Friday, March 14, 2014

Things I Wish Would End #2: The Approachable Feminist Movement

While perusing my favorite feminist blogs this morning over coffee, I noticed an update concerning the “Ban Bossy” campaign, a movement spearheaded by the female trifecta of Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg, CEO of the Girl Scouts of America Anna Maria Chavez, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

As described on the website,, this campaign functions as a call for people to remove words like “bossy” from their vocabularies. Sandberg and others highlight the ways that words like these become derogatory and patronizing in their gender-specific nature, usually applied to strong women in the business world. The campaign argues that the word “bossy” is often used to undermine women of power, differentiating them from men who are simply heralded as “bosses”. The goals of this movement are twofold: creating awareness of the inequality that is facilitated through ascribing certain language to women, and empowering them to assert their authority and pursue leadership roles without facing the resulting negative stereotypes.

Sandberg is quoted as saying, in reference to the campaign, that “what hasn’t changed fast enough [in society] is our acceptance and encouragement of female leadership. That goes for all of us- parents, teachers, managers, society, everyone.” She says elsewhere in her bestselling book, Lean In, that women taking top positions in the business world will benefit the plight of women everywhere, breaking down gendered boundaries in our society and leading the way in the goal for gender equality.

By way of addressing what I see to be a rather pressing issue concerning campaigns like these, I want to begin by saying that I do not disagree with the goals laid out by Sandberg in her literature and political activism. No self-respecting feminist would disagree with the need for greater equality in the workplace, with the abolishment of derogatory, gender-specific language, or with the need for more female leadership in our world…because who runs the world according to Beyoncé? ;)

I do, however, think there could be a problem with women like Sandberg becoming the principal face of the modern feminist movement, as well as with her assertion that her place at the top is somehow bettering someone else’s place at the bottom.

Sandberg represents one kind of woman in the world, and a very specific one at that. A Harvard Business grad from an educated family, it is easy to imagine why, when she “leaned in” to her career, people stopped to listen. Women like Sandberg possess certain social caliber through background, race, and through her obviously heteronormative relationship described in her book. She was born into a place of privilege, and therefore has access to certain rights, and the luxury to be concerned about certain issues; issues like this label assigned to her in elementary school.

However, what about the rest of the world? What about the people to whom the word bossy might only scratch the surface of the derogatory language assigned to their person?

In light of the recent moves to limit reproductive options for women of this country, in light of the incredible violence enacted on individuals of non-normative sexuality around the world (see Russia), and the recent moves towards segregating spaces based on sexual orientation in places like Kansas and Arizona, is “banning bossy” really the issue behind which Sandberg and others should be throwing their highly influential voices?

Or, should we instead be focusing on the larger, more pressing ways that our world today is continuously devaluing certain bodies? Should we not be working to develop concrete ways to decrease prejudice-based violence in any form it comes, rather than constructing another sterile political movement the elite can support without any controversy?

The problem with campaigns like “Ban Bossy” is that they function solely as public cheer leading events that are devoid of real, concrete solutions to make the world a better place. They represent an approachable form of the feminist movement that is a dilution of what the movement should be- an exclusive rather than inclusive conversation about social justice that obscures the plight of individuals outside the privileged center. The Girl Scouts of America will get behind a campaign like this one, but they won’t take a stand against abortion issues, refusing to address a more touchy political issue that is vital to the achievement of equal rights for the empowered women they claim to support. Companies like TEDWomen are similar, as they will lead the cheer leading of the accomplishments of individual women achieving great success, but they won’t touch hot political issues like reproductive justice either.

Empowerment is crucial to the greater success of women in the world. Bossiness (read assertiveness) is directly linked with self-confidence, and empowering women to refuse the devaluation of their bodies and fight to achieve their dreams despite obstacles is definitely something I support. However, empowerment is not enough. There needs to be action and change behind these feelings, and movement towards more inclusive social policies that privilege all women (not just the ones at the top), or the movement is rendered futile. 

I understand that in order to appeal to the masses, there a certain amount of pandering that must be done. However, I think it is a problem to brand the “feminist” movement with campaigns like these hip and trendy ones that refuse to cover any new ground, stating what we already know about the problems of gender in America. I understand that it is uncomfortable to talk about the more difficult issues, to dirty one’s hands by taking a stand in the face of issues that may be politically or ideologically unpopular. I know that it is easier to pretend that people around the world are not fighting for their lives simply for being different. However, we cannot let our discomfort impede our willingness to act.

The problem is not “bossy”, the problem is the systematic devaluing of women through larger social ideologies that confine women to certain spaces. The problem is class and raced based stereotypes that facilitate acts of violence without repercussion.

Let’s stop talking about “bossy”, and start discussing the issues that really matter, providing solutions that will invoke real change in the world today. Let’s expand our vision outside of our own comfort zones and acknowledge the humanity of those different than us, instead of pretending our privileged success has anything to do with their struggles. Let’s reach out a helping hand, instead of another carefully tailored political slogan. Only then will we even begin to make a difference in our shared quest for a better world.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My Beef with Academia #1: “Who Is Our Public?”

