Ta(l)king Risks

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” We’ve all heard this saying before, and we’ve all told ourselves this when hurtful words were thrown our way. I think it’s safe to say, though, that this saying is complete and utter nonsense. This saying is cliché, and, as I just stated, completely untrue. Yet we continue to feed this saying to children as if it will shield them from the ugly truth. Simply put, words can and do hurt, and oftentimes there is no way to stop the blows or shield yourself from feeling their effects. Words scare me because of the power they hold, and this has led me to be too cautious in using them-both in written and verbal form. Language can be so ableist, racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, transphobic, etc. and often times this is so inherent in our language that we don’t even realize when we are being offensive. Take the casually ableist saying “to turn a blind eye” for example, or the culturally insensitive “that person just gyped me on my change.” Most often people don’t even realize they are being offensive, because people say these things all the time and the historical and cultural significance is simply not known. Words are sneaky and sometimes carry with them unknown cultural/historical baggage. I do my best to use my words with intention and with the knowledge that every word I use has a past, present, and future life that I may not fully understand at the time and have little to no control over.

The downside, though, is that this has often held me back from having conversations that needed to be had. I don’t want to say something problematic or offensive, and I don’t want to unintentionally hurt anyone with my words. This self-censorship has stopped me from participating in class discussions, having hard conversations with friends, and even from writing this very blog. In fact, the last version of this blog post bears little resemblance to this one. In the scrapped post, I could read and feel my resistance to making any sort of claim for fear of being wrong or offensive, and, instead of it being a piece of critical and thought-provoking reflections, it read more like weak and watered-down observations. While I understand the repercussions of this censorship, I can’t seem to stop myself. So, why am I so timid in using language? Because language has power: it can give life as well as take it away. Language gives us intelligibility, personhood, and meaning, and therefore, it can take it away. In order to conquer a fear of language, though, it is important to understand how it works, what it does, and of what it is capable.

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When a person says they are a man or a woman, for example, there are a whole set of norms that are called upon that begin to construct what that person might look like, act like, feel like, sound like, etc. In this sense, language is performative. Words, and in a broader sense, language, helps transform a subject into an intelligible being through a regulation and re-enactments of norms. Language can also confer humanness. Judith Butler, in dialogue with Michel Foucault’s work, writes:

This then returns us to the question not only of how discourse might be said to produce a subject (something everywhere assumed in cultural studies but rarely investigated in its own right), but, more precisely, what in discourse effects that production. When Foucault claims that discipline “produces” individuals, he means not only that disciplinary discourse manages and makes use of them but that it also actively constitutes them. (Butler, 50)

Language has power, and I mean this in the Foucauldian sense. It “manages”, “makes use of” and “actively constitutes” us. It forms us, builds us, and molds us into shapes that are recognizable. This power exerts a force, is all around us, and there is no escaping the power that language exercises through us. We need language. After all, we understand others and ourselves through language; language is what makes us into intelligible subjects. The subject is not passive, however. Susan Bordo, writing on Foucault’s conception of power, writes, “…prevailing forms of selfhood and subjectivity are maintained not through physical restraint and coercion, but through individual self-surveillance and self-correction to norms” (253). It is here, then, in the production and maintenance of subjects, that the dark forces of language can be realized. While language can, and does, confer humanness, it can also take it away. In fact, one word can have the ability to do both. For example, on a visit to my sister’s college one weekend, she brought me to an off-campus house where students were throwing a party. Upon entering, a pack of about seven men began chanting “lesbian” at me. Typically, “lesbian” is a source of pride, as I identify with the word. It is used to make me intelligible to others and myself through the meanings that have attached itself to the word. However, these men were not using it in this sense, and instead they were using it to deny me full humanness. They were intending to degrade me, break me down, bring harm to me, and render me less than human. Words are never singular in their meaning, and nor are they singular in their affects or effects. Just as there is not one single way a word can be used, there are multiple ways that words can be heard and felt; words can be used, received, picked up, transferred, and redirected in multiple ways and directions, and they are therefore in a constant state of transformation. Language has generative power.

Harm and Transformation

Language is power, and can be felt right to the bone. Name-calling is a perfect example of this. People deemed “others,” which within the context of the U.S. often means anyone who is not a cisgender white man, are no strangers to the harmful side of language. There is no need to repeat any of these names here, because we have all heard them hundreds of times before (whether we said them or they were aimed at us) but it is often clear that these derogatory words and slurs are intended to dehumanize and bring harm to the individuals they are aimed at. Verbal bullying is a very real and serious threat. It can lead to depression, violence, and suicide. It should be treated with the same seriousness and urgency as any other kind of bullying. The thing is, people know that words can hurt, and they know words may provoke someone. In Molly Worthen’s article, “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’”, she discusses how the phrase ‘I feel like’ is on the rise, especially among millennials. The phrase has replaced phrases like ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ in order to achieve a safer affect. Worthen writes, “This linguistic hedging is particularly common at universities, where calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces may have eroded students’ inclination to assert or argue. It is safer to merely ‘feel.’” This phrase is used as a way to shield the user from any possible arguments or disagreements by asserting that their opinion is simply a feeling. It is a way to avoid tough conversations and debates; it is an escape route. Escape routes like this should not be taken, however, because escape routes like this can have other effects, “This is what is most disturbing about ‘I feel like’: The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning” (Sidenote: how many noticed her usage of the ableist term ‘cripple’ here? As I said before, language and words are sneaky, and often times we don’t recognize the baggage they carry). There is no sure way to put an end to bullying, and writing our thoughts off as feelings not only flattens emotion but also shields us from having to deal with the full force of our words. So, what is there left to do? One need only look to queer and feminist practices to find an alternative.

