Susan Brownmiller, Angela Davis, & the erasure of Black Feminist Activism

Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will is one of the most important texts in the history of women’s liberation. There is no debate on its impact on the so-called second wave* feminist movement and on women being able to speak their truth. All movements for social justice need to understand their history in order to create their future. This does not mean we need to see foundational texts like Against Our Will as perfect. Unfortunately, Rachel Cooke’s interview with Susan Brownmiller, published last month in The Guardian, falls into the trap of refusing to acknowledge that our ‘foundational’ texts are not only not perfect but also not written only by white women:

Against Our Will finally came out in 1975, five long years after the first of the key texts of women’s liberation: Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. Though it would later be attacked by, among others, the black activist Angela Davis for its attitudes to race (in his piece, Remnick writes that Brownmiller’s treatment of the Emmett Till case “reads today as morally oblivious”), its reception was mostly positive and it became a bestseller (much later, with pleasing neatness, it would be included in the New York Public Library’s Books of the Century).

Calling Angela Davis a Black activist rather than a Black Feminist Activist is deeply problematic. Davis was/ is a significant theorist and activist in the feminist movement. Her book Women, Race & Classfirst published in 1981, is as radical and essential text as Against Our Will, Sexual Politics, The Dialectic of Sex, and The Feminine Mystique. The erasure of the term ‘feminist’ here implies that Davis’ critique was rude and unnecessary; that the experience of women of colour should only be spoken of in terms of sexism, and not the racism (or classism, disabilism or lesbophobia) that women experience. Failing to include the term feminist here doesn’t just imply that Davis isn’t a ‘real’ feminist, it completely erases her from the feminist movement.

The use of the term  ‘attack’ rather than critical engagement reinforces the idea that Davis’ response was rude and unnecessary.  Considering the fact that Emmett Till’s accuser has admitted to lying about Till wolf whistling at her, the insinuation here that Davis is the problem rather than Brownmiller’ representation of the murder of a teenage boy for the crime of being African-American is very concerning.

Firstly we need to stop using words like ‘attack’ to define discussion within the feminist movement. Critical engagement, debate, and self-reflection are essential to all social justice movements. No one should be above criticism and apologising is not a sign of weakness.

Yet, somehow we’ve arrived at a point where we split women into 2 categories: those we put on a pedestal and are absolutely banned from critiquing because they are ‘important’ and those whose work we must NEVER EVER read for fear of our brains imploding. Or, something equally ridiculous. This dichotomy plays straight into the hands of misogynists: we’re so busy back pedalling and apologising that we no longer recognise feminists as women. Women who make mistakes. Women who say stupid shit. Women who say deeply offensive things (and if they are on the pedestal we are definitely not allowed to mention the offensive language and actions). We don’t allow room for women to grow and change as actual human beings.

I am not arguing here for an erasure of past abusive comments, theories and actions or the dismissal of feminist texts which are deeply problematic. We need to acknowledge our actions and the negative consequences these had for other women. We also need to acknowledge that women can grow and change; that the true liberation of women will not happen if we ignore our history. Erasing Angela Davis from the feminist movement in order to protect Susan Brownmiller’s feelings and legacy are not the actions of women who are committed to feminist theory and activism. Against Our Will can be a seminal feminist text and be representative of the erasure of racism from feminist history. These positions are not a dichotomy. They are the true history of the feminist movement, where challenges from within are essential to the success of the movement.

Angela Davis is a Black feminist activist and academic. She did not ‘attack’ Susan Brownmiller. Davis simply demanded that the experience of Black women be recognised as reality; that sexism does not trump the intersecting oppressions experienced by women.

 

Further Reading:

Patricia Hill Collins & Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality, (Polity Press, 2016).

Angela Davis, Women, Race & Class, (Random House, 1981).

