What Women’s Rugby Can Teach Us About Body Positivity

Originally published on Medium.

It’s a brisk fall day in Poughkeepsie, the bleachers full of shivering fans as they await the referee to call, “Crouch. Touch. Pause. Engage.” The two teams rise and crash into one another, the oblong rugby ball barely visible amidst the skirmish of legs and dust. With a howl from the opposing side, the ball breaks loose from the scrum, deftly picked up by the scrum half and flicked along the back line. On the sidelines, my grandfather, a pilot during the Cold War, and my father, a dedicated football fanatic, cheer in unison. I don’t think either would have ever expected to have a granddaughter and daughter playing one of the roughest sports in the world against Army’s women’s rugby team. But the rugby pitch is the one place where I’ve felt most liberated and alive in my body. Without trafficking in platitudes, women’s rugby teams are composed of a constellation of shapes and sizes, builds that rupture conventional notions of the aesthetics of athleticism and forge a sense of solidarity that has allowed me to travel the world. I’ve played in South Africa and Ireland, swapped strategies with ruggers on the beaches of Barbados. If you consider cross-cultural exchange an essential element of the Peace Corps, I taught my home stay family that women, too, can be strong and fast, joining the all male rugby matches on the school fields of my village at dusk every night. Any female rugger will tell you that it’s not simply a sport — rugby is an exercise in grit and resolution, learning to love our bodies for the incredible work they do on and off the field.

The Rio 2016 Olympics this summer have been dogged by controversy — political unrest and protests around government corruption, an economic recession, displacement of favela communities, fear of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, and now another doping scandal. The ongoing issues plaguing the Rio Olympics also come on the heels of the U.S. Women’s soccer team’s demand for equal pay and safe playing conditions. Yet few have discussed the premier of rugby sevens at the Olympics this year. Rugby was dropped from the summer Olympics in after the 1924 games, despite the fact that it’s the second most popular game in the world. To an outsider, the sport, often referred to as “football without pads,” may seem inherently masculine — you must scrum, ruck, maul, punt and tackle your way up the field to score a try, lining up in rows like soldiers in the heat of battle. Despite the international rugby fan base, however, women’s rugby has been largely marginalized, victims of the same flawed promotional logic which presumes that people don’t want to watch women play sports. Yet with the competition of women’s rugby teams alongside men’s at the Olympics this year, female players were finally provided with an international spotlight to showcase their incredible athleticism and skill.

I started playing rugby my freshmen year of high school, having tried to join and been promptly denied a spot on my middle school’s football team. The injustice of the denial stung in part because I knew, with many of the players still in the beginning pangs of puberty, I could likely tackle most of the boys on the field. As a travel soccer player for seven years, I was known to take the instruction of tackle a little too literally. I’d been a multi-sport athlete for years before I discovered rugby but my body never seemed to quite fit in the other games I played. I had the endurance and the on-field aggression, but no matter how much I ran and trained, I never cut the willowy figure of so many of my female peers. It sometimes seemed like my place on a soccer team felt as much tied to size as how many points you scored in a game. Girls would examine their bodies in the mirror of the locker rooms, comparing weights and skipping meals even after a hard training session. Even the skimpy running shorts of my cross-country team made me uncomfortable — with no thigh gap to speak of and specks of cellulite, it was hard to feel confident during a 5 K race.

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Rugby was a whole other animal entirely. Perhaps due to the tenacious nature of the game, rugby attracts a certain strength of character in players. You have to not only be willing to throw your body against an oncoming opponent — you have to look forward to it, relish it. It’s not bloodlust so much as an opportunity to test the boundaries of your body in a way that is rarely afforded to women. In an expose on the history of women’s sports forThe New York Times, Padawer explains how sport, as the province of strength, has traditionally been thought of as a masculine domain. People worried that women would become too “mannish” and unattractive if they developed the kinds of musculature needed to compete. Athletics were so stratified along gender lines in the early 20th century that a Women’s Olympics was established in 1922, which, despite the success, recapitulated sexist conceptions of sport. The controversy over what kinds of sports women were permitted to play often swirled around discourses of propriety, beauty and femininity. It’s not surprising that the rise in diets and exercise among women was also contemporaneous with the shift in the beauty paradigm towards the celebration of slim women. Particularly during the aerobics craze of the 80s and 90s, women were encouraged to tone and sculpt the presumably plasticine female form into a trim and fit figure. Fat shaming partially emerges from the perception that body transformation is possible so long as you have the right will power. And yet women are expected to run, lift weights, and strength train not to improve the functionality of their muscles, but rather to fulfill the aesthetic pleasure of a “healthy” body. Let us not forget how Australian swimmer Leisel Jones was castigated for being “too fat” to compete in the London 2012 Olympics or the intense body scrutiny and shaming female gymnasts are subject to.

Harvard Women’s Rugby, Rugged Grace

Harvard Women’s Rugby, Rugged Grace

Perhaps part of the reason women’s rugby has remained on the fringes of sport culture is that rugby, more than any other sport I’ve played, accepts all bodies as good bodies. What matters most is your ability to handle the ball, run fast and hit hard. Women who might be characterized as overweight in other settings are celebrated in the forward line for their ability to hold up a ruck. It doesn’t matter if you can run a six-minute mile as long as you can crash the defense and stay onsides. In part due to the physical nature of the sport, rugby also engenders a new relationship with your body and the bodies of your teammates. You might spend most of the game with your head in between the thighs of the locks or looping your arm around the crotches of the first row in a scrum. There is no room for insecurity about your weight if you’re being lifted by two women in a lineout. Your body is not only the vehicle for winning the game — it’s the barrier the stands between a defender and your teammates on the back line.

The women on my high school rugby team were self-possessed in a way I’d never even imagined. I’d grown up thoroughly uncomfortable in my own skin, constantly pinching my stomach and my hips like calipers to measure the body fat. I hated my body — it always felt too big, too broad, the “wrong” side of athletic. I’d go on dates and men would comment on the breadth of my shoulders, the distinct curvature of my calves and I’d wince, unsure how to respond. Rugby changed the way I looked at myself and fundamentally altered my relationship with my body. Suddenly, my shoulders were hailed as battering rams for tackling, my big thighs perfect for pushing through a maul or throwing off a defender. I came to value my body for its strength rather than its size, the girth of my arms an indicator that I had been training well and would be able to throw that much further. I ran mile after mile not to whittle my waist down but so I knew I could stay in for both 40-minute halves and still outpace the defense. For so long I’d been self conscious about wearing shorts or skirts. Yet after games or on the ride back from tournaments, we’d lovingly compare incipient bruises, wounds from the battles we’d fought. I suddenly found myself wanting to show off my body, picking outfits that would flaunt my cuts, scrapes and purpling bruises, as well as the muscles that had helped us win so many games.