words hurt

Thanks to feminist and queer practices, there are useful ways to combat negative usages of language. One of the most useful ways, I believe, is through reclamation. The word “queer” was (and in some cases still is) used as a derogatory word for an LGBT person, most usually a gay man. This is exactly why it was chosen for reclamation, as it can be picked up as a source of both pride and resistance. Talking about the reclamation of the word queer, Heather Love writes, “When queer was adopted in the late 1980s it was chosen because it evoked a long history of insult and abuse– you could hear the hurt in it” (Love, 2). While this word can still be used hurtfully, it has significantly lost power for those who identify as queer. Another example, particularly in feminist circles, is the reclamation of the word “bitch.” Jo Freeman’s feminist classic, “The BITCH Manifesto”, in which she reclaims the word, goes all the way back to 1969. “Bitch” has also been more contemporarily reclaimed by a popular feminist magazine that named itself after this word, stating:

When it’s being used as an insult, “bitch” is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment… But we stand firm in our belief that if we choose to reappropriate the word, it loses its power to hurt us. And if we can get people thinking about what they’re saying when they use the word, that’s even better. (bitchmedia.org)

Bitch Media reflects the idea that by reclaiming, or reappropriating a word, the word begins to lose its power, while simultaneously making people think about why and how they are using it. This is an important practice to keep in mind, but doesn’t directly help in fighting a fear of language. However, what will help is understanding that language has a life of its own. It is important to understand how language works, how it creates the world around us, the bodies we live in, and the realities we experience. It is important to understand the history of language, its present formations, and it is important to have an awareness that it will in fact, over time, transform into something different. Most importantly, it is important to recognize how implicated you are in language. There is no escape; language is entirely necessary for life. Language is necessary to life, and life is one giant risk, shouldn’t we be taking risks with our language? Everyone fumbles, everyone insults, everyone offends, and it is completely and entirely unavoidable. No matter how hard we try, we will stumble with our words. So why not be bold? Molly Worthen wrote, “But when new verbal vices become old habits, their power to shape our thought does not diminish. We should not ‘feel like.’ We should argue rationally, feel deeply and take full responsibility for our interaction with the world.” If we want a transformation of our language, full of reclamations of all those ugly words we hate to hear, we must start using language boldly and with confidence. As Worthen notes, however, we must take full responsibility for the language we choose to use and the power it holds to do real harm. I’m not calling for using language with reckless abandon, nor am I asking everyone to start incorporating derogatory language into their everyday vocabulary. That, certainly, might do more harm than good. What I am calling for is an intentionality of our words, backed up by a historical understanding of their meaning and an understanding of the life of language, used in bold and fearless ways. This is not only possible, it is necessary.

-Hannah Webster WS ’16

 

“About Us.” Bitch Media. Bitch Media, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.

Susan Bordo. “Feminism, Foucault and the Politics of the Body.” Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. Ed. Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick. New York: Routledge, 1999. 246-57. Print.

Worthen, Molly. “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Apr. 2016. Web. 8 May 2016.

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Molly (WS ’16)

 Insisting on a Better Account of the World: Feminist Prisms and Polarities

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by Molly Naef

Feminist theory informs everything I do. It is the critical lens through which I observe and question the world around me. I know that I am in the right field because of how thrilling it is to learn the theory. The concept of performativity[1] gave voice and context to behaviors that I have noticed since early childhood. Learning about otherness from de Beauvoir enraged and ignited me, pushing me deeper into the beautiful body of feminist knowledge. While building my theoretical framework, I began to understand the term ‘praxis.’ It is the action part, the application of feminist knowledge and tools to daily life. I realized that praxis can be daunting and that living life through a feminist lens is neither simple nor painless. Though I’ve always been aware of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and homophobia, feminism made me understand how deeply embedded these forces are in every level of society. It hurt to realize that my grandparents were racist and my dad is a little bit sexist. The number of potential sites of intervention in my immediate life was dizzying; I felt overwhelmed by the self-assigned task to educate everyone, and disappointed in my loved ones. This feeling blanketed the high I experienced while learning feminist theory. Intellectually I was stimulated, but emotionally I felt too open and hyper aware of the oppression in the world.  I needed additional ways of understanding the world and my relationship to it, so I began to explore two fields as a feminist scholar. Biology and Dance help me make sense of a society whose harshness is revealed by my critical lens.

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1. Judith Butler[2]

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2. Michel Foucault[3]

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3. Simone de Beauvoir[4]

Feminist Prisms:

My feminist study of biology has taught me three key concepts: 1. There is variation in every category of life, it is a constant. 2. The scientific method is a useful model of inquiry which is (nearly) universally understood and respected. 3. Feminist epistemology has transformed the field of science. The variation bit is important because with this information I learned that science and feminism are often in agreement but are situated as the opposing forces of logical and emotional thought.[5] Specifically in regard to biological sex, geneticists have been saying for years that sex is a spectrum, in both chromosomal composition and genital expression (see figure 4.). Feminists have reworked the field of science, especially through advocating for a more fluid understanding of sex and gender. There are though, challenges to these views from gender essentialists. It seems to be popular opinion that the idea of binary sex is a scientific fact, which I now realize is a position advocated by a third-party as neither scientists nor feminists agree with the concept of sex as a binary. This has led me to think about what third party goes unnoticed in other important conversations like this and who they aim to serve.

