Thursday, March 26, 2015

Why can’t men join the feminist movement just because it is the right thing to do?

 There is a lot of momentum in the media lately about including men in the feminist movement. Moreover, feminists seem to be spending a lot of time trying to convince men that gender equality is actually a good thing. Yet despite the perks of involving men in the feminist movement, the efforts women are taking to convince men to support gender equality are far from ideal.  Why can’t men join the feminist movement because it is the right thing to do?

“Choreplay” is a recent attempt to try to get men to support gender equality in the home. Choreplay, as defined by the Daily Beast, is the use of household chores as sexual leverage – for example, women leveraging sex to get their partner to take out the trash. Granted, the New York Times Op-Ed written by Sheryl Sandberg coining “choreplay” cited a study stating that couples that split household chores have more sex. That might be true, but it feels like we are demeaning men’s intellect by assuming they will only partake in household chores if they get a “carrot” for doing so. If the garbage is overflowing, can’t we assume men will just take out the trash because it needs to be taken out? Moreover, using sex as a reward for taking out the trash feels like a twisted way of over-commodifying the female body. Sexual empowerment and agency is great, but can’t choreplay be easily reduced to men doing the dishes as a way to pay for sex?

Men should support gender equality not because someone came up with a kitschy, quid-pro-quo pun to get them to do so. They should support gender equality in the home because it’s the right thing to do.  As Jessica Valenti points out, these are the men we want participating in the feminist movement – not the men who only do the dishes as a way to get laid. She states:
But we can give men more credit than this: many are smart, many are feminists, and I truly believe that a lot of them are interested in helping women achieve equality for equality’s sake, not just because they can get something out of the deal… It’s those men that we want on our sides.
Similarly, we should stop proposing gender equality to men as a movement to support just because they can get something out of it. Gloria Steinem recently pitched feminism to men by explaining it in terms of providing a more compatible life partner. In reference to marriages in the 1950s, she stated: 
Men have been lonely without partners who share interests, and without that kind of closeness… They were being told essentially to marry housekeepers with whom they may or may not share interests, and their lives became instantly different in the home and outside the home. The conversation and closeness and comradeship was very, very difficult. Each one was a trophy for the other, but not a person, not a whole person.

While this is a legitimate point, something seems to be amiss by pitching feminism to men this way. Perhaps I am being too optimistic, but I want to believe men would still join the feminist movement if solely to help the oppression of 50 percent of society – not because they are trying to increase the compatibility of their romantic partners.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Messages on women's clothing: what is the fashion industry trying to tell us?

For the past several years, I have observed an increase in the amount of women's clothing items imprinted with the word "love". Victoria’s Secret, chain stores, budget lines, and high-end brands alike are plastering their casual wear and t-shirts with the word. A chain retailer called Love Culture emerged, and there is even a fashion magazine titled with the misnomer Love. Of course, men’s clothing is devoid of any love, caring, or romance messages.

My initial reaction to the love messaging was disappointment at society’s attempt to keep women in the role of nurturer. Women are imposed with a duty to provide unwavering love to men, who are supposed to be the recipients of women's love and devotion. A woman is taught to always prioritize her love for her family, children, and pets. If a woman fails to exhibit this characteristic signifying femininity, she could be labeled cold or a misfit. Oppressive dismissal of women is often justified on associating them with love and other supposedly distracting emotions.

I realize my opinion is subjective, and another woman could like wearing the message and be completely empowered in her choice. The large quantity of “love” items for sale is what puzzles me. Why is this a trend that refuses to die? Instead it has spread, despite no discernible increase in profits from adding the word onto more items. Any attempts to emulate the well-known Victoria’s Secret’s “love pink” trademark are no longer savvy because the word “love” and its placement have been genericized. Thus, companies are probably not trying to boost sales by capitalizing on consumer preference.