Rugby has inspired healthy body image for many of its female players. Back in 2014, the Harvard Women’s Rugby Team published “Rugged Grace,” a series of photographs of the players in their bras and underwear with inspirational messages scrawled across their shoulders, stomachs and legs, notes from teammates about what they appreciated about one another’s bodies. The images include phrases like “so strong,” “ripped,” “power ≠ size,” “battle scars” and “fearless.” These women joyfully flaunt their bodies, unabashedly exposing their body hair and stretch marks to completely dismantle the ideal body type and instead celebrate the kinds of bodies that make up a team. The project emphasizes a more inclusive notion of beauty. Recently, Emory Women’s Rugby launched the “Because of Rugby” campaign to spotlight the incredible capacity for rugby to empower its players. Bethany Studnicky, who has been playing rugby for 15 years writes, “Because of Rugby I am proud of my body.” Other testimonials discuss finding strength in beauty and beauty in strength, becoming more confident in their bodies and overcoming mental health issues through rugby. Photographer Alejandra Carles-Tolra also documented the women’s rugby team at Brown University, noting, “I hope people see my photographs as a celebration of these women’s strengths and identity, which I believe play an important role in challenging the meaning of masculine sports, and pushing the boundaries of female identity.”

"Because of Rugby," Emory Rugby, Buzzfeed

“Because of Rugby,” Emory Rugby, Buzzfeed

The inclusion of women’s rugby in the Rio 2016 Olympics this year is not merely a matter of gaining a more international audience. While Title IX often makes the news for college sexual assault scandals, the law was also enacted to ensure that men and women have equal opportunities to participate in athletics. When I got recruited to play rugby in undergrad, I was lucky enough to attend a Seven Sisters college that had championed women’s sports since the 1800’s. Many women are not given the same opportunities to play or to see women’s rugby teams compete on a local or a national scale. Female rugby players are not only demonstrating that their athleticism and skill is equal to that of their male counterparts, but they also offer an alternative to prescriptive health and beauty norms. We can celebrate the US Women’s Rugby team for their tenacity on the field, their handling skills, and their endurance without quibbling over whether or not their weight in any way undermines their status as Olympic level athletes. Young girls and boys were able to watch the women vie for the Gold Medal, subverting conceptions of masculine sports and proving that women, too, can be warriors.

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Free Kesha: Rape Culture and the Failure of our Justice System

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(Originally published on Medium)

This past week, Kesha lost her injunction against Sony, a legal bid to be released from her contract with producer Dr. Luke. The injunction was filed after a formal complaint against Dr. Luke in October 2014. The complaint charged Dr. Luke with physical, sexual and emotional abuse against Kesha over a duration of nearly ten years, violations of her integrity, dignity and safety that his record label, Kemosabe, and Sony were aware of. Two testimonials particularly stand out: Kesha was twice forced to ingest substances that incapacitated her, only to wake up and discover that she had been raped. Dr. Luke’s sexual exploitation was coupled with an emotional abuse and a controlling supervisory style. Based off of the depiction in the complaint, their relationship had all the characteristics of intimate partner violence.

Kesha, after hearing the verdict of her injunction

Kesha, after hearing the verdict of her injunction

The condition of fear in a household of domestic violence often renders victims silent. Just as mothers may be fearful of the safety of their children, Kesha was “threatened that if she ever mentioned the rape to anyone, he [Dr. Luke] would shut her career down, take away all her publishing and recording rights, and otherwise destroy not only her life but her entire family’s lives as well” (7). Beyond the personal and familial peril that Kesha likely experienced, media and public response has not been especially kind to women who stayed in abusive relationships. The emotional, physical and sexual coercion that occur within such relationships are “private traps,” snares rendered only more dangerous by the lack of empathy for women who stay.

Kesha’s bravery to come forward, and her willingness to abandon her music career in an effort to liberate herself from Dr. Luke and sound the alarm within the music industry, is incredible. Despite the fact that the judge threw out Dr. Luke’s countersuit against Kesha’s mother and manager earlier in February, however, the judge’s decision to hold Kesha to her contract is emblematic of the larger problem of how the justice system handles sexual violence. Criminal courts have historically been unkind to survivors of gender-based violence, in part because the onus is placed upon the survivor to produce evidence that would “substantiate” their claims. The procurement of evidence is complicated by the very nature of sexual violence and the ongoing contestation over the notion of consent. Women who are inebriated, under the influence of substances, or incapacitated are legally incapable of giving consent, yet their incapacitation may also make it difficult to provide a “reliable” account of the event. Sexual violence can also be a traumatizing experience, one that has psychological consequences like short term memory loss, dissociation, lack of affect, and poor episodic memory, meaning that testimony may seem contradictory and therefore fictitious. The criminal justice system, often reliant upon police intake reports, tends to script the sexual violence encounter, a narrative that rarely affords legitimacy to survivors’ stories that deviate from “the truth.” Police officers may also harbor rape myths that survivors are lying or trying to get attention by making rape accusations. The archetype of “the perfect victim” continues to plague the survivors who decide to report.

Jon Krakauer, author of Missoula on NPR

Jon Krakauer, author of Missoula on NPR

Other evidence can be collected through Forensic Nurse Exams conducted by trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE). Because these exams are usually conducted with the purpose of filing a report against a perpetrator, the survivor’s body is treated as a field of evidence, one that must be prodded and scraped for data. Hospitals may not be properly equipped to sensitively handle the intake of sexual violence survivors. The exam itself can also be re-victimizing, including some painful procedures that medically invade survivor’s bodies. Nurse examiners can also demonstrate the same callous attitudes as police officers, believing that some women were “asking for it.”

That is, if a survivor can even get to a hospital or a police station. Abusive partners will do everything within their power to keep the victim from seeking help. Since fabrics like clothes or bed sheets may contain incriminating evidence, perpetrators will often wash or dispose of any materials that would link them to possible allegations of violence. Abusers often monitor the movements of their partners and prevent any personal time or freedom that would provide an opportunity to report or seek treatment. If a survivor finally decides to break their silence days, weeks, or months after the most recent physical altercation, however, there may be no evidence left to collect. Even lasting physical injuries are difficult to convincingly attribute to alleged perpetrators.

If a survivor manages to make it to court, she will be forced to relive her violation day after day, cross-examined by lawyers and impelled to recount her experience. If she is unable to provide evidence from a forensic nurse exam, then her only evidence is testimony, which, as discussed, may be disoriented by the psychological trauma of sexual violence. Lawyers and judges are likely to ask why they didn’t come forward earlier, why they didn’t scream out, why they didn’t fight back; all questions that fail to understand at the most fundamental level the gendered powered dynamics inherent in sexual violence or the neurological consequences of trauma, the body and mind’s fight to survive under life-threatening circumstances.

