Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Vi Hart

My third grade math teacher ruined math for me and any type of self confidence I could have ever had in the subject.  Yes, that sounds like an overly exaggerated statement but I have come to believe that this is entirely true and completely appropriate given the way she chose to teach.   Ms. G., we will call her, was a notoriously tough teacher.  I knew the year would be hard the first day when I walked into the classroom and saw two huge tanks full of frogs and toads.  (If you refer back to my post about Dr. Jill Tarter, you will remember that I have a crippling fear of these creatures that dates back to my early childhood.)  

My education up to this point was sort of bumpy.  My first grade teacher chose to instruct us on the finer points of "I Love Lucy" and "Lost in Space" episodes instead of reading.  By the end of that year I had a million Lucy trading cards (definitely had the one to the left), earned myself about a dozen full size candy bars (the ultimate award for any six year old), and a spot in second grade remedial reading with the rest of my classmates.  Luckily, I had brilliant reading teachers that were able to get me up to speed with the rest of my grade level within one year.  While the stigma of this wasn't exactly completely grasped by me at the time, I knew that I was a kid who had to work a little harder.  

Surprisingly, I survived the amphibian science project, and even collected crickets to feed the toads.  (Of course I always kept a great distance whenever anyone was holding one.)  What I was unable to deal with was the part of third grade that I couldn't escape, the part that lasted the entire year...timed tests.  (example to the right--->)

Ms. G was seriously into her timed tests and gave one everyday.  We were given 100 problems and had to solve as many of them as possible in 60 seconds.  If we didn't correctly complete a certain number of problems, we had to stay 15 minutes after school for extra help.  I had to stay after everyday and no matter how much extra help I had, I still couldn't complete the tests.  Ms. G was not very kind to those of us who weren't getting it.  

When I think back on it, I'm completely amazed by her tactics and think of them to be quite strange.   She always had a teacher's pet.  This was always a girl, and typically the "smartest" girl in class.  When my sister had her, two years later, she was the pet.  I clearly was not.  In fact, I think she seriously didn't like me.  We had an altercation.  I was pretty fed up by the 15 minute detention everyday thing and so was my mom.  One day I was extra late getting home and my mom asked me why.  I told her Ms. G didn't let us leave until 3:05.  It was against policy for any student to be kept past 3:00.  My mom wrote Ms. G a letter stating her frustrations. (Think Marmee from Little Women, without the taking me out of school part)  I confidently handed it to her the next day when I got to school.  She read it and immediately, in front of the entire class and in a really patronizing voice said, "Julia, sweetie, you were dismissed at 3:00."  She was so lying!  I knew it and the rest of the kids in the class who had to stay knew it too.  So I stood up and said "No, you let us leave at 3:05."  She just stared at me and went back to teaching.  

To this day I hate being called "Sweetie".  I also struggle with Math.  Now that I look back on it, my main problem was the anxiety caused by the timing of the tests.  When my mom would have me practice at home without being timed, I could answer all the problems.  As soon as I was back in class and the timer ticked, I fell apart.  I wasn't even the worst student in the class and I was extremely lucky to have family support.  I just couldn't feel confident in the subject.  

In 6th grade, I had another crazy tough Math teacher, we will call him Mr. G.  I liked him but learned nothing.  I was too intimidated by the insane outbursts he had of throwing chalk at the wall and erasers at the blackboard when we failed to answer questions properly.  He did work hard with other kids who wanted extra help, I just looked for it elsewhere. My dad, basically a math genius, tried to tutor me. That failed miserably because he kept trying to show me all this extra stuff and shortcuts when I couldn't grasp the basics.  One of my friends, who was far superior than me in math, was utterly incredulous and completely annoyed when I argued that the decimal point didn't matter when trying to solve problems.  Yes, it was that bad.  ;)

My 7th grade math teacher, a fossil left over from my dad's years in the Jamestown School system, was ultra terrible.  He was overly tanned and wore a gold chain with short sleeved button up tees that he left open at the top exposing his graying chest hair.  Had Jersey Shore existed back then, we may have found him to be a little bit more entertaining.  I hated him after he told me a problem that I missed on an exam was easy enough for a dog to answer.  He always loved telling us that girls were just incapable of handling mathematics.  I'm pretty sure he was hungover a lot as well.  

It wasn't until my high school years that I was able to overcome some of the insecurities surrounding my math abilities.  The teacher that saved me was Mr. Salvaggio.  He was so patient with me and my other classmates.  As long as he knew I was really trying, which in his class at least I was, he allowed me to take the time I needed in order to really understand.  He became a great friend and I still see him occasionally when I go home.  Some friends and I even went to his wedding.  

While Salvag was great and helped me more than pass my later math classes, it was too late.  I was permanently convinced that I would never excel in the subject.  I don't think it was necessarily each individual teacher that couldn't get through to me, but the way in which the subject was taught in general.  Of course I learned some things along the way, just not enough to build any type of solid foundation.  I waited until my last semester of college before getting the Math GenEd out of the way and I just barely passed.  The only thing standing in the way of taking the GRE is my self doubt in my math abilities.  I am trying to get my mind beyond it, but I still have a lot of the same insecurities that have plagued me all of my educational life.  

This is where Vi Hart is helping in a big way.   Her website has become a site that I visit daily in hopes of gaining an interest and a "can do" attitude about math.  Her outlook is fascinating.  

She is 22 years old and refers to herself as a Mathemusician.  She has been named one of Stoney Brook University's researchers of the month for her work in music, specifically the Harry Potter septet she wrote.  If I don't know anything about math, I know less about composing music.  Of the piece, she says that it took her about 14 months and that it was just an idea she had one day, not actually thinking she would make it a reality.  She did complete it and that is what is so encouraging about her.  She clearly has the ability to make things happen and follow through with her ideas, a trait lacking in so many of us.  

