Friday, November 11, 2016

A Letter to My Young Daughters after the 2016 Presidential Election

Dear McKinley & Madison,

I know the monthly email that I send for your future selves to read is late.  It’s also not going to be filled with fun facts about your milestones, personality quirks, or social happenings.  This email is going to be different.  I delayed writing to you two on purpose because I wanted to be able to relay historic news.  I waited for the 2016 Presidential Election to pass, confident that I would be telling you of this monumental moment wherein Secretary Hillary Rodam Clinton shattered the highest glass ceiling by becoming the first female President of the United States.  It was all but guaranteed and so confident was I that I had not entertained the possibly that it wouldn’t happen.  Not only was she the most qualified candidate to ever run for office (having served as a First Lady, a Senator, and the Secretary of State) – as the first woman to ever secure the nomination of a major party ticket would have to be – she was running against the least qualified person to ever run for the office.  Beyond the inexperience, this man – Donald Trump – was a self-proclaimed bigot – a racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic man who had insulted a range of people from war veterans to the disabled.  He was a former reality television star and a failed business man who had run corrupt profit-only colleges as shams and bankrupted multiple businesses defaulting on payments to the working class.  He was someone who refused to release his tax returns (which had never been done in political history) and it was revealed he hadn’t paid taxes for 19 years.  It’s still unclear how many business relations he has with foreign entities that could serve as a national threat.  He was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women and has multiple related allegations pending (including a child rape trial scheduled for a month from now).  He openly body-shamed women (including a former Miss Universe) and gets into Twitter wars with anyone he dislikes.  He spent the primary season insulting his fellow Republicans with grade school language and nicknames.  He has threatened to jail his opponent and shut down the media.  He voices respect for dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin.  There was absolutely no way that this man would become elected President.  So sure was I of this fact that I never once entertained the notion.

I spoke to you two in simplistic language not thinking of the consequences of sharing my excitement about the impending election with you.  We referred to Clinton as “the girl we want to be president” and to Trump as “the bad man.”  I never thought of what might happen if “the bad man” was elected and what fears I was instilling in you.  I flippantly remarked that if he was elected we’d have to move out of the country.  I never thought that would happen and one of you would ask if there is room for all your stuffed animals in our cars.  How could I think that?  Despite driving daily through the small country town, where you both spent your early years in daycare, and seeing the Trump signs littered across every lawn, I could not believe that the majority of Americans would support this man.  I tried to understand the reasons people would vote Republican based on their religion and upbringing, why economic concerns would motivate them, but surely they couldn’t let this person be the face of our country. 

He ran on the promise to build a wall between our country and Mexico (and make Mexico pay for it).  To deport all illegal immigrants in our country and to put a ban on all incoming Muslims.  He argued that reinstating “stop and frisk” (an unconstitutional practice used for racial profiling) was good for “law and order.”  He wanted to overturn “Obama Care,” our newly instated national health care system.  He chose a running mate who believes that LGBTQ persons should have no rights.  He has vowed to elect Supreme Court Justices that will overturn Roe v. Wade (which ensures a woman’s right to have an abortion).    He was against everything I stand for.  Everything I embodied.

And meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was a candidate I had wanted to win eight years prior when shattering that glass ceiling was likely the only thing that mattered to me.  But this year I was with her on policy, not (just) precedent.  She wanted to reform the criminal justice system (if I haven’t talked about the #BlackLivesMatter movement enough in these emails then shame on me), provide free higher education, to ensure equal pay for equal work (gender equality), and so forth.  She was professional and ready for the task at hand.  But she was a career politician with three decades of experience and the (unproven, media-hyped) scandal that goes with it.  And she was a woman – a powerful woman deemed “unlikable” and “untrustworthy” because sexism is alive and well and works in overt and covert ways daily. 

You can likely already tell by my phrasing who won.  You will likely read about this election in history books as well.  But yesterday I had to tell you both.  Madison, you needed a hug, you just didn’t understand why we had to have another “boy” president (to which I’ve tried to explain some boy presidents are good – this one just wouldn’t make a “good” boy president.  Again, shame on me for not having more conversations with you about what a wonderful “boy” president we had in President Obama).  McKinley, you wiped my tears and gave me a Minnie Mouse bracelet to wear for the day.  I had to promise you both we weren’t moving and that it would be okay.  That he could become a good president because our country was comprised of good people he had to serve.  But I lied to you through my fear.  I’m not sure he can become a good person or a good president or that the people of this nation are as good as I thought they were.  I see a lot of ugly and hate right now and it could get worse.

I’m an eternal optimist – a Pollyanna – so sometimes I’m not prepared to deal with reality.  I wasn’t prepared to deal with reality this week.  And that trait is hard to overcome.  (It’s also a product of my white privilege wherein I’m sheltered from seeing many evils of this world just as you will be.)  I want to believe that this will work out in the end.  That this will be a historic moment of resetting.  That the disenfranchised group that voted for him can be helped (as they do have real concerns).  That his presidency doesn’t normalize racism, sexism, etc.  That his policies won’t take us backward in time.  But within days of his election hate crimes are already starting and I’m scared to raise you in what feels to me like a whole new world. 

I want to hope for a world where you feel safe and full of hope. Where all children (and adults for that matter) feel that way.  Today I am struggling with that but tomorrow I’ll stop crying and I’ll try to present that strong façade for you.  And more so, I have to do more as an activist to make the world into the one I want for you. 

Yesterday morning I played the concession speech from the woman who I wish was the first president you would have remembered.  You won’t remember this so I’m quoting the part that I want you to hear the most:  “And to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dream.” 

I hope you will remember wanting “the girl” president.  (That there was, for the first time, a generation of children who could utter that phrase is at least something.)  That you will remember that your mom volunteered for her – drove across state lines and worked call centers, wore her shirts proudly, posed you in front of her campaign signs.  (McKinley you chose on your own accord to practice your spelling by duplicating her name and tag lines from my election paraphernalia that littered the house.)  I hope you see the first female president in your lifetime and are as proud of her as I was of Hillary Clinton.

