A Severe Impact

It’s summer. I’m supposed to be immersed in the past. I’m meant to be writing about Jackie Kennedy and the 1960 campaign, about women at mid-century looking to the future and wondering what it will hold, about mass media’s ability to craft narratives about and for women and about women’s agency in shaping those narratives. And I am. But I keep getting dragged back to the present, right now, thanks to the ongoing barrage of truly heartbreaking information related to the violent rape committed by and the infuriatingly lenient punishment given to Brock Turner.

brock-turner-mugshot-2

In the ways that my worlds of work and the world are colliding, today I read this, from an essay in a 1978 collection about the portrayal of women in mass media: While alleged bra-burning and women’s rejection of the accoutrements of femininity regularly appeared in journalistic reporting of the women’s movement, “the other issues of women’s liberation were less prominent: the extent and implications of women’s lower pay scales; the chronic and clear-cut (to women) discrimination in education, job, and credit access; the stereotyping by the media of women as trivial-minded, unreliable, and mercurial; and the invidious administration (or non administration) of rape laws.

Well. Some issues, it seems, just won’t go out of style. Except that here, in 2016, it seems the law had worked. Turner was found guilty on three counts: assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person; sexual penetration of an intoxicated person; and sexual penetration of an unconscious person. But the sentencing. Oh, the sentencing: six months in county jail, of which Turner is likely to serve three. Everything old is new again.

I have felt vague-to-full-blow nausea with each new revelation from the Brock Turner case. Beyond my horror at Turner’s own abhorrent actions (and having just realized he’s APPEALING THE CONVICTION), like so many others, I am disgusted by the apologist language being used to refer to the violent, violating rape he committed and the attempts to shield him from the consequences of his brutal, brutal attack on another human being. In requesting parole for his son, Turner’s father wrote, “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve….That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” His words clearly resonated with Judge Aaron Perskey who delivered the sentence and declared, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”

Beyond the very conscious word choice – “action” rather than “violent rape” – both parties underplay the severity of the crimes committed by Turner and instead pine for what might have been. First of all: that ship has sailed. This is a topic for another time, but these claims about the rape as a “first offense” and being so out of character for Turner…I have my doubts. If you have this in you to do when drunk and prone to “foolish”actions aka INTENSE PHYSICAL VIOLENCE, you have this in you. And you’ve long *had* it in you. But more importantly, this didn’t happen to him. HE DID THIS. HE COMMITTED THIS CRIME. AGAINST ANOTHER PERSON. And that other person? She will live with this terrible, terrible attack for well beyond the next “20 plus years” of her life. As for “severe impact”? Yes, this “action” will have a severe and lasting impact on her. As she noted in her beautiful and terrible and brave letter to her attacker (https://www.buzzfeed.com/katiejmbaker/heres-the-powerful-letter-the-stanford-victim-read-to-her-ra?utm_term=.qdJE4Wa9D#.id8LNQrzX): “It is embarrassing how feeble I feel, how timidly I move through life, always guarded, ready to defend myself, ready to be angry.” Every day, she is working to get back to herself, but what happened, she read, “stays with me, it’s part of my identity, it has forever changed the way I carry myself, the way I live the rest of my life.”

And the “severe impact” goes even beyond Turner’s victim. I’m set to visit one of my best friends next week. We’ve been excited to see each other and get our girls together again. In an exchange about this case, I emailed, “We’re teaching them about the buddy system next Friday.” And she responded, “Seriously. How early is too early? Probably never.” My daughter is two. Hers is one. And this is our thought process in raising them to face the world. Their lives are the ones likely to never be the ones that we dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. The same can be said of the lives of all women and all girls living in a world where the threat of sexual violence is real, but the consequences for that violence remain only vaguely defined and unequally applied.

And yet. While I despair, I do not only despair. Also from the aforementioned collection of essays, re: women and media: “The media report women’s issues selectively and, apparently, through a man’s sense of the world.” I know we can argue about how much has changed, but the response to the Turner case – the outcry, the indignation, the rage – that tells us things have changed. Are changing. And for the better. If you’ve not read the letter written and read by the woman Turner attacked, do so now (link above). Her willingness to – again – relive what happened to her, to vocalize how it’s affected her: that is bravery and determination and the steel will to have a voice and make it heard. As she notes, “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.” Until today. Bravo to Buzzfeed for printing the letter in full. And for all that we can say about Facebook and Twitter and social media more broadly, the sharing of that letter, the dialog it opens up: that is magnificent.