Math is something she enjoys on a recreational level.  She is completely irritated with the way it is taught in this country.  Listen to the first few moments of this video and you can instantly pick up on her exasperation over how boring the subject is handled in our classrooms...Doodling elephants.  She has made a series of these videos, using doodling as a way of explaining mathematic principles.  I like how fast she talks too.  It reminds me of the micro machines guy from those old 90's commercials.  :)

I have always wondered if Math were explained to me in a different way, would I get it?  When I was in Salvaggio's class I seemed to learn the concepts more than any other time in my life, so I don't necessarily think it's material that I would never be able to handle.  

I have always been more visual, and Vi's artistic interpretations of mathematical principles are so beautiful and unique.  A lot easier for me to connect with than numbers and language that might as well be foreign to me.  I am also a history nerd and think that if I understood more of the story behind the subject, my mind could better identify with the information.  It was ruined for me long ago, however, so it's going to take a lot of self motivation at this point for me to build my confidence.  Vi's website is helping with that. 

She doesn't just doodle!  She also makes really cool bead sculptures with instructions and explanations of the math she used to create them.  I like how she encourages people to attempt them and email her photos.   She is working to make her passion an entire community and by doing so teaching those who want to learn.  I haven't attempted anything yet but I'm determined to try something.  Hart also uses fruits, vegetables, and balloons in her projects.  Several of her reports have been published and presented at different math conferences.  She has even made her own paper instruments and played them while on fire.  It's all so interesting and makes me wonder how one person can be so smart and artistic.  

We all learn differently and I feel that is a strength that is being suffocated in our current system.  If we aren't able to follow the learning methods that are considered "the norm" we will fall by the wayside or be left to feel that we just can't do it.  If a subject like math can be taught to students who learn in different ways by new methods, shouldn't those options be at least examined?  We are only doing future damage to our country's abilities by not providing the most up to date techniques for learning. 

When asked about her future plans, it seems that Vi is interested in doing something musically.  This surely would be really cool but I hope she keeps up her math work as well.  There seems to be a movement within the educational community that has started the discussion about how math could be taught differently.  With a 25th world ranking, our students seem to be crying out for a change in tactics.  Paul Lockhart wrote an indepth essay about his frustrations with the current system that you can read/skim through here.  

Hopefully, those who find joy in math like Vi will keep up its recreational appeal.  I'm not sure  gold chains math teacher is still alive but I'd like to pass along Hart's website to him and make some type of sassy comment about girls and math.  Although, it's probably more productive for me to just write about her here.  We really don't hear much about math in a fun creative way.  I'm glad Vi's unique perspective is cutting through the negative stigma and gaining some type of following.  

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Elaine Riddick Jessie

OK Cupid, the free internet dating site that I tried for one month, asks participants all types of questions ranging from social issues, to personality traits, and sexual preferences. They use your answers as a basis for finding your match percentage with other people. One question that I thought was a no brainer was 
"Would the world be a better place if people with low IQ's were not allowed to reproduce?"
No. Easy. Of course not. Terrible. Who would say "Yes"? 

Turns out, most guys. 

Smart, interesting, witty guys would message me and appear to be really great and then I'd peruse their answers to questions and see a big "YES" where there should have been a "No". Worse still, some of them explained their answer with phrases like "Even though it's terrible, it's necessary for the betterment of society." Some even referenced that it was a logical part of evolution. YUCK. 

The irony is that I feel like anyone who would answer "Yes" is dreadfully ignorant. Ignorant not only about what an "IQ" actually is or the controversy behind its relevance but also about what the question is really suggesting. Not being allowed to do something generally requires some type of restriction. Reproductive restrictions can be brutal, morally reprehensible programs that hurt society in a way that is so damaging, the defense that it could be positive for evolution is laughable. 

Eugenics is the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics). 

Throughout the majority of the 20th century, there were dozens of eugenics programs that existed all over the United States.  Individuals who were deemed "feeble minded" and inferior, were involuntarily sterilized to prevent future reproduction.  After the Nuremberg trials, when the horrors of the Nazi regime were exposed, many states abandoned the practice.  North Carolina, however, expanded their program.  

To date, NC seems to be the most open about examining this dark history.  I want to be clear however, that these programs appear to have been extensive, leaving no part of America untouched.  This is a terrible issue that bleeds beyond state lines and should deeply affect the way we all see ourselves and our history as Americans.  

Eugenics, in and of itself, is an incredibly tangled and twisted web of what is and is not moral or right as far as human reproduction is concerned.  It alone is not evil necessarily, however, it can be manipulated into a repulsive misuse of power which is what happened during the tenure of the eugenics program in NC.  

In theory I suppose, eugenics was believed to be a positive tool that could be used to alleviate the sufferings that disease and other ailments can create in the human experience.  However, determining those afflictions is where the line fades to gray.  Mental illness and how it is understood today has changed drastically since the early 1900's.  Therefore, people who were said to be "feeble minded" by yesterday's standards, are probably fine today.  Little was known about postpartum depression as well and women were often sent off for electric shock therapy because they were considered to have gone insane after childbirth.  There was very little tolerance for anyone who did not fit into the rigid and minimal normalized standards of the day.

Elaine Riddick Jessie was a young girl living in North Carolina in the late 1960's.  When she was 13, she was raped by a 20 year old man and became pregnant.  After giving birth, the hospital told her that she needed to stay for an extra week.  She was not told what was going on.  The social worker who had been working with Elaine's family prior to her pregnancy, told her illiterate grandmother that if she refused to sign some hospital paperwork, Elaine would be taken away to an orphanage.  The paperwork was the "permission" the state needed in order to sterilize Elaine.  Neither she nor her grandmother were told about the procedure.

When she was 16 years old she had to be hospitalized for severe bleeding. After the doctor performed his exam he told her that she had been "butchered".  She didn't know what this meant at the time.  Married at 19 and after she and her husband were unsuccessful in their attempts to conceive, it was explained to her that she had been sterilized.