With Love & Hope,


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Zombies, Motherhood, and Social Commentary: More Thoughts on The Walking Dead’s Carol

I’ve previously written about Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) from AMC’s hit show The Walking Dead (2010-present).  As the show’s seventh season approaches, I find myself once again thinking about this character’s development and the surprising turn she took, once again, in season six. What makes The Walking Dead’s character growth of Carol fascinating is that it is not a tidy, straight trajectory wherein she seamlessly transforms into a stereotypical feminine character into a masculine one – from an emotional maternal figure to one (seemingly) unaffected by the deaths of children.  (See previous post).  Season six finds Carol struggling to come to terms with the woman she has become, specifically the amount of human lives that have been lost at her hands.  Despite having just saved Alexandria from an attack by the human invaders, she finds herself haunted by her actions, keeping a running list of how many people she has had to kill in order to protect herself and those close to her. 

In “Not Yet Tomorrow,” viewers find Carol sitting on her porch smoking a cigarette on the eve of another battle against a human threat (the Saviors).  Although she is reluctant to spill more blood, she is unwilling to risk her friends’ lives by not accompanying them to attack a group that poses a threat.  While Carol feels guilt both over the lives she’s taken, and the ones she predicts she will take the following day, her newly situated love interest, Tobin (Jason Douglas), reframes her skills in an interesting way.  When he admits that “[she] can do things that – that just terrify [him],” Carol responds by asking him how he thinks she is able to do those things (“Not Yet Tomorrow”).  His response can be read as a statement about motherhood more generally:

Tobin: You're a mom.
Carol:  I was.
Tobin:  You are.  It-- it-- it's not the cookies or the smiles.  It's-- it's the hard stuff.
The scary stuff. It's how you can do it.  It's strength. You're a mom to most of the people here.
Carol:  To you, too?
Tobin:  No. You're something else to me.

In a sometimes hyperbolic fashion, The Walking Dead often paints motherhood as being scary.  Consider for example the horrific scene early in the series wherein Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), Rick’s wife, dies during an emergency C-Section and her own son has to shoot her in the head so she will not turn into a zombie (“Killer Within”).  Or consider the more recent, but no less tragic, moment where mother of two, Jessie (Alexandra Breckenridge), watches her youngest son, Sam, get eaten by zombie and her screams doom her to the same fate (“No Way Out”).  (For more on the many tragedies that befall mothers on this show, see Audre Az’s piece in Mode: “Does ‘The Walking Dead’ Hate Mothers?”)  But Tobin’s aside about motherhood being “hard” and “scary” – a role that requires “strength” – seems to be a direct moment of commentary wherein the program makes a statement about motherhood outside the fictional landscape.  By specifically drawing attention to the fact that motherhood is not simply all about “the cookies or the smiles,” the work, challenges, and sacrifice of motherhood is alluded to quite plainly. 

If this moment of dialogue existed in isolation it might be able to be dismissed as not of much importance.  However, the surrounding episodes continue to focus on Carol’s conflicted emotions about not only herself, but about the role that her fellow long-time group survivor, Maggie (Lauren Cohan), should play in the group’s protection now that she herself is an expectant mother. Despite Carol specifically wanting to keep Maggie safely out of harm’s way in their battle against the Saviors, the two women get captured.  Carol reprises her role as the pathetic woman, performing weakness in order to be underestimated by their captors, and ultimately outsmarts them.  Not unimportantly, the two slaughter their imprisioners and fight their way free well before they could be rescued by the rest of their (predominantly male) group.  Tobin’s comment about the scary lengths that a mother will do to protect her own then serves as foreshadowing for the acts these two female characters are forced into in “The Same Boat.”  Still, Carol is unable to see this as a victory – or to be able to see her ability to kill as a strength – and by the season’s end she has exiled herself once again from the group hoping that if she is out on her own that she can avoid murdering any further humans. 

Since Carol-the-Badass became a fan favorite whereas the original Carol-the-housewife was rarely a passing through in viewers’ minds, it will be interesting to see whether her popularity will decline should she continue to survive and take on her new role as a quasi-pacifist.  But already there are critics pointing out the problematic ways in which her most recent characterization was plotted.  For example, in “Taking the Teeth out of Carol,” one blogger notes that focusing on Carol’s self-crisis as a result of PTSD rather than grounding it so heavily in her relationship to motherhood would have been more ideal.  For example, another character, Glen, is showcased as reluctant to slaughter the Saviors but his reluctance is not connected to his role as an expectant father.  But with so many contemporary anxieties surrounding women and motherhood, perhaps it’s unavoidable that many would creep into the narrative subtext of post-apocalyptic shows like this one.

While certain genres like dystopia, science fiction, and horror are always ideal spaces for doing such work (and providing cultural commentary on social issues more generally), perhaps the zombie narrative is particularly primed to be a site where debates concerning femininity and maternity are battled out.  As a horror subgenre it stems from the gothic tradition that often associates motherhood with monstrosity.  Gothic narratives often focus on the displacement/death of the mother and/or the erasure of her physical body.  While male figures have often been the focus of horror narratives, there has been a notable spike in females taking center stage in horror storylines, particularly in recent Hollywood horror films.  What is worth noting, though, is that anxieties concerning motherhood play out differently in zombie narratives than they do in other horror narratives. The classic horrific mother tends to be depicted as one who harms or abandons her children; she represents a destructive and dysfunctional force in their lives.  This same motif is not present in zombie narratives as mothers are no more likely to be turned than any other character.  In The Walking Dead particularly, mothers are almost never shown as walkers posing a threat to the children they have left behind. If horror films represent external societal concerns about motherhood, the zombie narrative may actually represent internalized concerns that mothers have – concerns that may be the product of all of those external pressures.

