While teaching my three daughters about the importance of speaking out and taking action for what they believe in, most recently around the white nationalists coming to San Francisco, I’ve had to confront messages they’ve received that there’s no point to protesting. My kids learn the “I have a Dream Speech in school,” but that time had a beloved hero and was a clear case of right and wrong, while the current political situation is less noble, more unclear. I work to counter that narrative, telling them that their own seemingly small actions do have purpose and meaning, but I never made an analogy that the MLK’s time was also imperfect. I didn’t realize the same critiques from white moderates waiting on the sidelines, who agreed with the goal of equality but weren’t willing to do much yet, were just prevalent back then. I’m going to share with my kids this op-ed by clergy from the New York Times: “Waiting for a Perfect Protest? Here are some excerpts:
“Thanks to the sanitized images of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement that dominate our nation’s classrooms and our national discourse, many Americans imagine that protests organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and countless local organizations fighting for justice did not fall victim to violent outbreaks…
The reality — which is underdiscussed but essential to an understanding of our current situation — is that the civil rights work of Dr. King and other leaders was loudly opposed by overt racists and quietly sabotaged by cautious moderates. We believe that current moderates sincerely want to condemn racism and to see an end to its effects. The problem is that this desire is outweighed by the comfort of their current circumstances and a perception of themselves as above some of the messy implications of fighting for liberation. This is nothing new. In fact, Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail” is as relevant today as it was then. He wrote in part:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.”…
The civil rights movement was messy, disorderly, confrontational and yes, sometimes violent. Those standing on the sidelines of the current racial-justice movement, waiting for a pristine or flawless exercise of righteous protest, will have a long wait. They, we suspect, will be this generation’s version of the millions who claim that they were one of the thousands who marched with Dr. King. Each of us should realize that what we do now is most likely what we would have done during those celebrated protests 50 years ago. Rather than critique from afar, come out of your homes, follow those who are closest to the pain, and help us to redeem this country, and yourselves, in the process.”
You haven’t heard from me for a while. That’s because when I went back and read the draft of my middle grade fantasy-adventure novel, I realized I’ve become a much better writer. The good news is I’m a better writer! The bad news is I’ve had to rewrite the beginning of the book. While I’ve written for my whole life, I’ve never done this genre before, and I’ve gotten pretty good at pacing. While my earlier draft was bloated, so far, I’ve shaved 50 pages off of Part One.
Whatever happens with this book, writing it has changed my life. I’ve learned so much. Now, I understand optimism is essential to creating art for me. While this lesson contradicts the stereotype of the suffering artist, I’ve run into plot hole after plot hole, and now I see that with creativity, I can find solutions to my problems. I think this process may also involve what people call “grit” or just plain resilience.
Here’s another big lesson I’ve learned that has rippled into every aspect of my life. Beware of flattery. I’m not talking about being suspicious if someone gives you a compliment, but if someone compliments you repeatedly for specific character traits, how great you are at something and how essential you are in their life, how special, how necessary, how important, how amazing you are, it’s likely you’re not being loved; you’re being used. I’ve learned that this type of flattery keeps you locked in a role that you’re performing for someone else. Flattery such as this is the enemy of growth and growth is essential to making art.
One example of how “flattery” can facilitate confinement is how women are “flattered” for being “beautiful.” We get to be on covers of magazines if we’re “pretty,” but often what’s really happening is our lives are being limited to serve others. We’re being kept small.
To write this novel, I’ve had to risk doing things I didn’t feel I was good at, to fall on my face and get up again. I hope I’m still doing that when I’m an old, old lady.
Though I was an avid Archie reader as a child, I steered my 3 daughters away from the stories every time we went to the comic book store. I didn’t want my kids’ vivid imaginations colonized by the sexist, superficial, and endlessly repetitive dualism of dark-haired bad girl Veronica versus blonde, super-kind Betty, both competing over Archie, world class total goof. Even as a 10 year old, I never got what Betty and Veronica saw in that guy. He was such a bore. But when I watched the marketing for new Netflix series ‘Riverdale,’ the moody Gothic tone hooked me, from the juxtaposition of the show’s title written in classic Varsity letter font, letters glowing blue, floating over ominous, looming pine trees, the tips lit by moonlight.
