Category Archives: Commentary

The Brazen Optimism of “Girl Rising”

girlrisingWe parked a few minutes before the viewing was scheduled to start and hustled towards the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, WI. Two members of the group did not yet have tickets to see the documentary Girl Rising, so they made their way to the end of the long box office line snaking around the building. In the other “line,” groups of tweens and teenaged girls pushed their way to the front with chaperons assertively pushing after them.

I had a hard time keeping my cool in the chaotic crowd, but I felt grateful at the end of the film that all those young people had watched the movie. I hoped they felt inspired as I did, possible, I think, because of the film’s bold optimism and omission of some dark details.

Richard E. Robbins’s Girl Rising succeeded aesthetically and narratively and in promoting its theme that educating girls will make the world a better place — for everyone. Girl Rising featured the stories of nine girls from nine different developing countries and (in most cases) overcoming their plights towards education.

Each of the girls shared their experiences with an author from their home country, who in turn interpreted the stories with a unique voice. These are not face-to-face interviews à la traditional documentaries, there’s reenactment, dream sequences, and animation on top of the lovely narratives.

Artistic shots captured the details of the landscapes each girl called home and the lines and details of their faces. (Alert: Spoilers ahead.)

Ruksana’s family in Kolkata, India manages to stay in the city to send three girls to school even though they live in a makeshift house on the pavement. She is a budding artist whose father bares the expense to buy her art supplies. The footage of her story is overlain with fantastical animations of a blue monkey and flowers that reflect the art in her notebook.

The stories feature obstacles that the girls overcome to attend school, and throughout the entire film we see poetry, song, art, and even physics embraced by the girls as survival tactics. My favorite character, Senna of La Rinconada, Peru, turns to poetry after the death of her father, and begins to write her own. Her father named her after the title character in the television show “Xena: Warrior Princess.

Bravery and fortitude also run through the various stories of the nine featured girls. The stories of two, kept anonymous through name changes and actress portrayals, demonstrated strength but touched on the tough themes of rape, youth marriage, and early motherhood. Yasmin’s story in which she defends herself against assault is told via animation, where she takes on a superhero persona. We see Amina as a neglected girl child, who gives birth when she is still a child herself.

The stories of these girls ends with an almost brazen optimism that I bought into, because I became wrapped up in the story. And yet, as I left the theatre, I felt sad for all the stories of Yasmin and Amina that ended with a flourish of hope but unconcluded stories.

The Girl Rising website offers a follow-up to each of the girls, and Yasmin’s and Amina’s next steps cast a shadow on the hopeful sheen of the movie: “…despite our partner NGOs efforts to enroll [13-year-old] Yasmin in literacy classes, Yasmin’s mother considered a marriage proposal to be a more secure investment in her daughter’s future,” reads the website.

This video was well crafted to uplift (as evidenced in the title, Girl Rising). It also conveys the remaining problems for girls throughout the world, albeit with a glossy, optimistic over layer. It ended with a call to mobilize, and I hoped the young girls in the audience got the message: appreciate your education, it’s a right we all deserve but don’t all have access to.

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International Women’s Day and VAWA Converge, Illuminating Progress and Struggles Towards Gender Equity

Credit: Dominik GwarekOn the eve of International Women’s Day – March 7 – President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act into law. And on March 8, folks around the world celebrated women’s achievements and ongoing struggle towards equality.

I find myself puzzling over the fact that there is no Violence Against Men Act, nor popular observance of International Men’s Day in the U.S. What does this inconsistency say about the genders? We’re not equal, but we’re trying?

The reauthorization, which first passed in 1994 with bipartisan support under President Clinton, recognizes to some extent the problems of domestic violence and sexual assault which disproportionately affect women. VAWA reauthorization did not pass easily this time around, and it got tabled a year ago amid bipartisan bickering over added provisions for Native American, LGBT, and immigrant victims. Those provisions made it into the now-law.

