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Research Blog: Black Girls Matter

by Marisa Ragonese

What a year for talk about racism in the US.

"Black Lives Matter protest" by The All-Nite Images. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

No criminal charges for Darren Wilson, the police officer in Furguson, MO who shot unarmed Black teenager Mike Brown last August. Or Daniel Panteleo, the cop in NYC caught on video putting Eric Garner, Black father of six, in a fatal chokehold on a July afternoon while arresting him for selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island. Not to mention Black 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot to death on a Cleveland, Ohio playground in November by rookie officer Timothy Loehmann, who thought Tamir’s toy gun was the real thing and didn’t even do a double-take before killing him.

Since these high-profile shootings, stories and conversations about deadly, unchecked racism have permeated even the apathetic white mainstream through media outlets, and social media has exploded, at least in my circle, detailing the ways that #Black Lives Matter, and how our society fails to reflect it.  People have been out in the streets in droves to protest, and it’s led to a little bit of air time outside of the Black community about some of the big and little humiliations and injuries that Black men, in particular, endure at the hands of the police – a government agency that, frankly, has always dedicated itself to protecting the wealth of the wealthy instead of the everyday person.

But what about the girls? What about Black girls? Aside from some posts on Facebook pointing out that Black women are also affected by police brutality and state violence, I haven’t heard much at all; it’s crickets when it comes to the set of challenges Black girls face when trying to navigate not only state violence but also a racist/sexist culture. But it’s women’s history month, and Black lives matter, so this month’s SPARK research blog is dedicated to discussing research that elevates the voices of Black girls.

Anne Kruger, Erin Harper, Patricia Harris, DeShelle Sanders, Kerry Levin and Joel Meyers[1] conducted a study to find out how low-income 12-14-year-old Black girls deal with sexualization, ethnic stereotypes and violence in their communities, and they did it by listening to the personal perspectives of Black girls, which hasn’t been done a lot in the research world.

The starting point for their research was to look at “commercial sexual exploitation of children” (CSEC), one form of sexualization that affects Black girls in certain communities. Commercial sexual exploitation is when an adult makes money, or gets off sexually, by forcing kids to do sexual stuff.  The researchers went to two middle schools in high-risk communities, and worked with girls to develop afterschool sessions, because they wanted to develop relationships with the girls and support them while they were conducting the study. They paid close attention to what the girls said during the workshops, listening to how they described their personal strengths and weaknesses, and the challenges they face in their communities, as well as the ways they felt supported.

What they found was that the girls talked a lot about how difficult it was to find people to trust – peers, adults, police – but that they enjoyed developing trusting relationships during the course of the afterschool group sessions. The girls talked a lot about dealing with fighting and physical violence in their peer groups; they described it as a regular part of their interactions, especially with other students. Kids carried weapons – the researchers even saw a boy with a gun at one of the research sites – and remember, this study was at middle schools.  They talked about seeing sex work in their communities, and being aware of how girls can be coerced or lured into it by guys who claim to like them, or because pimps could buy them stuff they wanted, like makeup, or things they needed, like clothes or even housing. They had street smarts.

The girls also talked about sexualization. They explained that they felt very sexualized and were preyed on by boys and men – even older men who lurked outside of the schoolyard, which is such a stereotype it’s like totally ridiculous – and they were also expected to sexualize themselves, which they did by dressing in tight clothes and short skirts and giving “lap dances” (their words) to boys at the roller skating rink.  The researchers noticed that the girls took in a lot of mainstream media portraying as normal violence against women and women as sexual objects, which, frankly, is good for no one, and that during group conversations, the girls’ statements “echoed” popular culture – like, for instance, some of the girls justified a famous dude beating up his equally famous girlfriend because she looked at his phone. Ouch.