Bell Hooks, Feminism is for Everybody, (Pluto Press, 2000)

Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders: Decolonising Theory, Practicing Solidarity, (Duke University Press, 2003)

Cherry Moraga & Gloria Anzaldua, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour, (New York Press, 2015)

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, (Haymarket Books, 2017).

 

 

* I prefer Liz Kelly’s theory of feminism as a tapestry which all feminists (and now womanists) create and recreate by adding new threads and undoing that which is now understood to be problematic, rather than feminism as a series of ‘waves’.

Feminist Superhero Films we actually need.

Since DC’s  painful attempts at live action Superman, Justice League and Suicide Squad films, I’ve been telling everyone, and their cat, that Batman and Superman need to go. They are trite and whiny. And, unbearably smug and pretentious. Joker just needs to die.

Last week, I saw Black Panther with my daughter and two friends. The women in this film were incredible, brilliant, funny, intelligent and strong; characteristics that are missing in far too many superhero films where women are sidekicks and love interests. The difference between Black Panther and other superhero films is immense. We need more films like this rather another ‘woman as sidekick’ film like  Marvel’s Antman & Wasp. I was hoping they would break tradition and have a solo Wasp film where she rescues her mother, since Antman should be the annoying sidekick, not a character worthy of subsequent solo films.

So here is my lists of female superhero films to follow the solo Captain Marvel film , scheduled for 2019, and the rumoured solo Black Widow film in the works too.

The Solo Films: 

1. Storm – This needs to start with an apology from the fools in charge of X-Men Apocalypse who made her evil. Storm is not evil. Storm would never join a man/ God bent on the destruction of humanity. She is a teacher, midwife, and the true heart of the X-Men. Without Storm, the X-Men would have few redeeming characteristics since the men are all whiny and self-absorbed. She is their centre: powerful, strong and compassionate. I’m not going to get into Wolverine’s constant sexual harassment of Jean Grey, but Storm was far too forgiving in not accidentally losing Wolverine in a hurricane. On a different planet.

2. Batgirl: Any of the recent Batgirls would work.  Barbara Gordon is the best name for a solo film, but Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown would be excellent too.

3. Hellcat: After the books. Of course

4. Ms Marvel (Kamila Khan): Follows the comic books. Obviously.

5. America Chavez: the origins film. Possibly where Captain America actually dies (if they let him live in Infinity Wars).

6. Iron Heart: Because any more of Tony Stark whining will make my head explode. He’s a dick. In every film. Literally, his only moment of actual humanity is in his relationship with Spiderman. Which is about 7 films too late.

7. Shuri: Because she is incredible. And totally smarter than Tony Stark.

Team Films

1. Ms Marvel (Kamila Khan), America Chavez and Iron Heart team up with Wakanda’s Nakia, Okoye and Shuri to end the trafficking of women and children throughout the galaxy.

https://generationwhy2016blog.wordpress.com/2016/10/16/ms-marvel/

2. Harley Quinn, Posion Ivy & the Birds of Prey team up to kill Joker – and then Harley marries Poison Ivy. Oracle performs the ceremony and then they work together to end male violence against women and girls across the galaxies, recognising gaslighting and coercive control as criminal acts.

https://generationwhy2016blog.wordpress.com/2017/05/12/poison-ivy-harley-quinn-get-married/

3. A Justice League film without the tedious whinging of Batman & Superman. Preferably they are both dead although I’d tolerate a fallen into a different time stream/ alternate reality plot as long as neither actually appear in the film.

4. A-Force film following the series written and drawn by G. Willow Wilson, Marguerite Bennett and Jorge Molina. 

https://generationwhy2016blog.wordpress.com/2016/10/16/a-force/

5. Valkyrie & Sif buddy film: I don’t actually care about the plot of this film as long as no male superheroes show up. Bounty hunters taking down violent men could be fun though.

6. A Spider Gwen film – an origins film that examines how gender impacts Spider Gwen’s ability to help people. This list is all about the women but Miles Morales deserves a film too.

