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#ReadWomen2014: Boy, Snow, Bird

This post is part of #ReadWomen2014.

by Cori Fulcher

I don’t really feel like Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi was written at all. I think it was told to the author a long time ago, or something she watched play out secretly. The book seems painfully real, but also from a strange, metallic alternate dimension. I want to hide the book in false dust jackets, shove it in the coats of strangers. This is the kind of book that deserves to be wrongly shelved and discovered accidently.

I think I like this book because the characters are all so very very humanly flawed. This seems very hard to do in an adaptation of Snow White, but the results are marvelous. I don’t especially like books with antagonists because they always seem a bit forced and trite. Antagonists are never fully fleshed-out and usually seem to make the protagonist seem even more noble and pure. I love meandering books about self-destruction, about selfishness, about alien worlds with all too human characters. I want nuance and grey morals and amorality.

Boy, Snow, Bird is a fascination look at shadeism, purity, and family. It follows Boy, the daughter of the Ratcatcher, who escapes her abusive parent and escapes to the woods. There, she meets Arturo Whitman and his daughter, Snow. Snow and her otherworldly beauty fascinate Boy. Soon she marries Arturo. Boy has a daughter, Bird, who exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African-Americans passing for white. Unable to deal with Snow, Boy sends her away to Boston.

I was worried narration by the “evil stepmother” would be gimmicky, but instead it was lovely. Boy is selfish and mean, but she’s also remarkably sympathetic. She was raised in an abusive household and has no idea how to parent. Snow threatens her in a sad and complex way.  Snow is everything Boy’s daughter, Bird, can’t be in 1966. Reading from Boy’s point-of-view never made me feel anything but sympathy for her and everyone around her. Even Snow is a nuanced character. Her understanding of her image and race is wonderful to watch as it evolves. It isn’t so much Snow is innately good as much as she is projected on. Snow is bitter and manipulative and flawed in so many sad and real ways.

The prose in this book is absolutely lovely. Helen Oyeyemi switches narrators and person, narrating a large bit of the beginning in 2nd person. I usually find these changes confusing and distracting from the plot, but here they work really well. Another great part of the book is the fairy tales woven throughout. They fit in seamlessly with the rest of the narrative. The fables never feel forced, but organic outpourings of the character’s feeling. They are under-your-skin familiar even when obscure. I am still in shock this book was written and didn’t just happen a long time ago to people in a sad town.

 

Nicole Byer’s Pursuit of Sexiness

by Joneka Percentie

YouTube has become a treasure chest of funny and smart web series starring Black women, and among the jewels is Pursuit of Sexiness by UCBComedy and Deverge. Pursuit of Sexiness follows friends Nicky and Sheer, and their adventures in New York, including dating, thrift shopping, and dancing on the subway. Nicole Byer, who can be recognized from MTV’s Girl Code, plays the hilarious role of Nicky. My favorite episode from the web series is definitely Episode 5, Nicky Can’t Have it All–Nicky finally hooks up with a seemingly nice guy, but the gifts that he leaves her may be a dealbreaker.

I was more than thrilled with the opportunity to hear Byer’s experience as an actress and how she responds to criticisms of Black women in comedy. “So many women of color have found a platform through YouTube and just the internet in general,” Byer said. “The best part of the Internet is it doesn’t give you notes like if you were working for someone, so you can put exactly what you want out there and the world tells you if you if they like it.”

Pursuit of Sexiness was created and produced by UCBComedy, the virtual branch of Upright Citizens Brigade, and Deverge, a New York City production company. Byer started taking classes at UCB in 2008, and went on to join improvisation groups and find “Doppelganger, my 3 lady group with Sasheer Zamata and Keisha Zollar,” said Byer.

The greatest part of Pursuit of Sexiness is, naturally, how candidly and funnily Nicky and Sheer talk about sex. The pair makes everyday conversations absolutely hilarious with casual mentions of their latest hook-ups. “I hope with our show they don’t think ‘wow those two black girls are looking for sex,’” Beyer told me. “I hope it’s just: those two girls are DTF! I don’t think anyone wants to be defined by their race… diversity is such a complex thing.”

