Books By Women: Bad Feminist

Read Bad Feminist. Plain and simple, no strings attached I can safely recommend Bad Feminist to anyone. Roxanne Gay frames her collection of essays as a critique of the concept that there is one singular way to be a feminist and how she doesn’t want to be a feminist icon and put on a pedestal. She knows she can’t be perfect and doesn’t want to be the “popular media feminist flavor of this week” as she explains it. She is human. She is flawed. She (gasp!) shaves her legs.

And she’s a feminist. A self proclaimed bad feminist.

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One of the reasons this collection works so well is because it takes the fear out of feminism without removing the title of feminist or proclaiming an ideology. Roxane Gay is a cultural critic first and foremost. These essays are accessible conversations about why we need more representations of women (especially women of color) in movies and books. You do not need to know feminist theory to understand her ideas and as Gay explains in her introduction, she’s not as well read on feminist texts as she should be. There’s no pressure. You come as you are and take what you take, whether you agree with her critiques of sexual mores, race, and women in literature, you can see how she arrives at her ideas.

And for readers who have read all the feminist theory, Roxane Gay’s book is a great way to introduce yourself to the writings of a feminist of color. Gay doesn’t dumb down feminism or subtract from the need for feminism because her writing is accessible. The accessibility makes her work all the more poignant that, like Bell Hooks wrote: Feminism is for Everybody.

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The best moments in the essays are when Gay speaks about her personal experience, growing up as the child of immigrants, working through sex and sexuality, and navigating her own privilege. Essays like “I Once Was Miss America” capture nostalgia for childhood literary favorites (even when these tastes are embarassingly awful), while analyzing race and the incessant need in literature for flawless Mary Sue women. You finish the book feeling like you know Roxane Gay and have just spent hours and hours on the phone with her, as if you are best friends.

If you have not already read Bad Feminist is is my reading recommendation for the summer, fall, winter or spring. Read this book. You won’t regret it.

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“Onward We March” to Racism

There’s been a recent controversy in Trumbull, CT over a painting in the Trumbull Library which depicted Mother Theresa standing alongside other female activists, including Margaret Sanger, who holds a Planned Parenthood sign. Catholic officials are deeply offended and say that the painting slanders Mother Theresa’s image. The painting has since been taken down.

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However, the real controversy–the one no one is talking about–has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with race. Look at this painting. Women unite under the banner “Onward We March” and yet there are no women of color. Nowhere.

Imagery like this perpetuates the stereotype that feminism and any push for women’s rights is a white woman’s movement, specifically a cisgender heterosexual middle class white woman’s movement. Where are the Audre Lourdes? the Bell Hooks? the Dolores Huertas?

Where are the women of color and more important, why is no one raising the alarm that Trumbull’s attempt at feminism is severely whitewashed. Feminism is for everyone, and the issue with this painting should be about exclusion and erasure rather than issues of Catholicism and slander against Mother Theresa.

The Positive Language of Feminism

Nearly a month into 2015, but it’s not too late to add a New Year’s resolution. This year, I will be a positive feminist and use my language to uplift women.

I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend in my speech this past year: when speaking about feminism, social justice or human rights I fall into the category of one who sees some of the problems but frames my responses from a negative outlook. Instead of saying “Women’s voices have been devalued by patriarchal culture,” I say, “Women are told their voices don’t matter and that we’ll never matter.”

The difference is in the tense. It is true that women’s voices have been devalued in the past, and that in the present women still struggle to be heard, but that does not mean WE’LL NEVER MATTER. If I frame our current struggle as a losing cause I keep my self down, I keep others down and surround myself with the fear that nothing I can do or say will matter because the past=the present=the future.

Not true.

In a conversation with a group of women of color at my university the other day, many of them spoke about how their mothers and female role models never told them that they were worth less as women. Looking at my own background, my mother never told me that I was worth less for my sex. I was telling myself this lie because to be a feminist and to be a part of feminist culture and debate means to drop into a fist fight and always keep your arms up for defense. You will be attacked.

Maybe I wanted a lost cause. Maybe it felt good to rant in absolute statements that said negative words like NEVER.

But feminism is not a lost cause.

With your arms up you are also on the offensive and you choose how you fight. This year, I choose to fight with positive language. Women’s voices are valued. Women’s voices are valued because I value them. And I am not alone.