Not long ago I attended a lecture here at Wake Forest University called, “The Humanities and Their Publics: Four Futures.” I was really excited about attending this talk, because for one, I’m a classic nerdy graduate student who not-so-secretly loves rubbing elbows with the academic elite, and also because I’m coming into a crisis in my perception of this field I’ve chosen. I initially began to pursue a career in academia because I wanted to learn how to make a difference in the world. However, since my arrival at graduate school, I’ve been left wondering: to what part of the world does this field of study grant me access, and is it an effective means of evoking change?

Because of these questions, I was instantly drawn to this talk I understood to be an exploration of the future of the study of the humanities, asking questions about who our “public” should be, and if we are reaching it in the right ways. After all, as the speaker highlighted, the humanities are becoming more and more interdisciplinary: History, English, and the Classics all intersect with a variety of disciplines including the sciences and the social sciences (issues of gender, sexuality, etc.). The humanities have therefore transformed into a voice for human rights issues, and I hoped this would be mentioned in the conversation, helping me to mediate some questions I have about my future in this field.

However, Ian Baucom’s talk was not what I anticipated, and left me with more questions than answers about what I understand to be the future of the study of the humanities. In a presentation entrenched in esoteric language, Baucom presented what he believes to be the four “publics” of humanities discourse: the disciplines of the humanities themselves (and discussions by faculty therein), college and university administrators (Deans, Provosts) and faculty in the sciences and social sciences, the national civic/public sphere, and the university as a transnational institution.

As I was listening to Baucom speak, and observing the question and answer session that directly followed, I became more and more concerned about the tone of this discussion, and the direction it was headed.
First, there was no mention of students, in the classroom or online, when considering the “publics” of humanities discourse. I found this to be extremely troubling, despite the fact that for many professors, teaching functions as a somewhat necessary evil in the greater scheme of producing one’s own academic scholarship. This should not be the case. It should be a privilege to share one’s knowledge with young minds and inspire them to grow and pursue their own interests and passions. This is one of the fundamental reasons I initially thought I would pursue a Ph.D and teach on the university level, for I wanted to fill this inspirational role many professors had filled for me over the years.

Secondly, I was bothered by the way in which online options were addressed in the lecture, however not necessarily surprised, as this section of the presentation functioned as a rather adept image of the way academia functions in relation to the outside world. Baucom highlighted the efforts being made through online options to create international relations between universities, sharing resources and expertise with the goal of reaching as many students as possible. That all sounds great. However, Baucom went on to question whether a student unable to pay the 50,000 dollars it takes to get in the door of a school like Wake Forest should have access to that classroom, and further if the teaching methods would even reach a “public” outside of carefully trained, Liberal Arts majors.

These questions underscore a central problem I have with my discipline in its given moment, and allude to the greater set of reasons I have been rendered disillusioned a year into my Masters. As writers, should not our discourse be open to public eyes? Should it not be phrased in language people can understand? Why do we spend so much time deconstructing essentialist identity if we ourselves are creating another form of caste system that keeps those of "lower" intelligence or means out?

As I said above, I became an English major because I wanted to make a difference in the world, and I thought there was no better way to accomplish this goal than by studying those who, through words, had made such a profound impact on the past. I took on a focus in Victorian Literature, not necessarily because Nineteenth Century British Fiction keeps me up at night (though Wuthering Heights will always be my favorite book). I chose this moment in history because a society with the most rigidly policed rules and norms creates the most possibilities for disruption, and I spent four years of undergraduate experience writing about every representation of expansive gender spectrums, non-normative gender and sexuality, and constructed racial hierarchies evidenced in any Victorian novel I could get my hands on. I believed I was fighting for human rights, and that arguing for greater social justice through a vehicle of education and literature legitimized my words.

I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to emulate professors like the ones I had in the English department at Furman University, individuals who challenged the small-minded, conservative ideology I toted with me from my hometown, encouraging me instead to think for myself and construct my own worldview.

It is for these reasons I believe that academia is valuable. The study of the humanities provides an incredible mirror for the world in which we live, and if done well, this can be used as a tool to help prevent history from repeating itself, working towards a more expansive, open world.  
However, this is not the picture of academia created by Baucom in his discussion of the University and its “publics”. His talk revealed a world of intellectual work that was anything but open to the public: phrased in language a select few understand, accessible only to the upper class elites who have the social and economic status to reach it, and kept out of the hands of the masses by a refusal to make resources available to lower brackets. Students were forgotten in favor of highlighting one’s own intellectual achievements. At the end of the day, the essential premise that academia is in some sort of transitional state was proven false, as this is the same, self-consumed world that has always existed.

This conclusion is a hard one to swallow, and I fully believe one can love something and still have deep problems with the ways that it’s executed. I love academia, and I think the study of the humanities is deeply valuable to our continuous growth as a society. I’m grateful for the resources it has given me in the pursuit of my passions. However, I cannot imagine myself in six years in stuffy auditorium, discussing a public for my words that will never hear what I have to say. Just as it is not the healthy that need a doctor, I want my words to be read and understood by those for which they matter. I want the things I say to make the world a better place for them, and not just function as another way I assure the world of my own brilliance.