Although overusing “love” is better than pushing other blatantly gendered or sexist messages on clothes, it reminds me that the clothing industry and our culture are irresponsible and lazy towards women in a way that frequently sabotages them. The Photoshopped and sexualized marketing images that women view can be damaging to self-esteem. Furthermore, inconsistent and often arbitrary sizing of women’s attire can do further damage to women's self-assessments. Sizing and the way clothing is cut can fool uninformed young women into thinking their bodies are somehow not normal. Confusion sometimes exists over bra fitting because manufacturers “size out” women above and below the small standard range carried in most stores, and might not have updated measuring guides to account for modern stretch fabric. This strategy allows companies to save money and fit as many women as possible into the standard range. With all of the cost-cutting that manufacturers and retailers do, women may begin to feel inadequate. Women are already scrutinized more than men for their wardrobe choices. Many attempts to help women create their own versions of power dressing without over-thinking seem resigned to the fact that sexuality must necessarily be read into every choice. When many women are finally content with a few fashion styles they determine work best for them, conservative sections of the country attempt to punish them.

While many of us realize that others’ negative perceptions can be harming us, what about the feeling of discomfort in our own minds? Embodied cognition studies confirm that we can manifest thinking and behaviors in line with our perception of the roles our clothing puts us in. Perhaps this is one underlying motivation behind reviving skirts and feminine details at times when women are seen as stepping outside traditional roles. The “love” messaging could be a reminder to prioritize romance and interpersonal relationships in an age when more women are choosing casual relationships and attempting to step down from constant care-taking.

Everyone has observations about women's clothing. What kinds of fashion trends or messages have subtly bothered you lately?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Is there a better way to scholarship and opportunity than beauty?

I am the type of feminist that believes women should be allowed to do whatever they want, and society (men, women, law, and policy) should support that choice. If you want to run a fortune 500 company, stay home and raise children, serve in combat, build skyscrapers, write computer code, fly to space, or whatever else you can dream of, then you should be supported in doing it. To me, feminism is about the sexes being viewed as equal. Women and men should have equal opportunity. Yet, there is something about beauty pageants that I find unsettling, even it is a “choice” that some women make. It evokes what my partner lovingly calls my “inner feminist rage”.

Something about an industry that objectifies women seems problematic to me. Beauty pageants send the message that the contestants are special only because they are beautiful. It emphasizes beauty above brains, and an unrealistic view of beauty at that. The women that compete are highly manicured and all rail thin. It’s a bad message to send to our young girls. Beauty is certainly more than that. Most women don’t look like beauty pageant contestants, and it can be damaging to send a message to women that this is the standard.

Now sure, there is a “talent” portion where the contestants demonstrate their skills, and a Q&A round for the contestants to demonstrate their eloquence, but the focus is on how the contestant looks. The women are judged mostly for their appearance in a bathing suit and an evening gown. The other portions are an afterthought.

I have read stories like this, that suggest women today are making the “choice” to compete in beauty pageants and feminists should support that choice. Kiara Imani Williams is a law student that says she competes in beauty pageants because “quite simply, [she] likes them.” She claims to like playing dress up, putting on making, and performing. But, as you dig deeper, it seems that what she actually likes is
…being put in a position where I can mentor young girls and talk about the importance of education. I fully believe that pageants have the incredible potential to provide access to education, leadership training, and public relations skills to many young woman.
Ah, and there it is, the educational component that arguably keeps pageants in business. Beauty pageants are regularly defended because of the scholarship and opportunities they provide to young women. John Oliver did a hilarious parody on the Miss America pageant, questioning how, in 2015, this can still be a thing. He noted that the Miss America organization touts that it is the largest scholarship program in the world for women. Miss America claims that it “makes 45 million dollars available annually”, but in reality, last year they gave out just $500,000 in scholarship money. If indeed that is the largest scholarship for women in the world, that is just embarrassing for society.

As Taylor Marsh said in her defense of beauty pageants, she competed because it helped to pay her college tuition so that she could fulfill her dreams. It was a way out of the poverty she was born in to. A fine point, but wouldn’t it be better for society if instead of giving her money because she is pretty, so that she can attend college and become an author, we just gave her money to attend college because she was driven and smart? 

There has to be a better way to give women opportunities than having them parade around half naked on a stage. I want to support these women’s choice to partake in pageantry, but I also believe that if given the choice to obtain scholarship and opportunities without having to flaunt their beauty, this nonsense would end.

