‘If I never see another naked, enslaved, raped black woman on screen, I’ll be happy’

Last week, four black feminists participated in a panel discussion hosted by the New School titled: “Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body.” The talk– an in depth discussion about the influence of imagery and narrative on our culture and its role in creating our actual reality– went on for almost two hours. Yet, out of all this, the media reduced trenchant analysis into a sound byte, pitting one black woman against another: “Feminist scholar bell hooks calls Beyonce a terrorist.”

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I encourage you to watch the whole talk. I know you probably won’t, because, as I wrote, it’s two hours long. I didn’t intend to sit through it all myself, but I was so excited and fascinated by what these women were saying, I couldn’t stop listening to them.

These 4 women are creating new narratives and images, beyond woman as victim, sex object, slave. The discussion about Beyonce, specifically her Time cover where she’s shown in her underwear (which totally bummed me out as well when I saw it– why, why, why, the issue is about the most influential people and she’s practically naked, do you know how few women make it to the cover of Time?) is a few minutes of a larger, important talk about women, power, and the nature of reality.

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Here’s how bell hooks began the discussion:

Part of why I’m so excited and proud to be here today is that I’m up here with black women who are all about redefining and creating a different kind of image, liberating the black female body

Not a fan of “12 Years a Slave,” hooks says:

If I never see another naked, enslaved, raped black woman on the screen as long as I live,  I’ll be happy.

 

YES! I could not agree more. I am so sick of watching women get raped. After the talk, someone in the audience challenged hooks, saying she felt conflicted about hooks’ reaction to “12 Years:’

we still need to have those conversations about rape and violence on stage…how can we have those conversations, the role of slavery and colonization on women’s bodies? Can we make space for both?

 

Here’s how hooks responded:

Because we have been so saturated, I mean, I think one of the big lies that’s going around is, “Oh, we never talked about slavery, oh, we don’t have images of slavery.” We had “Roots” and more “Roots,” and there’ve been all these different books and productions, so that I think of that as a kind of myth building thing when people say, “Oh, we don’t have images.” Notice I didn’t say I don’t want to see anything about slavery. I don’t want to see those same tropes over and over again.

 

hooks speaks about some narratives that involve slavery she’d like to see, for example, when John Wollman and the Quakers met and decided they could not support slavery and believe in the god they believed in, that in fact, they owed back wages to slaves.

that would be an interesting film for me… more interesting to me as an image, as an idea than the repetitive image of victimhood, and I think that they’re all kinds of images and stories out there that could bring us into a different level of understanding.

 

hooks was making exactly the same point about Beyonce. She was referring to the repetition of sexualized images of women and how the inundation is an assault on our brains, especially for kids:

I see a part of Beyonce that is, in fact, anti-feminist, that is assaulting, that is a terrorist, in especially terms of the impact on young girls. I actually feel like the major assault of feminism in our society is has come from visual media… The tirades against feminism occur so much in the image making business…What I’m concerned about constantly in my critical imagination is why is it we don’t have liberatory images that are away from, not an inversion of, what society has told us, but our own sense of: what am I looking like when I am free?

 

That, right there, is what my whole blog Reel Girl is about. What does gender equality look like? Do we have any idea? Where do we see it, even in the fantasy world? If we can’t imagine it, we can’t create it. There is no good reason for the fantasy world– especially the fantasy world created for children– to be sexist, to put males front and center again and again, while females are literally marginalized and sexualized, stuck on the sidelines if they get to exist at all. To repeat, hooks says:

The tirades against feminism occur so much in the image making business

hooks wants new images. She says:

I would never want my child to see “12 Years a Slave” because it’s the imprint of the black, female body as victimized.

 

Again, totally agree. Obviously, “12 Years” isn’t a movie for kids, but I see endless books and movies, supposedly feminist ones where girls are mocked for being girls, then they rise above it and prove everyone wrong. Fuck that. I hope in children’s media I never have to read about or watch another girl dressing up as a boy, fighting or cooking “as good as a boy can,” from Mulan to Tamora Pierce to Elena’s Serenade to endless Minority Feisty. The reason this trope is awful for girls– and boys– is because before your child can understand the narrative, she needs to understand sexism. Instead of having Colette in “Ratatouille” give a whole speech about male dominated kitchens, why not make a movie with a female top chef and her best friend is a female talking-cooking rat? Audiences will buy that a rodent can run a three star restaurant but not a female? Like hooks says, we are saturated with this same old, same old. If we weren’t, it would be a different story (ha.) The slavery narrative in all its forms has its place, but we need a break. It’s too dominant. There are many other stories to tell.

By the way, hooks walks her talk. She wrote Happy to be Nappy for kids in 2001, and in this discussion, she says she includes it in her most important, favorite works.

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Another speaker on the panel, Shola Lynch, is a filmmaker whose most recent production is a documentary about Angela Davis.

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In referring to her film as “a political crime drama with a love story at the center,” she reframes Davis’ narrative. Next, Lynch is making a movie about Harriet Tubman, who she calls an “action heroine.” Can you believe there hasn’t been a movie about Harriet Tubman? Lynch says that even though Tubman’s story is true, people don’t “believe” it. The same phenomenon happened with the Davis movie. About selling that film, Lynch says:

So then I have conversations where somebody’s like, “Oh, it’s a great film as a documentary, but the only reason I would support it is I have to know who the main male characters are because it’ll be flipped to be a narrative, women’s stories don’t sell”… Her story is true, but not possible. People don’t believe it. But it’s all true.”

