There Shouldn’t Be an App for That

Because consent is more slippery than a yes/no before-sex contract.

 

I consider myself a generally well-read, up-to-date person. Often this is to my own detriment, as I usually know the exact reason that the world is on fire, or the newest thing that should make me despair about humanity. It also makes me a total buzzkill. Whether I’m explaining why we should stop using helium balloons if we want to be able to use MRI’s in the future, or pointing out that Santa Claus shares a lot of characteristics with abusive partners, I can be counted on to provide an informed, depressing reality check. Which is why it’s actually a little bit surprising that I find out something new and weird about the world that I didn’t actually know. Especially when it’s something that I really should have known. Case in point: someone having the bright idea to create an app for consent. 

Consent is something that is both incredibly simple and functionally complicated. Far beyond the old, over-simplified “no means no,” we’ve moved on to “yes means yes.” Consent has to be affirmative (silence does not equal a yes, only yesses or other signs of affirmation equal a yes) enthusiastic (not the result of coercion, badgering, or other negative action, but rather something the person genuinely wants) and sober (you legally cannot consent if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol). Admittedly, this can look a little weird in practice, and often requires a lot of communication between partners—a nod can be a yes, as can other body language. Sometimes consent is not a super formal “Is it acceptable if I insert my penis into your vagina right now?” but rather a “Are you ready?” or “Is this okay?” The idea of affirmative consent is new for a lot of people, and many people who haven’t been practicing it can be understandably confused. But that confusion is no excuse for the dumb idea of turning consent into a literal contract.

Reina Gattuso does an admirable job of explaining the many reasons that a consent app is a bad idea, but they really boil down to one point: consent cannot, and should not, be reduced to a contract. Consent is a mobile concept—I can think that I will be okay with something, only to change my minds moments later. I can be okay with something on Tuesday and not okay with it on Wednesday. And while there is nothing wrong with going over lists of activities with a partner and deciding what you do and don’t feel comfortable doing, you should never feel beholden to that list.

I can’t get over the sensation that a consent app serves the same purpose as a non-disclosure agreement—a way to cover the ass of the person doing the bad thing, and not really anything helpful for the person who is likely to be hurt. I can easily see consent apps and consent contracts being used in court to paint a rape survivor as a flip-flopping liar, or used to pressure a survivor to stay silent. Let’s just not, okay?

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image of “terms and conditions” based on: bfishadow, CC BY 2.0

Things That Make Elle Mad (This Week)

Because even in the low-energy weeks, there’s time for lists.

 

Normally when I do a list post, I at least have the energy to add links about what I’m talking about. Today I don’t. Sorry folks. But to make up for it I’m adding extra rantiness to the earlier ones, and trying to make the later ones short, witty bon mots.

Here’s ten eleven things that are making me mad this week, roughly in order of most-described to least-described.

1. Apparently at least one of the women who was abused by Eric Schneiderman was advised by friends and loved ones not to come forward, because Schneiderman was “too important” for the Democrats to lose. Let me make something very clear—no one is so important that we cannot afford to lose them if they abuse women. No one. If Barack Obama was revealed to be an abuser it would hurt my soul, but I would drop him like the heavy end of a couch if it meant his victims felt safe coming forward. (Barack Obama don’t you dare turn out to be an abuser, my poor heart can’t take it.)

2. Gina Haspel is one of the best case studies in both “women aren’t necessarily feminists, a woman in power is not necessarily good for women” and “criticizing someone while they are a woman is different from criticizing someone for being a woman.” It is not sexist to point out that Haspel oversaw torture. It is not sexist to point out that Haspel destroyed evidence. It is not sexist to point out that Haspel gave wishy-washy, disappointing answers and refused to condemn her former actions during her hearing. It is not feminist to have a torture condoning, evidence destroying, human rights violating person as the head of the CIA, even if she is a woman. Breaking the glass ceiling isn’t worth it if the shards fall down on women and other oppressed groups.

3. We treated Monica Lewinsky really terribly and Town and Country is continuing the process. You don’t disinvite Monica Lewinsky from an event when Bill Clinton confirms he’ll be at an event. You disinvite Bill Clinton. Good rule of thumb from Miss Manners: If there’s going to be an awkward confrontation between two people, you disinvite the person who has credibly been accused of rape.

4. Fox cancelling Brooklyn Nine Nine is the saddest thing since they cancelled Firefly. Fox doesn’t know a good thing when it has it.

5. White people really, really, really need to stop calling the police on black people unless an actual felony is happening. And even then (because in some states just having a bag of weed is a felony) we should think super carefully.

6. No one should listen to R. Kelly anymore. Stop it.

7. I don’t want to read any stories about where Donald Trump Jr. is sticking his dick. Stop it.

8. Donald Trump pulling out of the Iran deal is incredibly, indescribably ignorant.

9. Aaron Persky needs to shut up forever.

10. So does Roman Polanski.

Oh, and

11. “Be Best” is a ri-goddamn-diculous name for an initiative.

 

That is “What is Making Elle Mad Right Now.” I hope it was educational.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured Image: A feminist blogger “to do” list. Source: own photo.

Toxic Masculinity, Elliot Rodger, and What You Can Do

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

A long time ago, my first foray into screaming into the void came in the form of my own blog. It was, by most measures, not terribly successful. As you may have noticed by my often-rambling posts and my loose relationship with the term “Friday,” I’ve got a tendency to focus on over-long deep dives and a hatred of deadlines. These characteristics often make it difficult to actually finish and publish pieces, and these characteristics are not improved when I am my own editor/boss.

The best thing to come out of that early blog, besides Richard going “hey, wanna also write for my blog?” (seriously, imagining Richard looking vaguely disappointed in me does wonders for my completion rate) was one of my very first, and most disturbing, deep dives—a prolonged piece on Elliot Rodger, his 100+ page manifesto, and aspects of sexism in culture.

At the time, many news outlets were focusing on the more sensational aspects of Rodger’s manifesto, like his declaration that women should either be starved to death in concentration camps or selectively bred, like cattle, to declare Rodger somehow less-culpable by means of “insanity.” But at the time, I had the notion that the explanation was both more simple and more dangerous—Rodger’s actions weren’t the result of a mental illness, but of a cultural one. And the laborious, upsetting slog through his manifesto and his videos confirmed that belief for me. Rodger may have been a few different kinds of emotionally disturbed, but he was, at heart, a product of his culture.

He had been taught that women, and specifically sex with beautiful women, was his due in life. He had been taught that virginity was shameful. He was taught that he was special, and that he should be treated as such. He was taught that his narcissistic view of the world was the right one. He was taught that money would solve all of his problems. He was taught that his feelings and thoughts were more valid than those of women. He was taught that any rejection by women is the cause of great distress. (Seriously, he apparently cried for an hour in a bathroom stall after he said “hi” to a hot girl and she didn’t respond. I’m so not even making this up.) He was taught that his actions have no real consequence, and that he could get away with assaulting women. He was taught that women were lesser than him, no better than “beasts.” He was told that he was a “gentleman,” and that he should be rewarded accordingly. He was taught that there is something wrong with women, and something wrong with the asshole “alpha males” they supposedly flock to. He was taught that other men were being given things that he deserved more.