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4. Quigley Scale for Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome[6]

Science has taught me that to most audiences, few arguments are compelling without hard data. The scientific method of inquiry is highly structured, with variables carefully controlled and different types of bias factored out. This mode is considered to be legitimate and accurate in a world obsessed with quantitative data. Knowing quantitative as well as qualitative methods of data collection and analysis has been helpful when using qualitative data like ethnographies. They work in symbiosis because qualitative data gives the numerical values context and meaning. As a feminist researcher, it is important to collect stories and share them in a way that hopefully influences policy. Having experience in the two fields gives a unique perspective on how to present data, both quantitative and qualitative, in a way that is compelling to a variety of audiences. I have found that science can be applied to lend feminist work a more formal structure which increases the legitimacy of the results in many people’s eyes.

I didn’t enjoy the study and practice of science until college, but dance is something that has always been a joy in my life. My mother is a belly dance teacher so I was dancing and drumming before I even entered preschool. Movement is one of my favorite artistic expressions; like breath, motion is universal. My feminist study of dance began personally, at the site of my own body. Taking advanced modern and different technique courses in a class of thin white women whose eyes were glued to their bodies in the mirror forced me to decide how I felt about my body. Growing up, people always felt the need to share their opinions of my body with me like when my middle school dance teacher told me I was “wasting a perfect ballet body” when I quit my dance program. Or, how my grandmother would sigh and wistfully say she hoped my (then prepubescent) body would always stay “so slender.” In high school many of my peers assumed I had an eating disorder because my body was thin. I didn’t enter school with an eating disorder, but their relentless teasing and scrutinizing of my body eventually became a dangerous self-practice of constant body monitoring. When I read Michel Foucault in Feminist Theory, I realized that I had an embodied experience with Biopower,[7] where the surveillance and discipline of my body by others was so imposed on me that I began to do that work myself. In a dance studio the mirrors are meant to function as a tool to observe and correct one’s own body and form, but they are frequently used to discipline the self and surveil others. So much of classical dance is about being zipped up, light, waifish, and disciplined while looking effortless. In class the mirror is a reminder to tighten up and suck the body into itself, to contort and deform until you look like a perfect Balanchine dancer,[8] the widely accepted norm. But as I learned with Foucault, where power operates, there is a potential for resistance. To distance myself from the perceived surveillance environment created by classical European and American dance, I turned to a different form. I began taking African dance classes and expanding the reach of my kinesphere, using heavy weight, and *gasp* undulating my spine. In African dance we didn’t use mirrors.

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5. Suzanne Farrell, model of the “”Balanchine Body”[9][10]

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6. African Dance Joy[11]

As a white American woman I feel a certain level of discomfort with studying and performing art from a culture that was and still is oppressed by the colonial endeavors of people who look like me. I acknowledge this discomfort and work harder to learn about the context of the dances to honor, rather than appropriate. I find that dance is my preferred venue to work out the nuances of personal and political discomfort. My latest work is about male gaze and opportunities for building sisterhood. It addresses the discomfort of having one’s body objectified with a minimal costume consisting of a nude sports bra and brief cut bottoms. It challenges the unquestioned power of the audience to observe voyeuristically through confrontational gaze from the performers and the creation of both private and public environments on stage. My most academic piece, I incorporated Foucauldian ideas of power and surveillance into both the process and the final product. Through dance I’ve found a site of resistance that is meaningful to me because of the aesthetic and visceral experience of performing and viewing these pieces. As Donna Haraway says, “Feminists have to insist on a better account of the world,”[12] and this is exactly what my study of both science and dance have helped me do.

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7. Prismatic Effect[13]

A feminist lens is prismatic, there are so many experiences and interpretations of things a person can have. While there is opportunity to see things as positive, there are usually multiple sides to any one issue that feminists take up. There are many sides of feminism; while it can be empowering and help create resistance and change, it can also feel terribly hopeless to understand the vastness of inequality and suffering in the world. I exist in a feminist paradox: through my studies I’ve developed the tools for theorizing and exacting change, but I am nearly immobilized by hopelessness and the melancholy that accompanies it. It is a precarious position where I seek the highs of doing feminist work, but suffer from the lows that reality can sometimes bring. I am in a privileged position to have access to education and rights that allow me to speak and make some interventions. I acknowledge that what I experience is specific to my position in society, but I do not think I am alone in these thoughts. Women all over the world are subject to harassment and control from men, whether from individuals or institutions. As I think about all of this, here are some words put to the feelings of polarity I experience in my life as a feminist:

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8. Electric Dipole[14]

Feminist Polarities:

The American Dream called Freedom:

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9. What is it anyway?[15]

In popular opinion, I am free under the Constitution to let careless words fall out of my mouth, no matter if they come crashing down and spread destruction in my wake. But it is not always safe for me to speak out against injustice, to voice my opinion on discrimination and violence and the greed that drives it all.

In this country of freedom it is not safe for me to be, to exist, to survive, without hypervigilant practices of protection driven by the fear that works to contain women. This fear has the ability to overpower my feminist beliefs. This fear is palpable, it affects my decision-making where I am forced to either compromise my beliefs or face retaliation. It binds me, restricting my liberty to move about in this country that prides itself on freedom for all.

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10. The American Dream[16]

Scientific Truths and Political Depression:

I am drawn to science as a way to understand behavior but scientific law is a religion for some. It is the truth, the answer, the way of organizing a scary world. It is understood as impartial, separate from human bias, given to us by a 3rd party observer. The writers of the ‘laws of nature’ claim that science is objective, one of the most foolish notions uttered by human lips. There is danger in determining what is natural and how much it’s valued. ‘Natural’ is constructed by anyone at any time, as there is enough variation in the biological world for anything to seem to fit into the ‘natural order.’ The trouble is how we prioritize it. Through the divinity of ‘natural order,’ institutions of science, government, and religion selectively allocate liberty to some while granting ‘freedoms’ to all.