Further, when zombies appear in contemporary media they are – for all intents and purposes – viewed as ungendered, sexless bodies.  Once they become “walkers” – a term that purposely dehumanizes them – they no longer are divided into socially constructed categories like man and woman.  (No one refers to them as female versus male walkers, for example.)  This is not the case in other horror or supernatural genres that depend on highly gendered others that thwart human communities (e.g. witches, vampires). Consider for a moment how often the plot of vampire narratives are tied to the gender and sexuality of the main vampires and/or to their romantic or sexual relationships with human characters.  Like other horror genres, in zombie narratives we get the classic human versus “other” conflict, but the other is not often gendered as female (even if in a particular scene the zombie threat happens to represent a body that may have originally been female).  While this may seem like a minor point of difference, it does change the potential underlying message.  Battles involving humans and zombies do not then prompt readings wherein we see female humans as in conflict with an other that is seen as a distorted mirror vision of herself (representing, as might be the case in vampire narratives, a fallen version of herself) or a metaphorical representation of her patriarchal other (i.e. man).  A zombie, in this way, is simply a zombie. 

That is not to say, however, that the zombie itself is not coded in a way that draws attention to important gender-specific critiques.  After all, by nature such plots draw attention to the body, subtly attending to debates concerning what qualifies as “life” and focusing explicitly on the actual invasion and transformation of human bodies.  These foci have led scholars to argue that zombie narratives are ideal sites in which to imagine and construct gender and sexual identities differently through their reconstituted social worlds.  Other academics have argued that continual focus of families in peril in zombie narratives like The Walking Dead allow provide commentary on issues such as the decay of the modern family.  And still others have read consumption in zombie narratives through a feminist lens, suggesting that it nods toward the time pressures and constraints of Western Culture – pressures felt even more forcibly by women and mothers. The program may make some missteps when it comes to presenting a world of gender equality, but it does reveal existing cultural anxieties impacting contemporary women women.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Making of Brides (and Wives): How Bridal Magazines (Still) Sell Domesticity

The glossy magazine covers featuring smiling brides adorned with flowers and lace are not a new phenomenon. The first magazine devoted specifically to brides was Bride’s Magazine, published for the first time in Autumn of 1934.[i] In Decoding Women’s Magazines, Ellen McCracken notes that corporations like Conde Nast, publisher of Bride’s Magazine, learned early on that the wedding planning period was a lucrative time to advertise to female consumers, while simultaneously instilling ‘a large array of pseudo-needs’ that the magazine could also propose to meet. Beyond strategically capitalizing on the spending powers of women during the pre-wedding stage, these magazines also sold traditional views about gender and marriage. Studies of publications like Bride’s prove that – unsurprisingly – they reinforced the popularly held societal views common at the time of publication.[ii] For example, an October/November issue from a 1983 Bride’s featured an article titled ‘Becoming a Wife’ that provided advice to female readers on how to fulfill their new roles – advice that clearly reflected dominant social norms.[iii] Articles like these (even when not as explicit in their training aims) were also accompanied by advertisements for various products that (directly or indirectly) promised to help women fulfill their new wifely roles. Therefore, these glossy magazines packed full of advertisements for designer gowns, luxury jewels, and upscale honeymoon resorts are not as benign as they might appear at a glance. As McCracken notes, these magazines were stealthily training women to ‘uphold the traditional status quo,’ while also teaching them to purchase commodities that would further ensure they would fall in line with conservative ideologies concerning gendered relationships.[iv]

Although one would hope that more contemporary issues of Brides Magazine would have done away with this practice of associating soon-to-be married women with conventional domestic roles, unfortunately, this practice continues. For example, the October/November 2013 issue contains an ad for Cuisinart that depicts a future groom, on bent knee, proposing to his would-be bride.

He has painted ‘Will you marry me?’ on the wall, and his fiancé reacts as one might expect: she is thrilled. The copy reads:
One good proposal deserves another! Not that he’s popped the question, it’s time to say ‘yes’ to the kitchen of your dreams. So, when filling out your registry, pick something fast, that’s build to last, something hot, like a set of pots, and something new that’s brewed just for you. Make the kitchen of your dreams a reality with Cuisinart.[v]
This ad highlights at least three issues: first, the sentence ‘Now that he’s popped the question, it’s time to say ‘yes’ to the kitchen of your dreams’ places the romantic ideal of the wedding on the same level as domesticity, implying that, for the woman, the wedding and the domestic realm exist (or should exist) in tandem. Also, the word ‘dream’ appears twice in the ad, further inculcating in women the notion of living in a fairytale world once married. Finally, the singsong, rhyming nature of the ad, along with the reference to the ‘something borrowed, something blue,’ serve to both infantilize women and perpetuate the prospective fairytale-like quality of the wedding that women are meant to embrace.
A Macy’s ad in the same issue features a young man and his bride-to-be sitting on a couch, surrounded by gift registry items such as home appliances and towels.