Not to be shady, but this study – like lots of studies – may not be telling feminists things we didn’t already suspect if we’ve been paying attention; but that’s not what makes it important.  I think it’s awesome for other reasons. I love the way it was done – half intervention, half study – meaning the researchers were using specific tools to try to help the girls deal with their problems while also learning more about what those problems were. That means that to the best of their abilities, the researchers were 100% about supporting and elevating the girls they were researching, which is a great way to do research about young people and their personal strengths and weaknesses and how they’re negotiating their day-to-day lives. I mean, a little non-condescending help while you’re studying people and their problems, please.  And that’s another thing that I really like about this study – I’m a sucker for research that’s driven by the needs of the people being studied (it’s called “applied” research) because the knowledge it produces can help strengthen interventions that can be used in the real world. In this case, that’s in and outside of schools to help empower girls to push back against sexualization. But the crowing achievement of this research to me is that it, like the #BlackLivesMatter movement, holds a mic up to suppressed voices just enough so that they’re traveling a little bit further.  And then a little bit further than that.

Because my hope for the girls in the study, for Black girls everywhere who struggle, who are living in impossible situations but doing their best, who live and die in injustice with no groups of protestors remembering their names, is that people with the power and authority to help change the societies that smother girls will hear their voices and do their part.  Because it’s about time we all pay some attention.

[1] Kruger, A. C., Harper, E., Harris, P., Sanders, D., Levin, K., & Meyers, J. (2013). Sexualized and dangerous relationships: Listening to the voices of low-income African American girls placed at risk for sexual exploitation. Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, 14(4).


The miracle of Jane the Virgin

by Celeste Montaño and Joneka Percentie

When the CW released its first look at Jane the Virgin back in July, everyone in SPARK was on the fence about it. The trailer’s tone was intriguing, but a show that revolves entirely around a Latina woman’s sex life—or lack, thereof? Less intriguing, more off-putting.

Turns out, we underestimated the show so much that it’s embarrassing.

Jane premiered in October, and everyone that’s tuned in since has found one of the most honest, endearing, heartwarming, and three-dimensional representations of Latina women that’s ever been on TV. The writing also happens to be incredibly clever and whimsical, just as a cherry on top.

We have SO MANY FEELS about this show that we talked about it for hours, but here’s just a few of our thoughts. (If you haven’t seen the show already, definitely do that before reading—Jane is so good that any spoilers would be a tragedy.)

Joneka: Were you watching when it first premiered?

Celeste: I watched the day after it premiered because it was free online. But I expected to hate it. In fact, the first time I heard about the show, I got kind of pissed. I was expecting something like Devious Maids, which is a show about how glamorous and exciting it is to be a maid. (Lots of sex and murder, apparently.) So when I heard about Jane, I was like, why can’t we ever have a Latina character that isn’t completely defined by her sexuality?

Joneka: I wasn’t too thrilled either. Like just from the title it assumes that Jane’s virginity is her defining characteristic.

Celeste: Yeah, but despite the title, Jane’s virginity doesn’t play a huge role in the story after the first episode. Not as much as I expected.

Joneka: It definitely doesn’t! I think we get to see so many different sides of Jane so quickly that all of my fears that the show would just focus on her “purity” and “chastity” went right away. We see her silly side when she’s joking around at the hotel, her caring side around her mother and Abuela, and we know she’s super smart and killin’ it in school. I love that we get to see what she was like when she was young and that she’s a writer.

Celeste: I love that Jane’s a writer! I don’t remember EVER seeing a Latina character who’s a reader/writer. I literally dream of having nerdy Latina girls onscreen. And I’m so excited about the whole show being structured like a book. Like with the narrator.

Joneka: Yes with the chapters! And the typewriter noises and “to be continued…” Also, can you believe Jane’s finishing up school, writing, student teaching, AND working at the hotel? She’s very goal oriented.

Celeste: AND she’s pregnant!

Joneka: Can we talk about Jane’s mom for a bit? I love that Xiomara still pursues her dream of performing and we get to see her singing at nightclubs and stuff. I liked when she explains to Jane that she avoided serious relationships to protect Jane. My heart just uhhhgghh </3

Celeste: How do you feel about her and Rogelio, the ever-dramatic novela actor who also happens to be Jane’s dad?

Joneka: I don’t know how to feel about them yet! I think I like them separately but idk how they’ll work together. Rogelio is hilariously dramatic and he would do anything for Jane. And I love Xiomara’s strong spirit. Like the fact that she teaches dance to little girls in her living room! She’s just so great. But both of their personalities are so strong that I don’t know how they would work together.

