Men’s Rights Activists and Misdirected Hatred

by Carly Rhianna Smith

Carly Rhianna Smith is a journalism student at Langara College currently completing her practicum at The Tyee in Vancouver. 

I became aware of the men’s rights movement in September of 2012, when a friend showed me an upcoming debate called “Has Feminism Gone Too Far?”

Vancouver slam poet Ruth Mason-Paull organized the debate. Feminist speakers as well as men’s rights activist (MRA) speakers were scheduled, and a public event on Facebook was created. Interestingly, the debate was to be held on Commercial Drive at Café Deux Soleil, a neighbourhood eatery haunted by many feminists, as well as others of the political left.

The Facebook event exploded with venomous discourse between the two camps, and the event was cancelled. According to an article on feminist website Jezebel.com dated September 10, “Mason-Paull canceled the debate … after receiving what she said was an overwhelming barrage of comments and threats.” On Mason-Paull’s Facebook page, she said “I come from a middle class belief that people can discuss things and work it out through logic and reasoning. I understand that this is at best delusional when applied to certain members of our society.”

Around the same time, in the same neighbourhood, posters from the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM) Vancouver group began appearing, and were soon torn down. The posters said things like “Rape Culture. Men Can Stop Rape. All Men Are Rapists. Had Enough of This Shit Yet?”

 

Journalist Derek Bedry, who soon came under fire from MRAs, reported on this in a story on Open File. They accused him of “creating the news” by tearing down the posters himself. They posted pictures of a man (who didn’t look much like him) and publicly vilified him in comments on the article. Comments were patronizing, saying things like “So how did you become a reporter again Derek? Do you receive a pat on the back from some ladies at work for this? Or do they throw some more bones at you?” All this was too juicy and I did some further research into the MRM.

The most active website I came across was AVoiceForMen.com. They have over 1,200 featured articles separated into categories like “misandry,” “sexual politics,” and “feminism.” They also put out radio shows on a multitude of topics pertaining to the MRM.

But what, exactly, do they stand for? And what do they hope to accomplish?

 

At best, the MRAs look to correct what they see as a series of social injustices directed towards men in a society that caters to female dominance. At worst, they are misguided, angry people with a chip on their shoulder using feminism as a scapegoat for the problems they face in their lives.

“You have a group in a privileged position in society and they’re claiming to be the victim; it’s either a strategic maneuver or else it’s just a misguided perspective,” says Nicole Deagan, a member of The F Word feminist media collective. Deagan encountered a lot of resistance from MRAs when she worked as a legal advocate for women who were going through the court system in the 1990s. “Either it’s people who have power and are uncomfortable with the idea of losing their power or they’re uncomfortable with somebody who’s typically not had power trying to get some. Or else it’s individuals, especially in the men’s rights movement, who are suffering injustices as individuals and they interpret it as a systemic issue,” she says.

The Vancouver Men’s Rights Activism website states in its FAQ: “The MRM is a true civil rights movement, which entertains no goals of removal of the legal rights of others. Both men and women are members of the men’s movement, which recognizes and works to address the real struggles men now face.” To them, this is in contrast to feminism, which “is now elitist, and prejudiced against men” because “many mainstream feminist organizations define masculinity in their public literature as hostile, violent and oppressive.”

The main antagonist of the MRM is feminism. “I’m of the firm belief that, while no society is perfect, we have pursued, and I think achieved, as much sexual parity as could possibly be hoped for in western culture,” says Paul Elam, creator of A Voice For Men. “If there is systemic discrimination against women, I would certainly stand up and speak against it if anyone could show me where it was. However, what I see in terms of systemic discrimination anymore works against men.”

 

MRAs are fighting against misandry, the fear or hatred of men and boys. A lot of MRM literature uses examples of men being irrationally feared as sexual aggressors, female-on-male violence not being taken seriously, and the court system’s favoritism of women to illustrate their point. The problem with their approach is that they frequently cite anecdotal evidence to back up their claims, yet provide either no or blatantly false empirical evidence or statistics to back them up.

Many MRAs, such as Vancouver resident Chris Marshall, seem to have become involved in the movement due to a personal hardship. Marshall runs the website A Father’s Story, which documents his custody battle with his wife, who lives in Alberta with their 11-year-old son. The website, to say the least, does not seem to be working in his favour. He has continued posting despite being ordered by a judge to take the site down, saying in a post, “It is still up because it is the only tool I have to get people to understand the 10-year nightmare that I have been through in the Alberta courts.” He posted his entire psychological assessment, in which Dr. J. Thomas Dalby states: “Mr. Marshall has shown, by his past actions, a sense of entitlement that he feels he has the natural right to construct access to his child in the way he sees fit in spite of legal restrictions. He has seen the consequences of this casual disregard of legal boundaries and his conduct can only be described as self-defeating.”