Friday, March 13, 2015

It's time to fight the menstruation taboo. Period.

It’s time we talk about something. And that something is menstruation. Ah yes, the period.  Aunt Flo. That time of the month. You know, “women’s troubles” (Warning: If just these phrases alone are making you uncomfortable, this may not be the post for you…but it probably should be).

Menstruation (also known as a period) is what occurs when a female’s body sheds the lining of the uterus. This monthly process causes bleeding, which passes out through the vagina, and can last anywhere from 3 to 7 days (want to learn more about the menstrual cycle? Click here).  In short, the period is a natural occurrence in the female reproductive system. So, why is everyone so uncomfortable talking about it? 

I’m extremely open when it comes to my period – I ask for tampons loudly in public, I carry them to the bathroom with no shame, and I talk about my cramps. I am always taken aback when that seemingly offends people. Recently, I was traveling with a friend when I told him I had to run back up to my hotel room to get a tampon. He looked at me in utter disgust and said “UGH, did you really have to tell me that?” It absolutely infuriated me. I responded that he needed to grow up (my sass got the best of me) and that I’m absolutely not making up an excuse to shield anyone from this natural process that is not only part of who I am but also something we all know exists.

Sadly, he’s not the only one who feels women should keep quiet about the topic. Recently, Instagram removed a photo posted by an artist. It was of a woman wearing grey sweats and a small amount of blood had visibly leaked through her pants and on to the bed. The removal of the photo means that an Instagram user (or likely users) flagged this image as inappropriate. Sigh

The taboo of menstruating has been around for centuries. In many traditional religions, menstruation is considered ritually unclean. In fact, the Old Testament states that when a woman is menstruating, “anyone who touches her will be unclean until evening.” There are cultural taboos, too. Until about fifty years ago, Italians did not allow women to enter the kitchen while menstruating. In India, women are considered impure, sick, and cursed during their period. Nepalese traditions include banishing women during menstruation, often expelling them to unheated and unclean shelters (such as animal sheds).

Thankfully, there are individuals who are striving to eliminate this taboo. One example is the media campaign, #periodpositive, which challenges negative media representations of menstruation and hopes to encourage menstruation education. Another illustration is derived from the photo and artist discussed above. When Instagram removed her photo, Rupi Kaur did not stay quiet – she struck back. Ms. Kaur explained that the photo series is actually to de-mystify periods and overcome the taboo that Instagram demonstrated. Further, she stated, “I will not apologise for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be ok with a small leak…” Preach it, sister!

There’s no doubt that I strongly support the women and media campaigns that are challenging the negativity associated with menstruation.  But what can I - just a normal gal in Sacramento – do to stand in solidarity?  I pledge to myself (and this cause) that I will continue to not hide my tampon in my sleeve when I walk to the bathroom. I will continue to be honest about how I’m feeling when I have my period and cramps. I will not be shamed for a biological occurrence that I cannot control naturally. Period.

Changing Katherine’s perspective: the anti-motherhood mindset in the United States workplace

Employers and employees in the United States workforce place high value on "masculine qualities," and correspondingly less value on "feminine qualities" like caretaking and motherhood. It's not only men who devalue employees with familial obligations. Women can be equally judgmental on this score.

A recent article illustrated this point. Katherine, a former executive, described her mindset as highly judgmental and unaccepting of her coworkers with children. She would question the commitment of mothers who couldn't make last minute happy hours with her work team, and she even supported the idea of firing another woman before she became pregnant, because she believed mothers were less committed to their employer. In her article she stated:
For mothers in the workplace, it’s death by a thousand cuts – and sometimes it’s other women holding the knives. I didn’t realize this – or how horrible I’d been – until five years later, when I gave birth to a daughter of my own.
Katherine underwent an awakening after having a child. She wrote this article to apologize to all the women that she judged for having caretaking responsibilities. When I read her article, I thought it was great that Katherine finally valued the obligations that come with being a mother.

However, I found myself wondering if Katherine would have changed her attitude if she hadn’t given birth. Stated another way, how can men and childless women with mindsets similar to Katherine's reach this place of understanding without going through a similar awakening? Does the awakening have to be because of one's own parenthood? The mindset continually perpetuated—commitment to the employer over caretaking—needs to change in order to stop pushing mothers out of the U.S. workforce.