 This ad, too, glamorizes domesticity: the future bride is wearing a tiara, implying she is a princess who has snagged her prince. At the same time, she is surrounded by blenders, cake plates, dishes, pots, and towels, and the copy urges the couple to ‘Register for Macy’s Dream Fund.’[vi] In this ad, both the images and the text suggest a merging of the romantic with the domestic. On the second page of this two-page ad is a full-sized image of two vacuums (meant to represent the couple), along with flowers in a vase in between the two vacuums. The words ‘I do’ are in the upper right-hand corner, and the copy reads: ‘Make a clean sweep as you start your new life together.’[vii] The ‘I do,’ placed strategically over the bright pink vacuum cleaner, along with the pink flowers, work together to imply that she will say ‘I do’ to her fiancé at the same time that she says ‘I do’ to domesticity. Essentially, the message here is that a bride-to-be can be a princess, provided that she combines this glamorous role with the soon-to-be domestic role of wife. This is ironic, of course, considering that fairytale mythology would have us believe that the prince is supposed to take the young woman away from a life of toil so that she can become royalty. Finally, the juxtaposition of ‘dream fund’ with ‘the magic of Macy’s’ works as a method to remind the bride-to-be that her wedding should combine the magic – found through marriage – with her childhood dreams of becoming a bride.[viii] Hence, similar to the Cuisinart ad, the Macy’s ad also reflects the cultural training women received during girlhood, while reinforcing domestic stereotypes that will be continually thrust upon them in the coming stages.
Another noteworthy contemporary advertisement for cookware appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Martha Stewart Weddings. The ad for All-Clad shows a young bride-to-be holding a large frying pan in front of her body, and the copy below her chin reads: ‘I fell for a rugged, real looker who cleans up good. Now we’re together for life.’[ix] The copy indicates that, along with falling for her future husband, the future bride has also fallen for the cookware. That is, the perfect marriage for a woman is one that unites her with a man at the same time that it unites her to her new world of household tasks. While the copy on the first page of this two page ad stresses the rewards of cooking together with a spouse, both the fact that the woman is holding the cookware and the copy, which states they are ‘together for life,’ suggest that the domestic realm is exclusively her domain. And even though the ad is intended to be humorous, it still works as any ad from 50 years ago might work in that it reinforces stereotypical models for women.
What is significant about all three of the ads discussed here is that they use direct address to communicate (supposedly veiled) directives: Cuisinart tells the future bride to ‘Make the kitchen of your dreams a reality with Cuisinart.’; the Macy’s ad tells her to ‘make a clean sweep as you start your new life together’; and the All-Clad ad maintains that ‘Expressing your culinary side is fulfilling while creating a recipe and also when enjoying the results at the table.’  While this isn’t an uncommon practice in advertising, it is interesting to note that this strategic use of second person (‘you’) is also prevalent in the self-help genre. Bridal magazines are not often considered as falling within the realm of the self-help genre. However, this childlike rhetoric, rhyming tone, and use of direct suggest they may as well. And most significantly, these three advertisements highlight how being a bride is, indeed, a pivotal stage in a woman’s life. For this brief period of time leading up to the wedding and during the event, a woman has become the princess bride that society has told her to she should long to be. But immediately afterward she must return to reality, where she will receive still more instruction on how to fulfill her now role as a wife (and potentially mother).
At first glance these bridal magazines may seem like relatively harmless products that simply buy into the capitalistic wedding culture.  But, in reality, the contents that fill their pages actually do some lasting cultural training during a period that has been framed as the so-called climax of a woman’s life – the moment when she finally gets to become a princess for a day; the point at which she’s finally secured her supposed “happily ever after.” These magazines don’t train women on how to act for just their special day (or the Bridezilla-influenced lead up to it), but rather they train them on how they’re supposed to act in the days, years, and decades that follow it.

Excerpted from Ames & Burcon's How Pop Culture Shapes the Stages of a Woman's Life:  From Toddlers-in-Tiaras to Cougars-on-the-Prowl, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

[i] The title of the magazine when it was originally published was Bride’s; later, it was titled Brides.
[ii] McCracken, Ellen. Decoding Women’s Magazines: From Mademoiselle to Ms. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993, pg. 268.
[iii] McCracken, Ellen. Decoding Women’s Magazines, pg. 269.
[iv] McCracken, Ellen. Decoding Women’s Magazines, 269-70.
[v] Cuisinart. Advertisement. Brides Magazine. Oct/Nov. 2013, pg. 160-61.
[vi] Macy’s. Advertisement. Brides Magazine. Oct/Nov. 2013, pg. 54.
[vii] Macy’s. Advertisement. Brides Magazine. Oct/Nov. 2013, pg. 55.
[viii] Macy’s. Advertisement. Brides Magazine. Oct/Nov. 2013, pg. 54-5.
[ix] All-Clad. Advertisement. Martha Stewart Weddings. Winter 2014, pg. 137.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The So-Called Sneaky Feminist Agenda Finds its Way onto YA Bookshelves

As the landscape of young adult (YA) fiction continues to change in the 21st century – and the marketcontinues to thrive – attention to the role this body of literature has on gender formation has never been higher. While it’s still significant that it was the Harry Potter series and not the Hermione Granger series, and that even in the 21st century Rowling, like many female authors before her, chose to write under initials in order to mask her gender (thus appealing to her target audience of boys), the worlds of YA fiction are much more female-friendly than they once were. Of course, not everyone is happy about that.

Armed with old myths about gendered reading practices and skewed statistics, some have bemoaned the fact that women now ‘dominate’ the YA scene, resulting in alarmist pieces like Sarah Mesle’s article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, ‘YA Fiction and the End of Men,’ and Robert Lipsyte’s New York Times article, ‘Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?’ In his article, Lipsyte complained that ‘boys’ aversion to reading’ was increasing and that males ‘were being treated as a sideshow’ in the literary market. He complained that YA authors were catering to a target audience of girls, and that this existing bias toward female-orientated books was compounded by the fact that such ‘novels are bought by female editors, stocked by female librarians and taught by female teachers. It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominantly female characters.’ Punctuating his prose with this other apparently horrific f-word, Lipyste reflects nostalgically on the yesteryears of the publishing industry, noting that ‘children’s literature didn’t always bear this overwhelmingly female imprint.’ Apparently progress toward gender equality can be a painful pill for some to swallow.

Of course, Lipyste’s argument is almost laughable and ignores the numerous ways in which the literary world is still stacked in favor of men. For example, the vast majority of books taught in the public school system are written by men. And his tirade simply fuels a myth that ultimately serves as ‘a self-fulfillingprophecy’: the notion that boys will only read books focused on male characters. As Alison Flood notes in a piece for The Guardian, this tired cliché that teenage girls can identify with narratives about boys while teenage boys cannot (or will not) identify with narratives about girls, has been the problematic rationale Hollywood has been using for years to excuse its ‘systematic exclusion of female characters from cinema narratives.’

Lipsyte and others aren’t completely wrong in noting a shift within the YA publishing market, but the scale of that shift is obscured behind hyperbolic rhetoric. For example, The Atlantic ran a piece titled ‘Why Do Female Authors DominateYoung-Adult Fiction’ after NPR released a reader poll for the top teen novels in which 63% of the titles chosen as finalists were penned by women. Meghan Lewit concluded: ‘If the results of the NPR poll are a reflection of the reading populace, the YA world is a place of relative harmony compared to the battle of the sexes being waged in adult fiction,’suggesting that female YA authors are not hitting the ‘literary glass ceiling’plaguing the rest of the market.