Her husband, who was already abusive, became more so after finding out about what happened to his wife.  Unfortunately, he blamed her for her inability to have a child.  They eventually divorced, but she struggled for years with coming to terms with what was done to her body and found herself in other abusive relationships.

Jessie was not alone.  Thousands of people were targeted in the 50's and 60's.  Towards the end of the program, impoverished black women were targeted intensely.  The Eugenics Board of North Carolina gave the go ahead to sterilizations without interviewing the victims.  Promiscuity, rebellion, untidiness were all grounds for the horrific procedure.

While in its later years the program focused on black women, in the early stages it was aimed at those deemed abnormal.  One particular woman, who is white and middle class,  was sterilized because her second son was born with cerebral palsy and the postpartum depression she suffered after his birth was grounds for her committal to a state mental institution.  Not only was she part of the eugenics program, she was also given electro shock therapy multiple times.  Her husband was never told about her sterilization and was greatly saddened to hear about what had happened to his wife.  Children, both male and female, with behavioral problems or in orphanages were also subjected to castration and sterilization.  Many times, abusive parents, specifically fathers sexually assaulting their daughters, elected to have the procedure done to their children.  Not only did their own parents abuse them, but so did their government.

How this program could have such a violent effect on society's most unprotected individuals seems to stem from a gross misuse of elitist authority.  These people were targeted for situations that were no fault of their own, by the dominant class.  The Eugenics Board of North Carolina comprised of 5 bureaucrats who decided the fates of thousands of people.  Social workers also played a major role in deciding who was unfit to become a parent.  The evils of social conservatism are widely touted by liberals today.  However, when we examine the history of liberalism, eugenics certainly can't be ignored.  Margaret Sanger, the woman who fought diligently for legal birth control rights and the founder of Planned Parenthood was a supporter of eugenics.  While there is a great deal of speculation about whether or not she wanted to see it used the way in which it was used, the programs were never set up to be based on an elected choice of the individual.  It was always forced upon the person due to whatever label was given to them that in someway made their procreation a disadvantage for future generations. When social status and education are used against a person in ways that take away their autonomy and freedom for the purpose of making society "better", injustice can be the only outcome.  Eugenics was an elitist principle in the purist sense.  Those who held power decided that they could use it in anyway they wanted to create a dominant society by eliminating those who they deemed unfit.

Elaine is only 54 years old.  She is the same age as my mom.  That makes her story much more real to me.  She could have a child or children the same age as me.  She is very much a part of our present history, not the past.  We associate terrible systems such as eugenics with a distant age.  One where the theories and intellectual realities we have today were not available at that time.  This is a false ideal that only serves to make us feel better and avoid responsibility; as if we have somehow advanced beyond such dark ages.  Yet it is very much relevant to modern times and can be apologized for which is the only way we can hope such programs can be prevented in the future.

Elaine did try to fight for her rights and refused to be solely a victim.  After obtaining her medical records which stated her "inability to control her promiscuity" as the reason for sterilization, she filed a lawsuit with help from the ACLU.  She lost the case. She went on to earn an associate degree and has a nice life.  Despite this, she cannot get over what was done to her and the stigma she feels.  Physically, she has suffered as well.  She had to have a full hysterectomy because she suffered from pain and bleeding for years.  Depression is something that has plagued her as well. She describes feeling dumb and worthless, as if she should have somehow prevented this from happening to her.  This quote, taken from an article on indyweek.com , sums up her current feelings of despair:

 "Sometimes I think, what is happiness? Am I really happy? I don't think I will ever be happy, because of what they took from me."

I hope Elaine knows what an inspiration she is too many survivors of all sorts of injustice.  It cannot be easy to become the face of such evil mistreatment, however, she is still fighting for her rights to be recognized.  She is speaking up for all of her fellow victims, whose bodies were manipulated in the same grotesque way as her own.  She is forcing all of us to confront the fact that we are not a nation that is free of such evils.  She is forcing us to see her as the human being she is and to make amends for treating her with such abuse.  Her courage is undeniable.  

N.C. State Representative Larry Womble has championed the cause of taking responsibility for the crimes committed during the state's eugenics program.  He is responsible for removing the sterilization law that remained on record until 2003, nearly 30 years after the eugenics system was abandoned.  Against Their Will is the program that was set up in order to educate and shed light on what had happened in the state's history.  Currently, efforts are also being made to make reparations to the victims who are still alive today.

At a wedding a few months back some of my guy friends were teasing me about my blog, calling me "Calista Jones" and such.  It was all in good fun.  Then one of them seriously said to me, "I just don't understand the point of feminism.  You are equal, why does it matter?"  Since I was several drinks in (my usual wedding state of insobriety), I decided it wasn't the best time for the discussion so I just said "Well 'it' matters to me."  The conversation was dropped and we went on to have a fabulous evening.

Had I not been drinking, or felt it was a more appropriate place to go off on a tangent about why feminism is important, I probably would have babbled on for a while about how we still live in a patriarchal society, women aren't as prominently represented as men, we still are expected to fall in line on things...blah blah blah.  Honestly, my answer probably wouldn't have made much sense or done a lot of good convincing anyone about why "it" matters.  So I've been thinking about that a lot in the past few months.  Why does feminism matter?  To me or anyone?  Why should the greater society suddenly drop their blinders and say "Oh! We get it now!"  Then I started to think about "it" in relation to Elaine's story.

The eugenics program was aimed primarily at women.  We are so often at the will of society at the expense of our bodies.  Our reproductive rights are in constant threat of being taken away and the very fact that our bodies are an area that is considered appropriate for legislation is terrifying.  This comes down to a much more significant question than when does life begin, conception or birth?  That question being do we trust women?  The answer seems to be a resounding "NO."  

