FCKH8 Exploits Little Girls In Order To Sell T-Shirts

22 Oct

Trigger warning for rape

Yesterday, FCKH8 released a video called F-Bombs for Feminism: Potty Mouthed Princesses Use Bad Words for Good Cause that quickly went viral, and has been shared hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook alone. This isn’t surprising – it’s a video designed to hit that marketing sweet spot where people are equal parts outraged, delighted and just plain not sure what to think. I’d be willing to bet that this video has had nearly as many hate-shares and “is this offensive?” shares as it has people posting it because they think it’s great.

FCKH8’s video is carefully calculated to appeal to a certain type of young, hip feminist (as well as being designed to cause offence and outrage among right-wing conservatives). It starts out with a bunch of sweet little girls wearing princess costumes striking stereotypically cute poses and simpering “pretty” at the camera. Then there’s a record scratch, and suddenly the girls are throwing out cuss words left, right and centre: “What the fuck? I’m not some pretty fuckin’ helpless princess in distress. I’m pretty fuckin’ powerful and ready for success. So what is more offensive? A little girl saying ‘fuck,’ or the fucking unequal and sexist way society treats girls and women?”

The video then has the sweet, princessified little girls tackle a bunch of feminist issues, namely the pay gap, violence against women, and sexual assault – all while swearing up a storm, of course. What FCKH8 wants you to take away from this is that society feels more uncomfortable about cute little girls saying the word fuck than it does about the very real issues faced by women on a daily basis. Instead, what I see is a video that relies on the shock value of girls in princess costumes cussing and talking about rape in order to increase its shareability.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight: this video is not some kind of PSA, it’s an advertisement. FCKH8 is a for-profit t-shirt company – emphasis on the profit – that has put together an exploitative and manipulative two minute and thirty five second commercial for t-shirts. And while FCKH8 asserts that all of this is “for a good cause” (they’ve promised to donate $5 from each t-shirt sale to as-yet-undisclosed organizations) the only cause that’s being promoted by this video is their bank account.

There is nothing feminist about using little girls as props in order to sell t-shirts – in fact, I would argue that this is the opposite of feminism. There is nothing feminist about exploiting a bunch of little girls by having them swear and talk about rape statistics just so that FCKH8 can make a quick buck. There is nothing feminist about creating an association between potty-mouthed little kids and social justice – and that’s not a slight against potty-mouths, because I fucking love swearing, but rather a statement on the fact that this video plays into a lot of the negative stereotypes that people already have about feminism.

On top of all that, there is for sure nothing feminist about having girls as young as six years old discussing rape and sexual assault; I would hope that at that age, most kids have never even heard the word rape, let alone had to recite facts about it for an audience of thousands, maybe even millions. I feel sick that these children are being taught about subjects like rape just so that a t-shirt company can make a provocative advertisement. The point that especially crosses the line between “this is problematic” and “I want to flip a table” is the moment where the five little girls spout off the statistic that one in five women will be raped in their lifetime, and then ask which of them it will be. Having a little girl demand to know if she’ll be raped just so that you can sell a few shirts is so far beyond the realm of what should be acceptable that I have no words for it.

This is not how we protect our children. This is not how we empower girls. Forcing a child to ask an audience of adults if she’ll someday become a rape statistic so that your company can line its pockets with cash is definitely not the way to practice social justice.

This isn’t the first time that FCKH8 has done this kind of thing either – they recently came under fire after they exploited the events in Ferguson in order to sell “anti-racism gear.” As with the F-Bomb Princess video, the Ferguson video featured a bunch of children rattling off facts about racism before promising to donate a portion of each t-shirt sale to some unspecified charity. This is their business model, apparently: take something that people care deeply about, commodify it, and then make money. As a strategy, it’s slick and smart as hell. It’s also pretty unethical.

Feminism isn’t a commodity that can be bought and sold. Rape statistics should not be used as a sales tactic. Children do not exist to be used as provocateurs in manipulative advertisement campaigns for clothing.

It would be really great if FCKH8 would realize that using little girls as shock-value props in their t-shirt commercial is not feminist in any sense of the word. No little kid should have to wonder aloud whether or not they’ll be raped one day, and especially not just so some grownup can make money.

