Saturday, September 13, 2008

Why we need to stop talking about Sarah Palin

Why do we need to stop talking about Sarah Palin? Because she is a distraction, meant to divert our focus from what's really going on with the Presidential Campaign. Don't get me wrong, all of the debates about Governor Palin's feminism, or lack thereof, and whether or not she's pro-woman (hint: the answer is no) were and are imminently valuable, but I think it's time we move on and think about the larger picture, too.

What else is there to talk about, you say?

John McCain has been leading a campaign of lies and smears, and the general (Democratic) public has been so caught up with Governor Palin that they've only just started to notice. Finally, the MSM are beginning to address the outright dishonesty of the McCain-Palin campaign, starting with their specious co-option of feminism and ripping-off Obama's slogan "change we can believe in" to his egregiously false attack ads:

I was certainly glad to see that the women of The View, which--I'll be honest--is not a show I usually watch or spend much time thinking about, ripped a strip off McCain yesterday, grilling him on everything from his changing stance on abortion and his choice of Governor Palin to his attack ads (make sure to watch the clips embedded in the linked article).

I hope people are finally getting their heads out of the clouds (I was going to say "out of Sarah Palin's ass," but figured that might be inappropriate. Of course, I just said it anyway.) and realizing that Sarah Palin has a running mate. In fact, she is the running mate to someone who is a serious threat and who could, in fact, be president if we're not careful. And, unless McCain dies in office immediately, his actions are what we'll have to worry about, not (necessarily) those of Governor Palin.

That said, while it's important for women (and men) to continue to take a stand against Governor Palin's anti-womanism, I think Democrats should put most of their energy behind rallying for Obama-Biden. Join your local campaign headquarters, go door-to-door, donate money if you can, register to vote, make sure everyone you know has registered to vote, put a sign on your lawn, put a sticker on your car. Isn't it more valuable to show support for our candidates instead of trying to undermine our opponents (even if they deserve it)? Or, as Cara at The Curvature has pointed out, isn't optimism a stronger force than pessimism?

Note: When I say "we" don't assume that I'm talking about anyone specific. I'm not. I'm mostly addressing myself (since I have been writing and talking about Palin as much, if not more, than others in the blogosphere) and anyone else like me who has suddenly realized that all their energy has been going into discrediting Governor Palin when it should have been directed towards supporting the Democrats.

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Mainstream Feminist Rock? The Donnas vs. The Runaways

Are there any feminists in mainstream music?

Try this experiment: Turn on a radio. Tune to your local mainstream rock station. What do you hear? A male voice. Change to the classic rock station. Another male voice. How about a country or rap station? Guess what! Try top 40. There you'll probably hear a vapid-sounding woman singing about her (ex-)boyfriend, or about how sexy she is. Repeat this until you're good and mad. There aren't many women on the radio (except DJs), let alone feminism. Now, I know that radio isn't as important as it used to be. So, try looking through a list of top mp3 sales. At the time I'm writing this, there are only 4-5 non girly-pop* female songs in the top 100 - although a Pink song is currently #1. (If anyone gets different results, by the way, I'd like to know.)

Still, I'm going to start here at Fourth Wave by writing about feminism and rock music.

As it turns out, of course, there are excellent women musicians in the music industry. Some are even quite popular. Not all pop singers are intolerable. Sarah Mclachlan, Madonna, and my personal favorite, Idina Menzel all spring to mind. If you listen to a classic rock station for very long, you'll hear some Heart. And then there's the Queen of Rock herself, Joan Jett.

Now, before Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Jett was in a band called the Runaways. If you've never heard of them, the Runaways are often considered the first really successful all-female band. They were forerunners of later all-female bands, including more feminist bands (riotgrrrl bands, L7 and Babes in Toyland, female queercore bands, etc.) The Runaways, though, were not feminist. At all. They were a rock and roll band - they sang about sex (with boys), rebellion, drugs, and rock and roll itself.

As much as I love feminist musicians, very few feminist bands have anything like mainstream success. The question, therefore, is: What effect, if any, has feminism and feminist music had on the women in mainstream rock? How has it changed since the Runaways?

