Friday, April 10, 2009

Feminist Blogger Friday: Interview #4 with Jennifer Kesler of The Hathor Legacy

It's the second Friday of the month again, which means it's time for another Feminist Blogger Friday interview. This month, I'm especially pleased to present my interview with Jennifer Kesler. Jennifer runs the collaborative media critique blog The Hathor Legacy, which interrogates film, television, advertising, books, and video games through a feminist/humanist lens. I occasionally blog for Hathor, and I can honestly say that The Hathor Legacy is one of my favorite group blogs (besides FWF, of course). And the comment sections are always fascinating and fired-up! For more information on Hathor, its origins and its mission, click here. For more information about Hathor's founder, tag along below the cut.

1. Jennifer, in The Hathor Legacy’s mission you write that you hope to “create a record of dissenting voices, so the film/tv industry is forced to admit our opinions exist,” and you’ve written a number of posts over the years since the blog’s inception in 2005 about the film industry’s general disregard for female characters, especially as central, independent protagonists. Can you talk a little bit about what made you decide to start a blog and what you get out of Hathor personally and professionally?

I was spending an inordinate amount of time on Stargate forums, arguing about the character of Sam Carter. One day, I was looking for sources to back me up and instead found a blogger arguing that the reason female characters were vapid was that women in real life were vapid. That was the last straw for me. I immediately bought a domain, installed some blogging software and started writing.

What I get out of the site personally is the knowledge that it's not just me. I never believed it was, but starting the site meant putting my money where my mouth is. As far as I'm concerned, it's paid off.

Professionally, Hathor has pushed me to improve my writing and communication skills -- to improve my thinking. It's exposed me to a lot of viewpoints I hadn't considered before, and I've learned much from them.

2. You’ve written a series of posts describing your own experiences as an aspiring screenwriter and why you ultimately left the film industry [see here, here, and here for starters]. What made you want to be a screenwriter in the first place? Do you feel that your creative drive is met elsewhere now? And, by the same token, what inspires you to write—whether for the blog or on other projects?

I believe storytelling is how culture evolves its thinking and gives individuals new ideas to consider. Film was reinforcing the idea that white heterosexual men belong at the center of our culture and everyone else should just orbit them. I thought if film told more stories about women and other so-called minorities, more people would begin to get the idea that every human life is a story potentially worth telling.

I'd really like to get back to writing fiction -- I've actually got two novels outlined and can't find time to start writing them. But for now, the instant gratification of audience feedback that blogging provides is very satisfying.

3. How would you characterize your relationship with feminism? Do you feel it's changed over the four years since you founded Hathor? If so, how and why?

Broadly speaking, feminism is just the belief that women are as worthy as men. But the term feminism also refers to a movement that's caused some pain to women who aren't white, straight and of means. So I've always had mixed feelings about wearing the label. But when writers started joining me on Hathor, many of them were self-identified feminists who criticized the same aspects of the movement that bothered me, and associating with them made me more comfortable with the label.

One of the most disturbing things Hathor has taught me is that all you have to do to get labeled a feminist is publicly state that you think women are okay. Is this such a radical idea that it needs a special term?

4. Great point! One of the things I like about writing for Hathor myself is that nothing, not even the term "feminism," is taken for granted. On that note, when I got involved with your blog, it was through a sort of “help wanted” post, but Hathor also has a long list of other contributors. How did you develop relationships with the women and men who write with you? Did some of your connections spring up organically—i.e. with other bloggers you followed and/or friends—or have people contacted you over the years asking specifically to write for Hathor?

All of the above, actually. At first, the blog had open registration, where people could just sign up and post. Finding their posts on my site was actually how I first met some of the contributors. As the blog got more popular, we had to shut down open registration. Some people asked if they could write for us, others we invited from the blogging community - and then we did the "help wanted" thing a couple of times.

Contributors to Hathor are a pretty varied group, and I've learned a lot from them. The knowledge I've picked up ranges from ideas about privilege and entitlement to the history of fashion and what certain fashions might say about the societies that wore them. But I've also learned by example about various ways of communicating and handling situations that keep things constructive. And when I fail at that, it's really great to have someone else's perspective on what went wrong and how to not let that happen again in the future.

