Back to Basics…

This Spring has been a roller-coaster of feminist studies in and out of the classroom. Between two women’s studies courses and a lot of relevant experiences outside of school, I have really powered through the past few months by trying to lace a continuous theme of advocacy in to all my projects. Because of all my running around, writing posts on Fatal Femmes has gone to the back burner, but now that finals are almost over, I can begin to get back to the swing of things. Let this post be a summation of my feminism this semester as well as the jumpstart to a Summer of analysis and media critique!

First, January 16th was the last feminist dinner party I was invited to by my friend and the activist artist, Phoebe Bachman. This dinner marked the end of a multi-meal performance piece that Phoebe was hosting for the long-term research project, “Women Making Activist Art in Public Spaces,” that she had been conducting for months on feminist creators. I was so thrilled and honored to be included in her work as both a documented subject and as a participant. I guess I was a little surprised that I was picked because although I am very open about my feminist politics, I never count myself as an artist. I write and paint, film and edit, but I never seem to consider myself as a creator. I have begun to rethink the idea in recent weeks.

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Following up with her work, Phoebe officially presented her art and research on February 4th at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. I silently joined a “tour” of spectators that she was walking through her exhibit the night of the opening. Although I had been aware of her methodology and work throughout the process of watching her plan everything for almost a year, I was thoroughly impressed by the final execution. She knowingly glanced up and caught my eye and asked me to speak out about the experience of being a participant. I was so content to speak on her behalf. It was wonderful to be a part of someone else’s work. She inspires me.

In February, Temple University’s branch of HerCampus, run by my friend Jaimee Swift, asked me to sit on two informational panels. The first was titled “Young Women in the Media.” Like Phoebe’s dinners, I felt that I held a unique place being the only self-identified academic (or budding academic) in the group. Regardless, I still have a few documentaries under my belt and have picked up an interest in band photography and headshots so I was still counted as media maker. As usual, I was impressed by the women I that I was being associated with and thrilled to sit with them. The other panel was silly as it was about Valentine’s Day and Romance. I tried to be serious at parts when asked to discuss safe sex and consent, with added knowledge about sex toys and why it’s important to communicate partner-to-partner. I was excited to bring two of my friends, Karley Cohen and Tom Diaogistino, onto the panel last minute. They had completely different perspectives and experiences that completely added to the discussion.

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Also in February was the Women’s Way tenth annual Women and Influence Conference at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. I went with two fellow feminists, Melissa Fabello and Nuala Cabral. It was exciting to see accomplished women acknowledged and celebrated, but Melissa and I had a few comments about how to improve the event as a whole. Firstly, we noticed that although Women’s Way did a great job coordinating the conference, many of the workshop sessions lacked interactivity. The topics seemed stiff and centered around business and entrepreneurship, less about the “issues of importance to women, girls, and their families in our region” that the program highlighted. Throughout the day there was great debate as to whether or not women could truly have it all. I hope to attend next year.

I spent quite a bit of time preparing for my first workshop this semester in early March. I was asked by Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania to host a media literacy session for their Pot of Gold, or bi-annual adult volunteer day. More than happy to accept, I included in my proposal that Nicole should join me to speak. As my collaborator, she deserves to share in the sharing of knowledge. I was particularly proud of her the day that we presented because not only had we created the workshop together, but it was also her first ever public speaking engagement outside of classroom presentations and our first ever as a team. The workshop was great and the feedback we received was amazing. Comments ranged from “It was thought provoking and on point for what’s going on with tween and teen girls today” to “This workshop invoked a lot of great conversation. It really could have benefited if it was given more time!” 9 out of 10 guests recommended the workshop for future audiences. It was the first time I had ever really worked with adults without children being present. This allowed for flexibility of material, faster teaching and discussion, more examples of current events and, of course, a wide range of debate. After the two sessions we hosted, Nicole and I took time to reflect on being what we called “novice masters,” a term we use to explain the odd relationship we have to our highly specific studies and those outside the field. Being students, particularly undergraduates, we are learning all the time, but to give back by breaking down what we absorb we are the closest thing to “masters” or “experts” that those unfamiliar with such schools of thought may interact with at the time. If anything, it’s a responsibility that we do not take lightly.