 

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Talking about why she would rather make movies about heroes than victims, Lynch refers to “symbolic annihilation:”

Symbolic annihilation is two things: not seeing yourself, but it’s also seeing yourself only denigrated, victimized etc, and what that does to you. We can talk about all the things that denigrate us, but I’d rather shift the camera, shift my gaze, and look for the images and the people and the places that feed me. I really do think, you talk about children, the more we create our culture, our cultural images– the books you write, the films I make, the alternatives, that these are artifacts that live, and they speak to people whether we’re there or not, bodies of work, and that is critical. I want to give one example. My daughter, she’s 4. She’s never known me not working on the Angela Davis film which took 8 years. She was so excited when I could show her the trailer. ..The trailer is like 2 minutes long and she watched that trailer over and over and over again…She would point out all the characters, she loved going ‘That’s Angela’s mom.” So she created Angela’s family and a sense of community just by watching this thing over and over again. But that’s not what I wanted to share. So she’s a little girl, she wants to be a princess, I’m trying to convince her she wants to be a warrior princess, that’s blonde and poofy and glam. She woke up one morning and her hair was all out, just like, you know, big, out, out, out. Usually it’s like, “Oh mom, my hair is too puffy.” This morning, after watching the trailer over and over again, she said, “I have Angela Davis hair.”  So I thought I was making this political crime drama with a love story at the center etcetera, etcetera, etcetra, but I was also making another image for young people to see and to perhaps relate to. And I was blown away, because I can tell her she’s beautiful all day long. I’m her mom, doesn’t count. The more we create the alternative universe which then becomes the universe.

Another panelist, writer Marci Blackman, echoes Lynch’s point:

My characters are the people who I grew up seeing every day who I don’t see, not just in literature, I don’t see them on TV…They weren’t there in the worlds that I was inhabiting when I would sit and go to the library and read, so I decided I wanted to write them, and I wanted to write people like me who I wasn’t seeing in the books either. I wanted to create these characters and put them out there, and I think what you say about self-representation and putting it out there to count as a counteract against these other images.

 

(This happens to be the second blog I’ve written about this talk. The earlier blog was all about Marci Blackman, who spoke about how she was stopped and searched by TSA agents because they couldn’t tell if she was male or female. No media outlets that I know of covered that discrimination story either.)

hooks ends the talk with this statement:

The journey to freedom has also been so much about the journey of imagination, the capacity to imagine yourself differently, counter-hegemonically, and that’s why the imagination is so important because Shola imagined Angela Davis in a different way from the images we had of her. That imagination of oneself, I would like us to end on that note and people can speak about creativity, because it is striking to me and I didn’t think about this when we were putting the panel together that for each of us, creativity and the uses of imagination have been what led us into the freedom we have. It has been what enhances my life every day. To be able to think and create and leap and jump beyond where I feel like we have been told, theoretically, intellectually that we should go.

Imagination inspires reality inspires imagination in an endless loop. It’s magic. That’s the point bell hooks was making about Beyonce. If you still don’t get it, here’s one last quote from hooks and then watch the video for yourself.

We can gather strength from the diversity of people’s stories, the diversity of people’s imagination.

 

Update: I just saw “Belle.” It’s such a great film that has to do with everything I blogged about here. Please go see it! Read my review here: “Belle” most extraordinary movie of the year, take your kids!

 

Start your summer reading early: Pick up ‘Redefining Girly’

UPDATED POST: REDEFINING GIRLY BLOG TOUR!

The Internet spreads all kinds of social ills, from cyberbullying to mainstreaming hardcore pornography, but for me, the good far outweighs the bad, because I’ve “met” people like the excellent and amazing author of Redefining Girly, Melissa Wardy. Melissa’s blog and online community are a truly invaluable resource that support protecting childhood and raising healthy kids. Now, lucky you– she’s written a book.

From author Melissa Wardy: Hi Margot and hello to all of your Reel Girl readers. I’m so thrilled to be making a stop on the Redefining Girly Blog Tour at one of the blogs that I personally really love. I hope all of you enjoy reading Margot’s thoughts on my new book Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween and at the end of the post find out how you can win one of two Redefine Girly t-shirt gift packs.

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Melissa started her children’s clothing company, Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies, not long after her daughter was born, because she couldn’t find a single onesie that showed a girl with an airplane. Really not cool, especially when she named her child after Amelia Earhart. On her site, Melissa writes:

Pigtail Pals was born in May 2009 with the mission to Redefine Girly! I believe girls need to see messages in early childhood that show females being smart, daring, and adventurous. As the saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

 

What I love about Melissa is that she walks her talk. A mom can tell her daughters all day long that pretty isn’t the most important thing about them, but if she’s obsessed with her appearance and dieting, what is she showing her kids about her values? The sad truth of parenting is that actions matter more than words, and kids learn from what they experience, not from what they hear you talk at them. That, in my opinion, is the hardest thing about being a mom: trying not to be a hypocrite. Notice I write trying, which brings me to why I value Melissa’s book and believe it’s essential reading for every parent. She helps me to not be a hypocrite and– this is super important–  to be kind as well. I know how to be reactive, to tell the truth and be angry about it (as Gloria Steinem famously said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.)” I’m not always sure how to effectively handle a sweet teacher who tells my daughter every morning how pretty she is, a “princess party” birthday invitation sent by a best friend, or a proposed “playdate” to the mall.