The need for this change is not only apparent from anecdotes. The White House recently released the 2015 Economic Report of the President. The report discussed prime-age female labor participation rates between 1991 and 2013. In the early 1990s, the United States ranked 7th out of 24 OECD countries for female participation rates; well above average. Since then, U.S. female participation rates have plateaued and drifted downward.

While the downturn in labor participation among females is unsettling, the decline is worse when compared to participation rates in other high-income countries. In other OECD countries, female labor participation rates have continued to rise since the 1990s, demoting the U.S. to number 19 out of OECD countries for the statistic. The White House report primarily attributes the rise in other countries to the expansion of leave.

When it comes to maternity leave, the United States is not only an outlier among its peers, but also amongst most countries in the world. In a study of 185 countries by the International Labour Office, the United States and Papa New Guinea were the only two countries that did not legally require paid maternity leave. The report found that while 12% of private sector workers in the U.S. have access to paid family leave, only 5% of low-income workers currently have access to the entitlement. 
Paid Maternity Leave Around the World
Country Weeks of Paid Maternity Leave
Australia 18 weeks
Azerbaijan 165 weeks
Germany 57 weeks
Honduras 8 weeks
Japan 58 weeks
North Korea 11 weeks
Qatar 7 weeks
Russia 78 weeks
Sudan 8 weeks
United Kingdom 39 weeks
United States 0 weeks
 Source: Buzzfeed
Is the United States stuck in the past because there are too many Katherines in political office and in the workforce? I think so. The overwhelming majority of countries in the world have mandated paid maternity leave, because they value caretaking as a public good necessary to protect the economic and physical wellbeing of women and children. It's rather pathetic that the most powerful nation in the world has yet to recognize the value of motherhood and caretaking through a Federal law requiring a minimum period of paid maternity leave. It's time for the United States to take note of the leave practices in 183 other countries around the world, and initiate systematic change here. For a discussion of maternity leave practices in Switzerland compared with the United States, read Child Cost (Part 1): Maternity Leave.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


FEMEN is an aggressive activist group fighting for women's rights. It was created in 2008, but it adopted its current form of activism around 2010. I heard about the group three or four years ago. The first thing I saw, of course, were the pictures and not the discourse. As an activist group, which performs, it’s a visual movement. The media covered this topic, and pictures of FEMEN’s protests have always been well spread in the newspapers.

I remember that I saw FEMEN’s disturbing pictures in the newspapers or in the news. If I had to describe them in one phrase, I would say “sexy,” in a disturbing way, mostly because these pictures depict women as half naked. In my memory, the picture I saw presented also young, pretty, thin and blond girls showing their breasts. In short, they were representing this kind of stereotypical feminine beauty. Even the picture, showing them struggling with policemen, have a sexual connotation. What I remember is that feminist activism was mentioned in the text associated with their pictures, but the explanations were vague. They certainly had some words written on their bodies, but the words were difficult to read. To be honest, my attention was attracted by their nudity, which prevents me from paying attention to the message.

Without remembering precisely the description of the pictures or the articles, I remember that my reaction to their performances was pretty negative. As a feminist, I should have been interested by a feminist movement. But in fact, I did not even take the time to look for more information about them. These pictures were not able to push me further to attend to their message. However I was convinced by the defense of women’s rights. Instead of being interested and trying to learn more, I rolled my eyes. I even was a little upset. What were these women doing? The group criticized sexism by reproducing exactly what they criticized. A little voice however told me too look at it a little bit deeper, but it is only recently that I took the time to look at what they are saying.

Despite the fact that I was already favorable to the cause, it was really difficult for me only to listen to what they wanted to say. If I have this reaction, what will be the reaction of a non-feminist person? Regarding what I’ve heard, I’m not sure.

It seems that FEMEN wants to re-claim the sexualized image of women. But is that possible, by using the codes of sexy imagery and putting some feminist discourse on it? Is that really what they do or is it the way the media cover the subject, emphasizing only the sexy part of the pictures and eliminating the protest content? Indeed, the media wants to attract consumers; they willingly use these images because nudity is attractive.