The VAWA reauthorization provides needed funding and services to victims of violence but doesn’t ultimately address the cultures of violence, the reasons women are often victimized, and why acts like rape continue to take place in high numbers throughout the world.

International Women’s Day derived from women’s labor struggles, which persist today. In a Christian Science Monitor article, Steph Solis quotes Carol Rosenblatt’s concern about the factory fires in Bangladesh that killed many female garment workers to demonstrate that women still work for low wages in poor conditions. In addition to freedom from violence and access to fair wages and work conditions, women around the world still fight for equal access from food and clean toilet facilities to maternal health care and parental leave after birth.

In the Guardian, a somewhat sour Suzanne Moore describes International Women’s Day events as, “a strange mixture of talking about female genital mutilation (bad) and then listening to some great women musicians (good).” Both of the Christian Science Monitor’s stories about the international celebration opened with descriptions of the Doodles designed for the day on the Google homepage (one of which makes the G out of the Venus symbol). I’m not sure of the value of Google’s recognition of the day, though it likely promotes awareness to those unfamiliar with the holiday.

Folks throughout the world celebrate International Women’s Day with different practices, some women get time off work, or additional help with housework from the men in their lives. This year in the U.S. women can take the day to appreciate ongoing support for victims of violence though the sentiment remains bittersweet – because the VAWA law and International Women’s Day serve as landmarks towards gender equity which inadvertently highlight the broad disparities that remain between men and women.

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Gender in Star Wars and Other Media

11212012StarWars-jpg_180602In January, the universe brought my attention to the convergence of two things: the Star Wars sequels and the Bechdel Test. I’ve known of Star Wars for a while (like most of us with a pulse), but the Bechdel Test shed new light for me on the popular series and all the other media I have consumed or will consume in the future.

The Bechdel Test serves as a tool to measure female representation in the media. I often notice when movies and television shows present one-dimensional female characters. And while I’m happy to suspend my disbelief for various fantasies of fictive media, I like for those fictions to represent both women and men.

The Bechdel Test has been around since the year I entered this earth (1985), created by comic artist Alison Bechdel. It’s a sequence of three questions:

  1. Are there more than two women [in a particular piece of media]?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. About something other than a man?

The first reference to this came from the video game website IGN, in an article titled “Why Star Wars: Episode VII Should Have a Female Protagonist.” Author Lucy O’Brien makes a strong case for the forthcoming Star Wars sequels to feature a female hero. She applies the Bechdel test to Star Wars, and it does not pass all three stages. In fact, Princess Leia, the fairly tough female lead, doesn’t have other women to talk with and she plays a secondary role to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. O’Brien boils her argument down to a simple statement, “girls need heroes too.”

A TED talk that narrowly preceded O’Brien’s commentary features a father, Colin Stokes, as he discusses, “How movies teach manhood.” Stokes also draws on the Bechdel Test to critique Star Wars. Rather than arguing for a new female protagonist, Stokes suggests that a lack of female characters is bad for boys too. In a world in which men and women work together in a variety of circumstances, says Stokes, movies should reflect the cooperative nature of the genders today.

Like these critical fans, I too am looking forward to Star Wars, hoping to see enough tough women (with the men) to pass the Bechdel Test.

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Affordable, dependable childcare – A right worth fighting for

In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration (Article 3.1, Convention on the Rights of the Child).

My nephew On January 10, parents at a Chicago daycare center located in a Social Security Administration building learned they had until April to find new accommodations for their children. On February 1, parents learned that the provider of the daycare services was closing at least two classrooms, containing over 30 children, within a week. Wait lists for childcare in Chicago extend to 6 months or longer.

The two bodies making the decisions about Windy City Kids child care center include the federal Social Security Administration and their contractors, Easter Seals, who runs the Windy City Kids center. In full disclosure, my niece and nephew attend this school, and I’ve learned about these issues through my sister.

My sister, her husband, and the nearly 100 parents of other children at Windy City Kids child care have not taken this news sitting down. They have mobilized politically and electronically, sharing their story with local Chicago media and politicians. They have spent hours writing letters and speaking with elected officials.

