Monthly Archives: September 2014

Americans resist adulthood in entertainment

In his classic book Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Leslie Fiedler shows that American fiction centers on boys and men running from the civilizing control of women, epitomized in Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Holden Caulfield and other books found in the children’s section of the library. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott updates Fiedler, maintaining that the popularity of comics and teen young adult fiction like The Hunger Games for adults indicate the continuation of juvenile entertainment.[i] TV and films show the allegorical decline of the adult white male; “It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.” Examples of bad men who don’t make it are Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, Don Draper in Mad Men, and Walter White in Breaking Bad. Film characters played by Adam Sandler and “bro comedy” films like The Hangover portray “the rebellious animus of the disaffected man-child directed not just against male authority but also against women,” with solace found in male buddies. Shows like Girls and Masters of Sex that indicate “nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore.” That leaves girls as symbols of success and goodness.

[i] A.O. Scott, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” New York Times, September 11, 2014.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/magazine/the-death-of-adulthood-in-american-culture.html?_r=0

Girls’ Activism is Ignored by Scholars

Mainly girls’ media activism in Australia, England and the US is discussed in Next Wave Cultures: Feminism, Subcultures, Activism (2008), edited by Australian Anita Harris. She pointed out in the book’s introduction that, “Very little has been said about either the political participation or nonparticipation of young women in particular,” with the exception of feminist “generation wars” and the less political activism of the third wave.

Taft reported in Rebel Girls that, “Despite their activism, girls are rarely considered and written about as significant political actors. They appear but do not speak.” They’re left out of academic research on girls’ studies and on youth movements. Taft says that the focus is on college students rather than teenagers. Despite the increasing interest in girls’ studies over the last two decades, Emily Bent agarees that “the research on girls and politics is surprisingly incomplete” and invisible.[i] Most of the interest in girls’ studies, youth studies, and children’s rights is in future interest in politics rather than girls’ current activism. However, several international studies cited by Bent found that girls valued political participation as much or more than boys, although some view it as a masculine arena. Girls were more likely to imagine themselves becoming politically involved in the future if the media discussed women politicians. Anita Harris points out that some girls are interested in politics, but consider the traditional form corrupt and not interested in their views.

Bent applies standpoint theory to her research about girls active in the UN Commission on the Status of Women (established in 1946). The approach believes that research should begin with and prioritize the lives of the marginalized and oppressed as they know most about their situation, named “one of the most influential and debated theories to emerge from second-wave feminist thinking.”[ii] The girls told her they didn’t have actual input into policy-making. A teen named Jessica told her when they tried to say something that wasn’t strictly on the agenda, they took the microphone away. I advocate that researchers change the common practice of ignoring youth or presuming to speak for them without including their voices.

[i]Emily Bent, “The Boundaries of Girls’ Political Participation: A Critical Exploration of Girls’ Experiences as Delegates to the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women,” Global Studies of Childhood, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2013, p. 174.

[ii] “Feminist Standpoint Theory,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

http://www.iep.utm.edu/fem-stan/

Girls the symbol of consumerism–Anita Harris’ “Future Girl”

 

Australian academic Anita Harris believes that girls are used by Western commercial interests to symbolize the self-made “can-do” girl of the future, mutating feminism and the concept of “ girl power” with neoliberal individualism. By making good choices and being consumers, smart girls succeed in being “winners in a new world” of late modernity, success stories in contrast to the “at-risk” girl who makes poor choices and isn’t able to consume much.[i] Girls are portrayed as “the ideal citizens of the future.”[ii] The approach is parodied in an Australian girl’s zine of the 1990s called “My Life as a Mega-Rich Bombshell.” Of course this fantasy ignores the reality of increasing inequality, reduced government support, and youth unemployment. In an insecure era of global change from industrialization to information economies, girls are “constructed as the ideal new citizens” in their individual efforts and consumerism.[iii] The goal to be famous online, in webcams, TV reality shows and teen magazines replaced love and marriage in girls’ fantasies.[iv]