The weight of this understanding is crushing. It’s so heavy that those who have the tools to make change are immobilized, armoring their mental health and energetic selves to a hardened form that withstands the blows of sanctioned freedom. I’m so tired from existing in this state of melancholia,[17] political depression.[18] While depression might be a public feeling, we suffer privately. Where is the acknowledgement of my trauma? We are living in a sea of isolated incidences of violence, representational and material. When can we get together and publicly declare how much patriarchy hurts? “How can independence be recovered in a state of dependency?”[19]

These questions I pose to my colleagues, my feminist peers. I hope that the small act of bravery of giving voice to the complex nature of my politics can become a point to organize around, this multifaceted understanding of seeing through a critical lens. Acknowledging the wide range of experiences that come from feminist politics in a patriarchal world is an act of truth-telling and empowerment as you give voice and presence to feelings. Just doing that, a form of self-healing, is a radical act. I felt relief seeing my feelings and experiences in writing standing on their own, and I encourage feminists everywhere to explore the complexity of their beliefs and experiences. This is not to say I magically have the answers or that my prismatic complications have been solved by my feminism. On the contrary, feminism has problematized my understanding of the world. I see this as the beginning of a lifelong process of critically engaging with my own experiences and politics, a personal continuation of the collective feminist project.

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11. Proud Feminist[20]

Citations:

[1] Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

 

[2] Shin, Sarah. “Judith Butler on Gender and the Trans Experience: “One Should Be Free to Determine the Course of One’s Gendered Life””Versobooks.com. Verso Books, 26 May 2015. Web. 10 May 2016. <http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2009-judith-butler-on-gender-and-the-trans-experience-one-should-be-free-to-determine-the-course-of-one-s-gendered-life&gt;.

 

[3] “Michel Foucault.” Famous Philosophers. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 May 2016. <http://www.famousphilosophers.org/michel-foucault/&gt;.

 

[4] “Great Lives: Simone De Beauvoir.” BBC.co.uk. BBC, 19 Apr. 2011. Web. 10 May 2016. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010dp15&gt;.

 

[5] This is not to say that no feminist scientists exist, because they certainly do. There are many highly accomplished feminists who have made important contributions to the field of science but they are often not heard by the general public. Some noteworthy feminist scientists are: Marlene Zuk (biology), Donna Haraway (science and technology studies), Greta Gaard (ecological politics), Vandana Shiva (agriculture and food justice), Laura Purdy (bioethics), Elizabeth Fee (public health), Susan Hanson (geography), Lynda Birke (sociobiology), Leta Stetter Hollingworth (psychology), and Laurette Lieson (political science).

 

[6] “Quigley Scale.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Apr. 2016. Web. 10 May 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quigley_scale&gt;.

 

[7] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon, 1978. Print.

 

[8] Amy. “The Balanchine Body.” Web log post. Nutritional Guide for the Dancing Body. BlogSpot, 31 Oct. 2010. Web. 3 May 2016. <http://nutritionfordance.blogspot.com/2010/10/balanchine-body.html&gt;.

 

[9] “2 Local Dancers Studying with Legendary Suzanne Farrell.” Petoskey News. N.p., 7 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 May 2016. <http://www.petoskeynews.com/news/community/local-dancers-studying-with-legendary-suzanne-farrell/article_2269c509-247b-5d9e-b009-de8e2f18748f.html&gt;.

 

[10] Amy. “The Balanchine Body.” Web log post. Nutritional Guide for the Dancing Body. BlogSpot, 31 Oct. 2010. Web. 3 May 2016. <http://nutritionfordance.blogspot.com/2010/10/balanchine-body.html&gt;.

 

 

[11] Unknown. “Joie De Vivre.” Pixdaus. Pixdaus.com, n.d. Web. 10 May 2016. <http://pixdaus.com/joie-de-vivre-africa-dance/items/view/310904/&gt;.

 

[12] Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Situated Knowledges. N.p.: n.p., 2000. Print.

 

[13] Solis, Brian. “The Quality Prism: The Secret to Co-creating Brands through Social Media – Brian Solis.” Brian Solis. N.p., 6 Feb. 2014. Web. 10 May 2016. <http://www.briansolis.com/2014/02/quality-prism-secret-co-creating-brands-social-media/&gt;.

 

[14] Nave, Rod. “Dipole Moment.” Hyper Physics. Georgia State University, 2012. Web. 10 May 2016. <http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/electric/dipole.html&gt;.

 

[15] “Feminist American Dream.” Google Images. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 May 2016. <https://images.google.com/&gt;.

 

[16] Edelstein, Sally. “Introduction.” Envisioning The American Dream. WordPress, 09 May 2012. Web. 10 May 2016. <https://envisioningtheamericandream.com/2012/05/09/introduction/&gt;.

 

[17] Freud, Sigmund. Trauer Und Melancholie = Mourning and Melancholia: 1917. Place of Publication Not Identified: Merck, Sharp & Dohme, 1972. Print.

 

[18] Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012. Print.

 

[19] Beauvoir, Simone De. The Second Sex. New York: Knopf, 1953. Print.

 

[20] Anonmoos. “File:Woman-power Emblem.svg.” – Wikimedia Commons. Wikipedia, 8 May 2007. Web. 10 May 2016. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Woman-power_emblem.svg&gt;.

 

Where in the World is Wonder Woman?