The words written on their breasts are important regarding their message. However, it was impossible for me to understand these words associated with naked bodies because breasts are most of the time hyper sexualized, which means that we are accustomed seeing breasts in a sexualized manner. This fact makes it very difficult to see it in another way. Their breasts were like a fence, preventing me from being interested  in the subject. Now than I took the time to have a closer look at what they say, I find them brave, strong, interesting, smart and even inspiring.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis of patriarchy’s genesis (part I): a synopsis

Considering that yesterday was International Women’s Day, I believe it is fitting that I write a post concerning a left-leaning intellectual’s discourse on woman’s subjugation. I find that Simon de Beauvoir’s historical prominence as a feminist theorist is somewhat related to the revolutionary socialist movements that engendered what we know as International Women’s Day.

As a side note, which I believe is worth making because it is almost never made, International Woman’s Day is the product of the revolutionary outbursts of the early twentieth century. The earliest Woman’s Day observance was held on February 28, 1909, in New York; it was organized by the Socialist Party of America in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union. In 1917, demonstrations in Saint Petersburg commemorating International Woman’s Day inaugurated Russia’s February Revolution. Thus, following the October Revolution, the newly established Soviet Union made Woman’s Day a national holiday in 1917. It was not until 1977 that the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as a day commemorating woman’s rights.

In relation to all this, as stated above, the following is my assessment of book one, chapter three of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. The chapter is entitled “The Point of View of Historical Materialism.” In the chapter, de Beauvoir critiques historical materialism, as delineated by Friedrich Engels in his treatise The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. De Beauvoir asserts that Engels’ historical materialism is fundamentally incapable of accounting for the origin of woman’s subjugation.

As de Beauvoir puts it, historical materialism is a Marxist conceptual framework based on the premise—at this point, it is axiomatic—that humanity is more a historical reality than an animal species. In other words, the human condition is contingent “upon the economic organization of society, which in turn indicates what stage of technical evolution man has attained.” As Karl Marx famously puts it in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

This is a rudimentary explanation of the concept, but for the purposes of this post it will suffice.

De Beauvoir explicates that Engels in his treatise employs historical materialism to explain the origin of man’s primacy. As she recounts, Engels proposes that humanity, in its earliest historical stages, was embryonically egalitarian. The land belonged to all members of the tribe. The primitive nature of the tools of survival, spears and hoes, limited agricultural development, so that woman’s strength was sufficient for gardening. While man hunted and fished, woman remained at home tending to the tasks of domestic labor, which was productive labor—e.g. making pottery, weaving, and gardening. Consequently, woman played an integral part in economic life. Gender equality naturally sprung from this equal relationship of production.

However, this egalitarian division of labor was upset with the discovery of various metals, which would be used in the invention of new, more sophisticated tools. Men were thus capable of enlarging the scope of agricultural production and clearing vast expanses of wild land. As Engels puts it: 

The same cause which had assured to woman the prime authority in the house— namely, her restriction to domestic duties—this same cause now assured the domination there of the man; for woman’s housework henceforth sank into insignificance in comparison with man’s productive labor—the latter as everything, the former a trifling auxiliary.

As a result of the increased production, which these new-fangled tools allowed, man began to accumulate more than he required for survival. This became his private property; a wholly new concept made its way to the core of the human condition. Man began to trade the surplus, and he began to enslave other men and women.

Thousands of years pass, men and women, on account of the advancement of thoroughly technologized industry, become equal in terms of their capacity for productive labor. However, according to de Beauvoir, the Marxists clamor that it is the resistance of ancient capitalist patriarchy that prevents the materialization of this equality.

De Beauvoir’s criticism of Engels’ account is actually quite simple. She takes to task Engels for what she calls the slurring over of the passage from the regime of community ownership to that of private ownership. She writes, “Engels assumes without discussion the bond of interest which ties man to property; but where does this interest, the source of social institutions, have its own source?” Moreover, she asserts that it is not clear that the institution of private property must have necessarily involved the enslavement of women. She criticizes Engels for not having even attempted to offer his interpretation of this paradigm shift.