In 2014, the world our children live in is horribly sexist, a place where teachers, doctors, and family, often the people your children love and respect, indoctrinate them to expect and accept all kinds of gender stereotypes. But thanks to Melissa, you don’t have to cave in or isolate. You actually have choices in how you respond and act. Knowing this is liberating and calming. Melissa helps families transition from victims of gender stereotyping to creative heroes who are redefining a nd restoring childhood for our kids. For example, Melissa teaches you how to redefine girly in your own home, again by showing kids a new way with, for example, a hands on dad in the family who does laundry, by encouraging her son to play with dolls, by being a mom who uses tools and fixes things (along with cooking and cleaning), by eating desert with her kids and enjoying it. She gives advice on what to do if a friend or family member gives you hand me down clothes or toys that don’t fit with your ideal:

We’ll say “Thank you so much for thinking of us” and then politely decline or donate away items that carry messages that don’t fit with our family morals.

 

Simple, right? Yet, so many of us get tongue tied. Melissa’s book is full of useable, practical advice. With her signature combination of compassion and unflinching directness, Melissa gives tips for how to get friends and family on board. First, she reminds you: what you are doing is important. You are not insane. If you care about redefining girly, have no doubt that people will tell you the sexism that you see hurting children is trivial or doesn’t exist at all. Melissa writes:

Remember that you are not alone or crazy for seeing problems with the emotionally toxic ways our culture treats girls. The Resources section at the end of this book is full of alternatives, information, and the names of experts who can help. Our daughters deserve a girlhood free of harm and limitations.

 

Melissa lists specific tips on how to deal with criticism of your views:

Have a prepared team response you and your parenting partner will use that lets family know this is an issue you take seriously and that you want to have your wishes respected. My husband and I use “We want Amelia to be healthy and happy and we feel this is the best path to achieve that.” (We use the same message for our son.)

 

Have fun alternatives ready to suggest to family and friends who bring media into your home that you feel are unhealthy. This way you are not just saying no to their media, you are saying yes to healthier choices.

 

Have a secret signal for your kids to use so they can communicate to you that they need to ask you a question or talk to you about something later (like a baseball coach signal– helpful when a gift is given or a comment is made that your kids know goes against what you teach in your home.)

 

Melissa also has great one-liners that come in handy including: colors are for everyone, pretty’s got nothing to do with it, toys are made for kids not genders, there are many ways to be a boy/ girl.

Excellent sections in the book include: Encouraging kids at play– the Diverse Toy Box, Around the Kitchen Table– Fat Talk and Body Image, Using Your Voice and Consumer Power To Fight the Companies Making Major Missteps, and my favorite– Becoming the Media You Want to See.

I can’t recommend this book more. Not only will it help you redefine girly, but it shows you how to have fun and be happy while you’re changing the world. I’ve been trying to blog about this book since it came out in January and I tore through it, but it was too damn hard because I wanted to quote the entire thing. Today, I set myself a time limit and my time is up. (I only got through my notes on the first couple chapters.) So I’ll end with THANK YOU MELISSA. I think you’re about 10 years younger than me, but you’re my role model. I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Reel Girl rates Redefining Girly ***HHH***

From author Melissa Wardy: Thank you Margot for those wonderful words about my book. It is an honor to receive accolades from such a well-versed writer in this area but also from a woman and mom whom I highly respect. I would love to hear from your audience now and have them share either something they have learned from Redefining Girly if they have already read it, or have them describe an issue/concern they have currently with their daughter that they are hoping to learn more about when they do read the book. I’ll pick two winners to receive a Redefining Girly t-shirt gift pack (two tees + shipping). Winners will be chosen Friday May 30 at 8pm PST so make sure to get a comment in before then! Okay Reel Girl readers, what are your thoughts on Redefining Girly?”

 

Dear Barbie

Dear Barbie,

Thank you for your letter explaining the decision to put you in Sports Illustrated wearing your zebra stripe bathing suit.

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As the mother of three young daughters, I have some issues with your letter I want to address.

You write:

My bathing suit now hangs beside a Presidential power suit, Pastry Chef hat, and Astronaut gear in a wardrobe reflecting the more than 150 careers I’ve pursued to illustrate for girls that they can achieve anything for which they aim. And yet, I am still seen as just a pretty face. It’s simpler to keep me in a box—and since I am a doll—chances are that’s where I’ll stay.

The problem is that while my daughters, in their short lives, have already seen thousands of women celebrated in magazines for how “beautiful” they look in a bathing suit, they have yet to see a woman grace the cover– or “promotional overlap”– of a magazine for being president of the USA. Of course, that’s because there has never been a female president in this country.

As far as the pastry chef hat, celebrating great female cooks in the media is also lacking. Just one recent example, in Time Magazine’s recent “Gods of Food” story, there are zero women.

Female astronauts? The Mars Explorer Barbie is described:

Mars Explorer Barbie® doll launches the first “one-doll” mission to Mars. Ready to add her signature pink splash to the “red planet,” Barbie® doll is outfitted in a stylish space suit with pink reflective accents, helmet, space pack and signature pink space boots.

Do you think “adding a signature pink splash” is the best way to inspire our daughters to become astronauts? Barbie’s professions aren’t defined by much more than what she wears. The emphasis is still on her outfit. The message to girls is that how they look is the most important thing about them.

Next in your letter, you write:

Every year, Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit drums up conversation and controversy. Upon the launch of this year’s 50th anniversary issue, there will again be buzz and debate over the validity of the women in the magazine, questioning if posing in it is a blow to female equality and self-image. In 2014, does any woman in the issue seriously need permission to appear there?

