Is Beyonce a feminist?

This excellent article says yes, she is, and a big one at that. In fact, the feminist Ms. Magazine chose her for their cover this month.

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Others, however, have disagreed with what’s being called her “fierce feminism,” and it’s worth recapping some of the rather loose ends in the discussion of what, exactly, a feminist role model looks like. How does she act? What does she stand for? And is it enough for her to call herself feminist?

First off, it’s important to note that few famous women call themselves “feminists.” If asked about it, they usually say something along the lines of this, via Taylor Swift:

“I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”

Pretty neutral and meh, right? Other women feel the need to flat out reject the label, as Katy Perry did when she–wait for it–accepted her 2012 Woman of the Year award from Billboard:

“I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.”

Hmmm. Okay.

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But in an interview with Vogue UK, Beyonce had this to say about the term:

“That word can be very extreme…But I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman and I love being a woman.”

So, better. Although I’m not sure about the “modern-day” qualifier. As opposed to what, a 19th century first-wave feminist? A 1970s second waver? I’m certainly not looking to be described as an old, antiquated somewhat stale feminist. I guess it frustrates me that women feel like they have to dance around the issue.

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But, perhaps this hesitance is to be expected, because as soon as Beyonce sort of agreed to the whole feminist thing, she received flak for it. According to the Salon article, several feminists had some on-point things to say about the image of her sexuality:

Freeman insists flashes of underboob and feminist critique don’t mix. Petersen concurs, calling the thigh-baring, lace-meets-leather outfit Beyoncé wore during her Super Bowl XLVII halftime show an “outfit that basically taught my lesson on the way that the male gaze objectifies and fetishizes the otherwise powerful female body.” A commenter on Jezebel summed up the charge: “That’s pretty much the Beyoncé contradiction right there. Lip service for female fans, fan service for the guys.”

But there is, of course, the very third-wave argument for Beyonce’s display of sexuality as a symbol of her empowerment. After all, Beyonce faces the same challenge that all women do: we must find success in terms of a deeply patriarchal world. We just have to decide and define our own terms.

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It’s kind of like a game, and if Beyonce’s success and self-confidence tells us anything, there is more than one way to win.

Moral crimes in Afghanistan

In January of 2012, the Human Rights Watch reported that about 400 women were locked away in Afghani prisons and juvenile delinquent centers for something called “moral crimes.” Today, and on the eve of a major departure of international forces from the area, that number has risen to 600.

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So what are moral crimes? They include fleeing from abusive homes, escaping arranged marriages, and having sex outside of marriage–including rape.

Yes, you read that right. Women can be prosecuted and thrown in prison for being raped.

These women–victims of crime–are jailed for their “loose morals.” Their attackers regularly enjoy impunity.

It is estimated that 110 of these women are under 18.

Afghanistan Women On The Inside

New York Times article on the issue describes a few of the accused women:

Asma W., 36, ran away from her husband after he beat her, threw boiling water on her, gave her a sexually transmitted disease and announced that he would marry his mistress. Fawzia, 15, took refuge with a family that drugged her and forced her into prostitution. Gulpari M., 16, was kidnapped off the street by a stalker who decided he wanted to marry her; she turned him in to the first policeman she saw.”

It gets worse: this month, the Afghan parliament refused to endorse Afghanistan’s 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women:

So vociferous were the law’s opponents, including religious leaders who are members of parliament, that the speaker halted debate after 15 minutes and sent the law back to parliamentary commissions for further consideration. Those against the law characterised it as a violation of Afghan religious and cultural values, ignoring Afghanistan’s history of child marriage, forced marriage, domestic violence and the prosecution of rape victims.”

Afghani women’s rights activists are deeply concerned that their cause–not to mention their achievements over the last 10 years–will be abandoned once troops leave the country.

Conditions are grim, and foreign donors may “consider the plight of Afghan women to be a lost cause.”

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The Human Rights Watch outlines the major steps that the country must take if it is to protect its women and girls:

The Karzai government should abolish the practice of prosecuting women for ‘moral crimes’. All laws that discriminate against women should be amended or revoked, and the EVAW law should be fully enforced throughout the country. The government should develop and implement a plan to increase the percentage of the police force that is female. And greater support is needed for shelters for women fleeing violence so that there is at least one shelter per province.”

Education is key, but so is the relentless, hopeful support of the international community.

The “Lose the Lads’ Mags” campaign: Overdue or overzealous?