In response to what she sees as a conceptual vacuum, de Beauvoir posits that private property can only be understood with reference to the original condition of the existent. That is to say that man’s latent cognitive proclivity toward autonomy and individuality enabled private ownership. Without the advent of technology, man thought of himself as a passive element at the mercy of the natural world. With the birth of complex tools, man became a creator, a manipulator of the forces of nature. Thus, because of new inventions, man lost his feeling of inferiority and fear, and he found within himself the courage to live sovereignly and individually.

De Beauvoir adds—prototypical of contemporary critical theory—that man innately possesses an ontological substructure, a foundation in the nature of his being, which was kept dormant until the creation of new tools. This fundamental quality, as it were, is the drive to possess the Other. According to de Beauvoir, each individual finds life’s meaning through alienation; we seek to find ourselves in something outside of ourselves, an Other, by making it our own. To the collective hunter-gatherer tribe, the Other was the land. And, once the individual man becomes detangled from the tribe, he needs a personal incarnation, an Other, over which to take mastery. To him, the Other is the plot of land and the various trinkets he begins to appropriate, private property. The Other, to man, is also woman.

De Beauvoir continues by explaining that woman’s physical limitations for hard labor constituted a disadvantage only from the perspective of man’s inherent need for transcendence. Effectively, woman was not able to keep up with man. Thus, she became inferior. However, she concedes that this need for transcendence did not really engender inequality, as man could have easily had a relationship of friendship with woman throughout his voyage of transcendence. The phenomenon of subjugation was ultimately “the result of the imperialism of the human consciousness, seeking always to exercise its sovereignty in objective fashion.”

How using only half our human capital hurts our global economy

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently released a letter stating that investment in women's and girls' education and health is a key means of achieving growth for nations and communities around the world. I wholeheartedly agree. According to at least one report, women's increased participation in the workforce in the last few decades has resulted in more economic growth globally than has China's entire economy. Considering the fact that many women and girls worldwide remain uneducated and do not receive the same opportunities as males with regard to employment or labor, how much more advanced would our global economy be if women and girls were allowed to realize their educational and economic potential?

For instance, women do at least half of the farm work in Africa, but agricultural education in African countries is largely geared toward males. As a result, women's farms are not nearly as productive as those of their male counterparts. By including women in agricultural education programs and providing them with the same kinds of technology provided to many male farmers (such as mobile phones that enable farmers to access weather reports and market prices), the African farming industry can significantly increase its productivity and even achieve food security for Africans by 2030. Last year, the World Bank reported:
[i[f women worldwide had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30%...Gains in agricultural production alone could lift 100 to 150 million people out of hunger.
Moreover, education is considered a basic human right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among other international treaties. Countries that exclude girls and women from education and the workforce impede the growth of their own economies by allowing only half their labor force to participate in the economy in a meaningful way. The World Bank estimated in a 2012 study that there are at least 31 million girls that are not in school. However, over 25% of economic growth in OECD countries in the last 50 years can be attributed to girls' increased educational attainment.

The World Bank also found that average wage gaps between men and women in the workforce are about 20% worldwide. However, at least one report has shown that females could collectively increase their global income by up to 76% if the wage gap and employment participation gap between males and females were closed. This translates to a global value of $17 trillion.

Moreover, according to evidence from several countries worldwide, women who are in control of household income are more likely to spend that income on ways that benefit children, by spending, for example, on food, health, and education. Further, women who received an education are more than twice as likely to send their children to school compared to mothers who did not receive an education.

It is abundantly clear that communities and nations worldwide have much to gain from educating their women and girls, and allowing them to participate in employment opportunities. For a further discussion on the denial of women's rights abroad, read this post. For a discussion on how restrictions on female education and employment worldwide predisposes women to violence, read this post.

A marriage of #Dressgate and #Feminism

This past weekend, a South African branch of the Salvation Army released a new domestic violence ad on social media. The image references "the Dress" debate, or "Dressgate" -- a viral photograph meme that arose in late-February 2015.
Attending a wedding of two friends, Caitlin McNeil reposted a photograph of dress belonging to the bride's mother on her Tumblr account. The picture had originally been posted to the wedding couple's (Grace and Keir Johnston of Scotland) Facebook page.