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Next was another workshop, later in March, for the GirlTalk Summit hosted by the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg, PA. I was asked to do a presentation on media’s glorification of teen pregnancy, a controversial, but incredibly important topic. I suffered through research by making myself watch “16 and Pregnant,” “Teen Mom” and a few other shows that I really could care less about as a viewer, but as a budding media scholar I do understand that their impact is intense and widespread. I ran three sessions with about two-dozen teenage girls aged 15-19. Some of these young women were already mothers, many watched the shows I discussed and all were identified as “high-risk.” Being from the intercity placed them into a special category that sociologists, educators, politicians and paperwork like to use. I was just excited to interact with young people close to my age that had ideas about how to start talking about what they cared about. I found that when presenting, I must learn to sum up lofty ideas with more examples. Nonetheless, I am happy to have participated. The experience was very important to me.

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The tail end of April was all over the place. Out of the blue I received an email from a former professor from a few semesters back who asked if I was interested in teaching one of my favorite articles from his class to his current students. I was ecstatic. The writing, “Fraternity Gang Rape,” started with a brief summary of America’s sexual history and eventually discusses present-day rape culture. The day I was to teach, I was surprised to find out that my mentor chose not to assist or comment and left both of his classes up to me. I excitedly spoke as I moved around the classroom. Students, my own peers, followed up with me via email and gave me wonderful feedback. It was an amazing time and really gave me a better idea of how much I think I would enjoy teaching.

During the last weekend in April I was ask to present yet another workshop! This time, I occupied the upstairs lobby of the Warner Hotel in downtown West Chester, PA during the ninth annual West Chester Film Festival. The experience was special because I was also a nominated director. My documentary “The Voices of Time Before They Are Silenced: The Holocaust” was up for Best Pennsylvania Director. During the workshop, titled “Lights, Camera, Action: Women’s Sexuality In and On Film,” I found myself very comfortable with the material I had arranged. I think it was a touchstone of confidence in understanding that I know what I’m talking about. Pretty cool if you ask me! A great discussion was peaked post-speech and carried on for about half-an-hour with yours truly as moderator.

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As of May 7th, I can also say that I may add state lobbying to my feminist activism this semester. Just earlier this week, I went with a few fellow feminists to the Capitol in Harrisburg, PA with Women’s Way. The organization was supporting the efforts of the Polaris Project to advocate for stronger human trafficking laws in the state. According to Polaris, Pennsylvania is at the bottom of the scale when it comes to safety for “victims” or survivors of slavery and does very little to fully prosecute pimps and other traders. Lobbying was really interesting. It was much like a performance of suits and ties and smiles and handshakes. I credit Women’s Way and Polaris and all the other activist group present, but there was something sad about having to dress up to talk about real issues, problems outside the marble and stained glass of the Capitol Building.

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At the Capitol talking to a Senate Rep

While all this was going on outside of school, I was also a student in two women’s studies courses, as aforementioned. One was a foundations course treated as a history class on women’s rights and activism in America and the other was an upper level topics called “Male Perspectives of Women’s Studies.” New to Temple, Dr. Edward Onaci taught both. As the semester eased on, he became more flexible with the format in which he chose to teach. Eventually, both classes came to rely and appreciate a circle approach to roundtable discussion. No raising of hands, just commentary and dialogue. No yelling or fighting, just debate and civil conversation. It reminded me of the circular education paradigm that Gloria Steinem spoke of during a speech I witnessed in November 2012. She emphasized the importance of shared knowledge passed through or across teachers to students and from generation to generation. This approach opposes our current academic institutions’ way where education is treated as another form of class that oppresses those who seemingly do not have access. In “Male Perspectives” I found great frustration in reading the works of men like Rousseau, men who believe women’s place in under them, in society and in the every other context. I have realized that, as Lynda Lange explains in “Feminist Interpretations of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” if nothing else, perhaps reading the works of a man as sexist as Rousseau, who is “the very embodiment of misogyny,” will encourage feminists “to read and view more works by women.”

