Do Something Amazing.
copyright Clara Vaz 2014

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Woman's Education, A Woman's Body

Education, being a historically male privilege, had its bouts of serving women's fortunes: the 1500-1600's in Europe were a fruitful time for women, where the renaissance meant women could seize different powers in the forms of knowledge of the arts and sciences, literature and politics. The era brought with it a great many female rulers and a decline in mass violence, where kingdoms sought reforms of justice and increased education as higher goals.

In this time, it was written, in The Instruction of a Christian Woman by Juan Vives in 1520:
"But she shall leave all such light and trifling pleasures, wherein the light fantasies of maids have delight, as songs, dances and other such wanton and peevish plays. A woman, saith Plutarch, given unto learning, will never delight in dancing. 

But here peradventure a man would ask, what learning a woman should be set unto, and what she shall study? I have told you: the study of wisdom, the which doth instruct their manners and inform their living, and teacheth them the way of good and holy life. As for eloquence, I have no great care, nor a woman needith it not, but she needeth goodness and wisdom.”

The 1600's in Western Europe saw the downfall of women's education and women's rule: violence accrued and royalty pushed their troops into battle. Military leaders were now only male, and as women were forced out of the public realms that previous education had enabled them access, they were now seen as unfit to rule over wars - quite the opposite of the previous century's powerful commanders including Mary Queen of Scots or Catherine de' Medici.

Reflecting on the degradation of female royalty in this era, it was Mary Wollstonecraft that wrote, in 1792, in A Vindication of the Rights of Women

"Women are in this deplorable state everywhere, because truth is hidden from them so as to preserve their ‘innocence’ (the polite name for ignorance), and they are made to take on an artificial character before their faculties have acquired any strength. Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around in its gilt cage it only seeks to adorn its prison.

Men have various employments and pursuits that engage their attention, and give a character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one pursuit and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their view beyond the triumph of the hour. But if their understanding were emancipated from the slavery to which the pride and sensuality of man and their short sighted desire... has subjected them, we would probably read of their weaknesses with surprise."

The downfall of a woman's education has continued into our modern era, where although some countries are privileged in the number of women who obtain higher education, at times surpassing their male counterparts, most of the world values a woman's strength within specific and historically traditional roles: the private sphere of carer and mother. From a girl-child through to her adult years, a woman is expected to take on the burden of care of her children, the sick, the poor, the elderly - shutting her mouth, knowing her place (or being ignorant of other possibilities).

The formal sector is most valued and recognized in society, the tip of the iceberg of economy, yet a woman's work in reproduction and care, subsistence and the informal sector are the submerged building blocks for the formal sector, negated financially and undervalued by society and public policy. A woman stands by her man (or men, in polygamous regions) - despite his indiscretions, his falls from grace, his violence and betrayals. Any other display of strength is traditionally viewed as male and reviled or met with suspicion in the female form: financial, public, political, physical.

This is undoubtedly why a girl's education has been widely touted as the key to the elimination of poverty. When girls and women are educated, they marry later in life and have fewer children, thus able to have a say over their life choices (preventing early pregnancies, understanding health risks) and the prosperity of their family (fewer mouths to feed). Increasing literacy and math skills in girls and women provides for economic benefits: women become wage earners, increasing wealth in their community and passing this along to their families, growing local economies into viable trade sectors. Closing the gender gap is a major development priority, as women take part of the mass migration from farm to city, their education, security and growth within this new landscape is a priority for developing world governments. Education is also highly correlated to better health: child mortality rates drop when mothers are educated, as does malnutrition and immunization rates rise. Perhaps most importantly, women and girl's empowerment increases with education, as they believe and can actionably have an impact over the big decisions that affect their lives.

In the West, Mary Wollstonecraft's words still resonate: although we may outpace our male colleagues in some fields of higher education, we are still paid wildly disproportionate wages, more unequal still if you are a woman of color, viewed as suspect and denied promotions in sectors that are not traditionally female-centric (education, nursing, administrative) and continue to take on the major part of child rearing and domestic work. We are also persistently plagued with an overwhelming misogyny through media representation and content and within a patriarchal society on the increasingly heightened value of female beauty over female mind or voice.

Susan Bordo, in Unbearable Weight, 1993, states: "The situation is one in which a constellation of social, economic, and psychological factors have combined to produce a generation of women who feel deeply flawed, ashamed of their needs, and not entitled to exist unless they transform themselves into worthy new selves (read: without need, without want, without body)."

In this, Bordo describes women as unable to live inside this body of endless scrutiny, one where, despite her emancipation through education, her financial means, and her own enlightenment, she cannot escape the pressures and binds that are attached to her physical self. Much like Foucault, she saw the body as a landscape on which history and culture tempted their swords - but Bordo emphasized the gendered nature: the gilded cage from which a woman's self could not be free and would always seek to adorn. In the very natural extension of this, women disproportionately have more eating disorders, seek plastic surgery and spend billions each year on beautifying products to 'correct' and 'improve' their bodies - not to stand out but, as Bordo suggests, to disappear altogether under or from the weight of the impossible standard of perfection.

If, in 1792, we could identify the cage, we are still struggling to free ourselves from its trappings - that key locked within like the bird. Charlotte Gilman wrote of a different world in Herland, (1999) where men have been absent for two thousand years, and women are thriving in a peaceful and conscious country. Education is prioritized according to each individual's need, and bodies are never up for dissection.

This is not a reality I can encourage, given that women's issues are men's issues. It is one, however, that can teach us the importance of a society truly progressing beyond it's impulse tendencies, and engaging in the development of all human beings through education, empathy and conscious progression.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

It's Time to Admit: Women's Issues are About Men Too

Let's raise a glass:

As with time, I'm a bit obsessed with language. I strongly believe that healthy and developed communication is the key to our interactions, and I am especially interested in how language can shape our perceptions and actions. This is true within several dynamic issues in the 'women's rights' realm.

