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SPARK Reads: Nell Zink’s Mislaid

by Courtney Fulcher

I first saw screenshots of Nell Zink’s Mislaid when Rachel Dolezal became a news story. I had heard about the book before because it was one of those “10 Books You Must Read This Summer!” but I hadn’t  intended to read it until I read those screenshots. They were all wickedly funny passages deftly satirizing racial politics of the 60’s and 70’s in ways that felt fresh but true to the period. Summarizing the book beyond that is difficult because I don’t think I can capture the tone of it,  which was vintage and dark and often hilarious.

Anyway, Mislaid follows Peggy and Lee, a lesbian woman and a gay man who marry in Virginia in the 1960s. Over the course of ten years (and several pages), their marriage implodes, eventually leading Peggy to escape in a car with their daughter, leaving her son behind. Peggy, for complicated reasons, raises their daughter to believe they are both black.

Peggy’s daughter, who goes by the name Karen for most of the book, grows very much into the protagonist. She’s smart, naive, and childish, a welcome contrast from her parents, who are completely believable and unlikeable narrators (and terrible at parenting). Many of the funniest moments come from Karen’s interactions with patronizing Southern liberals. Karen is a smart girl in fiction who does not behave like a tiny adult, an unfortunately refreshing characterization. I found her really interesting but was disappointed that she wasn’t really fully utilized as a character until the later half of the book. Another character I adored was Temple, Karen’s boyfriend. His understanding of the world filtered mostly from mid-century authors in completely recognizable and hilarious way.

I didn’t start reading this book with the highest of expectations. I expected a stiff and cringe-worthy tale that ignored the privileges of whiteness and bordered on voyeurism. I was surprised to find a deft farce instead. The story that emerges is a funny Trojan Horse of a bildungsroman, albeit one with incredibly strange pacing. Zink is unfortunately at this point an oddity in the literary world as a white author who explores the race interestingly and effectively.

Overall, Mislaid is a sometimes uneven, funny book that works best in excerpts. The pacing works amazingly in some places and terribly in others. Zink’s use of narration struck me as charming, but was inconsistently utilized. The ending is by far the weakest part of the story in my opinion, but I hate Shakespearean comedic endings and fun, generally. I really hope that Zink continues to publish for larger audiences. She’s clearly an accomplished writer even in her sophomore novel.

Black Women Create, even from behind prison walls

by Alice Wilder

Latoya Dickens and I have been pen pals for a little over a year. In that time, I’ve moved four times. I’ve worked three different jobs and traveled to four different states. But several times a month, without fail, I’ve scooped thick envelopes out of my mail box and unfolded yellow lined pages filled with Latoya’s neat cursive. I’ve written her letters in boring classes (sorry, Professor Fhunsu), on my apartment’s staircase, at picnic tables after a hike. She writes her letters to me from the Lee Arrendale State Prison, in Georgia.

Probably my worst quality is my impatience, and it is what makes writing to Latoya so frustrating- it has been a year and she is right where she was before. Prison does this. Our power dynamic is inescapable- I am constantly moving around Chapel Hill and she is in Lee Arrendale State Prison, where she has been for nearly twenty years. I get to sit at this cafe and write about her life. That’s power.

But it would be dishonest to define Latoya as a powerless victim of the prison system, although she has, without a doubt, been negatively impacted by it. She is currently serving a life sentence for the death of her husband Otis, who abused her for nearly their entire relationship and threatened her life.

Although she is inside of this building, she is continuing to flow and grow. She tells me in her letters about her theology classes, her poetry classes, the books she reads. How she admires Serena Williams and loves the show Empire. She tells me about the ministry she wants to start when she is freed: she wants to focus on counseling people who are dealing with domestic violence and other forms of abuse.

Latoya loves to write poetry, so I sent her some questions for our Black Women Create series. Her poetry centers around womanhood, God, and love in all its dimensions.

Love Is

Love is beautiful
Love isn’t blind, it can see
It sees the beauty within, not
the skin
It isn’t a sin
Love is you
Love is me
Masculinity, masculinity
Femininity, Femininity
Love is love, let it be

Why do you enjoy writing poetry?

