Tag Archives: media

American Graduate, American Dropout

I don’t know how many of you educators were able to catch parts of PBS’ ‘American Graduate‘ series this year. It’s a great series that’s focused on the major issues of (mostly public) education in America, including urban versus rural education struggles, mentoring and counseling, adolescent health issues like substance use and sexual activity, ensuring that we’re serving the needs of immigrant students, social and economic class issues and how they impact opportunity and subsequently achievement (measured most commonly as high school graduation) and what’s behind some of the alarming and rising rates of dropping out across the country.

The latter three issues were behind a documentary that I was featured in and that aired in September. It was pioneered by a group of teen filmmakers at an organization based in Brooklyn called Reel Works, a group with a great mission that I encourage you to check out. If you want more background on the piece, check out the PBS brief before the video, which also includes a great interview with some of the teen filmmakers. Hope you find it interesting!

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Education, Health Behavior, Media

Is Media Use Slowing Kids Down Intellectually?

A couple interesting studies recently came out that I thought were clearly linked with implications for the development of our younger generations. I recently wrote a post for The 2×2 Project that discusses the impact of media use on the mental health of teens, so I thought this was fairly pertinent.

The first study showed how much the U.S. economy loses to social media use every year. Take a guess at what that amount is.

10 billion bucks? Nope.

100 billion? Not even close.

500 billion? Still no.

According to Mashable’s summary via LearnStuff, social media costs the U.S. economy $650 billion. Check out the infographic they put together:

I’m someone who is generally really torn about social media. I have a blog and am active on Twitter, though along with my Facebook profile I use these all primarily for semi-professional purposes. ‘Semi’ in the sense that they aren’t part of my job, but I use them to promote interesting finds or essays related to my field of public health; I’ve found the sites to be remarkably helpful in communicating important points and connecting with wider audiences compared to different – usually more traditional – media channels. I use social media heavily to promote work being done in my fellowship – my own and other fellows’ – and it unquestionably has helped us reach researchers and organizations it would have been otherwise very difficult to do.

That being said, I am also fairly hesitant about social media given that I don’t particularly like my personal life broadcast across channels, so I have to be pretty meticulous about what and how I use the mediums. I think it can be enormously helpful for children who have difficulty communicating and making connections; I also find that it can feel almost more isolating than no communication at all since it emphasizes and underscores that real interpersonal interaction isn’t exactly happening. So, I’m clearly torn.

The second study, by the great group Common Sense Media, addresses the concerns of teachers and educators that the various kinds and amount of time kids are using media at home is impacting the quality of their classroom work and engagement. 71% of teachers said that they think media use is hurting kids’ attention spans in school, 59% said that it’s impacting the students’ ability to communicate face to face, and 58% have said that the media use is impacting kids’ writing skills – and not in a good way.

Given that the LearnStuff infographic shows that 97% of college students are daily Facebook users, it seems that these symptoms have the potential to get worse at increasingly younger ages, and that by the time kids who grew up in this media-rich environment are in college…well, who knows. And 60% of people visit social media sites at work (something I found most interesting? that more people are on LinkedIn than Twitter), which are obviously impacting work in the sense that they are taking away from productivity or activities related to the job – unless the job is one that incorporates social media, as many jobs increasingly are. Not to be a doomsday reporter, but I do think the implications for these studies are very real.

Thoughts? Come chat on Twitter.

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Education, Media, Pop Culture, Technology

How Free is Your Internet?

Very interesting report from Freedom House, showing how countries rank in terms of Internet freedom. United States is number 2. Any guesses on number 1?

Estonia! Mashable points out that “NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence was built in Estonia in 2008, resulting in the funneling of funds to improve the country’s IT infrastructure.”

The rankings were compiled based on a few factors: obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of users’ rights. What I thought was great was that they also factored in issues like bloggers’ rights and arrests.

Thoughts? Surprised?