This is a key part of why feminism matters.  Trusting women from all different social groups is essential in granting us our complete and deserved equal rights.  How many lives would exist today if the eugenics program hadn't existed yesterday?  Or, how many lives would have been spared if Roe vs. Wade never needed to exist?  The prevention of women dying or inadvertently becoming barren by illegal and unsafe abortions must be considered when we argue about changing that very important decision.  How many fewer unwanted pregnancies would exist at all if we trusted our youth with appropriate sex education?  Stop telling young women that eventually they WILL want a baby even if they say they don't. Let us think for ourselves because that is the only way the playing field will level.  Trusting women is the most effective way to empower them.  

***This entry has been updated from it's original posting date due to my OK Cupid experience and Elaine's recent attempts to gain reparations for herself and other victims. If I ever use OKC to date again, this will be linked in my profile ;) Fighting ignorance, one date at a time. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

A 1st Anniversary IS Fabulous!

If the world were to ask me "Julia, how am I supposed to be?", I would have no answers.  I simply don't know what the world is supposed to look like or what would make it better.
I’m in the midst of a semi life crisis based on my current realization that “feminist” is a dirty word.  I have honestly never personally associated any negative connotation with the term and therefore blindly went forth proclaiming myself as such, ignorant that there could be people who are offended or disagree with me.  I hate when people disagree with me, mainly because I always think I’m right :) .  This of course is a character flaw, however, recognizing that doesn’t take the sting away when I feel unfairly challenged.  And I do understand that this is a bit of an exaggeration.  I’m not a complete idealist; meaning I have always been aware that feminism has its fair share of haters and I know whenever you take a position you are placing a target on yourself, inviting assumptions about your beliefs.  I just didn’t realize how surprised I would be by certain people who disagree with me and the degree to which they find my feelings about life and the world offensive. 

Any woman that declares herself a feminist will be told that she is not in fact, a feminist.  If she is too stereotypically feminist, she will be called a man hater or a lesbian.  If she is too stereotypically feminine she will be accused of having an empty platform.  All bark, no bite. 

This is because the powers that be do not recognize the feminist movement and try to undermine or belittle it by any means necessary. Just like they tried to ignore the civil rights movement and any push towards equality for homosexuals. When you are not a minority or have never experienced systematic oppression, you are unable or potentially unwilling to understand.  The dominant party must be willing to part with their majority piece of the power pie.  Since women have made monumental gains in equal rights during the 20th and 21st centuries, it is clear that men have helped the cause.  Thus, in regards to feminism, this is not a woman vs. man struggle.  In fact, gender has little to do with it.  It is a mass societal tumor that has yet to be eradicated.

How can a gender based struggle have little to do with gender?  Good question.  Women can be just as anti-woman as the most misogynistic man.  Plenty of men are incredible feminists.  This means that this societal issue simply has to do with the idea one has in regards to power and who should hold authority.  If you are a woman and you believe that all women should “honor thy husband” because that is what you have chosen, you are just as destructive to other women as any man who tells you that you have to “honor” him.  This all seems pretty basic though.  Said a million times before.  But it does seem hard to follow or highly combative.  Most women don’t like being told that they are not feminists even if they hate the basic principles that would award them the label.  The movement has become something that is very confusing and no longer black and white.  

The most common example of this is Sarah Palin and her “true” feminism, as she calls it.  When Tina Fey won the Mark Twain prize, the ceremony was broadcast on PBS and highly censored for content.  Fey’s critique of Palin’s brand of feminism was edited out of the televised event.  When men are on two opposite sides of a debate it seems that the world doesn’t try to pretend that they actually get along or can play nice.  When Will Ferrell profited off of his GWB impression, no one required him to apologize after the sketch.  Bush wasn't required to be OK with being mocked and teased.  I am so happy that I was able to watch Fey’s unedited critique because for the past two years I have been so irritated by her for trying to make nice with Palin.  Now I know that is not the full story because I'm sure her true opinions have been edited before as well.  Watch the video here to see what I am talking about.

Fey highlights quite eloquently exactly what it is about Palin that makes her anti-feminist.  I would definitely put paying for my own rape kit into the column of misogynist laws keeping women down.  Is that combative?  If so, why?  What if murder victims were expected to pay for the crime scene investigation surrounding their case?  Silly right? 

I have been asked quite frequently to define feminism.  Unfortunately, I have decided that I no longer know.  I don’t know what it is because I don’t know if a definition for it matters.   My original answer was that I believe feminism to be the belief that equal rights should exist between the genders and that sex is no indication to what an individual can achieve or accomplish.  The dictionary states that feminism is the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men;  an organized movement for the attainment of such rights for women; and feminine character.  OK.  There we go.  There is your answer.  But, of course it isn’t so simple.   Because, as with every label, the perceived notion of what society thinks defines feminism has to count.  And that notion can be quite damaging to the movement.  So I don’t know what feminism is.  It appears to have become a "who you ask" type of issue.

I guess some people say it’s about who does the dishes vs. who makes the money.  But I do the dishes and make my own money.  This is not an either/or issue.  It has to be inclusive.

So then some say it’s about who speaks for women and who doesn’t speak for women.  But I am just a woman who speaks and have never claimed to speak for all women.  

Palin has and she believes women can “do it all!”  This brand of “feminism” is so exclusionary because to be a “Mama Grizzly” you have to be a mama among holding warped beliefs about what is "normal" and "good" for women.  

I’m not a mama.  I don’t know if I will be one.  That’s not something that is guaranteed to all women.  And I don’t want to do it all.  That sounds terrible.  I just want the option to pick and choose what I want to do without the pressure that I may be picking and choosing the wrong way.  I think we all want that, certainly not just women.  I’m getting tired from the need to come up with some type of acceptable defense for something I think exists as a natural part of the fabric of my being.  

