‘A feminist awakening’

“As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities. What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means. For so long it’s been made to seem like something where you’d picket against the opposite sex, whereas it’s not about that at all.” — Taylor Swift. 

I’ve discussed in the past how frustrated I’ve been by Taylor Swift’s previous aversion to feminism, and her songs which, in my view, have perpetuated some sexist ideas; I’ve also talked about how, despite my occasional frustration, nobody has the right to impose feminist ideals (or any ideology) on another individual. I stand by my assertion that it doesn’t particularly matter if you identify as a feminist. There are myriad reasons why someone might choose to steer away from such an identification, beginning with the truly negative way the movement’s been portrayed since its inception—I’m not bragging when I say that it takes guts to stand up and say you’re a feminist.

Recently though, more and more women have begun to align themselves with feminism—and I wanted to take a moment to be absolutely thrilled by this fact, and talk about the significance of the Beyoncés and Taylor Swifts in the world bringing feminist discussions to the populace. While I have to respect when someone is actively anti-feminist, influential women aligning themselves with the movement is also invaluable.

Taylor Swift and Beyoncé are among the most powerful and influential artists around. People go gaga for their music, their ideas, their work, their words—everything Swift and Beyoncé do is worth paying attention to.

Neither of them was particularly political when their careers first began, both entering the world of pop and celebrity while still in possession of baby-faces. The fact of their success puts an unfair pressure on them to have their ideas and themselves figured out, so that they have an identity to present to the public. This is largely the result of audiences demanding a totally formed person behind the music with whom they can identify.

I lose track of Tay-tay’s age except through her occasional song about being “Fifteen” or “22”; yet I can recall being incredibly frustrated by her previously uninformed definition of feminism when, realistically, she was probably younger than I currently am. Because Beyoncé and Swift emerged as such powerful beings from a young age, we immediately associate them with feminist paragons—women never break through the glass ceiling so young!

But how can we expect a young woman—grappling with identity and a rapidly shifting world that requires her to come up with her “brand”—to know exactly what her stance is when it comes to feminism? More importantly, why should we? The go-to question for successful women is to ask if they identify with feminism. This inquiry (1) is unfairly and unjustifiably gendered (as I discussed in another post), and (2) becomes an annoying, haranguing demand to either identify with all things feminist—including the more negative portrayals which, again, have plagued feminism since its inception—or with nothing feminist at all. All of this, when the road to identifying as a feminist is often long and complicated.

What do you think their choice would be?

Now, I’m not at all saying that age necessarily has bearing on one’s abilities or identity—I don’t believe that it does. It’s common though in youth to solidify what it is you believe, and how that matches up with other people’s beliefs.

That’s why I’m so elated with Beyoncé and Taylor Swift speaking out in support of feminism. There’s been a growing number of women who have come to understand the tenets of feminism, but again, these two women in particular have incredible and widespread influence. Beyoncé’s recent performance at the 2014 VMAs really brought feminism into the spotlight. I think Jessica Valenti, author of The Purity Myth and Full Frontal Feminism, summed it up best in the Guardian:

“Beyoncé, in the midst of an epic 15-minute medley at Sunday night’s MTV Video Music awards, performed her song ‘Flawless’ in front of a giant screen blazoned with the word ‘FEMINIST.’ And, as in her music video, the superstar sampled author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech on feminism and expectations for girls. The zeitgeist is irrefutably feminist: its name literally in bright lights … Obviously, feminism can’t hang its hat on celebrity endorsements—it’s a movement for social and political change, not a popularity contest. But successful movements need support, be it in the grassroots or in Hollywood. And there is no debating the hugely powerful cultural message sent … as Beyoncé sang about feminism, while her husband looked on lovingly, holding their daughter. It was, without a doubt, flawless.”

Bey.

Bey.

Beyoncé’s performance was particularly important because we rarely see women who can have it all. We see women in pop culture—especially in TV and movie portrayals—who struggle to choose between work, success, marriage, self-love and -care, parenting, and the like. Beyoncé standing on stage, with her husband and daughter in the front row waiting to present her with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, tells young women watching that you can have it. You don’t have to choose between the multitude of things that, together, make you happy. In a manner that harkens back to Mary Tyler Moore, it told us that we’re “gonna make it after all.”

There will continue to be those who shy away from identifying as a feminist, or who argue that humanism and egalitarianism are better because they aren’t gendered (yeah, tell those people to read this piece from Feminspire.com: they don’t actually understand what any of the three ideologies are).