I originally meant to compare the Runaways to the most popular all-female band in any genre, but the most popular band turned out to be the Dixie Chicks, and there didn't seem to be much to say. So, I went with another popular band, the Donnas. As far as I can tell, the Donnas are the most popular all-female rock band currently performing, and one of the most popular all-female bands in any genre. They are also perfect for our purposes; they were directly influenced by the Runaways. Like the Runaways, the Donnas sing mostly about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There are about 20 years between the bands - the Runaways disbanded in 1979, and the Donnas started to see real success in 1999 or so. Let's listen to a couple of songs:

First, the Runaways, "Cherry Bomb":

No, they didn't always perform in lingerie. But the whole 'trashy teenage jail-bait' look was essentially the selling point of the band. One of the big problems with the Runaways was with their manager, Kim Fowley, who over-managed and over-hyped the band until they appeared to be a cheap exploitation act put together by men. Nobody is really sure how much this was the case, but it certainly taint their perception.

Now for the Donnas, "Take It Off":

As far as I know, the Donnas have never performed in lingerie. Many reviewers claim they started with a the trashy jail-bait look, but nearly every video that I have seen features them in jeans and tank-tops or t-shirts - fairly neutral outfits. If they once had a trashy look, they've certainly dropped it by now.

Notice also the difference in the front-women's dancing. The Runaways' Currie is obviously playing up to her outfit, and while the Runaways are not the Pussycat Dolls (by a long shot), their sex appeal was an important part of their act. The Donnas' Anderson rarely does anything like this. Her dancing consists primarily of fist shaking, headbanging, and the occasional side-to-side movement that looks like a swagger as often as it looks sensual.

And that is the difference between the two bands. The Donnas are certainly very sexual, but theirs is an aggressive, almost masculine sexuality. The Runaways sing,

Here you are a superstar
But I sing and play in my own way
You got your fans and I got mine
But I need your love that's the bottom line


Don't abuse me
Now you listen to what I say
If you're tryin' to use me
Why don't you just go away

But the Donnas?

Spendin every night in a different state
Spendin every night with a different date
Forty boys in forty nights
I got no time to see the sights

And also:

Boy, don't try to slow me down
You're not the only one that's on my mind
Got, enough to go around
If you can't take it you'll be left behind

The Runaways may be tough aggressive rockers, but in the end they seemingly need a man just like other women. The Donnas don't need men at all - they use them for sex, just like male rock stars use the women in their songs. (Note: the Donnas aren't totally consistent in this - the songs do tend to use female terms to describe relationships, but this is also kind of the point - they're female, just not feminine)

In the end, the Donnas are about as feminist as straight-up hetro rock and roll can be. There is one problem, though. While they are confident and strong in themselves, they really don't care about other women very much:

You've been talking trash again, oh no
Don't pretend you're not my friend, oh no

And the repeated line in the same song:

G-I-R-L T-A-L-K, the girls talk

Yeah, yeah, we know. Girls don't like each other. It's two steps and one step back, really:

  • Strong, independent, sexually confident = good

  • Tearing down other women = bad

I do think that there is overall progress, though. We've come quite a way since the Runaways. The Donnas even parted with their first manager to avoid a Fowley-type scandal. Their latest album was released on their own label, and still charted.

Perhaps in another 10-20 years, the songs we hear on the radio (or whatever finally replaces it) will have as many female voices as male voices.

*By the way, please don't think I hate pop music or musicians. It just seems that much of it tends to reinforce stereotypes of dependent, weak women with breathy high-pitched voices who think about men all the time. The over-production often makes them sound fake to my ears, as well.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Feminism and Religion ~ Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I just wanted to post a quick note of congratulations and support to feminist author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who won this year's Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction last night in Cleveland, OH. Her appearance at the awards had to be kept a complete secret up until the moment of presentation because she has suffered such persecution--as well as multiple threats on her life--due to her radical, outspoken autobiography, Infidel, published last year.

Born in Somalia, Hirsi Ali fled an arranged marriage when she was 22 and was granted asylum in the Netherlands. She converted from Islam to atheism, and recently became a member of the Dutch Parliament and is an avid activist for women's rights and religious freedom.

In case you haven't heard of her or her book, here's an excerpt...the first page of her introduction:
One November morning in 2004, Theo van Gogh got up to go to work at his film production company in Amsterdam. He took out his old black bicycle and headed down a main road. Waiting in a doorway was a Moroccan man with a handgun and two butcher knives.

As Theo cycled down the Linnaeusstraat, Muhammad Bouyeri approached. He pulled out his gun and shot Theo several times. Theo fell off his bike and lurched across the road, then collapsed. Bouyeri followed. Theo begged, “Can’t we talk about this?" but Bouyeri shot him four more times. Then he took out one of his butcher knives and sawed into Theo’s throat. With the other knife, he stabbed a five-page letter onto Theo’s chest.