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Filed under Media

Conservatives Win the Healthcare Messaging War

For many left-leaning Americans, little is more important aside from the state of the economy right now than healthcare reform – and they’re inextricably linked. Coverage of healthcare reform is pretty high this week, with the expectation that the Supreme Court will hand down their decision regarding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act this Thursday. This hasn’t always been the case.

Interestingly, while this is being considered a flagship of the Obama Administration, in his first year as President, healthcare reform ranked third in terms of media coverage mentioning Obama:

Media Coverage of Stories Featuring Obama in First Year of Term – Courtesy of PEW Research Center

One would think that covering healthcare reform – and specifically, the details of the Affordable Care Act, and what the law really means – would be imperative after the passing of the ACA. Ensuring that the law was really understood by citizens would seem to be fairly essential, but what happened instead was a decline in media coverage of HCR after Obama’s first year as President – as shown by the Pew Research Center:

HCR Coverage Over Presidency – Courtesy of PEW Research Center

So what does that mean? If coverage goes down, and little has been done to ensure that people truly understand the law (for example, understand what the mandate really means, and what the implications are if it is struck down, which was recently elegantly laid out by the NY Times), the short messaging around the issue becomes even more important.

Cable news can be inflammatory, reactionary, harsh, exaggerated, and at times, unsurprisingly infuriating. They often preach to their respective choirs on the political spectrum, and because of this, I worry that they’ve become so comfortable with their audience that the arguments aren’t as sharp, or clear, as they could be. The brief messaging lacks context and nuance, and headlines or key phrases can substitute for deep understanding of one’s understanding of an issue (and taking today’s ruling on the Arizona immigration law, one can see how brief messaging can create some confusion – one headline read that SCOTUS struck down three components of the immigration law, and the next one I saw trumpeted that SCOTUS had upheld a key component of the immigration law – both were true, neither were particularly informative)

In the context of the fight for comprehensive health care, conservatives seem to have won this messaging game. The new study from the Pew Research Center shows that while liberal talk shows spent more time talking about healthcare reform -

Liberal Versus Conservative Talk Show HCR Coverage – Courtesy of PEW Research Center

- certain select terms used by healthcare reform opponents that really emphasized negativity were used at rates nearly twice that of terms used by supporters that underscored positive elements of healthcare reform:

Terms Used in HCR Debate – Courtesy of PEW Research Center

Take a look at these terms – which would you say were more compelling? Phrases that would incite more visceral, gut reactions from listeners? I can see how “insuring pre-existing conditions” would actually appeal to both sides, but this barely stood a chance against “more taxes with health care reform” which was mentioned nearly twice as many times and can certainly appeal to the financial fears of viewers. “More competition” would seem to appeal to many free-market espousing conservatives, but is trumped by “more government involvement,” which is the base fear of many Republicans. “Rationing health care” just isn’t true, but instead of rebutting that with facts about the law, HCR supporters shot back with “greedy insurance industry,” which likely wouldn’t win over any opponents to the law, who can claim that insurance agencies are just businesses, trying to capitalize on profits. And that’s where I think the HCR supporters had an in that they didn’t take – commenting on the prioritization of profits for a specific industry over the health of our communities and country as a whole.

Is the assumption that compassion is not an effective communication tool? If so, why is that? I find myself deeply moved by stories of people who are in desperate need of health care but lack the resources – insurance, financial, proximity to quality affordable care  – to get it. And I’m certain that I’m not the only one. New York Magazine today touched on the alarming fact that the moral argument – the empathetic position, the community cares idea, the position that healthcare is a fundamental human right – has been remarkably absent from the healthcare debate. I fear that it mostly plays into the uniquely American mentality that regardless of circumstance, each individual has to be able to fend for themselves. While this concept underscores certain types of resiliency and determination that are I think are overly-admired, the fact of the matter is that disregarding the circumstances is not possible. Disregarding the impact of staggering inequality of access to care and financial resources is short-sighted and, more importantly, I would say rather cruel.