I have always loved superheroes- the powers, the gadgets, the ability to save others. All of it! As the new movie Batman vs. Superman was about to open, I began to ponder about all superheroes. My mind wandered back to moments when I dressed like a superhero; for Halloween, theme days at camp or just a random t-shirt. As I recalled these moments, I realized that I have never dressed as Wonder Woman. I have been batman, superman, teenage mutant ninja turtles and spider man. I thought back to why that might be. I came to realize that Wonder Woman is hidden. Wonder Woman products are never on the shelves waiting for a young girl to rip her shirt off the store shelf and embrace her inner Wonder Woman. Why do Wonder Woman products never stand out in a store? Where is her Lasso of Truth, her headband, her bracelets?
I began to google to see if I could find Wonder Woman products, and I did. One would think that the selling of Wonder Woman products is great, correct? Wrong! As I scrolled through the items that appeared, every costume demonstrated a form of sexual objectification  through the outfits accentuation of certain female characteristics. They emphasize her breast  instead of her brain, her legs instead of her strength. Such objectification of Wonder Woman takes away from all her power. Women, in general, face objectification through media whether through magazines, politicians, laws about our bodies, etc. The style of dress created for Wonder Woman does not look to Wonder Woman as a great superhero but as a sexual being.

I began to dig further into the mystery that is Wonder Woman. I had never been interested in Wonder Woman as a child, but as an adult my fascination was suddenly turning into an obsession! I researched Wonder Woman and her history to learn more about who Wonder Woman is. In her comic strip, Wonder Woman lived a life similar to Superman. She had her own secret identity, nurse by day and crime fighter by night. William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman in 1941 as an example of empowered women. Marston got the idea to create Wonder Woman from his wife Elizabeth, according to an article published by Boston University. Marston had a passion for comic books and believed they had the potential to be powerful educational tools. Upon making the decision to create his own superhero wife Elizabeth nudged him to create a female superhero. At the time of Marston’s decision to create this super-female he was living with three women, his wife Elizabeth Hollaway Marston, a young girl Olivia Byrne and an unamed third person. The three became his inspiration for Wonder Woman.
Jill Lepore, professor at Harvard and New York Magazine author, was fascinated with Wonder Woman and began her own research into this courageous female hero. Lepore wrote the book, “The Strange History of Wonder Woman,” which examined how Wonder Woman came to be. In a recent interview, Lepore discusses her process of how she came across information for her book. She stumbled upon Wonder Woman when her fascination of the lie detector appeared from her interest in privacy. Since William Marston created the lie detector test, Lepore began to look into Marston. As she was conducting that research she was also involved in writing a piece about Planned Parenthood. When looking at information for Planned Parenthood she came across the name, Margret Sanger. Margret Sanger was the cofounder of Planned Parenthood along with her sister Ethyl Byrne. As Lepore examined the letters, notes, archives she began to think back to research on Marston. Olive Byrne was the daughter of Ethyl Byrne and niece of Margret Sanger. Lepore states in the interview, “so it would be gvery difficult if you were just reading Margaret Sanger papers or interviewing Olive Byrne to make the connection to Wonder Woman, but I knew a little about Olive Byrne because I knew about Marston. Then I talked to the family and the family eventually let me look at the family papers and it turns out Wonder Woman is based on Margaret Sanger, which, when you think about that, explains a lot about the 20th century and the history of feminism and that seemed to me really important to tell, in spite of the fact that I really never otherwise would’ve chosen to write about a superhero” (“5 Questions for Jill Lepore” Article).
Margret Sanger was a writer, sex educator, birth control activist and a nurse. Clearly there exist many similarities between Margret and Wonder Woman. During Sanger’s fight for reproductive rights, she was persecuted and fled to England only to return to US when it was safe. She even faced obstacles for her books and speeches from the 1914 Comstock Act.  The act was created to suppress the trade and circulation of obscene literature and articles deemed of immoral use. Items considered obscene included contraceptives, sex toys, erotic topics, and abortions. Sanger was silenced through these laws to keep women from obtaining important information pertinent to gaining control over their lives and bodies. Unfortunately in this early 21st century world, Wonder Woman has been silenced.  Marston’s and Sanger’s goals through their works were meant to empower women to claim a place in society, but the patriarchy has a strong chokehold on the ideology of society.

I started to understand the history of where Wonder Woman all began. As I sat with my new-found knowledge, more questions started to arise. I started to realize all that Wonder Woman stands for. Wonder Women demonstrates the honest truth that women are capable to fight crime and present their strength and power in the world. Women display so much strength and courage when navigating through all the oppression we face daily. To me Wonder Woman embodies the achievements that women can and have accomplished regardless of who and what has stood in their path. Why is the message that women and young girls should embrace their strength not plastered everywhere? People are afraid of feminism. It’s a big taboo word, but why? Why do people look at the strength and power that women have as a negative?
I find myself looking into my life and thinking about my experiences. In classes where I speak my mind I find that some male students try to speak over me. Teachers, mainly male, ignore or move away from a point I make. My hand could be raised for twenty minutes until I am chosen. Why is my voice constantly silenced even though my thoughts and opinions matter? Why do men feel the need to “put women in their places?” I recalled a time where a “friend” of the family told my father that he must find a way to “control my mother.” My mother was speaking her mind and expressing her thoughts when a man interjected. His attitude and approach to the situation demonstrated the fact that he did not respect my mother’s opinion.

Gloria Steinem writes about “Wonder Woman” in the edited book The Superhero Reader. She states, “Wonder Woman’s family of Amazons on Paradise Island, her band of college girls in America, and her efforts to save individual women are all welcome examples of women working together and caring about each other’s welfare. [….] Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women’s culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women; sisterhood and mutual support among women; peacefulness and esteem for human life; a diminishment both of “masculine” aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts” (205). Wonder Woman’s message creates an image of empowerment because she symbolizes that women are capable of achieving anything they desire regardless of their gender.