In an interesting turn of events, Marshall was to co-host a new debate after the first one at Café Deux Soleil was cancelled. John H., MRA blogger at A Voice For Men named only as “John The Other,” would also host. I intended to attend the debate and interview some of the MRAs in person. It was going to be held at the car dealership in East Vancouver, CC Motors, of which Marshall was the manager. I showed up not realizing this, and walked around in confusion, looking for the master debaters. I could see signage out in front of the dealership being taken down but not much other activity. I asked someone and they told me, “The guy who was supposed to run it never showed up.”

I found on the Facebook event page that police had escorted Marshall off the premises and that his position at the dealership had been terminated due to an entirely separate issue. I got his contact information from his website, and he seemed eager, if not overly so, to share his story with me. He expressed worry in our conversation that I was going to “use him” to get to other MRAs and defame their movement. After some reassurance, we arranged an interview time.

I showed up at the coffee shop we’d arranged to meet at 10 minutes early. I waited for him for over 45 minutes and placed several calls to him that remained unanswered and unreturned. He later replied to one of the emails I sent him, but never got back to me about re-scheduling an interview. This was perturbing; isn’t their goal to have their voices and points of view heard by the public? The opportunity was there and gone.

I soon found that MRAs are an elusive bunch outside of the realms of the internet. I managed to get ahold of Paul Elam after several emails over the course of two weeks or so. He admitted to me that the only reason he ever called me back was because I was “so persistent.” I also attempted to contact John The Other through the website, through Paul Elam, and through Facebook, to no answer.

This seems to be an MRA tactic – they control what information they’re putting out and the slant with which it’s communicated. If they don’t cooperate with media, then there is less of a chance of media scrutiny. In many articles, media has been unkind to MRAs, but this has been as much their own undoing as anything else.

Firstly, to get to the heart of the matter, a majority of claims made by MRAs are false. In a video made by Men’s Rights Edmonton, they say, “Women and men initiate domestic violence at similar rates. Over 250 scholarly studies demonstrate that women are as physically aggressive or more aggressive than men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners.” This assertion is widely purported in the MRA community. Notice that the “scholarly studies” are not named, nor are they cited anywhere. Another poster put up on Commercial Drive in September said, “Stop Violence Against Women. But not against men. Because men do not matter, and despite being more often the victims of violence, male victims are no good for fund raising, so screw them.” However, according to Statistics Canada, “In 2010, 7 in 10 (70%) victims of police-reported family violence were girls or women. Looking at rates, the risk of becoming a victim of police-reported family violence was more than twice as high for girls and women as it was for boys and men … The main factor behind females’ increased risk of family violence is related to their higher representation as victims of spousal violence. Women aged 15 years and older accounted for 81% of all spousal violence victims.” In addition, the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project says in its Clemency Manual, “Currently, there are approximately 2,000 battered women in America who are serving prison time for defending their lives against their batterers. As many as 90% of the women in prison today for killing men had been battered by those men.”

MRAs make claims that sound true or based in fact, when in actuality, they’re based on assumption, anecdotal evidence, or a complete misunderstanding of the issue. “Domestic violence against women is much more likely than domestic violence against men to be life-threatening,” says Jarrah Hodge, who runs the blog Gender Focus. “If MRAs want to address violence against men they should also look at male violence against men and address the stereotypes and pressures that unfortunately tells many men that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict and necessary to prove masculinity.”

Most perturbing are their claims regarding sexual violence. In the “Facts” section on A Voice For Men, they claim “Men are the overwhelming majority of rape victims.” However, none of the following statistics they present prove that. All the statistics have to do with the percentage of female aggressors in cases of child abuse, correctional facilities, or the inmates who report prison rape. These are all misleading. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, nine out of every 10 rape victims were female in 2003, while SexAssault.ca statistics show the over 80 per cent of sex crime victims in Canada are women.