Elliot Rodger was a product of toxic masculinity.

It was in reading his manifesto that I first began truly understanding and appreciating the multitude of meanings behind that phrase. The way that it implies both danger and disease. The way that it implies harm both to the infected and the people around the infected. Toxic masculinity is like nuclear waste—dangerous in small doses, deadly in larger ones, and capable of harming both the first person to come into contact with it and all of the people that come into contact with that person. In my mind I start seeing the world as if I’m Roddy Piper in They Live—when I have my sunglasses on, I can see the neon green taint of toxic masculinity on teenagers joking about “no homo,” on message boards, on the survivors of domestic or sexual abuse. I can see men glowing a sickly chartreuse, eating themselves up from the inside at the same time that they infect the world around them.

When I first wrote about Elliot Rodger, I assumed that I was already as outraged, and as burned out, as I could get. Now I look back on that time with a sad smile, because 2018 Elle can’t help but think that 2014 Elle was still sweetly idealistic and naïve. I ended my original post on Rodger thusly:

I wish I had some nice, neat way to wrap this all up, but I really don’t. My outrage is too strong for that. Seeing the ways that seemingly innocuous “nice guy” rhetoric can snowball into murder, seeing the ways that the indignant and apologetic “not all men” battle cry can be used to cover up the obvious and self-professed motives of a killer, and even briefly scrolling through the stories on “When Women Refuse” is enough to make me despair about the world. All I can do is hope that the things that I write, and the things that others who are much more eloquent than myself have written, can spark a thought, a conversation, or a movement. The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable. If we can create a culture where sex is neither an assumed privilege nor a badge of honor, where a woman’s right to decide her own desires and sexual partners is respected, where women are allowed to voice their grievances without being interrupted, and where women are seen as equals, not as transactions, then there may be some hope for us yet.

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

That line jumps out to me again and again. Because I was so right, and so wrong, at the same time. The actions of future Elliot Rodgers were preventable. We just didn’t fucking do it.

The pickup artist forums of Rodger’s time have turned into the “incel” forums of today. (“Incel” is an absurd made up word that means “involuntary celibate.” It’s used by misogynists who think that women literally owe them sex, and that the fact that they aren’t getting their dicks wet is the highest treason possible. I will never use that term again after this point in the article, because I think of it the same way I think of the term “alt-right”; I refuse to use the terms that bigots came up with to keep themselves from sounding like bigots. So they’ll be “misogynists” and “Nazis” respectively from here on out.) A brief perusal of these forums shows virulent misogyny, bewildering levels of entitlement, and a frightening commitment to violence and violent language. Rape is frequently advocated. Women are frequently denigrated. The “Stacys” of the world, aka women, are purposely going out with the “Chads” of the world, aka “normie” guys who are alpha males and not this particular brand of misogynist, and that is just super unfair. It’s so unfair, in fact, that people should probably die because of it.

That seems to be the thought process behind Alek Minassian, who praised Elliot Rodger as the “supreme gentleman” and promised a misogynist rebellion shortly before using a van to kill and injure people.

Alek Minassian is the future Elliot Rodger that four years ago I was hoping we could stop. We obviously didn’t. If anything, things have gotten worse. Even our president is a sexual predator. There’s not a lot of difference between “grab ‘em by the pussy” and the vitriol spewed on these misogynist sites. #MeToo is happening, but there also already a slate of fawning articles wondering when the men who were temporarily deposed by #MeToo can make their “comeback,” as if they were caught doing coke at a party and not, you know, sexually harassing and assaulting women. If I had a nickel for every time a respected news outlet wondered if feminism has gone “too far,” I wouldn’t have student loans anymore. Gamergate has permanently changed the landscape of gaming, game journalism, and even the goddamn sci-fi awards, all for the worse. I thank my lucky stars because I have been a woman blogging about feminism on the internet for four years, and I have yet to receive my first rape threat for doing so. I’m basically the only female blogger I know who can say that, and I know it is a matter of time and google algorithms until it happens to me as well.

The only positive difference between today and four years ago is that this time, news outlets are actually acknowledging Minassian’s misogyny and toxic masculinity, instead of just wondering if he’s mentally ill (which, for the record, is not a significant contributor to violence, so stop blaming mentally ill people every time someone goes on a shooting spree).

That difference is the only reason I can end this post on a somewhat hopeful note. Because unlike issues like gun control or SESTA, toxic masculinity is something that literally every one of us can help fight against. This is not in the hands of an inept Congress. While the patriarchy is strong, MRA’s don’t have quite the political reach of the NRA. This is our culture, and we can take it back. This is especially important for parents. We’ve already fucked up our existing generations, and we’re gonna have to do a lot of work to fix them. It’s easier if we can start when they’re young and haven’t learned toxic masculinity yet. So to that end, I’m going to leave you with ten things you (yes you!) can do. Start today.

  1. Stop buying into bullshit gender binaries, especially ones that claim men can’t be emotional, weak, or have associations with traditional feminine qualities.
  2. Encourage men and boys to consume more “girl-focused” media.
  3. Don’t segregate children by gender for every damn thing. Encourage non-gendered friendships and play.
  4. Abandon terms like “real men.” Even if it is being used in supposedly helpful ways, like “real men respect women.” There is no such thing as a “fake man.” At least not until the robots take over, and that’s an entirely different conversation. Let’s just give up on that whole concept of policing what it means to be a man, shall we?
  5. If you’re a man, do your best to unlearn gender norms that hurt you, even if, again, they are supposedly positive. You don’t have to be the bread winner. You aren’t “babysitting” your kid, you are raising your damn kid. You don’t have to pay for dinner (unless your partner is making 60% of what you do because of the pay gap. In that case, yeah, keep paying for dinner.)
  6. Work to dismantle the value system around virginity. The fact that guys who are virgins are failures and that girls who are no longer virgins is sluts means that guys and girls are constantly in a sexually-based conflict in which the rise of male value implicitly comes with the diminishing of female value. Stop it. Encourage healthy, consensual sexuality for everyone. Virginity is great if people want to be virgins. Not-virginity is great if people want to be not-virgins. The end.
  7. Please, for the love of God, abandon language like “don’t be a pussy.” Anyone who has seen a childbirth video knows that the vagina is basically the strongest thing in the world. I’m not telling you to “reclaim” the word pussy, because I’m a little skeptical about the idea of “reclaiming” words, but at the very least it shouldn’t be a phrase that means the very opposite of what it should. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of phrases like “that takes balls” and “ball busters.” Let’s just get rid of cisgender-normative genitalia phrases in general, shall we?
  8. Stop assuming the worst about men, even when it’s a convenient excuse. I’ve known plenty of boys and men in my life. Weirdly, none of them have been sex-obsessed maniacs who can’t control themselves around a woman’s bare shoulders. They’ve also all been passable at doing laundry, keeping track of appointments, talking about their emotions, and communicating clearly. It’s like men aren’t all latent rapists lying in wait, or totally inept at household tasks and emotional labor. Weird.
  9. Call people out on their shit. Is someone around you buying into outdated stereotypes? Is someone telling a rape joke? Is someone complaining about “blue balls” because they haven’t been graced with sex yet? Is someone complaining about being in the “friend zone”? Tell them to knock it off.
  10. Encourage male friendships and male affection/diminish the association of weakness with homosexuality. I can hug any of my girlfriends pretty much any time I want. I can hug any of my guy friends almost any time I want. It’s a fantastic world of hugs. But for a lot of guys, simple affectionate contact is seen as suspect, especially with other men. They live in fear of being called too sensitive, or being called homosexual. They have to hedge acknowledgements of platonic love with “no homo, bro.” Men, I have to conclude, are often really fucking lonely. Let them be friends. Let them hug.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is of a warning sign reading “TOXIC” and showing a human figure in distress after consuming something presumably toxic. Michael Smith, CC BY 2.0