If the discussions had focused more on why everyone deserves healthcare – why everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, receive comprehensive care, understand how to care for themselves – since healthcare is an essential component of our right to life (not to mention the pursuit of happiness), would the results have been different? If we appealed to our humanity and illustrated the absurdity of someone dying from a treatable illness, when people who could have helped them essentially stood by just because…they didn’t have any money? Because that’s essentially what this is – the inability to personally protect oneself and one’s family because of dearth of resources. If we had made it more personal, and less political? If we focused less on the greedy agencies, the so-called rationing of care, the increased business competition, if we had actually responded to the claim of too much government intrusion with the response that the government should in fact be intervening when doing so can save the lives of its citizens? Does the punishment of death really fit the ‘crime’ of not getting oneself health insurance, if one was not able to do so because they couldn’t afford it?

Is that the legacy we want to leave?

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Filed under Health Policy, Media, Politics, Public Health

Fox News: No.

I had no idea that Fox News had decided to not only tackle the issue of feminism, but that in doing so, they would categorize it as a “Health” topic. (This is the same site that recently posted an article by a psychiatrist saying our biggest concern were Newt Gingrich to become President would be another country “falling in love with him” and begging him to come lead them instead of the United States. So, you know, keep that in mind.) I personally think the adoption of a feminist mindset can improve one’s mental health, but unsurprisingly, this was not Fox News’ intent in presenting the article I’m about to address (again, brought to my attention by Stephanie). The article was posted two years ago and they seem to have cross-posted this from AskMen.com, a site whose history of misogyny and degradation has been documented by a fellow About-Face contributor.

5 Feminist Demands She Wants You to Ignore hits the viewer with a most beguiling shot of a woman with obviously…supplemented breasts, ostensibly begging you to ignore any “demands” she makes for equality and respect. The first “demand” to ignore, while not articulated, given the intense cosmetic restructuring of her chest, may be “confirm the beauty of my natural self and do not reward silicone implantation.” (I will soon in the future write a post about how the claim “they’re for me” in regards to a woman getting breast implants is not a sustainable argument since one does not gaze for hours in distaste at their own breasts and determine they fall short of beauty unless they have been conditioned to think that their breasts, for whatever reason, do not fall within the confines of socially determined acceptability and attractiveness.)

Moving on. When you’re a man out on the prowl, you’re going to encounter some “independent ladies,” the article warns. (Independent ladies is put in quotes to make sure you understand, as the male reader, that independence is tenuous at best, for show, a joke, an adjective easily swept aside by a proper man.) Sexy feminists aren’t “entirely false” (thank you, Fox, and AskMen, for validating our sexuality), but you still must tread carefully – because as women, we never “ask for what we really want.” An entire gender rooted in the goal of misguided and cloaked communication. What to do?

Number one demand feminist want you to ignore: “I can carry my own bag.” Little to be said here because I have never heard a woman actually say this, but also because being polite and helping someone if they’re carrying quite a burden is not actually an issue that needs to gendered. Feminists never did gender this, the claim of “I can carry my own bag” was picked up as a mocking of women who wanted recognition of the fact that they weren’t helpless.

Number two: “Don’t objectify me!” This goes hand in hand with my opener. Of course, this has been misappropriated over and over again by anti-feminists, or those who want to warp the message. Paying someone a compliment is not objectification, which is how this ‘article’ is defining it – objectification is equating the person’s worth with what you see. If the compliment of her looking great in her dress means that looking great in a dress is all she does/is, then that’s a problem. Also, straight up calling women liars if they aren’t impressed by compliments about their appearance is a great way to puff up one’s ego, but trust me – there are plenty of women who really don’t care what your thoughts are about their looks.

Number three: “I’ll pay my share.” Misses the point entirely – first, a woman’s vested interest in keeping a relationship financially balanced is different than treating your girlfriend to an expensive dinner sometimes. Especially because they insist that if she doesn’t return the favor by treating you sometimes (ahem…sort of like splitting the cost? In essence…paying her share?), then you should withhold such a generous gift (and I guess have her pay her share?). Playa’.