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The justice system is not set up to support survivors. The judge who denied Kesha’s injunction for emancipation from her abuser employed the kind of logic endemic of rape culture, stating that the dismissal was the “commercially reasonable thing to do.” When profit and corporate contracts are more important than the human rights of men and women, that is rape culture. When a survivor simply wants separation from the very person who has violated them, and that desire elicits a poll on Billboard about whether or not music executives believe her, that is rape culture. When Newsweek decides that responsible journalism is a story about the “other side of the college sexual assault crisis,” that is rape culture. When an alleged perpetrator’s word is taken as more convincing evidence as a matter of fact than a survivor’s and a woman’s, that is rape culture. We don’t only need to free Kesha. We need to address the chains that keep survivors shackled to their abusers and a system that tacitly condones such abuse.

2015 in Review: Geek Girls and Gender

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

For several years, TGA founder Marie-Pierre has been conducting research on the fraudulent phenomenon of “fake geek girls,” a category of women who ostensibly “pretend” to be geeky or interested in geeky things for male attention. This supposition that the geek identity is predominantly male and that geeky space must subsequently be policed for inauthentic intruders came to a head during the 2014 Gamergate controversy, in which certain groups of men not only felt that women participating in the gaming industry were somehow less committed or faking it, but also believed that feminist oriented criticism would destroy the industry and undermine creativity. While the bias that drove Gamergate may seem to be fairly niche, many of the sexist ideologies spill over into the broader entertainment industry, sphere of pop culture, and conception of “strong female characters.” The same logic of “fake geek girls” is…

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Why I’m Angry About Attempts to Defund Planned Parenthood

Living as a woman in this country, it’s hard not to get angry—our contribution to the economy through formal and informal labor is undervalued, our ability to lead and innovate is undercut by persistent stereotypes, and our value is judged by our reproductive capacity, despite widespread institutional and cultural impediments to reproductive health, maternity leave or child support. Girls are socialized from a young age to believe that it’s not appropriate to be angry at the injustices we suffer—rage is not feminine or desirable. This is a part of our indoctrination into a society that willfully disavows our right to be angry. So we learn to tolerate certain injustices, become flexible and understanding of a system that values certain qualities and rights while denying women and girls access to the very mechanisms that would protect those rights. American women have learned to hold our tongues and to pick our battles— but a body can only contain so much anger before it starts to breed resentment of a system disproportionately stacked against women and consistently unwilling to acknowledge inequities and discrimination. Conservative attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, however, have filled me with such frustration that I am forced to break the social norms of female silence to tell you why I am especially angry and why you should be angry too.

I have worked on reproductive health issues for a number of years around the world. As Americans, we have been educated to believe that sexual and reproductive health is just a woman’s issue, one that does not affect any other aspects of a woman’s life or the wider society. This, unfortunately, is a fundamental misapprehension of the role reproduction plays in everyone’s life and the governance of our country as a whole. As a Peace Corps volunteer serving in the South Pacific, I taught sexual and reproductive health to primary and secondary school students, many of whom would never graduate high school because of unplanned pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections. I helped run maternal and child health clinics where cervical cancer was the number one killer of women in the island nation. I distributed condoms in remote villages were HIV/AIDS was beginning to rise, threatening a country already struggling under the burden of other illnesses. When I returned from the Peace Corps, I had friends ask me why I didn’t focus on something “more serious” during my service. Weren’t there other, more pressing issues I could have worked on, they asked. This question sits at the crux of the GOP’s argument to defund Planned Parenthood and the conservative efforts to limit, if not eliminate, a woman’s access to affordable contraception, abortion options, or reproductive health facilities. It stems from a broader cultural conversation that fails to link reproductive health with development, economic prosperity or social stability.

The public discourse has become more conversant with the concept of intersectionality of late, but it seems as though politicians fail to comprehend that reproductive health intersects with every other facet of a person’s life. If children and adolescents are not given comprehensive sexual education, they will not be equipped with the information they need to make healthy decisions about their bodies, nor will they be prepared with the language to negotiate healthy relationships or communicate their boundaries. This all seems very abstract, so let’s consider the life of a young girl who begins having sex in her teens, but doesn’t know about the option of contraceptives for her or her partner. She gets pregnant, but her family is poor and doesn’t have the resources to care for her when she drops out of school. Indeed, a study on teenage pregnancy found that only 40% of teen moms are able to finish high school, and of that number, only 2% graduate from college or university before the age of 30.  Unfortunately, due to our current economic climate and the qualifications for employment, that young woman will likely struggle to find a stable job to support herself and her new family, nor will it be easy to access the services she needs for a healthy pregnancy. Due to her lack of institutional or family support, she may have to seek other means to generate income or seek out partners that can financially support her, even if that means tolerating other forms of abuse. She may get involved in criminal activity or violence, risking incarceration in order to provide for her child. Even if she is able to find a job, housing and safely deliver her baby, her economic status may mean that her child could grow up in a rougher neighborhood, receive substandard education, and lack access to the kinds of opportunities needed for healthy development and positive transition into adulthood. This is how cycles of dispossession are perpetuated, how a decision regarding reproductive health bleeds into educational attainment, economic stability, financial independence, and gender-based violence. You take away women and girls’ autonomy over their bodies and you condemn communities to the forms of overt and structural violence that undermine the principle our country was ostensibly founded upon—self-determination.

Jordan Klepper looks at the issue of sex education in schools, via Jon Stewart

Jordan Klepper looks at the issue of sex education in schools, via Jon Stewart

I saw the same thing in Fiji. A developing country with a limping economy and limited opportunities for employment, the populace was still struggling to free themselves from a legacy of colonialism, dependence on foreign exports and tourism, and reliance on unsustainable foreign aid – and their primary untapped resource was women. In almost all the villages I visited, it was the women who helped to manage money, develop businesses on the side, and advocate for policies that would promote economic independence. Yet these women were rarely given any opportunities to become involved in the formal economy—many became pregnant before the age of 20, had five or more children, and suffered from the complications of early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections passed on to them by their unfaithful husbands. They didn’t have enough food to feed their families not only because they hadn’t received adequate education about birth spacing and options for contraception, but because women’s place in the home precluded political representation or economic involvement beyond the informal market. A recent article published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that an investment in women’s health is also an investment in the economy, particularly in developing countries. The denial of women’s reproductive health rights is a tacit permission to continue the oppression of women, and, by and large, the neglect of the state.

