have Christmas presents for their kids.

When more than 20 people commented, someone left a comment offering a gift card to person #21, and then more people began jumping in and offering to help. When others began reading the article I linked above, more and more people jumped in and offered to help, inspiring this follow-up post from Jenny, in which she linked this interview that put her on TV in Canada.

If you still want to help, there is still time. The recipients may not receive their gifts by Christmas, but won't their kids be way more excited to find out that Santa is still on his way with some gifts he's finishing, than they would be if their parents had to tell them they won't have any presents at all?

I'll admit, I was cynical enough to worry that people might be lying, but a - I'd rather give $30 to someone who doesn't need it than take the risk of not giving $30 to someone who does. And b - when I looked up the lady I wanted to help out, I found a Myspace account (from 3 years ago, based on the ages she listed when she mentioned her kids) that matched her story and left me feeling a lot more urgent about helping out her and her five kids. 

Girl power. It's pretty much just plain awesome.

Monday, December 20, 2010

No, Women are not Angels. And No, Your Sex Drive Is Not an Excuse for Objectifying Them.

I just came across a delightful post on Feminist Mormon Housewives, which discusses two prominent and damaging myths about women: that women are naturally innocent and divine (in the LDS church, we say the same thing about trees and rocks), and that women are just bodies. You probably already know how damaging those myths are, but this article adds interesting nuance to the discussion.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Tangled: A Feminist Film Review

A Guest Post by Whitney

Last Friday, I saw Disney's "Tangled" with my husband.  I thought it was a pretty good feminist-y movie, especially considering that it was a Disney princess-type movie. Because I am lazy, I have written my review in bullet-point form:
  • Rapunzel's father (the king) cries on Rapunzel's birthday as he remembers his kidnapped daughter.  It seems like usually in these kind of movies, you see the mom crying and the dad consoling her; but here, it's the other way around.  Win!  Men can express emotion, too!
  • Rapunzel sews and bakes, but she also reads, does astronomy, and paints like no other.
  • She is so awesome with her hair!  She ties the male protagonist up, lets herself down from the tower, and climbs everywhere.  Seriously, it's very impressive.  She can do just about anything with that hair--it's not just for show.  
  • Rapunzel ends up with short hair!  Okay, that's just a little thing, but have you ever seen a Disney princess with a pixie cut before?  Even Mulan had longer hair!
  • So yeah, the mom is the bad guy because she's vain/wants to be young forever, blah blah blah.  But I don't know how they could have had a male villain or some other way for the mom to be the villain without straying too far from the original.  But at least she gets some jokes.
  • The frying pan proves to be a superior weapon compared to the sword!  This might be getting a little too psychoanalytic, but I saw the frying pan as symbolizing a kind of feminine/transgressive power, while the sword represents traditional masculine power.  I just thought it was neat.  You don't have to be a swashbuckling dude to kick butt.
  • Her story and her adventure starts not because the guy "whisks her away" or something; but rather, she plans and schemes: she catches him breaking into her tower, and strategically decides to use him to reach her goal of seeing the flying lanterns on her birthday.
  • Spoiler alert: in the end, she's not 'saved' because of her compassion, but in spite of it--her compassion might actually have been her downfall.  Unlike other movies/fairy tales where a woman's only redeeming quality is self-sacrifice, this ending suggests that self-sacrifice isn't always such a good thing--or at least that it's not solely the domain of women.  Men can be self-sacrificing too!  (Didn't want to reveal too much here.  Go see the movie if you want to figure out what on earth I'm talking about.)
  • I liked the ambivalent nature of how it shows her mom's and her relationship when Rapunzel leaves the tower for the first time.  She feels guilty, but MAN is she happy and excited and brave!
  • She doesn't get married at age 18!!!!
  • In my opinion, the relationship was not even really a central feature of the story, but rather a sub-plot.  The main plot was getting away from her mother, figuring out her actual identity, getting to the flying lanterns she wanted to see.
  • I felt like it was good and feminist because it was a major improvement from how Disney usually is.  Also, overt sexism did NOT distract me from what was otherwise a visually appealing, witty movie (as it usually does).  And that is really saying something.
  • Even the rich, hypermasculine stereotype is challenged--the male protagonist reveals his true name/identity, as an orphan, and she says she likes him better than the fictional (hypermasculine) character that he aspires to be like.  
  • In the end, i think it makes a good case for women's 'proper place' NOT being just in the home, but out in the world/public sphere!  I'm not sure how you could get any other moral out of it.  Even in Mulan, after she saves China, she ends up returning home, and (we suspect) marrying the army captain guy, instead of taking a job with the emperor.  In "Tangled," the movie's premise is centered around the idea that it's wrong and horrible to expect a woman to spend her whole life at home.
  • When the male protagonist breaks into her tower, she kicks his butt; she stands up for herself in the bar; and she stands up to her mother in the end (about having been kidnapped).
  • At the end of the movie, SHE dips HIM and kisses him.  (I always hated it when guys would dip me.  If I want to kiss you, I am going to kiss you, so just let me stay on my own two feet.)
  • Body image stuff:   Okay, so Disney's not breaking down any boundaries here.  Also, infantilization much?  Rapunzel's face is that of a two-year-old.  
  • So, I'm not very good at remembering specifics, but I DO remember not getting angry at seeing her needing rescuing again and again and again.  It seemed like mostly she was able to save herself, and the guy didn't save her a whole lot.
  • In the bar, Rapunzel and the guy (Flynn) meet a whole bunch of rough guys.  They sing a song about how everyone's got a dream: the one tough guy says to Flynn, "Your dream stinks," referring to his dream of getting rich.  The other tough guys have dreams of becoming mimes, finding love, being a pianist, becoming a baker--and one made little tiny unicorns.  Even tough guys have nuance and feminine qualities!
  • Rapunzel's animal companion is Pascal the chameleon.  Pascal is super cute, and is possibly named after Blaise Pascal the mathematician (suggesting that Rapunzel is a math nerd like me, though that could just be me reading too much into it).  Pascal can't talk, and I felt like that was a good thing (feminist-wise), so he couldn't show her up and become the hero (remember Mushu the dragon in Mulan?) 
My points are random and some are not very significant. But still, small wins!  And when it comes to Disney princess movies, any hint at feminist ideology is a HUGE win. And if nothing else, it at least passes the Bechdel Test:

Whitney is a graduate student studying sociology.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Violated by the TSA

I have about 10 minutes (okay, 5) before my flight supposedly starts boarding, so I'm gonna have to be quick.

Long story short, I just had my first experience with the TSA naked-picture machines. Frankly, I couldn't care less if someone has a picture of the contours of my body. It's not a real naked photo, and even if it were - well, I don't care. I mean, I wouldn't deliberately put something like this out there, but if it happens, meh.

As long as I don't have to be felt up.

So when the TSA agents told me to step into the big scanner thing-a-ma-jig and stand with my feet on the yellow footprints, I went along with it. When my legs were spread ridiculously wide, I began to feel a little uncomfortable - I mean, just how detailed are these photos going to be? Then they told me to hold my arms in the position of the drawing in front of me, which turned out to be - Oh, of course, the position a person stands in while being arrested. Of course. I committed a very suspicious act by once again purchasing a ticket to go home for the holidays.

Then part of the machine swooshed in front of me, and I was asked to stand on one of the mats waiting outside the machine, until a TSA agent said, "A female. Copy," into a radio, and then,  "Have a good flight," to me.

And I walked away, thinking:

a - Was that necessary?

b - I hope I don't get cancer from this.

And my flight is about to board.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Merry Feminism and a Happy New Year

I don't know if this post is necessarily "holiday themed" however, the holidays are supposed to be filled with good cheer and well-wishes for those around us, so I'm going to attempt to bring some of that love into this post.

Yesterday I was doing my daily stroll through the internet (is it indicative of a serious issue if I call my addiction to media a "stroll"?) checking what new and ridiculous things people on the internet were saying. Now, while I am sure that somewhere on the internet, multiple people were posting absolutely absurd things, yesterday I was unable to find any of those things. Instead I stumbled upon a website dedicated to Mormon Feminism, possibly some of you have heard of it before; It's called The Exponent and its a very polite, discussion friendly place. While I didn't completely agree with everything that everyone says on The Exponent I was pleasantly surprised by the unique blend of men and women, mostly husband and wife teams, who posted together about feminism. Oddly enough, several of the men confessed that they struggled with their wife's feminism, not because they wanted to repress her, but mainly because they wondered whether it was something that they, as a man, should care about.

I absolutely believe it was something that they should care about and I'll be honest, I definitely didn't agree with a lot of what those men said, however the cool thing to me was that they had taken the time to write up posts, contribute to discussions and accepted criticism for their posts. These men were genuinely interested in understanding and supporting their wives. And in turn, many of the women contributed to the discussion, attempting to place themselves in their husbands shoes and achieve a balance between the sexes. This makes me really excited (I worry a lot about marrying someone who doesn't support my feminism). Men and women with different opinions can discuss and work out issues that one spouse member deems important.

Yet, this is again not the focus of my post. The thing that this shows to me is that a feminist discussion is happening. Yes, there are lots of places where repression and a blatant disregard for women and their ideas are happening, however, change is possible! There are viable discussions taking place between real people, so whether I agree isn't the point (at least not right now, we can talk about that later) the point is instead, that a dialogue about sensitive issues is blossoming on the internet.