Number four: “I can think for myself.” This one is great. Even “high-powered women want men to take the reins sometimes,” which to the authors means…thinking ahead about dinner plans? I love that taking the reins means making sure you know what you want to have for dinner. Not even making dinner. Just…knowing what you want to eat. If this is what it means to wrest control from women who are thinking for themselves, I encourage women everywhere to resist.

Number five: “I won’t be shackled into a marriage.” The authors admit that there are apparently “exceptions” to the steadfast rule that women want to be married and instead of acknowledging that both men and women may have changing and evolving priorities, they encourage readers to merely brush off a woman’s thoughts on this matter if they initially refute the general equation of ring/house/baby that will ultimately overcome these ladies.

It goes without saying that this is a heteronormative perspective, not only strictly defining what is ‘female’ and what is ‘male,’ but also emphasizing that women are feminine and men are masculine, and, you know, case closed. Interestingly, they claim at the end that “gender roles evolve everyday.” Which would make one think that the entire preceding article was, indeed, unnecessary at best. Of course, they then close with: “women are a complete contradiction in terms and that’s one thing they’re likely to never evolve out of – like men and leaving the toilet seat up. We all have our crosses to bear.” There you have it! Women can’t make up their mind and never know what they mean, and men are just disgusting. Why resist nature? Thanks for clearing this all up, Fox News. I can always count on you.

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Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Homophobia, Media, Mental Health, Sexism

Happy Thanksgiving!

This holiday card is courtesy of my friend Zel McCarthy. I’ll let it marinate for a bit.

This most obvious example of equating women to objects of consumption tries to downplay the offense by making the image as absurd as possible, and by utilizing the tag lines popular culture women’s magazines to give the viewer a chuckle. By sexualizing the meat, and by sexualizing it in a distinctly feminine way, both women and animals get to be conquered and devoured! Women are downgraded to turkeys, and turkeys are eaten. What I think is particularly interesting about the decision to put the feminized turkey on the cover of the magazine is how the image then also gets to denigrate the element of women that our culture has deemed most important – trying to stay “hot and moist” [shudder], the best ways to look “delicious” [you want to look so attractive that others just can't resist gnawing on you], the “must have” items of the moment [because consumerism is such a female issue?] and of course, most vitally, the breasts – the most important part of a woman AND a turkey.

Of course, the emphasis on looks is something that I often disparage about “women’s” magazines, and obviously consider to be dangerous and harmful. However. This turkey ad is mocking these headlines not because they are offensive or denigrating to women, which they are – they are mocking them simply because they are female, because they have taken the spotlight as the primary female concerns of our culture, and the ad gets to make it look like women are both ridiculous for buying into these themes, while also promoting them by creating an object of appeal based on these themes. It’s as though they’re saying “women are so silly for promoting themselves sexually, for focusing on hotness and perkiness and the need to appear deliciously irresistible” while also saying “look at how hot and sexy and perky this lady turkey is – so hot and sexy and perky that she’s simply irresistible.”

Generally, we separate the meat we’re eating from its former ‘self’, the animal, otherwise there would be more difficulty in consuming meat with such regularity and frequency. Interestingly, when the meat anthropomorphized into the form of a woman, it remains marketable – women are routinely objectified, and also are separated from their self and human identity in doing so. Combining two beings, a turkey and a woman, that are both customarily presented as being without a meaningful character and for the viewer or eater’s pleasure, makes this card seem totally acceptable for raking in some holiday profits (apparently).

If you’re interested in reading more about the connection between the treatment of animals and feminism, and the real foundation for the point I just made, I recommend the work of Carol Adams. Her books, The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Pornography of Meat are great works, and even if you aren’t interested in animal rights or vegetarianism and how one might relate them to feminism, the books do a great job of dissecting the overlap of social and political issues around the processing of meat for consumption, the treatment of women, and the advertising of both.

For real: Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you all have a great holiday!

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Filed under Advertising, Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Media, Sexism

Candace Bushnell: A Word.