Then there was the picture of Betty sitting in a booth (obviously Pop’s diner) and instead of smiling, she’s looking at the camera like she has no trust at all for whomever is watching her. Next to Betty (next toBetty) is Veronica, arms crossed, her direct stare tells the camera: this show you’re about to see is my story. Across from them, Archie casually leans back, confirming Veronica’s message: he’s comfortable in his supporting role. His hair is no longer nerd orange but devil red.
Then I read ‘Riverdale’ described as ‘Twin Peaks’ meets ‘Gossip Girl’ and my family had a show to see. Last night, the 5 of us watched the finale of season one and ‘Riverdale’ lived up to my expectations which were not super-high but hopeful and intrigued. Throughout the series, Archie remains a factor in Betty and Veronica’s friendship, but the two girls deal with the complicated issue with honesty and respect and I was happy my kids (ages 8, 10, and 13) saw this depiction of navigating relationships through challenges. In the final episode, when Veronica talked through the Archie issue, she said to Betty something like: “At the risk of failing the Bechdel test, we have to talk about this.” If you read Reel Girl, you probably know, Veronica is referring to writer Alison Bechdel’s criteria for feminist fiction: the work must have (1) at least two women (2) who talk to each other (3) about something other than a man. ‘Riverdale’ passes with flying colors, and there are constant ironic, meta allusions to feminism and feminist media, mostly by Veronica.
‘Riverdale’ is far from perfect, it’s no feminist utopia. All the girls and their mothers share a body type. But the boys and their fathers are just as cut with Luke Perry of ‘90210’ fame playing Archie’s dad (dad!) and Skeet Ulrich rounding out the hunk factor as Jughead’s father. For me, the constant references to Archie’s 6 pack abs helped to justify why Betty and Veronica are so entranced while no reason was given or shown for their devotion in the comics of my childhood. Modern Archie is also a musician. Not only is the cast mostly thin, it’s mostly white. Josie and the Pussycats are African-American as are Josie’s parents. Robin Givens play Josie’s mom. Riverdale’s principal is African-American, but clearly, in ‘Riverdale’ white characters are front and center.
The best thing about the show is the friendship between Betty and Veronica. They support and admire each other, their characters are complex and dynamic. Also, Betty is actually BFFs with Archie as well, which, though it’s a complicated relationship, male-female friendship is not something my kids get to see much of in the media. Not only is the narrative is entertaining, it’s beautifully shot. My husband watches it with us too. Need one more reason to check it out? Molly Ringwald plays Archie’s mom.
Clarissa Bird is a high school junior from Austin, Texas who is frustrated by the lack of female protagonists in the media and annoyed by the negative reaction from teens and adults to ’13 Reasons Why.’ She wrote this post defending the show for Reel Girl.
It’s not hard to find a reason to hate the show “13 Reasons Why.” I’ve gotten lengthy emails from my school principal and counselor on how dangerous the show is without proper adult supervision. I’ve had a friend tell me her parents wouldn’t let her watch the show after reading an article on how it glamorizes and simplifies suicide. I’ve seen the headlines on how the show neglects the underlying causes of self-harm and how the entire plot is driven by petty teen drama. And to an extent, all of these reactions are valid. The show has major faults ranging from the over-the-top stunning actors who are just a little too hunky to play teenagers to the unbelievable teen fantasy of getting a new car for homecoming to more serious issues like subtle victim shaming and simplification of a female protagonist.
But for all of its missteps, there is something about watching one of the main characters, Clay, roll around on his crummy bike trying to uncover Hannah’s story that had my eyes glued to the screen. There was some innate pleasure I took from watching this tragic, teenage girl’s life spiral out of control as love interests and friends continually pulled the rug out from under her. In fact I liked it so much I watched all 13 episodes.