It's time to admit and actively advocate that 'women's issues' stop being such a gendered thematic. Education, daycare, women's health and violence against women are as much men's issues as they are the women's. But as we devolve the language around these subjects into purely female words and experiences, we not only remove men from the dialogue, but from any actionable involvement and solution as well.

The US Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments in the Hobby Lobby case, pitting the Affordable Care Act against a woman's access to contraception. In short, if the Justices favour the department store's arguments, they will be allowing, for the first time, a for-profit corporation to claim religious rights and protections which may then directly prevent insurance from covering women's access to birth control, if these corporations can prove that such coverage is a 'substantial religious burden.'

Or, should your boss decide whether you get birth control or not?
Twitter has exploded in #NotMyBossBusiness advocacy campaign.
And quite rightly so.

I have written several articles on the importance of contraception to women's rights: to their access to the workplace, to their rights over bodily integrity and protection, to their enjoyment of sex, to their autonomy and choice in a relationship, to their financial independence and security. The Pill revolutionized women's movements between the public and private sphere - allowing her a political and economic participation in the public forum. The government of President Obama has recognized this and is seeking to protect it.

To read more about the case before the Supreme Court, this excellent article goes into detail on both side's arguments.

This case may also have far-reaching consequences beyond women's access to contraception, and the NYTimes has a great article on that, here.

What I want to stress more emphatically is that the protests, campaigns and advocacy around this unbelievably important case should not be the sole work of women. Men too should be primordially interested that their partners, sisters, mothers, coworkers and friends maintain their autonomy in sexual relations and access to the workplace. Affordable contraception is in the best interest of both men and women - healthy relationships, good sex, financial equality or at least, contribution, and security. We must involve more men in the conversation and encourage more men to advocate alongside us.

It is preposterous, nowadays, that child care, welfare and child education could also be described as women's issues, as if there aren't more single fathers or more men actively involved in childcare than ever before. Coupled with the rise in female breadwinners, men must be written into the discussion, and actively participate in demanding policies that are advantageous to the new realities in which they are involved.

Another area is our reporting and coverage of rape and abuse cases. Sexual violence is not a woman's issue. There is clearly more than one person involved: and men have to be part of the prevention, prosecution and action around this violence. There is a brilliant Ted talk by Jackson Katz about how we have written men out of the reporting, going from "John beat Mary" to "Mary is a battered woman." This creates a vacuum of men's voices and of their experiences. It paints women as constant victims, allowing women to be blamed for a rape committed without a perpetrator. It also prevents men from speaking out against sexual violence, and being active in creating new definitions of masculinity that don't prize power, aggression and control as successful male traits.

If men aren't part of the discussion, how can they be part of the solution?

White Ribbon is doing some amazing and far reaching work with male youth, adolescents, men and fathers. Their recent work "Give Love, Get Love" involves fathers in promoting gender equality and equal relationships.

Finally, women's issues also centre heavily on media portrayals of female beauty: that ever restrictive contortion of ideals: white, thin, fit, perfect hair, perfect breasts, perfect legs. Women are role models in their femininity: as mothers, carers, and givers. Women are princesses in Disney films, longing only for happily ever afters. They are name called and slut shamed in magazines and TV shows, paying high prices for speaking in the public realm, both politically and in social media. But if we are to speak out against these awful portrayals of women, then what about the burdens on men? What about men as constant breadwinners, as ever more powerful aggressors, as able bodied and six packed, as needing to be in total control? What about our child programs and movies that show men as conquerors with little brains, all buff and with a sole mission of capturing the princess? These alpha male stereotypes are harmful to men too - and to their relationships to women. Let's use inclusive language to talk about redefining masculinities too.

Gender is about both men and women and everyone along the spectrum between and outwards of the two. The issues that crosscut the spectrum do so in many shades of grey, with far reaching effects.

Often, these questions are more complex then clearly defined along gendered lines. We might be more productive if we listened to each other's sides, because we might find out that these issues we've relegated to one side - well, they affect us both.

Here's to more cooperation and better communication.

Watch your tongue.


Friday, March 7, 2014

Women's Voices in Social Media: International Women's Day

I recently spoke at a Conference on Women's Voices in Social Media, hosted by KWIC and the Canadian Federation for University Women at Trent University in Peterborough. It was a lively and important discussion, and I was able to sit on a panel with brilliant speakers who touched on many aspects of the challenges and opportunities for women online and the policy reform and state role in criminalizing certain behaviours.

Below is part of my speech and more after the break. Saturday is International Women's Day - and in an era where our digital connectivity has become synonymous with our 'real world' selves, women must be empower to be active participants and creators of information and not simply passive consumers.


"Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight, I’m happy to be up here, speaking on a topic that is very much in the spotlight today.

As was said, I spend some time writing for online blogs on social justice issues, usually around women’s rights. Social media for me, has been a megaphone to my thoughts, giving me a louder voice and an audience. It has lead to wider discussions and greatly helped to increase visibility on an issue, to be part of an active community, to communicate realities that might otherwise remain unknown.

Lets take it back a little – only a few years in fact - to when social media was really beginning to emerge as the force that we know it to be today. There was an initial thought that women and other historically disadvantaged groups would be able to reclaim their voices and challenge prevailing stereotypes in this new medium. What happened, however, was that just as women gained space online, social media presented numerous challenges to this reclaiming of space. Indeed, online harassment, cyberviolence and the sheer speed at which media travels over these social networks creates a complex web of pressures and obstacles on women expressing themselves and developing their independent identities. This, of course, is especially true for young girls – as bullying has a greater impact with the ubiquitous nature of social media.

Professor Jane Bailey, behind the EGirls project from the University of Ottawa recently published some of her findings on what girls and young women think of social media – and the results are fascinating.

