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.

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.

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.

Could the modeling industry get any worse?

In the world of high fashion, models with skeletal frames are, well, the norm. In fact, the acceptable body weight of runway models is so low that models in the size 4-8 range are often considered plus-size. Healthy bodies are viewed as heavy. It should go without saying that this is really, really wrong.

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But apparently a lot still needs to be said. Last week, Swedish news source The Local reported that modeling scouts have a history of approaching patients at eating disorder clinics.  According to a doctor at the Stockholm Center for Eating Disorders, “People have stood outside our clinic and tried to pick up our girls because they know they are very thin.”

One of the patients approached was so ill that she was bound to a wheelchair. Another was only 14.

When the scouts were confronted about what they were doing, they explained that they look for “healthy, normally slim young people and that they never urge anyone to lose weight.”

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Right. They look for healthy models at a medical clinic for severely ill and emaciated young women (not to mention psychologically fragile). And how convenient that they wouldn’t need to encourage them to lose weight, since they’re already weighing in at near-death numbers.

This is not really about weight though, or about sizes. Most women know what a healthy size is for their particular body type, and it’s usually a range. On a spectrum of sizes, “healthy,” of course, can be found at both ends.

That said, no argument or opinion about what is and isn’t beautiful, natural, or even admittedly preferred makes this remotely okay. These young women are trying to recover from something devastating. But to the modeling industry, they’re up for grabs.

If nothing else, their actions should makes us question our own roles in this sick game. What magazines do we read, what designers and brands do we wear? And perhaps most importantly, what do we think about ourselves when we step on the scale? It’s time to stop feeding into an industry that is willing to pay women to keep killing themselves.

“American Novelists” means male novelists, of course.

In a New York Times op-ed last week, Amanda Filipacchi wrote about something strange going on over at Wikipedia. Apparently, editors are moving the names of women novelists from the category “American Novelists,” and putting them in a new category: “American Women Novelists.” Men’s names, of course, remain only in “American Novelists.”

According to Filipacchi,

 “It appears that many female novelists, like Harper Lee, Anne Rice, Amy Tan, Donna Tartt and some 300 others, have been relegated to the ranks of “American Women Novelists” only, and no longer appear in the category “American Novelists.” If you look back in the “history” of these women’s pages, you can see that they used to appear in the category “American Novelists,” but that they were recently bumped down. Male novelists on Wikipedia, however—no matter how small or obscure they are—all get to be in the category “American Novelists.”

Since Filipacchi’s piece, other writers have reported on it as well, and if you visit the Wikipedia pages it seems that they’ve halted this nonsense–for now. It would be one thing if Wikipedia created separate categories for both men and women. This might make sense in regards to simpler searching for a particular author.  But to create a “women’s” list and remove those names from the master list of novelists suggests that women writers are a derivative from the “normal” (read: male) category of writers.

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Joyce Carol Oates

So why is this happening in the first place? According to Deanna Zandt in an article for Forbes Woman (which is another interesting derivation–is this happening everywhere?),

“Anyone can edit Wikipedia, but over 80% of Wikipedia’s editors are young, white, child-free men, which means that their perspective is what largely dominates how information is organized, framed and written. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a young, white, child-free man’s perspective, of course– it’s just that there are tons of other perspectives in the world that should influence how a story gets told.”

If Wikipedia truly wants to provide users with neutral, unbiased information, it’s going to need more women editors. Duh. If “male” is the norm–the original category from which all others deviate–then sexism is also the norm. It’s subtle, and for that reason, it’s pervasive. It’s the status quo. And it’s not just up to Wikipedia to fix it. It’s up to us, too.

In the words of Zandt:

“[I]t’s not enough that we create an open system and say that everyone has the opportunity to work on it– we need to make intentional interventions into the status quo that involve raising the voices of those who are not heard as often.”

The truth of the matter? As long as we allow “the norm” to speak for us and to structure how we think about the world, we can always expect to be described in adjectives that reference our “otherness.” And right now, we’re allowing ourselves to be defined in terms of that difference.

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I’m waiting for Wonder Woman

For the last few years, movies about superheros have dominated the big screen. Spiderman, Batman, Thor, Ironman…the list goes on. Classic Marvel and DC comic-book figures have been transformed into larger than life fan obsessions. This summer, the trend continues with new movies about Superman (Man of Steel) and Wolverine (The Wolverine). The trailers look good, and I’m looking forward to seeing them. Still, I have to wonder: When are we going to see an awesome movie about a superheroine?

So far, superheroines have appeared as side acts in otherwise all-male ensembles. Think of Storm in X-Men or Natasha Romanoff in The Avengers.  A little ironically, Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz had more screen time, character development, and dialogue in the Charlie’s Angels trilogy than either of Halle Berry’s or Scarlett Johansson’s roles. And then there was Berry’s Catwoman…sigh. I’m tired of seeing superheorines as an afterthought or even worse, as a joke.

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Last year I wrote an article about the fantastic PBS documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. It traces the history of Wonder Woman, the Amazonian Princess Diana, since her creation in the 1940’s. The documentary is most moving in its exploration of what Wonder Woman actually means to young women. She stands for compassion, justice, even love. She is strong yet kind.  She is powerful yet fair. And most importantly, she “keeps going,” no matter what. She’s a superheroine, but the best, most admirable parts of her character feel real.

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Done right, a Wonder Woman epic could mean the next superhero/ine blockbuster for the the film industry. But for women it would mean much more.

Stigmas and standards: Pregnancy past 40

Halle Berry isn’t just pregnant with her second child, she’s pregnant with the second child she’s had past 40.  Big news, everyone, or at least you’d think so by all the way-too-excited headlines reporting it. Here’s the rundown: She had her first daughter at 41 with model Gabriel Aubry, and now at 46 she’s expecting a boy with fiancé Olivier Martinez (of Unfaithful fame). Truth be told, I would not know Berry’s exact age if it weren’t for this pregnancy. For some reason, the number is not to be missed.

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Okay, it’s not just for some reason. Her age is getting so much attention because, let’s be honest, there’s a stigma associated with women who get pregnant past the age of 40 (and really, even past 35). In 2013. No matter who you are (in this case, a famous actress), how much money you make (lots), or what the state of your physical health is (uh, she looks pretty damn fit/perfect to me), if you’re a woman who dares to have a baby “later” in life, prepare to be picked apart.

I’ve already read too many lines about her diabetes, the risks of geriatric pregnancies, and how she will raise children during her “twilight” years. And in the comments sections, readers are scrambling over how she got pregnant in the first place. Everyone calm down. She’s 46, not 86. Besides, why, really, do we care? Of all the pregnant women in the world, I don’t think Berry needs our concern. And on that note, does any pregnant woman deserve the quick judgement of strangers?

Halle Berry attends 'The Call' Premiere in Buenos Aires

This might be personal for me. I’m more than 20 years younger than Berry, but I’ve already listened to friends talk about when they think they“should” try to have a baby, followed, very clearly, by when they shouldn’t. My objections to these engrained rules are answered with phrases not unlike the ones that come up in articles about Berry’s pregnancy: something about risks and the fear (distaste?) of being an older mom.

Here’s what Berry has to say about it:

“I’m a much better mother at 46–or 41, when I had her–than if I were like 21 or 25. I mean I was just a little baby trying to figure it out–trying to figure out who I was, let alone having the responsibility of trying to help another little soul develop and grow. I’m so glad I waited.”

By the way, I had to search around a little for Martinez’s age. It isn’t automatically listed in every article (and headline!) like Berry’s. He’s 47.