A few months ago, I was hitting stride on a treadmill when I heard those pumped up intro beats, knowing what came next was “Camera One…Stand by Billy, Camera Two…Stand by, Kit.” Access Hollywood, providing me with a constant stream of fodder, was starting. Kit would be interviewing Candace Bushnell, well known as, obviously, the writer of Sex and the City. I had forgotten about this interview, which took place in April, until I heard a phrase yesterday that mimicked something Bushnell said on the show. In this interview, while describing her beloved characters, she said that Miranda “was, you know, this feminist, and had decided that she hated men…”

Whoa, whoa, whoa: Ok. Hold the phone. This woman created a global business empire based on the story of four women who, despite ostensibly having careers that allowed them to maintain very comfortable lives in the most expensive city in the U.S., seemed to spend precious little time doing things other than obsessing over the men, or potential men, in their lives. Should we give her props for her business acumen? I’m not sure, because I’m less certain it has to do with her business savvy as much as it has to do with capitalizing on women’s socialized insecurities by creating characters who are constantly in the pursuit of the elusive perfect partner, and riddled with anxiety about whether or not they’ll find him.

But this post isn’t about Sex and the City – it’s about what feminism actually means. Perhaps Bushnell misspoke; regardless, the idea that feminism means hating the XYs is still out there.

So, I feel an obligation here to clear some things up. Feminism does not mean hating men. Feminism advocates the equal opportunity, accessibility, treatment of and rights of men and women. Equal access to quality education. Equal pay for the same jobs, equal access to mentors of both sexes. The same consideration for jobs without being discounted out of fear that they may be too ‘emotional’ or because they may one day have children. Health care and insurance that doesn’t consider being a woman in and of itself to be a pre-existing condition. The respect and assurance that women who decide they cannot carry a baby to term have legitimate reasons for making this decision and did not come to the conclusion lightly. It’s about being judged for your competency and skill set and not for the size of your breasts or the size of your waist or the symmetry of your face. It’s about understanding the importance of positively brilliant, incisive female leaders to inspire young girls the same way brilliant, incisive male leaders inspire young boys – and how each gender can inspire and educate children of opposite genders, and that it is important to do so.

Most importantly, feminism is about eliminating gender stereotypes for both men and women – ensuring that both sexes are not limited by archaic expectations to which their biology previously would have held them predisposed, and encouraging the individuality that flourished regardless of their reproductive organs. It was about not assigning specific behaviors to people based on these organs, and instead proclaiming that while differences in that regard allow us to procreate, they are not responsible for determining or limiting our capabilities. That’s what feminism has always been, first, second, or third wave; despite many attempts that have been made to brand it otherwise. Not all feminists are women – plenty of men are, too. Breaking down the gender stereotypes that have penned in both sexes for decades is important for everyone. The historical patriarchy created a supposed male ideal that was painfully constricting and costly for men as well, forcing them into binding roles of hyper-masculinity that emphasized sexual, financial, political, and social power positions – roles that shouldn’t be monopolized by a gender for moral and practical reasons. I can be a feminist and have what are deemed “feminine” characteristics. But as a feminist, I also think that a man can have “feminine” characteristics. I can also be a feminist and have “masculine” characteristics. What’s important is that characteristics don’t need to be coded as exclusively feminine or exclusively masculine, that they don’t need to dictate people to act accordingly, and that the characteristics or behaviors don’t exist for the purpose of ostensibly “improving” one’s natural self. It’s about not defining oneself in relation to another, but in relation to oneself. Not about figuring out how you should present yourself to a potential partner based on their ideals, but about teaching everyone the importance  of breaking down ideals that were constructed based on assumptions of what each sex should represent. The point of feminism was to point out that objectification negated the true personhood of women, reduced them to commodities of pleasure while not acknowledging and celebrating their self, identity, what made them an individual, what made them unique, what them capable and brilliant. And that equality didn’t mean reducing men to that objectification as well or instead, but rather meant raising the bar of expectation and respect for women. Not hating men. Feminism is for everyone!