UK Feminista and Object have come together to promote the Lose the Lads’ Mags campaign, which asks stores to remove pornographic magazines from their shelves. Such images, they claim, violate the Equality Act 2010 by involuntarily exposing store staff and customers to offensive images.

According to an article by The Guardian, the groups want to take legal action against stores that continue to stock such magazines, on the grounds that this exposure “violates the dignity of individual employees or customers, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.”

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Others, however, disagree, arguing that banning such magazines is not only a form of censorship, but also a way to put sex workers out of work.

Here’s what I think:

1. To my knowledge, these groups are not actually trying to eradicate these magazines, they’re just trying to get them off the shelves of mainstream stores, where all sorts of non-pornography seeking people have to see and/or sell them. Sell these types of publications in more, ah, appropriate places. Specialized shops and the like.

2. I think it’s interesting that all sorts of people suddenly come of the woodwork to protect the rights of sex workers when there’s talk of materials getting banned. Are job opportunities in the sex work economy really these dissenters’ number one priority?

3. It’s important to note that we’re not just talking about pornography. We’re talking about public images of men and women in objectifying poses, and in a patriarchal society, we’re especially addressing such images of women. These pictures are humiliating and offensive to some people in the same way that images with racist or homophobic themes are. Why? Because these images play to a culture that enjoys the marginalization and oppression of specific groups of people.

An example of "redface"

An example of “redface”

The bottom line is, if you have no problem whatsoever with public pornographic images, at least try to understand why others would.

Then do some research on the working conditions that most sex workers face.

New opportunities for women in the Anglican church

The Church of England has released a new plan for reform measures that allow women to serve as bishops, beginning as early as 2015. This comes after similar legislation, which actually has the majority of the church’s support, just barely failed to garner enough votes last November. And when I say just barely, I mean by only four.

The Archbishop Of Canterbury

The Archbishop Of Canterbury

Although the reform will have to go through a complicated and lengthy approval process over the next two years, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

And of course, there are some adamant dissenters. According to Reuters:

The issue pits reformers, keen to project a more modern and egalitarian image of the church as it struggles with falling congregations in many increasingly secular countries, against a minority of conservatives who see the change as contradicting the Bible.

Traditionalist church leaders in developing countries especially oppose the reform, and similarly criticized the Church’s decision to allow celibate gay bishops last January.

The Church of England General Synod Meeting

Most real change is slow, especially when it comes to religious reform. The point, though, is that there is indeed change. The Church of England has the chance to transform, if only slowly, into a faith-based institution that promotes equality. Perhaps it will encourage Catholic and Orthodox churches to someday follow suit.

Sex crimes and social media

Just when you thought sex crimes in our society couldn’t get any more shameful or disgusting, rapists are now partaking in a new appalling trend: sharing pictures and videos of their victims, pre- and post-crime, via social media sites.

What’s perhaps even more horrifying is that the accused perpetrators are young teenage boys, most between the ages of 14 and 17. Most acting in groups.

Their victims? Girls as young as 11, 12 and 13 years old. Children.

And there are pictures and videos of these children being raped and abused, being passed around like trophies and souvenirs.

This article outlines the most recent cases, and tragically, there are quite a few.

But how and why is this happening in the first place?

This article sheds some light on the deeply troubling statistics surrounding the issue:

The rate of sexual assaults is alarmingly high among adolescents. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Justice finds that 30% to 35% of female sexual assault survivors were first raped between the ages of 11 to 17. Many of these assaults occur when victims are under the influence of alcohol, and a surprising number of adolescent rapes involve multiple perpetrators. A recent study found that 12.4% of sexual assaults committed against 13- to 17-year-old teens were gang rapes.

Then, there’s this:

Rape is a crime of power and dominance, and social media provide new ways of asserting that power to hurt victims over and over again. Gang rape takes on a whole new meaning when images and slurs are posted and forwarded and spread endlessly. Adolescent sexual assaults are particularly likely to go viral (more so than instances of adult rape) because of the “everyone knows everything about everyone” culture of middle and high school. The ubiquity of cell phones with cameras and the power of the Internet make for faster, farther-reaching gossip, name-calling, character assassination and ultimately despair for the victim.

And most disturbingly:

What was once a horrible incident that the victim remembers and suffers in private agony has now become an all-you-can-watch public humiliation event.