She discovered two key things that are most pertinent to our conversation today:

1. The first is that girls and young women now view their online world and their real world as having no clear boundaries: their digital connectivity is of primary importance to their social ‘real world’ lives – They shop online, date online, find their entertainment online and create an online identity that strongly shapes who they are, their value and self confidence in their ‘real world lives.’

2. Girls are, now more than ever, being faced with the reproduction of real life gender challenges in this online realm:

a.     Media barrages of white, thin, heterosexual representation of beauty are prevalent along with the noted absence of other representations of beauty.

b.     Sexuality is also very much at the forefront of girl’s minds: images of women online are highly sexualized for the male gaze, from Facebook ads to the wide variety of pornography, but girls speak of it as always walking a tightrope between being sexy enough, but not too much. Am I pretty? Or a slut?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Getty Images, Stock Photos and the Way We Look at Women

Women's representation in the media goes beyond what we see on television or in magazines and billboards. It is in our every day use of that media, and specifically, the internet. Indeed, it is in these seemingly innocuous daily uses that we become immune to the ways these images influence our perception of a woman's value, position and role.

Check out some of these images when googling terms like 'woman' (all white and highly sexualized poses), or 'working woman' (mainly white and behind a computer, with some frustrated and anxious looks thrown in for good measure), or 'young girls' (again, mainly white, and frighteningly sexualized).

Can she have it all? Who knows!!

Getty Images, the largest online stockpile of useable photos (all those pictures you see on websites), has teamed up with to change the way women are portrayed on the internet. Do you remember women laughing alone with salad? Or women sitting rather uncomfortably with computers? Or feminism according to Stock photography?

Sigh. (the tumblr devoted to it is quite funny though)

In a quest to move from traditional images of women to the reality of women's lives across the globe, a predominant theme emerged: Women must be the protagonists of their lives - the images are not happening to them but they are in charge of the image. As Pam Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty stated: "They should all feel like the hero of their image."

Participation is a major influence on the skewed power relations between the sexes in today's society. Just for a quick overview: there are three levels of participation:

1. Amina participates in her law firm's roundtable lunches by showing up.

2. Karina participates in her IT company's board meetings by showing up, sits at     the main table and voicing her opinion on different issues. 

3. Esther participates in her government's policy making by showing up, sitting       at the main table, voicing her opinion and has a vote on final decision-making. 

Globally, women are often stuck in Amina's position, and more and more are able to move towards Karina's. We are allowed a seat at the table, and maybe an opinion or two, but it is still not the norm for women to be the decision makers, to be the one who's opinions matter.

This is evident in stock photos: women are added parts, in the background, play traditional roles that don't involve much agency (power), have bodies and looks geared towards the male gaze. It is difficult to make sense of a society where women are trying to move more into decision making roles, and an ever present, overpowering media that has them firmly entrenched in the middle ages. Or the 90's. Or up until very recently at the very least!

The collaboration is a brilliant one and the photos are moving. It's sad to say, because photos such as these shouldn't be moving. They should just be. But their suppression from the public eye and the denigration of women's realities has been so pervasive, that the result is a moving collection of pictures that are finally (and only) beginning to capture the true breadth and scope of a woman's experience.

I especially like the inclusion of men in non sexual, and non traditional gender roles.

A few below. Enjoy.

View the full collection here

Remember that your perception is influenced by everything you see. So the next time you need to add a picture of a woman or girl to your website, to your presentation, to your portfolio or your powerpoint, think about what message that picture will send, and is it anywhere close to the reality of lives lived, or a reality that we must aspire to.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Woody Allen, Dylan Farrow and Rape Culture: What Kind of Society Do You Want to Live In?

When we're children, we're often asked what we want to be when we grow up.
A firefighter? A doctor? An astronaut?

As we age, these questions evolve: How many children do you want? What kind of partner do you want to have? In what kind of society do you want to live?

That last question is often the root of our happiness. Will we live in a society that values a good work/life balance? One that values rights and freedoms, that makes room for diversity and culture and religion? We want to live in societies that fit well with who we are and want to be.

We can often evaluate societies when we look to the people at the top: those we promote as our leaders, our mentors, our role models and heroes.

The questions asks itself: Who do we want to glorify as representing the very best of ourselves? What kinds of people do we want? Do we want our sports stars, our media stars, our politicians, our leaders to be of sound moral character? How do we define that? And how lenient are we: How much rope do we give until we decide they've hung themselves completely?

Woody Allen was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the recent 71st Golden Globes awards for his work in film. This reignited the debate on the allegations of sexual abuse made against the filmmaker by both his stepdaughter Dylan Farrow and her mother, Mia. Noticing there was an important voice missing, Nicolas Kristoff at the NYTimes, published the following open letter, written by Dylan Farrow, describing her rape at the hands of her stepfather when she was 7 years of age.

Woody Allen has a confluence of factors working for him: he's rich, he's white, he's powerful and he belongs to one of the oldest old boy clubs in the world: Hollywood. Rape and sexual abuse are not high on Hollywood's list of concerns. Is it to anyone's surprise? Hollywood hates women. Women are tits and ass, mouths and hair, lips and legs. Women are to be seen, not heard, always saved by a man, and not in power. Stay young and pretty, don't outshine your man and shut up.

Hollywood is emblematic of glorified rape culture - a media hub that feeds with a ghoulish frenzy: marketing women's body for profit, whether in dollars or viewers, buyers or accolades. It should come as no surprise when Hollywood glorifies Woody Allen, paying tribute to a man who may have sexually assaulted and raped his 7 year old daughter.

The links in this article will bring you all the details you need to know. But here's what we need to think about.

When we glorify the Woody Allens, the Polanskis, the Chris Browns, the Ike Turners and all the pro and college footballers, we are silencing someone else. We are silencing the victims, the survivors of horrible acts that we are choosing to ignore, because some things are more valuable than others. Wood Allen's filmaking career is more important than Dylan Farrow (and since we're at it, than Soo-Yin Previn too).