When Character Descriptions Should Exit, Stage Left

Screenwriters. Dialogue yes. Characters not so much.

 

Hey loyal readers (yes, both of you, I see you!), sorry for my prolonged absence. Life refuses to cease happening, even when I’m really, really busy. Totally unfair. To make up for it, I’m going to babble about female characters in movies! (Which I was going to do anyways, but now it sounds like a treat. That’s called “salesmanship.”)

In my last roundup post I mentioned the “describe yourself as a male author would” trend, and my adoration for it. This week, Vulture is helping me up my game by providing 50 actual descriptions of female characters from (primarily male-written) screenplays. And…. wow. We have got ourselves some sexism folks. And some weird obsessions. But first, I want to take you back a bit, to the Long Long Ago, when Richard and I were on This Week in Tomorrow. You may remember my insanely long posts on Joss Whedon, and how I started by taking umbrage with his script for Wonder Woman. The script started off on literally the wrong foot, focusing on Steve Trevor as he crashed into an island, before revealing a character known as “The Girl,” followed by a sexualized, primitive-esque description of said Girl. (Who, remember, is Wonder Woman. Like, our main character.):

To say she is beautiful is almost to miss the point. She is elemental, as natural and wild as the luminous flora surrounding. Her dark hair waterfalls to her shoulders in soft arcs and curls. Her body is curvaceous, but taut as a drawn bow. She wears burnished metal bracelets on both wrists, wide and intricately detailed. Her shift is of another era; we’d call it Greek. She is barefoot.

I made a lot of fun of this description, and all of the descriptions after it, (did you know that absolutely every character in that movie is beautiful? I mean all the female characters, obvi.) but little did I know how… average… they really are in the film industry. Because hot damn, do male writers like their semi-pornographic character descriptions.

James Cameron made me very, very uncomfortable, both because his description of Neytiri made me realize how young she was supposed to be (18? Are you freaking kidding me? Were you trying to go full Pocahontas and make her 13 but just couldn’t do it?) and because of how clearly it seems that James Cameron has been thinking about sex with blue catgirl teenagers:

Draped on the limb like a leopard, is a striking NA’VI GIRL. She watches, only her eyes moving. She is lithe as a cat, with a long neck, muscular shoulders, and nubile breasts. And she is devastatingly beautiful — for a girl with a tail. In human age she would be 18. Her name is NEYTIRI (nay-Tee-ree).

Yep, beautiful except for that tail. The tail is definitely a turnoff, and not clearly a turn-on. Also, the description of her breasts doesn’t even make sense. You’re either saying she has sexually mature breasts, or sexually attractive breasts. Which, yeah. They’re breasts. That’s kind of their gig. You could have gone with like, actually describing them (which is still icky but at least makes sense) or just say what you’re obviously trying to say, which is “SHE’S LEGAL I PROMISE.”

Or we have the description for Margot Robbie’s character in Wolf of Wall Street:

We see NAOMI, 24, blonde and gorgeous, a living wet dream in LaPerla lingerie. Naomi licks her lips; she’s incredibly, painfully hot.

The only thing that should be “painfully hot” is touching a working stove. But the “winner,” both for creepiness and for bringing back a racist word I thought for sure died during Reconstruction, is Quentin Tarantino in his description of “Jungle Julia” from Death Proof:

A tall (maybe 6ft) Amazonian Mulatto goddess walks down her hallway, dressed in a baby tee, and panties that her big ass (a good thing) spill out of, and her long legs grow out of. Her big bare feet slap on the hard wood floor. She moves to the cool rockabilly beat as she paces like a tiger putting on her clothes. Outside her apartment she hears a “Honk Honk.” She sticks her long mane of silky black curly hair, her giraffish neck and her broad shoulders, out of the window and yells to a car below. This sexy chick is Austin, Texas, local celebrity JUNGLE JULIA LUCAI, the most popular disc jockey of the coolest rock radio station in a music town.

Of course he mentioned her feet. Of course. And of course he compared her to multiple animals, and brought back the “M” word, and called her “Amazonian” for being tall. Of course he had to mention her ass, and even enter a parenthetical about it. Of course he called her a “chick.” What does a “giraffish” neck even mean? Shouldn’t that mean its abnormally long? Is that also supposed to be sexy? I need about a million showers, and to never read these words again.

The one saving grace of these descriptions, and of the Whedon descriptions, is that they at least don’t try to underplay the beauty of the character, or act as if the woman is unaware of it.

The “Obliviously Beautiful” trope is common enough it gets its own TV Tropes page, as well as about a million songs.  With this trope, the character is somehow unaware of her beauty, or could be more beautiful if she tried, or something. There’s some weird moralizing attached to this trope– it is as if we are supposed to like the character better, or think she is a better person, because she is either unaware of her beauty or doesn’t try to be beautiful. Or even as if her beauty is enhanced by not being aware of it. As opposed to all of those self-aware skanks ruining their good looks by thinking about them, or something? A bizarre number of the scripts follow this theme.

Sarah Connor, in the first Terminator film:

SARAH CONNOR is 19, small and delicate-featured. Pretty in a flawed, accessible way. She doesn’t stop the party when she walks in, but you’d like to get to know her. Her vulnerable quality masks a strength even she doesn’t know exists.

Lisa Cohen in Margaret:

On LISA COHEN, just 17. Not the best-looking girl in her class but definitely in the top five.

(Insert obligatory Flight of the Conchords reference here)

Helen Tasker from True Lies:

To call her plain would be inaccurate. She could be attractive if she put any effort into it, which doesn’t occur to her.

… Right. I’m sure that any woman, in the beauty-obsessed US, simply didn’t have it “occur” to her that she could be attractive. That’s definitely the issue.