When  I was home in CT for winter break I met up with a friend I’ve known since elementary school. The year before we both went off to college we were both afraid of the word feminism and wouldn’t listen to a mutual friend begin to question the patriarchy. We only meet up once or twice a year, and in 2013 we sat in Barnes and Noble and laughed at the articles in Seventeen Magazine for its portrayal of young girls as sex objects in a heteronormative world. I was a feminist then but was too afraid to say so to my friend and she was a feminist, but was too afraid to say so to me.

This year, I followed her facebook page as she posted about Ferguson and the fight for human rights across differences in race, sex, gender and sexuality. When we met up this year, she told me that as a creative writing major, “I’m tired of reading stories by and about men.” Wow, did I understand the feeling! Finally, we came together as the feminists were always terrified to be, but we lifted each other up through our bravery. Feminism is a positive language to make positive change and connect individuals for a more just and peaceful world of equality.

In 2015, I will be a positive feminist.

Motivation: As Narrated by Men

If you look up motivational videos on youtube you’ll notice a disturbing trend. Whether it’s one long speech or a compilation of movie speeches, motivational quotes and intense action or training montages, the videos are always narrated by men.

Let’s take a look at a few examples:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsSC2vx7zFQ

How about:

And:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2WVHIau77Q

If I want to find women narrating to me about motivation and pushing myself to be better than my best, I have to look specifically for “motivational videos women.” Women are not the norm but the deviation. But women do not need specific motivation geared toward us!  The same ideas about “fall 7 seven times get up 8 times” about “take hits because life is tough but we are tougher” are not advice just for men. There is no monopoly on success but mainstream media wants us to believe women are inherently different.

There is no gender monopoly on success and motivation! We do not need “motivational videos for women.” We need non-gender specific motivation that recognizes human potential for success not male potential or female potential. We all can get beaten down by life and we all deserve to be told not to sit down and take it.

One More Person Against Bigotry

Once you begin to see that sexism is not the boogeyman crazed feminists invented to give themselves a cause to shout about, suddenly sexism is everywhere. It’s on the most mundane commercials, your favorite t.v. show, the clothes you wear, the joking comments your friends and family make, it’s in the grocery store, the pharmacy, the classroom, the office. Sexism becomes omnipresent because you’ve chosen to see how the world truly operates.

When my best friend first started talking to me about feminism years ago, she was so scared and angry about the way she had lived blind for most of her life to the oppression that plagued her and everyone else in her life regardless of their sex and gender. And every so often, my own rage builds up and drowns out all hope that the world can become a world of equality. Because if I’ve learned one thing from being a feminist, it’s that no human rights issue is isolated. I cannot care about women’s issues without caring about queer issues and I cannot care about queer issues without caring about issues of people of color, and I cannot care about issues of people of color without caring about economic justice. And then all of a sudden you’re not just fighting one system of oppression: you’re fighting the entire system.

It feels so overwhelming sometimes.

But just yesterday, I was out shopping with a few other international students and one of them commented that I look young for my age. She said “But that’s good. It’s always good for women to look young. More so than men.” I told her that this says a great deal about the sexist way women are at the center of the cult of youth and beauty. And she said, “I hadn’t thought of that before.”

I didn’t say she was being sexist or that she was bigoted for her comment, I just explained what her comment meant. And because she was open to the idea that sexism exists, even in small offhand comments, it means there’s one more person thinking about sexism and ways to combat it. That means there’s one more person on our side to fight hatred and oppression in the world.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to bring issues to someone’s attention. And when you do, you don’t feel nearly as if you’re alone fighting against the world.

Hate is not a Perspective

I’m studying abroad in Istanbul! I’m in Istanbul right now and will be in Turkey until June and I tell you this to put this story into context.

Istanbul From Space with Place-Names

Our whole study abroad group of Americans went out into the city the other night for us to get accustomed to the city and know the transportation. We wind up at a club around 11:30 or so and I don’t drink and I rarely dance. The bass music was jarring, but not any worse than I was expecting,even as it rocked its way up through my bones.

But it wasn’t the volume of the music that left me seething. It wasn’t the flashing lights.

It was the misogyny of the music and the music videos. Blasting in my ears was date-rape song blurred lines, songs about dicks and  grabbing hold of your own sexy lady for a night of manly fun. The songs were American, but I didn’t know half of them. Still, I knew enough to hear the words and feel violently ill. The music videos were just as bad if not worse. It’s nothing new for music and music videos to sexualize women, so I know this isn’t groundbreaking news. But, in any other situation I would have had the opportunity to leave. However, I’m in Istanbul. I don’t know my way down the block let alone the public transit two hour commute back to campus. I don’t speak much Turkish. So I stand and I seethe and no one approaches me until finally other girls in our group ask if I want to leave.