 

A woman doesn’t need permission to be in SI, but you, as the opening sentence of your letter states, are a doll, a doll made “for girls.” So when you’re in a magazine created for adults, and girls see your picture, they’ll think that this magazine is for them. They’ll want to flip through the pages, and if they do, they’ll see picture after picture of mostly naked adult women in sexual poses. When I blogged about Barbie in SI earlier, someone made this comment:

To me this just proves Barbies are NOT really children’s toys at all! Maybe that’s what they are “unapologetic” about? As in “Haha, suckers! You’ve been buying your daughters miniature sex dolls for 50+ years!”

 

If you’re coming out a sex doll, that’s Mattel’s choice, but the rest of the company’s advertising should reflect a consistent message. Stop trying to appeal to children, because that’s confusing, and confusing kids and sex is dangerous: one out five girls is sexually abused. When a culture is accustomed to seeing girls sexualized, we stay apathetic towards identifying it and taking action towards stopping this epidemic. In case you’re not familiar with sexualization, it’s different that healthy sexuality. Sexualization is when girls understand sexuality as performance, when its not connected to real feelings or desire. Sexualization happens when girls are exposed to adult sexuality too early. Here’s the definition of sexualization from the the American Psychological Association:

There are several components to sexualization, and these set it apart from healthy sexuality. Sexualization occurs when

  • a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

All four conditions need not be present; any one is an indication of sexualization. The fourth condition (the inappropriate imposition of sexuality) is especially relevant to children. Anyone (girls, boys, men, women) can be sexualized. But when children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them. Self-motivated sexual exploration, on the other hand, is not sexualization by our definition, nor is age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.

 

In your letter, you go on to defend models as more than pretty faces, claiming you want them to be recognized for their other achievements as authors, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists. But if you want more recognition for these professions, why showcase Barbie in her bathing suit?

You write:

Models choosing to pose in a bikini aren’t the problem.

How much “choice” is really involved when modeling is one of the only professions where women outearn men? How much choice is involved when ever since women were girls, they’ve seen women repeatedly celebrated on the cover of magazines– not so much for being authors, entrepreneurs or philanthropists– but for how they look in bathing suits? When female writers are relegated to chicklit, when the female CEO of General Motors earns half of her male predecessor’s salary, and when women hold 1% of the world’s wealth, making the “choice” to be a model may seem like the best way to success among such limited, sexist options.

There’s nothing innovative about Barbie in Sports Illustrated. This magazine has let a woman on the cover of a non-swimsuit issue only 66 times. That’s about once a year. These pictures are the same old, same old except for one thing: Barbie is taking the sexualizing of girlhood to an offensive and dangerous new low.

Sincerely,

Margot Magowan

 

 

Children are not small adults

Today, Peggy Orenstein has a great quote on her blog from Catherine Steiner-Adair’s book, The Big Disconnect, that eloquently reminds us: children are not small adults.

Children come to life innocent, unaware of the harsh aspects of pain and suffering and how cruel people can be. Part of the job of parenting is to protect them from that harsh truth long enough for them to develop a sense of goodness and core values of optimism, trust, internal curiosity, and a hunger for learning. If they see too much too soon–before they’re neurologically and emotionally ready to process it–it can short-circuit that natural curiosity. Boys and girls alike are easily traumatized by premature exposure to the media-based adult culture that cultivates cynicism and cynical values, treats sex and violence as entertainment, routinely sexualizes perceptions of girls and women, and encourages aggression in boys.

 

This reminds me of a passage from one of my favorite books, 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.

 

I wish media and toys created “for children” didn’t make it so hard for parents to protect their imaginations.

Alameda County DA reports child sex trade epidemic in Oakland

I live in San Francisco and right across the bay, Oakland is the epicenter of human trafficking in the Bay Area. At this moment, 13 year old girls are being sold as sex slaves and practically everyone chooses to look the other way.

That’s right, in 2014 slavery exists in America and the victims are young girls. Of course, this slavery isn’t legal, but when no one does much to stop it, it may as well be.

Starting today,  Nancy O’Malley, the DA of Alameda county is putting up 27 billboards to educate the public about human trafficking, because for some reason, a lot of people seem to know nothing about it.

In an op-ed for the Contra Costa Times explaining her PR move, O’Malley writes:

The FBI has identified Oakland as an epicenter of trafficking in the Bay Area counties. The majority of exploited children are 13 to 16 years old, some as young as 11…Even more shocking, the number of commercially sexually exploited children is increasing, while the average age of those exploited is decreasing…There are two sides — supply and demand — that make sex trafficking of our children possible. Human trafficking exists because there is an endless and disgraceful demand for children for sex and traffickers fill that demand daily.

 

What can you do? O’Malley is clear on steps she’d like you to take. Below are quotes from her op-ed:

(1) If you see something, say something. Keep the human trafficking hotline in your cellphone, 888-373-7888 or text Be Free (233733), and report anything suspicious. Through this hotline, more than 75,000 calls have come in to identify nearly 9,000 survivors.

(2) You can also sign up for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office Human Exploitation and Trafficking Watch mailing list at HEAT-Watch.org to learn more about human trafficking and what you can do to join the fight. Download a free toolkit so you can build your capacity to hold traffickers accountable and keep victims safe.