Even more dangerous are their attitudes toward rape and rape culture. John The Other was quoted in Bedry’s Open File article as saying, “Maybe it’s a mistaken accusation, she doesn’t remember who she had sex with because she was drunk at the party or whatever. Some make accusations that have nothing to do with being raped; they’re angry, or they got stood up, they wanted to have sex with a guy but he said no. The fact that our society doesn’t have a balance for this is a major problem. I’m not suggesting every woman you meet is a loose cannon, but every woman you meet has the potential to be one, because for those few who are nutty, there’s no disincentive for them to go, oh, I was late for work. I know, I’ll just say I got raped.” This is speculative and revealing that, while MRAs say they are not anti-women, their attitudes are misogynistic at the core. The belief that women can and will falsely accuse men of rape in order to further their own ends is another symptom of the rape culture that MRAs claim does not exist.

“[They] definitely seem to see feminists as enemies. And so these men are in a position of power but are rallying people against their supposed ‘oppressors’. But since those aren’t real oppressors with real social power then it just ends up feeding into the same discrimination that women experience already,” says Deagan.

The clash between feminists and MRAs is tempestuous. “In my experience, their approach is quite reactionary as opposed to pro-active; I find they are more interested in smear campaigns against feminism rather than making a case for issues they think are important to men,” says Megan Karius, who maintains the Feminist Edmonton website. “They generally blame feminism for what they consider men’s issues and that ultimately detracts from their arguments.”

There seems to be a group of them that are quite vocal and quite aggressive so when they see something, specifically when they see women’s activists or anyone who’s trying to look at women’s issues, they kind of come in for the attack and so it’s very hard to have a reasonable conversation,” says Deagan.

I recognize that patriarchy is not only oppressive to women, but functions to oppress men as well. The term “patriarchy” is not some sort of imputation against all men, identifying them as oppressors of all women. Patriarchy is an institution; it functions at the cultural level and, while it does avail men with privilege, this does not mean that males are not also detrimentally impacted by patriarchy,” writes Jasmine Peterson in an article on the blog Gender Focus. This spurred a mocking, hateful response video from MRAs. The background of the video is a photo of someone in a gorilla mask with superimposed text that reads “Feminist sans makeup.” The men read her entire post in a mocking tone and present their own unsubstantiated facts, then go on to invite people to attack her.

The ones who have engaged me have generally taken one of two approaches: outright hostility and total dismissal of feminists as “cunts” or “feminazis” who are bent on bringing down men, or arguing more civilly that they don’t believe feminism is necessary because, in their view, society actually discriminates against men,” said Hodge.

They are just the latest trend in the ongoing backlash to the gains of the feminist movement we’ve seen in the past few decades.  While individual men may face structural inequality due to other aspects of their identity, such as race, class, sexual orientation, or ability, they still derive privilege from being male; I think the majority of MRAs are reacting to seeing some of their previously unquestioned privilege eroded and they are threatened by that,” says Karius.

One begins to wonder whether MRAs hate feminists, or are just rattled by women asserting themselves and challenging traditional modes of behaviour. Elam believes that the over-sexualization of women in the media is simply “recognizing women’s sexual power in this culture. Their sexual power gives them access to men economically.” He says that “sexuality generates a lot of financial generosity in men,” and some women are not only aware of this, but use it to their advantage. “We’ve been skewed by feminist ideology – we don’t see the power women have in our society,” he says. For how often MRAs accuse feminists of misandry, it’s incredibly ironic when they rely on arguments such as this one.  That statement is more insulting to men than anything feminists could come up with,” says Karius.

All this is not to say MRAs don’t have any valid claims. “We can and should absolutely talk about how our rigidly gendered society hurts men, but we can’t stop talking about the ways that women have been unequal and the ways in which women still suffer because of their gender,” says Hodge.

The issues MRAs have qualms with are basically class or social issues and have little to do with gender.

As feminism continues to be misrepresented and seen as some sort of hate movement, the goals feminists pursue become all the more relevant.

I think attacks by Men’s Rights Activists can be distracting from the issues and campaigns we’re involved in around women’s equality. It’s frustrating but I think most people who look at the issues can see MRAs tend to be pretty out-of touch,” says Hodge.

That being said, when I was waiting for Marshall’s interview, a man noticed I had been waiting for someone with a notebook and recorder and asked me about it. 

“I’m going to interview someone for an article,” I said.

“Who? And what is it about?” he asked

“I’m writing an article about the men’s rights movement,” I replied.

“Men’s rights! Ha! That’s a laugh! There’s no such thing these days!” he said as he walked off, guffawing.