Lastly, my future endeavors. Besides giving Fatal Femmes a make-over, which Nicole and I both agree that it needs, I have a lot of other projects going on that need time and love ASAP. These include, but are not limited to another workshop for Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania coming up Fall 2013, possibly photographing LadyFest in Philadelphia in July, learning how to be a peer health and sexuality educator for Temple University in Fall through the HEART Wellness Resources Center on campus, becoming a Women’s Way media intern this Summer, traveling to Los Angeles to volunteer as a student scholar for NAMLE (the National Association of Media Literacy Education), animating an abstract documentary about gender literacy and word structures titled “WoŸman,” and trying to kick as much as butt as possible on the side.

-Darragh Dandurand Friedman

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Media Review – “Naughty but Nice”

Dr. Sherril Dodds, scholarly dance professor at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance recently presented her engaging research on Neo-Burlesque performance as social and gender commentary. The lecture was informational to say the least and controversial at the most. I sneaked in as she began to speak and grabbed a seat in the front row. Pulling a notepad and pen out of my bag, I did not stop writing until I had to leave.

As Dodds explained, she has been studying neo-burlesque for several years, interested in how performers communicate more than sexuality and coy femininity while on stage, but when it came to her research, her nose definitely didn’t stay in the books. Dodds went on to show pictures of herself in a UK-based burlesque company, twirling tassels and shaking her groove thang. Throughout her thesis reading, she showed pictures of famous burlesque stars from America and Great Britain, summarized the history of the medium and went on to argue that burlesque has more to do with political statements than showing off what your momma gave you.

As she spoke, her word choices were flowery and articulate and they flowed off her tongue with a hard British accent. She liked using alliterations and metaphors to try to get the audience to imagine that they had attended the same burlesque shows she had seen for her research. The effect was stimulating, but at times took away from what she was trying to prove. This becomes an issue when an educated individual tries to present their research when framed between two wall-size screens with pictures topless women licking their lips. Novelty? Yes. Academic? Yes. Full Communication? Hopefully, hopefully.

Firstly, Dodds made it very clear that there is a difference between “stripping” and “burlesque.” Stripping, she described, is when individuals have “economic necessity,” or the priority to meet their safety and physiological needs. In this mindset, they cannot explore the medium with creativity. “Commercialized neo-burlesque focuses less on politics and commentary and more on nudity and ideal feminine sexuality through the male gaze.” Dodds was focused with the influence of authentic neo-burlesque, not its commodified cousin.

Besides authentic neo-burlesque being “good, clean British fun,” Dodds emphasized (every other paragraph, practically) that it empowers women to make choices about how they communicate their gender roles and sexuality. Certainly she was pro-burlesque, but to what extent? Dodds did not view the form as exploitative in the least, apparently. I struggled with this evaluation during the whole lecture. Many of her points were valid in my eyes, but others, well others I just could not morally agree with!

Dodds said that neo-burlesque is an art form that allows “imperfect flesh” to be “celebrated.” That it is a “parody” examining the humorous stereotypes of complicated female identity while mocking expressed feminine behavior and hyper-masculinity. Yes, that’s all fine and dandy and I think it’s great to deconstruct those ideas, especially in a creative manner, but burlesque, no matter what the performer is intending, involves nudity, stripping, teasing and sex. It is male fantasy. It is degrading. It is using one’s body to seek value. I my brain, none of these things are right or rewarding. And even when  try to justify Dodds ideas by saying to myself that burlesque is an opportunity for women to explore sexual power, I fall back and see that it is just another way of seeking male approval.