Celeste: One of my fave moments was when Rogelio got Jane a car after giving her a bunch of super extravagant gifts, which makes you think this is just going to be another empty gestures. But then he explains that being able to give Jane all this stuff is a big deal to him because he really struggled before hitting it big. And now that he’s come this far, he wants to share it with Jane. It’s such an interesting dynamic because he’s so proud of her but he doesn’t even know how express affection any way except material goods—I mean, money’s the one thing he’s secure about in this case, since he doesn’t really know how to be a father. That’s so real. Rogelio can be kind of a cartoon sometimes, so seeing how much he wanted to impress Jane was very endearing. (But also I love that he tries so hard to be cool #RogelioMyBrogelio)

Joneka: And Abuela Alba, she is so awesome! I love that we keep getting more little glimpses into her background.  The flashback to when Xo got a traffic ticket and Abuela got so nervous. That’s the same scene when Jane learns that Abuela is an undocumented immigrant. I thought that was really important for the show to address immigrant rights–Abuela is hospitalized and the doctor threatens deportation when he finds out. They even put #ImmigrationReform in the bottom corner! I also love that she only speaks Spanish on the show.

Celeste: Omg Abuela! I love the Spanish. I love that they’re sticking with Abuela not being an English speaker. That means so much to me.

Joneka: Me too! I think it could have been so easily dropped but they made it a point to stick with it throughout the entire show. I really appreciate it. Like they didn’t cater to English speaking audience. AND how could I forget to mention that the show is set in Miami and I’m from Miami so that makes me love it even more. I used to take the bus with my family all the time so I just think it’s too cool to see those reflective moments Jane has on the bus, but it might just be me.

Celeste: Also, shout out to the wardrobe department on this show because I want every single one of Jane’s dresses.

Joneka: And I would definitely borrow some of Xo’s stuff too. What about Petra, Rafael’s wife? I have some conflicting feelings about her ’cause I think I’m supposed to hate her, but girl has also gone through some STUFF. Like when her ex threw acid at her mom?? She’s got so much to deal with. The major conflict of the show is definitely Jane’s pregnancy and how they’re dealing with it, but I feel like Petra is almost set up as a secondary villain along with Sin Rostro.

Celeste: omg yes! I like that they’re not like trying to make it Jane v. Petra. In fact, I think Petra and Jane are going to end up being friends by the time the show ends. I get the feeling that Petra’s still figuring herself out, since she hasn’t been able to stop looking over her shoulder in years. Plus, she’s part of yet another interesting mother/daughter relationship. Petra and her mom aren’t BFFs, but it’s them against the world sometimes. They’ve gone through a lot together, and you can tell they really love each other despite everything.

Joneka: ooh do you want to talk a bit about Gina Rodriguez’s acceptance speech for her Golden Globe??

Celeste: omg omg yes! Gina Rodriguez def knows her stuff. Not only was her acceptance speech amazing, but so were her responses during the Q&A afterward. I mean, she mentioned Ferguson and Mike Brown within the first couple minutes. It’s so rare for an actor to speak out like that during the height of their popularity, or in a moment as public as the Golden Globes. I love that she’s not afraid to criticize Hollywood sometimes, and she completely understands the power of the media to either validate or dehumanize people’s experiences. I get the feeling that she made a very deliberate choice in trying out for Jane, like she didn’t just do it because it was a convenient career move. I feel like she did it because she’s fully aware that its depiction of Latina women is revolutionary and necessary. (Fun fact: Gina turned down Devious Maids.)

Joneka: Lucky for us because now we have Jane the Virgin!

Black Girl Nerd: an interview with Jamie Broadnax

by Montgomery Jones

If there’s anything Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl taught me, it’s that awkwardness is colorblind. But for some reason, black women are only ever shown as one way in the media. Words like “awkward,” “shy,” nerdy,” “self aware,” “multi dimensional,”….well those words are never used to describe us. I myself am a well rounded nerd, as I dabble in different nerd-doms. For one, I have what some make call an “eccentric” wardrobe. Others may call it “tacky,” I call it “wearing what I want and tuning out the rest.” I like overalls, prairie skirts with combat boots, long billowy pants, and I love colors! I’ve been mocked for my taste in everything by everyone–strangers, friends, family, you name it!

