Disney’s Brave: White Feminism Strikes Again!

I generally try to avoid Disney entirely, because I have pretentious tastes and because Disney is every kind of problematic. The princess movies are especially frustrating, as they gleefully celebrate tired sexist and heteronormative narratives. Plus, I’ve never understood America’s obsession with princess narratives. Isn’t this nation’s origin story wrapped up in leaving monarchies behind? Despite my aversions, I watched Disney’s Brave while recovering from surgery last week. I’d heard that it was actually wonderful, and by day four of bed rest, even Disney seemed more appealing than staring at my ceiling.

Like most Disney movies, Brave is filled with only white people.  It also draws on Scottish folklore, featuring magical wisps and spells cast by the classic old witch. There’s probably a lot of cultural appropriation and inaccuracies tied up in the depiction of the clans and their histories. However, the movie did a nice job of exploring and challenging the traditional princess tale.  In the film, Princess Merida doesn’t want to wear the clothes her mother chooses, learn the ‘feminine’ skills her mother tries to teach her, or act like a traditional princess in any sense. When three suitors arrive to compete for Merida’s hand, she is not pleased. She ultimately competes for her own hand, out-shooting all three suitors.

That’s awesome! This all happens quite early, and the betrothal line takes a backseat for the rest of the film. I was glad to see the movie abandon the usual ‘She doesn’t want it now, but she’ll be gushing in love by the end!’ way of these stories.  Ultimately, this isn’t a story about gender roles. It’s a story about familial relationships, especially the mother/daughter bond.  This was all explored within the framework of the traditional Prince/Princess setup, but it was nice to see the storytellers manipulate that in productive ways. Hopefully, we’ll eventually reach a point where strong, independent young women aren’t shown as rebels and rule-breakers, but we’re moving in the right direction.

I was feeling pretty pleased with Brave, only to immediately hear about Disney’s redesign of Princess Merida. Before Merida could be officially inducted into the Disney Princess membership club (why is this even a thing? Honestly, why?), some official decided she needed to be sexier. Yeah. 16 year old Merida just wasn’t sexy enough to be an official Disney Princess. Even though it’s antithetical to her entire character, Merida was stripped of her trusty bow and arrows, stuck into a fancy dress (the exact kind she literally tore off her body in the film), her wild hair was tamed, and she was made much skinnier. This is why we don’t get along, Disney.

Here’s where things get interesting: there was a huge public outcry! The sexed up version of Merida was not receiving any kind of approval. Disney has been petitioned, the film’s director expressed anger, and it seems like the entire internet has been yelling, so much so that Disney replaced Sexy Merida with Original Merida on the official website. Unfortunately, it sounds like Disney is still planning to use Sexy Merida on their official merchandise.

I think this public response is great. Really, I do. I can’t help but to feel frustrated, though. Because this isn’t the first time Disney has redesigned a Princess. It’s kind of their MO, honestly. When Mulan became an Official Princess, her weapons were taken away, too. Not only that, they made her white. That’s right. They changed her race. And it’s not just Mulan. Jasmine and Pocahontas? Also suddenly white.

Yes, it’s wickedly annoying that Merida was completely changed into a sexy cartoon. We should be frustrated by that. But where were all the petitions and outcry when this exact same stuff was happening to Princesses of Color? I mean, really, white feminism? Really? It’s anti-feminist to care about issues only when they pertain to people who look like us. That is wrong-headed in so many ways. I’m happy that Brave has been received so well, that people are excited about a princess who breaks out of the traditional roles.  But by getting angry at her redesign and not the same problematic redesigns of her fellow princesses, we’re not doing any better.

Feminism has an utterly unsavory history of excluding women of color, lesbians, the working class, basically anyone who wasn’t white, straight, and rich. I don’t want to be a part of that feminism. So if we’re going to have a canary about Merida, we need to have canaries about Mulan, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and while we’re at it, let’s talk about how Tiana, the first black princess, spent most of her movie as a literal frog. We need to stop caring about all of Disney’s problems only when they pertain to white girls.

Actually, let’s stop caring about Disney entirely! That might be asking too much, but it seems odd that we keep celebrating a company that consistently makes overt racist, sexist, and heteronormative choices. If you really can’t kick Disney, check out this great blog called Feminist Disney. We have to challenge our media. All of our media. Not just the parts that cause white tears.

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The People and Places of Mother’s Day

The idea of Mother’s Day is lovely. A recognized holiday to celebrate the women who birthed, raised, and loved us- what could possibly be more pleasant? Unfortunately, this holiday and all the marketing around it assume a specific kind of maternal relationship- one that lots of folks simply don’t have. Not being able to or not wanting to celebrate Mother’s Day can be pretty painful in light of all the attention and significance we put on the day.