In Danielle McGuire’s incredible At the Dark End of the Street, she writes about the importance of black women’s voice in naming the physical and sexual violence they endured and by whom in the Jim Crow South. They motivated communal action in response to the ongoing threat posed by white men who faced little recompense for attacks on black women and black girls. They motivated communal action against a broader system of inequality and injustice. Today, I saw McGuire tweet about the young woman raped by Turner and her letter with the notation of the importance of #testimony. I don’t know what consequences this sentencing will have for Judge Perskey. Or the consequences the case will have for Turner and his victim. I don’t know. But my hope is that the young woman’s voice, the publicity afforded it, and the awareness generated will shape conversations and viewpoints so that acts like these do, in fact, have a severe impact on future responses to and punishments for sexual violence of this kind.

 

For those who’ve “never really faced inequality”: How nice! But it’s not just about you.

Generally speaking, I live in a world where my Facebook feed is best described by the phrase “preaching to the choir.” The lefties of my life – from college, graduate school, and my current university – post on a fairly predictable host of issues and from fairly predictable perspectives. I’m fine with this. I often agree and sometimes share and am happy to have yet more fuel to add to my fire on any number of topics. I like my little like-minded world where I can pretend everyone cares about racial & gender equality, legal & economic justice, environmental protection, celebrity gossip, and the real and hopefully forever comeback of rompers and overalls. All of which is to say that when I come across the alternative perspective, I’m often taken aback. Wait, what? People don’t think like us?

Then I analyze. Then I stew. Then I rebut, sometimes publicly (keep reading, please).

My feed recently featured an article entitled “Big Bang Theory Star Just Said the Most Conservative Thing on the Internet,” from youngcons.com (Young Conservatives: http://www.youngcons.com/big-bang-theory-star-just-said-conservative-thing-internet/#2hLUbfp1E7QLxGAu.99). I clicked. Why, oh why, did I click? Because I just cannot resist.

This Young Conservative article declared that Kaley Cuoco’s recent Redbook feature interview would have “liberal feminists yanking out their underarm hair and screaming not-so-sweet sentiments into her virtual ear via social media.” Well. Let’s not even get started on what radical feminists might think.

When asked if she is a feminist, she responded, “Is it bad if I say no?”

It’s not. If people choose to reject the idea of social, economic, and political equality between the sexes, that’s their business.

The Young Conservative piece speculated that part of the interview that would really raise feminist ire against Cuoco was her statement “I like the idea of women taking care of their men. I’m so in control of my work that I like coming home and serving him.” She’s talking about making this man, her husband, dinner. Fine. Whatever. She claims that she likes feeling like a housewife. Also fine. And just speculating her, but she probably particularly enjoys feeling like a housewife because a) she’s not; b) cooking is approximately 1/100 of what being a housewife is about; and c) she can stop feeling like (or pretending to be) a housewife whenever she wants. Good thing feminists pushed for women to have choices of this kind.

I am a for real feminist. And I will tell you right now I don’t care that she likes cooking a meal for her husband. I have been known to cook a meal for my husband as well. Cat’s out of the bag.

I do, however, take issue with other parts of the interview. And the fact that the Young Conservatives piece didn’t recognize the problematic nature of the following statement, for me, reveals just how little those on the other side of the feminist debate really understand about feminism. The quote, re: feminism: “It’s not really something I think about,” she said. “Things are different now, and I know a lot of the work that paved the way for women happened before I was around… I was never that feminist girl demanding equality, but maybe that’s because I’ve never really faced inequality.”

Record scratch.

First, let’s take a minute to discuss The Big Bang Theory, of which Cuoco is a star. I feel fine about this show. It’s not uncommon that someone in my house is watching this show. But it is not a program that features particularly enlightened views of sex or gender (or race, but whatever). Cuoco’s character, Penny (no last name – unlike all other main characters), the failed actress, waitress, community college student turned stellar pharmaceutical rep is regularly the butt of jokes for her a) stupidity; b) sexual promiscuity; c) drinking. In the world of super-smart nerd scientists, she has street smarts, but they’re of the kind where she sends in a check for the less-than-required amount to pay her electric bill, along with a picture of herself in a bra, all in the hopes that she’ll get a bit of an extension. Cuoco, in landing this part, a dream job, I’m sure, may not have faced inequality, but she’s MAKING BANK on exploiting tired – and often sexist and unequal – views of gender and sexuality. I will not even engage with the episode in which she and the “girl scientists” go to Disneyland and do the whole dress-like-a-princess thing that apparently you can do at that place. (Sidenote: I don’t even *not like* TBBT, and I’m sure experts of the show could argue opposite points to those I’ve made, but my evidence is not wrong.)

princesses

Second, and much more importantly, I take issue with Cuoco’s “It’s not really something I think about” and “I’ve never really faced inequality.” How nice it must be not to worry about issues of inequity that half the population faces daily and without respite. How easy it must be to think only of yourself and not give consideration to other people and their experiences. How simple it must be to ignore your privileged position and thus ignore the realities of people’s lives as they struggle in a system that, at its core, privileges certain segments of the population over others.