5. You’ve managed to build Hathor into quite an impressive site, with a plethora of contributors and an active, engaged and vocal readership. Do you have any advice for people relatively new to feminist and/or media blogging about how to gain readers and encourage comments? Did anyone give you any great advice when you first got started that you’d like to share?

Get noticed by somebody on LiveJournal who has tons of friends! It’s easier said than done, but social networking sites can totally launch a small blog, so interact with people on them. Participate in forums and on other people’s blogs, and link to your own posts/site when (and only when) relevant. Don’t just drop comments and links everywhere – take the time to get to know the communities a little so you can make a genuine contribution.

Strongly opinionated posts provoke a lot of comments, but I recommend using a lot of qualifying phrases like “as I see it” to avoid the perception you're stating your opinion as fact. We still occasionally screw this up, and believe me, readers let us know it when it happens.

As for people new to feminism, I recommend reading feminist blogs. The people participating at those sites are the people likely to find your site and comment on it, so get to know them and their ideas.

6. Have you had any industry responses (film, television, gaming or publishing) to Hathor? If so, what interactions have you found most rewarding? What sort of impact do you envision Hathor having in regards to its media criticism?

We've had articles quoted in reviews by the CBC, Salon and the Guardian [see here for links], but no one has communicated with us directly, except a few book publishers interested in getting us to review upcoming novels. It may sound strange, but what I really want is for Hathor to get noticed by the mainstream and start a conversation - that's it, just a conversation about the issues we've been talking about for four years, and where the industry should go from here.

7. In a similar vein, what recent film do you think have made strides in the direction of (mainstream) entertainment featuring strong female characters? Can you recommend any films from the last few years that you enjoyed and/or feel really attempted to shatter the hegemony of the white male protagonist?

Ironically, being the webmaster for Hathor has radically reduced the amount of time I can spend watching movies in the past few years. I just watched an independent film called Whalerider that I can't recommend highly enough.

As for older films, there's Dolores Claiborne, A League of Their Own and Ever After. Most of the stuff I find "shattering" is on television.

8. And as for television, what shows are you enjoying right now, and why?

Criminal Minds, because I love the exploration of abnormal psychology, and while it's not really breaking any molds, it does feature some complex female characters both among the regular cast and guest stars. I also love Burn Notice because it's smart and funny, and Sharon Gless’ character actually does break a few molds. Those are the only two current shows I'm watching.

9. I know you’ve got a busy life outside of Hathor. How do you negotiate the demands of your real life and your day job with the demands of running a large blog? Do you see a life of blogging and/or writing full-time in your future?

I negotiate those demands very poorly! My disorganization level is reaching critical mass. Both blogging and writing are extremely low-paying for all but a select few, so I don't see either as a full-time career in my future. But last November, I came up with an idea for a Hathor-related business enterprise I hope to get off the ground this year.

10. That sounds promising. Any exciting plans in the works that you want to share?

My current plan is for Hathor to become part of something bigger, but that's all I'm ready to say about it right now. The blog itself will stay the same.

Well, we'll just have to stay tuned and see what Hathor's got up its sleeve! Jennifer, thanks again!

Read Full Post/Permalink...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

On Intellectual Rape

I find it hard to believe that for centuries the contributions of women have been so few and insignificant as to relegate them to the margins of history. Most syllabi today or the people who wrote them obviously disagree. At the risk of seeming petty, a quick tally of the authors represented on my syllabi (10 courses so far) reveals that 12% of the articles or books I was required to read were written by women. Now in my third quarter of a graduate program in International Studies, had I not actively sought out and read women’s work, my “education” would be comprised almost entirely of concepts and theories generated by men. This is an intellectual rape.

What kind of mutiny would occur if men found themselves looking at a reading list comprised entirely of work from women in their discipline? How quickly would we call bullshit if an instructor tried to justify such discrimination by insisting that men had simply been marginal players in their societies and didn’t have much to say anyway? And do we, as women, perpetuate this outrage by acquiescing to the current and woefully inadequate patriarchal model of education?