CalistaJones just had its one year anniversary!  I’m pretty excited that I’ve kept it up this long.  This project has helped me to better understand who I am as a person.  While right now I feel like I am empty and without answers, I know that my writing has encouraged me to keep finding and asking new questions.   Going forward, I think I am going to assert myself as a person who doesn’t care about having the answers.  What are answers after all?  The end to a problem I suppose.  But I don’t like looking at the challenges I see in the world as problems because that seems whiny and under-appreciative of the relative luxury I am accustomed to in my everyday life.  It’s OK to challenge me and to keep questioning me because that’s just going to strengthen my stance and make me a better feminist. 

I was listening to NPR while cleaning my apt (my favorite way of ingesting public radio) and they were doing a story on Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. who advocated for the legal end to gender discrimination.   Listen to the story here.  

What is interesting about him is that even though he did all this work for women’s rights, it took him a long time to hire women to work for him.  He was finally called out by an employee about his apparent hypocrisy and admitted that this was wrong of him. He then went on to hire females.  This illustrates that coming to conclusions about the ways that the world needs to work in order to be better is only the first part of the solution.  The second, and ultimately most difficult, is to implement these changes in our day to day lives.  This takes longer and often requires one to gobble up a large amount of humble pie.  So while maybe I’m not the best feminist/person possible, I’m working to make myself better. 

In the second year of CalistaJones, I hope to provide more about why I think feminism matters.  I plan on keeping the same format, however I feel a need to assert myself and my intentions because it seems that according to whoever you ask, I am either too feminine or too feminist.  So should I deduce then that I am a man loving man hater?  What? Who knows. 

This all seems to be a little bit distracting to the fact that my blog was intended to bring to light great women whose accomplishments have been overshadowed or ignored and how/why I am inspired by them.  But it seems that anything with the feminist label can only be taken as feminist propaganda.  Sure, I'd love it if my writing had a persuasive, come to my side, affect on people.  I just don't want that to be the only goal because it keeps people away from learning about women they may not come into contact with in another way.  Propaganda of any kind tends to be heavy sounding and ominous and I believe CalistaJones to have some light and airy, entertaining spots.  So just like every other person/blogger/advocate, I want to be seen as original and inspiring.  Certainly not rigid and without "one size fits most so deal with it" vibes.  

All this is to say that while I don't like being told that feminism is too extreme or unappealing, in the end I don't care.  I am a feminist.  I love learning about great inspiring women.  And while I'm going admit that I don't have all the answers I refuse to back away from learning more. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lisa Robinson

Walking is one of my favorite ways of getting around town. I don’t drive and while public transportation doesn’t bother me, I prefer to walk about the city as much as possible. It makes me feel like a real resident of Chicago. The experience seems personal and I know how to get to the smaller, unusual, more interesting places because I avoid major streets and intersections. I try to walk to and from work almost every day. It’s about an hour long each way and creates a sense of accomplishment at the start of the day.

This isn’t a new hobby of mine. During my teenage years I would take long walks around town either alone or with friends. I suppose that was the best way to get a feeling of independence before any of us could drive but I remember going all over the place and appreciating the general sites of my every day world. While this sounds super nice and semi romantic there was an ulterior motivation that gave birth to my walking habit: male attention. Back then, my friends and I would wander around getting honked and hollered at experiencing a rush whenever the taunts came. (I hope you are all appreciating how embarrassing this is to admit.) I think that is what men expect women to feel when they shout at them on the streets. It should be taken as a form of flattery: “Hey, I’m noticing you!” Sometimes, that is true. But, as you get older and the taunts become personal space violations, and instead of invigoration you feel small and afraid, you realize it’s more of a power issue than anything related to flirting or feeling good.

When I moved to Chicago for college one of the first things I noticed was girls complaining about riding the “L” or walking around the neighborhood alone and having men say and do inappropriate things to them. One girl had a man flash his penis at her and she was so upset about it she ended up leaving school. It was hard for me to sympathize because I had never had anything like that happen to me. In fact, I thought it was an overreaction. It’s a penis! Get over it. I would get frustrated because these girls wouldn’t report the incidents. If it bothers you so much, why haven’t you called the police or told the CTA?? That’s what I would do, right?

One day, on the 5 block walk to the swimming pool from campus, my best friend Jenny and I experienced an incident that still gives me the creeps. As we turned down the side street toward the pool’s entrance, I felt like someone was staring at me. Looking to my left, I saw a man had pulled over in a black car and was completely naked, masturbating and giving me the most disgusting look I’ve ever seen. Instantly, I said “Keep walking!” to Jenny, who then also saw what was happening. We hurried as quickly as possible to the gym and once inside felt relief but also shock. We sort of laughed it off and then went for our swim. Neither of us called anyone or reported the incident.

After it happened to me on an elevated level I finally realized how truly scary street harassment can be. What amazes me about that experience is that guy had to have driven around naked for a while before finding a perfect spot to pull over and terrify some women all in the name of getting off. I’m sure the level of fear I had was plastered across my face, so that makes me think that that was what he was looking for. He wanted to scare us. I was incredibly afraid, a feeling that surprised me for a long time. He hadn’t shouted at us or even exited his vehicle. But the fact that he had the audacity to do something like that is what bothers me the most. It’s incredibly upsetting to think that someone can use you against your will for their own purposes. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in an “L” car with someone doing that or to be physically assaulted. The experience also taught me that I would in fact not report an incident that should be documented. We talked ourselves out of the feelings that we had because it could have been worse and we decided that it was silly. That same idiot may be out there driving around doing this to other women which makes me feel guilty. Since this first time, I can count maybe a dozen other times that I have been groped, flashed, and even urinated on. Never once filing an official complaint. Having the opportunity to do something doesn't overcome the fact that it is easier to do nothing.

Lisa Robinson took a dramatically different approach to her experience with street harassment. Aboard a Welsh train, she heard some men taunting another woman. She stepped in to tell the men to leave the woman alone and they turned on her. They were using incredibly explicit language that prompted Lisa to ask the train operator to call the police. After his refusal to do anything about the abuse, she stepped off the train and onto the tracks. She stopped service and the police were called. Thankfully the authorities are on Ms. Robinson’s side and have said that no member of the public deserves to be subjected to such abuse. In statements she made to the press she expressed her desire to live in a community where women are free to live without sexualized bullying.