Again, it’s okay not to be a feminist. I accept that. But I will not accept a political perspective – even one that’s as seemingly unintentionally political as Cuoco’s – based pretty clearly on willful ignorance and limited regard for any experience beyond one’s own.

So yes, as a feminist (albeit one with shaved pits), I have beef with Cuoco’s sentiments. But for reasons apparently unanticipated by the Young Cons.

To come back to my Facebook feed: another article caught my attention more recently and prompted me to put to paper the ideas floating in my head about Cuoco’s Redbook interview. California Magazine (Winter 2014) published an article that asked “What Stalled the Gender Revolution?” and answered “Child Care that Costs More Than College Tuition” (http://caa-web-prod-01.ist.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/winter-2014-gender-assumptions/what-stalled-gender-revolution-child-care-costs). Ummmm…YES. As author Tamara Straus reported, “A 2013 report from Child Care Aware noted that as of 2012, in 31 states and the District of Columbia, day care is more expensive than one year of public college tuition—and that was among a cohort of faculty, people with the highest levels of education.” RECORD SCRATCH AGAIN. I know this stuff, and my jaw still hit the floor.

1941 Conference on Day Care

A working mother drops her son at a federally-subsidized nursery school in 1943. Between 1943 and 1946, a half a million children received care in such centers. After World War II ended, they were closed. Please note: better support for working mothers in 1943 than in 2015.

Straus also states, “Feminism isn’t a prominent social movement in this country anymore. And one reason for this is blazingly clear: We don’t have an affordable, taxpayer-subsidized system of infant-to-12 child care that levels the playing field for all women, their partners, and their children. What we have is elite women (and men) blathering on about choice, and billionaire executives passing themselves off as role models for working women, while refusing to acknowledge, let alone celebrate the women who help raise their children and manage their homes.” Those who are unaffected by the inequity (ahem, Ms. Cuoco) ignore that inequity, or even worse, and this is the true crime, believe and willfully perpetuate the idea that it isn’t there.

The individualism that emerged at the end of the Second Wave, as the Second Wave weathered attack by increasingly conservative forces of the Reagan Revolution and the Religious Right, is precisely what contemporary feminists must combat. The personal is political, but it’s our collective personal that should be motivating our political activism. Shout out to Tamara Straus for writing so beautifully what we in my world – virtual and in-person – so often discuss: “My plea to the remaining feminists out there is this: Let’s find some class solidarity and make government-subsidized child care a campaign issue. Let’s identify and vote for candidates who see affordable child care as a legislative necessity. Such family-friendly demands would make sense to low- and middle-income women. They would bring more people back into the feminist fold, and they might even revitalize a movement.” And to that end, I’ll answer Cuoco’s question of “Is it bad if I say no?” in this way, the way a politically engaged interviewer might have: It would be better if you said yes.

Thoughts on Gisele, Nursing, and the Mommy Wars; Or, Why _Our Bodies, Ourselves_ is worth revisiting

Potentially the most horrifying scene ever put to screen by acclaimed series Mad Men is the one in which Betty Draper delivers baby Gene. The overall mood of the third child’s arrival – the child unplanned and, to some degree, unwanted – is cold and antiseptic. But the child’s conception may have had no bearing on that. Such was the nature of even a welcome childbirth in mid-1960s America. The message communicated in the episode is that Betty Draper went into and came out of that delivery room alone. What transpired within, even she may not be sure of. A baby came out of it, and that’s all the viewers, her husband, and even Betty herself need to know. When I think of gynecological care of the 1960s, this episode sums it all up. Doctors who were put on a pedestal for being doctors, women who were encouraged to trust in their MD’s medical knowledge (aka ask no questions), and a clinical and somewhat frighteningly dispassionate view of the body and its many possibilities.

In contrast, when I had my annual exams at Indiana University’s Health Center in the mid-2000s, something that struck me immediately was that all the rooms in the women’s wing had posters on their ceilings. When women went in for whatever ailed them, as they lay back, they viewed pictures of fields of wildflowers or beaches at sunset. The atmosphere was warm, and the message communicated by those posters was that women shouldn’t be tense or nervous. They should focus on something beautiful and think about their visit in a positive way.

Something had shifted.