But, upon hearing people in my math class condemn the show and all those who enjoyed it, I seriously started to wonder what the heck was wrong with me for watching it. I never even seriously considered how horrible the show was before hearing classmates rail on it. Am I a terrible, selfish, psychopath because I liked this show about teen suicide? Was I really that ignorant about mental health and suicide that I thought this girl’s actions weren’t so irrational? What made this show that turned my once down to earth, sensible, classmates into condescending, drama critics so addicting to me?
13 REASONS WHY
Hannah Baker’s relationship with her parents
Although the show is criticized for the fact that Hannah’s parents seem to be completely out of touch with their own daughter’s mental state, I found their relationship to be refreshingly relatable and not too far off base. One of my friends said that her main problem with their relationship was that the parents weren’t supportive enough, but it’s hard to support someone when they’re not really telling the whole truth. In “13 Reasons Why,” Hannah faces the familiar question of how much she’s really supposed to be sharing with her parents. Most high schoolers, including myself, tend to bend the truth or offer vague explanations in an attempt to satisfy the endless stream of parental inquiries. It’s a natural part of growing up to become more independent and this includes becoming more secretive and maybe not telling my parents exactly where I was last Saturday night or why I spend so much time “out with friends”.
A girl’s reality
“13 Reasons Why” does a great job of exposing all too common high school boy’s behaviors such as sharing non-consensual photos, objectifying girls through “best” and “worst” lists, and harassing and sometimes even assaulting girls. I loved watching it for this exact reason and from the moment I heard about the show I was excited to finally have a complicated, raw view of the teenage girl. As an audience we feel bad for Hannah when Justin shares intimate photos leading students to believe he had sex with her. We feel worse for Hannah when she kisses her friend on a dare and the rumor spreads she’s bisexual. We feel the deepest, gut-wrenching pain for Hannah when she’s raped. However, the show also reveals its moral universe as somewhere that Hannah’s rape can be labelled “worse” than her friend’s rape by the same boy, because in Hannah’s case she wasn’t drinking, smoking or flirting with the guy. And although I enjoyed the realistic portrait of a girl who can’t and won’t be pinned down or labelled as one thing, I was frustrated by Clay’s simplification of Hannah. He ultimately sees her as the victim of the school’s jocks, stalkers and petty girls and continually boxes her into the wholesome, girl-next-door character trope.
Inseparable from own life
One thing this show does painstakingly well is define a clear chain of events that leads to Hannah Baker taking her own life. From the first episode of the show, Hannah is portrayed as a normal, highschool girl who just wants to fit in at a new school. Although I knew the show ended with her suicide, I couldn’t help but root for Hannah hoping that maybe there was a twist ending and she was somehow alive. But, by the final episode I was in the same mental state as Hannah which I think is the major red flag for most people because the show seems to simplify suicide and blame other people for an ultimately self-inflicted act. I understood why Hannah couldn’t see a way to keep going. I could trace back all the horrible things that had contributed to Hannah’s current state from her being called the school slut, to her friends deserting her, to her going to a party and seeing her friend get raped, and later being raped herself. If this could all happen to the sweet, naive, painfully trusting girl then it could really happen to anyone. This contradicts the standard that only mentally ill people commit suicide and instead offers up the idea that maybe our own actions have a long-lasting result on other people’s mental state.
In “13 Reasons Why” we hear Hannah’s thirteen tapes through her charmingly innocent friend and love interest, Clay. Devastated, confused and overwhelmed by Hannah’s suicide, Clay listens to each tape and stews in the wrongdoings of his classmates. His anger gets the best of him in several scenes, like when he confronts Hannah’s stalker and when he gets in fights with the school jocks for tormenting and harassing Hannah. I couldn’t help but cheer as Clay brought justice to each perpetrator and I completely lost it when Clay went to Bryce’s (Hannah’s rapist) house to sneakily work a confession out of him. Episode to episode I couldn’t wait to see what Clay did next to somehow try and avenge Hannah’s death.