I imagine this day can be particularly painful if you’ve always wanted to be a mom, and things didn’t or haven’t worked out the way you hoped they would, if you have a difficult relationship with your children, or if motherhood wasn’t part of your life plan. If you have a complicated or a wonderful relationship with your mom, if you have many mothers, or none at all, know that you’re doing just fine. It’s not weird or abnormal to have a ‘non-traditional’ family structure. Nobody is judging you for having a life that doesn’t mirror a greeting card. Nobody worth a lick of your time, anyway.

Image of the word 'Mom' wherein the 'o' is the sign for female.

Modern Girl Blitz 365 Ways of Feminism #313 (Mom Edition)

I’m enormously lucky to have a sparkling enigma for a mother. Once, I asked my mother what she had wanted to grow up to be when she was young. No amount of prying could change her answer, “All I ever wanted to be was a mother.” I used to think this was direly anti-feminist. Had she really never aspired to be anything other than my mother? And what does that mean now that I’m grown and we live thousands of miles apart? Now, I realize that the only anti-feminist thing is my assumption that motherhood is inherently anti-feminist. That’s absurd.

When I graduated college, I didn’t understand why my mother was so desperately, almost hysterically proud. I’d always been great at school. I was a little insulted by her tears- had she really thought I was going to fail out? Then, I stopped being a self-centered twit and realized that my graduation had very little to do with me. Everything  my mom has done throughout my life, working three or four jobs at a time, often sacrificing her own well being, has been for my sisters and me. My mother should have walked across a stage and collected a diploma when she was 22, but her life didn’t turn out that way. So, when I did it (at 21, she’ll want you to know) it meant more than accumulating the requisite credits. It meant that we were strong women, women who could change our circumstances, women who could achieve. And that’s practically the definition of feminism. Every thing I’ve accomplished in my life, every thing I feel proud of, all of it happened because of the investment my mother made in me.

My friend Flannery writes truly lovely poems. She has a series about a woman who becomes a house. I think about those poems, and the way Flannery reads them sometimes. “Only a woman,” she says, “can be a person and a place.”  My mom wanted, more than anything else, to be a place for her children. We may be grown now, but she’ll always be that place for us. My sisters and I are lucky to have a place with our biological mother, but it doesn’t really matter that she happened to birth us.

Maybe the woman who is your place is another member of your family, is a friend’s mother, a teacher, a mentor, a historical figure, an author. Maybe the woman who is your place is a man. Maybe your dad is your mom. Maybe you are your place; you are the strong woman in your life.

If Mother’s Day is a painful day for you, know that it’s not truly about which uterus you came out of. It’s a day to celebrate the places we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’ll go. Those places might hurt, they might never stop hurting.  On this Mother’s Day, let’s take a moment to celebrate our people and places, the sites of love in our lives, and all the people and places who came before us, forging the feminist way. Because truly, how lucky we are to be here at all. How lucky we are to be people and places perched precariously as we are on the precipice of here and there.

A Small Update from Your Resident Angry Feminist Killjoy

Sorry for the lack of posts this week! I’m still very excited to talk about bodies, body positivity, sex, sex positivity, and a million other things. And we will be talking about all of that! Unfortunately, our discussions are going to be a bit postponed and intermittent in the next few days. I’m a bit under the weather. I was in the middle of writing a post yesterday when I was hit with the worst stomach pain I’ve ever experienced. I tried to ignore it, but hours passed and it would not yield. I couldn’t focus on anything but the radiating pain, which is why I’ve been in the hospital most of last night and today.

Surprise! Appendicitis! I had an appendectomy this afternoon. I’m on bed rest until Monday. I’ll definitely try to write some posts, but I’ll be honest with y’all: the medicine I was given makes me pretty loopy and nauseated. I can’t really sit up without my whole body feeling like a shake weight. I’m typing this one handed, while sprawled on my bed, with my laptop at an odd angle. I’m keeping this post extra short, because my brain feels fuzzy and I’m worried about coherency… but I didn’t want anyone to think I’d abandoned Sex Week! I’m hoping to be back at full speed soon. In the meantime, if you have any stories you’d like to share, feel free to submit them to angryfeministkilljoy@gmail.com 

Take care, everyone!

Welcome to Sex Week!

Today I need y’all to be my confessors to something that’s been weighing on my Feminist Conscience. I’ve been advocating for reproductive rights and sexual health for years. I have a “Get Yourself Tested” button on my backpack right now. In high school, I drove my friends to clinics for STD checks like a Sexual Health Soccer Mom. I (very loudly) believe in the importance of annual exams and check-ups.