People of all ethnicities and backgrounds love to tell me “that’s weird.” I have white friends who too have experienced this to a certain degree, but there is something about a woman of color being “quirky” that just sets people on edge. I can’t explain it, but I feel it. People want me to stop trying to “act white,” stop wearing my hair this way, and just be “normal”. I thought it would end after high school, the side -glances and the side comments, but alas. I wear my superhero shirts with my thrift store skirts, all while being entirely too loud and excited as I describe the newest book to film adaption I’m following. This is one of my first times talking about the harsh critiscm that follow me for just being accepting what I love and being happy. It’s subtle enough that a single incident alone doesn’t raise a red flag, but when I compile experiences, I realize that this is beyond me. It’s a societal belief that what I’m doing is against the natural order of things. I don’t have an answer as to why this is. I just know I have felt it and I know I’m not alone.

I’m the kind of nerd where, if we can talk television, books, movies or comic books, or high fashion, then I’m a happy girl. Pretty much anything with a fandom where I can bring out my eccentric side. I also happen to be black, and while I am friends with and have met other women of color who embrace all that is a “nerd”, I didn’t know their was a place for my people…I mean my people. Black Girl Nerds. Which is why I was so excited to find! I spoke with founder Jamie Broadnax about race, what it is to be a nerd, and how to deal with IRL trolls.

I just want to say, thank goodness BGN exists! It’s not that I didn’t think black girl nerds existed, it’s just… we are only ever depicted in one light! Why was Black Girl Nerds created?

It was created BGN because I wanted to see a website that featured women that look like me and contains perspectives and opinions about geek culture and fandom from women of color.

Where is BGN based out of? In your findings, are there more black girl nerds in one region of the world (if so, I’m moving!) or are we scattered about?

I’m in Virginia Beach, VA. The contributors, podcasters, social media moderators, and fans/followers of BGN are national and international.

Why is important for black girls to have their own nerdy space? Do nerds of other races participate in your twitter conversations, for example?

It’s important because we live in a world where we don’t see our images represented in the same capacity as women of other races. So much so, that even a Black woman depicted as nerdy or geeky is an anomaly.

What is your definition of a “nerd”?

Someone who lacks conformity. A person who embraces their eccentricities and is bold enough to stand out from the crowd. They unapologetic of who they are and what they are into and own their unique sense of identity. Yes—the term nerd has evolved. It no longer carries the archaic meaning first coined in the 50s.

I personally, have gotten a lot of pushback for being a woman of color, and a nerd! What makes us such an easy target?

Black women are targets for everything sadly. We have our gender and race to contend with in a world where white patriarchy and supremacy exists. I also will say that it is heavily perpetuated in our own communities what it is to be Black and sadly Blackness is seen as a monolith which is just a tool to suppress and divide the Black community. We can and are everything we want to be and more, and never let anyone tell you different.

You guys talk movies, books, TV shows, comic books, etc. Accounting for the overall lack of diversity in so many of these, do think that marketing for these mediums underestimate the diversity of the audiences?

I think so. The argument that fictional works featuring people of color do not sell is the oldest fabrication there is. The fact of the matter is, most people crave diversity. We want to see our worldview reflected in our literature. The best form of advertising is word of mouth. Speculative fiction and diverse TV, films, comics, etc. have the opportunity to have mainstream outreach—we just have to talk about them and also support them and put our money where our mouth is.

Why is important to see protagonists of different backgrounds?

Because frankly monoliths are boring. I get tired of seeing TV shows or reading books with characters that same the share racial background. There are some exceptions, because I love Game of Thrones (both TV and books) but I don’t want that to be my standard. I want to see characters of all nationalities and also queer characters as well as focusing on body diversity. Not everyone should be model thin. That’s not a reality.

Some may buy in to the negative connotations surrounding the term “nerd”, how does one not only embrace their nerdiness, but learn to love it?