Ultimately, the main reason anyone picks up the show is try to figure why this girl killed herself. This show attempts to answer a question that may be impossible to answer over why anyone commits suicide. “13 Reasons Why” does this to the best of it abilities and although it has caused mass controversy, the show answers the burning question. Similar to murder mysteries like “Twin Peaks,” each episode clues the audience in on what really happened to Laura Palmer or in “13 Reasons Why,” why Hannah kills herself. While there’s a million problems with how the show portrays mental illness, female protagonists and suicide, I’ve got to admit every episode left me on the edge of my seat wanting more. It tells us that all these moments of Hannah finding out she has a stalker to being deserted by her best friends to being labelled as “easy” by every guy in school have led to her final decision to end her life. The show sucks you in by promising a concrete cause for suicide but the answer it gives seems simplistic, threatening and too widely applicable. Probably the biggest reason people have gotten so up in arms against the show is due the fact that they couldn’t help but watch the entire thing. I may be a drama-hungry teenager obsessed with answering every question I can, but it seems to me so is everyone else who watched the show no matter if they loved or hated it.
Trumpitis has infected the USA but a side effect of this disease is that I no longer have to live in a reality that people claim is post-feminist. While this may not seem like much, when you’re a feminist blogger/ writer/ speaker/ thinker and people are incessantly informing you that your subject matter isn’t real, isn’t important, or doesn’t exist, it’s actually a pretty big deal not to crash into that wall of denial many times a day, every day. I can’t remember a time where 99% of my work towards gender equality wasn’t just pointing out that sexism exists.
I got into feminism in my twenties. Studying philosophy at NYU, I suddenly realized there was not one– not one— female philosopher in my curriculum. How could I be engaged in a search for truth and meaning that is void of any women’s thoughts, voices, or experiences? How, philosophically, did that make any sense?
Mind you, this was the 90s. Feminism, as a social movement, was not cool or hip. If you wanted to be those things, you were post-feminist. I think part of the reason my peers, women in their twenties, saw little reason for feminism is because, for some of us, inequality hadn’t hit yet. Still In low-level jobs, pre-kids, women’s gains were noticed more than our setbacks. Again, for me, this was not the case. I witnessed blatant gender disparity because I grew up in a very “privileged” world where men and women seemed like different species: all the men were running the world and all the women were dieting. As a kid, I’m not sure I saw anything “wrong” with this yet, but it struck me.
Though I don’t have to encounter, for the most part, people telling me misogyny isn’t real, I do get pushback, mostly from progressive men and white women, when I point out their sexism. Recently, a progressive male friend of mine posted on Facebook a meme of Kellyanne Conway captioned “Sewer Rat Barbie.” I commented something like: “There are so many reasons to criticize KC for her policies and words, but focusing on her appearance is sexist.” The guy responded that I was overreacting and had no sense of humor. Weeks later (and part of the inspiration for this blog) a New York Times headline came out that read: Sexist Political Criticism Finds a New Target: Kellyanne Conway. The NYT post came out after a Democrat told a joke — hahhahahahaha– alluding to KC’s position on a couch, that it looked like she was giving a blow job.
Here’s the thing: we will not get a woman president until white women and progressive men vote for her, until these groups make gender equality a priority. No matter how hard they search, white women and progressive men will never find a totally pure female candidate to vote for. I’ve blogged before about how many women who hated Hillary assured me they weren’t being sexist (and let’s remember here, yes, women can be sexist. As bell hooks writes “patriarchy has no gender”). They would campaign for Elizabeth Warren. She’s a woman, right? Well, yes, she’s a woman, but, um, she’s not running for president. That, my friends, is what made her so pure and perfect. She wasn’t tainted by ambition, the worst of all female traits. A powerful woman threatens the very foundation of our society and women and men are terrified of her. Recently, Vanity Fair posted: Elizabeth Warren Gets a Reality Check with the subhead: A new poll finds that while Donald Trump would easily lose to a generic Democrat in 2020, the president would wipe the floor with Warren.