Summer, from 500 Days of Summer:

SUMMER FINN files folders and answers phones in a plain white office. She has cropped brown hair almost like a boy’s but her face is feminine and pretty enough to get away with it.

(Who knew you had to be pretty in order to “get away” with short hair? All this time I was assuming that you could just do what you wanted with your hair, but apparently there are standards. Next time I get a pixie cut I’ll make sure to stamp “not a boy” on my forehead, since I don’t know for certain if my features are feminine enough to support that haircut.)

They even have to downplay Princess Buttercup from The Princess Bride before building her back up:

Buttercup is in her late teens; doesn’t care much about clothes and she hates brushing her long hair, so she isn’t as attractive as she might be, but she’s still probably the most beautiful woman in the world.

Damn, if she’s already the most beautiful woman in the world, I’d hate to see what she looks like if she is as attractive as she “might be.” She might turn out “painfully hot,” like Margot Robbie.

All of this seems to be done to make the character seem more “realistic” to the audience (as if they are not still being played by amazingly beautiful movie stars.) As Kyle Buchanan and Jordan Crucchiola put it in the same Vulture article,

Many screenplays try to hedge their female character’s beauty, lest she seem so gorgeous as to be unattainable. Perhaps the woman doesn’t know how pretty she is, or there’s a slight imperfection added to make her relatable. The exact calibration of these female characters’ beauty begs a reference to Goldilocks: They’re hot, but not too hot.

Why, you may ask, am I harping so much on these character descriptions? I’ll tell you.

The way we write about women shapes and is shaped by the way we think about women. Some of the most iconic women in movies are introduced, not via their personality or their attitude or their bearing, but by their beauty. Beauty that is either nearly pornographic, or is undercut and underplayed in some vain attempt at “relatability.” It’s important to remember, that these descriptions aren’t just the first appearance of the character in the film; they are the basis on which the director, actors, stagehands, everyone who works on the film, start to  get their idea of the character. What is she like? How does she carry herself? What are her concerns? And I don’t know about you, but I’d have a hard time trying to get to the “heart” of my character if most of what I knew about her was “she’s pretty, but not like, too pretty, you know?”

And to me, the ones that try the “Obliviously beautiful” route are almost worse. The porny ones are at least aware of the objectification they are taking part in. The oblivious descriptions are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. Oh, she’s beautiful, but she doesn’t know it. Or she’s not as beautiful as she could be. It adds even further restrictions on how women are supposed to look and act; we’re supposed to be beautiful, yet so humble or so stupid that we don’t realize it. We are only relatable when we are unselfconscious about our appearance (yeah, good luck with that) but we are not actually allowed to be ugly or even unalterably plain. 

In almost every case I listed here, the actress who was given the role imbued their character with energy, tension, and dare I say, pizzazz. But that likely has much more to do with the skills of the actresses than the quality of the character descriptions they were given. I would love to see these skilled actresses get handed scripts where their character is introduced with complexity and not just sex appeal.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is a close-up of the description of Wonder Woman from the script.

Think Happy Thoughts

Because roundups are objectively good, people.

 

I can’t tell if people are more tired out/bored by my insanely long rants or by my ridiculously short roundups. So in the name of science, I’m doing another roundup. Yep. This is a science experiment. This has absolutely nothing to do with sleep deprivation. Science.

Because she’s probably slightly concerned for my blood pressure in the Age of Trump, one of my friends suggested that I do my roundup this time about things that actually make me happy. I stared at my screen for way, way too long before I started thinking of things that made me happy in recent culture.

1. Rachel Bloom’s “Ladyboss.” Rachel Bloom is a goddess among women who has accomplished enough in her 31 years that it makes me feel kinda intimidated. All of the music from her amazing show (that I didn’t give proper credit to at first because of its title) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is amazing, but I’m equally fond of the songs she has on her youtube channel racheldoesstuff that are unrelated to the show. One of them, Ladyboss, perfectly encapsulates the combined confidence and self-doubt that comes from being a woman in charge, as well as the constant tightrope walk of “boss-ness” versus “culturally demanded femininity.” And really, is caring if someone thinks you’re a bitch internalized misogyny?

2. The “describe yourself like a male author would” Twitter thread/trend. It’s so good. So pure. And so indicative of how tired women are of being reduced to T&A when we’re described in literature. True story, I once reviewed a short story collection that had nine stories in it. Every woman, in every story, had her ass described—in detail—as part of her character description. My own attempt: “She was Amazonian, in that she was very tall, and when you saw her from far away it seemed like she didn’t have any boobs. She was log-shaped, so it was hard to tell if she was sexy or not until you were closer, and you realized she did, thank God, have breasts. And kind of an ass.”

3. New York passed a law that forces convicted domestic abusers to surrender firearms and forbids them from obtaining or renewing a firearm license. I’ve written before about how gun control is a feminist issue, and particularly the way that guns ensure that domestic violence situations have an increased risk of fatality. Laws like these go a long way to helping address at least that issue.

4. Finding out that Jordan Peele is attached to a project that will revisit the Lorena Bobbitt scandal, and actually address the domestic violence that was a major underpinning of the incident (and that no one talked about because ha, she cut off his dick and their last name is “bob” it. Get it?)

5. Janelle Monáe’s new album and new music videos. Because she’s Janelle effing Monáe.

It took me longer than I would have liked to come up with five things that made me happy, but I finally did it. So what is making you happy these days? What is keeping your spirit up in the Age of Ultra-Stupid? Sound off in the comments. Or, you know, just keep basking in the thing that makes you happy. Whatev.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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This post’s featured image is a screenshot of a tweet by Whitney Reynolds reading “new twitter challenge: describe yourself like a male author would.”

FOSTA and SESTA, and Why You Shouldn’t Pass Legislation Without Talking to the People it Will Affect

The road to hell is paved with good intentions sex work shaming

 

So I had every intention of doing a deep dive into the recent passage of the FOSTA/SESTA legislation. Then I fell asleep in front of my laptop while writing said deep dive. So instead you’re going to get bullet points, and links. Because this truly is important, and it truly is going to hurt at least a million women (and likely many men) who are engaging in consensual sex work. Not to mention members of the LGBT community, individuals who engage in online kink, and apparently even people who want to say “fuck” on Microsoft products. (Note to self: don’t save first drafts to One Drive, or else I’m fucked.) Also it kinda takes the whole concept of internet freedom and takes it out back for some Ol’ Yellering.

So the basics:

The phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is exemplified by the recent FOSTA/SESTA legislation.  The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) both have the aim of ending online sex trafficking by targeting the sites where trafficking enticements and advertisements might happen.

The legislation may or may not help the roughly 6,000 cases of reported trafficking that occur each year. Research is still conflicting about whether this type of action helps decrease trafficking by making it harder for traffickers to find customers, or if it just makes trafficking harder to track and address as it goes underground.