Increasing numbers of government and NGO programs for girls are “preoccupied” with girls’ loss of voice in adolescence, encouraging girls to speak up online and at conferences and other spaces supervised by adults, making them open to surveillance and control. Harris states that the problem with encouraging girls to express themselves is that it’s channeled through adult mediators and authorities who provide guidance:[v] “It could be argued that the more young women speak, the less power they have.”[vi] To subvert this control, girls turn to the new media-based politics of “border work” between the public and private without adult supervision on their websites (“Ms Mediocre,” “Losergrrl,” and “Big Bad Chinese Mama”), zines (“I’m So Fucking Beautiful,”) alternative music (punk, grunge, and hip-hop), performance, graffiti, stickering, culture jamming or “ad busting,” art, and comics (“Re:Vulva Girl”). Some young political activists also use traditional tactics including demonstrations, petitions, letter writing, and lobbying.

[i] Anita Harris. Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century. Routledge, 2004, p. 1.

[ii] Harris, p. 184.

[iii] Harris, p. 10.

[iv] Harris, p. 127.

[v] Harris, p. 140.

[vi] Harris, p. 142.

A West African professional woman’s struggles, in the novel Changes: A Love Story.

The novel Changes describes the conflicts faced by a West African working woman with a graduate degree, who wonders, “Why is life so hard on the professional African woman?” Older people seeped in tradition suspect “white man’s education,” consult cowry shell diviners, and view feminism as a divisive western import. Working in Accra in Ghana, Esi leaves her husband after he grabbed her in what she realized was marital rape. She finds his neediness suffocating. Her grandmother tells her that the reason to marry is to have children, “the last man any woman should think of marrying is he man she loves,”[1] but Esi falls in love with a charming and rich womanizer, Ali. The writer lets the reader know that adultery is common. Ali talks her and their extended families into agreeing to be his second wife, despite the fact that she’s Christian and he’s Muslim. He paid a small bride price, the traditional dowry. His relatives refer to her as an infidel and his home is with his first wife and children—the two women never meet. His visits to Esi’ house get less and less frequent.

Esi gets too much of what she wanted, time to do her work as a government data analyst and be alone in a society that doesn’t accept single women, feeling so lonely and depressed she gets a prescription for tranquilizers. Her consistent relationship is with her best friend, Opokuya, a nurse with four children who also feels “squeezed dry” by her family. Opokuya tells Esi that the few men who claim they like intelligent working women “are also interested in having such women permanently in their beds and in their kitchens.”[2] Esi allows her only daughter to be raised by the little girl’s paternal grandmother where other children are there to keep her company. Esi also grew up in a large compound with her cousins and extended family. She wonders if she will ever find a love that’s not too overbearing or too distant.

[1] Ama Ata Aidoo. Changes: A Love Story. The Feminist Press, 1993, p. 42.

[2] Changes, p. 45.

Girls are the smart ones in kids’ TV cartoons?

Young children in North America watch TV cartoon series with girls as the smart ones: Word Girl, Peg + Cat, Doc McStuffins, Dora the Explorer, and Olivia the pig. The Disney cartoon princesses portray more traditional femininity (see their photos[i]., including the new Princess Sophia, excluding movie character Merida who Disney describes as “an adventurer by spirit,” an archer and horseback rider who “wants to control her own destiny.” Her movie Brave, was released in 2012. Young male main characters fight a lot, like Aang on Avatar: The Last Airbender, Mike the Knight, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Comments?

