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!! reposted THIS POST! Big moment for me that is super fun and exciting!!

AND 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 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