Margret Sanger, the real life Wonder Woman, faced a life where she was silenced because her opinions went against what was seen as the norm. People think that women have come a long way but,strong intelligent women like Sanger are still silenced today. Wonder Women do exist in this world; they are the women who fought for the Equal Rights Amendment; they are the woman who risk their lives everyday as police, firefighter or members of the army, they are women who struggle in the work force with unequal pay, the Black Women who were at the forefront of the Black Sisterhood United. A Wonder Woman is anyone who stands up for the truth that women hold strength, beauty, power and great intelligence.
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I began to ask myself: have I represented Wonder Woman? Have I done that? The real life Wonder Woman was silenced through her ability to fight for Women’s bodies. I have personally experienced my voice being silenced, ignored and overlooked. I never thought anything of it or questioned why that might be. Over my four years at William Smith, I gained knowledge, skills, tools and strength that allow me to express my ideas and make people listen. I found my passion for policy and laws bloomed from interest to anger.The anger I felt stemmed from the fact that my life and the lives of others are dictated by wealthy white men sitting in Washington attempting to understand the life of a women, African-American, Latino, Lesbian, etc. We have been dubbed second class citizens; I want to reclaim my status. My desire to enter a male dominated profession, law, and provide a voice to those who are silenced  due to class, gender, race, ethnicity and sexuality. As I thought about all my education has given me, I wondered: do I have the ability to be a Wonder Women? Immediately and with no hesitation I said, Yes I Am!!
Everyone has experienced the act of silence or objectification. We all demonstrate Wonder Woman in our heart, body and mind. Where are the Wonder Women of today? What can you do to take the power and strength you encompass and take back your life, your body and your mind? Where lies your inner Wonder Woman? As said by Susan B Anthony during suffrage, “Organize, agitate, educate, must be our war cry.”

Sara Elkerm 16′

Jones, Gerard Men of Tomorrow New York: Basic Books 2004, p. 210

Continue reading “Where in the World is Wonder Woman?”

Juliet Holme (WS ’16)

I am a female college student who never truly understood sexism until I learned more about Women’s Studies during my first year at HWS, and began to observe acts of sexism for myself. As my four years come to an end, I have observed multiple ways that sexism operates in the college classroom. In one of my classes this semester, I learned first-hand, what it is like to be silenced and rendered invisible by a well-respected, popular and tenured professor:

It was 1:15pm—five minutes before my class ended. My time had come and gone. I had my hand raised into the air for a full 20 minutes. Time after time he called on students to share their opinions and comments about the book we had just read. As he called on students I felt my hand slowly start to lower. What was I doing wrong? Why wouldn’t he pick me?

After 13 students got to speak (some students twice or three times, might I add) I realized that even if he did call on me, what I wanted to say had already been said by other students—in a few different ways. I realized that another class had come and gone, and I missed my chance to make a contribution.

I did not know for sure that my Professor’s selection of students was sexist, but I did suspect that something strange, under the surface, was happening. For the next three classes, I decided to keep track of the number of female students that he called on compared to the number of male students who received a chance to speak. In tracking these numbers, I noticed something interesting. While my Professor called on the same number of male and female students, he interrupted his female students at 3x the rate he did with his male students.

Sexism can be mysterious sometimes—it often goes over my head until I think about it after-the-fact…until I really investigate it. The fact that it often goes unrecognized shows how it is so embedded into our culture.

It can be as subtle as my Professor saying to an extremely intelligent, female classmate of mine, “With that pretty smile, how could you not get the job?”

What he really meant by that was, “In your future you will get jobs because of your looks, not because of your abilities.”

Walking away from class, I thought about how these subtle comments teach us not to be as assertive as our male counterparts. We learn that our looks will be valued more than our intellect and that our voices are not as worthy. We get used to being interrupted, talked-over and talked down to by men.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man…” (We Should All Be Feminists).

I am deeply saddened by this. For example, women that are sexually harassed or assaulted in the workplace—for women who work hard to get to where they are…who have so much to lose…with student loans and families to take care of. It sickens me that we have to deal with these things. I hate that we are silenced and belittled because of our sex. Mechelle Vinson’s story, from “Because of Sex” by Gillian Thomas, illustrates the disastrous outcomes of these seemingly subtle abuses. Here is her story of being sexually abused in her workplace:

Vinson felt powerless to escape. She needed her job. It was all she had to stay afloat financially. Moreover, she feared for her physical safety. Ever since that first night at the motel, Taylor had continued to threaten to kill her if she wasn’t perfectly cooperative…”I had blinders on, I didn’t see an outlet, I didn’t have any support groups or anyone I could talk to about what I was going through. That’s the reason I stayed in it so long. Out of fear.” And not surprisingly, after years of abuse by the men in her life, Vinson had begun doubting that there could be any other way to live. “You begin to accept what’s happening to you,” she reflected, “even though you know in your heart it’s not right.”

 

explain feminism (re its just a joke)

We need to spread the word about sexism…how small comments contribute to the larger picture of violence against women. We need to continue to speak-up and share our stories. It is important that we raise other women’s stories up. We need to take charge and speak out for women that have been so beaten down, that they cannot speak for themselves. And we need to raise awareness about how sexist dialogue, like the comment my Professor made, contributes to a sexist social climate and the larger culture of violence against women.

Vinson discovered that the abuses she endured violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal to discriminate against employees on the, “basis of sex.” Vinson argued that she had been forced to work in a “hostile environment” and ended up winning her case. Vinson put her time, and her reputation on the line; she changed our “professional reality,” and illustrated that we do have the power to create change. 