Several parents echo the sentiment that  the decisions surrounding the closure of the center seem to have been made with no consideration for the children who spend their weekdays there, playing, building and maintaining friendships, and learning.

In a 1998 Memorandum, then-President Bill Clinton called for higher standards at federal day cares, including a requirement for accreditation of all contracted day care centers and background checks for workers therein.

In an early story that aired on ABC, Doug Nguyen, Chicago spokesman for the Social Security Administration made a statement that they, “reviewed all aspects of the operation of the child care center and made a business decision to close it effective April 8, 2013. Given SSA’s tight budget situation, we continue to make choices.”

In follow-up communication with parents the SSA elaborated on problems with the contractor not following the requirements laid out by Clinton in 1998. When Easter Seals continued to fail to fully comply with background checks and accreditation requirements, among others, the SSA opted to close the center, rather than replace the contractors.

The subsequent decision to “collapse” classrooms in the second week of February came by letter from Easter Seals, informing parents that the daycare provider will continue removing or combining classes as teachers take other positions. So classes may be closed at any time before April 8, as the organization dismantles this branch of their service.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child codifies international standards in decisions that affect children. “The best interests of the children shall be a primary consideration,” states the convention, which the United States signed onto.  Congress has not ratified the convention, so the United Nations cannot hold us accountable.

But my sister and the other parents at Windy City Kids have taken it upon themselves to hold the Social Security Administration and Easter Seals accountable for those decisions, which have a direct impact on their children. And still many of their questions and requests remain unanswered.

The parents are still posting testimonials and circulating a petition to save their school. Some of the kids have grown up in the program from infancy, and others may have to leave before spending a full year in the program.

This sudden transition will be no doubt be difficult for the children and parents involved. The parents will soldier forward pursuing every avenue to save the program, because their right to reliable childcare and their children’s right to due consideration are certainly worth fighting for.

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Veteran Appreciation, and some of the struggles they face

On a domestic flight a few years ago I sat next to a friendly man dressed in Army fatigues. We chatted a little, then I tried to absorb myself in my book. But I couldn’t, because I felt too cold. So the soldier next to me shared his coat, and I accepted it, despite my pride.

At the time I felt very awkward about how to act towards men and women in the service, and I maintain mixed feelings about US military policies. When I shared an armrest with that nice soldier on the plane, I kept seeing flashes of all the policy and news reports about the war in Iraq, rather than fully engaging with the individual next to me. I wished I had thanked him for his service as well has his coat.

Now that I’m several years older (and maybe a little wiser) I better appreciate that soldier’s generosity in risking his life in the line of duty. But I worry that the US doesn’t have the tools to support returning soldiers. I didn’t previously consider veterans a minority or vulnerable population, but in some respects they are both. People in the active military in the US make up about 1 percent of the population, and veterans make up about 7 percent of the population (as of 2010). As for their vulnerability, some veterans return home injured (physically and/or mentally), and those who aren’t injured still have to deal with the stigma and suspicion of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The departure of US troops from Afghanistan has raised a number of issues for veterans here at home, especially in job searches. They struggle to find work, in part because their military credentials do not always transfer to civilian credentials. John Stewart on the Daily Show posed mock interviews for two medics with heroic credentials. Neither of them hold certificates or degrees to officially qualify them to serve as a school nurse – and yet both saved lives of fellow soldiers and received the sufficient medical training to do so.

Michelle Obama is among many others in the US in running initiatives to serve the military personnel who served us. The New York Times just posted a story outlining the growth of organizations that support veterans, suggesting that perhaps that the US can’t handle any more such groups. At least there is activity in that realm.

The US is faced with a growing, though small population of servicemen and women who deserve a fair shot in the job market and appreciation from the government and civilians they served.

Thank you to those who served and those still serving.