[i] http://princess.disney.com/movies

Transnational Feminist Development Networks

Feminist action aims to change the gender hierarchy and women’s social status.[i] “Another world is possible and women are building it!,” declared the women’s caucus at a 2002 conference in Monterey, Mexico. International feminism developed in the early 20th century, as when European and US suffragettes exchanged ideas and socialist women’s groups organized in various countries. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom formed during World War I, headed by Jane Addams, is still active. Second Wave feminist ideas spread around the world in the 1960s and 70s as the number of educated women increased. Transnational feminist networks with a global perspective rather than national orientation multiplied after 1985, interacting with international organizations like the United Nations, as well as local organizations. They were formed by educated, middle-class, employed women, often dissatisfied with sexism they experienced in left-wing movements.[ii]

Since the early 1980s in the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher era, some feminist networks oppose neoliberal economic policies such as sweatshop labor in favor a Keynesian welfare state. For example, a network for women workers in North America, the Caribbean and Mexico was formed in 1984 called Mujer a Mujer (woman to woman) and organized against NAFTA and other such economic policies. Some oppose patriarchal fundamentalism and promote Muslim women’s rights like Women Living Under Muslim Laws founded in 1984.[iii]

Most transnational women’s networks (unlike national organizations like the National Organization for Women) have a loose organizational framework following feminist processes of democratic, inclusive, participatory, informal, decentralized and nonhierarchical structures and processes, according to Valentine Moghadam.[iv] She observes that women’s social movements are more radical and transformative than many of the social movements often studied by sociologists, but were not anti-state anarchists. She speculates an alliance of feminists and labor would be powerful.[v] The UN Decade for Women (1976 to 1985) facilitated conversations and sometimes clashes between feminists in the Global North and South. The UN continued sponsoring women’s conferences and formed UN Women in 2010 (United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.) A major theme is “women’s rights are human rights,” despite cultural traditions like female circumcision. AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development) advocates, “No tradition, cultural practice or religious tenet can justify the violation of a fundament human right . . .not subject to a religious veto.”[vi]

WID (women-in-development) researchers in developing countries began using feminist approaches and developed a new transnational feminism, aided by Internet communication since the 1990s. Jamaican Peggy Antrobus, a founder of DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era) contrasts the male view of power to dominate with female concept of power to empower others.

 

Feminism offers the only politics which can transform our world into a more human place and deal with issues like equality, development, and peace, because it asks the right questions: about power, about the links between the personal and the political; and because it cuts through race and class. Feminism implies consciousness of all the sources of oppression: race, class, gender, homophobia, and it resists them all. Feminism is a call for action.

 

WIDE (Women in Development in Europe) is composed of European feminists who lobby their governments’ development polices to include women’s well-being, similar to WEDO in the US, Sisterhood is Global Institute in Canada calls itself the “Think Tank of International Feminism,” interacting with many other similar groups.

[i] Valentine Moghadam. Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, p. 79.

[ii] Moghadam, p. 86.

[iii] http://www.wluml.org/node/5408

[iv] Moghadam, p. 82.

[v] Moghadam, pp. 192, 197.

[vi] Moghadam, p. 200.

Most Social Movement Leaders are Educated Middle-Class, but not in Southern Brazil–peasants formed a women’s movement, etc.

Gessi Bonês, Vera Fracasso and other teenagers living in rural Southern Brazil in Rio Grande do Sul in the 1980s started a women’s movement, despite the patriarchal tradition of fathers’ restricting daughters’ ability to go outside their homes.[i] This was the era when Brazilians overthrew the military dictatorship. The girls’ lives were similar to Mashal’s in Pakistan, spending their days doing work at home with very little or no education or freedom of movement. Many of the farm women worked from early in the morning to midnight, milking cows, making cheese, gardening, cooking, etc. Fathers were reluctant to let their girls leave the safety of home. Vera reported her mother barely spoke or expressed an opinion, similar to Sahar’s illiterate mother in Pakistan. Gessi only had a fifth grade education because she had to walk five kilometers each way to school.