(3) Donate your time and money to organizations that are making a difference, such as Misssey, Bay Area Women Against Rape, West Coast Children’s Clinic and HEAT Watch.

(4) Speak out: Let policymakers know we need the toughest penalties for traffickers and the predators who buy children for sex and resources for victims of human trafficking. Together, we will we put an end to modern-day slavery.

I have another suggestion for you. Please, do what you can to stop contributing to the sexualizing of young girls. Read my post here and don’t help to spread propaganda, in the form of media and toys, that sexualizes young girls. These products are not innocuous but dangerous. Sexualizing girls happens everywhere, so ubiquitous it’s paradoxically invisible.

Here are just a few examples of how we sexualize kids. Take a look at the popular Polly Pocket toy. This toy is marketed to girls ages 4 – 7 and the toy is all about dressing the doll in “sexy” outfits. Why would a parent buy her little daughter a toy like this?

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Here are the Bratz dolls.

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Melissa Wardy of Pigtails Pals recently wrote:

Try this test: If the image can be lifted from the child’s toy/backpack/t-shirt and placed on the billboard for a strip club and not look out of place, then things are seriously fucked.

Wardy blogged that after she and her young daughter walked to school behind a first grade girl wearing this backpack.

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Wardy writes:

Given what we know about how early sexualization harms young girls,  I cannot understand how parents allow this kind of imagery and media in their homes.

This year, France outlawed child beauty pageants because they are so dangerous for children. The New York Times reports:

Ms. Jouanno, a former junior minister for environment and a senator representing Paris from the center-right party U.D.I., wrote a report on the “hypersexualization” of children in 2011. The report was commissioned by the health minister in response to public outrage over a photo display in Paris Vogue that featured under-age girls in sexy clothes and postures, with high heels, makeup and painted fingernails.

But in the USA, we have hit TV shows like “Honey Boo Boo” and “Toddlers and Tiaras” that glorify the exploitation of girls. Here, in the home of the free and the brave, sexualizing kids is accepted and normal. We allow it and condone it.

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. That is my interpretation of O’Malley’s billboards. I am so grateful she is taking a leadership position to end child trafficking. Please follow her example and act to end the sexual abuse of children.

 

 

Open request to strangers, doctors, teachers: Don’t make small talk about my daughter’s appearance

There is an excellent letter from Kasey Edwards to Santa posted on the blog Role/ Reboot. Here’s how it begins:

Dear Santa,

What I want for Christmas is for people to stop objectifying my daughter.

 

But after I took my 4-year-old daughter Violet to visit you last week, it seems that even YOU can’t deliver on this particular request.

 

You may recall that we walked into your little house for the family photo and you remarked on every item of clothing Violet was wearing—including her socks.

 

And then you told her she was the most beautiful and best-dressed person in the shopping center.

 

Couldn’t you have just stopped there? Hell no! You kept going and suggested that she takes up modeling when she grows up.

 

I wrote a post about this topic 2 years ago, when my youngest daughter started preschool.

I know making small talk with a two year old is hard. Toddlers can be shy, are easily distracted, and might even burst into tears if you say the wrong thing. It’s not easy to break the ice. But please: if you meet a little girl on the street, in a store, on the playground,  try to think of something, anything to say rather than commenting on her hair, dress, shoes, eyes etc.

 

My two year old just started preschool, and by the time I’ve kissed her good bye and left her in the classroom, she’s gotten about 10 compliments on her appearance. Of course, she’s adorable. All little kids are. But remember, their little brains are getting wired up. Kids love attention, to be smiled at, and to connect– these are exactly the kinds of interactions that make their brains grow. When they learn, this young, that so many responses are based on how they look, it affects them for life.

 

For alternative ice breakers try “Hi, you seem happy today! What’s going on? (or sad or angry)” or “Is that your kitty? (or bunny, dog) What’s her name?” Talk about the weather, seriously. Ask if they come here often. If you must say something to a little girl about how she looks, balance it out with other topics that have nothing to do with her appearance (meaning don’t talk about how she looks unless this is going to be a long interaction.)

 

When people tell your daughter how pretty she is, don’t repeat the compliment to her (as in “She loves this dress. It’s her favorite.”) Don’t make her say thank you. Gently deflect the topic. No matter what other people say, you’re the parent whose opinion matters most to her at this age. Do tell your daughters they are beautiful “on the inside and the outside.” It’s something that should be said by you and that she feels confident about. It’s the proportion of looks based comments, the constant repetition of them, and how they form the basis for social interaction that’s damaging.

 

In her letter to Santa, Edwards also gives some suggestions about how to break the ice when talking to a little girl besides focusing on her appearance, though, obviously, these are geared towards Santa.

-       Where have you been today? or Where are you going today?

–       How old are you?

–       What do you want to be when you grow up?

–       What’s your favorite book/toy/sport/animal/food/song?

–       Do you know any Christmas carols?

–       Check out your surroundings and remark on something such as a flowering plant, a truck, a picture on the wall, Christmas decorations, even the weather.

–       Or just imagine what you would say to her if she were boy.

 

I love the last one. Thinking that way really helps to become aware of our sexist conditioning. I get how challenging this is. Yesterday, my two older daughters dressed my younger one, and she went out into the world looking like this.

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I tried my best to get the monster-flower off her head, but had to give up because my struggle was getting counter-productive. I was giving her appearance too much attention. But I knew it was unlikely this kid would go out in the world and no one would comment on that thing, which was, by the way, a Christmas present. That’s its whole purpose, right? It’s going to feel almost rude to an adult to ignore it.