Nonetheless, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift are paving the way for more celebrities to identify as feminist, and are bringing feminism into more positive and constructive debate. More importantly, they’re making it possible for young girls to read Swift’s statement and realize that they want equal rights and opportunities; for more young women to sing along with Beyoncé and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and to see themselves as flawless.

“Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” That’s music to my ears.

Reinventing dolls: the Miss Possible project

Dolls are still popular, and still apparently fun, but they’re still heavily marketed towards young girls. While Barbie is still the number one selling line of dolls, the game changed back in 2010 with Monster High. While the audience remains the same, the stylistic choices changed. Granted the immensely popular Monster High dolls, even with their “monster” inspiration, still share the same Barbie issues–big eyes, pouty lips, slender bodies, all marketed physical traits that’ve been argued against hundreds of times. Remarkably in the last 55 years since Barbie was introduced, very little has changed. However, a recent successful IndieGoGo project titled Miss Possible is hoping to change all that.

The Miss Possible project began in January 2013, when founders Supriya Hobbs and Janna Eaves came up with the idea. Miss Possible aims to create a line of dolls for young girls, with the dolls themselves being modelled after some of history’s greatest and most inspiring women. The first three dolls are based on Marie Curie, Bessie Coleman, and Ada Lovelace, and will be based on the designs below:

Credit: IndieGoGo

Credit: IndieGoGo

The dolls of course are meant to inspire young girls, while still remaining adorable play toys. The project was funded on August 16, and is aiming to have the dolls for sale by next year.

How do you feel about dolls? Even with the dolls focussing on strong women, should they be trying to get boys involved too?

Binary bathroom blues

We live in a fundamentally binary-based world. Humans are rather simple in many ways, and it is simpler for us to divide the world into twos, à la Noah’s Ark. That means that there’s black and white, good and bad, male and female; anything that deviates from the binary norm, threatening our fragile construction, is absolutely unacceptable.

Unfortunately for those who stubbornly cling to the binary, there’s a lot that challenges this conception of dualism. Namely, in what I’ll be discussing here, trans* identity.

There’s been a debate circulating as more and more institutions have begun to recognize the need for trans*-inclusive spaces, particularly where there tends to be so much discrimination against trans* people—the bathroom. The idea is simple: that a person can use the bathroom with which they identify, so a female-identified person can use a women’s washroom; alternatively, there’s the proposed introduction of trans* bathrooms, reserved for the use of trans*-identified people.

Image from theseattlelesbian.com

Image from theseattlelesbian.com

I can’t say that I fully agree with the idea of a separate bathroom for trans* people—only because of my concern that it perpetuates the binary and sets trans* people as “other” from everyone else—but it is a first step towards addressing the widespread discrimination against trans* people.

I’ve discussed gender identity in a previous post, but I’ll give a brief summary once again. Genitalia determine biological sex, but gender is an identity. The two are different, so it is fundamentally flawed to dictate someone’s gender identity based on their biological sex. You can be born with the biological parts of one sex, and identify with another gender—it’s that simple. The reason we should change the way that the binary system has been working is because the system doesn’t work, and excludes those whose gender identity is not the same as their sex. The convenience of labels is not a reason to preserve a flawed system.

The binary is also unfair to intersex people, who might be born with what medical institutions define as ambiguous genitalia (essentially measuring the newborn’s parts and dictating what their sex ought to be), or a chromosomal sex that is not XX or XY. As Survivor Project states, because doctors can’t “neatly classify [the bodies] as male or female,” surgery will often be performed although “intersex conditions usually do not threaten the health of the infant.” With the gradually growing movement in both intersex activism and trans* activism, there is a greater need to acknowledge that one’s genitalia do not determine one’s gender, and that the binary system is generally limiting.

A lot of the response from the peanut gallery to the gender-neutral bathroom movement has been woefully negative. The idea “don’t read the comments” holds ever more true as a flood of ignorance and selfishness pours into the supposedly critical analysis.

Responses sometimes point to the speaker’s own discomfort at the thought of a “member of the opposite sex” being in the same bathroom as them. So, a cis-male for example, feeling uncomfortable with a trans*-male (who this cis-male does not acknowledge as male) being in the same bathroom. To that I have to wonder how the trans*-male would feel being forced to use the women’s washroom—likely quite uncomfortable, particularly with the stares from women, suggesting explicitly “You don’t belong here.”