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Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism

Looking for More Attention? Drop Some lbs.

At least that’s what Skinny Water is promising in their latest advertisement, which I spotted yesterday. The ad shows a woman facing a throng of cameramen snapping her picture, elegant earrings dropping to the top of the headline which says: “Skinny Always Gets the Attention.” Take a look:

Thinspiration, thanks to Skinny Water

A close-up, to see all the text:

Close-up, for good measure.

Below the headline and photo of the various flavors, it also says “Zero calories, Zeor sugar, Zero Carbs, Zero Guilt.” With all that’s not in this water, you might wonder what it does offer. The website tells me that depending on the flavor of water, they’ve added vitamins B3, B5, B6, B12, C, A, and E. They’ve also thrown in magnesium, folic acid, calcium and/or potassium.

Despite trying to market itself as healthy, Skinny Water is instead perpetrating the cultural message that the best – nay, only – way to ensure that you get attention is by being skinny. This of course positions them well to try to push their product on those women who have been pulled into this lie. This ad tells us that the best way to skinny is not through healthy food choices and exercise and an understanding of what “skinny” means for our particular body type and shape, but essentially through fasting – which is what zero calorie drinks are the equivalent of.

In fact, Skinny Water is doing precisely the opposite of what a health-conscious company and product should be doing. Promoting the idea that those who are skinny deserve attention more than those who are not creates communities that support harmful diet-related behaviors and disordered eating for the goal of a wispy appearance . Not to mention reinforcing the ever-present undercurrent of disapproval of those who are overweight – or even normal weight! – and do not bow to the hierarchy of beauty that says those who are thin are the best. It’s just one more item in the laundry list of products that tell women their size and appearance are what is most important and will attract loyal friends and fans.

In defiance of that, let’s use our brains to remind ourselves why Skinny Water is wrong. While the website details the added vitamins and dietary minerals of each drink, it’s far better to get your needed supplements through a healthy diet rich in cruciferous  and dark and leafy vegetables, fruits, whole grain and lean proteins. Washed down, in fact, by regular old water that keeps you hydrated and helps your body process and absorb nutrients. Skinny Water is telling its buyers that by adding these vitamins and minerals to their product, one can cut out food entirely and survive on a calorie-free but vitamin-rich manipulated water diet. Don’t be fooled! (I know you aren’t. Hopefully, you’re equally horrified.) For example, the“Power,” “Sport” and “Fit” drinks are all fortified with calcium, magnesium, and potassium – to help activate metabolic enzymes, keep your blood regulated, and support strong bones and teeth. Do you know what else can do that?  Bananas, yogurt, kale, almonds and cashews, and quinoa. Frankly, there seems to be little difference between the “Power,” “Sport” and “Fit” drinks despite the claim that they each support different “goals” of the drinker – which lends support to the conclusion that these are madly marketed products that don’t substitute a healthy, well-rounded diet and instead are capitalizing on the now-entrenched notion that women care more about being skinny than anything else.

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Filed under Education, Feminism, Health Education, Media, Public Health, Sexism, Women's Health

Don’t Pull Me Into Your Crazy

I occasionally (absurdly) wonder if I will run out of things to write about on this blog. And then, I walk out my front door and New York City is able to assuage those concerns by presenting me with something like this:

Courtesy of NBC

Oh, Whitney Cummings. Your brand of comedy has never really been my style (to each her own), but don’t try to drag me into your twisted, coded, gendered division of communication styling.

Many women I know are ninjas in the sense that they juggle multiple responsibilities at work and home – many men as well – successfully and admirably. But by claiming that half the population lacks the communication and conversation skills to express their anger and frustration and instead chooses to plaintively claim calmness while plotting a violent attack against their partner as opposed to saying “actually, I’m not fine, we need to chat about something,” really seems to hammer home that stereotype of women being unpredictable shrill harpies who have no control over their emotions. I smell a setup.