You embrace your nerdiness by way of your fandom or something that you are passionate about. If you’re a coder and love to chat about HTML and CSS all day then embrace the tech geek in you. If you’re a comic book fan and love to chat about Marvel v. DC then have at it and let the comic geek thrive. Your passions and hobbies make up a large part of who you are, if you love them then you can easily learn to love your nerd.

How did you/do you deal with internet and in real life “trolls”?

Oh dear. Well I have had a handful of them. I’ll be honest. I still am working through this, because I know having a heavy online presence comes with the price of trolls and nasty vitriol from people who just don’t like you. It’s tough, because I don’t want anyone to dislike me. I don’t want to offend or make anyone feel like they should hate what I am doing. However, I have no control over people’s feelings about me, so eventually I learn to let it go. The best way I deal with this is to simply ignore and not feed the trolls. It’s hard sometimes, especially when they say disparaging things about you, but if you ignore them and be the bigger person by remaining cool under pressure, the people that see that will respect you for it. And you will also respect yourself for being the better person.

Marvel or DC?

MARVEL! I grew up on Marvel so I’m bias. I actually haven’t read many DC titles.

Favorite book adaption?

Game of Thrones – A Song of Ice and Fire

The most underrated superhero?

Gambit. He needs more love. Plus I have a crush on him.

What show are you currently binging and/or favorite new show from the 2014-2015 season?

Just finished binge watching House of Cards season 3. Per usual it was awesome. My favorite new show in the 2014-2015 is How To Get Away With Murder

Who are a few of your idols?

My mom and Oprah Winfrey.

How can fans of BGN get in on the conversation?

Easy! Follow @blackgirlnerds on Twitter. I love to share social convos via tweets with all of the followers. You can also contact me if you ever want to be a contributor to the website or even a podcaster for the show!

Thank you so much to Jamie of !


On James Franco, Humbert Humbert, and the men who leer at me in the street

by Aviv Rau

Being an introverted teenaged girl with tons of free time and a newly acquired driver’s license, I spent a lot of time alone this past summer. Except that I was not really alone. Everywhere I went—bookstores, cafes, stores, restaurants, even on the street—significantly older men making inappropriate comments approached me. Thankfully, things did not escalate past a few foul comments in my case. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many teenage girls in our society and in the media, where portrayals of older men preying on young girls are not only commonplace but also idealized.

This past summer, I also watched the film Palo Alto, which is based on the book of short stories written by the generally questionable James Franco. The film, which is about a group of angsty, middle class, white teenagers, shows a relationship unfold between April, a high schooler, and her shady soccer coach, Mr. B. Appropriately, James Franco plays Mr. B which, considering the fact that he got busted trying to hook up with a 17 year old, is a casting choice (that he himself made!) a bit too close for comfort. In the film, Mr. B is a predatory, twisted adult, whose social ineptitude and immaturity draw him toward vulnerable teenage girls. Mr. B manipulates April by masking his cruel intentions behind a front of concern for her wellbeing. In an appropriately misogynistic, entry level-Freud move, the film portrays April as lacking a positive male role model. Therefore, she goes along with Mr. B’s advances. Sadly, our society is filled Mr. B’s, who slickly “mansplain” their way out of criminal charges and major scandals, and James Franco is just one of them.

Old guys who lust after young girls have found their way into plenty of other popular movies, too. American Beauty covers similar ground to Palo Alto, depicting a middle-aged guy, Lester Burnham, lusting after his daughter’s best friend, Angela Hayes. Like Mr. B, Lester is portrayed as a laid back, chill guy who gets fed up with women his own age. So naturally, like any pedophilic creep, he turns to a high school girl. Just like April, Angela is portrayed as “emotionally damaged” and therefore super susceptible to Lester’s advances. Additionally, like James Franco’s Palo Alto character parallel, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, where an older guy falls for a younger girl, has a real life parallel in its director’s life. Allen is currently 79 and married to his 44-year-old ex-wife, Mia Farrow’s, adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.