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Reign’s Rape Problem

20 Oct

TW for rape

When I first heard about the CW show Reign, I knew that it was going to be my next guilty pleasure. A young Mary Stuart and her ladies-in-waiting living with Catherine de’Medici in Renaissance France? Yes please. Court intrigue and awkward teenage romance? Yes please. Weird pagans in the woods and flower crowns and a murderous queen and a (very anachronistically hot and young) Nostradamus? DOUBLE YES PLEASE. PASS THE FLOWER CROWNS, SON, I’M IN.

I talked my friend into watching it with me, and by the end of the first episode we were both hooked. We would make a ritual out of it – order a pizza, get a bottle of wine, and then sit down to make fun of plot holes and not-very-historically-accurate clothing and overblown teenage FEELINGS for an hour. But as much as we giggled over the poor life choices of the characters, and as often as I yelled “NOBODY WORE TUTUS IN THE 16TH CENTURY,” we developed a real fondness for the show.

And why not? There’s honestly a lot to like. Reign is all about the various ways that women wield power, both in gross and subtle ways. It’s about the relationships between women, and the electrical charges of jealousy and sneaky competitiveness that often sour them. It’s about female sexuality – in fact, the pilot featured a pretty hot-n-heavy female masturbation scene. To top it all off, every single episode of the series so far passes the Bechdel test, meaning that there is always at least one scene involving two women who talk to each other about something other than a man – which I know doesn’t sound like very discriminating criteria, but you would be surprised how many pieces of media fail to meet even this grimly minimal standard. But not Reign! Reign has, for all of its quirks, been generally pretty pro kick-ass women, a fact which I’ve really appreciated.

Plus I’m also here for the elaborate hair styles an the dark, secret poisons and the dudes in tight leggings. But I digress.

This week, a spoiler for an upcoming episode of Reign was leaked. This spoiler revealed that in an upcoming episode of the show, Mary will be violently raped. This rape, by the way, will not be a portrayal of a historical fact. Instead, it will be used as a plot device, a ratings grab and a cheap facsimile for character development.

Rape as a plot device is a lazy way to show a strong woman’s “vulnerability,” all the while demeaning and exploiting the experiences of real-life rape survivors. Rape as a plot device is also often used to take female characters down a peg, to put them in their place, to force them to rely on men for protection. Rape as character development is most often used as what Chris Osterndorf refers to as “an explain-all for complicated female characters” – in fact, we’ve already seen Reign pull that old trope with Queen Catherine, when it tossed in a quick rape story to justify her actions and make her more sympathetic to viewers.

None of these are good reasons to include a rape scene in a film or book or television show; I am disgusted that the writers and producers of Reign would use sexual assault to somehow drive the arc of the show forward or reshape Mary’s character. There is absolutely no reason to show Mary being violently raped, and doing so will only have harmful results.

People who defend this scene will say that it’s accurate, perhaps not in a way that’s specific to Mary Stuart, but in a broader, historical context. They’ll argue that Reign is fairly portraying how prevalent violence against women was in 16th century Europe. They’ll smugly explain that these types of scenes create awareness about rape.

First of all, let me assure you that everyone is aware of rape. Women, especially, are painfully aware of the threat of sexual assault. We live with that threat every damn day, and we don’t need a television show to educate us on how frightening and dangerous life as a girl can be.

Second of all, these scenes nearly always sensationalize rape, using the act of sexual assault to shock or create intrigue in audiences. They are not thoughtful portrayals of a difficult and incredibly sensitive subject; they play into the pervasive media narrative that centres violence itself instead of the experiences of women. These scenes also desensitize audiences to the issue of violence against women, especially when a rape is used to drive the plot forward – when rape is just a mechanism to make a character behave a certain way or do a certain thing, the very real emotional fallout that rape survivors experience is often only briefly touched on, and certainly almost never given the gravity and attention it deserves.

Rape is not a plot device. It is not character development. It is not a great way for television shows to get higher ratings. Rape is something that one in four women will experience in their lifetime. It is not something that should ever be used for shock or entertainment value.

Please, writers and producers of Reign, re-write this scene. You are better than this. You show is better than this. You’ve got something really wonderful and unique going on – please don’t foul it up now. And to everyone else reading, please go sign this petition. Even if you don’t watch the show. Do it for the women you know who are rape survivors. Do it for all the teenage girls watching the show who don’t need to see one of their heroines subjected to sexual assault just to close up some screenwriter’s plot hole. Or just do it because it’ll take five seconds and it’s the right thing to do.

