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Monthly Archives: October 2012

A Halloween Tale

Last night on my drive home from performing in a staged reading of The Seagull and dinner with a friend, I heard this story on WGBH, Boston Public Radio about the first witch trail in the Hamptons.  What interested me was a study that found those accused of being witches were often women about to come into inheritance, thus making them independent women. Women, who were accused of witchcraft, “often were spinsters, barren, ugly, extremely successful, independent, reclusive, litigious, or willful” (http://www.angelfire.com/mi4/polcrt/SalemTrials.html).

In Connecticut, there are known to be 35 witch trials “between 1647 and 1697, as well as two more in the 18th Century, of which a total of eleven resulted in executions” (http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/trials_connecticut.html).  We also know of the case in the East Hamptons in 1658.  And approximately 80 people were accused between 1648 – 1663 in Massachusetts, executing 19 of them.  The numbers vary, but the closest “guesstimate” is about 30 women and a few men were executed during this time.  (Compared to thousands in Europe prior to this).  Women who did not confess to witchcraft were the ones most often put to death.  Those who did confess were given a break but then ostracized from their communities.  

So why am I carrying on today about the witch trials, other than the fact that it’s Halloween?  If we look back and see that most of those executed were women and that “most of those women had somehow manifested an independence or insubordination deemed inappropriate and even potentially disruptive or dangerous, should provide one of the most telling explanations of all. It is also worthy of note that most of the accused were middle-aged, without sons or brothers; they thus stood to inherit property and to live as autonomous spinsters, an existence that in and of itself threatened to defy or unseat the carefully maintained and cherished patriarchal order of this seventeenth-century society” (http://www.shmoop.com/colonial-new-england/gender.html).  

We are about to possibly elect some Republican men who would probably fit in quite well in 17th century New England.  Let’s do a quick recap of the last few months.  Todd Akin, a congressman running for U.S. Senate in Missouri, said rape survivors don’t need abortions because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Joe Walsh, a House incumbent in Illinois, asserted that “with modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance” where abortion is necessary to protect a woman’s life or health. And most recently, Richard Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer and Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, who Mitt Romney has endorsed, stated that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen” (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/frame_game/2012/10/todd_akin_and_richard_mourdock_banning_abortion_for_rape_victims_is_the.html).  

This complete dismissal of women owning their bodies feels like we’ve traveled back in time to Salem.  And the misogyny of these Republican candidates is not just about rape and reproductive rights.  It is also about the old evil spinster who will live into her 90s and have no access to Medicare or Social Security because her benefits will be destroyed.  Most of the policies being proposed by these men are about keeping women in their place, witch is exactly what the witch trials were about.  When asked about pay equity for women, Romney could not answer whether he thought it was important, but that women needed “flex time” so they could get home to their children to make dinner.  What I surmise from this statement is that he is not concerned with women getting equal pay, but concerned that we stay in our “proper place.”

So on Halloween I ask you to pause and reflect on all the women (and men) who were killed in the name of Patriarchy and to think hard about what choices you will make next week at the Polls.  Will those choices include expanding the rights we have as citizens (equal pay, medical marijuana, national healthcare, reproductive rights, marriage equality, euthanasia,  gays serving openly in the military) or will it be about shrinking those rights and sending women back to a time when speaking our mind could end in burning at the stake or a long trip to the insane asylum?  Happy Halloween!

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Hollywood’s MISS Representation

Since winning this big grant to educate college, high school and middle school students on the paucity of women in the media, I have begun stumbling upon new websites, blogs, and video blogs that address this issue.  And boy, am I learning a lot! 

As a theatre person at heart, I do not spend a lot of time studying film, movies or Hollywood.  It has just never appealed to me.  I like a well written, well acted, and well directed movie, but my first love is for plays and live theatre.  Interestingly, people often assume if you like to act or direct than you want to do film.  This may be because so many Hollywood “stars” come back to Broadway to do plays, now more than ever.  But I have done some small film work and found it mind numbing.  (See the side of my face as an extra at the airport in 27 Dresses.  I walk in front of Malin Akerman).

This week in my research I stumbled upon Melissa A Fabello’s video blog on women’s representation in horror movies.  She and her friend discuss the Bechdel test.  From there I found the v-blog Feminist Frequency,  run by Anita Sarkeesian, who also talks about media representation and the Bechdel test.   One of my best friends, who is a filmmaker and movie buff, knew all about it.  But I’m writing about it today because I don’t think the general public does, and you should! 