Burlesque is apparently a lot like Drag in that the performers don’t sing, but instead lip-sync and dance to carefully planned choreography. Dodds says that this offers participants a chance to meticulously plan costume changes, movements and props, therefore creating spectacle and statement. “Facial expressions are social commentary that offer more than just what the smile represents.” Well, what I see is women actively participating in voicelessness, allowing their exposed bodies to speak for themselves with cultural context, not personal. This is detrimental because the audience sees breasts,  butts, curves and sex – a playtoy, instead of a thoughtful individual who may very well have planned a social commentary into their dance. This “voicelessness” represents passivity and perhaps is the exchange for the female to hold court on stage, but she should not have to give up her voice in order to get attention. Her body should not have to be exposed for her to be able to have a platform for opinion. Her ideas should not have to be interjected in-between shimmying, unzipping and flashing. Sex is power, but only temporarily.

First and foremost, Burlesque is a medium that sexualizes and monetizes the female form. Although Dodds enthusiastically commented that cat-calls from the audience are motivating and approving, all parts of me cannot imagine how. Does burlesque actually offer women the freedom to explore their sexuality or can they not get off unless someone else is? With popular forms of media like women’s Cosmopolitan magazine whose sex advice to female readers is largely how to please “your man,” (the mag is almost always heterosexual, mind you) and never to speak out for your own desires, I’m pretty sure that women are being conditioned into these mindsets.

At the end of the day, neo-burlesque as parody, strip, commentary, rebellion, expression, exploration, exploitation or entertainment is mixed messaging. Dodds has a doctoral degree and has proven the ability to deconstruct. The average person does not have that education nor the media literacy training to comprehend the millions of images and texts penetrating their existence from every source imaginable. This is why burlesque is problematic – the commentary is lost somewhere in-between the garters and the feathers.

*May it be known that those who actively participate and enjoy burlesque are not in the wrong, they are expressing themselves, hopefully. I have no issue  with their choice, their bodies and minds are their own. I am sincerely and solely concerned with how our society interprets women, their roles and their bodies through their actions and current privilege discourses. 

Fatal Friday – Seis

10.5.12

This Fatal Friday began like another other…. I was locked in a battle, for an unknown amount of time, with a student trying to take out equipment from the office where Nicole and I work, although she wasn’t on shift. The student and I fought, tooth and nail, he, for his camera, I, for my need to leave the windowless cave. Fifteen minutes later I was free and finally on my way to Nicole and her loving embrace.

When we reunited on grassy turf near our campus library, truly reminding each other that, yes, we do exist apart from one another, fireworks shot out of our faces and the leaves on the trees began to sing out songs of joy and merriment. On a non-fictional note, there was a live jazz concert being played farther down the slope and there was a small crowed gathering.

While Nicole and her special man friend listened, and danced, I ran around photographing the three-piece band and mingling with other photographers who seemed to pop up out of no-where. Apparently I was distracted by the spontaneous jazz for so long that Nicole stole my bike and rode it around our bell-tower for four loops to get my attention and I even had enough time to (accidentally) completely ignore my special man friend when he came to visit me in between classes. Oops. I felt like a douchey douche. Creatively I tried to mend the situation by writing an apology poem, but as the sun set, we all realized that there is only one thing that can truly fix all problems: food.

We retired to Nicole’s apartment, a lovely home with the best fridge imaginable (to my knowledge, it always houses ice cream and cake). There, as I ranted about potentially quitting one of my jobs, Nicole and her room-mates cooked homemade Chinese food and even made me a vegetarian side-dish! Oh the love! But the food-gasms didn’t stop there. We chose unanimously to crawl into Nicole’s boyfriend’s van, a juggernaut of vehicle, and ride in search of frozen yogurt. Down one street and up the next we went, crossing through Philadelphia’s Center City in vain, until we gave up and settled on making a bee-line for West Philly.