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Adult Witnesses of Child Abuse Held Accountable

On my parents anniversary a few weeks ago they reminisced about trying to secure a particular Catholic officiate at their wedding.  But the priest they selected was not permitted by his superiors to oversee a half-Catholic wedding, and besides, Ron Voss was already in trouble in the diocese for violating traditional practices like hosting mass in someone’s house.

The irony of the story, my parents continued, was that this priest’s most offensive act did not face sufficient punishment from the church. He molested children, and the church’s solution to the problem was to send him far away, to Haiti, where conflicting reports suggest Voss continued his abusive habits.

This anecdote from my parents revived an issue I’ve been mulling over since the Jerry Sandusky trial this summer. Protecting children from predators should be the understood responsibility of all adults. Standing by with knowledge of child abuse condones the crime and is criminal in and of itself. Within the unequal power dynamic of an abusive relationship, children cannot be expected to protect themselves from older, larger, and more influential figures in their lives who may try to hurt them.

The UN’s Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child (this is a human rights document) states that “The child shall be protected against all forms of neglect, cruelty and exploitation.” While the US helped draft this declaration we have not ratified it and are not held to the terms. But many states on their own, have passed legislation naming mandatory reporters who monitor for suspicious treatment of children. Florida just passed an act that “criminalizes failure to report child abuse” in the state.

Reporting charges of child abuse can be painful to pursue. I don’t doubt this. No institution — be it the Roman Catholic Church, the legendary football program at Penn State, or any other establishment — wants to set aside their mission and reputation to deal with a scandal. And no individual witness likely wants to challenge people they’ve previously respected with an accusation of molestation.   Taking responsibility for knowledge like that requires courage, and for those who don’t have the will-power to speak up, the judicial system has started to hold them responsible. 

While former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky already received a conviction for sexually abusing 10 boys,  other cases are pending around the people who may have known of Sandusky’s abuses; related allegations include failure to report and perjury. A report from Louis J. Freeh, director of the F.B.I., outlined that many support staff suspected the abuses and choose to silence concerns, rather than address them. This alleged evasion of confrontation allowed Sandusky to continue to abuse minors over the course of several years.

[In an interesting side note, a primary witness in the case against Sandusky, filed his own suit against the university. Mike McQueary, a former graduate assistant, claims that Penn State used him as a scapegoat, damaging his reputation. His testimony played an important role in the trial, though his subsequent strife illustrates why some may be reluctant to expose the crimes of superiors.]

The Sandusky trial wasn’t the only sexual abuse case to come out of Pennsylvania this summer. In July, a Catholic official, Monsignor William J. Lynn, was sentenced to 3-6 years for concealing sex abuses by priests. This trial marked the first conviction of a Roman Catholic official in the U.S.  — although charges of sexual abuse of minors in the catholic church arose frequently over the last few decades.

A petition through Change.org started circulating recently to address a parallel issue in a Kansas City, Missouri diocese. Bishop Robert Finn “shielded a pedophile priest,” reported the New York Times. And the author of the petition, Jeff Weis, wants the bishop to resign his post.

I don’t think this is a tall order, requesting the removal of someone convicted of protecting adult offenders over vulnerable children. The criminal justice system must be careful of newly criminalizing offences, but when it comes to child abuse someone must advocate for children.  That means expecting adults to take information they probably didn’t seek or desire and share it with authorities to prevent further abuse. If adult witnesses don’t take action, more and more children will be subject to the predation of abusers.

FYI: Jerry Sandusky faces sentencing this Tuesday, October 9.

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WI Girl Scouts Event Boasts New, Empowering Brand

I dove into a cold puddle of mud for the first time this weekend, and it was an invigorating experience. The One Tough Cookie mud run I participated in felt like the most positive female-oriented experience I’ve been part of for years. The 5K course with obstacles promoted camaraderie and health.