And that's not all. The Rumpus recently created a funny women column dedicated exclusively to the comedic brilliance that many women posses (check out the interview with Amy Sedaris for the funniest 10 minutes of your life). Patheos, a forum based website has developed a very intellectual and intelligent place for the Mormon Feminist discussion as well. Magazines such as Bust and Bitch provide meaningful and interesting articles about the current state of feminism in the US. Bitch magazine especially published a very well-written article on the rising state of the patriarchy movement within the US (recommended to me by our own dear Emily), and even though the article dealt with some heavy material the article was objective and well-researched.

So today I just want to spread a little Christmas cheer towards feminism and all those who talk about and support it; so enjoy this while it lasts, because next month, I'll probably be mouthing off again about something I perceive as anti-feminist. But for right now, rock on Feminist World, I salute you.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Burlesque: A Feminist Review

Honestly, this movie was bad enough that it doesn't merit much discussion.

As you could probably predict from the previews, the music was the highlight of the movie. The only highlight of the movie. The basic premise is this: Ally (Christina Aguilera), an overworked waitress and lonely orphan, quits her job in a run-down diner and takes off for the city, hoping for a bright future. Then she goes out looking for a job and stumbles upon Burlesque, a club whose gimmick is a group of highly skilled dancers who all dance in sheer/skimpy/nonexistant clothing, while also lip-syncing to the classics. Only Tess (Cher), the owner, actually sings. Ally wants a job on that stage, but all she can get is a job as a waitress in the club.

The other premise is that Tess and her ex husband are pretty close to losing the club because they can't pay back their loans. Her ex husband is desperate for her to sell, but she refuses. From here on out, the movie's pretty predictable. But stop here if you really want to avoid any spoilers.

Good choice. I promise, there aren't really any spoilers with such a predictable movie. My assessment of the movie is this: it presents itself as feminist-friendly, but it's driven and defined by male sexuality and the male gaze. The film is about women who willingly, deliberately, and happily choose to dance for a mostly-male audience, in what can only be described as a high class strip club. Yes, the characters say it's not a strip club, but the scene where Aguilera removes the beads she was wearing like a bikini and then dances with feathered fans in front of her breasts and vagina beg to differ.

Seriously. That's one of the scenes. And the costumes that are sheer except for the nipples and the bikini area? It's pretty easy to guess that this film feeds into the objectification of the female body. And it really doesn't help that Ally's main romantic competition is a shrill woman who neglects her man by going out of state while she focuses on her own career. Or that Ally always talks to him (and everyone else) in a breathy voice so unlike the deep, beautiful, and empowering voice she uses while she sings. Or that most of the numbers she performs are about men.

And in terms of how race is portrayed in this movie, it does the typical Hollywood "Look! There's a black character! But s/he doesn't actually factor into the plot much or get more than a couple lines. But still! Look! We're Progressive, right?" Seriously - the characters mentioned Coco all the time, but how much did she actually get to talk?

And, while Stanley Tucci was arguably as much of a highlight as the music, it was pretty ridiculous that the one gay character in the movie was notorious for preferring one night stands over commitment, a challenge he only begins to overcome toward the end of the movie.

Feminist Film Review Grade: D-

A low D-

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Problem With Leaving Anonymous Comments

We at NAW welcome everyone to comment. In fact, we love it when you leave comments. But when three different comments show up as anonymous, it gets in the way of an interesting dialogue.So, please feel free to make up a nickname if you'd like to remain anonymous.

Feminist TV Review: Apparently Glee Hates Big Women and Men in Wheelchairs

Through some strange but delightful twist in fate, Erica and I are both mad at Fox's once great but now ridiculous show, Glee - but we're each mad for different reasons. Or rather, we're particularly angry about different components. It's pretty hard to choose just one issue when glee increasingly marginalizes minorities of all sorts, while also promoting sexist attitudes and objectified views of women.

I shouldn't be surprised anymore - not with all the jokes about "Asian salads," and "Asian couples therapy," or the fact that so many actors returned for the second season noticeably thinner (Lea Michelle, in particular). And I really shouldn't be shocked after they spent an entire episode on a tribute to Britney Spears. Or after they kicked the one black glee guy off the show, only to replace him with a pretty white boy. Sure, the black football player who's a huge jerk is still pretty prominent, but this season even he is overshadowed by the white football bully who's in love with Kurt. And I really shouldn't be surprised after their continued dedication to stereotypes about gay men and bisexual women (disclaimer: Kurt is one of my favorite characters. It's just ridiculous that the show doesn't also include straight guys who love show tunes and fashion or gay guys who don't. Maybe the football bully fits into that category, but will we ever find out?).

So, I shouldn't be shocked. But this week's episode reached a record low - all while pretending to rise above discrimination and marginalization. Let me recap: as The New Directions prepare for their Sectionals competition, Emma urges Will to go with a new direction (no pun intended), by putting Quinn in for the main opening solo, rather than Rachel, who would usually get a solo. Will then announces that Quinn and Sam will be the main event, followed by another number that will showcase a few less-seen cast members.