The legislation definitely will hurt roughly one million sex workers who rely on internet resources to advertise their services safely, screen their clients, warn one another about bad clients, seek out clients from a safer indoor location. One study by Baylor University found that escort ads reduced the female homicide rate by over 17%. It’s fairly hard to argue for any legislation that has a net effect of raising the female homicide rate, even if it has ostensibly good intentions.

Because of the breadth and vagueness of the law, many sites are going to close up shop due to the fear that they might be swept up in the legislation, even if they were not initially targeted. Kink sites, dating sites, and social media forums are all going to be either tightening restrictions or closing up shop. This has a quelling effect on many online industries, not to mention freedom of speech and any marginalized person who relies on the internet to be a safe space for them to explore their identity or their sexuality.

The bill has the potential to change online freedom of speech as we know it, and could even lead to the downfall of user-influenced sites like Wikipedia.

So read the links I post. We are unfortunately past the “Call your Congressperson” stage, as the bill has passed both the House and the Senate, and there is little chance that the Hypocrite in Chief won’t sign it into law. But laws can be overturned, and a groundswell of public opposition might make politicians think twice, and might make online sites less scared.

 

 

 

 

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image of classified ads in a newspaper: Ian Lamont, CC BY 2.0

Loving Pop Culture When Pop Culture Doesn’t Love You Back

A deep dive into Ready Player One and the ways we cater to specifically male nostalgia.

As a woman and a feminist, my relationship with pop culture is inherently going to be a love/hate one. Partly because pop culture keeps screwing its representations of women, gender relations, sex, etc., but primarily because for most of my life (and still for a lot of the current period) pop culture wasn’t created for me. Pop culture was largely created by and for men, and if women happened to also like it, great, bonus viewers without trying! Or small subsets of pop culture would be created for girls and women, but rarely with the care and attention that was given to content created for men and boys, and our relationship with pop culture was not granted the same respect.

I’ve been thinking about this uneven relationship a lot lately. In part this is because of the way that the box office and critical reception for Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time have essentially been pitted against each other: as if the fact that they were both created by black directors with primarily or largely black characters overwhelms the fact that they were created on different budgets for different audiences. It’s also in part because of the upcoming release of the film version of Ready Player One, and because of a recent video essay about that film by Lindsay Ellis.

I’m going to use the latter to dive deeper into what it says about catering to men’s versus women’s nostalgia, because a critical discussion of the comparison between Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time is just going to give me a headache right now. Go see both movies. Yes, A Wrinkle in Time is supposedly not good and isn’t faithful to the book, but you know damn well that five years from now, “movies based on books that aren’t faithful to the book do poorly” is not going to be the narrative around its failure any more than the narrative around Catwoman’s failure was “movies with shitty scripts do poorly.” The narrative will be “major movies entrusted to black lady directors with ladies of color in the cast do poorly.” So go see the damn movie so we don’t have to have that exhausting and incorrect conversation.

Anyway, I first read Ready Player One at the request of a friend. He’d said he really liked the novel, but that something had felt off about it, and he wanted my opinion on it. I read it over the course of a plane ride, and texted him when I had landed. I don’t remember what exactly I said, but it was something to the effect of feeling as if the book was supposed to have been written for me, but that something had gone wrong in the process. The uncertainty was akin to feeling the whoosh of a metaphorical arrow as it went past my shoulder—I was close to the target audience of Ready Player One, but not quite there.

I pondered those feelings for a while, and to be honest I’m still untangling them. But the end result was this: the book wasn’t written for me. It wasn’t really written with a female audience in mind, period. It was written by a well-meaning man (I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ernest Cline in person and can confirm that he is a very nice, very (ha) earnest geek) who included women and people of color as an afterthought, or as an intended bonus that he didn’t really think through. Ready Player One is, in its purest form, the distillation of the white, straight, cisgender male geek experience. The fact that my own life experiences have overlapped with that experience enough for me to also enjoy the book is an unintended bonus.

Better people than me have written on the problems with the characters of Art3mis and Aech, including Beth Elderkin and Lindsey Weedston.  But I will summarize.

The main character, Wade, is the Nice Guy in his truest form. (Don’t take my word for it, he even calls himself “a really nice guy” in the book.) He’s the poor, unpopular kid who everyone overlooked until it turned out he was super awesome, and that his very particular skillset, which would win him no prizes in the real world, is actually way important in the virtual world. He is the geek made good. He is literally the White Knight—his username in the OASIS is Parzival, one of the Knights of the Round Table.

And like most nice guys and white knights, his shine comes off the more you get to know him. He cyber-stalks Art3mis before ever meeting her. He objectifies Art3mis at the same time he idolizes her for “not being like other girls.” When Art3mis turns down his affections, he moves on to actual stalking, including having his avatar hold a boombox up to her window. When he finally finds out her big secret (*spoiler*) that she has a birthmark on her face, he is manly enough to “overcome” her disfigurement and love her anyways. And then I threw up a little in my mouth.

Art3mis, meanwhile, comes so, so close to being something besides a quest object, only to fail, hard. She starts off as a fully realized character—a fellow searcher who has her own active social media life, and at the start of the book, she is actually better at questing than Wade is. However, all of this character development quickly falls apart. Wade soon shows her up at questing, firmly slots her in the role of love object and supporting character, and makes her a trophy just as much as the keys and eggs of the OASIS. At the end of the story I find myself really wishing that Art3mis had the powers of the actual Artemis’ (you know, the virginal goddess of the hunt) and could turn Wade into a deer that got ripped to pieces by dogs. Come on, it’s a little violent, but no one would have seen that ending coming.

And honestly, Art3mis gets a boat load of character development compared to Aech, Wade’s best friend who we find out (way, way late in the book, spoilers again) is not actually the Caucasian male that Aech presented as in the OASIS, but is actually an overweight, black, lesbian woman. (I honestly don’t know if the lesbian part was added to be part of the tokenization trifecta, or so that we could have a super awkward exchange where Wade realizes that he’s been talking to Aech for a long time about how much he likes certain girls, but it’s totally okay because Aech also likes girls.) We get a brief moment of a really, really interesting idea with Aech—she reveals to Wade that she presents as a white male because she is more likely to get respected that way, even in the supposed equalizing utopia of the OASIS. For every female gamer who has ever created a male character in an MMORPG in order to avoid getting sexually harassed, this is a familiar concept with huge implications for the world of Ready Player One. What does it mean for the promise of technology if technology only replicates oppression instead of solving it? How might the perceived perfection of virtual reality lead to more internalized misogyny, homophobia, racism, and fatphobia?  Is there a way for a virtual world to truly be “better” than the real world? How could we use virtual reality to help us gain empath—oh, we’re only 50 pages from the end of the book? And we’re literally never going to address any of these topics, and we’re only going to vaguely continue addressing the fact that Aech is an overweight black lesbian? Oh, ok. Cool. Never mind.