I think a lot about the complexity of diversity. Positive representation of Black women is a great thing, but it’s also important to realize that Black women are complex human beings and shouldn’t be defined solely by our race. While it’s obvious to me that Byer has natural talent in comedy, I can’t get over the criticisms of Black female comedians and how it must affect navigating an industry that is already so alienating. Byer expressed similar sentiments: “My response [to criticisms of Black female comedians] shouldn’t even have to exist. Black women are funny. I don’t think the conversation should be about if we are funny or not, it should be why aren’t we thought of.”

Nicky and Sheer’s friendship is gold, Nicole Byer is absolutely hilarious, and while the conversation continues to grow around Black women in comedy, I will definitely continue to follow Pursuit of Sexiness and Byer’s future projects.

2014 SPARKteam apps are now open!

You’ve been asking, and the time is finally here! From today until May 7th, we’ll be accepting applications to join the SPARKteam.

The SPARKteam is SPARK’s fuel; it’s what drives us and keeps us going. The SPARKteam is a core group of girls and young women ages 13-22 armed with fierce writing and creative arts skills, powerful ideas, bold strategies for change, and the creative prowess and leadership skills to be a voice for SPARK Movement. SPARKteam activists work together to challenge the sexualization and objectification of women and girls and create positive alternatives: SPARK does not shield girls from the problems of sexualization; instead, it equips girls with the tools and resources they need to fight back.

Sound good? Here’s what we’re looking for:

  • girls (including trans girls!) between the ages of 13 and 22
  • who are into blogging, activism, and organizing
  • who want to join a team of activists making local and national change
  • who are located anywhere on this beautiful earth
  • who have 15-25 hours a month to dedicate to the cause

We can offer you:

  • A supportive environment of girls and women who love to collaborate, communicate ideas and support each other.
  • The chance to learn how to plan and execute both local and national activist campaigns.
  • Writing experience! You’ll be a published blogger with a repertoire of online work.
  • Online trainings and workshops to help you hone your feminist knowledge.
  • Real and valuable experience in the world of activism.
  • The opportunity to make your voice heard through media appearances, speaking engagements, and more—SPARK girls have given TED talks, testified at the UN, and been on Nick News, among other things.
  • Money! We pay you quarterly for your blogs and actions.

Interested? Yeah you are! Click here for the full application, including the full details of what’s required of SPARKteam activists. Then apply! Applications are due May 7th, 2014, at 11:59pm EST.

Want to get involved with SPARK, but not sure about the commitment the SPARKteam requires? Click here to learn about the Action Squad, a group of girls and their allies working alongside SPARK to support SPARK actions.

We can’t wait to read your applications!

“Low-Cut Shirts and High-Heeled Shoes”: A look at sexualization in teen magazines

by Kimberly Belmonte

Have you heard that there’s no more photoshopping in American Eagle’s Aerie ads?  I think it’s a step in the right direction and it reminds me of SPARK activist Julia Bluhm’s petition to Seventeen magazine that led the company to issue a new policy against photoshopping its images.  While it’s totally awesome that more companies are opting out of using “faked” Photoshop images (and who wants to only look at plastic-y doll-like images anyway?), there are still way too many sexualized and objectified portrayals of girls’ bodies in the media.[1][2]

I’m gonna be real for a moment. I haven’t read a teen magazine in a few years.  But I knew I was going to be writing a blog about teen media, and like all good students, I like to do my research.  So I marched over to the closest newsstand – in the rain, mind you –  and bought copies of Seventeen, Cosmo, US weekly and some M&Ms (brain food).  Back at my apartment I spread out the magazines and felt like I was back in high school, when I used to have a subscription to Seventeen.  I’d pore over each issue, checking out flirting tips (“Pretend to drown so the cute lifeguard will save me?!” Um, no thanks, I’m on the swim team) and laughing over the “traumaramas” section—those “I was trying to look cool but then wiped out in front of the whole school” embarrassing stories!  But this time when I had all these glossy pages spread out in front of me I was surprised that the girls staring back at me looked a little older and a lot more sexualized than I remembered. I wondered if the representations of these girls had really changed so much since I was a teenager.