But the problem with the conversation surrounding this shift toward more female presence in the young adult literary realm is that it is grounded in shock, awe, and dismay.

It's interesting how a slight predominance of female authors on a list immediately makes people think ‘female dominance.’ If the numbers were reversed, we would perhaps say appreciatively that the list was close to being gender balanced. We expect to find male dominance everywhere – anything else is an unusual occurrence, and as such it stands out. And this affects how we view the world far more than we realise.

Elizabeth Vail, author of ‘The Legacy of Katniss, or Why WeShould Stop ‘Protecting’ Manhood and Teach Boys to Embrace the Heroine,’ took her fellow journalists to task for calling the presence of a female protagonist one of the newest ‘tropes’ to hit YA fiction. She argued, the ‘last time I checked, half the population on earth is female. So saying ‘having a female protagonist’ is a trope is on par with saying ‘having a human protagonist’ is a trope, or ‘having a protagonist who inhales oxygen and ingests organic matter to live’ is a trope.

Further, the statistics being used to make proclamations about women’s supposed takeover of the genre are slightly misleading. A study of the award winning YA books since 2000 did reveal that women penned slightly more of those texts than men (56 per cent versus 42 per cent, with the remaining 2% per cent being co-authored by a male-female writing team), but even within those critically acclaimed texts, 49 per cent of the protagonists were male, while only 36 per cent were female. And even if we were to focus on authorship alone, as the researchers note, we can hardly call a figure like 56 per cent ‘female dominance.’

And while the data seemingly paints a positive picture concerning gender representation in youth literature, it doesn’t actually paint a very comprehensive picture. Other studies have shown that when youth literature is analyze more broadly, this slight female edge – if it can truly be called that – quickly dissipates. A study of 2014 newreleases found that as children’s ages decrease, so does the presence of female characters. While 65 per cent of the literature aimed for 12-18 year olds had female protagonists, in texts marketed to 9-12 year olds, this figure drops to 36 per cent. Studies of children’s literature present an even bleaker picture. A study of nearly 6,000 children’s books published between 1990 and 2000 revealed that ‘males are central characters in 57% of children's books published each year, with just 31% having female central characters.’ The gender imbalance even extends into texts in which the characters are animals, with male animals starring in 23 per cent of the books per year while their female animal counterparts are at the center of only 7.5 per cent of the annual releases.

Regardless of these statistics, perception can be a powerful thing. And since many of the most popular YA texts of the past decade have featured female protagonists, the idea that women are ruling this literary scene may linger on for some time. And while it’s fine to praise characters like The Hunger Gamess Katniss Everdeen, the many accolades she has received for being a strong female character, positive role model, or feminist heroine often eclipse the fact that such exemplar female characters have existed in the genre for well over a century. Before the likes of Hermione and Katniss there were Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908), Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (1932), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Changeling (1970), Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat (1989), Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (1999), Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (2013), and countless others celebrated female characters.

So why attend to this literary legacy – to the strong young women tucked into the pages of young adult novels? It’s just escapist fiction meant for teens, and it can’t possibly wield that much cultural influence if it’s only reaching a subset of a specific age demographic, right? Wrong. Part of the reason YA literature is getting all this attention is exactly because it is not just being read by tweens and teens. Adults are rapidly consuming these texts also. Marketing research indicates that approximately 55 per cent of the people who buy literature designated for 12 to 17 year olds are adults and 28 per cent of these purchasers are buying them for their own reading pleasure. Similar to the panic caused by the slight shift from male to female lead characters, the increasing number of adults reading YA texts has caused critics to make apocalyptic predictions about the death of literacy. In an article for The Los Angeles Times, Susan Carpenter notes: ‘It used to be that the only adults who read young adult literature were those who had a vested interest – teachers or librarians or parents who either needed or wanted to keep an eye on developing readers’ tastes. But increasingly, adults are reading YA books with no ulterior motives.’

This apparently is bad news because in 2014 various publications ran articles shaming adult readers for their juvenile reading practices. Writing for Slate, Ruth Graham’s article titled ‘Against YA’ ran with the subheading: ‘Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.’ A month later, Vanity Fair featured the scathing commentary of The New Yorker’s literary critic, James Wood, who criticized Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Goldfinch – a novel focused on a 13 year-old boy who survives a terrorist attack – calling it ‘further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.’ The hits kept on coming with critics from the New York Times, The Daily Review, and The New York Review of Books ‘decrying the demise of adulthood’ and urging the adult readers of YA fiction to ‘grow up.’ Unsurprisingly, these criticisms were matched with a wave of pieces defending the genre and adult consumers’ affection for it. So, the moral of the story: everyone’s reading YA literature, or talking about those who are reading YA literature, so the genre’s reach is not to be underestimated.  Therefore, it’s not surprising that the apparent literary gains of female authors and the visibility of female characters is getting such attention.  Because we wouldn’t want to stray too far away from the all-boys-club of the literary world, right?

Excerpted from Ames & Burcon's How Pop Culture Shapes the Stages of a Woman's Life:  From Toddlers-in-Tiaras to Cougars-on-the-Prowl, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Women Shouldn’t Have Sex & Men Shouldn’t Say I Love You: The Gendered Double Standards found on The Bachelor/Bachelorette