After successfully gorging ourselves and agreeing that we felt less guilty about the dessert because we ate ours together, we jumped back into boyfriend’s van and headed home for snuggles and Brendan Fraser. The four of us, one room-mate, one significant other and two feminists, fit like puzzles pieces onto the couch as The Mummy Returns (2001) flickered onto the screen. I’m not to proud to say that I hid in Nicole’s armpit when the scarabs began to eat people alive, but you do what you gotta do. It was worth the cuddles.

Brendan looks like a parakeet in this picture…Or perhaps he can see into your soul. Definitely one of the two.

About 30 min. into the movie I had to leave to catch my train at mid-night, but I was concerned that zombie mummies were going to eat me. Nicole, walking me out to my bike, took time to reassure me that she wouldn’t let anything bad happen. “I promise that if you are killed by CGI zombies, I will make sure your soul is guided into the proper after-life.”

All I have to say is, Go Team! Cooked Bananas!

Movie Review – “The Princess and the Frog”

NOT COOL

2009

Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker

IMDB

“It is notable that this is Disney’s first animated feature since “Song of the South” (1946) to feature African-American characters,and if the studio really never is going to release that film on DVD, which seems more innocent by the day, perhaps they could have lifted “Zip-a-dee Doo-Dah” from it and plugged that song in here. Though the principal characters are all black (other than the rich man Big Daddy and the Prince, who is of undetermined ethnicity), race is not an issue because Disney adroitly sidesteps all the realities of being a poor girl in New Orleans in the early 1920s. Just as well, I suppose.”Roger Ebert’s review

Um, WHAT?!?!?!?! (If you missed it the first time, go back and look at the RED, BOLD, ITALICIZED & UNDERLINED quote. Seriously. Go re-read it. It’s bad. Really bad.)

We had an incredibly hard time watching this movie. Every five seconds (literally) we paused it and wrote down narrative or visual evidence of the (never-ending!) racial, gender AND class stereotypes that “The Princess and the Frog” is laden with. From the other reviews we read, both from “critics” (well, the ones that get paid) and regular, run-of-the-mill reviewers that try to validate their opinions (I guess that’s us), the responses ranged from, wait, they didn’t range. At all. No range. Nope. BECAUSE THEY WERE ALL SEEMINGLY POSITIVE or indifferent. Again, I ask, WHAAAAT???!!!!

To prove our point, check out these deeeelightful quotations gleaned from the corners of the Internet:

“While I relish a conversation about the role of media in perceptions of race in modern American society, you know what I like even more? Catchy showtunes!” – Matt Goldberg, TheCollider.com (*cough* excuse me?)

“They also were savvy enough to cast Oprah Winfrey, foolproof Racial Insensitivity insurance, as the heroine’s mom Eudora. The strategy has already paid off: Tiana merchandise is a boom pre-Christmas industry.” – Richard Corliss, Time.com (cool guys. cool.)

“”The real surprise here is not about race, but how Disney has mined its own heritage for inspiration.” – Kevin Maher, Times.com (DID YOU WATCH THE MOVIE?)

I guess what we’re trying say is that, well, um, I guess we shouldn’t talk about race cause that’s not the point of  movie reviews and blah blah blah stream of consciousness….. THE WHOLE MOVIE IS A FRIGGN’ STEREOTYPE. About African Americans (who really weren’t treated as “Americans” in the reality of when this film is supposed to take place..) and Women and Southerners and the Poor. We can’t believe that few others commented on all of the ills that we noticed, such as the blatant caricatures, the sexism, the formulaic romance, etc. So….we made another list. For your horrified amusement. You’re welcome.