Juliet Holme WS ‘16

The Traffic in Robot Women

GREAT NEWS~~~ !
In a wonderful turn of events, humans have decided to engineer robots in the image of woman. Yes!!! Score!!! We need more representations of women in the tech industry… even if in robot form…
But alas, fair reader, it seems that rather than produce a “woman” robot with the look of an actual human woman— you know, like, a human woman who, in the event of an apocalypse, might not bother to carry a makeup bag around with her— we have decided to reproduce and embody our cultural biases and constructions of female beauty onto these “women” robots. Yes!!! Score!!
Oh wait, this is a huge bummer and just one more reason for me to not get out of bed in the morning.
But really, with Donald Drumpf (#makedonalddrumpfagain), a front-running presidential candidate, seriously contending that women should be “punished” for getting an abortion, can any of us handle much more? Also, how can society be moving simultaneously backward (back alley abortions are about to become new again!) and forward (we’re making robots…) yet somehow managing to enforce sexist bullshit within the context of both our regressions and our advancements… ?

I digress.

Let’s talk robots!

The Traffic in Robot Women
As Gayle Rubin so aptly describes in her landmark work “The Traffic in Women,” women are subject to “a systematic social apparatus which takes up females as raw materials and fashions domesticated women as products” (Rubin 158). Rubin wrote this in 1975, and while we may find it to be somewhat less accurate in this day and age, (keyword: somewhat. It’s true, many U.S. women no longer feel we must be domestic housewives! Wow… progress!!!) U.S. society continues to “[take] up females as raw materials” and fashion them into ~~WOMEN~~… often still “domesticated” in other ways (is shaving your legs a choice if you feel like less of woman when you don’t do it?)

Yes, as famed theorist Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious… reality known as femininity” (de Beauvoir 148). What constitutes femininity? Well, all we must now do to understand this is take a gander at the “women” robots that are being constructed. Take Sophia, for example (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0_DPi0PmF0).

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Homegirl’s got permanently plucked, perfectly shaped eyebrows and a bit of eyeliner to boot! This video, posted on CNBC’s YouTube channel, is actually titled “Hot Robot At SXSW Says She Wants To Destroy Humans” … … … Because this machine has been molded in the form of a woman, CNBC has dubbed it “Hot”. I almost have no words! Almost.

All things considered, I don’t really mind some plucked eyebrows. If my physical form was going to be eternalized, I’d probably prefer some sculpted brows. Yes, society in its consequences is real and we are all subject to those consequences. Sophia, however, is not the worst of the bunch. Let’s have a look at Bina48!

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Another “woman” robot— this time, a woman of color, which is pretty rad!— But… innovators, engineers, whoever is responsible for Bina48’s design… help me understand this robot’s eye shadow and mascara! Her straightened, highlighted, salon-style haircut.

In a 2014 public dialogue between Black trans activist Laverne Cox and famed Black feminist scholar bell hooks, hooks questioned Cox about her overtly feminine appearance; she problematized Cox’s perceived submission to and affirmation of a white supremacist patriarchal male gaze through her aesthetic presentation. Cox responded:

I think the important thing to remember for me is that a lot of trans women do not embrace this kind of femininity. A lot of trans women don’t wear high heels and don’t wear make up… This trans woman does(!)… Am I feeding into the patriarchal gaze with my blond wigs?… If I’m embracing a patriarchal gaze with this presentation, it’s the way that I’ve found something that feels empowering. (The New School. “bell hooks and Laverne Cox in a Public Dialogue at The New School.” Online video clip. YouTube. 13 October 2014. Web.)

Cox went on to describe her experimentation with multiple aesthetics, including androgynous and masculine ones. The point here is— Cox feels empowered by straight blond hair and high heels— and she rocks that shit! Bina48 could hypothetically also be empowered by such a look… But Cox also acknowledges that not all trans women (or cis women) will feel empowered by embracing femininity. So… there is nothing inherently wrong with a feminine-looking robot! The real problem arises when the only “women” robots we see are ones that embody the same version of feminine beauty that Cox embodies.

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The larger question that emerges is: Why must we perpetuate limited notions about women’s bodies even within this robotic context…? Is there something we’re trying to achieve here? (I’ll return to this later) Or are we simply failing to examine such designs critically?

When we create “women” robots whose faces are permanently made-up, we effectively send the message that the “default” woman is one who wears makeup, one who invests extra time and care into her outward appearance, one who cannot simply exist in her natural human form— but instead, must necessarily alter that form. If you think this sounds ridiculous, take a moment to picture a “man” robot in your mind. What do you see?

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Maybe something like this Japanese-made android, whose face is modeled after… you guessed it! A “natural” male form. This rendering of “natural,” however, is truly evocative of a relatively un-altered human face. (Where that mascara at, tho???) It’s true, one could argue that he looks like a classic anime hero (floppy hair, perfect skin) but his appearance is not nearly as made up as his counterpart. Now, let’s have a look at her:

This “woman” robot is gendered accordingly. A hair clip, mascara, thinner eyebrows, pinker lips…

I honestly shouldn’t be so surprised, right? By and large, society operates under a strict gender binary which assigns various roles and dictates certain actions and behaviors to individuals based upon sex assignment at birth. We still live in a world where “man is defined as a human being and woman is defined as a female” (qtd. in Freeman 226). This is true of our human experience, so why wouldn’t we, situated within that experience, also situate our robots within that gendered Hell?

Just like we gender real women and girls, we have now taken the leap and are imposing these processes on robot forms. We are reproducing the idea of “man = default” and “woman = other” in robots. But it’s probably not such a big deal… I’m probably just mad about this because I’m a woman, right? (:

***
Is there something we’re trying to achieve here?

Cathy J. Cohen, in her work “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens” discusses a hierarchical society in which “the systematic relationship among forms of domination [requires] the creation and maintenance of exploited, subservient, marginalized classes [as] a necessary part of… the economic configuration” (Cohen 442).