The letter was addressed to me.

Two months before, Theo and I had made a short film together. We called is Submission, Part 1. I intended one day to make Part 2. (Theo warned me that he would work on Part 2 only if I accepted some humor in it!) Part 1 was about defiance—about Muslim women who shift from total submission to God to a dialogue with their deity. They pray, but instead of casting down their eyes, these women look up, at Allah, with the words of the Quran tattooed on their skin. They tell Him honestly that if submission to Him brings them so much misery, and He remains silent, they may stop submitting.

There is the woman who is flogged for committing adultery; another who is given in marriage to a man she loathes; another who is beaten by her husband on a regular basis; and another who is shunned by her father when he learns that his brother raped her. Each abuse is justified by the perpetrators in the name of God, citing the Quran versus now written on the bodies of the women. These women stand for hundreds of thousands of Muslim women around the world.

And if you still need reasons to check out the book for yourself, here are a few book reviews:

"The Fight for Muslim Women" | by Anne Applebaum

"No Rest for a Feminist Fighting Radical Islam" | by William Grimes

Against Submission | by Ian Burma

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Thursday, September 11, 2008


I'm relatively new to this regular-blogging shtick (having only blogged irregularily in the past) and that newness--combined with the insanity that is my Google Reader--is making me feel a little schizophrenic. Should I blog today about Sarah Palin (again!) or sex education or abortion or why I think third wave feminism is over and done with? It's just too much (not to mention that I'm absolutely overwhelmed with the brilliance of many of my fellow bloggers--see "other blogs" sidebar for a sampling--even though they're currently part of my Google-Reader-overload-problem)! So, while I get my head on straight and get off the internet for a little while so I can actually write a coherent post, here are a few things that have caught my interest recently:

Habladora over at The Feminist Underground writes an excellent response to the question Are All Women Pro-Woman?

Cara at The Curvature urges us to Chill, be positive and let Obama do what he does best.

Amy at Appetite for Equal Rights adds her perspective to the discussion about why Sarah Palin is Not a Feminist.

And, the 64th Carnival of Feminists is up over at This is What a Feminist Blogs Like. That alone should keep me busy for the next few weeks!

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Palin Doll

I have no words.

I started writing about this last night, but then became too tired to continue. And now it seems that Renee over at Womanist Musings has beat me to the punch in expressing her ire. My only question is, is this "sexy action-hero" Palin doll more or less or only differently upsetting than the Hillary Nutcracker doll? Because while I do find this Palin doll completely sexist and demeaning to women in general, I'm not nearly as disgusted by it as I was with the Clinton doll...

(Thanks to Oklahoma Women's Network Blog for the original link to an article about the doll.)

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Lipstick on a Pig

So, I'm curious how other people feel about this. News is just coming out that last night Barack Obama made the following comment during a speech in Lebanon, VA:
"The other side, suddenly, they're saying 'we're for change too.' Now think about it, these are the same folks that have been in charge for the last eight years[...] You can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig. You can wrap up an old fish in a piece of paper and call it change. It's still going to stink after eight years. We've had enough."
The McCain campaigners immediately took offense at this statement, arguing that it was clearly a sexist jibe at Governor Palin (who made the joke during the her RNC speech that the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick), despite the fact that McCain himself has used the phrase "putting lipstick on a pig" in the past (in reference to one of Senator Clinton's proposals no less).

See The Washington Post and The New York Times for more information about the context of Obama's speech and the fall out.

Is this another example of the Republicans-who-cried-sexism, blowing everything out of proportion the way they have with Obama's proposal for age-appropriate sex education at all grade levels? Or is their anger actually legitimate?

What do you think?

Update: NYTimes article, Obama Responds to ‘Phony Outrage’

Update 2.0: A friend of mine posted this clip on Facebook--Stephanie Cutter on John McCain's hypocrisy re: women.

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Fashion on the Campaign Trail

I just wanted to post a link to a great article in the Washington Post by Robin Givhan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her fashion criticism last year (no you didn't read that wrong, fashion IS Pulitzer worthy). The article is an analysis of fashion at the conventions including the men-folk. Givhan note a definite 60s influence on the women's fashion, which she attributes to Mad Men. I've been seeing this 60's flavor all over stores and magazines this season, and I think it may also have something to do with a kind of Camelot-Obama kind of nostalgia. More on that and the fate of the pants-suits later....