Bragging about sex crimes on social media is a new fold in the cyber bullying phenomenon and it needs to be actively combatted. But it’s also a new way for police to investigate crimes and prosecute criminals. These boys are cruel and careless, and the very evidence they flaunt should secure them a very long time behind bars.

Are colleges protecting their students from sexual assault?

Some of the nations top colleges and universities–Swarthmore, Dartmouth, Occidental, University of Southern California, and University of California, Berkeley–are under investigation for underreporting sexual assault and harassment on their campuses. Current and former students have filed complaints with the U.S. Education Department, alleging that the institutions’ handling of incidents failed to comply with the Clergy Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

University of California, Berkeley

University of California, Berkeley

The Clergy Act requires that colleges report violent acts on campus, including sexual assault, and publicly disclose safety and crime data. Title IX prohibits sexual discrimination on campus.

These complaints are the newest in a series of reports from students who claim that their school’s policies or procedures violated these acts. Last month, Yale was ordered to pay a fine of $165,000 for not reporting four cases of sex crimes almost a decade ago. UNC, Chapel Hill, Amherst, and Wesleyan have also been investigated over the last two years.

Yale

Yale

While it’s certainly a huge problem that both men and women are facing sexual assault on their campuses–places that are supposed to be safe and supportive for young people–it’s just as alarming that schools are reluctant to honestly report it.

Yale is currently disputing the fine, on the basis that the it is “unfair.”

I’d think “unfair” would feel little bit more like this student’s experience:

“For the entirety of my last year in college, I continued to live every day in fear,” Kenda Woolfson, a recent graduate, said at the news conference. “In May, I watched as my rapist shook the hand of our college’s president and received his diploma, and I wished I had not been discouraged by a dean from reporting the rape.”

Colleges that care about their students’ safety and wellbeing–not to mention their reputation–should take note. But if they don’t, I certainly hope prospective students and parents will.

The need for new roles (and role models!) in Hollywood

Last week, Lucy Liu spoke with Net-a-Porter’s Graphic Issue about her experiences as an Asian woman working in Hollywood. In particular, she addresses how her race has affected the rather stereotypical roles she has received:

“I wish people wouldn’t just see me as the Asian girl who beats everyone up, or the Asian girl with no emotion. People see Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy, but not me. You add race to it, and it became, ‘Well, she’s too Asian’, or, ‘She’s too American’. I kind of got pushed out of both categories. It’s a very strange place to be. You’re not Asian enough and then you’re not American enough, so it gets really frustrating.”

Liu has played her fair share of Dragon Lady and martial-arts action roles. As this article on XO Jane puts it:

What she’s not often cast as is a woman who happens to be Chinese-American, a role where her race could be acknowledged and wrapped into the plot, without turning her into a total stereotype.

In short, the way she looks filters the work she is offered, which is not unlike the experience of most “otherly” women in film, television, and fashion. Liu is certainly not the first woman of color to talk about Hollywood’s preference for white actors.

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Recently, Kerry Washington discussed her leading role in the hit television show Scandal–she’s the first black woman to be cast as the main character in a network drama since 1974. The show has an estimated 8 million weekly viewers.

Washington, who also starred in the Oscar-nominated Django Unchained, just scored her first magazine cover, the June issue of Elle. Her image is a refreshing one: In magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue, women of color still appear infrequently.

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But why, exactly? Is this a matter of active racism or more, a matter of few writers creating diverse, non-stereotypical roles for women of “unconventional” colors, shapes, and sizes?

In the big picture, this is not just an issue for non-white women. Smart roles for white women also seem to be dwindling, especially for women over 40.

Women’s lack of representation on the screen is directly related to their lack of presence in the writing rooms. Until Shonda Rhimes, the powerhouse behind Shondaland Productions, entered the picture with Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and Private Practice, television shows revolved around white ensembles–think FriendsSex and the City, How I Met Your Mother, even Mad Men. 

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Rhimes’ characters “happen” to be non-white; they are not defined by their race or gender, nor are these particularities important to the plot, which is important to her:

“When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah,’ ” she says. “That’s not how the world works. I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.”

Rhimes’ develops characters that women of any race could play. And she doesn’t particularly like to talk about it: “It’s 2013. Somebody else needs to get their act together. And, oh, by the way, it works. Ratings-wise, it works.”

Let’s hope that Rhimes’ example–not to mention success–will influence more writers and producers to think about race and roles in the same way.