In their book, Half the Sky, Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue that gender equality is the paramount moral challenge of our time. We must recognize the ubiquity of misogyny affects so much of America from who we choose as president, to the wars we choose to wage (or not wage) around the world. Until combating sexism is a priority for our citizens, leaders like Trump will rise to power.
I published my draft by mistake. Here’s the completed post:
Because my oldest daughter is 13, we don’t read together anymore, and I miss it. She thinks reading with me is babyish, and I decided a way to lure her back in would be to pick an adult book that would appeal to kids, so I chose White Oleander.
At the start of the book, the protagonist, Astrid, is 12 years old. She spends much of the book in juvenile hall, an institution that fascinates my daughter. We drive by a “juvie” building on her way home from tutoring and she’s always peppering me with questions about it, so perfect, right?
Holy shit, White Oleander is a chilling book. It’s about a narcissistic single mother, Ingrid, who murders her ex-boyfriend leaving Astrid alone to navigate LA’s brutal foster care system. The kind of abuse Ingrid heaps on Astrid is so manipulative and insidious, at times, I felt nauseated reading the story. Part of the mind-fuck Ingrid inflicts on her daughter is she acts as if she’s a free-thinker who encourages her daughter to think for herself and make her own choices as well. Ingrid is a poet. But really, all Ingrid wants is a sidekick, a shadow, an echo, a carbon copy of herself. Ingrid uses her daughter and only connects with Astrid when she can use her. If Astrid is not useful, Ingrid dismisses her.
Ingrid, like many narcissistic mothers, abuses her daughter by “gaslighting.” Gaslighting is a term coined from a movie with Ingrid Bergman, where her partner dims the lights and when she mentions it, he tells her she’s imagining things. Gaslighting is when someone tells you that your thoughts aren’t based in reality to the point where you start to doubt your perceptions. This kind of abuse is often used with partners, but it’s especially horrific if a mother inflicts a child, because she’s so vulnerable to having her reality shaped by a parent.
A big part of a parent’s job is to validate and mirror her child’s emotions. I love this passage in Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time by Stephen Mitchell:
One of the things good parents provide for their children is a partially illusory, elaborately constructed atmosphere of safety, to allow for the establishment of “secure attachment.” Good-enough parents, to use D. W. Winnicott’s term, do not talk with young children about their own terrors, worries, and doubts. They construct a sense of buffered permanence, in which the child can discover and explore without any impinging vigilance, her own mind, her creativity, her joy in living. The terrible destructiveness of child abuse lies not just in trauma of what happens but also the tragic loss of what is not provided– protected space for psychological growth.
It is crucial that the child does not become aware of how labor intensive that protracted space is, of the enormous amount of parental activity going on behind the scenes.
A narcissistic, gaslighting parent uses her child as a receptacle for her thoughts and emotions. When a narcissistic parent is challenged by her child, she either goes into a rage or dismisses her, both are terrifying for a kid. The kid usually complies, becoming what her mother wants her to be, useful, and displays only the traits that her mother wants her to possess. Worst of all, the child believes this is who she really is.
A narcissistic mother dismisses her daughter’s emotions or concerns as petty, not valid, or not even real. To recognize gaslighting, a child has to be confident in her own vision and emotions.
White Oleander is one if the best books I’ve ever read about the complex dance of narcissistic abuse. I won’t tell you how Astrid recovers but thank God she does. At the beginning of White Oleander, Ingrid bets on a horse called Medea’s Pride to win a race. Ingrid is a Medea who tries to murder her daughter’s soul with her self-absorption, all under the guise of her devotion to her kid.
My daughter, by the way, has not stuck with me past chapter one. I’ll have to search for another way to connect.