Researchers Kaitlin Graff, Sarah Murnen and Anna Krause[3] also wanted to know what was going on with teen media.  And what do researchers do when they have a burning question about girls and the media?  They dig up magazines from the last 30 years to see if there has been a change over time in how girls are represented!  They scoped out Seventeen, which is targeted to young women ages 12 to 19, and Girls’ Life, which is meant for younger girls, ages 10 to 15.  These dedicated researchers analyzed over 1000 pictures of girls from Seventeen magazines between 1971 and 2011 and Girls’ Life magazines between 1994 and 2011 to count how often girls were represented in sexualized (e.g., tight clothing, shirts that show cleavage, midriff-baring shirts, high-heels) or childlike ways (e.g., childlike shoes, pigtails, ruffles, bows, childlike prints on clothes such as butterflies).

If you’ve looked at a teen mag lately, I think you can guess what they found – images of girls have gotten more sexualized over time. The number of sexualizing characteristics of girls in Seventeen tripled and the number of sexualizing characteristics in Girls’ Life multiplied by 15yikes! Most of these changes in sexualization were really recent—like in the 2000s, and a little in the 1990s.  They also found that, especially in Girls’ Life, the number of images with “childlike characteristics” have decreased over time.  Or in other words, these magazines show pictures of girls-as-women, not girls-as-children.

So what does this really mean?  Over time, they found that the images of girls were more sexualized and in Girl’s Life there was less “girl” –as in things that are childlike—and more images of sexualized women.  But what’s the big deal? Well, we know that at least 35% of teenage girls read magazines every day.[4]  That’s a lot of exposure to these types of images.  And this can be really bad for girls.  Here at SPARK, our mission is to “take sexy back,” but that doesn’t include bombarding girls with sexualized pictures.  Constantly seeing images of older, sexualized girls can lead to girls thinking they need to look like those grown-up images in the magazines.  The desire to fit into a narrow idealized version of femininity can lead girls to feeling ashamed of their bodies or becoming overly concerned with their appearance. We know that focusing too much on appearances (aka trying to “look sexy”) can get in the way of girls’ developing a healthy embodied sexuality that is rooted in feeling sexy. It’s just not good for girls to equate ‘being grown up’ with being sexualized.



[1]  Zurbriggen, E. L., Collins, R. L., Lamb, S.  Roberts, T., Tolman, D. L, Ward, L. M. & Blake, J. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. American Psychological Association, 1-66. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report.aspx

[2] Tolman, D. (2012). Female Adolescents, Sexual Empowerment and Desire: A Missing Discourse of Gender Inequity. Sex Roles, 66, 746-757.

[3] Graff,K., Murnen, S. & Krause, A. (2012) Low-Cut Shirts and High-Heeled Shoes: Increased Sexualization Across Time in Magazine Depictions of Girls. Sex Roles, 69,  571–582

[4] Rideout, V (2007). Parents, Children & Media: A Kaiser Family Foundation Survey. Retrieved from http://kff.org/other/poll-finding/parents-children-media-a-kaiser-family-foundation/

Talk to Her: Waria in Indonesia

by Dee Putri

Waria is a term used in Indonesian for assigned-male-at-birth (AMAB) transgender people. It originally comes from words wanita (woman) and pria (man). (Indonesian loves to make acronyms, I’ll tell you.)

Seeing waria on the street is not strange; I see them everyday working as pengamen – street performers. They usually sing in intersections or near food booths. I’d never really had a conversation with waria before, only small interactions here and there, like months ago when I was picking my nephew up from his pre-school. In the intersection, we saw some waria and he started calling them, “Hiiiiiiii, hiiiiiiii!” The waria became so happy and they said “hi” back to my nephew. Then my nephew dropped his hat on the street, they kindly helped me to take it. I said, “thank you” and that was all.