Their attitudes may be outdated and misinformed, but many men agree with them. Examining gender inequality equipped with the wrong information can lead to some very troubling conclusions. MRAs create such noise in their political lobbying that they are bound to influence change. For example, a group called RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting) claims they have blocked four federal domestic violence bills in the United States. These are not the first legal implications MRAs have had, nor will they be the last if MRAs are taken seriously and feminism continues to be painted in a negative light. 

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Representations of Chief Theresa Spence in News Media

by Caity Goerke 

Since Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat began hunger striking on December 11th, Canadian journalists have shared their many opinions on Chief Spence, her actions, and Indigenous activism in Canada. Well insightful and empowering accounts of Chief Spence’s activism certainly exist, dominant Canadian news media has discovered a plethora of ways to discredit, trivialize, and silence her. Taking note of the general way that media has failed to adequately represent Chief Spence and her actions (or the ways that Canadians have failed to demand fairer media), I began to recognize that the representations of Chief Spence reflects a larger picture of inadequate and harmful representations of Indigenous people.

In her essay, “Sacajawea and Her Sisters: Images and Native Women,” Gail Guthrie Valaskakis* discusses contradictory constructions used to represent Indigenous women and explains that

these contradictory images of Indian women continue to objectify and degrade… and neither the romanticized Indian princess nor the primitive squaw allows newcomers to identify Indians as equals, as owners of this land, as Native North Americans with homes, families, jobs, and indigenous governments.” (pg. 149)

While arguments could certainly be made to show how representations of Chief Spence oscillate between “princess” and “squaw” constructions (such as the ways in which she’s represented as a revolutionary leader in contrast with suggestions that she’s selfish, unreasonable, and badly behaved), what stood out in my investigation of news coverage about her strike was the ways in which she has become a part of a larger narrative that refuses to “identify Indians as equals, as owners of this land, as Native North Americans with homes, families, jobs, and indigenous governments.” Instead of recognizing these things, mainstream news coverage regarding Chief Spence ignores her cultural context and the deep history of colonial oppression that informs her actions, it silences her voice, and it makes use of racist, sexist and classist stereotypes.

Before I jump into my analysis, it’s worth while to make two important disclaimers:

1)   Transparency regarding parameters is always helpful: All articles used for this blog were discovered through Google searching and consultations with Canadian Newsstand. As there actually happens to be a fair amount of stuff out there, I went for common themes that seemed to pop up over several articles as opposed to more specific details. Also, for the sake of a manageable scope, I generally focussed on “mainstream” web-based print media.

2)   More importantly, I’m a settler Canadian and I am aware that my presence on this land plays a role in the very systems that Chief Spence is taking a stand against. However, thanks to Canada’s long standing colonial occupation of this land, I nonetheless find myself here. For what it’s worth, writing this is an act of solidarity with Chief Spence and comes from my own acknowledgment of the continued legacy of colonization that threatens Indigenous rights to land, water, and sovereignty. In addition, as I’m not an Indigenous woman, I sincerely hope that my analysis doesn’t contribute to the extensive body of harmful representations of Indigenous women and am open to feedback if it does.

What stood out perhaps most problematically in my investigation of news coverage regarding Chief Spence was the complete lack of acknowledgment for the cultural context in which her actions are located. (And, no, references to her “teepee,” to drum circles and to smudge ceremonies don’t count as cultural context … that’s just lazy journalism’s reliance on stereotyping.) In addition, the ability of journalists to gloss over colonialism never ceases to amaze me and the bull-headed insistence on ignoring the role that settler-Canadians play in the colonial process is, as always, outstanding. What we need more of is analyses like the one given by Devon Meekis in their article “Idle No More: On the meaning of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike.” Meekis explains the importance of acknowledging that Spence’s hunger strike has to be considered different from those that have occurred in other contexts because, without this understanding, there is a failure to recognize the “cultural importance and philosophy behind such practice” in a specifically Indigenous sense. As a result, her actions will be forever lost amongst imposed interpretations of what does and doesn’t constitute “proper” activism.