I can in no way shape or form imagine myself being as brave as Lisa. She was confronted by the men in a way that made it clear they felt they had the power to publicly humiliate her and other females. She decided to reject this assumed authority by stopping the service of an entire transportation system. Clearly, one does not go against a basic understanding of safety to address a one-time incident. Her extreme actions are incredibly understandable when you account for the fact that she initially tried to get the men to stop taunting the other woman and then asked a trained professional to help. Her level of frustration must have been through the roof.

Typically, what we do as women to cope with this problem is to put our heads down and keep walking. A tactic that can backfire if the perpetrators don’t get their anticipated reaction. If you ignore them, the harassment turns from “compliments” to insults in a heartbeat. It’s almost like you are rejecting them. They want you to smile or be appreciative and when that doesn’t happen they respond as though you’ve harshly turned them down for a date. They decide that they are the only ones that have been humiliated and therefore have the right to retaliate. This is what makes it a power issue. They have the right to feelings and reactions. You are an object that is less than and therefore have to take it.

In India the problem is so bad that there are several approaches to fighting back. On the more extreme end of the spectrum, some women are organizing gangs that violently beat and humiliate any male that harasses or assaults another person. Their rationale is that there are no authorities that are looking out for the poor and that they have to take matters into their own hands. While, I’m not sure this is necessarily positive, it is a great example of the lengths some are willing to take to combat the problem. Other groups are putting up signs and making public service announcements informing women of their worth and their ability to reject subjection to sexual bullying. This is the best way to organize and encourage females that they have rights when walking around in public.

Below are some of the PSA's used in combating Indian street harassment.

Another solution to this problem that has popped up in Mexico is to have a women only taxi service. There is an entire fleet of pink cabs driven by females that do not stop for men (the cabs have “beauty kits“ in the back as well). The idea is to keep women safe from male drivers and to also give them more options for getting around without being approached or hassled. While this can be considered a temporary band aid, we all know that separation is not a solution and if a problem requires such actions, the right form of prevention is not being applied. Also, “pinking”* a problem is not the only way to help women.

*Pinking: The use of the color pink as a solution in and of itself or to aid in assuaging any and all issues pertaining to the female gender.

Reading about how bad it can be for women in underdeveloped countries really makes me appreciate our system a lot more. That being said, it’s clear that there isn’t a nation in the world that doesn’t have the issue of street harassment to some degree. Lisa Robinson’s incident happened in the United Kingdom and the fact that the train operator did nothing even when asked illustrates how there are cracks in even the most developed systems.

The following cartoon dramatizes what can potentially be a female’s experience but also highlights what I believe to be the root of the problem: we’re supposed to take it all as compliments.

 And like I said earlier sometimes we do. I remember in high school I would wear miniskirts that boys would put their hands up when we were walking up the stairs to class. Of course  I would swat their hands away, but it was always done in a lighthearted way. Sure, I guess I can see that I may have encouraged future street harassment.  I can see how we all may not effectively discourage such behavior in all situations.  I thought that was the kind of attention I wanted at the time. Up until the pool incident, I also believed other women were overreacting whenever they complained. Which makes me part of the problem.  So again, I can see how this is aggravated by both genders, with everyone sharing the blame.

However, I still feel like it is unfair for me to think that there is something I must have done to provoke situations like the one I experienced when I walked to the pool. It's hard not to shake the idea that you could have prevented the incident by doing something differently, a belief that I feel is systemically ingrained in women at an early age.

We need to see that this behavior isn’t normal and has nothing to do with the way a woman looks or acts. It has to do with the perceived notion of who has the power. Since this is what I believe is the underlying cause of the issue, I know that this must happen to men as well as women. We all must decide like Lisa that we want to live in a society where we can walk around and exist without belittling or objectifying others.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nujood Ali

This year, my mom gave me The Little Mermaid for Valentine's Day. It was a really great gift because it was my favorite as a kid. We LOVED Ariel. Her voice, her hair, the sea, all the colors; she was the best! I still have the Ariel music box that I bought on vacation in Florida years ago.

A few months back, I watched the movie with two girls I have regularly babysat for the past four years. They are 7 and 10. It had been forever since the last time I had seen it and since it was new to them, they were excited. Instantly, I felt terrible. I wanted to shield their eyes the entire time. They had been exposed to the most poisonous fairytale of them all, and I was responsible. However, just like I had, they loved every moment.

The quote I have taped to the lower right hand corner of my bathroom mirror is "I no longer think about marriage." Nujood Ali spoke those words after successfully gaining her divorce at the age of 10.  She became the youngest divorcee ever, and sparked a worldwide awakening about the horrors child brides face and the injustice they experience.

Nujood's father arranged a marriage for her when she was ten years old.  The man she married was over 20 years older than her.  She suffered physical and mental abuse from him and his mother.  In Yemen, girls are allowed to wed at any age but cannot have sexual relations until the court deems them old enough.  Nujood's husband raped her repeatedly even though the court had never "given him permission" to consummate the marriage.  Showing incredible bravery and with encouragement from her father's second wife, she went to the courthouse by herself and waited for a judge to see her so she could request a divorce.  The judge took her in and, what I consider to be astonishing for countless reasons, asked her if she wanted to resume living with her husband after 3 to 5 years apart.  She smartly denied this option and was granted the divorce.  Her father and husband were incarcerated for their crimes.