These issues are not unique to the United States, nor are they new concepts in the arena of public health. In South Africa, where I also worked on sexual health and education, girls are five times more likely than boys to become infected with HIV, an epidemic that cannot be uncoupled from the endemic rates of violence against women and girls that still plague the nation. Or we could look to the prison system and consider the recent reports indicating that many young women in jail are victims of child or sexual assault, as well as mothers of children under the age of 18. While running a creative writing workshop in a women’s prison in upstate New York, I encouraged the inmates to share their stories by crafting a personal narrative through poetry or prose. Women my age and younger recounted getting pregnant at fifteen, being thrown out on the streets or abandoned by their families, becoming involved with criminals in the desperate attempt to survive. There are a constellation of other reasons why a family or a young woman may be struggling, but reproductive health is often the keystone that either supports or precipitates the collapse of a woman’s ability to choose the kind of life that she wants to lead.

As Elizabeth Warren stated in the Senate, an attack upon Planned Parenthood is not solely about abortion but rather the belief that a woman has a right to control her own body. In fact, 42% of Planned Parenthood services go towards sexually transmitted infections or diseases, 34% toward contraception, 11% toward women’s health services such as Pap smears and breast exams, and 9% is devoted to cancer screenings.  Many young girls, women and their families rely on Planned Parenthood for basic reproductive health services, routine check-ups and contraception which allow them to strategize the best possible future for themselves and their children. Many of these individuals rely upon Medicaid. If you strip away these services they so desperately need, you are reinforcing a system built upon structural violence and eliminating one of the few avenues for empowerment these women still possess. The conservative groups fighting against Planned Parenthood have also refused to move beyond the broken and ineffectual paradigm of abstinence-only education, provide affordable and accessible contraceptives options that would prevent the need for abortive services, or implement policies that would assist mothers or their children. In point of fact, the attempt to defund Planned Parenthood is a systematic attempt to reverse the progress our country has made toward gender equality. The misnomer of pro-life and the pro-life discourse is based on conservative ideology, rather than scientifically grounded fact or considerations of social justice and social welfare.

I am angry because I want to know why. Why are the politicians, elected to represent a constituency of both men and women, blind to the ways that reproductive health cuts across multiple sectors and political considerations? Have they stopped to consider the long term consequences of their actions if a bill to defund Planned Parenthood is passed? What benefits are obtained if more women die from underground, unsafe measures to abort a pregnancy, complications from pregnancy at a young age, sexually transmitted infections, or the forms of cancer that Planned Parenthood often screens for, such as breast and cervical cancer? Are these same politicians going to erect any measures for the women who did not want to become pregnant, yet had no other option, either from ignorance, lack of access to contraceptives, or sexual violence?

The reasoning that has been employed to justify the GOP’s actions is based on short-sighted moral vehemence. Conservatives continues to chip away at the gains women have fought so hard to accomplish. I’m angry because yet again this is being framed as a women’s issue and an ethical affront. We should all care about this debate and take the time to get really, and I mean really, educated on the issues at hand. Because if my anger ever dissipates, I don’t want my rights to disappear too.

The Character of Sexual Harassment at Cons

My coverage of DC’s 2015 Awesome Con and an overview of sexual harassment at Cons around the country.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

At an event where hundreds of individuals from around the country converge in capes and costumes, the symbols and trappings of heroism, we don’t like to imagine the possibility of violence unless it’s staged to reenact a great scene from Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. But over the past several years, the geek community has come under particular scrutiny for the treatment of women at comic, anime and fan conventions. Well before #Gamergate, movements like Cosplay is NOT Consent brought attention to sexual harassment at Cons. Even though geeks have become increasingly mainstream over the past decade (see our series “Freaks and Geeks”), being a geek still carries with it a sense of stigma. Many self-identified geeks have felt otherized at some point in their lives because of their interests in comic books, otaku, tabletop gaming, LARPing, or the like. Perhaps due…

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Dis-Ease and Distrust: The Connection Between Anti-Vaccination and Typhoid Mary

The anti-vaccination movement is not a new phenomenon, but its tenacity relies upon the short memories of the public. While some have condemned those who choose not to vaccinate their children as “backsliding into medieval ignorance” (Hiltzik 2014), it is also critical to consider the ideological tensions that drive an individual or a community’s decision not to protect their children from harmful pathogens and to contextualize historical precedents that demonstrate the strain between personal liberties and the protection of public health.

When Edward Jenner first proposed an inoculation for smallpox—based off of newly emergency theories about how diseases are spread and the connection between milkmaids’ immunity to the illness—the public erupted in panic, fearing that the newly introduced vaccination, containing a live culture from cows, would mangle their bodies and deform them into half-bovine creatures (Green 2015). The ultimate success of Jenner’s treatment helped to convince the public of the efficacy of vaccination, but doctors also faced the challenge of communicating complex scientific theories and principles to the public, in a way that had to be neither patronizing nor alienating. Scientific discourses and theories are not necessarily accessible or easily digestible to the general public. For many years the widespread use of vaccinations has relied upon the success of eradicating once pernicious and deadly diseases, like polio, to convince the public, perhaps without comprehensive or convincing public education programs about why and how the vaccinations have been working.

Less than 100 years ago, there was also a much greater fear of disease. The Influenza Epidemic of 1919 reportedly killed more people than World War I, wiping out huge swaths of the American population. Measles killed innumerable children. Fear of disease and the promise of protection offered by inoculation may have combined to vest doctors and scientists with public trust in vaccinations, despite unclear understandings behind the biological mechanisms that inform the intervention. Fortunately, or, perhaps, unfortunately, we live in a time when the threat of disease in the Western world is distant. David A. Grimes writes, “Apathy derives from naiveté; many parents of young children today did not live through the ‘bad old days’ before immunization. Vaccination has become a victim of its own success, and our nation has become complacent as a result. An entire generation of Americans has grown up unaware of the danger of measles” (2015). We have forgotten how recently diseases that could not be tamed or controlled threatened our lives. We live in the aftermath of an extensive and successful multi-sectoral public health intervention that has improved food and water standards, attempted to sanitize urban spaces and ushered in an era of hearty herd immunity. But we also live in a time of suspicion—scientists and doctors are not the well-trusted experts they once were. Many Americans are disaffected by biomedicine or the callous attitudes of the public health system, instead turning to traditional or homeopathic remedies that represent more sensitive, holistic approaches to their health needs. Some Americans may also be blinkered by the normalization of health privileges—it is easy not to fear death or disease when you have easy access healthy food, clean water, a social environment that creates positive conditions for health to, and quality health care facilities that you can afford to use if alternative remedies fail.