I am not saying that Woody Allen is not a good filmmaker. Nor that Chris Brown might not dance well. Nor that Michael Jackson was not a good performer. What I am saying is that paying visible tribute to these people, as a society, glorifying their so-called genius or talent makes room for doubt. It provides a cloak, a shield to the crimes they have committed, it builds a value system where art/talent outranks a crime. And this has a lot to do with the value we place in the victim, and also for the sordid fact that we don't want to face a brutal reality.

Women and children have, historically, been the last people dignified with rights. The girl-child is the most victimized individual - treated more as a toy than a human being. Her worth is in how she can serve others - she is dually burdened with being a child (without a voice) and female (but with a body and often, lesser rights/status/power).

The age of consent is legislated because we know and value the vast differences in the minds and bodies of adults and children. We have terms like corruption of a minor (statutory rape) and we understand that positions of trust and power relationships make some people very vulnerable (a daughter, for example), and some people more powerful (a father figure, for example). We understand that parents, guardians and society at large have responsibilities towards acting in the best interests of the child, because the child is not capable of knowing what those are or how to get them.

We will stop glorifying abusers and rapists for their genius expressionisms when we begin to value women and children to a greater degree. When we give more worth to these individuals, we will understand that their voices and experiences are as important as those of adult men. We will not, as adults, point the finger at a 7 year old girl, blaming her youth, blaming her sex, blaming her vulnerability, when it is her father who has the burden of responsibility and moral obligation. 

The problem with morality is that oftentimes, it involves sacrifice. We want movies and music and movie stars and sex scandals and risquée behaviour. It satisfies our guilty pleasure, it feeds our want for personal gratification. We judge abusers and rapists more leniently, yes, because we do not value women and children as much but also because what these men do otherwise makes us happy in some way. We live in a capitalist, free market society where we prostrate ourselves at the temple of greed without conscious: we wear clothes made by slave children, we listen to music made by women beaters, we eat foods that cause cancer and make us obese, drive cars that pollute the environment, engage in risky sexual activity because we like it. We have to have it and we certainly don't want to give it up.

Then we say: "But those issues are separate!"

Separating the issues treads into the very dangerous territory of the public and private spheres. Private spheres (that of the family and household) have traditionally been centres of protected male power - and female inferiority. Sex was in the private realm, and with it, abuse and rape were 'family matters' to be settled outside the public eye. Too often women and children were mistreated and violated at the hands of a trusted head of household. Can we glorify achievements in the public realm of a person who has committed crimes in a traditionally private sphere? To protect women and children's rights, we could not, as a society, keep allowing for the private to remain closed. By extension, we should not, as a society, allow for that separation to become blurred when a person brings something beneficial or likeable to the public domain because it is at the expense of the person who is victimized in the private sphere. To actionably demonstrate the upholding of rights within the private, we cannot turn a blind eye to them in the public domain.

As Jessica Valenti states, it is too comfortable to believe Woody Allen's innocence after such sordid details from Dylan and from the courts. It is too comfortable to sit and say "Maybe, maybe not - who knows?" Because if we were to delve deeply into her experience, we would be forced to face some very uncomfortable truths. Truths like 1 in 5 US women will experience rape in her lifetime. That 51% of rapes will be by their partners or acquaintances and 41% of those women will be raped before they are 18. We'd have to face the dismal reality of unreported and unprosecuted rape:

"Out of every 100 rapes,
40 are reported to the police,
10 lead to an arrest,
8 get prosecuted,
4 get charged,
and 3 will spend time behind bars."

And to those who believe that women often lie about rape - an accumulation of methodologically rigorous studies show that only 2 - 8% of cases reported are falsehoods. 

We would have to face the fact that the messages we are sending our boys and girls about sex, power and relationships are causing harmful corruptions of all three. Its not working for women and I bet its not working for men either. We would have to reevaluate how we teach our boys to take as much power and control, to be as strong and unemotional and alpha as they can, and how we teach our girls that they are there for men's taking, their bodies are sexual objects and how their worth is determined by the number of men that look at them and want them. We'd have to ask why rape occurs in such high numbers. We'd have to examine the power structures based on gender roles, and that might mean reconsidering power, changing it. And that is very difficult and uncomfortable to do - and for some people to give up.

Everything sends a message  - and Hollywood and media are the biggest message senders of all, don't give me nature or nurture, give me media and it's effects on our youth of today. So when the media keeps supporting rape culture and blaming the victim, this sends the message that abusers will win, and victims will lose.

At the very least, ask yourself where you want your society to set the bar. 

At the very least, we can ask that our society's heroes, our leaders, the stars we honour and give awards to, not have even the most ambiguous 'rape of his 7 year old daughter' on their résumé - and if they do, we choose not to honor their achievements, because those achievements are not of greater value than the value we place on the rights, dignity and the worth of sexual abuse and rape survivors everywhere.

Do you mean to tell me there was no one else?


Thursday, January 30, 2014

Disney's Frozen or "You Can't Marry a Man You Just Met:" Reasons To Love It

The first few minutes of Disney's Frozen did not enchant me: there were songs that droned on, pretty girls dancing about with sorrowful gazes, a dash of typical magic, a good looking man-boy, and a faithful, if not slightly silly, sidekick. Yawn.

Then. Frozen stands up. Straightens it's back. And:

1. "You can't marry a man you just met"
Thank you to the older sister, Elsa, for stating this to her younger and quite naive sibling, Anna, after the latter asks for her older sister's blessing to wed Mr. Man-Boy (Prince Hans), a man she just met, merely hours ago, at a party. Some song and dance ensue, and they're in love. This statement, spoken in categorical terms, is the movie's turning point. It defies Disney's 'princess' mould: one where the princess and prince fall head over heels in instant love. Anna is angry at Elsa's comments and Elsa's magical icy powers spin out of control as her emotions run high: she runs off into the mountains - leaving the city blanketed in freezing snow.