There have also been ridiculous assertions that a “boy” could identify as a girl on Tuesday and change “his” mind on Wednesday, depending, essentially, on mood. The bottom line is that the trans*-inclusive policies wouldn’t apply to any supposed ne’er-do-wells toying with the policies. I imagine the number of aforementioned hypothetical ne’er-do-wells would be rather low anyways, but regardless, they shouldn’t stand in the way of much-needed trans*-inclusive policies.

I’ve also heard that allowing trans*-girls into the cis-girls bathroom would somehow lead to sexual assault, as these girls (who are apparently really boys?) would take advantage of the cis-girls. Really? Because a sign on a door would actually stop a rapist from entering a bathroom. Yeah, rapists would definitely be respectful and wait until the girls had exited the bathroom before violating them. Signs on doors do not prevent criminals from committing crimes, and giving some basic rights to a group of people will not facilitate those crimes. I imagine the number of people masquerading as trans* for the purposes of physically or sexually assaulting others would be quite minimal, and should not be a reason to infringe on the trans* people’s access to an inclusive bathroom.

Besides which, it is far more likely that trans* people will continue to be discriminated against, harassed, and indeed assaulted (physically, sexually, and emotionally) if we continue down this non-inclusive path. Rabble.ca reported on a 2013 study, showing that “68 per cent of trans* people were told they were in the wrong facility, ridiculed, told to leave, verbally threatened, or gawked at. Nine per cent of trans* people were sexually assaulted or subject to physical violence just for going to a gender segregated bathroom.” The article further reported that the “fear, stress, and real potential for violence associated with using gender segregated bathrooms can be so great that it can actually limit the participation of trans* folks in everyday life. Fifty-seven per cent of trans* Ontarians have avoided public washrooms, which can result in health conditions ranging from urinary tract infections to kidney problems.”

Image from catholicanada.com

Image from catholicanada.com

Threat of violence is a serious concern, even from authority figures who are not in a position to flex their authority. In one instance, as described in Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination by Sheila L. Cavanagh, a female-to-male transsexual was arrested for attempting to use the bathroom: “I had just started transitioning and I met this guy who was trans and … He went to the men’s washroom and this cop followed him in and said, ‘Let me see your ID—you’re in the wrong washroom.’ He said that he wasn’t in the wrong washroom and that he was just going to use the washroom and that was it … and then the cop slammed him against the wall, handcuffed him, and dragged him out and arrested him. He had already had chest surgery but they brought him to the women’s jail and ordered him to take off his clothes and said, ‘Why don’t you have any tits,’ and all these things to him. So he was very traumatized … He got charged with ‘impersonating’ and ‘trespassing.'”

One interviewee in Queering Bathrooms, Emily, states her fear at using public bathrooms, not entirely due to physical threat, “but sort of the emotional, social threat of being ‘outed’ and embarrassed and humiliated in front of people … being stood up in front of everybody … ‘You’re different and you don’t belong here.'”

Further, as Temperance states, “For trans people who … don’t identify their gender or just know it’s not one of the two [binary gender] extremes … I could imagine that … [accessing a public bathroom] is the most triggering event of the day. To just, like, have to pee and have to be confronted with the fact that you can’t go, you literally don’t have access, you don’t have a door. It’s almost like you are entirely erased from the most human and basic and fundamental of activities.”

The discrimination against and scrutiny of trans* people is very real, and it’s not uncommon for cis-people to demand to know what’s between the trans* person’s legs, as if (1) they have a right to know, and (2) it’s anything less than sexual harassment to ask such a thing. Trans*-inclusive and gender-neutral bathrooms would be at least some assurance, written in policy, that the trans* person can assert their right to access a space and its facilities.

I am concerned, once again, that the introduction of gender-neutral bathrooms will have other ramifications. Namely, that you must keep to your allotted space, and you’re safe from physical or sexual assault but only while in that space, blamed for your own victimization if you venture outside. Inclusive and gender-neutral bathrooms are a first step, but we must also be aware that the external world has a long way to go towards inclusivity.

The fact of the matter is, these policies are tremendously necessary as a first step for trans* rights, and they represent only a small step in the long road ahead. The arguments people have come up with are not sound—they aren’t even valid for the most part—and they emerge quite simply from a place of transphobia and ignorance. I’m honestly disappointed with how far there is to go for trans* rights; I mean, we’re still working on marriage equality, it feels like the uproar in support of trans* rights is just starting, even though it’s been going on for decades. I sincerely hope that the introduction of trans*-inclusive bathrooms, which will hopefully become commonplace in all places, will be the start of something.