  • ~RACE: Seven minutes in we see the first glimpse of a New Orleans party with  black “Sambo” characters playing all the horns and drums that they can hold! There’s even a little boy following along dancing. But not the type of dancing that the pretty white girls do. No, he’s dancing a jig on the street.
  • ~GENDER & RACE & CLASS: In the first scene that we see Tiana working, her boss, a big cook, makes fun of her for trying to earn enough money to pursue her dream intimating that her race and gender will stop her from achieving it.
  • ~GENDER: Thirteen minutes in Tiana’s mother tenderly tells her ambitious and business-minded daughter that all she wants for her “is love and to meet your prince charming.” Disney throw-back or oppressive gender-typing? BOTH! (<–see what we did there?)
  • ~GENDER & RACE & CLASS: Twenty-four minutes in the real-estate brothers that Tiana is trying to strike a deal with to buy property for her restaurant, comment that, “a little woman of your background would have had her hands full.” (in the words of Wayne Campbell, exsqueeze me?)
  • ~GENDER: Devastated that the aforementioned lands owners rejected her offer and dream, Tiana wishes on a star despite her belief that it won’t do anything. We assume she is hoping to the heavens that she earns enough money to change their minds. Instead (as if by plot coincidence!) she gets a frog. Or, actually, a man in frog form. A prince if you will. You know, like the other main character. Yeah.
  • ~RACE: Louis. The alligator. More specifically, the horn-playing, jive-talking, lazy, perpetually hungry and cowardly, bayou inhabitant. He confides in his deep, obviously African-American voice to Prince Naveen and Tiana (again, they’re in frog-state at this point in the film) that he just wants to be human to play smooth jazz with the “big boys” of the New Orleans showboat bands. Louis’ character is explored with the catchy song, “If I Were a Human Being.” The lyrics casually describe all the amazing things he would do if he was granted the magical transformation. Personally, we believe this subtly insulting tune is hinting that Louis doesn’t necessarily want to be changed from an alligator into a person, but instead into a white person, or at least not a black person confined to the Southern swamps where others won’t reject him. (Positive role models!)
  • ~RACE & CLASS: Disney was kind enough light their viewers’ way to racial caricatures with the coon stereotype of the enchantingly childish firefly, Ray, voiced with an inarticulate Cajun accent. The bug is weathered, friendly, funny and portrayed as completely uneducated and clueless of the world. He’s in love with the North Star, which he thinks is the “prettiest firefly that ever did shine.”
  • ~RACE & GENDER: Mamma Odie. She’s a mammy figure and a blind witch-doctor living in a boathouse lodged in a tree in the bayou with animals as her only company. Her magic stems from her ability to cook, namely, “gumbo, gumbo in the pot…” and her final advice to froggy Tiana and Naveen, as well as Louis, is basically to accept their place in life, not to challenge the status-quo. In other words, Odie encourages Tiana to stop her frivolous hopes of being an entrepreneur and just look for a husband.
  • ~GENDER: As a little side dish, we noticed that although Naveen makes fun of Tiana for her die-hard work-ethic and calls her “a stick in the mud,” it is only when she’s not talking and instead dancing that he begins to become infatuated. First example is on the lily pads during the song Ma Belle Evangeline” and the second is during “Dig a Little Deeper”.
  • ~RACE: As Betsy Sharkey of the LaTimes.com writes, “So while it’s not Disney’s first time at dipping a toe in multicultural waters, “The Princess and the Frog” still feels like baby steps.” As a personal favorite example of inequality throughout this film, we would like to finally point out that Disney is just not yet ready for, *breathe*, an actual, black and white inter-racial couple. There, we said it. Although this movie is praised for having the “first black princess” (btdubs, she ain’t a princess, she’s a waitress and if made fun of it), her (obviously heterosexual) love interest has to be of indeterminable ethnicity from a fictional country.
AND that’s not the whole list. We could keep going, we really could, but we want to thank you for reading our deconstruction review and hopefully you’ll come back for more. As a last thought on the film (thank God), we’ll leave you with this quote:

“A frog whose green hue suggests that, if nothing else, Disney finally recognizes that every little girl, no matter her color, represents a new marketing opportunity.” – Manohla Dargis, NYTimes.com