Equipped with a new logo (shaped like a dog tag with a Venus symbol on it)  and a brand promoting strength and toughness, the event had the ingredients necessary to empower. Two female National Guard members who served in Iraq designed the course. All participants were female and ranged in age from 14-year-old Girl Scouts to older adult leaders. And the event raised funds for Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Badgerland. While men manned parts of the course and cheered on participants, the female majority lent itself to a non-competitive and sisterly vibe.

At the start line an emcee pumping up participants reminded us to be patient if there were lines at the obstacles. “This is a not a race, it’s a challenge,” he told us. And that set a cooperative tone for the whole event. I ran with four other women, and we stayed together throughout the course, cheering for each other and the women we didn’t know. My friend who coordinated our team even boosted up a complete stranger who struggle to climb an inflated wall on the bounce house obstacle (imagine something from American Gladiators).

Saturday’s event marked the first annual mud run by the Girl Scouts in Wisconsin, and the event had a few hang-ups. The lines stretched long and moved slowly, but I take that as a testament to the popularity of the event. At the finish line, young scouts presented mud covered runners with boxes of cookies and dog tags. I thought the tags provided a perfect stand in for medals, with every participant receiving one.

There was one odd supporter that stood out to me. All participants over 21 received a free beer after the event, but rather than having the option of other beers on tap, the only available free beer was Michelob 64. I imagine Michelob banked on sharing their low-calorie variety with a swath of fit females.

I skipped the beer, but enjoyed the all-female band. And my favorite part — besides romping around with friends — was the nostalgia I felt for my time as a Girl Scout, tramping around the trails and fire pits of local scout campgrounds. I also loved embracing the mud, dirt, and scraped knees.

Photos courtesy of Jonas Hackett

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Women in the Olympics: Five Headlines

As a female athlete, sports fan, and inhabitant of this planet, I am pumped for the Olympics. They begin this evening. The media provided a good deal of anticipatory coverage, looking at  the games from many angles:  London weather, steroids, sponsorship agreements,  projected outcomes, and the list goes on and on. A few headlines about women in the games held my attention longer than the others:

  1. More women than men representing the US

The US will send more female than male athletes to the games for the first time this year. The female total reaches 269, eight more than the men on the roster.

  1. But not so in Saudi Arabia

This conservative country only recently lifted a ban on female participation in the Olympics. Keep in mind that women cannot legally drive in this country, and they’ve only recently been granted suffrage. They will vote in their first election in 2015. Sporting leagues for Saudi women often remain underground. Considering such barriers to athletic practices, it’s not surprising that the country has few athletes of Olympic caliber able to compete now that the ban is lifted. A conversation continues around Saudi Olympian Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and whether or not she can wear a headscarf during her judo competition.

  1. Ban lifted for women’s boxing

This will be the first year that female boxer’s will be able to compete in the Olympics. This sport held out as the last with no female counterpart until this year. Female boxers finally have the opportunity to demonstrate they have a place to fight in the ring, and not just ornament it as bikini-ed ring girls.

  1. Sexism remains

Not surprisingly, female athletes are still held to traditional standards of beauty. Regardless of the sport or skill, Olympians tend to get extra attention if they’re considered beautiful or hot. One article on the US women’s soccer team faced criticism for its focus on looks and disregard for skills. That article began, “All of a sudden, the Olympics have got sexy. Really sexy.”

  1. There are only two genders in the Olympics

While the beautiful and feminine athletes get attention for their looks, the less feminine athletes face scrutiny. South African sprinter Caster Semenya had her gender called into question in 2009. After a series of confidential sex verification tests, Semenya was found to have high levels of testosterone and submitted to “treatment” to place her on more equal footing with her female competitors.

Regardless of the controversies humming around women and the Olympics, I am looking forward to seeing weeks of gender balanced sports. I like watching men compete too, but this is the only time every two years when female athletes vie equally for international attention.

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Musings on Mustaches and Masculinities

I spent an afternoon mustached last weekend, and it was fun. At a beer festival in St. Paul, The House of Shandy handed out tattoos of thin ‘staches and furry adhesive ones in various styles. I donned “the smarty.”