Okay, but here’s the thing… my first visit to the gynecologist happened just a few months ago. Yeah. I’ve been preaching about sexual (and general genital) health for years, but have been seriously failing to take care of myself. I was scared of the gynecologist and scared of my own body.

Before my Big Feminist Awakening, I was told in various direct and indirect ways that my body, because of its femaleness, was inherently shameful. Like most girls growing up in mainstream America, I was immersed in a slut shaming mentality. I was raised by a very religious mother. My mother is a strong and wonderful woman, but church? That place can mess you up.

I cried when I noticed the first hints of puberty (which actually makes sense because that life stage is the worst) and again the day I started my first period. My mom laughed at my horror and tried to comfort me, but I was seriously convinced I had just reached the Age of No Return. I was sure my graduation into Womanhood meant I was condemned to burn in hell for all eternity. I had been told over and over that all women are sluts and whores who must beg for forgiveness every Sunday. If you’re told your entire life that you should hate yourself, your body, and all its human functions, with the added bonus of hearing that God is judging your every unholy action, you’re bound to have some issues to unpack.

I had my Big Atheist Awakening a few years before finding feminism. It’s been years since I left my mom’s conservative religion and became a raging feminist, but I’m still struggling to shake the remnants of body negativity and body shame. I know and believe that body positivity is an imperative for healthy living, especially for young women. But I still have moments of full on self-loathing, body hatred, and shame. I know it’s a product of society, but I can’t logic my way out of my emotions. Turns out, shaking a lifetime’s worth of internalized self hatred isn’t always as easy as I think it should be.

I have a feeling a lot of us are dealing with these body issues so, guess what, folks? Welcome to Sex Week! It’s like Shark Week with less teeth…unless you have been blessed with the vagina from the movie Teeth. Still, it’s like Shark Week with 100% less fear and more body positivity! This week, we’re going to be talking about bodies, lady doctors (not doctors who are ladies, doctors FOR ladies- and people with lady parts!), sex education, sex positivity, and the myths around of all it!

Casual Racism and Cinco de Mayo

I hate when we refer to the US as a “melting pot”. The Schoolhouse Rock song Great American Melting Pot sounds horribly racist as an adult. That phrase is meant to illustrate how accepting and diverse this nation is but what it’s really saying is, “Assimilate! Melt into our dominant white culture!” Mainstream United States culture is white.  There are cultural centers and ethnic grocery stores, little outposts of culture that are erased in the mainstream. We try to make up for this a few times a year by wildly celebrating “cultural” holidays.

Do Irish people appreciate American St. Patrick’s Day? Do any Mexican people appreciate American Cinco de Mayo? Has anyone ever felt honored by being worn as a Halloween costume? Probably not. Gustavo Arellano, who writes the awesome Ask a Mexican column, shared his views on Cinco de Mayo or “Gringo de Mayo” on CNN’s In America blog. Spoiler alert: he thinks it’s pointless.

Pointless? But we’re so excited to celebrate cultural diversity! Our good intentions are thwarted by a history of racism and ignorance, both of which are exacerbated by white privilege. We don’t even know we’re being ignorant and racist. This is because privilege is invisible to those who have it. White people generally can’t see whiteness, or how it constantly advantages us in society. I try to be aware of my privilege. I still mess up all the time. I make hurtful mistakes and throw around my white privilege, even when I’m trying to be conscious of it.

Just the other day, I referred to my friend as Mexican when she is, in fact, Hispanic. Those are not the same! I immediately followed this moment of racial misidentification by asking where her family was from. I was generally curious. I would like to know more about her family, about who taught her Spanish, what her experiences have been. But asking, “Where are you from?” is not the same as asking those questions. Asking, “Where are you from?” implies an inherent Otherness. My friend said, “My family is from the same state I am from, and we always have been. It was your idiot white ancestors who showed up, enacted horrific genocides, and still have the audacity to assume that any culture that isn’t your own must have come from somewhere else. Get out of my face!” …okay, she didn’t say any of that and was very kind about unpacking my moment of white privilege.

I had a moment of casual racism. It wasn’t overt or explicit- I wasn’t directly stating that I view Whiteness as superior. But that is what I was unintentionally implying. It’s hard to explain racism to white people, because we don’t recognize when we’re exerting our cultural dominance. We think that if we treat everyone the same and view everyone as a human not a race, we can’t possibly be racist. This results in a lot of really uncomfortable moments of casual racism. Those moments reinforce the dominant white narrative, and further marginalize and oppress every non-white person.