Just as women in the home have a double work day, women in the academy – if they’re intellectually honest and committed to learning anything – must ingest double the information simply to find themselves among the theories being discussed. To listen to my professors, women haven’t put down the mop or closed their legs long enough to impact international affairs. How dare they list the social, political, and economic discrimination women have endured and leave it at that? How dare they have knowledge of WHY the voices of women were denigrated, excluded, and erased yet still insist men are the world’s “natural” movers and shakers? Until we make a commitment to call them out on their lies and refuse to participate in their delusion, I worry about seeing the kind of feminist transformation that can truly liberate us all.

How we think about ourselves – our history, our desires, our shortcomings – depends on the information we have to work with. My intelligence is insulted when I have to battle the stereotype that women never shut on one hand and the claim that we’ve never said anything worth writing down on the other. As Ani DiFranco said in her poem Grand Canyon, “people, we are standing at ground zero of the feminist revolution . . . it was an inside job, stoic and sly, one we're supposed to forget and downplay and deny.” How much do you really know about Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton? How about Ida Husted Harper or Alice Paul? What about bell hooks or Womanism? How the hell can I situate my American identity in a landscape of nothing but swinging (white) dicks?

The bottom line is that women must record and preserve our own history – we can’t rely on the oppressors to do it for us. When we do, we risk the job not getting done and then wonder why women’s writing falls by the historical wayside. This isn’t some conspiracy theory – the empirical evidence is right here. I challenge you to take a look at the authors your education relied on. Or do an informal survey of course syllabi at ANY university – many are online – to see who gets listened to and read.

The architects of the American women’s suffrage movement noted as much. They suspected their work to win political rights for American women (although mostly the white ones) would be lost to future generations if they didn’t document it. Because of their skepticism, we have The History of Woman Suffrage, consisting of six thick volumes. The first three volumes of the set were compiled by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage in 1886, volume 4 by Susan B. Anthony and Ida Husted Harper in 1902, and volumes 5 and 6 were compiled by Ida Husted Harper alone and published by The National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1922. But because we have let down our guard, an invaluable source of American political history is nearly inaccessible and has been out of print for years. To my knowledge, the only way to access the material is by purchasing a CD (available, among other places at The Feminist Majority Foundation website). While it’s usefully searchable, I’m ashamed we haven’t ensured the books themselves sit beside other seminal American political documents in our libraries and classrooms.

I don’t know what the solution is. Most days I’m too busy keeping myself from being erased to peel back the layers of history to find my heritage. But Virginia Woolf said “we think back through our mothers if we are women” and I don’t think we’re getting very far as orphans.

Read Full Post/Permalink...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Fling: chocolate for women?

I've got a new post up at The Hathor Legacy about Mars' new chocolate bar, Fling, which is being specifically marketed towards women as a low-calorie, high-indulgence treat, with a sexy twist. Here's a snippet of my post; feel free to check out the rest and join the discussion over at THL:
The new treat, Fling, is being billed as “chocolate for women,” because it’s low-calorie but highly indulgent. Or, in the words of Fling’s tagline: “Naughty…but not that naughty.” How very clever.

In a promotional video detailing their New Zealand launch, Mars reveals its marketing strategy as one which relies heavily on the idea of guilt-free cheating (in both the adultery and the “cheating on one’s diet” sense). While a number of other products have used this sort of marketing (Jello’s “every diet needs some wiggle room” comes to mind), Mars seems to be very focused on drawing parallels between its product and some pointedly non-gastronomical pleasures of the flesh. For example, the now-defunct New Zealand launch site included virtual men with whom you could have “guiltless” virtual affairs...

Also, check out this heinous Schick Quattro "mow the lawn" ad that everyone's been talking about...

Read Full Post/Permalink...

Three Cheers for Vermont!

From the New York Times:
Vermont has become the fourth state to legalize gay marriage -- and the first to do so with a legislature's vote.

The Legislature voted Tuesday to override Gov. Jim Douglas' veto of a bill allowing gays and lesbians to marry. The vote was 23-5 to override in the state Senate and 100-49 to override in the House. Under Vermont law, two-thirds of each chamber had to vote for override.
Also, apologies to the state of Iowa that I didn't give you your fair due last week. Three belated cheers for Iowa, too!

Suck it, California "Yes on 8"-ers! The world's going to change eventually, with or without your help.

Read Full Post/Permalink...

Monday, April 6, 2009

Heineken beer ad -- funny or not?