I know this is an ad for her comedy show, but I actually don’t think she’s joking and that’s why I’m a bit troubled. First off, I’m not someone who thinks that just because a woman tells a sexist joke it automatically isn’t actually sexist. I see women who promote negative associations of women, even in what is presented as a comic format, more as trying to utilize and manipulate a standard-fare misogynistic framework – one that’s already firmly in place and is pretty hard to change thanks to years of socialization – for their benefit. Slamming their gender seems like a crass way to get ahead. Not to mention it’s totally unwarranted. Why not challenge these claims with humor instead?

Making jokes about women’s supposedly untameable roller-coaster emotional lives is nothing new – comedians have been doing it for years. But what’s interesting to look at is how these jokes are then translated into real criticism of women – particularly ambitious women. Look at Hillary Clinton. Throughout the course of her campaign for Presidency, she was lambasted constantly for being “too emotional” or not emotional enough, supposedly indicating an inability to not be swayed by a hormonal response or showing a disconnect from the people. These claims were used to call into question her ability to lead the country. These irrelevant and sexist charged assessments and provocations, remarkably, took center stage of her coverage and entirely overlooked her phenomenal qualifications and understanding of both domestic and foreign policy. Even after being appointed to a position of such eminence as Secretary of State, some critics just can’t stop. The photo of the Cabinet in the Situation Room during the raid on Bin Laden’s compound was seen as another snapshot of Clinton supposedly having an emotional reaction to a situation that the men ostensibly handled “stoically.”

I’m inclined, because of this, to not so much see the ‘Whitney’ ads as funny or new but as pulling out some tired insults used against women and packaging them as funny and new because a woman herself is making the jab. Whitney’s presentation as one of the gang, going in on the old-boy jokes, actually makes it seem as though these old stereotypes are nothing, that they don’t really mean anything, that women agree we’re so hard to get along with, and unpredictable, and might burst into tears or bite your head off at any given moment! When in fact we know that isn’t the case, and that these adjectives and descriptions have and can cause women to be seen as inferior, less capable, and unable to manage. Reiterating them in a comedic setup doesn’t actually challenge but reinforces them. Perhaps her show will be different than what the ad suggests, only time will tell. I’m sure good comedians can find other things to joke about than women’s emotional lives.

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Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism

The DSK Decision and the Definition of Consent

I have held off writing about the DSK case being tossed out because honestly, I can’t really bear it. Plenty of other news sources and bloggers have reported on the reasons why I feel this is a catastrophic blow to victims of sexual assault, and reiterating it would likely only upset me and readers even more. However, a news story reported in my hometown paper, The Chronicle, got me thinking about the definitions of consent and what it means to be a person worthy of a trial, and I thought I’d tie these two instances together.

According to the DSK decision, if one has lied in the past they are considered unworthy of a trial in the eyes of the DA – whose goal seems to be focused solely on winning as opposed to determining if in this particular instance one is lying. Let’s look at the specific lies in question – namely, the reason behind Diallo’s asylum in the United States and her recounts of the story.

First, the defense is claiming that since she allegedly lied on her asylum application about being gang raped in her home country, she cannot be trusted in this accusation of DSK. Had she lied? Yes, she admitted to that. Does that matter in this specific case of DSK assaulting her in the hotel room when a forensic examination, including a medical exam, proved to be consistent with her story? No. When she lied on her asylum application – as many, many people do (an interesting and poignant piece in the New Yorker recently profiled this in a case example) – she did so to escape a country in which she felt constantly at risk and in danger and wanted to protect her daughter from the same fate. Should the fact that many people do this – and lie about repeated gang rapes in particular – immediately excuse the lie? No. But it does put it in the context of a reality that should not go unexamined. While lying in previous instances can make a case harder to win, and isn’t something I’m championing or condoning, when you look at her reasons for a falsehood on her asylum application, it make no sense that she would then risk a job she was grateful and proud to have gotten as a hotel housekeeper, raising in her daughter in New York, by having what the defense claims was consensual sex in the middle of her cleaning duties.