Sounds reasonable, but wait - who doesn't get a solo? Britney and Mike Chang get recognized for their dancing prowess. Considering how phenomenally talented both actors are in that arena, I approve that move quite a bit. Then, of course, Quinn and Sam get solos. If they had amazing voices or somewhat shorter solos, I'd approve. But Quinn's voice is undeniably whiny, and neither she nor Sam really nailed "Time of My Life." In fact, they've ruined both the song and Dirty Dancing for me. Then they move into Amy Whinehouse's "Valerie," where the main solo goes to Santana. Considering how often Santana's voice was overlooked during the first season, I again approve.

But wait - what about Mercedes and Tina? When Will first announces that Rachel won't have a solo, Mercedes says, "Great! What am I singing?" as if the club has such a history of handing solos off to her that she has become a mini-Rachel who simply expects leads. But how justifiable is that? If you've been following the show as long as I have, you'll remember that when Rachel temporarily left the group in Season 1, Will subbed in Quinn for all of her parts, even though she was too exhausted from Cheerios and her pregnancy and didn't want the solos. That's right - when they took out one of the few white girls in the group, they automatically subbed in the only other one who can sing (no offense to Britney, but that's clearly not her forte). And nobody even questions why Mercedes and Tina aren't getting the female leads now.

So why, oh why, are they getting ignored again? I couldn't understand it, and then - as I watched all the actors and actresses dancing around the stage, I noticed something about each woman who wasn't getting a solo: with the exception of Rachel, who had been pulled back from the spotlight because she's always in it, they all had one big thing in common. They weren't skinny. Mercedes is a character who's big and proud of it, and Tina certainly isn't big - in fact, she's downright petite - but next to Santana, Britney, and Quinn, (and now, unfortunately, Rachel) she looks almost pudgy. Even the silent last-minute wrestling champion sub was a big woman.

And while the show tries to make it up to them by giving them a duet in the end, it doesn't change the fact that Will, the adult character who is supposed to guide the younger characters as they make responsible choices, has deliberately cut them out of even minor solos in one of the incredibly rare competitions that takes place on this show. And nobody even mentions the fact that Arty, who has an amazing voice, also gets overlooked. When Puck is a bit overlooked, it's a little understandable - he has at least had solos in competitions. But Arty is consistently overlooked, in favor of the actors who can dance without breaking into a dream sequence.

Glee is already under fire from critics who find it insulting and patronizing for an able-bodied actor to play a character in a wheelchair, so why intensify that negative situation by ignoring someone with an amazing voice? The camera tried to make up for it by zooming in on Arty as he danced with his arms, but he was still missing or marginalized in most shots, particularly since his voice wasn't heard in even a small solo.

 If Will or another character were to at some point recognize that a grave injustice has been done to minority actors and actresses throughout both seasons or that those injustices are only increasing with Season 2, maybe the show could rectify the situation. As things stand, Glee is at great risk of losing my viewership.

Its current Feminist Friendliness Grade is a resounding D. Let's hope it doesn't go any lower.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

World AIDS Day

In case the title of the post didn't tip you off...December 1 is World AIDS Day. What does that mean? According to, as of 2009:

-There are approximately 33.3 million people worldwide who are living with HIV or AIDS. Approximately half of these people are women.
-About 16.6 million children (ages 0-17) have been orphaned by HIV and AIDS.
-Another 2.5 million children are living with HIV and/or AIDS.
-About 1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV or AIDS.
-This number may be inaccurate because approximately 20% of HIV-positive individuals have not been diagnosed or have not had their condition reported.*
-The fastest-growing demographic of individuals with HIV is females between the ages of 18 and 24.

These statistics aren't being given to scare you, or make you feel uncomfortable, but to wake us up to the fact that HIV and AIDS are global problems that we all need to address. They are also intended to remind us that 1) not all people living with HIV and AIDS are "socially deviant" in some capacity and 2) social deviance, of any sort, is not an excuse to ignore the very human rights of people to have access to information, medication, and ethical treatment by others.

So today is a day to get educated! Want to know more about the difference between HIV and AIDS? Want to know more about the new one-pill-once-a-day treatment option for HIV? Want to know how long people can live with HIV? Take the time to learn something about it. You may surprise yourself.

If you want to do more, start advocating! Several websites and organizations offer great ideas for how to advocate for better medical access and destigmatization for people with HIV and AIDS. Some suggestions are, AVAC, and NATAP. Remember: one of the most important thing we can do as feminists and as people is fight for the human rights that every single one of us deserves.

*This estimate comes from an assessment of infection rates and the information presented by individuals who do test and report their status.