The older man-young girl dynamic isn’t just present in a few films, either. (It’s actually present in a concerning number of movies, some of which appear in this list.) All over the media, we see older men “date down,” in doing so objectifying girls, most notably in the Vladimir Nabokov novel Lolita. Interestingly, even the original Lolita-worshipping creep, Nabokov’s anti-hero Humbert Humbert, was written to show off the perversion of the older-man-worshipping-younger-girl dynamic. Yet he’s somehow become an icon in the Icky Old Dudes Who Fetishize Young Women game. In fact, the whole book has become a cultural icon, which should say a lot when you consider that not everyone reading it is doing it for the feminist critique. You can thank our culture for that one. Anyway, the “Lolita,” or a hypersexualized young girl, has since become an archetype romanticized by both men and women. Lana Del Rey has a song called “Lolita,” for instance. She also quotes the popular, “Light of my life, fire of my loins” line from the novel in her song “Off to the Races” and describes herself as a “Lolita [who] got lost in the hood.” In Japan, there’s an entire subculture devoted to the “Lolita” aesthetic, which has since been exported and co-opted by dozens of other countries. Sexualized schoolgirls have become a common fantasy. In fact, children’s online dress up games involve selecting sexy outfits for said “Lolita” dolls. Plus, there’s “barely legal” porn, which is exactly what it sounds like, if it sounds like the fetishization of newly “legal” but baby faced, “virginal” (whatever that even means) eighteen-year-old girls.

We’ve created a subculture surrounding “Lolitas” that somehow manages to both dismiss and glorify the predatory aspects of the older man-young girl dynamic. While putting down the biggest victims of the dynamic, young girls, dismissing them as precociously sexual, we admire the men who date them. The common, immediate response is that younger girls attracted to older men have “daddy issues,” which is itself a belittling term. The men attracted to these younger girls, by contrast, are typically seen as emotionally intact. We find every excuse to defend these guys’ actions. We blame their stress at work, their overbearing wives, their boredom, the pressures placed on them by society. It’s the innocent young Lolitas that we view as master manipulators, “mythical nymphets” (disgustingly enough, this is an actual term Nabokov used to describe the original Lolita) whose only desire is to wreck the lives of older men because of said “daddy issues.” Thanks, Freud.

Most recently, Kylie Jenner has been making headlines for allegedly dating rapper Tyga. Kylie is 17, while Tyga is 25. While both Kylie and Tyga have denied the claim, insisting that they are just friends, that in itself seems shady. Tyga is a father, and Kylie is still a minor, legally bound to her parents. As a 17 year old myself, I can’t imagine my parents would be particularly thrilled if I were super close friends with a 25 year old guy. Whether or not Kylie and Tyga are dating, plenty of people (including Kylie’s half-sister, Khloe Kardashian) are defending their relationship. Regardless of how old Kylie might look, we should remember that she is only 17—still just a kid. By allegedly dating her, or even by maintaining a close friendship with her, Tyga, who is an adult, is exploiting Kylie’s youth.

Movies like Palo Alto, American Beauty, Manhattan, and countless others, mirrored by real life shady actions–James Franco’s Instagram scandal, Woody Allen’s relationship with his stepdaughter, Kylie Jenner and Tyga’s alleged relationship, or the comments I hear from significantly older men–promote a culture that is damaging to everyone but its privileged offenders. Teenaged girls are fetishized and infantilized by these older guys. “Lolita” complexes have become so central to our society, though, that we’re reluctant to criticize the older men who perpetuate this problematic dynamic.

Male authors, teen girl characters, and Keo Novak

by Cori Fulcher

Not too long ago, I talked with a friend about men who could write teenage girls. I had mentioned Jeffery Eugenides and could not for the life of me think of any others. I listed all the teenage girls of literature I loved dearly and then remember one by one they were written by women. We discussed and immediately dismissed John Green– I personally find his characters repetitive and one-dimensional, but if anyone out there finds him to be an authentic peddler of the teen girl experience I’m completely supportive of you. Then suddenly and rather off-handedly I said “well, there’s always B.J. Novak and Keo Novak”.

It wasn’t that I mentioned those two names late in the conversation because I was desperate and had resigned myself to merely tossing out something I didn’t consider an outright lie. It was just that I had a hard time remembering Keo Novak was a work of fiction.