Hank Green, The Science of Anti-Vaccination https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rzxr9FeZf1g#t=86

Hank Green, The Science of Anti-Vaccination https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rzxr9FeZf1g#t=86

This is not the case throughout the rest of the world, especially in communities so impoverished that their immune systems cannot adequately fight off relatively benign sicknesses. In America, we are all considered “experts” of our own health, but are not necessarily equipped with the critical tools to tell apart medicine from quackery. We value anecdotes over statistics, the triumph of the individual over the sanitized data and hypotheses of biomedicine. Vanessa Wamsley consulted, “Dr. Kristin Hendrix, a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, researches how parents make decisions about their children’s healthcare, including vaccinations. ‘It’s a combination of pretty complex psychological factors,’ Hendrix says. ‘Some folks are very predisposed to trust information about others’ personal experience’” (2014). Within this complicated context of dis-ease, it should not be surprising that Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet article connecting MMR vaccinations with autism trigged a wave of hysteria. The article touched a visceral nerve, validating confirmation biases and further entrenching mistrust of government mandated medicine. Seth Mnookin’s book The Panic Virus (2012) provides a comprehensive analysis of the scientific, social and discursive debate that emerged from the paper. Within the age of personalized medicine and without adequate mechanisms to launch a convincing public health education offensive that was comprehensive without being pedantic, we began to lose our herd immunity. And from the wake of the latest measles outbreak in California emerges what may be a familiar debate between the responsibility of the state to protect the public’s health and the sanctity of personal choice.

In the early part of the 20th century, Mary Mallon served as a cook for well to do families in New York City. A single, Irish immigrant woman, Mallon’s choices and opportunities for employment were limited. Perhaps due to her aberrant independence, she was a spit fire by nature, private and self-possessed. She may seem typical in a city full of immigrants clawing after the American Dream, were it not for the other part of her identity that remained hidden until the state of New York intervened—she was a healthy carrier of typhoid. Otherwise known as Typhoid Mary, Mary Mallon was initially accosted by public health officials in 1907 when they traced a recent typhoid outbreak to her. As a cook, her profession lent itself to quick yet discrete transmission of the disease. Mary claimed to be entirely healthy, with no symptoms of the illness, and denied the claims that she was a healthy carrier. When she refused the state’s request to discontinued her profession as a cook, she was arrested as a menace to public health and removed to North Brother Island, where she would no longer “contaminate” the upper crust elite of NYC society.

She was eventually released in 1910, under the condition that she find other work apart from cooking, but was equipped with minimal assistance and few other marketable skills to find steady employment. She was eventually discovered under a false name in the kitchen of a family, likely out of desperation for income and the dogged belief that she was not ill, especially considering that she demonstrated no symptoms of typhoid. Previously portrayed to the public as a somewhat sympathetic, if misguided character, the media quickly turned on her, labeling her as a mistress of death knowingly brewing disease in the houses where she worked. Newspapers painted her as a heartless villain who wished to infect those around her. Infuriated by the violation of the terms of her release, New York decided to use Typhoid Mary to set an example. In 1915, they permanently removed her to North Brother Island, where she would live out the rest of her life.

Like the contemporary anti-vaccination community, Mary Mallon did not trust the doctors or public health officials who told her that she carried typhoid. As Judith Walzer Leavitt points out in her book Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health (1996), Mallon’s clinical status represented an ideological schism between public health officials and the infected individual: “[Mary Mallon] insisted she was not sick and had never been sick with typhoid fever. She used her personal knowledge about her own body to argue that since she had no disease symptoms she could not menace anyone else’s health. She did not want to be treated like someone who was sick when she felt healthy and vigorous, and was in fact leading a productive life when she was taken” (86). Her personal experience and bodily knowledge clashed with those of the scientific community, positing alternative approaches to health. Her vexed condition as a menace to public health was further inflamed by the mistrust of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Leavitt also indicates that Mallon’s gender worked against her: “Health officials viewed women carriers of typhoid fever as more dangerous than men in part because cooking, an activity that provided one of the easiest routes of bacilli transmission, was a traditional female activity” (1996: 97). Mallon’s health can therefore be understood as both a biological and a social condition, galvanizing a series of public outcries and institutional responses that also expose belief systems intertwined with health. During the time of Mary’s arrest and removal, the American populace compelled the government to protect public health, a mandate that necessarily involved dictating social order. “In the early twentieth century the law spoke with a single voice and a simple guideline: public health authorities had the medical ability and the legal authority to define a public health menace, regardless of due process or the curtailment of an individual’s liberty and regardless of consistency. The judges were willing to give health departments the power to discriminate among carriers and decide which healthy people who carried pathogenic bacteria in their bodies were to go free and which were to be detained” (Leavitt 1996, 95). The health of the population (particularly the wealthy population) of New York was therefore elevated above the civil liberties of Mary Mallon.

As a healthy carrier of typhoid, Mallon jeopardized the health of those around her, not unlike how the anti-vaccination movement is undermining herd immunity and endangering the lives of those who are either too young to be immunized or the immunocompromised, such as citizens in developing, impoverished countries, unwittingly exposed to carriers through the tourism industry. The United States is not without its own health problems, which means that individuals and families who don’t have access to quality and affordable health care may also be in danger. Mary Mallon was demonized for her actions, and as the measles (declared eliminated in the US in 2000) escalate in numbers and severity, certain members of the public are beginning to treat anti-vaccination as a threat to public health as well. Conor Friedersdorf has made the point that condemning the actions of a group will only solidify their anger and further entrench their actions, especially considering that, “the vast majority [of anti-vaccination parents and proponents] are not, in fact, especially selfish people, and characterizing them as such just feeds into their mistaken belief system” (2015). Mary Mallon’s public health experience transcended the personal into a popular metaphor, one that highlights the perils of conflicting ideological frameworks surrounding health and the compromises that must be made to avert health crises. Biomedicine, though founded upon empirical evidence, also represents an ideology about the body and healing that may be incommensurate with personalized notions about illness.

We are quickly reaching a crossroads when the US government will be faced with a similar dilemma the state of New York confronted in 1907. As Leavitt so cannily writes, ““Because the road from and to the past is a two-way street, we must be alert to how the realities of the present have an impact on how we construct and reconstruct the past […] If we are aware of our present sensitivities, they can help rather than hinder our understanding of history, just as history can help us comprehend our options in the present” (1996, 5). What do we value as a nation—radical individualism or national prosperity and heath? How are our understandings of health shaped by personal biases that are also related to privilege, race, and gender? Are there instances in which public health triumphs over personal liberty?