In addition to the absence of cultural context, there is also, by and large, an absence of Chief Spence’s voice. Where many articles are void of any statements made by her or her support team all together, those that do directly quote Chief Spence often push her statements to the end of the article or fail to use them as a focal points. I hesitate to impose too many of my own conclusions on this matter because I recognize that it actually could be Chief Spence’s intention to reduce the amount her voice is heard in order to emphasize the collectivity of her struggle and avoid the hyper-individualization that mainstream North American celebrity culture is so apt to perpetrate. However, that doesn’t excuse anyone from ignoring her voice entirely – if Chief Spence has refused to comment this refusal could certainly be thoughtfully acknowledged and engaged with. In addition, I felt that this point had to be mentioned because it’s hard to imagine that Canadian media’s tendency to silence Indigenous women isn’t at least partly to blame. With the help of Valaskakis, we can locate the lack of Chief Spence’s voice within a continuum of Indigenous people being silenced. Valaskakis explains that the “construction and appropriation of images of Indians” helps to construct histories of the “ageless Western frontier.” (pg. 150) What is key in Valaskakis’ statement is that it is images, not stories, of Indigenous people that play a role in Canadian and American “history” and what’s particularly troubling about images is that they tend to be seen without being heard.

The last point I want to make about the news coverage regarding Chief Spence is the (unfortunately unsurprising) amount of racism, classism and sexism being used to represent her and her actions. The preoccupation with how much she gets paid along with discussions regarding the supposed “mismanagement” of funds on Attiwapiskat is no doubt connected to deeply entrenched ideas of Indigenous people as “free-riders” and “well-fare cheats” that the rest of Canadians “have to pay for.” In considering how this stereotype informs representations of Chief Spence, the reality of her (and Atawapiskat’s) finances don’t actually matter. What matters is that her finances are a constant point of media fixation and that this preoccupation is, of course, part of a larger racist narrative. (For more on this and other negative stereotypes used to represent Indigenous folks, check out what Wab Kinew has to say.) In addition, journalists like Barbara Kay apparently couldn’t help but subject Chief Spence to the kinds of scrutiny so often projected on women in the spot light – specifically those pertaining to appearance and body size. To spare you to experience of actually having to read Kay’s article, I’ll sum it up for you. Essentially, Kay notes that the silver-lining to Chief Spence’s hunger strike is that she’ll lose weight. Now… at this point I could subject you to paragraphs upon paragraphs about why this makes me want to throw my computer at the wall, but as you’re all smart people I’ll assume you’ll manage to be horrified enough without my assistance.

With any luck, I’ve managed to shed a little light on the ways that mainstream Canadian news media manages to represent Indigenous activism in problematic, offensive and entirely inadequate ways. Critical engagement with news media is imperative. Without critical engagement, it’s too easy to lose sight of the ways that Canadian media is steeped in colonial, white-supremacist, patriarchal and classist assumptions that provide Canadians with a distorted perception of Canadian-Indigenous relations. So the next time you read about Chief Spence in the news, consider what’s going on behind the scenes. And, whatever you do, avoid the Sun News Network…  (that is, unless you enjoy flagrant displays of unapologetically obtuse racism).

 

*Valaskakis, Gail Guthrie. “Sacajawea and Her Sisters: Images and Native Women.” Indian Country: Essays on Contemporary Native Culture. pg 125-150. 2005

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Fembots Have More Fun

By Sandi Sonnenfeld  

Originally published, in slightly different form, on the Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review on October 31, 2012.

It all started 18 months ago when I saw a new ad from a national anti-abortion group being promoted on the subway.  The ad featured a sad-looking woman hugging herself for comfort and a single sentence, “Abortion changes you forever.”

It was so simplistic a slogan, an affront to every woman who has ever agonized over her choices.  It meanly implied that women who unexpectedly find themselves pregnant blithely rush out to get an abortion without giving any thought to the consequences, which directly contradicts my own personal experience and the other women I know who faced such a decision.  What made the ad particularly galling, however, was that it was sponsored by the same group that was egging on former Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and others in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood, one of the few affordable places left for women to obtain reliable birth control that would help prevent the need for an abortion in the first place.

The hypocrisy, then, led me to do it.  I dug into my purse, pulled out a black pen and wrote over the sign in big thick lettering, “Not nearly as much as having a child—wanted or not—does.”

My heart raced as I publicly defaced private property in full view of one hundred and fifty or so other New Yorkers.  I never before had knowingly committed a crime. As is usual among my fellow urbanites, the subway passengers pretended not to see what I was doing.

I wish I could say that when I had finished my rage subsided, that I took satisfaction in my defiant act.  If anything, to my surprise and without a little shame, I felt only more infuriated.  So I sat on the subway fuming, replaying in my head all the statistics I’ve read over the past few years. Statistics like:

  • American girls now enter the first stages of puberty at an all-time low of 10.4 years (nine years for African-Americans and nine and a half-years for Hispanic Americans), likely as a result of over-processed food which speeds up the activation of the hormone leptin.
  • One hundred thousand children, the majority of them girls between 12 and 17, are involved in sex trafficking in the US each year; 70 percent of them are runaways from foster care.