Outside of the movies, women's lives do change significantly after marriage - and you shouldn't marry someone you just met. In fact, if you marry before the age of 25, you're much more likely to end up in divorce, and this by the time you're 30. Anna might want to think about getting educated first - because college degree decrease your risk of divorce by about 15%. Also, Anna might want to look at her parents and Prince's Hans parents - if you see your parents happily married, chances are, you will do the same. The only good thing is that they don't live together before tying the knot - that augments your chances of divorce by a whopping 40%. (More facts? Go here.)  Don't forget how marriage and divorce negatively affect women's economic opportunities - or how children can put an even further negative skew on things for women.

When Anna leaves her kingdom to the charge of Prince Hans, she returns to find that he has betrayed her, and she recourse or redress. This is all too often the case: in marriage, women often leave the financials and particulars of ownership up to the husband, assuming that he will take care of everything. This comes as a serious disadvantage when divorce comes along, and exposes women to fraud and bankruptcy. Women, always know where and what your money is doing and know how to protect yourself. This is not betraying love. This is being logical in love.

2. Women are Saviours Too. 
And not in the pious sense. The very act of Anna riding off into the treacherous snowy hills to save her sister, valiantly going forth on horseback is rare in movies and rare in our perception of a woman's role. We prefer if she stays home and keeps everything safe, the men fight the wars and rescue the damsel in distress. Not Anna, sure of herself and her capabilities. When she meets a bumbling ice vendor, Kristoff, in the mountains, she embarks on a journey with him (as opposed to him offering to save her) and the trials and tribulations they encounter force both of them to help each other; she saves him as much as he does her.

3. "You want to marry a man you just met?!"
This time, its Kristoff that says this to Anna. He can't believe it either, and repeats this statement in bewilderment. We learn that he thinks people should get to know each other first, and that both women and men have their faults: he's a fixer-upper, and so is she. Relationships are built on many qualities, but inherent in this is that no one is perfect, and no one completes the other. Relationships are work, work on yourselves, work on the couple, and in defying gender stereotypes of the perfect Prince Charming, he has his faults and is willing to work on them.

4. True Love gets a Makeover
When only 'an act of true love' will save Anna from her sister's icy (but remorseful) curse, I sighed. True love? Not this again. Even with all the niceties between Anna and Kristoff (as opposed to the evil Prince Hans), it just doesn't fit. But Frozen doesn't disappoint: the true love is between the sisters, the binding sisterly love that saves them both.

When there is a kiss, Kristoff asks Anna if he can kiss her (which I love, given all my thoughts on consent: Parts 1 and 2), and receives consent when she kisses him, on the cheek - demonstrating the start of a young relationship, and not the passionate ever after kind of love (into what exactly?) that movies tend to present.

5. And so do the Consuming 'Mean Girl' stereotypes of Women Hating Women
We know by now that women are an intrinsic part of patriarchal structures; some are like foot-soldiers in behaviours that favour men over women (think catty, backstabbing behaviour, think of the stereotype that 'women can't be friends with other women,'). This is a constant in movies: the universal 'mean girl' is the common belief - one that entrenches women in specific gender roles: competition, betrayal, jealousy - and all to win the ultimate prize: the male attention. It's very rare that women are portrayed as equal friends: at times you get the best friend to the main woman, but this is usually someone quirky, who wishes she could be like her friend, who supports her no matter what.

In Frozen, the sisters play together at a young age, are separated and then meet again at Elsa's coronation - and the meeting is funny and friendly. There is no jealousy or cattiness. Even when the sisters disagree, the disagreement is purposeful, and not based on back stabbing or jealousy - and certainly not a man. Its a beautiful portrayal of reality, and one not often represented in Disney or in movies. In reality, whenever powerful women display female friendship, it butts heads with the status quo that prefers women to be fighting among themselves, and usually about men (or the male gaze). It forgets that women are beings with their own agendas and capacity for friendship that does not require male definition.

6. Beauty gets redefined (slightly)
Disney didn't stretch it too much in Frozen: the women are still white, slender and pretty in a conventional way. But two things happen that are great for women, power and beauty.

The first is the song Elsa sings when she builds her ice castle in the mountains and proclaims her strength. Its a powerful song, and doesn't take on a negative or dark edge - she is not the villain or demon sister. In fact, she has so much power to unleash, so many capabilities that she wants to explore and are presented in an empowering way. The message seems to be that women should use the power they have, and grow it to the fullest extent, but like any power, it mustn't be used to hurt others.

In this process, she sheds her regal but plain garments and wears a beautiful blue sparkly dress, her hair falls in luscious blond braids and suddenly her face is all made up. I'm torn on this one. I want to love her new looks, but I wonder why it's happened. At the same time, Im glad it has - because her new looks aren't sexualized - at least not by men. This is confirmed when Anna arrives and exclaims:
"Wow, you look different. Good, just different," she hastens to say.

This seems to acknowledge the power and acceptance of fashion and makeup: its not all for sexuality, and can be used to feel good without a male gaze present.

The second defining theme is that nowhere in the movie is there that quintessential Disney/romantic comedy moment when the guy looks at the girl in awe and says "You're so beautiful." In fact, beauty gets very little airtime in Frozen. No princess walks down winding staircases in flowing gowns and into her prince charming's arms. In fact, the only time Kirstoff does look at Anna in wonder is when her whole body is covered and she is wearing a crown of grass. It is her regal self that he is admiring, the possibility of a future with her and not her ephemeral physical beauty.

7. Happily ever what?
This movie does not end in happily ever after. Anna is beginning a relationship with the young man and they're both full of issues, so there's a lot of learning to be accomplished. Elsa is back in the palace, but now she must learn to control her powers and how to rule. The sisters are finally in the same space and must learn to once again be sisters. Sure, there's happiness, but the happiness is in motion, its evolving, its in flux. Again, chock one up for reality.