The dress could not possibly look more blue and black to me, but apparently the vast majority of the online community sees a white dress with gold trimmings. The debate between #blueandblack and #whiteandgold quickly seemed to consume the Internet, with actors, musicians, politicians, and even government agencies weighing on the issue. Eventually, it was confirmed that the Romans Originals dress was -- in fact -- royal blue and black. The gold-and-whiters had perceived the photo as being underexposed, as opposed to overexposed.

The above South African Salvation Army ad (made in partnership with Carehaven, a home for abused women and children) poses a simple question:
Why is it so hard to see black and blue --The only illusion is if you think it was her choice. One in 6 women are victims of abuse. Stop abuse against women.
The message is superimposed over an image is of a young woman wearing a white-and-gold version of the Dress, her body covered in dark bruises. The subtext appears to be that domestic abuse - in its various forms - has almost become so commonplace that we are blind to it.

Of course, any relationship between an optical illusion and our society's failure to sufficiently confront the issue of violence against women is, at best, extremely tenuous. It's probably nonexistent. Yet, the effectiveness of the ad -- in terms of a large brand creating viral content -- is not disputed. The ad confronts us with a serious challenge: Although we may be excused for failing to see a blue and black dress, what excuses do we have for failing to see the black and blue bruises of domestic violence, however subtle they may be?

However, I'm curious to hear what other people think of the ad. Does the image go to far? Does the reference to a silly meme turn domestic violence into a punchline? Perhaps more importantly - who is the ad aimed at? Is the ad demanding that abusers stop their "abuse against women"? Is it asking society-at-large to support (financially or otherwise) Salvation Army initiatives that help abused women and children?

My suspicion is that the ad is primarily aimed at victims (alternatively, "survivors") of domestic abuse themselves. The Salvation Army has done a lot of great work in the service of abused and/or trafficked women and children over the years, and my guess is that it regularly faces the challenge of trying to help victims who may not want or understand their need for help. Victims may be trying to protect their abusers, deluded into not seeing the abuse, or -- as the ad suggests -- they may interpret the abuse as their fault, and therefore a consequence of their "choice."

In any case, I find the message powerful, and can admire -- especially from a marketing standpoint -- the mildly clever piggy-backing on a popular Internet meme to raise awareness of a more serious issue. Over the past few weeks, the Feminist Legal Theory blog has addressed issues ranging from the misogyny of online "trolls" on social media networks to the growth of "femvertising" as a marketing tool. We've also discussed the potential utility of memes (e.g., Feminist Ryan Gosling) in raising awareness of feminist beliefs through viral content on social media. So although ads such as this Salvation Army one may have its share of critics, I generally see it as very encouraging that despite the cruel and bigoted reactions that are often elicited from similar marketing campaigns, women's advocates are not backing down.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Keep ya head up: Tupac Shakur on women's rights

Despite his untimely death almost two decades ago, Tupac Amaru Shakur remains a universally beloved pop icon. Indeed, to consider him only a popular culture phenomenon is to grossly understate his career’s influence. To put it simply, to a large portion of the world’s population—spanning from this nation’s inner cities, to Latin American slums, to West-African shantytowns, to Parisian ghettos, and beyond—Shakur is not just a rapper, he is a legend, a folk hero. To these masses of people, Shakur represents an unabashed revolutionary spirit, which ultimately culminated in martyrdom.

Primarily, Shakur made this mark by recording music meant to compassionately and passionately shine light upon the social and economic injustices that plague impoverished communities. However, his music did not function only as an exposé. Perhaps more importantly, it served a cathartic purpose. His zealous compositions provided millions of listeners with a vicarious release. Shakur, by poetically and colloquially articulating his socially conscious anger and melancholy, gave listeners a larger-than-life companion and comrade.

Throughout his career as a politically conscious rapper, Shakur broached the often-overlooked matter of gender inequality in indigent communities of color. His impassioned and unprecedented advocacy on behalf of single mothers and abused women popularly established Shakur as a hip-hop emblem of the perennial struggle for social justice.