7. The Women of Wakanda which absolutely needs to be based on Roxane Gay’s books. And not just because someone at Marvel/ Disney might remember to invite her to the movie premier. Although that would help.

8. Batgirl: I‘d quite like an a film in which all of the women who become Batgirl work together. I know the animated Mystery of Batwoman film has 3 women working together as one, but these women deserve a proper film which explores their relationships with each other.

9. Gotham Academy: teenage superheroes with raging hormones? What could go wrong?

 

*All the art here is by my daughter. You can find all her artwork on her blog Generation Why?, which is named after the first Ms Marvel book featuring Kamila Khan.

 

Suggestions from @MogPlus:

Justin Trudeau is not a feminist superhero.

Justinjustin-trudeau-yoga_650x400_71459338988 Trudeau is a feminist. We all know this since he says it every single time he’s interviewed. The media is obsessed with this narrative and Trudeau is regularly accused of ‘trolling the internet’ for posting pictures which revel in hyper-masculinity.

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Much of Trudeau’s appeal is that he is a conventionally attractive white male who does yoga, charity boxing and loves kids. Almost as much as Barack Obama does. This is not ‘trolling the internet’. It is part of a deliberate campaign of image management – just like every other politician on the planet. David Cameron taking up yoga would not make him a better prime minister – nothing can compensate for the destructive and deeply misogynistic and racist policies that the Tory party has developed. Likewise, an attractive prime minister who enjoys a photo opportunities with babies – of the human and panda varieties – does not automatically guarantee good policies or even a commitment to feminism.

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It is a failing of our culture and lack if critical consumption of media that we are infatuated with a prime minister who is under the age of 60 and has all his hair. We’ve learned nothing from the debacle of Tony Blair and ‘Blair’s Babes’.

 

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Trudeau grew up in the public eye. He knows the value of a carefully cultivated media construction, which is both serious and playful. It’s clear he is willing to be silly in the public eye but posing in a pool with his family isn’t a policy document. Before he gets acclaimed as the greatest prime minister ever, it’s best to have a passing acquaintance with his policies before we repeat the embarrassment of Barack Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize for promising nuclear non-proliferation only 9 months after being inaugurated – what with Obama’s record of military intervention in the following years not being exactly on the side of ensuring World Peace. At the rate the media is going with it’s coverage of Trudeau: Feminist Superhero, he’ll win Women of the Year 2016, which is only slightly less embarrassing than Glamour voting Caitlyn Jenner despite the fact that Jenner is a republican who does not support a single right of women, including reproductive justice,  and the feting of Kellie Maloney erasing pesky issues like homophobia, racism and domestic violence (it’s worth noting here that attempted strangulation is a huge risk factor for fatal intimate partner violence).

The fact that a Trudeau has gone on record claiming to be a feminist is a good thing. It is essential that world leaders understand that women are oppressed as a class, but saying the words ‘I’m a feminist’ aren’t enough. They have to be followed through with actions and Justin Trudeau has simply not done enough for women for him to celebrated yet. A commitment to access to abortion for all women should be a basic requirement in a politician – not a cause for celebration. I have yet to read any statements from Trudeau on reproductive justice – something Aboriginal women are consistently denied.

His tax breaks are currently aimed at middle class families with a commitment to increasing contributions from the wealthy 1% and not those living in poverty, which isn’t exactly a Brave New World in political promises. The 2014 Liberal conference pledged to research a basic minimum income for all residents with the promise of Ontario trialling it. There are also promises around prescription charges, which are incredibly expensive particularly if you have disabilities or a long-term illness and no health insurance. This is all under discussion with some of Trudeau’s tax reforms conflicting with the research proposals on a universal basic income. A universal basic income is an inherently feminist policy. If Trudeau’s government follows through with these recommendations it will have an immediate impact on poverty, which disproportionately impacts women and all Aboriginal Peoples (First Nation, Inuit, and Metis).