What made the difference for these peasants was the encouragement of Catholic nuns and priests who espoused Liberation Theology, concerned about helping the poor. They organized youth groups and visited parents until they agreed to let their teens attend. Many of the young people went on to lead social movements for landless workers called MST (it became the largest social movement), anti-dam movement, and union reform. At age 20, Vera led the union-reform movement. As in other social movements, the male activists weren’t interested in putting women’s issues to the forefront and ignored female speakers, so the girls decided to form a women’s movement. The young women fought for economic changes on a national level such as social security for farm women and changes in daily life, such as women’s ability to speak up, go outside the home without asking their father or husband’s permission, and share family work. The latter goal was the most difficult to achieve. Most of the feminist activists struggled with their fathers, then husbands, not wanting them to leave home.[ii]

In 1986, the girls’ first step was to ask the priests to help them bring women from nearby towns together to meet. They didn’t have contact with urban feminist movements so they started without a model, calling their local women’s associations Farmwomen (Mulheres da Roca), then formed a state organization called The Movement of Rural Women Workers (MMTR), and worked with women’s organizations in other southern states to influence national policies. They marched in the streets and took over government buildings in militant activism. Their meetings including singing, crafts, self-help exercises, and lectures as well as discussions. In the 1990s and 2000s they focused on women’s health (Gessi became head of the local women’s health department in 2001, alienating some activists who were against working in government, then formed a women’s organic market), women’s pharmacies with natural remedies, and sustainable agriculture vs. pesticides that harmed their health. As a member like Ivone said, “We felt like people,” helping to alleviate the suffering and depression many experienced.[iii] Some of the activists destroyed genetically modified crops on International Women’s Day in 2006. One of their campaigns was to document citizenship so women could collect benefits, a problem similar to undocumented Indians. In 1995, women from 17 states met to form the National Organization of Rural women Workers (ANMTR) that expanded the documentation project. In 2003, they formed a national Movement of Peasant Women (MMC), advocating a new agricultural model.

[i] Jeffrey Rubin and Emma Sokoloff-Rubin. Sustaining Activism: A Brazilian Women’s Movement and a Father-Daughter Collaboration. Duke University Press, 2013.

http://www.sustainingactivism.com/photo-gallery/

 

[ii] Rubin, p. 66.

[iii] Rubin, p. 62.

Theoretical Approaches to Studying Girls in the West

The main theoretical approaches to studying girls and young women are feminism, of course, and youth subcultures like punks or hip-hop; both involve resistance to dominant authorities.[1] Youth subcultures were first studied at the University of Chicago starting in the 1920s with a focus on street gangs as a way to cope with poverty. Youth subcultures were made famous at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies starting in 1964. Their early studies were criticized by feminist scholars for focusing on class conflict by working class “lads” and their public spaces, ignoring what girls did in more private spaces. With the development of global marketing aimed at youth and neoliberal individualization, class and political resistance became less relevant. Instead, scholars discussed nonactivist neotribes such as club scenes, lifestyles, networks, communities, etc. Anita Harris stated in 2008, “There is no longer any such thing as the truly ‘resistant’ youth subcultures, because youth style and cultures have been appropriated by the consumer industries, depoliticized and packaged back to youth.”

Globalization and the Internet changed girls’ way of doing politics starting in the late 1980s with girrrl power media, including zines, music including punk and rap, the Internet and its blogs and webcams, culture jamming of commercial media, and graffiti, thereby creating a “new form of citizenship” in postmodern subcultures. The editors of Riot Grrl zine wrote in 1992, “We’re tired of being written out–out of history, out of the ‘scene’, out of our bodies … for this reason we have created our zine and scene … be proud of being a grrrl.” Feminist girls around the world created a Third Wave in reaction to the Second Wave, discussed in Chapter 11, based on a more fluid and hybrid notion of gender and resistance to multinational corporations’ power, surpassing national governments as the target to resistance.

[1]Anita Harris, ed. Next Wave Cultures: Feminism, Subcultures, Activism. Routledge, 2008, Introduction.