I'm torn. The first time I saw this commercial on television last week, I found it absolutely hysterical. But now, I'm not sure. Should I be offended?

I haven't found an English version of the video online yet, but there's not much talking anyway...

On the one hand, I know that stereotypes are bad, can lead to skewed perceptions about gender roles, and shouldn't, in practice, be encouraged. On the other hand, I feel like this commercial makes both the women and the men look absolutely ridiculous. It's so clear that the advertisers are playing on very common stereotypes about men and women, that I'm not finding myself too upset about it.

What do you think?

Read Full Post/Permalink...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Feminist Flashback #31

In honor of Gaypril, this week's Feminist Flashback brings you the work of Dyke Action Machine (DAM), a two-person team (Carrie Moyer and Sue Schaffner) whose public art projects have graced the city streets since 1991. According to their website, their campaigns "dissected mainstream media by inserting lesbian images into recognizably commercial contexts, revealing how lesbians are and are not depicted in American popular culture. While questioning the basic assumption that one cannot be “present” in a capitalist society unless one exists as a consumer group, DAM! performed the role of the advertiser, promising the lesbian viewer all the things she’d been denied by the mainstream: power, inclusion, and the public recognition of identity."

DAM encourages people to re-print and plaster their own neighborhoods with DAM posters. The artistic duo also just created a 16-page pamphlet explaining how to "convert lesbianism into a viable commodity." It's oh-so-very educational.

Check out a few of their older projects below and definitely head over to their website to see what they're up to these days:

The Gap Campaign, 1991

Family Circle, 1992

Do You Love The Dyke In Your Life?, 1993

Lesbian Americans: Don't Sell Out, 1998

Read Full Post/Permalink...

A critical look at Avenue Q

I very much liked Avenue Q when it came out 5 or so years ago. It seemed witty, intelligent, and socially relevant - even if it was rather vulgar. Not to mention, it was pretty funny. I hadn't heard it in a while, though, so today I pulled out (or rather, clicked up) the soundtrack.

It was... less than impressive. Avenue Q just wasn't quite how I'd remembered it.

It's not the pervasive sex, or the overall message (which is okay, I suppose), or the gay storyline (which was handled fairly well) or anything big like that. It's more that, despite purporting to be different, to attack societal stereotypes, Avenue Q fall into them on a regular basis. Take, say, racism:

Now, they're obviously not in favor of racism. But they seem to think that acknowledging racism it makes it just fine in small amounts. There's definitely something wrong with this - thinking that 'mexican busboy's should learn to speak goddamn english" also causes you to not want to hire them, for example. The question, of course, is whether the satire is honest (the song is truthful) or whether the joke is on micro-racism itself. A quick check around the Internet shows that everyone else is uncomfortable too - which shows that it is definitely a problem. Come to think of it, Avenue Q seems to have a real problem with people generally:

Now, when I first heard this, I thought it was hilarious. (I was a good deal more cynical and angry back then.) But seeing someone suffer shouldn't make you feel good! It should make you feel worse. It's not even worth laughing about. And I don't think there's a good argument here (as there was with 'Everyone's a Little Bit Racist') that they are really making fun of people who laugh at others. It's more of a black humor sort of feeling, minus the subtlety that would make it work as such.

But it's the women that are the most offensive, and not in an empowering way. Lucy is a Slut (with a capital S). Ha. Then, she becomes a born-again Christian. Double ha. The big question is, of course, what's wrong with any of those? Shouldn't she be able to do what she wants? But she moves from bad to bad, and it seemingly escapes any commentary.

Kate Monster has many redeeming qualities (and an actual purpose!), but she apparently needs a boyfriend to really complete her life. Lovely.

Worst of all is Gary Coleman. (Who is played by a female singer, if you didn't know.) When I first saw Avenue Q, this seemed quirky, fun, different. Now, it just seems like they're saying, "Look at this loser. He's such a loser, he's no better than a woman." After all, the writers have stated that Coleman was supposed to be a symbol of failure. Apparently, failure is synonymous with being female.

What do you think? Perhaps I'm over-thinking this. Or perhaps I'm just too dense to truly see between the lines. But just I couldn't help but be disappointed and sad at listening to Avenue Q.

Read Full Post/Permalink...