Nujood was not completely alone in her fight.  Her lawyer, Shada Nasser, has been a noted feminist and women's rights attorney in Yemen.  She has set up numerous programs and support groups for female prisoners and other girls and women like Nujood.  Together, their efforts and bravery brought worldwide attention to the struggles of females in Yemen.  They were recognized by Glamour magazine and named Women of the Year.  Nujood now lives with her family and supports them with the royalties from the book she co wrote with a French journalist.  She is in school full time and has regular counseling to deal with all that has happened.  The events of her life have not been easy. 

Even after gaining the divorce she was poorly received in her home country for shining a "negative light" on Yemen and its culture.  Through it all she has remained steadfast in her determination to be a child and a human being who is not owned or controlled by anyone else. 

How does this correspond to my experience with The Little Mermaid? While I was brushing my teeth one day, reading and re-reading the quote, I had a thought. What if girls in the U.S. were told stories about girls like Nujood? Instead of fictional Ariel, what if we were told about girls who beat the odds in extraordinary ways because of their own determination?  What if girls were told to look up to other real live girls?  What if, what if, what if...

I was reading an article about Nujood's life now that it has been two years since her divorce and at the end of it, just before the comment section, there was an instruction that said "If you are at least 13 years of age you may read this message board but may not participate." This stood out for a few reasons. Strange a story about a 12 year old cannot be read by or commented on by a 12 year old. It made me think about the lengths we go to so as to protect childhood here in America. While of course I think this is important, I often wonder at what cost does this come to later in life. It seems more harmful to let kids watch stories about mermaids who literally give away their voice for the chance at love than it is to let kids participate in discussion and hear explanations of actual events that encourage them to speak up and reject injustice.

*Trigger warning: If you are ultra-sensitive about Disney smack talk, skip ahead three paragraphs.

Animators and story editors at Disney have to be aware of their control over our culture. They have to know each new character they create will in some way affect the outcome of the current generation's children and the way they imagine their futures. I went to the Caribbean Reef exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium here in Chicago a few years back that had tanks filled with clown fish. EVERY kid there was screaming “NEMO!!!!!!!!” at the top of their lungs. That’s undeniable power. Fairy tales originated as cautionary stories to warn children of the dangers they might face in life. They were also used to encourage kids' imaginations and help build their memories. They were learning tools. Disney has scrubbed away all of these lessons and has manipulated every single one into hetero-normative romantic nonsense that is just as unrealistic as the possibility of real mermaids.

In the original Hans Christian Andersen version, the mermaid is threatened with death and told the only way to live is to kill the prince she gave up everything for. Unable to do this, she plunges into the sea and turns to foam. If Disney gave us that version, I would not have imagined myself to be Ariel in the swimming pool, flipping around, looking for Prince Eric and hoping for giant boobs someday. I would probably have a better grasp on the importance of self and to be careful what we give up for other people to notice us/love us.

Not only does Disney have us all dreaming up our impossible, perfect happily ever-afters, but what they present as motherhood is pretty damaging. Most moms in Disney movies are killed off before the opening credits, or shortly after, or are evil stepmothers trying to murder the heroine because she is too beautiful. This is true in Snow White, Cinderella, Bambi, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the Little Mermaid; oh AND Finding Nemo. I understand this could be to portray different types of families but we are always feeling so sad for the poor widower, left alone to raise a child (unless he’s been tricked into remarriage by an evil woman) until he can find some other man to take her off his hands. This potentially communicates to children that mothers are disposable and easily replaced by grandma types or witches. It certainly has hurt our idea of stepmothers. But this negative portrayal is true for many characters; hunters, fisherman, sultans, they all get a bad rap too. Point is, Disney pollutes our culture because they get us young. Since they cater to patriarchal dominance, it especially hurts females and the way we see ourselves and our potential.

(If you actually skipped ahead, you are one of the people I worry for most in life.  Go back and read what I wrote. :)

The problem of course is popular culture for children in general, not simply Disney and The Little Mermaid. I would never advocate for total Disney censorship. I grew up with their movies and while I have felt their affects, I have luckily been more influenced by the real people in my life. It appears in more recent films, Toy Story 3 in particular, there is more focus on other themes like friendship and family than romantic love. In fact, after a conversation with my friend about a separate issue, he made me think about Ariel's plight in a different way. She had a content life under the sea but longed for life on land. She thought outside of what she was told was acceptable, and set out on her own path in her own way.  A trait I wish existed in more people because it results in a well-rounded world view.  Unfortunately, where this tale misses its mark, is when Ariel goes to extreme, self-sacrificing lengths to experience life on land for a man. It always comes down to a dream prince and the wedding.

Couldn't children learn from Nujood's story about fighting for a better life as well? And wouldn't it be more edifying? This isn't exclusively a one sided gender issue because I believe it to be harmful for all of us, both male and female. But this idea of growing up to be a princess who achieves happily ever after with a prince really seems to have a lot of leverage amongst American girls.  Shielding our younger generations from stories that may be "unpleasant" discredits their abilities and severely limits their potential to turn atrocities into cultural progression.  Can you imagine a world where children aren't allowed to read Anne Frank's diary?

Nujood's quote is inspiring to me because it's the opposite of what you would expect a 10 year old to say. In our culture, little girls are bombarded with thoughts about marriage because it is marketed to them from just about every possible angle.  It's a pretty significant piece to the "dream life" puzzle we all grow up imagining. But at the age of 10, Nujood found out against her will that marriage didn’t necessarily equal bliss, which is something many of us find out to varying degrees as adults. She now thinks of making the world a better place for girls and women. Any person who has the confidence to use their voice for the benefit of others seems like the best type of hero to emulate. Certainly, Nujood is a person whose story should be told and retold for generations to come.
Hipster Ariel, just for fun.
Oh HEYYYYYY!! HelloGiggles.com reposted THIS POST! Big moment for me that is super fun and exciting!!

AND thefbomb.org reposted an edited version on their site as well!!!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tavi Gevinson

Leave it to me to be jealous of a 14 year old (actually, she may be 13). Regardless of age, Tavi Gevinson is probably the envy of most bloggers who care about what they are writing. She began her blog, The Style Rookie at the age of 11 and it took off. She is now one of the most influential individuals in the fashion world and she only just started her freshman year of high school.