But that’s what I’m asking you to do. Ignore it. But don’t ignore her. Talk about something else. Ask her how her day is going or what she’s on her way to do or if she had a good sleep last night.

In Melissa Wardy’s great new book Redefining Girly, Rosalind Wiseman offers these suggestions:

So compliment her on something she’s specifically doing that you think is great. Ask friends for their support because you’ll be raising your girls together. To strangers, I’d say: “Thanks, but you know what is the coolest thing about her? She draws animals incredibly well!” Yes, the other person may think you’re strange for saying something so random but your daughter will hear you complimenting something she specifically does, bringing attention to a skill you admire. She’ll know that the most important people in her life value her for more than her appearance.

This is messy stuff and you don’t have to fight every single battle that comes your way. If you’re too tired to have these conversations on a particular day, don’t sweat it. You’ll always have another day. Be proud of taking this one on. I see way too many girls whose parents haven’t provided this guidance and support and truly believe their self value is based on looking like the “perfect girl.”

 

From the moment they are born, girl babies get attention for how they look. They are dressed like dolls and turned into objects by their own parents, a practice reinforced by our powerfully sexist culture. For too many women, how we look is the source of our identity and power or lack there of. When is it going to stop? Why not start with you? Make a different kind of small talk with the next little girl you see. It’s a small but powerful step to change the world.

Update: I’m getting lots of comments where people are saying style and fashion are about free choice and autonomy. When a little kid conforms to certain choices– poofy dresses,  giant hairpieces– and receives positive attention from strangers, teachers, doctors, where is her free choice?

The gender marketing aimed at kids today is so aggressive, there isn’t really free choice anymore. For example, If you ask her, almost every little girl will tell you that pink is her favorite color, but it wasn’t always that way. Pink wasn’t even a “girl” color until the last century. Before that, it was a “boy” color, a pastel version of red which symbolized courage. Blue used to be a girl color because it was the color of the Virgin Mary, and that’s why early Disney heroines like Cinderella and Alice were shown in blue.

Below, I’m posting a video of my daughter talking about getting bullied at preschool for wearing “boy shoes.” If a 4 year old girl gets compliments and positive affirmation for wearing a flower on her head but she gets mocked, ostracized, or ignored for wearing “Star Wars” shoes, what is she going to choose? Where is her free choice?

It’s only going to come when we all stop focusing so much attention on what she looks like.

One solution I tried that worked pretty well when my daughter was two was to have my her pick out 4 favorite dresses and wear them repeatedly. She was pleased b/c she loved the dresses, but at least the preschool parents, teachers, and peers stopped commenting on the same old, same old. I blogged about that here. My daughter has done pretty well holding on to autonomy so far, but I find, every year she gets older, it becomes harder to protect her imagination.

Boxing Day question: Are dads cleaning up and putting away Christmas loot?

My house looks like a tornado blew through. I feel completely overwhelmed when I look at what’s happened.

I just saw this on my Facebook feed from Gallant Girls.

Good morning, Gallant Girls and Guys! Now that the holiday festivities are over (until New Years), hopefully we are ALL working together to clean up and put away the aftermath of the holiday. Right?!

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My husband is cleaning up this morning so I can take a few hours to write. I have to get my next chapter to my editor by tomorrow. Without his help, that would be impossible.

Sheryl Sandberg has said that who you marry is a career decision, and I couldn’t agree more. If I didn’t have a partner who supported my work and my dreams, there is no way, with three kids, I would be able to act towards making them come true.

Erica Jong has said lots of people have talent but what is rare is the courage to follow it. I read a post on Salon that I can’t take the time to find right now (because I’m supposed to be writing my chapter) about sexism, literature, and “chicklit,” where the author writes something like: How many women are going to close the office door and tell their family they need to write?

Now, consider how many men are going to close that office door? How many men have wives who will organize and put away everything without expecting their husbands to do equal work or will be so grateful for any “help?”

There is another reason I get to write today. My three kids are in camp. I can afford to send them there. How many women also have the income to put towards childcare so they can write? And this principle, of course, goes back to Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” her essay about Shakespeare’s mythical sister. Without the space and the income, women can’t write. If women can’t write, they can’t create narratives with female protagonists. If stories with female protagonists don’t exist, women and men both learn that females belong on the sidelines and in supporting roles.

Once my three hours of writing are up, it’ll be my turn to clean, food shop, and pick the kids up at camp. Because I will have gotten my work done, I’ll be excited to go on with this part of my day and be a better mom.

If dads did half of the childraising and the housekeeping, moms would be that much closer to changing the world.

 

 


U.S. lags behind other countries in stopping sexism

This week, Sweden announced it will implement a movie rating system that will inform viewers if the film is sexist. Sweden will use the Bechdel test which requires that the movie have (1) at least two females (2) who talk to each other (3) about something other than a man.

The Guardian reports:

“The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, all Star Wars movies, The Social Network, Pulp Fiction and all but one of the Harry Potter movies fail this test,” said Ellen Tejle, the director of Bio Rio, an art-house cinema in Stockholm’s trendy Södermalm district…Beliefs about women’s roles in society are influenced by the fact that movie watchers rarely see “a female superhero or a female professor or person who makes it through exciting challenges and masters them”, Tejle said, noting that the rating doesn’t say anything about the quality of the film. “The goal is to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens,” he added.