To cope, I keep repeating to myself: “Self-care, self-care, self-care.” That’s how I’m managing to crawl out of bed, get my kids breakfast, drive them to school, and just now, I finished writing the last chapter of my book, a project that I’ve been working on for six years. While I have another voice in my head consistently telling me everything I try to do is pointless, all my work is for nothing, my actions have no effect, the poet Audre Lorde motivates me now: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Caring for myself is an act of political warfare.
Self-destruction, depression, hopelessness is so easy, but Lorde helps me see that is the self-indulgence. That is not to say I’m not grieving and crying and throwing up and in despair. But I’m also finishing my book and writing this blog. I also read this stat today:
The exit polls are in. Despite all of the fair and empirical reservations Black Women had on putting our future in a Clinton presidency for a second time, 91 percent of Black Women with a college degree voted for HRC. Without a college degree? 95%
Don’t believe the narrative that feminists who enthusiastically supported Hillary were out of touch with the “real” America. It’s just another story telling us that women’s lives don’t matter.
To pin this election on the coastal elite is a cop-out. It’s intellectually dishonest, and it’s beneath us.
We, as a culture, have to stop infantilizing and deifying rural and white working-class Americans. Their experience is not more of a real American experience than anyone else’s, but when we say that it is, we give people a pass from seeing and understanding more of their country. More Americans need to see more of the United States. They need to shake hands with a Muslim, or talk soccer with a middle aged lesbian, or attend a lecture by a female business executive.
We must start asking all Americans to be their better selves. We must all understand that America is a melting pot and that none of us has a more authentic American experience.
Do what you can to take care of yourself today. Please share you actions here, no matter how small.
Dear white women who didn’t vote for Hillary or who did so ‘holding their noses,’
You fucked up. I know ‘blaming women’ for Hillary’s defeat is yet another way to blame women, and where does that get us? I’m hoping the internalized misogyny will finally stop, because as long as white women choose the illusory safety of the patriarchy over the risk of supporting women, change won’t happen. Do you want change? Or do you want to keep electing presidents who are sexual predators, who multiple women accuse of assault, who confess to assault? Do you want this dark future for your daughters?
White women, I know it can feel like you’re in the “okay “category, like you’re safe and accepted, like you’re successfully hedging your bets if you label another woman a slut, or loose, or cheap, or ugly, or say her skirt is too short, she’s too thin or fat, wears too much make up, on and on and on but the patriarchy will never embrace you, will never value you, will never love you.
Yes, Hillary Clinton is flawed just like you are flawed. Just like every human being is flawed. Just like every presidential candidate is flawed. And no, Hillary’s flaws weren’t worse or more dramatic than those others, and previous presidents had the same email issue as she did and on and on. But Hillary is female, along with all those other flaws, and that meant you needed to risk standing by her. Instead, you turned away. Her campaign could not survive the drip, drip, drip of vitriol, the vitriol you let happen, because along with how you just didn’t like her, how you let people call her “crooked” and “corrupt” or a bitch, she was fighting a monster. When she needed you, your money, your stickers, your support, your good words, you abandoned her. The best you could give her was holding your nose?
Instead of supporting Hillary, you let the world humiliate her in countless, public ways. You punished a woman for being ambitious and following her dreams. Now, my three daughters have a completely different future than the one they would’ve had. I pray that the next generation will risk something you didn’t: choosing feminism over patriarchy. I hope to lead by example because my daughters are watching me.
If you want to know more about how #TeamPussy came to be, read my post. Here’s an excerpt about the art:
Our #TeamPussy cat is worn out and pissed off, but she’s a fighter. She’s going to be out there every day with all of you, working hard to make sure Hillary Clinton wins big on November 8 with results that even Donald Trump won’t dare contest. Please join her. Thanks, #pussies! Go team!
Here’s me in my shirt. The colors are off because the photo was dark so my daughter used a filter to brighten it. The cat looks gray, but she’s actually blue as you see above.