As we hail a taxi, someone comments on how the club was too empty. I say it was full of hate and misogyny. One  of the girls laughs, not a mean spirited  laugh, but an awkward laugh because she doesn’t know what to say and she’s amazed I’m being honest. I’m crying now from so much pent up emotions and a Turkish student who accompanied us to the club says he never thought of it from that perspective before.

He was trying to help, but hate is not a perspective you can validate or invalidate. Hate is a fact. Yes, you can choose to notice it or not, but that doesn’t make it any less real or impactful. But it’s simple to see hate as just a way of looking at the world: half full or half empty. In other words, if you choose to see a hateful world that’s your problem and your judgment should be adjusted accordingly.

This is why it’s so difficult to speak candidly about oppression against any marginalized group! Far too often you’re invalidated and told that you’re just misinterpreting the situation. Shift your perspective and suddenly the awful racist comment is just a joke. Or the sexualization of women (and specifically women of color) in music videos is just clever marketing for their target male audience. Suddenly you are the overly sensitive one, ruining the rose-colored glasses of those around you. How dare you see the world for what it is and want to make change.

But though I felt awful crying in front of people I met just the day before, I felt validated that I had stood up against hatred and did not shy away from telling the truth. Hate is currently an ugly truth of the world and it cannot be combated until it is recognized as a real problem that needs immediate attention. If anything, those who deny hatred and bigotry need to shift their perspective.

 

Use the “F-Word” in Polite Company

I don’t swear. My friends are shocked if I casually say “damn.” But I think it is important to reclaim the “f-word” and not just on bumper-stickers. It is all well and good to proclaim from the back of your car: Reclaim the F-Word: Feminism,

but now, we need to proclaim it in the streets, in our homes, and in our work place. Feminism cannot be a silent presence, not when it can be so easy to look the other way and claim sexism is from a by-gone age.

I have a friend who is going into video game design and the last time she and I met up we talked about female characters in films. We talked about Tauriel in The Hobbit (I plan on making a post on my hatred of Tauriel, keep on the look out), the women of Frozen and Tooth from Rise of the Guardians. Without delving too deep into our entire discussion, it was clear we agreed that women in all forms of media deserved to be treated with respect and not rely on a male character to define them. We watched Wreck it Ralph and as my friend gushed at all the video game references, I told her about Feminist Frequency’s video series on Tropes Against Women in Video Games.

I mentioned the word “feminist” and her face darkened. She said she might look into it, but I doubt it. But, she is a feminist: she believes in equality for women. She is a woman going into a male-dominated field who believes she is just as good as her male peers. She is a feminist, but right now would not admit it.

I do not blame her. When I first proclaimed myself a feminist, it was entirely on this blog. I was ashamed of admitting it out loud for fear that I would be fighting a dead fight, that I would be viewed as a man-hater, that I would be insulted by strangers and family for my beliefs. And I cannot say my life as a feminist has been completely devoid of any of this, I do not need to compromise my morals by claiming to be anything that I am not.

I am a feminist. When I began my blog, I was terrified to publish even my about page . I had to whisper to myself “I am a feminist” until the words became easier to say. Now, I do not whisper. But about two years ago I wouldn’t even have dared to let the word “feminism” cross my mind. It was the f-word, and I didn’t swear. At my women’s college, we have a festival in the fall where different diversity organizations set up booths for arts and crafts. The Feminist Club had a booth to make buttons and pre-printed on every piece of paper was one word:

FEMINIST

Friends grabbed at the buttons and wrote slogans already made famous by t-shirts, but no less powerful in meaning.

I, on the other hand was threatened by the word feminist so much that I nearly took a button and wrote “I am not a feminist” in large black marker to offset myself from the hordes of women who were deluding themselves into believing women were not yet equal. Thankfully I did not make this mistake as I do not know how I would have gotten over the shame of my sexist views.

However, I have gotten over the shame of feminism. I do my absolute best to let my friends, their family, my family, co-workers and bosses know exactly where I stand on the issue of gender equality. It doesn’t have to be the first thing out of my mouth, but there is nothing wrong with using the f-word in “polite company” because feminism is not impolite. If those who hear it disagree or are offended, then they are offended. But at least you stood up and did more than whisper or put a bumper sticker on the car. The words need to come from our mouths and the words need to be loud and spoken with certainty.

I AM A FEMINIST.