I'll be the first to say that there still wasn't a single person of colour in the movie. There were some haunting chants at the beginning and end, supposedly to throw some nondescript culture into the mix, and even this is poorly done. Nevertheless, for women and relationships and gender roles, I was impressed.

Can Hollywood take note? Can Disney continue?
Finally a movie with two female leads, no definite prince charming, passes the Bechdel test (women talking to each other, and not about men) more complex version of love.

This movie is not an ending, its a beginning.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Know Thyself: We're All Crazy, Maybe.

It seems to me that there are two types of people portrayed in books and movies. The first are one-dimensional people, who's emotions are coloured within defined lines, who's likes and dislikes are nice and palatable and who are simple to understand, as if knowing them is like knowing a favourite sweater: always the same.

The second type of person is the absolutely crazy person: their emotions come in impossible peaks and valleys, their family lives are full of death and disturbance, their daily activities are erratic and their thoughts ramble on divergent paths a million miles a second. These are the crazies: to be pitied, avoided and, eventually, remedied.

Why is there no in between? Where is the complex person portrayed? Where is the normal human being?

What I've increasingly come to notice  is that each of us is a person with extremes, with black and white and grey and all brilliant colours inside of us. And that can be frightening. Sure, we expect that in social settings we will all act within some kind of accepted norms; no one likes the crazy to come out so blatantly on their morning commute. At work, we want our colleagues and managers to be of similar frame of mind on a daily basis - we want to know what to expect and how to interact accordingly. In our relationships, we want to generally know how the other person will act given a range of circumstances.

I feel, however, that these acts also seek to stamp out any acknowledgement of complexity in ourselves. We want to brush over past traumas, rush back to whatever 'normalcy' means. We want to have a timeframe for grieving, for being angry, for being sad. We feel out of sorts if we feel anything that isn't a palatable and socially acceptable or politically correct emotion. We place ourselves into cookie-cutter moulds and cringe at the parts of ourselves that stray outside of the lines.

But we are such complex beings. We can love one person while grieving for another. We can harm the person we care deeply about. We can hate people we turn around and love. We can be ecstatic one minute and then deeply uncertain the next. We can be ardent feminists in public and traditional women in private. We can portray strength and bravado, while feeling deeply insecure about our looks, our bodies, our place in society.

We smoke and go to the gym.
We drink and drive and donate to charity.
We date people from other cultures, make racist jokes, make sexist comments.
We say we will never do something. And then we do just that.

I would argue that repressing this complexity, repressing these extremes and repressing their expression (to certain degrees) is a disservice to ourselves, to our close partners and to the way we live and perceive our lives. While we cannot go about every minute in deep consideration of our multitudes (how exhausting), we can come to know ourselves better, to understand both our strengths and our weaknesses, to see ourselves for who we truly are - the good, the bad, the very ugly and the simply beautiful.

In Plato's Phaedrus, Plato explains that he has no time for mythology or other philosophies, because he has not yet been able to "know thyself" - the most important knowledge of all. How can we repress our pasts, our families, important moments in our lives as if they have not defined us, have not formed the way we see the world? And if we are not able to fully understand how our thoughts, our perceptions and our feelings are shaped, then how can we seek to change or even understand our conflicting selves?

Although we mostly judge ourselves on our intentions and others on their behaviour, if we were to fully accept our layers, to make way for our full humanity, perhaps we could do so for others as well - making space for the layers of people around us, and treating them with the love and kindness we so desperately seek.

So really, be kind. (Plato said that as well) Be kind because everyone is fighting a battle.


Monday, December 23, 2013

6 Gifts Every Woman* Wants for Christmas (or at any other time)

Every year I write a holiday gift list that includes the latest in gorgeous earrings from Alexis Bittar, some delicious chocolates and a few good reads (this year by awesome female authors!). My list also included a foam roller, because myofascial release is close to godliness for the fitness folk among us, but since I've bought one for myself, I dont have much to ask for.

Indeed, I realize I want less and less material goods, and more things that can't be bought. Here is the quintessential holiday gift list for every woman in your life. Remember, if you can't get her the important things, then that gold bangle is paltry in comparison.

Fair and decent representation in the media

In 2014, I'd like to open a magazine without worrying about my thigh gap or my six pack. I'd like to see women of all shapes and sizes and colours represented on my TV screen and in my movie theatres. I'd like the Bechdel test to become obsolete, because of course women talk to each other in movies and of course  its not only about men. In the news, I'd like women to be treated as equals by their male counterparts and not have themselves or their opinions degraded, shamed or belittled simply because they are women. When women run for office, have babies, wear dresses, eat food or exist in the public realm, I'd love if we didn't shame their bodies, dress choices, food consumption or general behaviour based on their gender. When Hilary runs for President in 2016, I can only pray I don't read a million articles on her pantsuits, her haircuts, and how she can be so 'manly' or, conversely, so 'womanly'.

Men are not animals, women are not victims

Under my Christmas tree I'd like an absence of victim blaming. When a woman gets raped or abused in 2013 (can we stop that from happening too?), I'd love if we didn't hint that maybe alcohol/short skirts/flirting or, more generally, having a vagina made him do it. Lets not state that because the woman is fat/skinny/black/white/etc. she should enjoy it because no one would look at her otherwise. Please stop making the streets, stores, busses and clubs I enter into soft war zones: I can do well without the catcalling, the general harassment, the touching and the leering. No, its not my skirt. Its your eyes and your hands and your voice. I know its difficult: men grow up being told that power and strength are the most valuable assets, that women are possessions to be taken and controlled and that their maleness is defined by their last dollar or last sexual encounter. But these things are simply not true. I promise to respect you as a being capable of the full range of human emotions; so please respect me as one too.