And again, don’t get me wrong—I still do like a lot of the book. It is fun for me as a geek to indulge in this nostalgia-fest. But that is because, like Art3mis in the novel, I have grown up to enjoy pop culture that is filtered through a male lens. Beth Elderkin explains,

Ready Player One suggests that nostalgia is universal, how similar interests can bring strangers together, but all of that nostalgia is filtered through a distinctly male lens—and not just because Cline insert a lot of his personal fandom into the story. In the book’s world, OASIS co-creator James Halliday created the contest that the entire world is obsessed with, so everyone’s nostalgia is filtered directly through him. (“The only thing Anorak’s Almanac seemed to indicate was that a familiarity with Halliday’s various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg. This led to a global fascination with 1980s pop culture.”)

This framing leaves little room for women to desire anything that doesn’t also reflect what men want. Just like the game, Art3mis is a character created around male interests; she can’t be anything other than a trophy because there’s no room in the story for her own interests (you won’t find her watching Sailor Moon or Jem and the Holograms, but she sure as hell likes John Hughes). If your entire world is centered around the obsessions of one man—first James Halliday, followed by his protégé Wade Watts—what purpose do you serve that doesn’t also serve his needs?

I enjoy the book because I enjoy a lot of the things that the book’s male author, and his male protagonists, enjoy. I genuinely enjoy Monty Python, old-school arcade games, Star Trek, Japanese robot anime, etc. But that isn’t all that I enjoy, and it’s not all the nostalgia for the 1980s that is possible. It’s just the specifically male nostalgia. And again, trying to give all possible credit to Ernest Cline, I don’t think that he wrote this book with the specific intention of discounting women or female nostalgia. I think in his own mind, he really wrote a book about “universal” nostalgia. But in the same way that medical practices are androcentric, making the male body the norm, popular culture and popular nostalgia is androcentric too, making make interests and desires the norm. If a male author doesn’t question this androcentrism, it feels totally normal and reasonable for that author’s experiences to seem universal, even when they aren’t.

This hit home when another friend showed me a satirical Youtube video, “Ready Player One for Girls” by Jenny Nicholson. Nicholson explains that since she’s not a man in her mid to late thirties, “all of these super obscure 80s references” went over her head. Luckily, she was able to get the Ready Player One girl translation (complete with sparkly pink cover) with nostalgic pop-culture references that she could understand. She reads a few “passages,” essentially recreating the text of Ready Player One but with girl-centered references instead of guy-centered ones. Gail Carson Levine, Stephanie Meyer, Teen Witch, Legally Blonde, Gary Marshall movies, and Lady Lovely Locks all get shout outs. (Also, I may have exclaimed out loud in joy because someone besides me remembers Lady Lovely Locks.) As do Rainbow Brite, Sailor Moon, My Little Pony, and Neopets. Nicholson hits on one of the core attributes of Ready Player One when she exclaims “reading lists of things I recognize is pretty fun.” Later, the main character hits a virtual reality nightclub on a steed that combines She-Ra, Jem and the Holograms, hit clips, friendship bracelets, and Lisa Frank.

When I first started to watch the video, one of my instinctive thoughts was “this is so ridiculous.” And then I examined that thought. Because it is only as ridiculous as Ready Player One. It is the exact same concept, only filtered through female nostalgia instead of male nostalgia. But even as a woman, I have been taught that the properties women are nostalgic for, or even women’s inclusion in nostalgia, is ridiculous. And when this nostalgia does happen, it is rarely accepted or successful.

The female-centered Ghostbusters film, despite being a pretty decent flick, broke the internet and enraged the fanboys. My Little Pony succeeded on a massive scale, but a large part of that is due to its unexpected male audience. Nostalgia revivals like Gilmore Girls and Fuller House have had to flee to Netflix, whose algorithms are seemingly a bit gentler regarding female viewers than the strict Nielsen ratings. The Jem remake resembled its original so little and was so obviously broken that it was yanked from the theaters within a couple of weeks. The Powerpuff Girls reboot was a half-assed dumpster fire that didn’t seem to understand why the original worked. And the upcoming Heathers reboot looks like it’s going to be what happens when you take one of the least nuanced storylines of recent South Park memory (sometimes people who care about being PC can become oppressive themselves!) and then make a show about it where we’re supposed to root for the poor cisgender white people who are afraid of all the mean homosexuals, genderqueer people, and women of color.

Even when girls are present in properties that run on nostalgia, they are often sidelined either in the property itself or in the marketing. Paul Dini has acknowledge that networks frequently dismiss or actively avoid girl-centered storylines in superhero properties. While shows like Stranger Things have female characters that are actually well-written and complex, they’re still effectively sidelined for male storytelling. Hell, even when the nostalgia-fest is about them they don’t get any due. One of the most nostalgia-friendly, ‘member berries downing movies of the last decade, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has a female protagonist. That’s not just my opinion, that is literally how the movie works. But Rey was frequently sidelined in merchandising, to the point that she wasn’t even included as a figure in the branded version of Monopoly that they released.

We can even see this in one-to-one comparisons of similar properties. The Xena reboot that promised to feature an explicitly queer relationship between Xena and Gabrielle died before it could live, even though we got two goddamn Hercules movies in the same year. We had at least four dudes play Batman before we got a Wonder Woman movie.* People who were born when the first X-Men movie started to kick off the superhero renaissance will be old enough to vote before we get our first female-led, solo Marvel movie.

All of this emphasizes the idea that mainstream pop culture is not really meant for or aimed at women, but two of these in particular, the Ghostbusters film and the studio execs actively fleeing female audiences, point to something else that is equally insidious: things are considered worse when girls and women like them.

Marykate Jasper had an interesting article comparing Ready Player One to Jupiter Ascending. Jasper does not defend Jupiter Ascending for being a good movie (it’s not) but her argument was that it was just as trashy and wish-fulfilment-y as Ready Player One, but that it was taken way less seriously and given much less credit because it fulfills the escapist fantasies of girls instead of boys. Back on our old site, our guest writer Amelie was making that point before it was cool: 

These outrageous action sequences are not unusual for American cinema, but it is unusual for them to occur in a movie written for a predominantly female audience. Generally, the blockbuster-level special effects are saved for “gender-neutral” movies containing approximately one female character (let’s call her “Princess Leia”) who is routinely subjected to the male gaze through costumes and camera angles.

But the multi-million dollar special effects budget of Jupiter Ascending was spent on women. Watching it, I experienced flashbacks to my teenage years lurking on internet forums like DeviantArt, Gaia Online, Quizilla, and fanfiction.net, where creatively-inclined teenaged girls congregated to experiment with writing and wish-fulfillment. Jupiter Ascending does not differ extensively from what I saw posted on these sites. There was the everygirl self-insert character who was propelled from a humdrum existence to extraordinary circumstances. There was the love triangle, where the protagonist had to choose between two archetypes—the awkward but heroic spacedog Caine, and a dangerously smooth Space Prince played by Douglas Booth. The dialogue contorted itself to reveal a tragic backstory for nearly every named character. Plot developments followed one another with the awkward and incongruous charm of a teenager experimenting with the basic mechanics of storytelling. And while Caine reigned supreme over most of the action sequences, all of this was to make him a more desirable love interest; the actual plot mechanics revolved around Jupiter’s decisions.