As yet another season of ABC’s Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise draws to a close, once again the show broadcast loud and clear the double standards that exist for women and men on the dating scene –onscreen and off.  Last week the star of ABC’s Bachelor, Ben Higgins followed protocol and proposed to contestant Lauren Bushnell.  But two weeks prior he committed a big show no-no:  he said he loved he loved her on camera…. right before he said he loved another contestant, JoJo Fletcher.  While Higgins wasn’t the first bachelor in history to say he was falling in love with two contestants, he was the first to say it directly to the women (while caught on camera at least).  The trope of a bachelor torn between two women, in fact, has sort of become a staple of the program.  Loyal Bachelor fans will certainly remember the iconic balcony scene wherein Jason Mesnick sobbed over his conflicted heart and the more infamous moment wherein weeks later he dumped the woman he selected at the Final Rose ceremony, Melissa Rycroft, on live television in order to reunite with the runner-up, Molly Malaney, whom he later married and started a family with.  Regardless, Higgins’s loose lips infuriated fans.  One viewer (@karachristine16) tweeted “Why on earth would Ben say I love you to two different girls.  Whoever gets sent home is going to be crushed.”  Another (@JacquelyneAnder) posted: “I really can’t stand Ben.  He doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘I love you,’ if he says it to two women.”  While many tweeters were concerned with the ethics behind his multiple confessions of love, others were simply angry that he broke the show’s so-called “rules”:  “Ben’s already broken two rules.  Never say “I love you” & never ever say “I love you” multiple times.  Someone’s in the dog house” (@MrsEllis4Eva).  Higgins defended his actions in an interview with E!News:  “I don’t know of a rule book, maybe there is one, maybe (one) fans out there are hiding… (I) keep hearing I broke all the rules.  I didn’t know there were rules to this.” 

Although his over emoting caused some negative fan reactions over the past few weeks, it paled in comparison to what unfolded during the previous season’s Bachelorette.  On June 22, 2015, the Twitterverse erupted when ABC’s bachelorette had sex with one of her male suitors prior to the show’s pre-approved, pre-scripted timeline. Far from being a PG-rated reality TV program, the long-running show is well known for broadcasting a slew of make-out sessions and an entire episode devoted to speculating on whether the bachelor or bachelorette will have sex with any or all of his or her final three contestants in the fantasy suite. Yet when an episode aired revealing that Kaitlyn Bristowe, the show’s star, and repeat contestant, Nick Viall, had slept together at the close of their one-on-one date, Bristowe faced a wave of criticism from fans through social media. Over 70,000 tweets with the hashtag #TheBachelorette appeared in the 24 hours surrounding this episode and a vast majority of them were negative posts consisting of judgmental quips and derogatory slurs focusing on Bristowe’s sexual activity. These tweeters, the majority of whom were female, were quick to affix all the normal labels used to discuss so-called female promiscuity. Among the tamer tweets were chastising posts like this one: “Kaitlyn needs to learn how to keep it classy & not so trashy” (@otrat_rowyso).

Amid the caustic remarks were also hundreds of tweets defending Bristowe. For example, comedian Amy Schumer (@amyschumer) posted: “Oh no someone slept with a guy they’re dating and considering marrying! Showing love for @kaitlynbristowe.” Tweets that challenged slut shaming began to fill the feed, as did posts that specifically called out ABC’s producers for the ways in which the show was participating in and encouraging such shaming. (For example, the network promoted the episode as “Kaitlyn’s Sex Scandal.”) The attention paid to this episode resulted in some productive social commentary both on and off the twitter feed. Social media users and journalists alike drew attention to the continued sexual double standard that exists – one that is broadcast loud and clear on this show.  Bristowe and Viall both spoke out against the criticism as well. The evening of the episode, Bristowe tweeted: “Just remember, when you judge me, you do not define me, you define yourself,” and Viall posted numerous tweets drawing attention to the problematic ways in which people, particularly women, are judged for their sexual activity. Through a series of posts, Viall praised Bristowe for having the courage to admit on national TV to having sex, “knowing that she [would] be unfairly judged by some,” and further arguing that “sex is not shameful” and that “both men and women have an equal right to have sex without judgement.’” While some important conversations resulted from this sensationalized reality television episode, the initial social media response it provoked reveals how, even in the 21st century, expectations for single women on the dating market are entrenched in problematic sexual double standards that have remained unaltered for decades. Consider, for example, this live tweet (@HeatherGossman) that aired during the episode: “you can turn a housewife into a hoe. But you can’t turn a hoe into a housewife.” As the negative twitter posts prove, many still believe that certain behaviors determine whether a woman is good girlfriend or wife material, and at the top of the list remains sexual activity.

The fact that Bristowe’s character was torn apart in social media – and she even received death threats! – because she dared to be physically intimate with a man, while Higgins was criticized – albeit to a lesser degree – not for his three fantasy suite encounters with women (which likely involved sex), but for his verbal intimacy is interesting.  Perhaps these reality television tweet-inspiring scenes received such attention because they flip the gender script.  After all, it’s the girl that’s supposed to be overly emotional and the guy that’s supposed to be the horn dog, right?  Sigh.  Maybe live tweeting our reality shows is a new way to police gender norms.

But what is even more telling is how antiquated and uneven the criticisms launched at these contestants are once we step back and view their actions within the context of everyday real dating practices.  Although our romantic ideals tell us that love should proceed sexual relations, for the great majority of people navigating 21st century relationships, the simple fact is that physical intimacy is often part of the process of determining romantic compatibility.  It is, therefore, more common for someone to be having sex with someone they are dating casually than it is for someone to be proclaiming love to two people simultaneously.  Yet Bristowe was more heavily criticized for doing something relatively normal while Higgins was less chastised for doing something that would be seen as pretty cruel in non-reality television settings.  (Imagine for a second a female friend told you she discovered the man she was in love with was proclaiming his undying love for her and another woman at the same time.)  Again, it is clear that when it comes to judging men and women according to societal norms, women are often held to the more unattainable standards.