(If you’re confused at all by my use of the term “trans*” with an asterisk, here’s what it means: the asterisk is the search tool which finishes the term with all possible endings. Trans* completes the term with all possible endings, making it inclusive towards various trans* identities.)

Strong “women” charcters vs “strong” women characters

As usual with movie and television-related posts, spoilers ahead!

Oftentimes when one thinks of strong women characters in film and television, there tends to be a mishmash of what comes to mind. Part of what fits the description of “strong women” depends on personal preference, but the description also depends what you’re putting your focus on. Is the emphasis on “strong,” on “women,” or a fair combination of both? Regardless if the work is about superheroes, middle-earth royalty, vigilantes, or average everyday people, is the focus on their physical strength or their depth and personality?

Left to right: Mikasa Ackerman, Brienne of Tarth, Joan Harris

Left to right: Mikasa Ackerman, Brienne of Tarth, Piper Chapman

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A weighty issue

In female culture, weight is a prevalent issue.

With our sizeist, pound-centric society, that essentially goes without saying. We are all, regardless of gender, subject to unrealistic “health” expectations, and the notion that if we limit ourselves enough we will be happy; women in particular are told to self-police. Women get bombarded with the diminutive images to which we are meant to aspire, while magazines and the Internet are strewn with tips and tricks that amount to starvation. We’re encouraged to do juice cleanses or detoxes or highly limiting diets, all in the name of well-being, health, and a slender frame.

Image from the inter-webs. Speech bubble from the Natalie.

Image from the inter-webs. Speech bubble from the Natalie.

This calorie-counting mentality is immediately problematic—is there a way to twist attitudes towards food which border on or are eating disorders as anything but negative? It creates a collective mentality of insecurity, ‘other’ing anyone who dares to adorn themselves in clothing over a size-00 and contributing to the pandemic paranoia about weight and obesity. Rather than focussing on health and moderation in fitness and in food, we foster a lifestyle which swings Tarzan-like from extreme to extreme, one moment limiting and another moment overindulging.

Something that I’ve begun to notice though is how this non-consumerist attitude towards food functions to create a sense of identity and belonging amongst women. A bizarre form of sisterhood which unites us in our efforts to shrink down, tone up, lose weight, and generally reduce ourselves in size.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had conversations about weight with my fellow females since I became aware of the social pressures to slenderize. Some would discuss with abject seriousness this new thing they’d heard of where you threw up to keep off pounds; others would run up and down bleacher stairs at lunch rather than eat, or would poke at a small salad. We all had this masochistic mentality that drove us to keep track of morsels which passed our lips, or compare ourselves in size and activity. It was our secret: we wouldn’t confess to one another just how hard we were trying to lose weight, because we knew that such confession would erode the veneer of health which justified our actions. It was our sisterhood.

Even now though, I notice the same self-policing, fat-shaming, aversion to all that is high-in-calories that was so emblematic of my youth. An apology for indulging in food, a confession that “I’m being bad,” a show of vulnerability that begs for sympathy and commiseration. Talking about needing to lose weight has become a bonding opportunity, in a oneupmanship of “Who feels the most insecure?”

I’ve been working in a bakery over the summer, and I’ve been exposed to this attitude of self-hate in relation to food all over again. Women spend an inordinate amount of time humming and hawing over baked goods, only to purchase nothing. Today a slender slip of a woman chose to get a teeny tiny scone and end her indulgence there because, as she admitted, she’s needed to start counting calories.

When someone says to me that they need to count calories, I tell them they don’t. I say this to everyone, regardless of their size because (1) I don’t think we need more judgmental eyes telling women to cut calories, and I certainly don’t think I’m the health guru to bring any sort of appraisal to the table, (2) the people who say this seem perfectly healthy as far as I’m concerned, and (3) health is a lifestyle, not a quick-fix diet that stops working when you stop dieting. Besides, in my lifetime, I’ve lost substantial amounts of weight because of feelings of inadequacy. Those feelings of inadequacy don’t go away with weight-loss; they go away with addressing the insecurity, and leading a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

I get it, because there is this social pressure to be slim and trim, and an accompanying understanding that women are valued for their appearance. This has regrettably become a thread of femininity, so it’s not entirely unreasonable to see weight-loss as the bond that holds us females together. And unfortunately, there’s nothing I can really say to make those collective feelings of inadequacy go away, especially not on the social scale that this insecurity exists. I can only really hope for the best, and leave you with some Amy Schumer to make it all a little bit better.