Ultimately, this is what I found the most impressive about Jupiter Ascending. The outcome is decided by protagonist Jupiter Jones—and no one else. Jupiter decides the fate of the earth, and at a stereotypical moment of dialogue (something along the lines of “You can’t! It’s too dangerous!”) tells her love interest “This is my decision.” From the moment she comes to grips with her new identity as Space Queen, Jupiter exercises her agency. She actively pursues a romantic relationship with Caine. She brokers her own (disastrous and unfulfilled) marriage contract. She negotiates with the lead villain, Balem Abrasax, for the release of her family. She demands, repeatedly, to be taken home to earth. And near the movie’s end Jupiter grows into her role as action hero, scaling a burning building and repeatedly whacking Balem Abrasax (played by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, whose bizarre performance deserves its own review) with a metal rod. The script of Jupiter Ascending has many flaws, but it never doubts Jupiter’s desires or her agency. Jupiter Jones wants to save the earth—and then she wants to go home and be with her family.

To be totally honest, the plot of Jupiter Ascending is pretty much equal in wish fulfillment, bizarre plot, and special snowflake characters when compared to Ready Player One. And while Jupiter Ascending relies on aspects stolen from almost every sci fi story and fairy tale that has come before it, it at least has the decency to leave this in the realm of homage, instead of literally saying “hey, remember Power Rangers? Aren’t Power Rangers cool? I have Power Rangers in my movie.” But Jupiter Ascending is going to be remembered as an incredibly expensive flop, while the buildup around Ready Player One has already basically guaranteed that it will at least make its money back. And as Amelie pointed out, at least in the very expensive flop, the female protagonist had some damn agency.

This discussion of things being worse because girls like them is central to a recent video essay by Lindsay Ellis that reexamines Twilight. While I personally think that Ellis glosses over some of the more legitimate reasons to dislike the franchise (namely the way it romanticizes a deeply unhealthy and abusive relationship and emphasizes an abstinence-only message where the woman is mindlessly needy and the man has to be stoic and deny her desires) she makes some excellent points about the overwhelming hatred aimed at the book and its fans. (She also takes some swipes at Ready Player One. Look at me, pulling strings together. It’s like I know what I’m doing when I write things.) She points out that as a culture, we have extra disdain for teenage girls and basically anything that they like, and we actively encourage girls to distance themselves from one another in order to be respected.

I will admit to being one of the people that Ellis discusses, a young woman eager to distance herself from a cultural phenomenon that was unapologetically embraced by teenage girls. I’ve had to process a loooooot of internalized misogyny that stems from early experiences of being shunned and misunderstood by the “popular girls” and feeling as if I didn’t “fit in” as a girl. Now I can recognize this as early signs of rebellion against gender norms, but for a long time, it was “not-like-other-girls-itis” where I disliked what I couldn’t understand within my own gender. So while I do maintain that while a good portion of my disdain for the book series comes from a legitimate place (the writing is bad, the pacing is terrible, and again, the aforementioned serious, serious problems with the relationships it portrays) I can and do admit that I was likely more vicious towards it than I would have been towards male-centric books of equally poor quality. Both because I was trying to distance myself from other girls, and because I was fairly ashamed that of all the quasi-trashy supernatural romance novels that were aimed at young girls, it was the worst of them that exploded into popularity and became representative of What Girls Like. (There are so many better quasi-trashy supernatural romance novels. I have read them.)

So where does this leave us? Well, depending on who we are, it leaves us with a few tasks.

For audience members of all gender persuasions, it means we have to come to an agreement: we either have to universally raise our standards on pop culture and dismiss wish-fulfillment quasi-trash of all types, or we have to agree to be kinder to the work of that type that features and is aimed at girls and women. We have to be equal opportunity consumers of mindless entertainment. It also means we need to show up, and show demand, for things that cater to traditionally female interests. We also have to stop demeaning female fans, especially teen girls, for being passionate about things.

On the production side, it means that media organizations need to start cultivating female fans. Not just creating things that will only appeal to a narrow spectrum of girls, or things that will appeal to girls by default, but start actively courting a broad female audience in the same way that a broad range of men and boys are appealed to in various media creations.

Girls should have their Ready Player One. Girls should have their Transformers. They should be able to have debates over who was the “best” cinematic Wonder Woman, or the best incarnation of a female-led spy franchise. They should be able to quote the movies they watched as teens and have an entire room say the next line to them.

They should be able to love, and be loved by, pop culture.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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*For you nitpickers, four discounts West and Affleck because they were roughly contemporaneous with Carter’s and Gadot’s Wonder Women, respectively.

Featured image is a collage of 80s nostalgia figures Rainbow Brite, She-Ra, and Jem and the Holograms. All characters belong to their original rights holders.

Things I Read This Week That Made Me Go “Interesting!”

I hate the word listicles. Don’t use the word listicles.

So this has been an insane week for me, complete with power outages, sickness, and people-I-thought-were-burglars-but-were-just-unexpected-visitors-for-my-neighbor. Oops. So long story short, I didn’t really ever have the time to sit down and write a post. I did, however, have moments were I was trying to find something to write about, and mostly just found interesting things written by other people. So here are a few of those things. Lists are cool, right? Listicles? I hate that word, forget I used that word. Titles are links, because we live in a glorious age.

1. “Headless Women” Project Shows How Often Women Are Dehumanized on Movie Posters

2. How Would Snape Have Treated Harry Potter If Harry Had Been a Girl?

3. ‘Mallory Is Not Gone’: Daniel Mallory Ortberg on Coming Out As Trans

4. The ‘Lame Bitches’ Were Right

5. Shattering the Myth That Women Rappers Are More Expensive to Sign Than Men 

6. It’s Cool That Kristen Wiig Is Cheetah, but Were There No Women of Color Available?

7. Here’s the Academy Award Acceptance Speech Barry Jenkins Would Have Given

That’s it for this week, folks. Tune in next week, when my life will hopefully be less on fire, and I will probably have finally binged all of the new Jessica Jones and I can write about a fictional character whose life is on fire instead.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured Image: A feminist blogger “to do” list. Source: own photo.

International Women’s Day and Paying it Forward

International Women’s Day was originally meant to be a day of collective action.

The only thing I hate worse than a total lack of support for women is a lack of support for women that is coupled with lip service from politicians and companies.

Like Mother’s Day. Sure, on Mother’s Day we take our moms out for brunch, or finally remember to call them, or send them flowers and cards. Which are honestly all great things! We should probably do them more often. Our mothers didn’t strangle us when we were children. We owe them. (Unless, of course, your mother is toxic and all of this enforced love is traumatic and harmful to your progress. In that case, forget your mother. Love is a process, not an obligation. I’m getting on a tangent….) Mother’s Day also allows all sorts of politicians and business to tweet about how they loooove mothers, and think mothers do amazing work. Then they turn around and pass legislation that makes it harder to be a single mother, or refuse to improve their maternity leave, or refuse to raise wages to a point where parents aren’t trapped in the insane situation where it actually makes more financial sense for one parent to give up on their dreams and stay at home than to try and be a two-income household that also pays for childcare.