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Feminism in Strange Places: The Women of Mad Men

I've been wanting to write a post about AMC's Mad Men for ages now and, since another episode just aired last night and I'm trying to distract myself from the latest terrifying poll numbers, I figured that now would be as good a time as any.

For those who aren't in the know, Mad Men is a period drama set in the early 1960s in an ad agency in Manhattan; it's now in its second season and has proven to be quite popular. On the surface, it's not a premise that one might imagine as a bastion of feminism, especially considering the show's self-proclaimed dedication to accuracy and attention to detail. As you can imagine, the era of happy housewife heroines and consumerism is not portrayed as particularly woman-positive. On the show, the women in the office--most of them typists and secretaries--are routinely objectified by the male ad execs while the wives at home raise the children and have meals prepared for their hard-working men (many of whom often employ the "I have to work late at the office" excuse to hide their philandering and drinking). All that said, while Mad Men preserves the chauvinism of the time period (drawn into sharp focus by the fast-paced maculinist work environment of the agency), it's both an intriguing show and showcases some extremely compelling female characters who, sometimes subtly, rise beyond their prescribed gendered roles (even if they aren't exactly feminist by our standards).

(Read on for more, but beware some spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2.)

The Women of Mad Men

Betty Draper
“She wanted me to be beautiful so I could find a man. There’s nothing wrong with that. But then what? Just sit and smoke and let it go ‘til you’re in a box?”

Betty Draper (on right) is the stereotypical 1950s housewife, with an edge. She's married to Don Draper, the Creative Director of the Sterling Cooper Ad Agency, and ostensibly divides her time between raising their two children and waiting for Don to come home for dinner (or not). Betty is sharp, sweet and loyal to a fault, at least on the surface. In Season 1, her neurotic episodes (the internalized stress of being left alone all day and the onus of being the happy housewife at all times) land her in psychotherapy. And, early in Season 2, her bottled-up frustration with Don's womanizing ways causes her to be unjustly prejudiced towards their young son. What's intriguing about Betty is her deep inner life, to which we're only barely privy, the constant sense that there's more to her than we see, that she might just have some card up her sleeve. Moreover, Betty embodies the silencing burden of forced domesticity in way that is both understated and deeply palpable.

Joan Holloway
“These men, we’re constantly building them up. And for what? Dinner? Jewelry? Who cares!”

Joan Holloway (center) is the Office Manager at Sterling Cooper. She has a lot of power--authority over all the typists and secretaries (and quite a bit of influence over the artists, copywriters and accountants, to boot)--and she knows it. While in Season 1, she was the clandestine lover of one of the senior partners, Roger Sterling, Season 2 finds Joan pursuing her own life more fervently. Joan is not a nice person, but she's a great character--she's smart, manipulative, and bitchy, and those are her good qualities. She probably knows more about what's going on in the office than all three of the top guys (Sterling, Cooper and Draper) combined, and she knows how to use that knowledge to her advantage.

Peggy Olsen
“I don’t think anyone wants to be one of a hundred colors in a box.”

Peggy is by far my favorite character on the show, and she's probably the most overtly feminist. Don's former secretary-turned-junior-copywriter (a rare job for a woman at Sterling Cooper), Peggy is quiet, fiercely intelligent, and slowly trying to make a name for herself amidst the good ole boys at the agency. A sexual misstep early in Season 1 leaves Peggy sneaking off to have a baby by the end of the season, a child her sister now raises in Brooklyn. Since then, Peggy is much more judicious, and she doesn't use her sexuality to get by. She's a little arrogant, but also unerringly honorable, sometimes to a fault. Her most recent transition, from staid to classy--she glams up in order to get in on the post-pitch celebration at a strip club in the Season 2 ep. "Maidenform"--may not seem very feminist. But I'm not quite sure I'd agree. By joining the guys on their playing field--the frivolous celebration at the strip club--she acquires more, not less, respect professionally, and sets herself up as someone who can work and play on equal footing as her male co-workers.

Bonus Round: The Women (Un)Fortunate Enough to Fall Into Bed with Don Draper

Don Draper, philanderer though he is, seems to have a penchant for independent women:

Season 1: Midge Daniels, a beatnik artist/art illustrator, who eschews marriage and love, adores sex, and eventually leaves Don when she becomes bored with his controlling ad-man attitude.