Then I had the opportunity to talk to waria trough Jimmy Ong’s project, Talk to Her. Jimmy’s project is part of Makcik Project. (Makcik has the same meaning as waria):

Each makcik collaborator becomes the hostess, or the homeowner. Anyone who enters the living room becomes her guest. During each encounter, both the hostess and the guest are granted at least three questions or 15 minutes to ask of each other. With one-on-one dyad, Ong opens up a chance for people to know the makciks up close and personal. At the same time, Ong is also setting a neutral ground between the makciks and the public, attempting to void the existing social stigma surrounding the makciks for 15 minutes. – Jimmy Ong

I talked to three waria. I don’t think that I can share what we talked about, because it was their personal stories. If you want to see what some people asked during the project, you can see it here. Just like any other person, waria have their own stories and  their very own issues: with themselves, with their parents, their friends, their neighbors, their teachers, and everything else. Different person, different issues. If you speak Indonesain, you can also read Hidup Sebagai Waria by Koeswinarno to know more about waria in Yogyakarta, including their personal stories.

Waria are living such hard lives because of social norms in Indonesia that don’t really help them. Since the of majority people in Indonesia are Moslem, it’s hard to be waria openly because people judge. Common people think that warias are failures in society and that waria don’t know religion at all. But if you think that waria are not religious, you’re so wrong. A waria named Mariani even built Pondok Pesantren Al Fatah in Yogyakarta so waria can pray freely, because waria are prohibited from going to masjid (mosque).

It is also hard for waria to find a decent job. They can’t reall apply to government jobs, because the government hasn’t “approved” waria status yet–waria would need to use their previous (male) pronouns and name to apply, rather than their actual names and pronouns. Also, the goverment is discriminative towards waria. Kartu Tanda Penduduk (KTP) (identity cards) in Indonesia only have options for male and female. According to Yuli Rustinawati of Arus Pelangi (Rainbow Stream), an LGBT charity in Jakarta, gender ID is “a grey area in Indonesian law. The national government recognizes sex but not gender, or – in other words – the result of realignment surgery, but not the process.” According to advocacy group Lembaga Swadaya Masyarakat Keluarga Besar Waria Yogyakarta (LSM Kebaya),  waria often work as street performers (16%), in hair salons (14%), as LGBT activist (5%), as sex workers (47%), entrepreneurs (11%), teachers (1%), tailors (1%), or laborers (1%). Only 1% of surveyed waria were college students. Most waria can’t attend college because of money issues (since many waria run away from their homes), or because people discriminate against them.

I think it is important for us to respect waria’s identities. It’s unfair to limit waria’s choices of work or life just because they are waria. I watched an interview about people who work with waria, and one of them waria featured that it is her way to show others that waria, just like anyone else, are good people that you can rely on. The stereotype that all waria are sex workers is invalid–and even for those waria who are sex workers, it’s not because they’re “bad.” Waria face many struggles, including having few opportunities because of their educational background and the discrimination they face.  So why don’t we stop judging them?

You can read more:

Waria of Yogyakarta: Islam, Gender, and National Identity by Lily Zwaan

My tumblr page, Rosy Purple

Your Words Matter: SPARK at Women in the World

by Mehar Gujral, Angela Batuure, and Crystal Ogar

This past weekend, SPARK activists Angela Batuure and Mehar Gujral and SPARK Action Squad Coordinator Crystal Ogar were at the Women in the World Summit in New York City! While Angela and Mehar live blogged from the Women in the World Tumblr, Crystal spoke on a panel called “Mirror Image: The New Way to Self-Esteem.” They heard from speakers like Ruslana Lyzhychko, a Ukrainian pop singer who led the protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square as threats of a Russian invasion mounted, to Hiba Sawan, a Syrian field activist who provided a firsthand account of the chemical attacks and the violence in Syria, in addition to speakers like Hillary Clinton, Christine Lagarde, and Queen Rania of Jordan. Here, Mehar, Angela, and Crystal share their experiences.