Flower Crowns R Us

Flower Crowns R Us

Fuck Busy

13 Oct

Late last night I was cruising around on Pinterest because hey I’m a boring 30-something mom and that’s what I do when I can’t sleep. Which, by the way, is every night, meaning that I’ve developed a bit of a Pinterest habit, among other things (my  insomnia-beating arsenal includes such soothing activities as: watching documentaries about the Chernobyl “liquidators,” hate-reading the blogs of conservative white dudes, and sending slightly incoherent late-night messages to my friends and acquaintances). Anyway, I was happily scrolling through pictures of pretty landscapes tragically marred by trite sayings (example: a gorgeous mountain at sunset with DON’T GIVE UP, THE BEST IS YET TO COME scrawled across it in white letters) when I came across this:

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I had one of those moments where I was like, “oh.” And then I was like, “yes.” And then I had this huge mishmash of complicated feelings that I’ve been trying to untangle ever since.

Busy is how I keep myself from having enough time to think the thoughts that might completely derail my day.

Busy is how I distract my mind from the refrain of you’re not good enough, you’re not trying hard enough, nobody likes you

Busy is word that I hold over my head like some goddamn Sword of Damocles, as in: you’re not busy enough, you should be doing more, you don’t deserve a break, just keep going.

Busy is the first thing I think of when I wake up – will I be busy enough today? Will I get enough done? Or will I be a failure?

Busy is the last thing I think about before I finally drift off into a sleeping-pill-induced sleep – have I been busy enough? Am I satisfied with my day? Or have I been a disappointment, both to myself and to the people around me?

Busy is my anxiety-charged brain, either leapfrogging from one thought to the next, stringing together conclusions so quickly that I can hardly breathe, or else fixating on one idea and spinning it over and over, like a sore tooth that you can’t stop running your tongue over even though you wince every time.

The glorification of busy is the reason that I struggle so hard to relax – because I’ve never really, truly been busy enough during the day to deserve a rest. I sometimes ask myself what “busy enough” would look like, and I can never seem to come up with a solid answer. I tell myself that “busy enough” or “accomplished enough” is just something that I would intuitively feel once I’ve reached that goal post. But I never feel it, so I always have to assume that it’s just another day of not being good enough.

The glorification of busy is why my go-to solution for anxiety and depression is to try to out-run them, as if they’re that big stupid rock in the Temple of Doom and I’m Indiana Jones, always able to stay one jump ahead of being crushed.

The glorification of busy is why I’m sitting here in my mother’s living room on a long weekend writing a goddamn blog post because I feel like I just haven’t satisfied my daily requirement of “getting shit done.” Never mind that I’m supposed to be lying in a pool of post-Thanksgiving turkey-coma drool. I tried that. It didn’t feel good; instead, it felt like I was wasting precious time during which I could have been doing something important, like maybe memorizing the periodic table.

We live in a culture that praises “busy” as the best thing a person can be – both in terms of employment and personal life. We’re encouraged to cram as many experiences and events and accomplishments into a 24 hour period as possible – and then we’re encouraged to share our interpretation of those experiences, via tweets and pictures and pithy Facebook updates, in as close to real-time as possible. Even when you’re relaxing or having fun, you’re still often tapping into that busy mindset. “Am I sufficiently relaxed? Should I be having more fun? What can I do to optimize this experience? If I’m not feeling good, is that because I’m just not trying hard enough?”

And while I would on the one hand argue that staying busy is sometimes what stops me from having a full on tear-drenched meltdown in the middle of the day, I would also say that living in a culture that promotes “busy” as the ideal has for sure shaped my ideas of how to handle the sick panic of repetitive thoughts or sharp flashes of fear that set fire to my nerves. If I didn’t live in a society that glorifies busy, would my response to anxiety be to immediately throw myself into some type or work or another? If I didn’t think that busy was the be-all-and-end-all would I maybe take a few deep breaths and try to slow my thoughts instead of crushing them with other, different, faster thoughts?

Fuck busy.

Fuck the fact that I crave busy as a way to block out all the other shit that’s going on in my head.

Fuck the impact that busy has had on my ability to zone out, to shift gears, to slow down.

Fuck tweeting about how much fun I’m having when all I can think about is what I’m doing next, and then next, and then next.