I never really thought about why I enjoy writing poetry. Since you asked, I honestly believe I can say it gives me peace, a sense of release and renewal. It is also one thing that can’t be taken away from me.

What advice would you give to a girl who wants to write poetry but is nervous to do so?

Sweetheart, it is definitely a way to release all that you may be holding in. Embrace that fear and find your voice as well as renewal. No fear, because fear immobilizes us. For example, Maya Angelou, she speaks volumes and where she came from was her foundation. She never sugarcoats.

What is your inspiration?

I’d have to honestly say that my family is my inspiration. I sometimes look back at where I used to be and it helps me to focus on where I want to be. And definitely my higher deity. As well as wanting to assist younger women and men to strive for better. Having the freedom to continuously elevate educationally, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, is inspiring in itself.

Latoya comes up for parole in 2016, this means that she will go in front of a parole board and have to make a case for why she should be free. With support and some luck, she could be out, free, in another year. But parole is incredibly difficult to get. Click here to learn more about her life, and how you can be part of a letter writing campaign to her parole board.

Research Blog: Why don’t I look like her?!

By Allison Cabana

It’s those pink walls that really take me back. Sitting in my childhood bedroom, staring at those walls, I remember exactly how it felt to live here. I was dreaming of getting a date, whispering to my friends on the phone, and stressing out about homework. But what I remember most is my big sister. Dani was my idol. Hers was the bedroom across the hall, and as a kid I wanted nothing more than to be just like her. What can I say? She was (and still is) one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Only a few years older and a few grades above me in school, she was somehow always light-years ahead of me in sophistication. Her clothes fit a little bit tighter (and she filled them out in a way my body refused to do); she shaved her legs and wore a bra; and her eyeliner was always a little bit darker than I could seem to pull off. I wanted her clothes to look the same on me as they did on her. When her friends teased my friends and me, for looking young or not being quite as hip as they were, I felt bad about myself. Why couldn’t I just look and dress like them? A few years couldn’t make that big of a difference…could it?


Turns out, I wasn’t the only one to compare myself to my older counterparts as a teenager, and to be honest, sometimes, I still do it now with the slightly-older people in my life. And, I wasn’t the only one to wonder if other girls felt that way too. Could comparing myself to older girls have had something to do with feeling bad about my body and my appearance? Researchers Jaine Strauss and colleagues[1] decided to investigate just that. They did a study that explored the relationship between girls’ school environment (i.e., who they go to school with and see everyday while they’re there) and their body satisfaction. They were wondering (much like I was): could the grade levels that girls go to school with have anything to do with the level of body dissatisfaction in adolescent girls? Is there a relationship between hanging around older girls and body image? After all, we know that body image changes as girls enter adolescence and become older teenagers.[2]

So, the researchers categorized fifth and sixth graders as the ‘younger girls’ and seventh and eighth graders the ‘older girls.’ Then, they looked at three types of school groupings: 1) Grades K-6 in the same school, and Grades 7-8 in another school; 2) Grades K-5 in the same school, and Grades 6-8 in another school; and 3) Grades K-4 in one school, and Grades 5-8 in another school. The girls who participated in the study filled out a survey that measured their body satisfaction. There are a lot of different ways to measure ‘body satisfaction’ (basically, how much you like the body you’re in). The researchers chose to ask about things like wanting to be thin, idolizing super skinny folks (like the models in magazines), disliking your body, and “body objectification” (an idea that a person’s worth is connected to the way their body looks).

Lo and behold, this research confirmed just what I had wondered before! The researchers found that the younger girls who were grouped with the seventh and eighth graders in the same school had lower body satisfaction than the girls who were in school with younger grades (K-4). As we all know, girls’ body image tends to become more negative as they get older, so the researchers think being in a social context with older girls may expose the younger girls to a more negative context sooner. It seems like hanging out with my older sister and feeling bad about my body and appearance afterward is a part of a pretty common dynamic that happens when adolescent girls hang around older girls.