According to Keo’s twitter, she is the youngest of the Novak siblings, most famously the actor and writer B.J. Novak. She is 16. Her twitter profile image is often a picture of the actress Kiernan Shipka lighting a cigarette. I believe it is a still from Mad Men, but I don’t know for certain (I’ve tried to watch Mad Men but all of the cigarette smoke makes me nauseous). It looks in many ways like my twitter picture, which is of me. I am not looking into the camera. My hair is held back by sunglasses, heart sunglasses. I have a pixie cut but the way my hair is held back makes it look longer. Like the other picture, I look bored and melancholic. The pictures are trying to look an age, but it’s unclear what age that is. The grown-up aspects–the cigarette, the sunglasses–look calculated, but in a naive way, like dress-up, and perhaps make the subjects of the photographs look younger.

Keo Novak has been 16 for three years. B.J. Novak has more or less admitted she isn’t a real person, although tactfully at one point saying “she’s the sister I always wanted to have, in a way,” which  I find endearing. There are no photographs of her on the internet, but there is a small, insistent part of me that thinks I am operating under some sort of wild misunderstanding and SPARK will have to issue a retraction immediately. Her voice is something I maybe a little vainly recognize myself in, suburban and obsessive and self-conscious. I’ve read a lot of stories about teenage girls, many of them written by adult men, but this feels completely authentic to me–or at the very least, a voice worried about and conscious of its inauthenticity, which feels true(r?) to my experience. The idea of male authorship conjures up images of heavy books and misreadings of Lolita. All the teenage girls are having affairs with the men they babysit for; all of them are lovestruck or promiscuous or forced into prostitution. That isn’t to say I can’t enjoy such stories, but I’m wary of them.

But Keo and I exist simultaneously on the Internet. She isn’t a character in a book whose internal monologue I’m somehow privy to, and she isn’t warped or obscured by other characters. On Twitter, she seems to be figuring out a persona, constantly adjusting what she wants to sound like and come across as. Her life isn’t momentous and doesn’t appear to follow any typical coming-of-age story, even if she wants it to. Keo Novak likes fashion. She’s fascinated by modern celebrity. She has anxiety about successful young people. She’s constantly trying to get access to HBOGO. Most of the time it’s hard to tell if she’s speaking from genuine fascination or cynical detachment. That’s me, essentially-at least that’s a version of me right now, I don’t know if it’s my essence.  I am going to grow up and Keo isn’t, or at least she hasn’t yet. It isn’t my decision and I wouldn’t want it to be.


Research Blog: Posturing to feel powerful

by Kim Belmonte

I’ve never tried picturing the crowd in their underwear.  That’s the advice people sometimes give you when you’re nervous about speaking in front of a crowd.  Instead of picturing everyone’s skivvies, before a presentation in front of a group, I’ll sneak away for a few minutes and stand in the hall with my hands on my hips, shoulders back and legs spread shoulder width apart.  A couple of deep breaths in this superman superwoman pose, and I feel the nervous jitters subside, my confidence return, and I even remember that I [sometimes] love talking in front of crowds.

I’m not the only one who’s been mimicking superwoman to feel more confident.  There’s been quite a bit of buzz in the media lately about “power poses.”  Ann Cuddy, a psychologist at Harvard, gave a Ted Talk in 2012 where she described how body posture can affect hormone levels that change how you feel and how others perceive you. She explained that posing in a way that is powerful (like with your hands on your hips and spine straight) instead of in a way that is submissive (like hunched over or with your arms pulled in tight to your sides) can have a positive impact on your mood and brainpower.  Not surprisingly, she described how women often adopt more low-power poses than men.  She suggests that women should “fake it till they make it,” which is what I try to do before I give a talk.

But other researchers have found that holding power poses might work in different ways for women and men: in some studies women feel prouder of their performance on a task when they’re in slouched positions, while men feel prouder in an upright body posture.[1] Why in the world might there be a gender difference? Some have hypothesized that there is a relationship between context and body position: If you’re already feeling down, you might feel better in a slouchy slump, but if you’re feeling proud, maybe you’ll feel really proud if you hold your chin high.[2]  Because women hold a relatively lower status in our society, what if being in a slumped position feels more comfortable because it “aligns” with women’s social status?  On the other hand, since we know that women tend to self-objectify, or internalize the idea that their bodies should be treated like objects for men to look at, what if slouching is actually a way for women to redirect the focus from their bodies onto their performance?