Recalling such statistics kept me enraged until I arrived at my office, where it quickly dissipated as my workday got underway, sidetracked by my day job as a Director of Public Relations at one of the country’s largest law firms.  Indeed, when I left my office that night and headed home, I chastised myself for so foolishly tilting at windmills. As I exited from the Kings Highway subway station near where I live in Brooklyn, a huge delivery truck sat idling at a red traffic light.  The truck was emblazoned on both sides with a billboard ad for a premium vodka featuring three naked women sipping liquor out of martini glasses.

The women had no stomachs, necks, wrists, ankles, or genitals other than a metallic shield-like loin cloth where their vaginas should be. They did of course have breasts: large rounded breasts, bald heads, pink-lipped mouths and two slits for eyes that were framed with oversized pink and black eyelashes.  The slogan read, “Fembots have more fun.”

The gale hit me with full force, tossing me around emotionally that even now all these months later, I still feel cast adrift.

In fifty years, we’ve gone from blondes having more fun to fembots do.  Why bother with a flesh and blood woman anymore, who possesses hair that requires grooming, a stomach that craves filling, a mind that hunger for ideas?  Just give us some breasts to stare at, put a glass of vodka in our hand and away we go.  Once men lusted after the Hollywood pinup, then the airbrushed women of Playboy; when that grew tiresome, they switched to watching pornography on the web, jacking off to electronic images of women generated by lines of code made entirely out of Xs and 0s.  Perhaps, however, even those images reminded them too much of the smart-mouthed woman they shared an office with or their ex-girlfriend who dared to fall in love with another guy, so let’s move on to fembots instead.  Fembots who can’t talk, and don’t demand anything more than a shiny martini glass from which to drink.

It would be easy, but inaccurate, to lay all the blame on men.  But the sad thing about the ads, which are produced for Swedish vodka company Svedka by Constellation Brands here in New York, is that they are aimed at women.

“The Svedka image is playful, even naughty, featuring the sexy fembot symbolizing the brand’s fanciful futuristic achievement,” said Marina Hahn, senior vice president for marketing at Constellation Brands in a story by New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott.  “Our vision of the future is very different from others. It’s ‘a lot like today, but better, more fun’ and Svedka [is] the vodka that lets you ‘be your fun, flirtatious self…at a price point you can afford.’”

The Times went on to report that the new campaign featuring the Svedka fembot includes print and online ads, signs in stores, billboards, events in bars and nightclubs, photos and videos on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“Maybe one day, ‘Svedka Girl, the Movie,’ ” Hahn said, laughing, at the close of the article.

I want to laugh too.  Yet how can we ever make true strides as women, not just politically or in the board room, but, even more importantly, in reducing those all too real statistics about the trafficking of teenage girls, childhoods cut way too short by early puberty, and the millions of people, men and women alike, who prefer to masturbate to porn than take the risk of actually interacting with a no doubt flawed, but nonetheless potentially attractive  human being, when women still feel the need to starve themselves to fit into a size four dress, buy self-esteem through breast implants, or simply fail to reach their full potential for fear that boys at school won’t like them if they are “too” smart?

We all have grown so used to seeing fantastical images of women in advertising, film, television and on the web that even those of us with a profound awareness of the implausibility of such gorgeous, overly sexualized creatures existing in real life still regard such images as the standard far too many of us, myself included, aspire to.

Maybe that’s the true source of my rage—I’m mad at myself for not being able to dismiss the ad or others like it.  I’m mad at my fellow countrywomen for not only putting up with such messages that fundamentally tell us that, nearly 100 years after our great grandmothers chose to go on hunger strike rather than be denied the right to vote, and 50 years after Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan helped usher in the second wave of feminism, we still think of ourselves as sexualized beings rather than fully fledged, sensual individuals for whom our sex is just one defining factor of who we are.

I’m mad at Sarah Palin, who as former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska ordered that victims of sexual assault pay for their own rape kits to keep costs down, for her audacity in declaring that she and the “mama grizzlies” represent the new face of feminism.  Palin said it during a meeting of the Susan B. Anthony List, a PAC which supports Congressional bids of anti-abortion candidates, including that other mama grizzly, Michele Bachmann.

That Palin and Bachmann are among those now shaping the discussion of what it means to be a feminist today is clearly a failure of our own making.  Too many of us have turned away from discourse, or perhaps have simply turned out, all too aware that we possess more choices than any other generation of American women.