Now, I know that reading about other girls feeling similar to us can’t stop us from feeling some type of way when we get that urge to compare ourselves to those ‘cool older girls,’ but if we think also about all the good things we learn from those older girls, maybe we can re-imagine what this research says. I certainly did. As much as my older sister and her friends sometimes made me wonder if I looked trendy enough, they also taught me about periods and tampons, and gave me the confidence to go for varsity my freshman year and say yes to that person who asked me on my first date (and then have fun on it)! I remember feeling bad about my body sometimes, but when I think about it (and this research), I know that the older girls were in the same boat with me—it wasn’t their fault at all. What this research tells me is that girls, young and a little older, are keen learners. We’re perceptive and ambitious. Society often tries to teach us that what matters most about us is how we look—no wonder this is what we take away from hanging out with older girls. But just because we’ve all been taught this doesn’t mean we have to keep believing it! Now it’s time to change the script. We, along with those folks slightly younger and slightly older than we are (and every other age!), can uplift ourselves and each other to tell the appearance-obsessed society that we’re more than what we look like.  Hanging out with those slightly older girls, together, we can write our own script that disrupts the idea of what women are ‘supposed’ to look like and that tells the world that our appearances aren’t the most important things about us. Because only when people are valued for more than just the way they look will we all be free.

[1] Strauss, J., Sullivan, J. M., Sullivan, C. E., Sullivan, S.J., & Wittenburg, C. E. (2014). Contextualizing the “Student body”: Is exposure to older students associated with body dissatisfaction in female early adolescents? Psychology of Women Quarterly, 39(2), 171-181.

[2] There have been many studies on this, but for just a few examples: Lindberg, S. M., Hyde, J. S., & McKinley, N. M. (2006). A measure of objectified body consciousness for preadolescent and adolescent youth. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30, 65–76. ; and Bearman, S. K., Martinez, E., Stice, E., & Presnell, K., (2006). The skinny on body dissatisfaction: A longitudinal study of adolescent girls and boys. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35, 217–229.



From the Archives: Umbral gives girls in comics the adventure they need

by Madeleine Nesbitt

This post was originally published August 8, 2014

Umbral is a comic that very much depicts the hero’s adventure story– that of King Arthur, or perhaps Frodo Baggins. There’s magic, thievery, a kingdom at risk, and secrets galore. Any typical male adventure hero would fit into this environment, but, thanks to creators Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten, this comic isn’t a boy’s fantasy game. No, it belongs to Rascal, a somewhat paranoid teenage girl who specializes in thievery and stars in this series.

Rascal is special, and not just because she has suddenly come into possession of an object (called ‘the Umbral’) with enormous power. She’s an adventure heroine, on her own quest (even if she doesn’t know it’s hers yet), and frankly, that’s not something you see very often. In reading, you can see how her story mirrors countless legends following male protagonists; that of Arthur and Merlin strikes a particular chord. Rascal’s companion, Dalone, is an old wizard– though perhaps more unsavoury than Merlin ever was, it’s the same set-up. As a female adventurer, Rascal is not forced into the role of say, Morgana or Niniane, the vengeful women of the Arthurian legends. She does not have to seek revenge because she is granted the role of protagonist from the start.

Of course Rascal isn’t all good, and this, too, is part of her appeal. She doesn’t just snark at her elders (as every spunky, questing teenage girl must), she is also fleet-footed, clever, and one of the best criminals in the Thieves’ Guild. She’s a well rounded character who the reader can identify with: she might be street smart, but this weird (and highly illegal) magic stuff has got her a little confused.

There’s a lot you can ask for from comic-makers, but a well-rounded female protagonist is a pretty special thing in a world of hyper-sexualized superheroines. Superheroines of Marvel and DC ilk can be complicated and interesting characters, and I don’t mean to write them off, but because of the popularity of those comic publishers, the typical female superhero often caters to the male gaze.

Rascal isn’t like that. Umbral is not a particularly well-known comic, so the author and illustrator don’t have to cater to what is seen as the “typical” audience for comics: men. Rascal isn’t sexualized for the enjoyment of the stereotypical horny male comic reader. She instead kicks some serious butt in her long skirts, and happily shuts down creepy men with one of her suitably snarky comments (e.g. “[Y]ou’re not just barking up the wrong tree, you’re in the wrong bloody forest.”).