What these little blips in the Twitter world indicate is that we not only want to hold reality television stars to standards we ourselves don’t consistently reach, but we also want to do so while turning a blind eye to the problematic aspects of the programs that house them.  After all, isn’t it a bit hypocritical to critique any Bachelor/Bachelorette star for their sexual encounters when the show almost necessitates that contestants who makes it to the end become physically intimate with the star once they reach the fantasy suite stage?  And isn’t it unfair to bemoan the emotional pain a star might cause a constant by expressing feelings when the show itself is structured not only to cause such emotional pain, but also to broadcast it nationally?  Rather than critique those who participate on these reality television programs it seems viewers (myself included) might need to turn inward and consider why we continue watching this show season after season and what it might reveal about how the double standards that still exist for women when it comes to navigating romantic relationships.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Fictionalizing Ferguson: Recent Televisual Attempts to Work through Racial Injustice & Police Brutality

As someone who has spent over a decade analyzing the ways in which television attempts to work through cultural anxieties – specifically those that surfaced post-9/11 – I was not surprised when the new televisual trend of 2015 seemed to be spawning stand-alone episodes devoted to racial conflict.  The “ripped from the headlines” approach that many primetime dramas take made it inevitable that we were about to see a whole lot of fictionalizations (good and bad) of the tragedies that unfolded in Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, Cleveland, and too many other cities to list.  As inevitable as it may have been, my cynicism meter spiked especially high when the first of these aired in January of this past year and it’s taken me nearly all of 2015 to decide just how I feel about the social commentary these (mostly well intentioned?) writers, producers, and networks are attempting.  Three early examples of such efforts include special episodes of The Good Wife & Scandal – which have been referred to by media critics as each program’s respective “Ferguson episode” – and ABC’s new show, American Crime, a gritty new crime anthology/mini-series which unflinchingly tackled racial conflict as its first season’s focus. 

The least well received of these was the first to air:  Season 6, Episode 12 of The Good Wife, an episode titled “The Debate,” was broadcast on January 11th, 2015. It began by projecting disclaimers across two static screens (noting that the "episode was written and filmed prior to the grand jury in Ferguson and Staten Island" and that "all mentions of 'Ferguson' are in reference to the events in August, 2014, after the shooting death of Michael Brown").  The episode then moved directly on to camera-phone footage of a black character, Cole Willis, being shot and killed by two mall police officers.  The faux-footage, as media critic Simon Howell notes, is “very Eric Garner-esque” and, therefore, carries with it some of the same emotional resonance. 

The focus of the episode is Alicia Florrick's (Julianna Margulies) televised debate for the Cook County State's Attorney election against opponent Frank Prady (David Hyde Pierce).  The debate is interrupted within minutes when the jury comes back with a not-guilty verdict exonerating the police officers involved in the murder showcased in the opening scenes.  A protest takes place, police arrive in riot gear, politicians squabble about how to manage the situation, and the fictional dialogue is punctuated with a lot of references to how this could be "another Ferguson" or (how the situation could go "Full Ferguson") if not handled correctly. 

Media critics found plenty of things to criticize within this episode, such as a string of scenes that unfold in the hotel kitchen (where the debate had been held): "Prady and Alicia run into each other and start free-style debate about the  issues in the justice sytem that make tragedies like this one commonplace. Slowly a  group of young men of color (hotel workers) slowly drift in and act as a Greek  chorus, pointing out how ridiculous it is seeing two white people who are running for office arguing about how more people of color need to hold political offices."



Writing for Vulture, Laura Hoffman states that the critique works to some to acknowledge the fact that this story is coming from a television show with an overwhelmingly white cast and creative team).  However, other critics have argued the scene is an "embarrassing moment of 'white- splaining' (especially coming from a show that is usually more nuanced when it comes to political matters).” While the kitchen scene received the most attention by critics, the ending has also been criticized as being overly “tidy” as it closes with Alicia’s husband, the Governor, Peter Florrick, arriving at the scene of the protest with the victim’s widow, both of them urging the crowd to remain peaceful – and, of course, they do.  (This is a relatively common trope for episodes such as these. CSI: New York's finale, “Today is Life,” which predates Ferguson, airing on February 22, 2013, featured a story line wherein a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man suspected of having robbed a jewelry store and it was, similarly, his tear-streaked fiance who helped tame the crowd of protesters.)
Some have suggested that perhaps it was just “too soon” to have an episode like this, but others have argued the flaws were all in how the episode was executed. The episode spent only a fraction of the time really delving into race doing so as it bounced between other melodramatic story lines. But some critics did think it had its moment of worthy critique, for example, showing that canned political statements do little to improve real world racial justice. 

Compared to The Good Wife episode, Shonda Rhimes’s attempt to respond to current race-related events though Scandal was better received. The Season 4, episode titled “The Lawn Chair” aired on March 5th, 2015 -- the week that the damning report on the Ferguson Police Department was publicly released. In a way that mirrored parallel events, the fictional episode “presented a story that seemed directly inspired by the killing of Michael Brown.” In the episode, Olivia was hired by the Washington Metropolitan Police Department to help control the optics, and curb community outrage, after a black 17-year-old was shot and killed by a white cop just blocks away from the Capitol. Within minutes of Olivia’s arrival, the dead boy's father the dead enters the crime scene, shotgun in hand, demanding to see the cop who shot his son.  As the plot unfolds, Olivia finds herself in conflict with both the police who’d hired her, and a neighborhood activist, Marcus, who condemned her for being on the wrong side of the issue, causing her to confront her own privilege.



 Ultimately the events of the murder are revealed: Brandon Parker, the murdered teenager, was stopped by Officer Newton while walking home because he matched the description of a suspect accused of stealing a cellphone.  The officer fired his weapon when Brandon reached toward his pocket.  At first the officer plays up his remorse, but as the storyline continues Olivia reveals that the he has planted evidence at the crime scene – a knife by the body to make the accidental shooting seem more justified.  In reality, Brandon was not reaching for a knife but a receipt to show the officer that he had just legally purchased a cellphone.  Newton was eventually arrested but not before delivering a blatantly racist rant in front of his shocked squad room: “[you people are] taught to question me, to disobey me… and somehow I’m the animal.”

Many praised the episode.  Sophie Gilbert writing for The Atlantic, called the episode “a lesson in how to thoughtfully model fiction around real-life tragedy.”  Despite the fact that “the timing of the episode was eerie:  days after the anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death coupled with the release of the Ferguson report,” many critics commended Scandal for its attempt to “tackle police brutality and institutionalized racism.”