So… why must we perpetuate limited notions about women’s bodies even within this robotic context? It’s because we are creating a new “exploited, subservient” workforce— and we want this workforce to be female. These robots are being made in the image of women because society is accustomed to women being subjected to submissive, subservient roles. Indeed, these two qualities are hallmarks of traditional femininity!

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Who could be better to order around than a woman? I mean, a robot. A woman robot.

Julie Wosk, in her 2015 work My Fair Ladies, points to our long history of creating robots in the image of woman. Referencing a 1949 film, she notes:

[The protagonist] calls the robot a perfect woman… because ‘she does what she is told, she can’t talk, can’t eat.’ This obedient creature is just want men want. When given verbal commands, Olga [the robot] walks, sits, and even allows men to take off most of her clothes at bedtime down to her sexy but mechanistic-looking undergarments (Wosk 137).

It seems that we (and by we, I mean dominant powers… who could that be?) have been fantasizing about creating the perfect robotic woman for a long while… On the topic of sex, Wosk writes: “[Olga] may not be used sexually in the film, but she can easily be touched” (Wosk 137). Some contemporary films take robotic sexualization even further.

This is Ava, the robotic protagonist of the 2015 film Ex_Machina:

ex-machina-photo-54f70b242b031

The plot of the film revolves around Ava’s creator bringing in a layman computer coder, Caleb, to spend time with Ava. At the end of a week, Caleb must tell Ava’s creator whether or not he feels that Ava has consciousness. Ava, trapped in a room and yearning to see the outside world, ends up using her feminine (robot) wiles to seduce Caleb into helping her escape. Basically, she must flirt with a man to attain freedom… As Shelagh Rowan-Legg writes in a critique of the film:

Ava, a robot designed as a woman, has the only option of using her programmed sexuality to escape from her prison. Sadly, too often in film, a female robot (as, well, so many female characters) is assigned sexuality and used as an object of sexual desire as opposed to male (or male-voiced) robots, which are used as representatives of the future of artificial intelligence that will surpass humans.

Indeed, if this were a film about a “man” robot, would anyone expect one of his most important assets to be his functioning dick? Because, yes, I have yet to mention that Ava is revealed to have a functioning vagina. As her creator tells Caleb mid-way through the film: “You bet she can fuck.”

If Ava was a “man” robot, would we see his escape route engineered at the hands of a horny computer-coding woman? Would the story of a “man” robot revolve around his ability to convincingly flirt with a woman? Probably not, right? Wouldn’t that be strange… If a “man” robot only mattered in relation to WOMEN??

And on the topic of functioning vaginas in robots, Ex_Machina is not just fiction… sex dolls and “women” robots are converging in real life. One aspiring sex robot creator, Matt McMullen, proclaims: “We’re focusing on ways to incorporate emerging technologies with what I’ve already done with [my brand of sex] dolls. The hope is to create something that will actually arouse someone on an emotional, intellectual level beyond the physical” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLVOnVsLXqw).                                                                                           Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 7.14.09 PM
Another video poses the question: “Will Sex Robots Make Real Women Obsolete?”

Apparently, all women are really good for is sex (: Ha…

You know, on second thought, scrap this blog post. Let them eat robots. I mean cake. I mean— let them make sex robots. Let them make “women” robots in whatever damn form they please. And if those robots make me, as a woman, “obsolete” to any men, let those men be satisfied with their robot slaves. I just worry for them when the robo-pocalypse begins, ya feel me?

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But in all seriousness, I know I can’t stop the wealthy dudes of the world from trying to craft sex robots or “women” robots complete with permanent eye shadow and lipstick. At the end of the day, they’ve got money and they’ve got their (often super creepy— Matt McMullen, wtf?) laboratories and they’re going to do what they want, or what they think will make them money.

And anyway… what if they were modeling “women” robots after a diverse range of women? What if sex robots were crafted to resemble human women who have just woken up in the morning, make-up-free with messy hair and pimples that come and go? Would any of that be better? Or does the real problem exist in something else? Like the fact that sex robots almost certainly would make them money? Or the fact that we, as a society, are taking the objectification of women to a new and improved(!!), even more horrifyingly literal level.

But so what though, right? If you’re asking, “so what?” I invite you to contemplate a different world with me. Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 12.26.04 PM

Instead of factories full of headless, naked, doll-like female forms, imagine headless, flawless, naked silicone male forms. Their arms and hands pressed backward to position against a bed or wall. Imagine— instead of a wall decorated with disembodied breasts, a wall filled with eight different varieties of big, hairless, penises— all different colors to please any customer’s taste. Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 12.28.36 PM.png

Does such a world seem unimaginable? If so, I ask that we contemplate one final thing.

Why is it so obviously imaginable, so unsurprising, that women’s bodies are being molded in parts, tided up, handled and exchanged? Is it because we are so used to the idea of women being trafficked that we have gone numb? Or because, as Rubin points out, our kinship system has historically been based on the exchange of women between men, (daughter becomes wife) so it just seems normal to see men trading female bodies between them? If we can’t imagine a wall of dicks hanging behind the man pictured above, is it because we would never reduce a “man” robot to his robotic sexual organs?

To all the Matt McMullens of the world— if you succeed in making a “woman” robot that you want to fuck, how can you be sure she’ll want to fuck you? Will you care? Or is your ultimate goal to make something that looks just like a (porn star) woman but:

can’t

say

no?