Works Cited 

CDC (2015). “Frequently Asked Questions About the Measles in the U.S.” http://www.cdc.gov/measles/about/faqs.html

Friedersdorf, Conor (2015). “Should Anti-Vaxers Be Shamed Or Persuaded?” The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/02/should-anti-vaxxers-be-shamed-or-persuaded/385109/

Green, Matthew (2015). “The Feverish Roots of Today’s Anti-Vaccination Movement.” The Lowdown. http://blogs.kqed.org/lowdown/2015/02/15/the-feverish-roots-of-todays-anti-vaccine-movement/

Grimes, David A. (2015). “Deniers of Science: The Anti-Vaccination and Anti-Abortion Movements.” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-a-grimes/deniers-of-science-the-an_b_6471684.html

Hiltzik, Michael (2014). “The anti-vaccination movement drives measles to a 20-year record high.” LA Times. http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-mh-measles-20140530-column.html

Leavitt, Judith Walzer (1996). Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.

Mnookin, Seth (2012). The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Wakefield, Andrew et al. (1998). “Retracted: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children.” The Lancet, Vol. 315, No. 9103. pp. 637-641. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2897%2911096-0/abstract

Wamsley, Vanessa (2014). “The Psychology of Anti-Vaxers: How Story Trumps Science.” The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/how-anti-vaccine-fear-takes-hold/381355/

 

Crying Rape: The Sexual Politics of Gone Girl

I admire Gillian Flynn for her craft, her narrative agility, and her audacity to write such a dynamic, unscrupulous yet stunning female character as Amy Elliot Dunne in Gone Girl (2012). I think it’s important that complicated, flawed female characters are written. I would prefer contemptible, dislikable characters to be written as long as they encompass the panoply of personality types a person can exhibit, the human foibles and idiosyncrasies that persist in real life, rather than airbrushed, idealized stereotyped versions of women. I am glad that Rosamund Pike was given a character worth her acting talent in David Fincher’s adaptation (2014), a character with more verve and cunning than anyone else in the movie. A woman that ultimately ensnares her husband in the superficial trappings of toxic domesticity. Amy manipulates everyone in the novel and the power of Gillian Flynn’s ending lies in the cutting commentary on American marriages—the unrealistic expectations; the elevation of artifice over substances; the pernicious illusion of the perfect happy couple; the expectations we place upon our spouses and partners that aspire toward greatness yet ultimately undermine any attempt at genuine human connection or the possibility of failure; and the cycles of violence that occur behind closed doors, hidden behind the veneer of parts we think we should play as man and wife.

Yet I am concerned. I am concerned because, while Amy’s sociopathic tendencies are a departure in cinematic representations of women, she also plays out the modern problematic tropes of rape culture. Zerlina Maxwell at Time, described rape culture as, “a culture in which sexual violence is the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults” (2014), but rape culture also involves the pernicious belief that sexual violence is unavoidable, or that women make up stories of rape to gain publicity. Rape culture also means that the onus of guilt is, more often than not, placed upon the woman, and that accused perpetrators are often exonerated as innocent by the media. Rape culture is a much larger, more systemic and pernicious social condition, but Fincher’s depiction of Amy plays upon the elements of rape culture I have just outlined.

When Amy’s boyfriend in New York before Nick, Tommy O’Hara, starts to disengage from the relationship, Amy frames him for rape, seducing him in order to collect evidence she can use against him as a criminal sex offender. Amy uses her sexuality to manipulate Desi Collings, another ex-boyfriend, into giving her shelter. She lulls Desi into a false sense of security before staging another rape scene, a rape she will use to secure her safety from police investigation after his death. We even watch as she callously uses a wine bottle to induce the physical wounds typical of forced entry. Nick, however, is Amy’s consummate puppet, trapping him through his reckless masculinity, the knowledge that a woman in his life is a necessity to his public image and career, a public image he resents yet is programmed to seek out as innately as his habitual “politeness.”

My concern is that story emerges contemporaneously with Billy Cosby’s rape allegations, a time when female survivors are not believed when they say they have been drugged and sexually assaulted or raped. We have a legal system that places the responsibility of evidence on the survivor and a criminal justice system often ill-equipped to handle cases of sexual assault or rape. We also live in a society that blames the survivor, that excuses male behaviors of entitlement and predatory possession. Some have even argued that survivors come forward with their cases to get publicity or a hefty settlement. What seems ironic is that our society can pillory survivors, secondarily victimizing them for their suffering, while simultaneously claiming that allegations lead to positive publicity. In such a hateful, virulent environment, why would anyone want to come forward with their stories? It’s an enormous, unfathomable act of courage to divulge your own victimization, especially when the odds are almost never in the survivors’ favor. What survivor of violence wants to be decried as a liar or a publicity-monger after already having suffered so much physical and emotional trauma? As Joan Smith at The Guardian stresses, “The characters live in a parallel universe where the immediate reaction to a woman who says she’s been assaulted is one of chivalrous concern. Tell that to all the victims, here and in the US, who have had their claims dismissed by sceptical police officers” (2014).

Jamilah Lemieux on The Nightly Show

Jamilah Lemieux on The Nightly Show

The sexual assault and rape cases that do go to trial rarely result in adequate remuneration for the survivor and have historically absolved the perpetrator. We wouldn’t want to ruin the promising football career of a young male scholar, but it’s acceptable if he devastates the life of a young girl because he has been socialized to believe that he deserves sex whenever and from whomever her wants. There is rarely financial recompense for survivors. The idea of “rape money” is largely a myth, one that once again instantiates and legitimizes rape culture, a culture that permits the systematic violation of men and women’s bodies and refuses to acknowledge responsibility for the fact that rape is an act that violates our most basic of human rights.

So my concern with Gone Girl is that Amy becomes the poster girl for these rape myths. That women will do anything for male attention. That women blow incidences out of proportion and fabricate stories of rape just to get behind the camera. That women are nothing but manipulative, conniving spiders spinning webs to entrap perfectly innocent men who were just being good guys. I want to believe that the American public, and that the wider international audience, can discriminate between fiction and reality. But, so far, we have a tendency to mistrust the veracity of the survivors seeking justice and instead defend the attacker. The fiction that rape is bound to happen, that lack of consent means yes, that women imagine elaborate stories as a marketing ploy–these delusions have all been taken as truth by the justice system, popular media and the wider public. Perhaps, on the other hand, Amy’s characterization as a sociopath shatters these myths, suggesting that only someone psychologically unstable would act the way Amy does. That the very rape myths she enacts are criminally atypical and erroneous, thereby demonstrating their inauthenticity and sheer ludicrousness. As Nikki Gloudeman points out, “It’s hard to tell if Gillian Flynn, who wrote the book and now the screenplay, is trafficking in stereotypes or trying to subvert them, as her male protagonist is just as flawed in stereotypically male ways, and her work is so dark and gloomy it’s hard not to perceive the whole thing as a sardonic finger-flip to the world and its gender conventions” (2014).

My hope is that while Gone Girl gains more publicity and acclaim, we think carefully about who is telling the story and who gets caught in the crossfire, the damage that can be wrought with so many dangerous assumptions about the female body, the uncontrollability of human desire, and the ease with which lies can be transformed into truths.