This is the case with International Women’s Day, too. Google does a cute Google doodle, but has a serious gender and pay imbalance. Politicians and companies use the opportunity to spout their love for women, but few put their money and policies where their mouth is. So it falls to us to do what we can to make sure women are actually supported on International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day was originally meant to be a day of collective action, where women would strike, march, etc. But that’s harder to accomplish in this day and age, and speaking as someone with a mobility issue, marching is not always my best method of showing effort.

So for the past few years, I’ve made International Women’s Day a Pay it Forward day. I take a certain amount of money, and split it in half. One half goes to female artists of various types—authors, painters, crafters, etc.—and the other half goes to women-led or women-friendly causes, like Planned Parenthood, She Should Run, etc. In this way I feel like I am actually supporting women, both on the local level and on a systemic level.

I would like to ask you, my readers, to do something similar. It doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary. But do something to support the female creators and female causes in your life. Tell an artist friend you love their work. Write a note to a hardworking female state Senator to let her know that you recognize her effort. Figure out some way to make International Women’s Day (and Women’s History Month in general. Did you know it was that too? Yeah.) a day where you support women.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image depicts an International Women’s Day protest from 2017, featuring meany people holding many signs marching in the streets. Source: Molly Adams, CC BY 2.0

Black History Month and Badass Women

To celebrate Black History Month, I’ve decided to shine a light on some of my favorite Black women from history that people (*cough white people cough*) may not have heard of.

 

Because February has lasted both approximately 1 million years and about 2 days, I almost made it past the last Friday in February without doing a post for Black History Month. For shame Elle, for shame! So to celebrate Black History Month, I’ve decided to shine a light on some of my favorite Black women from history that people (*cough white people cough*) may not have heard of. Obviously Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks are bamfs, but I’m trying to go past the awesome ladies that everyone knows and highlight three of the many, many gems that don’t get nearly enough attention in the month.

 

Photo: Wikimedia, CC0 (US)

Queen Anna Nzinga

Queen Anna Nzinga (1583-1663) was first an ambassador and then a ruler for the Mbundu people in Angola in the 1600s. When her brother was king, he sent her to negotiate with the Portuguese, who were attempting to enter Angola as a new slave trading port. When entering into negotiations with the Portuguese representative she realized the only chair in the room belonged to the Portuguese governor. Wanting to start negotiations on an equal footing, she motioned for an assistant to get on all fours, and then sat upon her for the length of the negotiations. After her brother’s death and some political machinations that may or may not have included the murder of her nephew (gotta talk to Richard III about those nephew murdering rumors) she took control. When the Portuguese didn’t honor the treaties she had made, Nzinga managed to wage war against them for thirty years. Pretty hardcore.

Sources:

http://www.blackpast.org/gah/queen-nzinga-1583-1663
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nzinga_of_Ndongo_and_Matamba

 

Photo: epicture’s, CC BY 2.0

Josephine Baker

If the afterlife has a dinner party, you want to sit next to Josephine Baker (1906-1975). Born to a mother who was a former entertainer, Josephine had been a live-in domestic servant, lived on the streets, danced on street corners, been married twice, and was recruited to be part of a vaudeville show, all by the time she was 15. During the Harlem Renaissance she moved to New York City, and was part of the chorus line in Shuffle Along. Baker eventually left the US to escape the constant discrimination she felt there.

In 1925 she started performing in Paris at the age of 19. She became famous for her sensual dancing and her daring costumes. In the Danse Sauvage she wore only a feathered skirt, and then in La Folie du Jour a year later, she would dance in a skirt made up of 16 bananas, and little else. She also often performed with her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who wore a diamond collar and often escaped into the orchestra pit to terrify the musicians. Baker became the most successful American entertainer in France, and gained admirers such as Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picaso, and e e cummings. Baker was bisexual, and also had relationships with women around this time, including the blues singer Clara Smith. She became the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, appearing in the 1934 film Zouzou. During WWII, she was recruited to act as a French intelligence agent. As an entertainer, she had a plausible reason to move about Europe and North Africa, touring clubs and entertaining soldiers. She also gathered information and passed messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music, or even pinned to her underwear. For her work during the war, she received two of France’s highest military honors, the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. She adopted twelve children from all over the world, whom she called her “Rainbow Tribe,” to show that people of all races could live together happily. During the Civil Rights Movement, she refused to perform at segregated venues, which helped lead to the integration of Las Vegas clubs. She ignored death threats from the KKK, and became good friends with Grace Kelly after the latter defended her during a racist incident at the Stork Club. She spoke alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington, and was even approached by Coretta Scott King to be a new leader of the Civil Rights Movement following MLK’s assassination. Baker eventually said no, fearing that her children might lose their mother.

Baker received a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall in 1973. In 1975, she starred in what was meant to be the first of many performances celebrating her 50 years in Paris as an entertainer. The audience for the opening night performance included Princess Grace, Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, and Liza Minelli. Four days after this initial performance, Baker died in her sleep of a cerebral hemorrhage. More than 20,000 lined the streets of Paris to witness her funeral, and was the first American woman to be buried with French military honors.

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Baker
https://www.biography.com/people/josephine-baker-9195959

 

Photo: Wikimedia, CC0 (US)

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) became the first woman of African-American and Native American descent to hold a pilot’s license. Born in 1892, she was the tenth of 13 children of two share croppers. Growing up in Texas, she had to walk four miles each day to her one-room, segregated school, where she was a bright student. At 18 she enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (man they had weird names for shit in the early 1900s) but her money ran out after just one semester. After moving to Chicago to work as a manicurist, she heard many stories from returning WWI pilots about flying. She took a second job to save money for flight school, but no American schools would admit women or Black applicants. With some financial backing from a banker and a local paper, Bessie took French lessons before moving to France to study at a French aviation school. Returning to the US in 1921 she was a media hit, but quickly realized that to make money in the civilian realm as a pilot she would have to become a stunt flier, which would require additional training. But again, no school in America would accept her. So she returned to Europe and studied under multiple instructors in multiple countries. She started performing in US airshows in 1922, and became known as “Queen Bess.” Unfortunately, she died at the early age of 34, when she was thrown from a malfunctioning plane during a rehearsal for an aerial show.

 

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bessie_Coleman

 

There are many, many more amazing Black women that I would love to talk about (hat tips to Ida B. Wells, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Shirley Chisolm, Mae Jemison, Nella Larsen, Nichelle Nichols, and Ella Baker!) Hopefully next year I’ll have a better grasp on how long February is, and I’ll be better prepared to talk about these awesome ladies.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Photo source: Wikimedia Commons, CC0 (Public Domain)