Basically it was started, kind of tongue-in-cheek, by Alison Bechdel, in her famous comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For (Mo Movie Measure).  The “rule” or test, goes like this:  (1) there has to be at least two NAMED women in the movie, (2) they have to talk to one another, (3) about anything other than a man.  In last year’s Academy Awards nominees, only two of the nine movies nominated met the test. And as Anita Sarkeesian said, “Let’s remember that this was made as a bit of a joke to make fun of the fact that there are so few movies with significant female characters in them. The reason the test has become so important in recent years is because it actually does highlight a serious and ongoing problem within the entertainment industry.”

What has also been illuminating for me in this research and work I am now consumed with is that “chick flicks,” often fail this Bechdel test.  Wouldn’t it be great if before we went to the movies or downloaded that movie to our television we could make sure they pass this test?  Anita Sarkeesian has suggested adding another question to this test; (4) Do the two women talk to each other for at least 60 seconds?  When you add this fourth question, even more movies fail the test. 

While I do my best in this blog to critique pop culture and educate my readers, there is NOT always a takeaway in terms of social change.  Today I am trying more than ever to live what I preach.  After winning my award I decided I couldn’t subscribe to my favorite local theatre because they are producing no plays by women this year.  So in this case, don’t go to movies that fail the test.  Do go to movies that pass, particularly those with women directors.  Go on the Friday of opening weekend.  This is the date Hollywood uses to judge how well the movie did.  There’s a rumor out there that some amazing feminist film folks are developing an app for this.  I can also recommend subscribing to Melissa Silverstein’s Women and Hollywood if you are into the indie/women/film scene. 

If we don’t start using our consumer voice to tell the world how WE want it, those in control will continue running it the way they want to see it:  white, male, with women serving as prop pieces. 

Romney is Not a Friend to Women

Last week I defended Obama’s poor debate performance by suggesting that he had a job that might possibly take up some of the time that Romney spends preparing for the debates and running for President. 

This week I am pleased that Obama seemed back in the game and Romney seemed more like himself.  You know, the self who can’t stand women.  This guy actually suggested that single mothers are to blame for gun violence.  WHAT?  And when asked about pay equity, the now famous “binders full of women” phrase was invented.  Rather than address actual documented pay inequity, he felt compelled to address the need for flex time so that women can get home and cook dinner and take care of their kids after their long day at the office.  WHAT?

We can also talk about how Romney does not support contraception or the right to an abortion.  This man is no friend to women.  I love it when Republican women are interviewed on NPR and they say that they aren’t “one issue” voters and that they need to look to larger issues, like the economy in their decision on how to support for President.  I’m sure the right to control your family size has NOTHING to do with economics, right? 

I also like how the notion of reproductive freedom, rights or choice is always lumped into “one issue.”  This topic is full of issues from the access to birth control for poor women, coverage for abortion, the right to prenatal care, the right to make decisions about your birth plan, the right to stay in a hospital after you have a baby, the right to have a vaginal delivery after a C-section, and the right to be sterilized, or not. 

As a woman who has never been pregnant, I take this “one issue” pretty seriously.  I see my friends in their mid-30s and early 40s trying to get pregnant in a country where hormones have over populated our food.  I see young women, where I work, unclear how to advocate for themselves as fertile women who don’t yet want to have a baby.  I see young men refusing to wear condoms.  I see couples struggling over whether they can afford a second or third child. 

I religiously read Margaret and Helen, a blog by two women who have been friends for 60 years.  She recently wrote this about Mitt Romney being a liar “I respect and will protect a woman’s right to choose… Roe v. Wade has gone too far… I am pro-choice… I am pro-life… I never really called myself pro-choice…When I am asked if I am pro-choice or pro-life, I say I refuse to accept either label…”  

Beware of this man when you head to the polls on November 7th.  He is not a friend to any woman, except maybe Ann Romney.

Obama Has a Job, Romney Doesn’t.

Obama won the debate.  I think I have heard enough punditry (is that a word) on that topic.  I get it.  I watched.  Yes he was distracted, yes he wasn’t “on his game,”, yes he looked down too much.  Gee, I wonder what could cause a person, like the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES to be distracted.  Could it be something that we don’t even know about, some top secret terrorist, or Middle Eastern crisis causing him to worry?  Perhaps?