Works Cited

Fincher, David (2014). Gone Girl. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Flynn, Gillian (2012). Gone Girl. New York: Crown Publishers.

Gloudeman, Nikki (2014). “Gone Girl’s Rape Problem.” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nikki-gloudeman/gone-girls-rape-problem_b_5942510.html

Maxwell, Zerlina (2014). “Rape Culture is Real.” Time. http://time.com/40110/rape-culture-is-real/

Smith, Joan (2014). “Gone Girl’s recycling of rape myths is a disgusting distortion.” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/06/gone-girl-rape-domestic-violence-ben-affleck

New Global Study Calls Violence Against Women ‘Epidemic’

So excited to be a part of the Global Women’s Institute and its part in this project.

TIME

When it comes to stopping violence against women, actions speak louder than words. So even though there’s increased worldwide awareness about violence against women, the problem won’t be solved unless countries make significant policy and financial changes to support victims, according to a five-part series of studies in The Lancet, one of the world’s premier medical journals.

The series, entitled “Violence Against Women and Girls,” calls the violence a “global public health and clinical problem of epidemic proportions,” and the statistics are bleak. 100-140 million women have undergone female genital mutilation worldwide, and 3 million African girls per year are at risk. 7% of women will be sexually assaulted by someone besides their partner in their lifetimes. Almost 70 million girls worldwide have been married before they turned 18. According to WHO estimates, 30% of women worldwide have experienced partner violence. The researchers said that these problems could…

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We for She: Feminism, Inclusion and Having a Productive Conversation About Gender Equality

Emma Watson’s recent speech on feminism for the UN’s new HeForShe campaign has caused a lot of hype. Regardless of whether or not the speech is worthy of the attention, it has sparked conversation about the nature and inclusion of feminism, highlighting the schisms of opinion and political disposition that riddle the feminist community. While I don’t think that Watson’s speech is perfect, I do think it is important to reflect upon the fact that she raises points of entry into the conversation about gender equity and attempts to make feminism more open forum. If we want to continue to advocate for gender equality and make demonstrable changes in the way we think about and treat gender, we have to be willing to participate in productive conversations and advocacy strategies, rather than criticizing and tearing down the very people we should be cooperating with.

As defined by the UN Women website, “HeForShe is a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other of humanity, for the entirety of humanity.” HeForShe enlists the help of men, calling for the participation of men in initiatives to end violence and discrimination based on gender. Popular understandings of gender often equate gender with women, even though gender, as defined by the World Health Organization, “refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women,” meaning that issues of gender equity relate to both men and women. The inclusion of men in gender-based activism is hardly a new concept. As Colvin et al. state, “Efforts to involve men on gender issues first emerged in the context of campaigns against domestic violence in the US. These early men’s movements sought to include men in gender-based social movements both as an expression of their solidarity with women and the human rights abuses women suffered and as an expression of concern about the effects of patriarchal social relations and gender-based violence on the lives of men themselves. Since then, support has been growing in national and international policy and activist circles for the importance of including men in the struggle for gender equality” (2009:19). HeForShe aims to expand upon these efforts.

Yet Watson’s speech for the UN had more to do with dispelling stereotypes and establishing an emotional pathos to the HeForShe campaign. Watson addresses the problematic belief that feminism is “man-hating,” a very real and toxic perception of feminism’s aims and goals. While it is frustrating to hear the note of apology in Watson’s voice as she explains that feminism, broadly defined, essentially means, “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes” (2014), progress in gender equity needs to occur through social transformation, and that social transformation can only occur once people start to think differently about what it means to be a feminist. As we have seen in countries around the world, progressive legislative policies regarding gender equity and empowerment mean nothing unless they are also socially and culturally supported. There are huge portions of the world’s population who are not conversant in feminist theory, who have not been trained to identify and problematize patriarchal institutions and privilege, nor have they been asked to question gender-based assumptions about the formation of their identities as male. While some of us have been trained in feminist discourse and a human rights based legal framework, we must also find ways to make the topic of gender accessible to those who have not had the opportunities or exposure we have.

The main point of contention for critics of Watson’s speech has been her “formal invitation” to men to get involved in gender equality. “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” Watson asks, but it’s a question that seems to suggest that men need an invitation to feel comfortable within a feminist space. As Mia McKenzie writes, “Women have been trying to get men to care about oppression of women since…always. Men have never been overwhelmingly interested in fighting that fight, because it requires them giving up power and all evidence suggests that’s not their super-fave thing” (2014). McKenzie goes on to note that Watson’s discussion of problematic gender stereotypes for men obscures or ignores the ways in which men have historically benefitted from patriarchal institutions and structural privilege. Mychal Denzel Smith, in response to McKenzie’s piece, elaborates, “There’s no progress to be had if in order to get men engaged they are allowed to remain ensconced in their privilege. That defeats the purpose. The necessary work of feminist movement will challenge men to understand their complicity and require them to complete very difficult tasks. That’s what revolution is” (2014). Indeed, as sociologist John Boland explains of patriarchy, the “’system rest[s] upon a relationship in which the dominant or superordinate has made the dominated or subordinate ‘an instrument of the dominant’s will and refuses to recognize the subordinate’s independent subjectivity’” (Moffett 2006:137), meaning that patriarchy has insulated itself from criticism or change by refusing to acknowledge or attend to the ways in which men benefit from unequal systems of power.

Male privilege is an issue that needs to be confronted and addressed when discussing gender equality. But, unfortunately, conversations with men about institutionalized patriarchy and privilege are uncomfortable and difficult to guide in a productive, positive way. As Cathy Young points out, “Men must, indeed, ‘feel welcome to participate in the conversation’ about gender issues. But very few will do so if that ‘conversation’ amounts to being told to ‘shut up and listen’ while women talk about the horrible things men do to women, and being labeled a misogynist for daring to point out that bad things happen to men too and that women are not always innocent victims in gender conflicts” (2014). There are many individuals around the world who believe women’s rights to be diametrically opposed to “men’s rights.” These people may perceive efforts to eliminate structural obstacles for women in the workspace and larger public sphere as attacks on men’s rights, rather than the institution of male privilege. During my work at University of Cape Town’s Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit, I read numerous reports and first-hand accounts of men who felt that women’s rights were hurting and subjugating men, rather than equalizing the playing field (Abrahams et al. 1999; Colvin et al. 2009; International Center for Research on Women 2012). Similarly, while working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji, I spoke with many women who believed that all humans should be treated equally, but that men would have to “lose rights” for women to gain them. Rights are seen as competitive, rather than equality as a situation that is mutually beneficial for men and women.