That’s why we need to be especially aware of our actions on cultural holidays. Today, Cinco de Mayo, will probably involve a lot of white people getting drunk on “Mexican” beer and eating “Mexican” food, and wearing sombreros and ponchos, never minding that most of the beer, food, and clothing are American bastardizations of an entire culture.

We need to pause when we think we’re honoring a culture, because most of the time we’re actually engaging in more of that harmful casual racism. Who gets hurt by our inaccurate and insensitive (though very enthusiastic) representations? At the end of the day, white people get to take the costume off. The sombrero and poncho get thrown in the closet, and we go on with our lives. Meanwhile, we’ve just reinforced a lot of stereotypes and historical and cultural inaccuracies that have real ramifications. Really, when was the last time you saw a Mexican wearing a sombrero or a poncho? This is the difference between talking about race (“I’m not racist!”) and acting race. For most white people, our actions and representations, which we don’t mean to be racist, show our ignorance about race.

The fact is: nobody ever dresses up like white people. There isn’t a holiday where we celebrate and embody stereotypes about white folks. This is because we don’t view whiteness as Other. In our minds, white is the de facto universal race. We see things through a lens of whiteness, which problematizes our attempts to ‘honor’ and ‘celebrate’ different cultures.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go ask my neighbors to kindly stop celebrating Cinco de Mayo by drinking Coronas and eating Taco Bell while making immigration jokes in bad Spanish accents.

Foucault and the Panopticon

After talking about Pierre Bourdieu last week, I’ve been feeling really excited about cultural and social theories. Thinking about why the world works the way it does is cool and exciting! Since I think about the panopticon almost daily, I reread “Panopticism” from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish this week. Which brings us to another installment of… Pontifications from a Dead White Dude!

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, literary critic, and social theorist who lived from 1926-1984. I’m quite partial to Foucault’s ideas. Today, I’m going to talk about the panopticon.

The panopticon is prison building designed by Jeremy Bentham- another white philosopher and social theorist. (I feel the need to point this out to emphasize the very Western nature of my education. I promise we’ll talk about non-white and non-male theorists, soon!) The goal of the panopticon is, essentially, to act as the opposite of a dungeon. Whereas a dungeon thrusts prisoners into darkness, hidden from view, Bentham’s panopticon shines a light on prisoners and makes them visible at all times.

The architecture of the panopticon features a central guard tower. Encircling this tower is a building comprised of cells housing inmates. The cells face the guard tower; it is always visible to the prisoners. Okay, here’s where things get interesting: there are no lights in the guard tower. It is always dark. But the prisoner’s cells are constantly illuminated.

Have you ever experienced the significantly unsettling feeling that comes with leaving your curtains open after sunset? With the lights on inside, you can’t see out into the darkness. We feel watched, even if we can’t confirm if someone really is looking in. Even if we’re not participating in any kind of social deviance- if we’re just eating dinner in front of an open window- we become hyperaware of our actions, of the potential of observation. That’s the panopticon! Let’s break down the etymology of this Greek word: -pan means all, -opticon means observe. In the darkness, illuminated spaces can be completely observed.

Back in the prison, the inmates are living with the lights on and the curtains open, all the time. Constantly. They know the tower is there, but are there guards in the tower? Maybe. Maybe not. There is literally no way to tell. Maybe the guards are asleep, but are you going to risk doing something deviant if they could be wide-awake and watching you? The tower is thus a site of symbolic power, one to which the prisoners must constantly defer. This results in self-regulation, always in deference to the Power Tower. (I will henceforth be referring to the guard tower as the Power Tower, and I hereby make a formal motion that everyone follow suit.)

The panopticon is effective because it creates an ideal power. More people can be controlled by fewer operators. The Power Tower might be utterly unstaffed, but still has the ability to completely control those who are aware of it. But the panopticon is still an isolated structured. Tyrannical guards are prevented from abusing their position in the Power Tower because the whole system can be observed and critiqued by those outside it.

Bentham’s panopticon is ingenious, if ethically and morally murky.  It’s a very clever system, but not one that places particular value on human rights. Prisoners are people. Prisoners have rights. I am looking you straight in the eye, Guantanamo. Foucault steps into the discussion by considering a metaphorical, social panopticon rather than the physical prison structure.

Foucault argues that the panoptic schema strengthens social forces by functioning to “increase production to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality”. The panopticon creates a disciplinary society, one in which we self-regulate our actions in response to the constant, if unseen, presence of guards. In this way, we see that our daily lives closely resemble that of inmates in a panopticon. At work, in schools, in hospitals, we find ourselves conforming to a norm, again deferring to the Power Tower.