We take it for granted that women walk on the moon, climb Everest, travel alone to exotic countries to negotiate peace treaties.  We’re no longer wowed that women launch twice as many US businesses as men, or that women have invented everything from central heating to Kevlar, the material from which bullet proof vests are made.  Indeed, we rarely think about the battles won before us, and most of us have never been schooled in the hard-fought efforts of generations of women to be taken seriously as citizens of the world. We accept without question that we can purchase property, adopt children without a partner, and increasingly, in many states, even marry each other if we want.  That we have made so much progress has also made too many of us complacent.

Or perhaps we are just too distracted.  No one is more squeezed for time than those of us in the sandwich generation.  Women in our thirties and forties perpetually torn by the demands of our careers and our personal lives, many of us are also caring for a child and an aging parent at the same time.  We squeeze our bellies and thighs into Spanx after squeezing out from the plastic bottle that last bit of ketchup for the French fries we ate at lunch. Our thoughts are squeezed into the 144 characters of a Tweet or compressed into a download on YouTube.  We squeeze into the crowded, noisy subways of New York and Boston or into traffic on the Interstate in Los Angeles or Seattle on our way to work.  We squeeze in yoga classes, painting courses and Thai-fusion cooking between the food shopping, picking up the kids from school, making a dental appointment for our husband, trying to stretch that salary for which we collectively still earn eighty-five percent of what a man with comparable experience and education does.  Thus many of us have also been squeezed into compromises that we once swore we would never make.

That we all pay a price for such compromises goes without saying, but I’ve started to wonder if the cost is just too much to bear.  Lately, I find myself in a state of near perpetual rage at what is happening in America. Perhaps it’s the angry rants of the Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of this world that has brought out this fury in me, a mad desire to answer fire, as it were, with fire.  Or my sorrow and disappointment as I watch President Obama make concession after concession to the fringe right in the spirit of bipartisanship, wondering how he still cannot understand that the Tea Party-obsessed, Koch brothers-funded opposition not only has little interest in bipartisanship, it has no interest in governing at all.  Or perhaps I’m just simply out of patience, no longer able to hide behind the cloak of deference and respectability.

When Michele Obama became First Lady, her popularity soared.  Some admired her for trying to raise her girls in as “normal” way as possible despite that they no longer lived a normal live.  Others admired her stance towards community service.  But mostly, we admired how chiseled her arms were, that her biceps were “cut,” how stunning she looked in her white beaded Jason Wu inaugural ball gown.

Just as many of us women vilified Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate for her ugly haircut, love of pant suits, or simply staying married to a man who had convinced himself receiving a blow job by a young intern was not sex, and therefore not a betrayal of his wife.

We still worry far too much about being “playful,” “likable,” “fun,” about not turning men off with our talk of inequity at the workplace or unfair division of home labor, or worse, driving them into the arms of another woman.  And we care far too much about being perceived as chic, glamorous, or just plain sexy.

“How do I look?” we ask our husbands, our friends, our lovers. “Is my ass too big?  My tits too small?  Do I look fat?”

Perhaps that explains why, according to The Village Voice, the fourth most popular Halloween costume of 2011 for women was the Svedka Fembot.

So as autumn again draws near, and in the hope of creating in the words of Marina Hahn, “a future a lot like today, but better,” here’s a list of Halloween costumes to consider based on other female images that occasionally can be seen flickering across our digital screens:

  • Gabby Douglas – At age fourteen, she had the courage and determination to leave her family and home in Virginia Beach to train with top coach Liang Chow in West Des Moines, Iowa, a largely all white Mid-Western suburb. Less than two years later, Douglas became the first black American to win a gold medal in gymnastics and the only American to ever win gold in both the All-Around and the team competition during the same Olympics.
  • Jessica Jackley – a Stanford MBA graduate and co-founder of Kiva, which has facilitated hundreds of millions in loans among individuals across 209 countries by enabling internet users to lend as little as $25 to individual entrepreneurs.  A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a 2011 World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader, Jackley serves on several boards of organizations championing women, microfinance, technology and the arts, and has worked in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda with Village Enterprise Fund and Project Baobab.  Oh, yeah, she’s also a trained yoga instructor, avid surfer, wife and mother of twin boys.
  • Sylvia A. Earle – Known as “Her Deepness” or “The Sturgeon General,” Earle led the first team of women oceanographers in the Tektite Project in which they lived in an underwater chamber for fourteen days to study undersea habitats.  Author of more than 125 books and articles related to oceanography and protecting ocean ecosystems, she served as Chief Scientist of NOAA and led the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, a five-year program to study the United States National Marine Sanctuary from 1998-2002. At 76, she currently is National Geographic’s Explorer-in-Residence.
  • Tawakel Karman – Called the “Iron Woman” and “Mother of the Revolution” by her fellow Yemenis, Karman is a journalist and politician known as one of the public faces of the Arab Spring. Co-founder of Women Journalists Without Chains, she is co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, making her the first Arab woman and the second Muslim woman awarded that honor and the youngest Nobel Peace Laureate to date.