Mehar: When I saw that Hillary Clinton and Christine Lagarde, two of the most successful women in the world, were going to be on stage together, I was so glad of the opportunity to be at the Women in the World Summit. But after attending, I appreciate the several other voices it elevated–“from war zones to Washington”–even more. It was shocking to learn the extent of the violence going on in Syria and hear the personal stories of Syrian activists Rania Kisar and Hiba Sawan, as well as a young anonymous girl’s war journaldescribing her plight as a Syrian refugee. It was also great to hear from two female senators in the US Senate, Senator Kristen Gillibrand and Senator Susan Collins, on how they are working to end the sexual assault committed on college campuses and in the military.

Some other highlights of the summit were listening to SPARK activist Crystal Ogar speak on a panel about self-esteem–it was inspiring to learn about her activism and how she’s overcome the challenges so many girls face–and hear former President Jimmy Carter, still going strong at 89 years old, say that he’ll see the next female President in his lifetime. Lastly, it was of course amazing to hear from Hillary Clinton and Christine Lagarde who offered valuable advice to women in the workplace and discussed how effective and beneficial it is for nations’ to economically empower women.

Overall, it was great to have the experience of handling the social media account of an event on such a large scale and truly inspiring to hear the stories of such amazing women fighting against oppression in all walks of life, all around the globe. The quote that will stay with me most is probably by Mamie Streep Gummer, who recited “A Young Girl’s War Journal,” and said in response that “Words matter. Your words matter.” That’s something I hope I always remember and that all girls know.

Angela:  For me the most inspiring panel, (besides Crystal’s of course!) was “Can Women Fix Washington?” In this panel Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic Senator for NYC , and Senator Susan M. Collins, a Republican Senator from Maine, discussed the lack of women’s representation in Congress. Despite their different party beliefs, both women agreed on one thing: if we want to fix Washington, we need to elect more women in Congress. I also liked Senator Collin’s point about striving to get real work done in the Senate rather than working to get more votes. Another panel I really enjoyed was “What Are We Telling Our Daughters?” This panel was especially important because it introduced and important question: maybe it’s not what we are telling our daughter, but what we are not telling our sons–often times, when we discuss the sexualization of girls, we leave boys out of the conversation.

Lastly, I really enjoyed the segment with Diane Von Furstenberg. I especially like the quote she ended with: “I never knew what I wanted to do, but I knew what kind of woman I wanted to be.” This strikes a chord with me because as a college freshman, I am at that point in my life where I have to decide what I want to pursue and it’s honestly quite frightening. Instead of focusing on what I want to do I think it’s equally important to focus on who I want to be and how this decision can have a positive and negative influence on other girls around the world.

Crystal: Being able to return to Women in the World for a second time was such an amazing experience. The panels were just as inspring as they had been the first time I attended in 2012. One of my favorite moments of the conference was when Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, said that “Government works better when everyone is at the table. If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” That really resonated with me and it’ll stick with me for a long time.

It’s hard to choose which panel was my favorite, but one of the them was the Inner City Angels, where a woman I met the night before, Sally Hazelgrove, spoke about her boxing club and how she uses boxing, music, and the gang structure to take young men of color off the streets. She also talked about giving them responsibilities, which is so important, because giving youth the ability to show you what they can do is such a great way to give them ownership.  I couldn’t not mention my own panel of course, where I was lucky enough to be on stage with Deborah Roberts, a ABC News Correspondent, Tomi-Ann Roberts, Gina Boswell, and Mika Brzezinski. Having the chance to talk about how girls are taking their beauty back through the power of selfies and also discussing my own journey of finding my beauty was something that will stay with me forever. I was also lucky enough to meet some awesome women backstage, but the truly best part was having several women of color come up to me afterwards and share their experiences of not being represented in the media and how that’s made them feel. Also, a group of Harlem school girls stopped me outside of Lincoln Center and were gushing over how much my words meant to them and wanted to take pictures with me, which was wild! One day one of those girls could be on that stage and that’s what matters.