My favorite part of Rascal’s character, though, is that she really is designed for her readers, and especially for female readers.  In the third issue of the comic, Antony Johnston asked for more female input to the letters box, and in following issues, female readers pulled through (turns out most of them are just as in love with Rascal as I am). It was wonderful for the author to ask for female input for a comic following a female protagonist, not that there’s much to criticize about Rascal’s character.

Rascal is a fantastic comics character– one who is there for the reader, sure, but is liked not because she is sexualized, but because she is interesting and smart and makes you want to jump up and have an adventure involving weird glowing shadow monsters. I hope that she, along with other cool women in comics, will inspire more badass and multifaceted female characters and protagonists.

Research blog: Super hero, or super sexy?

by Kim Belmonte

It’s summer! School’s out and you’re ready to hang out. When you’ve had your fill of the heat and humidity, maybe you’re like me and you want to head to see an exciting movie, with tons of action and maybe even superheroes?!  Unfortunately it seems like most action movies have some pretty disappointing portrayals of gender: the male characters do all the fun things like destroying—or saving—the world and the female characters are stuck playing sexy sidekicks, love-interests or victims who need saving.

I don’t know about you, but I get pretty frustrated with sexist movies that only show men as powerful, complex characters and women as sexy, weak, sidelined characters.  Even when women are cast as capable, they’re often still sexualized, meaning they’re wearing revealing clothing, and have thin bodies and large breasts. For example, I just watched Marvel’s The Avengers[1] where the only female superhero, the Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) is a butt-kicking assassin … who wears a low-cut spandex catsuit the whole time. But watching female superheroes at least is empowering for women, right? I mean, the Black Widow is a pretty cool hero, and on the one hand, I kind of want to be like her, but on the other hand, her super sexualized appearance makes me self-consciously think about how my own body looks.

I’ll admit it: I’m confused. It all really makes me wonder, what is the impact of seeing these kinds of sexualized-yet-heroic images of women in movies?

So I decided to do some research (I know, it’s summer but I’m kind of nerdy). And I found that researchers Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz[2] had a similar question. They wanted to know how seeing sexualized videos of female heroes or victims (e.g., the damsel in distress) might—in the short-term at least—impact women’s beliefs about gender and their bodies.  So they ran an experiment with female college students where women watched a 13-minute montage of clips from movies with sexualized female characters (e.g., thin, large-chested and wearing tight clothing).  They were either shown a montage with “sexualized victims,” female characters who were depicted as weak damsels in distress needing rescuing by a male counterpart (e.g., Mary Jane in the Spiderman series), or the “sexualized heroines,” female characters that were depicted as strong, intelligent and powerful (e.g., Storm in the X-Men series).  Another group of women didn’t watch any videos (this is known as a control group) so the researchers could compare women who saw sexualized images to women who didn’t.

After watching the film clips, women answered questions about their body image (satisfaction with their appearance and specific body parts like their face and stomach), self-objectification (their tendency to think about their body in terms of how it looks rather than how capable it is), and their agreement with traditional gender role stereotypes (e.g. “Men are better at taking on mental challenges than women”).

They found that compared to the women who didn’t watch anything, those who watched the sexualized heroines thought more about their own bodies in terms of being capable, rather than being attractive (which wasn’t true for those who watched the sexualized victim).  On the other hand, the women who watched the sexualized victims tended to agree more with traditional gender role stereotypes than women in the control group (which wasn’t true for those who watched the sexualized heroine).  This is great news because it shows that having more powerful roles for women in films may be related to women in the audience feeling more powerful.

But in an interesting twist, both groups of women who watched the clips (either the sexualized victim or the sexualized heroine) ended up with slightly worse body image than women in the control group.  Wait, you’re saying—why does watching female heroes make women feel worse about their bodies? I get it with the damsels in distress, but the heroes? Really?