Fuck the sense of dread that I have when faced with a day full of empty, unplanned hours.

Fuck the feeling of inadequacy that the glorification of busy has left me with.

I just want to learn how to shut off the busy voice in my head for five minutes. I just want to know what quiet is like. I just want to close my eyes at the end of the day and sleep without having to Pinterest myself into an exhausted stupor.

Fuck busy.

Sheriff’s Office Re-Victimizes Rape Survivors

6 Oct

Trigger warning for rape

When Lori O’Brannon found a card in the mail from Clark County Sheriff’s office addressed to her 18 year old daughter Josie, she didn’t give it much thought. The card, a blue, standard post-card sized piece of cardboard, said that the evidence department had something to release to Josie. Lori figured that it was probably something innocent enough, left over from Josie’s wilder days when, as Lori put it, Josie had “been in trouble” a few times. So Lori called the number on the card, made an appointment, and drove Josie to pick up the “evidence.”

Neither of them could have predicted what was actually in the brown paper bag that the Sheriff’s office handed to her: a soiled grey shorts and a pair of women’s underwear. Both Josie and Lori recognized the articles immediately – they were what Josie had been wearing just over three years earlier, when she’d been raped the day before her 15th birthday. The clothing had been collected by PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Centre (the same hospital, in fact, where Josie had been born) as part of the rape kit done shortly after her assault.

She was being given back the evidence of her rape.

Josie, who her mother describes as a “tough little fighter,” started to shake at the sight of the bag, with its huge red BIOHAZARD sticker and neatly typed label showing Josie’s name, age, date of birth. Lori, a rape survivor herself, knew that her first priority was to get her daughter out of there before she collapsed. She stuffed the evidence bag in her trunk, managed to get Josie into the passenger side, and headed for home. Lori remembers thinking during the drive home that she might throw up; Josie said she felt like she’d been hit by a truck.

A few days later, when she felt a bit calmer, Lori called the Clark County Sheriff’s office to find out why, exactly, this had happened. She was hoping that it was all some kind of accident. Maybe there had been a miscommunication. Maybe the person who sent out the little blue cards hadn’t realized exactly what the “evidence” in question was in this particular case. Surely this couldn’t have been done on purpose? Surely someone would apologize and promise that it would never happen again. But no, Lori was told, this was standard procedure. The clothing was Josie’s property, and the sheriff’s office was simply returning it. There was nothing more to it than that.

Like most rape survivors, Josie knows exactly who her rapist was. And like most rapists, he was never convicted. The evidence bag from the sheriff’s office was a harsh reminder of these facts; ever since receiving it, Josie has been struggling to function. She has daily, debilitating headaches, sometimes so bad that she throws up. When she sleeps, there are always nightmares. When she’s awake, even the most innocuous things can trigger vivid flashbacks. Lori is struggling to get Josie some kind of help, but she hasn’t had much luck. The local YWCA mentioned getting both Josie and her mother into a rape survivor support group, but Lori doesn’t know what to do until then.

Josie

Josie

What she does know is that she never wants another rape survivor to have to go through what Josie has gone through.

“We are not ashamed,” says Lori. “We are angry.”

Both Lori and Josie want this story to be told. They hope that by sharing what has happened to Josie they might prevent the same thing from happening to anyone else. No one should have to be re-victimized in this way. No rape survivor should ever have to experience the trauma of being given back the clothing they were wearing when they were raped. This specific type of suffering one hundred percent preventable, and the onus is on law enforcement to make sure that rape survivors do not have to experience this.

I often hear people complain that they don’t think that rape culture exists, or else that it’s just a clever term with no real meaning. Well, if you need evidence of rape culture, here it is, contained perfectly in a single picture:

evidence bag

Rape culture is the fact that no one thought twice about having a teenager come pick up the outfit she was raped in. Rape culture is the fact this teenager was summoned to come pick up her “evidence” with a little blue postcard that gave absolutely no indication of what was waiting for her at the sheriff’s office. Rape culture is the fact that the manager of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office had no response for Lori other than “it’s procedure” when Lori called to ask why this had happened. Rape culture is the fact that the manager sounded bored when Lori told her that their standard procedure was “horrible and wrong.” Rape culture is the fact that Josie’s rapist is still out there somewhere, free and easy, while Josie can barely get out of bed.