 

I love the Bechdel test, but I adapted it to rate movies for children to discount the Pink Ghetto. For the Magowan Test for Gender Bias in Children’s Movies (1) at least two females who are friends (2) go on an adventure (3) and don’t wear revealing clothing. Simple requirements, yet surprisingly difficult for Hollywood to even come close to meeting in the many movies put out for little kids every year.

Recently, Saroya Chemaly posted in Salon The MPAA’s backwards logic: Sex is dangerous, sexism is fine:

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.

 

I couldn’t agree more. The lack of attention to the rampant and repetitive sexism in children’s movies is exactly why I started Reel Girl. I rate children’s movies on a scale of 1 – 3 S’s to denote gender stereotyping. I would much rather my kids hear a swear word than witness more narratives and images where females are sexualized and marginalized. When I started Reel Girl, almost four years ago, I couldn’t find anything else on the internet that rated children’s movies and products for sexism.

The Week also posted recently: Why female pleasure, not sex, is the real taboo:

The common defense of television censorship is the need to protect the young and impressionable. It’s all for the children. So why is it that a national broadcaster in the 21st century feels the need to bleep out a scene of a teenage girl masturbating, while the rest of television is stuffed to the gills with scenes depicting rape, torture, suicide, and sex between middle-aged adults and adolescents?

Sweden gets this hypocrisy and is addressing it. While I am so psyched this country is taking major steps to alert viewers about sexism, I’m upset that the home of the free and the brave remains slow on the uptake. I honestly think my blog, Reel Girl, is the best resource for rating sexism in children’s movies, and I do it for free, when I have a few minutes of time.

It’s not just sexist movies that our country endorses as OK for kids. While the U.S. has made child beauty pageants a national pastime, with TV hits like “Toddlers and Tiaras” and “Honey Boo Boo,” this year, France outlawed the sexist practice. The New York Times reports:

 

“It is extremely destructive for a girl between the age of 6 and 12 to hear her mother say that what’s important for her is to be beautiful,” Chantal Jouanno, the ban’s champion, said Wednesday. “We are fighting to say: What counts is what they have in their brains.”

Ms. Jouanno, a former junior minister for environment and a senator representing Paris from the center-right party U.D.I., wrote a report on the “hypersexualization” of children in 2011. The report was commissioned by the health minister in response to public outrage over a photo display in Paris Vogue that featured under-age girls in sexy clothes and postures, with high heels, makeup and painted fingernails. The episode drew attention to the increasing use of very young girls in fashion photography and advertisements.

Of course, child beauty pageants don’t just affect the contestants, but everyone who sees the images of these sexualized kids on TV or in magazines.

Moving on to the United Kingdom where after a campaign by Let Toys Be Toys for Girls and Boys, Toys R Us announced it would divide products by type instead of by gender. What about Toys R Us in the USA? Or Target? Not so much.

So why do you think Sweden, France, and the United Kingdom have taken leadership positions in stopping sexism while the U.S. lags behind? I know there’s some bad evidence against us, such as not one female president in our entire history, but aren’t we supposed to support equality and justice for all? Isn’t that our thing?

I have a theory on why the U.S. continues to be a leader in promoting, rather than stopping sexism. While our role as superpower slips as we move further into a global economy, the U.S. remains clearly dominant in one area: culture. American movies dominate the world. While Obama may fall from favor, everyone worldwide knows and adores Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. My guess is that because of this role as a culture shaper, the U.S. and its mutinational companies like Disney and everything Hollywood will be reticent to change and risk losing hegemony over world culture. The irony is, if the U.S. continues to lag behind in recognizing sexism, eventually, it will lose its position as #1 culture shaper. The change towards recognizing sexism, so ubiquitous that its, paradoxically, become invisible, is happening much slower than I would like it too, but it is happening. Sweden, France, and Australia are starting to get it. Women are the world’s largest untapped resource. As long as we keep selling women short, we all lose.

On a positive note, I did just get this email from Hillary Clinton.

On Friday, we announced a new initiative to accelerate the progress of women and girls at home and around the world. We call it No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project, and I hope you’ll be a part of it.

No Ceilings has its roots nearly twenty years ago, and we hope it will have an impact just as far into the future.

The great unfinished business of our time In 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, 189 countries set an ambitious goal: Women and girls should be able to participate fully in the progress and prosperity of their societies. I was proud to co-lead the American delegation to the conference and to declare to the world that “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

We’ve made a lot of progress since that day – more girls are in school, more women hold jobs, and more women serve in public office – but we’re still a long way from the goal of full participation. Women and girls continue to face ceilings that limit what they can achieve and hold back entire economies and societies. More than 100 countries have laws on the books that restrict women’s participation in the economy. Women are nearly half of the world’s population, but hold only 20 percent of all parliamentary seats. Around the world, including in the United States, women tend to earn less than men. And nearly 5 million girls are still married under the age of 15 every year.

The great unfinished business of the 21st century is helping women and girls break through these ceilings and contribute fully in every aspect of life.

I was in Beijing in 1995. I was 26 years old. I felt inspired and hopeful. Maybe what the U.S. needs to risk making change is a female president leading the way.

Art creates reality: Imagining gender equality in the fantasy world

Some good quotes here. Let me know what you think

Bono on Jay-Z in November’s Vanity Fair:

In music, we love the idea of the screwed-up, shooting-up. fucked-up artist. The one bleeding in the garret having cut his own ear off. Jay-Z is a new kind of 21st-century artist where the canvas is not just the 12 notes, the wicked beats, and a rhyming dictionary in his head. It’s commerce, it’s politics, the fabric of the real as well as the imagined life.