More female superheroes (or:A seat at the table)

When Hilary Clinton runs for the Presidency in 2016, women in the United States will rise in such unprecedented numbers, the government will have to retake the census. We need more women in visible positions of power, more women who have decision-making power: who are part of political, economic and legislative processes from their inception to their implementation and beyond. We need strong women from all walks of life to be seen as capable and powerful so that young girls can grow up knowing that women can access many different ranks, that there is no glass ceiling that impedes them, that they really can do anything, be anyone. When young girls stop wanting to be president by the time they are 15, when they fail drastically at maths and sciences due in large part to external factors, when their chief concerns turn to body image and getting a man's attention, we have failed future generations of female leaders by not showing or giving them opportunities or images of female success. And by doing this, we have failed future generation of boys and the relationships, friendships and partnerships they could be having with equally competent, intelligent, ambitious and successful women. Never underestimate the power of mentors, heroines and superheroes. (My current favorite is Qahera, a Muslim feminist superhero. She rocks!)

*That being said, can feminism please allow for diversity?

This is a woman's list and not a feminist's, because feminism is open to everyone. I've had it reading about if Beyonce/Miley Cyrus/Barack Obama is a feminist. I'm a bit tired of Sheryl Sandberg and all the other female giants telling me what to do. (Although, I really do love Sheryl, she has such perception.) I want female heroines, yes, but I want a diverse spectrum of what it means to a be a woman (and the same should apply to men). There is no one way to lead, or to succeed, or to be a feminist! I think that if we examine our choices, we can only fault ourselves at the end, but its okay because we are not always perfect, not always strong, not always leaders. I've certainly had my moments of weakness, moments where getting out of bed seemed like a remote possibility... for tomorrow. Does this make me less than? Does this make me not a feminist? Nonsense. Here:

1. Advocating social, political, legal and economic rights for women equal to those of men.

Feminism is large enough to be inclusive of everyone (just as patriarchy has been doing for years, quite negatively and perversely), women and men and everyone on the gender spectrum.

That being said (again), we all have a duty of self-respect under oppression

Bear with me now. Although feminism is inclusive of everyone, and I am advocating for an acknowledgement of the diversity within our opinions, contexts and histories, I still strongly believe that we have a duty to self-respect in the face of oppression. Emanuel Kant wrote that because we are beings who can think and reason, we are deserving of respect, and of being treated for our ends and not as a means (ie, don't use people, its not nice). He goes further to state that we also have a duty to self respect - and feminism takes that to say: in the face of oppression you have a duty to stand up. Standing up can take many forms: from a violent riot to a marching protest to a peaceful sit in, to telling yourself, inwardly, that you will never allow this to happen to you ever again. Whatever it is you choose, we all know when our self respect is being harmed. Some of us can advocate on behalf of entire people, some of us can advocate on behalf of just ourselves. Sometimes, the latter is the hardest. In 2014, I hope we all take a stance on our bodies, our thoughts, our actions, and we get the respect we deserve, while endeavouring to give it amply in return.

Finally, give a little communication!

We could solve so much of these misgivings and abuses if the sexes learned to communicate amongst themselves and with each other. If we understood that feelings are meant to be expressed, problems meant to be solved and that we don't continuously have to resort to power struggles to get our way. If we learned a language that was not so aggressive, not so gendered/sexist and not so dismissive, we could come to empathize with our opposites, see the world from their perspective and understand their struggles.

In 2014, I hope that men will look at a situation through a woman's perspective, and that women will be open to understanding the difficulties men face as well. What I've found more often than not, is that we are all struggling with the burdens that a patriarchal society places on us: heightened body image awareness, gendered pressures within social interactions and in the workplace and relationship issues are not solely a woman's arena. If only we would allow each other some leeway to express a full range of emotions, a full range of struggles and wants and frustrations, we might be able to work better together - and progress might be a source of mutual happiness and love instead of competition and discourse.

I wish you a more conscious New Year, one where breathing comes more easily and kindness, love and compassion are mixed in to your every day.

And if all else fails, there's always Costa Rica.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Women and Men Can't Be Friends. And, Women and Women Can't Be Friends.

Women and men can't be friends.

And, if you didn't know, women and women can't be friends.

Didn't you know this already? The different sexes can't intermix beyond their biological impulses, and the women, well they can't get passed the cattiness, the back stabbery, the gossip, the competition - they can't be real friends - like guys can. Because, after all, its probably a man who will get in the way.

Patriarchal structures are alive and thriving in beliefs and statements such as these. These views reduce women and men to cave-like beasts, with no interest in anything more than sex and normalized expected gender roles.

Men are supposed to only speak with women they want to have sex with. They are supposed to only view women as one-dimensional bodies, void of thoughts and reasoning, purely there for being looked at and being taken. Men are taught from a young age to fear the friend zone, and then are taught numerous ways to get out of it. (This is a pretty great takedown of the whole ridiculous affair)

Women, by the same hand, are taught to be looked at and to increase that male gaze any way they can. They might want to be friends with a guy, but they should  be wanting to find a boyfriend. Because women are taught that men are only after one thing (hint: sex), they are skeptical of friendships and are called naive and immature when a so-called 'friend' initiates sexual advances.

The reality, however, is that we are socialized beings, who, although having been inculcated with these gender stereotypes, are still beings who have learned to value things other than sex. We value discussion, activities, beliefs, fun, difference and opinions. We have learned, over the years, that to have a more complete, equal and diverse society, we must given weight and value to different voices. Not only have we worked to accomplished this in government and the workplace, but we now have a more diverse group of friends, both in race, gender and sexual orientation. We might say that much of this has been forced, through immigration, sexual liberation and the feminist movement, and has birthed commonplace daily interactions between neighbours, coworkers, friends, of the opposite sex, that do not hinge on the necessity of sexual activity.

It is traditional patriarchal structures that limit men and women to such essentialist beings - stereotypical animals if you will - and it is feminism and human rights and equality that allows for us to be layered and complex, valuing each other for more than sex.

It is also patriarchy that keeps women in competition with each other. If men are only looking for sex from women, and women are only vying to be wanted by men, then naturally women must be in competition with each other. We can't really support each other, because we will always have jealousy and cattiness to hold us back.