I hope we can one day penetrate the bubble that sections off the elite university from the world outside, uniting the most brilliant minds of today in a quest for a better world. Who knows, maybe I’ll start the revolution.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sacred Geography

“Gleðileg jól!”

The lyrical Icelandic holiday greeting is repeated once again as another family squeezes into the packed living room, Christmas Eve celebrations well underway in most homes around Reykjavik, Iceland. The new arrivals throw their arms open to embrace the present guests, exchanging light cheek kisses with family, friends, and strangers. They then add their contribution to the bursting Christmas table, already sagging under the weight of countless family recipes. English, Icelandic, and some German swirl throughout the room and compete with the squeals of the young children eyeing the presents stacked beneath the colorful Christmas tree for the goal of achieving the loudest decibel. Old friends embrace, and new acquaintances chatter with only a hint of awkwardness, holiday small talk made more challenging across language divides.

The hostess of the night’s festivities bustles out of the kitchen and calls out to her guests that dinner is finally ready. Her kind eyes light up at the sight of cherished friends and family, and after briefly wrapping her arms around her youngest daughter and kissing friend’s cheeks, she motions for her son to hurry onto the snow-covered porch and retrieve the cooling malt and orange soda, the ingredients for Jólabland, the Icelandic Christmas cocktail.

Icelanders seem to love to tell tales of the past, demonstrating to foreigners how far they’ve come and how strong their Viking blood is in its ability to withstand anything. Over Christmas dinner, the story is often told of how Icelanders have not always been able to afford delicacies such as malt beer and soda. The drink represents the strength and resilience of their tight-knit community, and stands as a reminder to always be grateful.

The guests gather around the table, which is beautifully set with Christmas themed plates and goblets, napkin rings decorated with little stuffed reindeer amusing children and parents alike. A potpourri of delicious smells waft from the table and fill the room, each guest uttering the appropriate gestures of excitement and anticipation. Traditional smoked lamb, sweet potato pie, dressing topped with cornflakes, vegetables of various sorts, and Icelandic fruit salad are crammed in the center of the table, vestiges of both Icelandic and American Christmas traditions now transformed into a unique family menu served at every Christmas Eve feast. Homemade Ice Cream, another family tradition, would be served for dessert. The gathering of friends and family grasp hands as the Christmas prayer is said; first in Icelandic, then in English.

Though the concept of gathering around the table can mean different things to different communities and cultures, in Iceland the tradition has a particular resonance. A culture very concerned with hospitality, it is unheard of to enter a person’s home and not be offered something by way of sustenance. As a country that, at times, has had so little, it is very important to Icelanders to share that which they have to give.

Food thus functions as the primary mechanism over which people gather, however in an effort not to conjure any Norman Rockwell-esque images, where a group of blonde, blue eyed people enjoy a table of plenty while the little match girl weeps softly just outside the door, it is important to note that this openness and hospitality is indicative of a larger cultural tendency in the country as a whole.

Iceland is one of the most open and accessible countries in terms of minority rights in the Western world. The Global Gender Gap Report ranks Iceland first in terms of countries where women have equal access to education and healthcare, and where they can participate most fully in the country's political and economic life. Women are ordained as ministers, elected as politicians, and take part actively in the business world. A pay gap in the labor force is virtually nonexistent.

The country also functions as a modern social democratic state, where wealth is more evenly distributed, education is typically free through the University of Iceland, and the social safety net allows women to comfortably work and raise a family. Scandinavian mothers do not agonize over the concept of balancing work and family, for there are social sanctions in place that allow both parents to take a year or more of paid parental leave. Dads are expected to be equal partners in childrearing, and they seem to enjoy it.

And it’s not just the gender and economic equality those Scandinavians seem to have figured out. In 2009, Iceland was the first country worldwide to elect a lesbian Prime Minister. By 2012, legislation had been passed by the Icelandic government assuring equal rights to gay people throughout the country, and marriages of all kinds are permissible in Churches since 2010. The Reykjavík Gay Pride parade  has become one of the biggest celebrations of the nation, boasting over 100,000 attendees annually from all over the world.  

Many wonder how this small country perched on top of endless stretches of black, volcanic rock has progressed as far as it has. How does a country of 300,000 descents of bloodthirsty Viking raiders lead the free world in terms of civil rights?

It seems the answer to that question can be traced back to the image of the multicultural family gathering around the dinner table to share the abundance they have. Putting aside differences and gathering around a table does not seem so much different than respecting differences of opinion, sexuality, or gender when gathering in the world outside the home; attempting to communicate across a table populated by members of at least four different countries does not seem so different from attempting cross-cultural relations in the public sphere.

Generosity, respect, and love without boundaries are the values that make both a family and a country great, and while no country is perfect, a landscape of progressive politics and economic prosperity laid against a backdrop of snow covered mountain peaks and lagoons of clear, blue water brings Iceland very close.

…If only their national dish were not fermented, putrefied Shark meat.