Tavi is asked to attend most of the major fashion shows every season. She was a muse for Rodarte's Target collection and has guest edited on jezebel.com. She is an extremely fresh face in a very adult world and doesn't seem to lose herself along the way. She has experienced her share of criticism from those who don't necessarily support one’s own personal sense of style. What I like about her is her earnest ability to stay true to who she is. Child or not she clearly has her head on straight and it will be interesting to see where she goes in the future and what direction she takes as far as writing and fashion are concerned.

I wrote a bit about this in my post about Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington but to reiterate, fashion is a multibillion dollar industry, affecting everyone whether or not the world appreciates it. We all wear clothes. Maybe not from designers but it’s a trickle down system like everything else so the choices made by major fashion houses will naturally set a precedent for the general public. Bottom line is fashion cannot be ignored. Creative fields will always be recognized as less than other industries regardless of financial strength. Fashion's stereotype as having a foundation in female and homosexual interests also does it a diservice when compared to other industries.  I mean do sports save lives?  No, the athletic world is an entertainment industry just like fashion, but it seems to be more highly regarded.  In fact, some could say fashion bleeds into athletics as far as fan wear is concerned. Being renowned in the fashion world is no small thing, so therefore, Tavi is no small thing.  She should be recognized for the success she has found. 

Tavi's achievements are pretty straight forward. She is talented and a visionary. The intricacies about what makes her brand of fashion commentary unique however are a little more concealed. By this I mean they are ideas generally ignored by the greater fashion community. Tavi is a feminist. Feminism and fashion are usually at odds with one another, which I find to be a major disconnect since there are so many powerful female voices in the fashion world. However, the consumer is king and the consumer demands (we are told) that women are the sum of their body parts and those body parts better make us want to fuck them. We all buy into this whether or not we want to. It’s unavoidable. We can avoid disregarding these issues however. They matter. And Tavi knows this.

A few months ago, a major controversy erupted around Terry Richardson, a noted fashion photographer. Several models have spoken out about sexual abuse they suffered during photo shoots with him. While this is disturbing, what is more upsetting is the apparent cover up that has existed throughout the entire fashion industry protecting the depraved behavior of Richardson. The few models that had complained while still working were instantly booted by their agencies. Magazine editors continue to book the man for editorials and dozens of celebrities have stepped up to protect him. Many high fashion models are in their mid-teens so this isn’t an issue of an adult harassing another adult but a predator preying on children. Of course many feminist sites were quick to attack him, however, very few from the fashion inside had much to say on the matter outside of “Richardson’s a genius.” Tavi is the exception.

In "can i just say:" she takes the fashion community to task by calling them out for their blatant victim blaming and ridiculous support of Richardson.  This was by no means a move that went unnoticed.  As I mentioned earlier Gevinson has some major pull in the fashion world.  She is the new "it" girl in more ways than one.  Her style is commendable and her eye is brillant, but her writing is what has made her the girl to have at runway shows and guest editing magazines.  When Tavi likes it, so will others.  Same is true when she doesn't like something and for her to be a voice of reason in a sea of spineless mutes is incredibly refreshing.

She often writes about how the world of style affects not only her experience but that of all women.  As I glance through her tome of photos, words, and thoughts, I can't help feeling inspired and encouraged.  We all know that style cycles.  The 80's are on their way out and the 90's are creeping back in.  For me what makes this exciting is the possibility of another feminist revival.  Now, some feminists like to say we don't need another wave and those who care have always cared, but the fact of the matter is that once the new millennium hit (more specifically 9/11) the feminist fire that was alive and mainstream during the 90's died out.  Everyone wanted to go back to the "good ol' days".  Sure, women kept going to work and earning degrees, but look at the women who today are the loudest: Bristol and Sarah Palin.  Family values are marketed as the new renegade way of life.  Television LOVES stories about teen moms and we can't ignore all that Britney Spears did in the past decade (Sex icon turned mother).  

Popular culture has been lacking that "kick in the groin" mentality that the 90's so radically exploited.  Ok, ok, it doesn't help that Courtney Love and Gwen Stefani have self imploded as far as feminism is concerned in this decade, but we can't forget what they did for all of us ladies back in their younger years.  If grungy old school Love is enough to reignite the feminist fire in a new generation, then her legacy is a positive one.  Tavi is clearly expressing a need for a modern feminist icon as evidenced by her love of Daria and all things related to "Freaks and Geeks".  With her influence, you never know what will happen.  Daria the next generation perhaps?

I often think about how feminism relates to youthful idealism.  This is something that Tavi could potentially personify but I have hopes that she will carry her beliefs with her into adulthood.  Sometimes it seems like feminism is a belief system that dies out when women get to be my age.  I am often struggling with the balance between maintaining my ideals at an age that tells me to be a bit more realistic than when I was a kid living in my parents house.  As a teen, you don't have the same types of life defining pressures (ex. babies, career, marriage) as you do when you are an adult.  I'm bombarded with messages that encourage me to abandon the principles I want to keep for a life that is more mainstream.  This mentality definitely gets into my head and creates a lot of self doubt.  What if I miss out on something?  What if I have regrets?  It's the truth when I say that guys have become uninterested in me after they find out about my feminist sympathies and that honestly sucks.   Even supporters of my blog find me to be too extreme at times. (An opinion I heartily disagree with :) 

I have to remind myself that it's hard at any age to be true to what you think is right and longing for the petri dish that is high school is incredibly foolish.  Tavi and other girls like her have revitalized my desire to assert myself by living the life I want.  Sure there are risks that will have to be taken, but it seems like our team is growing with this new generation of females that want to reject the way things are "supposed" to be.  The fashion part just makes it more fun.
Tavi at "The Interview Show" at the Hideout 2/4/11