Season 1: Rachel Menken, Jewish department store owner who meets Don while she's seeking a new look for her store. She falls in love with him, but leaves the city when she realizes that Don's attention is less about his love for her and more about his attempt to escape from the problems in his life.

And, last (for now), but not least, Season 2: the razor-sharp Bobbie Barrett, wife of comedian Jimmy Barrett and an astute businesswoman who manages her husband's career. She's already gotten Don into a fair bit of trouble, and I have no doubt their affair will be causing a big fuss in future episodes.

The female characters in Mad Men are so compelling to me precisely because they operate under such narrow, gendered social constraints and yet are still rendered as capable, smart and powerful. It's an interesting paradox: a series set in a time and place of extreme chauvinism, Mad Men somehow succeeds in providing strong female leads in a way that many television shows today still haven't yet mastered.

(Whew...I'm exhausted. I think I need a cocktail.)

Update: For a counter-argument, and fascinating discussion in the comments, check out The Hathor Legacy

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Tyra Banks for President!

In my journey’s through this months phone book size fall fashion magazines, I ran across a curious photo spread. Harper’s Bazaar cover girl Tyra Banks is featured in the role of Michelle Obama along with a male model playing Barack Obama, and two girls as the Obama daughters. Now fashion photos are often a bit odd, especially the ones on Ms. Banks’ Top Model, but this one seemed particularly strange. See the photos here.

Why is Tyra Banks playing the role of first lady and not Madame President herself. Fashion photography is all about fantasy anyway, not to mention Hillary Clinton who let us remember was pretty close to being the Democratic nominee for the Presidency. The spread seems especially odd now that Sarah Palin is the Republican candidate for Vice President, which of course Bazaar could not have predicted. It seems odd to have Tyra type cast as Michelle Obama, when the accompanying article focuses on her as a smart business woman: "what's cool about Banks, who now earns an estimated $23 million a year, is that she was never too cool to be commercial. By doing so, she hasn't just broken borders — of ethnicity, of cynicism, of fashion cliché — she has broken ground." The article goes on to note that "Banks has traded in her pretty for something far more compelling: a voice in the culture." Banks talks in the article about her own career, and her efforts to build a career after the runway. The interviewer, Laura Brown, also asked Bank's about the role of the first lady:
"If Banks ever reached the highest office in the land, she would dress the part. 'I'd wear a V-neck shift and a two-inch heel. Even if the president were taller, I would keep them low. Otherwise it gets a little too sexy.'"

Maybe I'm mistaken, but last time I checked first lady wasn't the highest office in the land, I can only hope that this wasn't a Freudian slip on the part of Bazaar, is First Lady the highest office to which women can aspire to in this country? It seems, at least for the next 4 years, first lady, and maybe vice president is all we will get. I also like Tyra's sartorial proscription to show deference to the faux-President. Pantsuits are notably absent from this shift-dress heavy collection of looks (more on this in upcoming posts).

How should our new first lady interpret her role?:
"A modern first lady, if she followed the Tyra prescription, would first smile. (Banks reportedly has a professional arsenal of 275.) 'Oh, I want her to not take herself too seriously,' she says. 'She'd need to know how to take a fierce picture but at the same time be able to eat fried chicken, have grease on her fingers, and be okay with getting photographed like that, too. I'd want her to feel like every child in America is hers — to have a true connection.' Her expression turns serious, then she winks. 'I would also want her to know how to beat her own face. That means do her own makeup. In the end, the first lady should be her man's rock and his boulder and his mountain. And she should be calling about 50 percent of the shots!'"
Only time will tell if the new first lady will follow Tyra's lead, but in the mean time it might have been nice to see Tyra playing the President. How would she dress then? This would certainly have been an instructive spread to women in politics as well as the workplace. Oh well, Harper's missed the boat, but I do appreciate more and more Tyra's style of presentation, while she often sounds like she has more than a few screws loose, she is honest and smart and at least tries to stand for something (even if it is a simple as the fierceness of women of all sizes, shapes, and colors) in this season of political pandering and vague promises. -V.P.

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Feminist Flashback #1

For your amusement, #1 in a new Sunday installment of Feminist Flashbacks: videos, images and text to remind us how far we've come (and perhaps how little has changed).

This week, "Femininity," as sung by Hayley Mills & Deborah Walley in the 1963 Disney movie Summer Magic:

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