That’s rape culture.

Safety Tips for Sophia Katz

2 Oct

Trigger warning for rape

When my grandmother was eighteen and freshly out of high school, she got a job doing clerical work at Pier 21 in Halifax. Pier 21 was the landing spot and first point of contact for those immigrating to Canada across the Atlantic ocean, and my grandmother helped process paperwork. She loved her job. She especially loved learning people’s stories, poring over their forms and finding out where they came from, what their children’s names were, and what possessions they’d chosen to bring with them all the way to this strange new country. You can tell a lot about a person and their priorities, apparently, based on what stuff they believe is worth hauling across the cold, grey Atlantic.

My grandmother was only able to work at Pier 21 for a few months, though, because it was just too exhausting for her father. Why? Well, because her shift ended late (around ten or eleven at night), and the docks were considered to be a very dangerous area for women. This tunnel especially, which connects the south end of Barrington street to the waterfront, was a place that women were told to avoid at all costs:

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So my great-grandfather would go meet her every night after work and escort her home. Because that was the only way that her parents would allow her to keep the job – if she had her father with her every night to make sure that she got home safely. But eventually, this was too much for my great-grandfather – who had to get up every morning at five for his job as a stevedore down on the docks – and my grandmother had to quit. It didn’t matter how much my grandmother enjoyed the work. It didn’t matter that she promised to come straight home, to stay on the main streets, to carry a knife. Without a man to keep her safe, the trip home from work was just too risky for my grandmother.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this story lately, ever since Sophia Katz published this essay on Medium about the rape and sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of a well-known member of New York’s alt-lit community. Although Katz doesn’t give her rapist’s real name – instead, she calls him “Stan” – several other people have come forward and said that Katz is writing about the Stephen Tully Dierks, the 29 year old editor of Pop Serial.

In her essay, 19 year old Katz recounts her trip to New York earlier this year, where she hoped to make business connections with other writers and editors. Unsure of where she would be staying, she was initially grateful when Dierks, who she’d met online, offered to let her sleep on his floor. Except that it turned out that he didn’t mean his floor. And he didn’t exactly mean “sleep” either.

Dierks manipulated Katz into his bed, and then coerced her into sleeping with him. Although Katz repeatedly told Dierks that she didn’t want to sleep with him, he continued to pressure her until she did. I really don’t know what else you would call what happened to her other than rape. Here is Katz’s own description of the first time they slept together:

“Wait, Stan we can’t. Everyone just got home; they will definitely hear,” I said, hoping this was a way out.

“No they won’t. It’s fine. Let’s keep going.”

“No, I think they will. I really don’t want to if your roommates are home. We really shouldn’t.”

“No, it’s fine. We should. We should. Let’s keep going.”

“Stan [Dierks], please can we just do this later. Your walls are really thin.” I felt tears welling up in my eyes and tried to dissolve them. I didn’t want to do it later. I didn’t want to do it ever. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted to leave, but I was trapped with him in his tiny, dimly lit room.

“No, we should keep going. Let’s keep going.”

He got on top of me. I began to relinquish control.

“Wait, aren’t you going to use a condom?” I asked.

“Oh, come on. Please don’t make me do that.”

“Stan I really, really think you should use a condom, please use a condom.”

“I’m clean. Are you?” he questioned.

“Yes but it doesn’t matter. Please. Come on.”

“Its fine Sophie, come on, we don’t need one. I hate condoms.”

I realized there was no way for me to win. I lay back and closed my eyes.

Katz continued to stay with Dierks while she was in New York. He continued to rape her.

Since Katz’s essay was published, I’ve seen a lot of people of supporting her, but I’ve also seen some incredibly vicious victim-blaming. People who ask why Katz didn’t fight back. Why she didn’t scream. Why she didn’t find a place to stay (while under the intense watch of a powerful, well-known, incredibly manipulative man in a city where, by the way, she knew almost no one). Why she agreed to stay with him in the first place, even though it was clear that he wanted to sleep with her. Why she stayed silent for months. Why she wrote about it at all.

People keep asking about Katz’s “common sense,” as in “why doesn’t she have any?” Because she should have known that if a man offers a woman a free place to stay, the unspoken contingency is that he expects her to sleep with him. If a woman politely tells a man that she’s not interested in having sex with them, she should automatically assume that he will rape her. If a woman does not want to be raped, she should not accept free drugs and alcohol from a man. If a woman is raped by a well-connected, much-respected writer, any negative repercussions that she might fear should never stop her from immediately fleeing his apartment.