For a time, and not unrelated to my experiences at the Health Center, I considered that my next project would be about women’s health. In particular, I was (and still am) interested in the efforts of the Boston feminists who put together Our Bodies, Ourselves as a pamphlet in 1971 (originally published as Women and Their Bodies in 1970: http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/uploads/pdf/OBOS1970.pdf). Women wrote for women in a manner that was matter of fact and, for the time (for now?), radical in its assertion that women should take ownership over their bodies and their health. What’s great about the original document is that it not only encourages women’s agency but it dismantles widespread social prescriptions about birth control, sexuality, pregnancy, and childbirth. Challenging limited viewpoints that suggest all women are predestined to be mothers, or ascribes “true womanhood” only to those who’ve born and raised a child, the book embraces a variety of feminities, any of which are considered legitimate and proof-enough of “real” womanhood. As a whole, the book was non-judgmental and remarkably kind.

OBO

But it’s not pregnancy or childbirth that has had me thinking about these evolutionary views of women’s health (whereas I usually digress somewhere midway through these things, here I started with a digression. Sorry.). Rather, it was Gisele Bundchen’s recent Instagram of herself breast-feeding baby Vivian. If you’ve been living under a rock (aka haven’t seen it), use the power of the Google, choose the appropriate search terms, and it will come to you.

As I suppose GB intended, people responded to this image (All press is good press, yes?). There were those who eye-rolled, maybe more at Gisele’s caption (“What would I do without this beauty squad after the 15 hours flying and only 3 hours of sleep #multitasking #gettingready”) than the image itself. There were those who cheered GB for “normalizing” nursing (I personally think those people are looking for the term “glamourizing” but whatever). Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams (of whom I’m a great fan) defended Gisele as a working mother, finding a balance, like so many other working mothers of the world.

It’s worth nothing that this wasn’t GB’s first jump into the nursing fire. She’d caught greater heat back in 2010 for a Harper’s Bazaar UK interview in which she stated, “Some people here (in the US) think they don’t have to breastfeed, and I think ‘Are you going to give chemical food to your child when they are so little?’ I think there should be a worldwide law, in my opinion, that mothers should breastfeed their babies for six months.” In the ensuing backlash, she clarified her intentions, claiming that her comment had “nothing to do with the law.” Except, and maybe I’m being nitpicky here, she used the phrase “worldwide law.” Anyway. Her statement went on: “I understand that everyone has their own experience and opinions and I am not here to judge. I believe that bringing a life into this world is the single most important thing a person can undertake, and it can also be the most challenging.”  Well, except that the original words were entirely judgmental. And Gisele added to that judgment by suggesting those who opt out of child bearing – or are unable to do so – are living lives of less importance than those who bear children. So…I guess you could say I have my doubts about this “apology.”

As I’ve thought about GB’s picture and her words over the last several weeks – both of which are part of an image she consciously crafts – I’ve come back time and again to the openness, acceptance, and lack of judgment communicated in the original Our Bodies, Ourselves and how those qualities seem so absent in GB’s words and actions. With her picture (and I keep thinking about its caption) and her words, she seems totally unaware of the insularity of her experience, and in many ways, fails to recognize the privileged position she occupies. She notes that every woman has her own experience, but the comment seems a throwaway, a bone tossed to people pissed that she’d overstepped. On the other hand, Our Bodies, Ourselves went out of its way to assure women that their many varied experiences were totally normal and totally valid. In this contemporary world of Mommy Wars – of which I’ve long read and am now quickly learning first-hand (and of which I’d count GB’s words) – a return to the OBO view of women’s life and health would be most welcome.

Which is to say: all of this has had me thinking historically (as the historian is wont to do), and on a variety of levels. Typically, when I’m writing, I like to sum up my thoughts with some larger conclusion about then, now, people, relationships, etc., etc., etc. It feels nice and tidy. But with this, I’m somewhat stymied. Do I think something has gone awry from the time of the budding optimism of the women’s movement, of which Our Bodies, Ourselves is a product? Yes, I think something has. Pretty clearly, and there’s been good discussion of this by contemporary feminists, one of the things that went awry was the movement away from “we” and the failure to really take institutions to task (the original OBO pamphlet calls for maternity and paternity leave – in 1970!!) and the movement toward an expectation that individuals put up or shut up. And Gisele pretty clearly puts up. From there, she can operate on a kind of “if I can do it, so can you” mindset. But I don’t think the problem is something about women in isolation. I keep thinking about the culture of celebrity that’s grown since the 1970s – and maybe more specifically the style of celebrity that’s really blossomed since the 1990s, where the lethal combination of reality TV, the internet, and social media has given celebrities the option of opining at will and to audiences of enormous size and scope. And with little thought to how their actions or views might be interpreted by others or what their actions or views actually communicate. There are things I’m still working through when I think of this. Among those things, however, of this I am certain: this “throwaway” world of popular culture is chock full of possibility for the observant and constantly reveals the evolution of our views on a host of issues.