His most famous song concerning women’s rights has to be “Keep Ya Head Up.” It is one of his earlier songs, and one of his most famous. In what follows, I would like to critique the song’s lyrics. Time and space will not allow me to write a line-by-line critique, although that is tempting.

“Keep Ya Head Up” has often been called the hip-hop feminist anthem. Throughout the record, Shakur touches upon colorism, basic economic inequality, catcalling, paternal abandonment, and more. In the first verse, Shakur clarifies his stance on various issues pertaining to gender inequality in impoverished communities. The second verse is dedicated to struggles inextricable from poverty in general. The third verse is an extremely moving depiction of impoverished single motherhood.

The chorus is an interpolation of the Five Stairsteps’ soul classic, “Ooh Child.” It goes: “Ooh, child, things are gonna get easier. Ooh, child, things are gonna get brighter.” In between these lines, the phrase, “keep your head up” is sung in harmony. The uplifting qualities of the song are easily apparent in this segment of the tune. Uplift is worthy, but if it is not paired alongside some sort of plan of action aimed at transforming miserable material conditions, then it may ultimately only serve to pacify.

However, “keep your head up” is not only meant to be an uplifting phrase. It is also Shakur’s way of entreating that marginalized woman, despite the world’s coldness, maintain a sense of pride and love for themselves because, as Shakur would say, they are precious by virtue of being human and because “Tupac cares, if don’t nobody else care.”

Shakur starts the song by uttering one of his most famous lines: “Some say, ‘the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.’ I say, ‘the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots.’” Here, Shakur takes to task the pervasive notion that fair skinned women by virtue of their fair skin are more attractive than darker skinned women. In particular, Shakur attacks the view that lighter skinned black women are more attractive that darker skinned black women, a view widely held in the black community and the hip-hop community writ large.

Shakur continues by rapping: “You know what makes me unhappy? When brothers make babies and leave a young mother to be a pappy.” On its face, the sentiment is admirable, but I am disappointed that it is not coupled with a remark that explains paternal flight, in this context, as a direct product of crippling and atomizing poverty. Without appropriately fitting paternal abandonment within the overarching narrative of extreme indigence, victims of poverty are erroneously depicted as victimizing free agents.

Later in the first verse, Shakur states that he believes “it’s time we kill for our women, time to heal our women, be real to our women, and if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies that hate the ladies that make the babies.” Again, the sentiment is commendable, but I believe that in employing the possessive “our” Shakur confines his advocacy to a paradigm of patriarchal paternalism. Moreover, by describing ladies as those who “make the babies” Shakur could be seen as reducing women to their reproductive capacities.

But, perhaps I am being too harsh, as Shakur was around 20 when he wrote the song. Considering hip-hop tends to be a hyper-masculine musical genre, the fact that Shakur even thought to record and release this as one of his first singles is really awe-inspiring. And, the fact that this was a hit is unbelievable.

Shakur continues by declaring, “Since a man can’t make one, he has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one.” Shakur makes clear his stance on abortion. Nobody should have the right to force a woman to bear a child. It was his capacity to express weighty matters in such simple, rhyming, and fervent couplets that allowed Shakur to reach such a vast and loyal audience.

In my opinion, the final verse’s imagery, more than anything else, is what makes the song so emotionally stirring. A portion that I think is worth quoting goes:

You can't complain you was dealt this
Hell of a hand without a man, feelin’ helpless
Because there's too many things for you to deal with
Dying inside, but outside you're looking fearless
While tears is rollin’ down your cheeks
You steady hopin’ things don't all fall down this week
Cause if it did, you couldn't take it, and don't blame me
I was given this world I didn't make it
And now my son's getting’ older and older and cold
From havin’ the world on his shoulders
While the rich kids is drivin’ Benz
I'm still tryin’ to hold on to survivin’ friends
And it's crazy, it seems it'll never let up, but
Please... you got to keep your head up

Songs like this are rarely produced in contemporary hip-hop, much less released for radio play. It makes me wonder what has changed since 1993 that prevents hip-hop artists today from touching upon these subjects. I could write much more on this, and may do so in a follow-up post.