People keep asking why Katz didn’t take responsibility for her own safety, as if rape had to be the natural and inevitable consequence of all of her choices. Because if a woman is raped by man, there is always a whole catalogue of things that she could or should have done to stop it. Always.

It seems almost certain that if Katz had decided not to take Dierks up on his offer of a free place to stay, then he wouldn’t have been able to assault her in the way that he did. What seems equally certain to me is that Katz (and all women) should not be expected to believe that any and all roads you walk down with a man you don’t know very well must lead to rape. You can say that different choices would lead to a different outcome in just about any given scenario in life – that doesn’t mean that you know ahead of time where the choices you’re making will take you. It is not Sophia Katz’s fault that she was raped. Not even a little bit. Not even maybe. Dierks chose to rape Katz, and all of the fault for that rape rests with him, now and forever.

When I think about Sophia Katz and my grandmother and, well, pretty much all women everywhere, I am just so unbelievably angry at how many sacrifices and concessions we’re told to make in order to stay safe. Don’t dress a certain way. Quit the job you love. Be careful about how and when and where you travel. Don’t walk down certain streets. Don’t go out alone at night. Don’t drink. Limit your presence on social media. Don’t be outspoken. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t send nude photos to anyone; in fact, don’t even take any nude photos. Don’t trust men, ever, in any way. And if you don’t follow these rules, anything bad that happens to you is your own fault.

I’m sad that my grandmother didn’t get to stay at the workplace she loved, and I’m even more sad that there are people who think that Sophia Katz is at fault for the fact that Stephen Tully Dierks raped her. It’s 2014, and we’re still blaming female rape victims for daring to travel, to drink, to wear short skirts, to trust men. With everything that we know about rape culture and how it works, why are we still singing the same damn tune?

No, I Don’t Want To Learn How To Love Criticism, Thanks

30 Sep

Tara Mohr recently wrote a piece in the New York Times about women and criticism. The article is called “Learning to Love Criticism,” but it could probably more accurately be titled “Haters Gonna Hate,” because that’s the type of approach that she advocates. She starts out promisingly enough, citing a recent study done on workplace performance reviews that contains the following fascinating (and appalling, and, if you’re a woman, entirely familiar) statistics: “Across 248 reviews from 28 companies, managers, whether male or female, gave female employees more negative feedback than they gave male employees. Second, 76 percent of the negative feedback given to women included some kind of personality criticism, such as comments that the woman was “abrasive,” “judgmental” or “strident.” Only 2 percent of men’s critical reviews included negative personality comments.

Yet in the next paragraph, after admitting that women in the workplace walk an “impossible tightrope” in trying to balance competence and niceness, the best advice she can come up with for women in this situation is little better than “learn to deal.” And while I get that none of us are likely to see a monumental change in how women are treated in our lifetime (though god knows I pray for a bloodless feminist coup every night before I go to sleep), it’s still frustrating and angering to be told that, instead of trying to affect any kind of change, women should just suck it up and learn how to better live in a man’s world. I don’t want to be better at playing by men’s rules; I want to change the rules so that they’re fair for everyone.

Women, apparently, just need to learn to be less sensitive, even when the criticism that they receive is personal and heavily gendered. Mohr writes that, “Many women are aware of this problem. “I know I need a thicker skin, but I have no idea how to get it,” one woman, a consultant to small businesses, said to me.

I’ve been told that I need to “grow a thicker skin” so many times that I’ve lost count; I’m willing to bet that the same is true for many other women. It’s the same stuff we tell little kids who are being teased or made fun of – “just ignore them, and they’ll leave you alone.” Stop getting upset. Stop reacting. Stop being an easy target. It’s the kind of pat advice that sounds helpful in theory, but doesn’t really work in practice. Once anyone – another kid, a coworker, a boss – knows how to push your buttons, they know how to push your buttons and that’s that. Even if you stop reacting to one thing, they’ll figure out another way to get your goat. At least, that’s been my experience.

Not only that, but, after thinking about this pretty long and hard, I’ve realize that I don’t want a thicker skin. It’s not my skin that’s the problem. It’s never been my skin that’s the problem. I don’t want to thicken, solidify or otherwise change my skin.