Jon Sununu, former NH Governor actually referred to Obama as “lazy” on Andrea Mitchell’s  MSNBC show.  She was shocked.  We all should be shocked.  Not only is that an inappropriate word to call the current president (maybe appropriate for former President George W. Bush), but downright racist. 

What does Mitt Romney do all day?  Hmmm.  I think his job is RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT.  He doesn’t have a job.  He gets to run around the country all day and make speeches and meet people and spend hours and hours and hours at his beautiful NH lakefront home preparing for his three debates. 

And while Romney is preparing for his debates with the President, before we get too critical on how he did in the first debate, spend some time imaging a day in the life of both of these men as we move toward the election.  Obama cannot spend nearly as much time preparing for the debates as Romney as he has to run the country.  Why has this point not come up during any of the criticism of him?  Why hasn’t one of the so-called brilliant journalists we have on all these news stations thought of this?  Let’s cut him a little slack. 

Celebrities Not Needed

I read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide when it came out in 2009.  The book, written by writer couple Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDun, details atrocities done to women and girls all over the globe.  It focuses on rape, sex trafficking, maternal mortality, female genital circumcision, and access to education.  It is an illuminating yet frustrating book.  Kristof and WuDunn spend time in each chapter detailing the work being done in these areas to help girls and women.

This week, on Monday and Tuesday, the documentary version of their book came out.  There was a big media blitz about it on the Internet, including emails to Women’s Centers, like mine, to hold screenings.  It was too short notice for us to hold a screening, not to mention, too late for me to stay at work on a Monday or Tuesday night.  The film aired from 9-11pm ET.  But I was so disgusted with the Monday night viewing that I couldn’t force myself to watch the second half, which I’m sure will now be airing on PBS all month.

The film opens with a statement by George Clooney.  Fine.  Then there are clips interspersed with Kristoff’s intense interviews or investigations in each of the areas mentioned above.  Also fine.  Each one of the places that Kristof visits in the film, where he focuses on a specific issue to women and girls, he had a celebrity with him.  It was so odd at first, almost unsettling.  There is no explanation why Meg Ryan is with him going to a safe haven for girls who have been sold into sex slavery.  Was this an issue she was already interested in?  Was this a cause she had been working for?  As they drive up to this haven, where all these young girls welcome them in uniforms, Meg Ryan says “Aw.  They look so cute.”  WHAT???? Cute?  These girls were just sex slaves and we’re going to immediately respond to them in terms of their bodies and how they look?  Who the hell edited this thing?

When you go to the half the sky website, you can click on a drop down menu of Celebrities/Advocates.  There you can see what this person does on behalf of women.  Gabrielle Union, who visits Vietnam with Kristof, is described as

“being an ambassador for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, as well as her support for the Young Survivor Coalition (YSC) and the Rape Treatment Center (RTC) at UCLA. Union often travels on behalf of Susan G. Komen and the YSC to share her story of losing a friend to breast cancer and works to inspire others as well when she visits the RTC to talk to young women. She also helped found a program called “A Step for Success” in 2004, which helps raise funds for the economically challenged Kelso Elementary School in Los Angeles. The program holds fundraisers to help pay for books, classroom supplies and many other daily needs that teachers have fallen burden to paying for themselves. Union traveled with Nicholas Kristof to Vietnam to visit John Wood at Room to Read.” 

Nowhere in her bio does it talk about why she would be going with Kristof to Vietnam, nor her interest in John Wood’s organization.  And this seems to be the case with all these famous female actors.  Eva Mendes bio on the site lists nothing about her interest in fighting rape.  She gives a young rape survivor a necklace, which makes the viewer very uncomfortable.  This is the case with all the celebrities featured in the film.

If you click on each of the celebrities names, that page features a picture of them with one of the women or girls interviewed in the film, with a big smile on their face.  The complexities of race and class in these pictures are unsettling.

I would have been perfectly fine viewing this documentary with the clips of “experts” interspersed with Kristof’s intimate interviews with women and girls who have survived horrible circumstances, but adding celebrity women to bring viewers to the television seems forced and inappropriate.  WuDunn was an articulate and intelligent voice throughout the movie and she was all the celebrity I needed.

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