Based on my own experience watching The Avengers, this totally makes sense to me: As women, we’ve been taught to compare ourselves to how others look, and any super-sexualized depiction of a woman can trigger that little voice in our heads that says, Oh my gosh.  She’s so sexy. Do I look like that? Should I look like that? Is that how women are supposed to look?  In previous blogs, we’ve written about how reading sexualized magazines or watching sexualized television shows makes women more willing to act in sexualized ways, like participating in a wet t-shirt contest.  Even choosing a sexualized avatar in a video game makes women more likely to self-objectify.  So it only makes sense that when we see a woman character—whether she’s a hero or not— we begin to compare our bodies to that often unrealistic portrayal of beauty and sexiness.

Lately, a few of the SPARK bloggers have been critiquing the lack of well-rounded female characters in film.  What Hollywood considers a “strong female character” is usually a one-dimensional portrayal of strength: a businesswoman or a superhero but without character development or complexity.  When we start consistently seeing films with female characters that focus not only on their strength, but also on their character, I think it will be easier for everyone to see those characters as capable of an amazing range of actions and emotions—not just as sexy objects.  So while the jury is still out on whether the Black Widow is a feminist icon, I do think it’s important to remember that even though super heroes are super fun, they’re fictional—not functional or full—portrayals of women.

[1] Side note: the movie only squeaks by the Bechdel Test of gender inequality which rates movies based on whether they meet the following three criteria: 1) there are at least two named women; 2) they talk to each other; 3) they talk to each other about something other than a man.

[2] Pennell, H. & Behm-Morawitz, E. (2015). The empowering (super) heroine? The effects of sexualized female characters in superhero films on women.  Sex Roles, 72, 211-220.

Some thoughts on going abroad, before actually going

by Joneka Percentie

I’m leaving the country for the first time this weekend and I am a mess in every sense of the word. These last few days before my departure I’ve felt a strange combination of anxiety, excitement, and confusion. I’m getting on a plane flying across the equator and landing in the southern hemisphere to study at a South African university for three weeks.

I have no idea what to expect once I reach the Western Cape of South Africa. My general approach to life is to set little to no expectations for things so that I am always pleasantly surprised. This will be the farthest I have ever traveled away from home, and so many have told me it will be a life changing experience. Right now, I’m just preoccupied with how I’m going to fit all of my belongings in my suitcase.

The extent of my knowledge about South Africa comes watching the movie The Color of Friendship (possibly the most important movie to come out of Disney channel), singing along to Sarafina!, and listening to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. But now I am actually going to South Africa in real life and I’ll have to ditch my preconceived ideas of the country and its people.

This is an opportunity I never thought I would have because 1) my family could never afford the high costs of international flights and 2) because I’ve had difficulty dealing with my anxiety away from home. Thanks to a scholarship program this summer and reconciled fears about being away from my support system, I will have the chance to study South African women’s health, sexual and reproductive rights.  

I’m not exactly sure what it will be like to live and study in South Africa. Like I said before, I make it a goal to set very little expectations. Although the bar is set pretty low, I never thought I would be studying at a predominantly white university, or travelling as the only Black student from my home university on my specific track.

It also doesn’t help that at least twice a week for the past month my mom excitedly barges into my room with the latest reports from the news. “Did you hear about the girl that got mauled by a lion? She was in South Africa. Don’t go near any lions,” she told me early one morning. Or when she shared this very scary study that found that women that study abroad are five times more likely to experience sexual assault.

In preparation for this trip, I’ve also had to mentally prepare myself for encountering anti-blackness, something they didn’t go over at our orientation. In the past I’ve been guilty of romanticizing foreign countries and imagining them as a sort of utopia or refuge away from the racism in the United States. But in confronting reality, I’ve realized that anti-blackness is universal, and I’ll have to be prepared to experience prejudice no matter where I go. I’ve been thinking over and over about how I may encounter familiar symbols of hate and racism thousands of miles away from home. I’m still working on striking the right balance between being aware of the risks and obsessing over every little thing that could go wrong. I hope to find this balance soon.

With all my nerves and anxieties aside, I am truly excited to see what this trip will hold. Who knows what’s going to go down! I hope to blog about my time there and document all of my experiences, good and bad. Hopefully this is the first of many trips abroad filled with friends, family, and adventure.