Instead, I want to figure how to rely on myself, how to rely on my instincts, and how to trust in the fact that I am a smart, capable person who is worthy of respect.

It might sound as if I’m splitting hairs, but I can’t help that “thick skin” and self-esteem are two very different things. The former is all about ignoring or disregarding the negative stuff that people say about you; the latter is feeling solid enough in yourself and your abilities that you don’t need to rely on other people’s feedback, be it positive or negative, in order to figure out how to navigate your life. And maybe I want to have thin skin, if that means an ability to feel things more deeply. Maybe having thin skin has its positive sides, like a heightened ability for compassion and a greater awareness of the impact that I might have on other people. Maybe empathy is one of the results of never having developed a thicker skin.

And you know what? I don’t want to learn to love criticism. If the criticism is valid – if, say, someone is calling me out for doing something hurtful or problematic –  then that criticism should feel uncomfortable. If, on the other hand, the criticism is some kind of personal attack or comes from someone who doesn’t have the same values or beliefs that I do, then why on earth should I love it? I want sound criticism to make me feel bad, and I want to use that bad feeling to force myself to continue to grow and learn. I don’t ever want to be stuck in an unbending, call-out proof shell of haters gonna hate. Because sometimes the haters are right, as much as we might not want to admit it.

I also don’t particularly want to learn how to keep a heartless poker face when dealing with people saying shit that’s cleverly designed to find every chink in my armour. First of all because that’s fucking exhausting and sad-making and doesn’t seem to be very sustainable. Second of all because I’m tired of teaching angry little boys on the internet that the more they throw shit at women, the quieter and more patient those women will become. Silence and acquiescence is what those trolls want – it’s exactly what they’re trying to frighten women into doing. And I’m tired of giving them what they want, even if that does temporarily make my life easier.

At the end of the day, it’s all very well and good to give women tips on how to function within the current framework of society; it’s another thing altogether to assume that this framework will never change. It’s never going to stop being a man’s game if women keep playing by men’s rules, and if our only form of resistance is to learn to live with how things are, well, this revolution isn’t going to get very far.

1940s vintage female telephone operator BELL SYSTEMS advertisement illustration by John Falter

A Dudely Challenge: Read More Books By Women

28 Sep

The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA), a national organization devoted to promoting “strong and active female perspectives and presences within the Canadian literary landscape” recently released a report looking at gender representation in Canadian book reviews. You can find the full set of numbers here, and an infographic explaining those numbers here.

Folks, the news is not good. I mean, it’s not terrible, but it’s also not great. It’s also pretty indicative a deeper gender imbalance in the literary world in general.

Let’s take a look at some of the numbers provided by CWILA, shall we?

First, the basics:

Out of the 5,613 book reviews studied, 56.9% were reviews of books written by men, 37% were reviews of book written by women, 5.02% were reviews of books co-authored by men and women, 0.14% were reviews of books written by non-binary individuals, and 0.93% percent came from “unknown author(s).” So far so good – I mean men are slightly outpacing women, but it’s not a big deal. 37% of the pie is still a lot of delicious pie (whenever I look at pie charts I always picture a big old steaming dish of apple pie, but your mileage may vary).

It’s when we start to look at who’s reviewing what (and how often) that things start to get a bit .. whacky? Out of all of the reviews written by women, 51% are of books authored by women and 43% are of books authored by men (with the remaining 6% being taken up by reviews of books that were either co-authored by men and women, were written by non-binary individuals or were written by unknown authors). Out of all of the reviews written by men, a staggering 69% were of books authored by men, while a measly 25% were of books authored by women (with, again, 6% of the reviews taken up by the same three groups mentioned above).

On top of that, while some publications (The Vancouver Sun, The Toronto Star, Quill & Quire) employ more slightly more female reviewers than male, reviews written by women still make up only 38% of the top 20 reviewers (those who wrote 50+ reviews last year) in the country.

Let’s just look at some of those numbers one more time:

25% of the books reviewed by men were written by women. 

69% of the books reviewed by men were written by men.

Men review nearly three times as many books by men as they do books by women.