Researchers Megan Kozak, Tomi-Ann Roberts and Kelsey Patterson[3] wanted to dig into this gender difference.  They ran a clever experiment with college women[4] looking at how three variables – self-objectification, status, and posture – affected women’s mood and performance.   For the self-objectification variable, participants were either asked to change into a tight tank top with the [fake] explanation that it was necessary for researchers to observe the curve of their spine, or they were asked to don a loose fitting sweatshirt and given the [again fake] instruction that it was to hide the curve of their spine.   For the status variable, women were asked to sit either on a throne (to indicate high status), or in a small children’s chair (to indicate low status). Finally, for the posture variable, they asked women to either slouch forward or sit up straight in the chairs.

After getting into position and staying in their posture for five minutes, participants took a few questionnaires measuring their positive and negative emotions and self-objectification. After these measures, participants were allowed to sit in a way that felt natural while they took a math test and a survey about how they thought they did on the tests.

To recap, there were two different ways participants could dress (tank top or sweatshirt), two different ways they could sit (slouching or upright), and two different kinds of chairs they could sit in (a throne or a child’s chair). And what did they find? Well, it turns out that your Grandma was right about sitting up straight!  The researchers found that women who sat up straight reported more positive feelings about their performance than women who slumped (and vice versa for negative feelings).

But, interestingly, it wasn’t just sitting up straight that led to improvements in women’s performance.  When women sat up straight and were less objectified, their performance improved. That is, women dressed in the baggy sweatshirts tried more math problems and felt more proud of their performance than women wearing the tight tank tops.

But what about when women wore the tank tops?  It’s an interesting story, actually, about how research doesn’t always go as planned. Putting women in the different chairs didn’t work quite like the researchers had expected. You see, the researchers thought that sitting up straight in a revealing shirt might make women more self-conscious because their torsos and breasts would be more on display.  And they were right—sort of. The effect of wearing a tank top depends on whether you’re sitting in a throne or an itty-bitty chair. Women wearing a tank top on the throne were slightly more satisfied with their performance on the math test. But sitting in a kid’s chair changed things. Slouching in the kids’ chair made women feel more self-conscious about their bodies because they were concerned about their “muffin top” or “belly rolls” and their cleavage being on display.  When they sat up straight in the little chair, however, the belly roll was less of an issue. This is the opposite of what the researchers expected! They thought that sitting up straight would be more objectifying because women’s bodies would be more on display and instead found that slouching is more objectifying because women were self-conscious about their bellies and bosoms.

So what does this all mean regarding the relationship between self-objectification, power and posture? We know from other research that self-objectification can make your brain “freeze.”  All that focus on how your body looks takes brainpower away from thinking through a set of math questions.  And the same is true in this study.  In general, when women could focus less on how their bodies looked, they were more able to focus on the task at hand and felt more satisfied with their performance.  Conversely, when women felt really self-conscious in their bodies, they weren’t able to perform as well on a test and tended to have more negative feelings about themselves.  But we also learned from this study that the way you hold yourself—and perhaps move in the world—could have an effect on how positively you feel.  So what does this mean for my wonder woman posturing before my next presentation? I think I’ll keep doing it—I’ll just make sure I’m wearing a blazer and not wonder woman’s typical outfit!

[1] Roberts, T.-A. & Arefi-Afshar, Y. (2007).  Not all who stand tall are proud: Gender differences in the proprioceptive effects of upright posture. Cognition & Emotion, 21, 714-727.

[2] Riskind, J. H. &Gotay, C. C.  (1984).  Physical Posture: Could it have regulatory or feedback effects on motivation and emotion? Motivation & Emotion, 6, 273-298.

[3] Kozak, M., Roberts, T-A. & Patterson, K. (2014). She stoops to conquer? How posture interacts with self-objectification and status to impact women’s affect and performance. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38(3), 414-424.

[4] These women were ages 18-22 years old, and mostly white