Like with The Good Wife, some criticized Scandal for its overly optimistic ending.  In the end, Olivia and her team save the day and despite the fact that he disturbed a crime scene (firearm in hand), the grieving father is not arrested.  Instead he is personally escorted to the White House where he cries on the president’s shoulder.  Aisha Harris criticized this lack of realism and the way the program didn’t push itself far enough.  In an article for Slate, she asks:  

Why did Brandon have to be a standup kid in the end, who didn’t steal a cellphone? And why did Officer Newton have to be an undoubtedly dirty cop? Most cases of this nature are not so easily defined—racism and prejudice are often much more covert than that.  When Michael  Brown, Eric Garner, and many other unarmed people of color are killed by the police, the first thing many defenders will say is that they were “asking for it” by robbing a corner store or selling loose cigarettes, or, oh I don’t know, carrying around a fake gun in an open and carry state. Such viewpoints allow people to avoid empathy and see people of color as less than. 

Writing for Paste Magazine, Shannon Houston spoke out along similar lines: “Scandal did not need to give its huge audience an imaginary world where justice is served because, unfortunately, many people believe that such a world is the America we live in. If you’re going to make a 'race' episode, why support those delusions?” But other critics were more forgiving.  Michael Arceneaux, of VH1, wrote:  “I feel like we needed to see this lie this week.  It’s a fantasy, but it’s great that we were allowed to see a place where Black lives, grief, and anger matter.”  

Since some of the criticism that was launched at these shows stems from the fact that one episode simply isn’t enough to cover such complex issues, it’s not surprising that ABC’s American Crime – a program that devoted an entire season to race relations – was more uniformly well received (with critics saying it portrayed a “more nuanced portrait of race”).  American Crime premiered the same day as Scandal’s “Lawn Chair” episode.  Like the other shows, American Crime was influenced by recent events, a fact that creator John Ridley, who won an Oscar for the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, noted: "The sad reality is that, unfortunately, these events remain cyclical in our country. It was never our desire to exploit any of these things, and it's not my desire to just merely say things. I really want people to feel things, to reexamine the world around them." 


 American Crime is structured similarly to  films such as Crash and Babel, where a number of seemingly disconnected stories and characters come together in a single event. In this case, it's the horrific assault of a white couple living in the bedroom community of Modesto, California — an attack that leaves the husband, military veteran Matt Skokie, dead, and his wife, Gwen, a former beauty queen, in critical condition.  The suspects arrested and charged with the crime are all minorities and so it prompts a critical examination of race and prejudice (between and within racial groups).

While all three programs likely shared Ridley’s goal of trying to get audiences to “feel things” – specifically things related to racial inequality – American Crime was unique in that its overall aesthetic seemed devoted to this goal.  The show’s very filmic audio-visual techniques often reinforced the social critique it was trying to unfold – and it was, indeed, felt (at least by me). 

One visual motif that appears throughout the season is one of division (as can be seen in these screen shots below). Unlike traditional television staging, characters were often placed so that barriers existed between them and other characters, or so that even when they existed as the only character on screen, they were not centrally located, showing an imbalance or isolation. 



Another common element was the use of the extreme close up when two people were in dialogue.  In traditional shots both parties of a conversation would be visible, but throughout the show, entire conversations would be shot with only one speaker visible.  Moreover, the audio editing was purposely uneven so that dialogue was often out of sync with the visual of the actor speaking the lines.  The show often strategically used blurring, showing only certain characters in a shot clearly. The results of all of these stylized techniques was a reinforced attention to themes like othering, segregation, and breakdown in communication. 



The 2015 episodes related to contemporary race relations and police brutality did not end with these three shows. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit aired an episode, “Community Policing,” on October 14, 2015 that was similar in some ways to Scandal’s episode (and was met with similar controversy) and Madam Secretary aired an episode (“So You Say You Want a Revolution”) similar to The Good Wife (although slightly better executed) on November 15, 2015 wherein a #BlackLivesMatter related story line acted as a frame for a primary story line unfolding in the show.  So it’s obvious this televisual trend isn’t going anywhere but why might that be important or problematic?

Fictionalizations of domestic tragedies like the murder of Michael Brown or Eric Garner (or too many others to list here), are not easy to tell.  And so most television shows won’t tell these stories (or tell them well). In comparing these shows to the ones I usually study – fictionalizations inspired by the September 11th attacks – it’s obvious that these episodes related to racial conflict are fictionalizing something that is actually much more real and present than the terrorist-themed dangers presented (or allegorized) in the 9/11-related shows.  As a result, these new episodes have greater power to influence viewers. That is, these shows have the power to do good… and the power to do more damage.

Generally speaking, many of the tragic remediations we are served (on a global or domestic scale) act as wish fulfillment giving us the type of positive dramatic dénouement we wish we had received in reality.  In studying this practice in 9/11-themed narratives for over a decade I’ve debated about whether viewing these shows could be seen as therapeutic or problematic or both. With this new trend of programming dealing with very current, very real racial issues, I’m even more invested in considering the consequences of such programming.  

In many respects, 9/11 is an event completed.  Sure, the larger threat of terrorism is ever-present, but the event of 9/11, while still reverberating in our cultural operations, is one that has reached a sort of tentative closure.  But unlike 9/11, Ferguson (serving as a representation of systemic racial injustice in the U.S. more broadly) is still very much an event-in-progress.  Despite individual rulings and reports, Ferguson is not over.  It’s not over because unlike 9/11 which stands as an isolated incident of sorts, the events surrounding Ferguson are very much linked to a string of similar, cyclical incidents.

So I’m left with many questions concerning these narratives that attempt to remediate (or fictionalize) our domestic tragedies-in-progress.  I wonder:  what does it mean to repurpose a cultural tragedy that is still in motion?  What kind of affectual power does this give to these parallel, fictional narratives?  Can they heal, influence the cultural climate, refine public sentiment? As television scholars have questioned before concerning fictional exploration of other social issues, does watching these narratives actually act to defuse activist impulses rather than stimulate them?  Ever the bad television scholar, these are questions I’m going to leave unanswered here as I may need still another year to ponder them.