What I find sad, time and again, is that otherwise bright individuals hold these antiquated beliefs. But I have noticed, as I get older, that women are shedding those stereotypes, and are becoming true friends, unwilling to throw each other under any bus. My five closest friends are all women, and I trust them wholly and without prejudice - and I see the same behaviour in them towards their girl friends.

If we break away from what we see in the media, what we see on reality television, what we are fed through tabloids and stereotypes and the incessant rape culture, I think we will come to the understanding that there are myriad more ways to interact that aren't based on sex or competition. It's too bad that the media is such a fantastic influence on our lives, and that its presence in our lives begins at an increasingly early age.

Just to give you a taste, by the time an American girl reaches the age of 10 to 12, she'll have seen nearly 100 000 commercials. If those commercials are heavily laden with gender stereotypes - its pretty much a given that some of them will seep into her growing belief system. And teenagers? They spend around 11 hours each day on some form of media device - with all its access, so comes unfettered gendered media from the news all the way to games and social media sites. How can that not influence the way we see and value both ourselves and the opposite sex?

Maybe it takes maturity, maybe it takes experience - and although reality has occasionally proven me wrong, more and more I see that women and men can be friends. Women and women can have strong long lasting friendships. And I'm of the opinion that whoever really thinks otherwise is probably missing out on some amazing people and some amazing journeys.

Happy November 1st!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fitness Competitions: A dissection of fitness, health and beauty ideals

It seemed farcical. An ardent women’s rights advocate, and outspoken feminist, especially on body issues, I would be entering a fitness competition where winning meant being judged solely on appearance, presence and onstage personality.

12 weeks later, I’ve rarely been so humbled. 

Stepping on stage for the first time, I took first place in the morning Open division against 30 other fantastic women, and then 1st overall in the Elite division at night, winning my pro card and earning an entry into the North Americans in November.

I felt like any other sports competitor might: that I’d worked hard and that it had paid off. Nevertheless, I never stopped struggling with some competing thoughts - here is an excerpt of what the discussion in my head looked like.

Q: Did anyone express the opinion that standing on stage in a bikini was somehow incongruent with being a feminist?
A: I puzzled over this for a long time before beginning to train. And then, as soon as I began the morning and evening trainings, the nutrition program, as soon as I became an athlete again (and away from the ‘down season’), I forgot about it. Yes – I see that women are posing in bikinis being judged on their bodies, their faces, their personalities. Yes, I see that women are standing being judged, period. But so are men. We are all in the same boat, and the judges are male and female. It’s a sport that has been around since the dawn of time – pushing the limits of a body’s physical attributes into this so-called realm of ‘perfection.’

I do, however, think this is the deciding factor: I don’t live under the presumption that this is perfection at all. I know that fitness websites and ‘fitspiration’ messages are just as harmful as ‘thinspiration’ boards, parading near certain eating disorders in the name of health.

I think, as women, we are so happy to be able to do the fitness thing in a mainstream way because it’s a space we’ve never occupied before. It’s so traditionally male: being strong and fit and powerful with our bodies – and then showing it off without being told to be quiet or sit down. We should not, however, make it become the only space in which ‘sexy,’ ‘healthy’ and ‘fit’ women exist – because the reality is that there is an enormous variety of healthy and beautiful bodies out there.

“Strong is the new skinny” or “skinny is not sexy” – these are exclusionary statements. Anything can be sexy depending on the beholder and anything can just be – without needing to be sexy or sexual or intended for the ‘male gaze.’ Women need a space to simply exist – and what they choose in terms of health and body image should be their own – without the additional pressures of having a thigh gap or a six-pack. Aesthetic mandatories in the name of fitness are still lies masquerading as health.

Let me be clear and say that no one can happily look like those lean fitspiration pictures 365 days a year. For the .01% of people who do, that’s great. For the rest of competitors, the ‘off season’ is perhaps the most important part – your body must rest, your mind must recuperate – and if you’re going to come back with a better package, you need the food, the rest, and the strength. It is the hardest part, however, because all at once you see your body changing and you can’t help fearing it’s for the worst. This is where a lot of competitors develop eating disorders. It would be ridiculous to assume that one’s perception of beauty doesn’t change and sometimes it takes a while to regain perspective. Yet just as football trainers aren’t smart to train when injured, so fitness competitors are deluded in believing they can maintain such a low body fat percentage all year long and that this could even be a healthy goal.

That being said, if it is your choice to bench several plates and it is your goal to deadlift twice your body weight, I encourage you to do so! I am addicted to heavy weights, plyometrics and sprints on the stairmaster…. But I’m not sure that makes me better or sexier than anyone else. It just happens to fit the sport I partake in and love, and I get results from these activities that fit the criteria it takes to win.
I really believe that to be good at this type of competition, you have to love both aspects. Maybe you like being the center of attention – maybe you’re a natural performer. But you also have to love the training. Because the training is the most exhausting work I’ve ever done – training for swim meets doesn’t even come close. Your body becomes your tool, your prize possession, like Beckhams’ right foot, or a pitcher’s arm. You are judged on how well you have trained, how hard you have worked, and what you bring to complement that training.
Q: OK, but what about the implants?
A: Ah yes, the implants. First, body fat percentages drop so low for female athletes and especially for fitness competitors that often we lose our breasts completely. Personally, I’m a big fan of padding. But I’m not passing judgment on women that choose implants, and if this sport is your entire life, you might want to keep a ‘feminine’ look, or enhance your ‘curves’ for a fitness model look. I do think, however, that one should always examine one’s choices. What kind of pressures are you under that you would consider implants the only solution? If your body is your tool and you are getting implants to ‘perfect’ that tool in the industry and sport you are in, that’s your choice. You might equate it to men using steroids. All reasons are good reasons, because they are your own – but I would encourage women to thoroughly examine their choices.
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