In regards to the changing of her story, it is well known and understood by trauma experts that women who have experienced sexual assault (and not just sexual assault, but any traumatic event, for both genders) often recall the order of events differently and clarify them as time goes on, due to the effects of the shock, denial, and the coping mechanism of blocking out of painful incidents. This does not mean that the assault didn’t happen, particularly since this reaction has been seen and understood many times over by many other rape and assault victims.

What I also find interesting in these cries about credibility is how gendered they are. DSK has a notorious history in France of being too forward and sexually aggressive with women; in my mind this causes some credibility issues for him as well, as he claims in this instance it was only consensual. It also reminds me of the fact that one of the NYPD officers acquitted this summer had a history of sexually harassing women, unsubstantiated arrest of a woman and blocking the filing of a report of the woman whom he sexually harassed – yet this was not seen as hampering his credibility. Nor was the fact that he made false 911 calls that routed him back to the apartment of the East Village victim and denied ever sleeping with her and then promptly changed his story to one of doing so but using a condom and assuring it was consensual. If we’re saying Diallo has credibility issues, I’d say these two need to join her on that wagon.

In the San Francisco case, we are confronted with a similar – though not the same – situation; one of assessing the validity of the accuser based on previous actions or claims. A SF lawyer (who specializes in sexual harassment cases, interestingly) is accused of raping three women, ages 19 – 36, whom he met over Craigslist while searching for partners interested in dominant-submissive rough sex. Two of the women had consented to having sex with this man on previous occasions before filing specific incidents of assault and rape. The man’s attorney has used this as evidence that the women were consensual partners, interested in engaging in sex and agreeing to what the man proposed in his post.

It seems we need a reminder of the definition of consent.

It does not matter if a woman is a prostitute. It does not matter if a woman had sex with you consensually in the past. It does not matter if in an email a woman expressed interest in specific sexual roles, positions, and activity. What matters is if in the specific encounter at hand, both parties have expressed the desire to go forward, and that if one withdraws that consent at any point it is the responsibility of the other to stop. The women could have easily agreed over an email exchange to engage in dominant-submissive sex, arrived at the man’s home still agreeing to it, and agreed to it right up to the minute they were to begin. But if in that minute she decided she no longer wanted to do this or was hesitant and unsure and wanted to wait, and he went ahead anyway – then it becomes rape.

Rape and sexual assault cases are notoriously difficult to try. They are usually he said/she said situations, at best aided by forensic evidence. Each case is unique, each has elements that are often not introduced or examined until a trial begins – this exemplifies the importance of scrutiny and juries who devote days to understanding the nuances and details of cases that are not reported or perceived by the media.

Setting the precedent that previously engaging in sexual activity, lying, or expressing interest in sexual experimentation eliminates your chances for a fair trial regarding the specific assault case at hand pushes us into the realm of implausibility. It is also worth noting that despite outcries of false accusations, the most frequently repeated results of studies regarding false claims and filings of rape show that the real rate of these is between 2% at its lowest and 7% at its highest (American Prosecutors Research Institute). But the media sheds so much light on the false claims that people presume it is much higher. The vast majority of rape and sexual assault charges never see the spotlight – perhaps because they aren’t dangerous enough or don’t involve high-ranking political figures or people whom media isn’t able to coin as gold-diggers and attention mongers because of their social or socioeconomic status. The bottom line is that each story deserves to be closely and carefully examined, and not discarded because a DA thinks he can’t win the case. District Attorney Vance is quoted as saying “If we don’t believe her beyond a reasonable doubt, we cannot expect a jury to.” I would venture to say that given the outcry over his decision, many people would like to hear the full story (and who do in fact think that the issue of reasonable doubt is in question) from both sides, with all the available evidence and fleshed out arguments. The issue of the truth, and seeking it, should take the precedence over one’s doubt at a courtroom victory.

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Filed under Feminism, Media, Politics, Sexism, Violence