Control, observation, examination, and the threat of unknown surveillance, inform our actions. This isn’t always a bad thing; we have freedoms and liberties within the context of these controlled areas. But I think it’s important to consider the functions of power and control in our lives. I wasn’t kidding when I told you that I am constantly thinking about the panopticon.

At least once a day, I wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing at any given moment: how much is free will and how much is free will within the context of a system of control? Today, when I put on a dress and rode my bicycle, when I was in the library, when I watched televised sports in a bar, when I ordered pasta… how many of those moments were dictated by the invisible Power Tower of society? When my friend caught a fly in a restaurant and carried it outside, even though other people were pointing and laughing, how many layers of control and observation were at work?

When I came home and shut my curtains, I felt the relief of being alone- a kind of freedom from performance. But my whole day was filled with freedom and I don’t feel like I’m performing when I’m out with my friends. I’m just being myself, enjoying fun things with fun people! And yet… I know that every choice we make is within the context of social order. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But I do wonder what ethical and moral lines are being blurred by social power.

I don’t know who is watching. I don’t even always know where the tower is. But I know that as an active member of society, I am an inmate under lights. My choices are informed by the presence of Eyes. In addition to the panopticon, I also have a particular fascination with the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. Eyes and panopticons are everywhere! (Help! The male gaze!!) It’s not always easy to know when, if ever, the lights are off. What Power Towers are watching you?

My Love Matters

My friend Katherine has lovely and important words, and has very graciously agreed to share some of them here. I feel so honored to publish her thoughts and to share them with all of you! I will pass along your comments, but you can also visit Katherine and her wonderful words over on her blog, A Collection of Lights. Thank you, Katherine!

——-

My name is Katherine, and I’m kind of gay. Gay as in delighted, mind you, and in the sense that I fuck women. (Well, one woman.) I’m queer. Queer like I’m odd, ever so slightly strange, and I fuck women. (One woman.) I’m a lesbian in the sense that it’s an easy label to peel off and stick on, just as any label might be. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly bothered about the label. Well, that’s sort of a lie. I’m a little bothered by it, but theoretically it doesn’t matter.

Before I came out, I had to come in – into myself, that is. There were years of slight self denial, sure, but I wasn’t lying when I told people I was straight. Okay, maybe I should have questioned the frequency with which I had to deny the queer aspects of my personhood. Perhaps there were clues. But at the tender age of nineteen, when I found a woman making my heart flutter and a stammer trip up my tongue, I was probably the most surprised person of anyone I knew.

And despite the rampant heterosexism in our society which is compounding directly into the newfound difficulties I am facing, finally I can truly say that I am happy. Five months ago, I met the most wonderful woman. There is nothing I regret–being with her is one of the single greatest experiences I have had in my lifetime. But with this and the somewhat new discovery that I am queer comes a sort of strange navigation. Is it okay to hold hands? What will my boss think if I tell her that my partner is a woman? What will my peers think? What will my mother think? The questions don’t end.

In the state of Texas, I cannot get married to the person I love. I cannot foster children with the person I love. I cannot adopt children with the person I love. My university and place of work are supportive, but I could – in another position, another place – be taunted and terminated for sharing who I am with other people. Institutional, symbolic, and individual oppressions intersect. They are all out to get me. Governmental and social institutions reward heterosexuality.

And okay, marriage is a construct, but I’d like to be rewarded for the love I have someday. My love matters.

Being queer is as normal to me as getting up in the morning (new, frustrating, ultimately rewarding), yet in order to be taken seriously – in order for change to be made – I must be an activist. Activism is great, but it’s frustrating to me that I must make who I love something political. Granted, our society has made me a political figure already. This time? It’s going to be on my terms.

This is all to say, I don’t have a huge amount of experience as a queer human being, but I do have the somewhat unique perspective of someone who identified as heterosexual until fairly recently… I have supported queer equality for quite some time, but life as an actual goddamn queer is very different.  And lately, a lot has pissed me off. You’re welcome in advance.

If your only defense of common and garden, everyday feminism is “we’re not all lesbians!”, fuck you.

If you try to console queer individuals by telling them of this one time, in a separate life, you–or someone you know–knew a gay person who was really cool despite their crippling gayness, fuck you. (You know, I knew a straight person once. He was pretty cool!)

If you ask a queer lady if/how scissoring works, fuck you.

If you heckle a queer person and their partner, fuck you. (If you heckle anyone, fuck you.)

If you refer to a queer person’s partner as their roommate despite correction, fuck you.

If you have the audacity to find yourself feeling discriminated against for being straight, fuck you.

If you ask queer ladies who the “man” is in their relationship, fuck you.

If you identify as heterosexual, consider completing this questionnaire.