This discourse on loss versus gain for men and women has evolved from the ways in which privilege and oppression have been historically and systematically framed as naturalized positions within patriarchal forms of power and governance. But unless men are willing to come to the table to begin the uncomfortable, difficult process of unpacking their privilege, change will never occur. Yes, it is disappointing that the crux of the issue of gender inequality isn’t talked about overtly, but we have to learn to pick our battles. Involving men in gender-based activism and awareness is an important part of international best practices to enact and enforce change (WHO 2010). Men, admittedly, still hold the power in many parts of the world and recruiting male allies is one of the most sustainable and effective ways of bringing about progress. If we truly want to eliminate violence and discrimination against women, ensure that women have access to adequate health care resources and education, provide women with the power to make decisions about their own bodies, and generate a work environment that values female employees, we need to find a discourse that includes men without alienating them, one that finds synergistic issues that men and women can both agree upon. Movements don’t occur all at once. You need to lay the foundation and building blocks before any groundswell or transformation is going to occur. According to Stephen M. Marks in “Common Strategies for Health and Human Rights: From Theory to Practice,” any strategy for change needs partners and points of entry for a common strategy, which HeForShe accomplishes. Similarly, strategies need to be attuned to the political realities of a situation: “we need to adjust our strategy for mobilizing partners around health and human rights issues to give it both a reformist and transformative orientation. It should be reformist insofar as it seeks to operate within the system, within the current power structures […] But there are numerous participants who are willing to go further, to develop a transformative strategy that challenges the prevailing power structures and attitudes, that pursues the pedagogies of liberation and hope” (1997:402-403).This process can be frustratingly slow and tedious, but they ultimately build more momentum and provide a secure space in which to construct a paradigm shift.

I would suggest that this is why Watson used the rhetoric that she did. In an attempt to cut through geographic, political, economic, racial and sexual dimensions, she focused on the ways in which gender inequality and gender stereotypes negatively affect men. Yes, I agree with Mia McKenzie when she says, “Telling men that they should care about gender inequality because of how much it hurts them, centralizes men and their well-being in a movement built by women for our survival in a world that degrades and dehumanizes us daily” (2014). But I do think that it generates points of solidarity. If men believe that current gender stereotypes benefit them, maybe it is a useful argumentative strategy to identify the ways in which men are equally hurt and imperiled by cultural notions of masculinity. It provides an opportunity for men to speak about the ways that they may feel imprisoned by ideals of manliness, emotionally stymied by a society that raises them to be strong and stoic. While the topic once again gives precedence to the male voice and male experience, I would argue that it also a valuable conversation to have, as it gets the male population to think about and problematize gender without feeling attacked. It creates a sense of vulnerability to the fact that gender does matter for both male and females. It is an important step towards larger discussions about privilege without cutting off the conversation before it even happens.

If we, as feminists, want to create a sustainable movement, we have to think strategically about how we talk about issues of gender equity and tactically galvanize action. Critical analysis of Watson’s speech is important, but if the common goal remains equality, then we need to focus our efforts on supporting initiatives that share similar ideologies and concerns. I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t continue to push for more progressive, inclusive discourses on race and sexuality, transfeminism and abelism as McKenzie (2014) calls attention to. But feminism will never gain domestic or international traction if the women who could and should collaborate criticize and continue to foment internal feminist divisions. We can use these conversations as teaching points; how can we learn to be better feminists? How can we learn from each other’s definitions and approaches to feminism? We’re not going to get everything right all the time, but that is practically impossible. The fact of the matter is that we need female allies as much as we need male allies; we can acknowledge difference while still working together for women’s rights.

I wish that we lived in a world where men were happy and willing to divest themselves of their privilege and work on behalf of women to achieve gender equity. But we have to be realistic about the kinds of transformation we hope to enact. Watson’s speech is hospitable to men because sometimes we have to take the high road. After a legacy of oppression and dispossession, feminists can be the bigger women and strategically guide the conversation about gender equity. I am calling for pragmatism, and since I’ve seen far too many abused women suffer from the political, economic, emotional and physical effects of gender inequality, I think it’s important to be realistic about how we can tangibly transform the world around us.

 

Works Cited

Abrahams, Naeemah et al. (1999). “’I Do Not Believe in Democracy in the Home’: Men’s Relationship With and Abuse of Women.” CERSA (Women’s Health Medical Research Council).

Colvin, Christopher J. et al. (2009). “’It Looks Like Men Are Competing With Rights Nowadays’: Men’s Perception of Gender Transformation in South Africa.” Sonke Gender Justice Network.

“Gender, Women and Health.” World Health Organization (WHO). http://www.who.int/gender/whatisgender/en/

HeForShe (2014). UN Women. http://www.heforshe.org/

International Center for Research on Women (2012). “Strengthening Research and Action on Gender-Based Violence in Africa.” Gender-Based Violence Protection Network & South African Medical Research Council.

Marks, Stephen P. (1997). “Common Strategies for Health and Human Rights: From Theory to Practice.” Health and Human Rights Vol. 2, No. 3, 2nd International Conference on Health and Human Rights. pp. 95-104.

McKenzie, Mia (2014). “Why I’m Not Really Here for Emma Watson’s Feminism Speech At the U.N.” Black Girl Dangerous. http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2014/09/im-really-emma-watsons-feminism-speech-u-n/

Smith, Mychal Denzel (2014). “Feminism Shouldn’t Make Men Comfortable.” Feministing. http://feministing.com/2014/09/26/feminism-shouldnt-make-men-comfortable/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Watson, Emma (2014). “Gender Equality is Your Issue Too.” UN Women. http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2014/9/emma-watson-gender-equality-is-your-issue-too

World Health Organization (2010). “Preventing Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Against Women: Taking Action and Generating Evidence.” http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2010/9789241564007_eng.pdf

Young, Cathy (2014). “Sorry, Emma Watson, But HeForShe is Rotten For Men.” Time. http://time.com/3432838/emma-watson-feminism-men-women/

Violence and Victimization: Misogyny in Geek Culture (And Everywhere Else)

The Geek Anthropologist

“Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” –Margaret Atwood

The GamerGate controversy has driven increased attention to the video game industry, while also highlighting the violent misogyny that can pervade geek culture. For those just getting up to speed, GamerGate circulates around two specific women within games: Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, and Zoe Quinn, who recently developed the (non)Fiction interactive game Depression Quest. After launching Part II of the webseries “Women as Background Decoration,” Sarkeesian was harassed online and received threats against her and her family. The onslaught of antimony directed at Sarkeesian included a barrage of sexual slurs that condemned Sarkeesian for her cultural commentary on the objectification and abuse of women in video games and other forms of geek media, blaming her and her ilk for “ruining” the gaming industry. Although celebrities like William Gibson

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