 

Stephen Mitchell in Can Love Last, the Fate of Romance Over Time

It is the hallmark of the shift in basic psychoanalytic sensibility that the prototype of mental health for many contemporary psychoanalyitc authors is not the scientist but the artist. A continual objective take on reality is regarded as neither possible nor valuable in contrast to the ability to develop and move in and out of different perspectives of reality.

 

New York Times, October:

Public narratives about a career make a difference. The most common career aspiration named on Girls Who Code applications is forensic science. Like Allen, few if any of the girls have ever met anyone in that field, but they’ve all watched “CSI,” “Bones” or some other show in which a cool chick with great hair in a lab coat gets to use her scientific know-how to solve a crime. This so-called “CSI” effect has been credited for helping turn forensic science from a primarily male occupation into a primarily female one.

Jezebel reacting to New York Times piece:

The New York Times today would like to suggest that storytelling is powerful, that, in the whole art/life dynamic, it’s life that imitates art, not the other way around, at least not when it comes to kids imagining viable career paths for themselves.

 

Whoopi Goldberg:

Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.

 

In the fantasy world, anything is possible, so why do little kids see so few female heroes and female protagonists on TV and in the movies? While boy “buddy stories” are everywhere you look, why is it so hard to see two females working together to save the world? Why are females, half of the kid population, presented as a minority in fantasy world? Why are TV shows, movies, and books about boys “for everyone” while shows and movies about girls “just for girls?” When we pass on stories to our kids, what are we teaching them about gender, about who they are right now and who they will become?

One more quote for you from neuroscientist, Lise Eliot:

“Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds, grammar, and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires it up only to perceive and produce a specific language. After puberty, its possible to learn another language but far more difficult. I think of gender differences similarly. The ones that exist become amplified by the two different cultures that boys and girls are immersed in from birth. This contributes to the way their emotional and cognitive circuits get wired.”

Eliot believes: “Simply put, your brain is what you do with it.”So let’s all use our brains to imagine gender equality in the fantasy world, take actions to manifest that vision, and see what happens next. I bet it’ll be amazing.

When is it OK for kids to read YA books about rape or incest?

I just posted on the excellent Graceling trilogy and added that I would not let my 10 year old read it because of the rape and incest. I suggested 15 might be a good age. Then I went back and edited, remembering the rape and incest, while central to Bitterblue, is only implied near the end of Graceling. It’s not in Fire. So then, I thought maybe 12 years old for the first two and 15 for Bitterblue? And then, it occurred to me that rape and incest happens to kids all the time. In that case, reading about it in this context would be helpful. How ironic to censor something in a book that describes what’s happening in a kid’s real life. So, then I concluded, it’s such an individual choice. With sex, I didn’t want my kids reading about it or seeing movies that referenced it, before I had “the talk.” I wanted them to learn about sex from me first, rather than from a kid at school or from a movie. I had the conversation with my daughter last Spring, when she was nine. It went really well, and since, she’s come to me with questions, and she seems comfortable talking about it. But rape and incest, I’d like to protect her from the knowledge of a little longer.

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I did a Google search, remembering something I’d read on dark YA lit a while ago that was good. Here’s a quote from the post and the link.

The underlying assumptions behind Gurdon’s piece seem to be rooted in the idea that children read books with heavy content and ‘go bad,’ when in fact the opposite is true. Some children lead dark lives and they read books with intense themes to find protagonists they identify with in an often hostile world. Some young adults read about rape and bullying and violence, eating disorders and self harm and mental illness, because these are things they experience.

Alas, the belief that bad things do not happen to children and young adults is not limited to naïve Wall Street Journal columnists, and it does far more damage than mere dubiously-sourced articles that attract a storm of commentary. The belief that childhood is a happy place, where bad things don’t happen, where you don’t need rose-tinted spectacles because everything is already rose-tinted, has direct and harmful impacts on children and young adults in danger.

 

I don’t think my child would “go bad” from reading about this stuff. Nor do I think if a child is into these books, that means she’s leading a “dark” life. I think, and I could be wrong, if my ten year old daughter picked up Bitterblue, she’d read it cover to cover.

Also, for my kids, I do believe childhood is a pretty happy place for them and should be protected as such. Obviously, that doesn’t mean Disneyworld to me. I think Disneyworld is tremendously warped. But it does mean I want my kids to experience the belief in safety and also in magic. I believe that covering up “reality” to protect a child’s developing imagination is an important part of parenting and also, of being a kid. If your child has safe boundaries, she feels brave enough to take healthy risks. Psychologist Stephen Mitchell explains this well in his excellent book, Can Love Last: the Fate of Romance Over Time:

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.

What are your thoughts on all this?

Update: Heather comments that her 8 year old daughter learned about rape and incest when a classmate brought porn to school.

Based on the brief snippets of content she saw, I had to not only have “the talk”, but also explain a LOT of things I never thought I’d have to address at that age. Because of this, conversely, she is now very educated on both sex, misogyny, and rape/assault/child abuse.  Therefore, I think these books that are written about very serious issues — but in the comprehension style of a young person who can find the characters identifiable — is a great source of information…I have not read these books to endorse them, but now I am interested and will be checking them out at the library. Thank you.

 

Heather’s comment make me think that if your child knows about rape or incest, these books are appropriate for her or him. (I really hope parents of sons will get their kids this trilogy.)