If that’s not a huge indication of the problematic ways we view women writers, then I don’t know what else is. Women review nearly twice as many books written by men as men review books written by women. And it’s not as if there’s a dearth of women authors writing quality books – novels written by women won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, 2012 and 2010. Books by women won both the French and English Governor General’s Literary Awards in 2013; women also won in 2012, 2010, and 2009. Alice Munro won the Nobel Fucking Prize for literature last year. There are so many fantastic, internationally-recognized, award-winning books by women (many of them Canadian – CANLIT, REPRESENT) – so why aren’t men reviewing them?

The answer is, unfortunately, pretty simple: men don’t read books by women.

There are a lot of reasons for why this is true. Some men – like David Gilmour and all of his highbrow dudebro acolytes – just don’t think that women are very good writers. See, they only like the serious, classic stuff – stuff like Chekhov and Tolstoy and Proust. They like the good ole-fashioned, tried-tested-and-true Western literary cannon, which is pretty male-dominated for reasons that I’m sure have nothing to do with the historical oppression of women and everything to do with talent and know-how. Some men have shied away from books by women, worried that being caught reading Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights will somehow bring their masculinity into question. And some men have literally just never thought about it; they grew up with a toxic cultural mix of beliefs that taught them that real, serious books are written by men and only girls read books by girls. Which is tragic, and not just because every kid should should have the chance to read the delight that is Anne of Green Gables.

It’s this last group of guys who, I’m pretty sure, make up the majority of the male readers in this work. They’re guys who, in school, were told to read famous books by famous men as a matter of course. They’re guys who were never handed works of literature written by women because a teacher or a parent or a friend never thought they needed books they could better “identify” with. They’re guys who don’t question the fact that nearly all of the major works of fiction displayed at a bookstore or library are written by men. They’re guys who have never noticed that male writers are the status quo, because if you’re part of the status quo, why would you ever bother questioning it?

Women are, in many ways, treated as a special interest group. And sometimes that treatment is legitimate, like when we’re talking about reproductive rights or street harassment or workplace sexism. But that also means that literature written by women is viewed, often subconsciously, as being especially for women. And while we might praise the technical aspects of a book written by a woman, or laud its excellent storytelling or well-developed characters, we still ultimately view it in the category of other. It’s not regular a book – it’s a lady book. Probably with some kind of lady agenda. But books by men are just books. Serious, literary books.

Men aren’t encouraged to read books by women because on some level we don’t believe that those books were written for men. And yet no one ever questions why women would read books by men. It’s just taken as a given that books by men are the gold standard, and that everyone, no matter what their gender, should read them.

So here’s a challenge for all the men out there (including, but not limited to, the men who write book reviews): read books by women. Pick out a specific chunk of time – maybe a month, three months, or, if you’re feeling especially brave, a whole year – and during that period only seek out books by women. This challenge, by the way, doesn’t have to be isolated to literature – you could also have a month where you only listen to music by women, or look at paintings by women, or watch movies written and directed by women. If you’re struggling to find enough media to fill a whole month, then ask for recommendations; ask you’re girlfriend what she’s reading, or ask your little sister what she’s listening to these days. Ask your mom. Ask the woman who sits next to you at work. Ask that aggressively eye-linered punk chick who almost always ends up on the same bus as you in the morning. I mean, don’t be pushy or gross about it, and if they’re not interested in talking then back the fuck off, but still. Just try asking. I’m willing to bet that most women would be delighted to have a man ask them what they’re reading these days.

I have a friend who was recently explaining to me why she’d decided to end a blooming relationship with a nice, smart, funny man. There were lots of reasons why things just weren’t working out between them, but one red flag for her was this: he wasn’t reading any of the books she loaned him. See, book-talk was a big part of the attraction between them, and he was lending her plenty of books (which he expected her to read and which, diligently, she read), but apparently it wasn’t a two-way street. The books he gave her were, in his mind, important; the books he received were not. And before you jump in and tell me that not all men, let me say that I’ve seen this same dynamic play out in so many relationships. Men take it as a given that the women in their lives will read the books they recommend; unfortunately, they do not extend those women the same courtesy.

Guys, don’t be that guy. Read (and review, if that’s your bag!) books by women. If you consider yourself to be in any way an advocate for gender equality, then let that equality extend to the media you consume. Because women’s voices won’t get any louder if men aren’t helping to amplify them.

Not only that, but if you’re only reading books by men, then you are seriously missing out on some really fucking good books.

Photograph by Edward Steichen

Photograph by Edward Steichen

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