I was curious to spend the afternoon with this symbol of masculinity across my face, though admittedly I was pretty far from masculine in my sun dress. My recent completion of a gender studies course in masculinity inspired the temporary transformation. And it was well received. I wasn’t the only person (woman or man) to wear the House of Shandy’s party favor, thus it became more of a playful accessory than a commentary on gender. Thirteen different men complimented my mustache. Some pretended to be jealous. Two women gave me positive feedback. I did get one confused query about where I got it and why I would wear it, but nothing hostile.

me (mustached) with my partner

But there is quite a difference between a satirical, temporary mustache on a female and a woman’s acceptance of her own natural facial hair. Rebecca Nieto makes this distinction in her piece “Hair Trigger,” in which she chronicles her own desire to remove upper lip her at age 12. She also examines the growth of mustache popularity in queer communities, versus its rise in hipster popularity.  If you don’t recognize society’s fierce protection of mustaches as a symbol of masculinity, check out this commercial for the prescription Vaniqa, a product intended to reduce women’s facial hair. In the commercial a beautiful, smooth-skinned woman’s voice drops to a baritone when discussing how her facial hair makes her feel manly, presumably a tragedy for any women trying to leave the house.

Some women, queer or not, have begun to let their – facial – hair down.  Not only is it liberating to free onself from the hassle of waxes, razors, or lasers, but it also sends the message that women can be women without perfectly smooth and hairless (dare I say prepubescent) bodies. Or, on the other hand, women can be choose to be a little masculine with their facial hair.

Gay men arguably took to mustaches as a way to confirm their masculinity in the 70s. R.W. Connell writes about the Castro Clone trend  in his book Masculinities. Gay men are often excluded from hegemonic (i.e. mainstream) masculinity because of their sexuality. By accessorizing as a tough, manly man (think Ron Swanson’s ‘stach), gay men affirmed their masculinity despite attempts to feminize them.

While I wore my temporary mustache I couldn’t help but consider the politics that center on these two to three square inches of hair. A hairy upper lip says a lot. And even though my experiment with it didn’t shock or shatter stereotypes, it’s fun to play with people’s perceptions. Nieto concludes, “With every imitation and copy, the mustache is warped, destabilized from being a symbol of purely masculine citizenship, and brought to a place of queer play.” And really, the mustache has only the power that we allow it. It remains a symbol of masculinity, but it doesn’t have to be confined to a male body.

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Battered, Pregnant, Looking for Ride

A woman on the street in downtown Madison asked me to help her find transport to a battered women’s shelter today. She was tired, articulate, and African American. She sought transportation to a shelter just south of Madison. The local domestic violence shelter was full. The local women’s shelter is open only at night and will not house people long-term. The buses don’t run that far out of the city. YWCA couldn’t help her either. She shared this sequence of setbacks with me, and the fact that she’s pregnant.

I wasn’t sure what to do to help, but I felt sympathetic. I know that it requires a great deal of courage to leave an abusive situation. I feared that if I didn’t help her find assistance, she would return to her abuser. So I called the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence and passed the phone along to the woman. I listened to her repeat: “I know, there’s just no funding.” She had already tried the suggestions I brainstormed on the spot. I was out of ideas. And I didn’t have a car.

So we talked about taking a cab, and between us we didn’t have enough money to pay for it — $35. She decided to panhandle for the balance, then take a cab when she could. She offered to exchange numbers so she could pay me back in the future, after she gets help, and a new job.

What she said when we parted really struck me, “I guess I shouldn’t have come to the city, as a minority, looking for help.”

Downtown Madison, Wisconsin

 * * *

I walked away from this experience feeling sad, helpless, and doubtful. This woman went everywhere I could think of for help, and they didn’t have the resources to assist her. I fear that she will fall through the cracks of an under-funded, well-intentioned system of advocacy organizations. But I hope she makes it to the shelter she set out for.

Any advocates out there recommend different options or suggestions for the future?

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