As for me, come October 31, I will pay homage to that great, forgotten star of the silver screen, Hedy Lamarr, once described as the most beautiful actress in Hollywood.  During a dinner party shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Lamarr embarked on a passionate conversation with an avant-garde composer named George Antheil about protecting US radio-guided torpedoes from enemy interference.  She scrawled her phone number in lipstick on the windshield of his car so they could explore their ideas further.  In 1942, the duo developed and secured a patent for a torpedo guidance system based on what Lamarr described as ‘frequency hopping,” which they then donated to the US government to assist in defeating Germany and Japan. Though the US military didn’t take the invention seriously until more than a decade later, today frequency hopping is the basis for the technology we use in cell phones, pagers, wireless Internet, defense satellites, and a plethora of other spread-spectrum devices.  Pretty darn good for a five-time divorced, foreign-born actress who never attended college.

But mostly, I’m picking Hedy Lamarr because she is the ultimate anti-fembot, who once told the press, “Any girl can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”

A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi Sonnenfeld holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she studied under National Book Award winner Charles Johnson.  She is the author of the memoir This is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), for which she was named a Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Her short stories and personal essays have appeared in more than 30 literary magazines and anthologies, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sojourner, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, THIS, Raven Chronicles, Perigee, The Storyteller and Mr. Bellers’ Neighborhood.  For more, visit www.sandisonnenfeld.com.

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Pop Snippets

I spent some time in a rental car this weekend. This always gives me the opportunity to listen to top 40 on the radio (of course, I was out of town and Co-op Radio, CFRO was not an option). I heard two pop hits that stuck in my head. The first was by some shitty boy band (the next generation of boy bands!) and the chorus went like this:

“When you smile at the ground, it ain’t hard to tell you don’t know you’re beautiful.”

That actually makes my skin crawl. This song advocates powerlessness — “darling, your lack of self confidence is so alluring. I love women who defer to my judgement.”

The next tune was by Mission, BC’s Carly Rae Jepson. It was her hit song “Call Me Maybe.” I know this song is so sickly sweet that it’ll rot your teeth. But take a look again at the chorus:

“Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy. But here’s my number, so call me maybe.”

There you go! A girl in charge of her own destiny.

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Rush Limbaugh’s slander of Sandra Fluke

So, it’s Saturday morning.  Here I sit, drinking a cup tea in my fleece pajamas, cozy on the couch with my laptop, surfing the ‘net, when all of a sudden…  Are you in the mood to get riled up?  zOMG me too!

I know it’s bad to read any piece of news related to Rush Limbaugh.  It is guaranteed to raise your blood pressure significantly (“urge to kill rising…”).  On Friday, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke received a telephone call from President Obama, telling her not to take Limbaugh’s calling her a prostitute to heart.  Oh yes, get ready.

At a hearing at Georgetown about health care coverage of contraception at religious institutions, Fluke spoke about the high cost of contraception and about their importance to women’s health.  Limbaugh made these comments about Fluke’s testimony:

What does it say about the college coed Susan [sic] Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.

She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps.

The johns, that’s right. We would be the johns—no! We’re not the johns. Well—yeah, that’s right. Pimp’s not the right word.

Can you believe it?  Can you fucking believe it!  Then, after a public outcry against these comments, he responds with:

So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal: If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. And I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.

…. I’m not questioning her virtue. I know what her virtue is. She’s having so much sex that she’s going broke!

This is jaw-dropping, shocking stuff.   This is hate-speech.  How is he still allowed to voice an opinion about anything?  Oh wait, I forgot.  He’s actually aligned with Republican politics.  Reproductive rights belong only to those who can afford them.  ”‘She’s going broke!’ — that’s what makes [Fluke] attackable,”  says Amy Davidson in The New Yorker.  ”The real target here is poor women — poor families.”    So, while Limbaugh’s bullshit might seem extreme, this sort of slander really isn’t anything new.

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