Aboriginal communities across Canada experience systemic poverty and the consequences of Colonial practises which continue to this day, with the final residential school not closing until 1996. Access to healthcare, education, employment, and support services are sub-standard in many communities. Aboriginal women experience domestic and sexual violence and abuse at much higher rates than other Canadian women – including that perpetrated by white men. Aboriginal women are more likely to have their children taken into foster care if they exhibit trauma-symptoms caused by male violence. They are less likely to be given access to support services and are far more likely to be blamed for their experiences of violence.

Substance use is common in Aboriginal communities and is directly linked to trauma and poverty.  Many communities have taken extreme measures to support young people, particularly alcohol consumption and huffing. It’s not unusual to hear of RCMP officers stationed in remote communities dealing in illegal substances, including alcohol in those where it is banned. Racist and misogynistic violence against Aboriginal peoples by police is common at the national, provincial and local levels. “Starlight tours”, the practise of dumping Aboriginal peoples outside of the city limits by Saskatoon police was common in the 1990s – there is little documented evidence of it happening at other times but even the chief of police in Saskatoon believes it happened(s). These “starlight tours” resulted in the deaths by hypothermia of a number of people including Rodney Naistus, Lawrence Wegner and Neil Stonechild. I’ve yet to have heard any policies from Trudeau which will deal with these issues.

One promise Trudeau has already instituted is holding an inquiry into the missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Estimates suggest more than 4000 women disappeared during the last 30 years – the police, of course, have a lower number of 1200. The police of Canada aren’t exactly trustworthy when it comes to recording crimes against Aboriginal people – and aren’t exactly free of perpetrators either. This inquiry is absolutely essential to address Canada’s current racist and misogynist polices which have resulted in the abuse, trauma, disappearance and murder of Aboriginal women. However, this is not Trudeau’s policy but the consequence of decades of activism by Aboriginal women and their families culminating in a very distressing report written by Human Rights Watch on the disappearance and murder of Aboriginal women along highway 16, or Highway of Tears, in British Columbia.

If this inquiry is undertaken appropriately, and avoids the incompetence and possibilities of corruption seen in the UK’s Chilcot Inquiry into the war in Iraq, it will fundamentally change the way we understand Canada both historically and currently. However, Trudeau announcing that an inquiry will take place is not a sign of his commitment to feminism. His commitment will be demonstrated by ensuring that the voices of Aboriginal peoples are given priority during it and when any recommendations are put into place.

The inquiry will also need to address the disproportionate number of Aboriginal women forced into prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation due to poverty, misogyny and racism. Trudeau supports the decriminalisation of the ‘sex industry’. This is not just the women, children and men forced into selling their bodies but includes decriminalising those who profit from the sexual exploitation of women.  There is nothing feminist about decriminalising pimps and there is nothing feminist about ignoring the fact that many of the missing and murdered Aboriginal women were vulnerable because they had no options other than prostitution. A decriminalisation policy which ignores systemic racism and misogyny within Canada is not feminist.

Before lauding Trudeau a feminist superhero, we need to see the following:

  • immediate investment in education and healthcare
  • a real commitment to reproductive justice ensuring that abortion and birth control are easily available across Canada, as well as recognition that poverty and racism impact on how women access reproductive justice. This requires an overhaul of the welfare system, foster care, and access to free prescriptions, dental, eyesore etc for all who need it.
  • Universal basic income
  • Federal control over child maintenance so that it is not a lottery sweepstakes for mothers
  • Fundamental overhaul of child contact to recognise the ways in which abusive fathers harm their children and former partners through contact starting with recognising that a man who abuses his partner is committing child abuse.
  • massive investment in women’s services including refuges, homeless accommodation, and rape crisis centres
  • Exiting services
  • massive investment in housing, particularly on reservations some of which still do not have access to appropriate clean water and energy.
  • Ensuring that his commitment to action on climate change recognises how it disproportionately impacts Aboriginal communities and that support for the Keystone XL pipeline does not address this.

As it stands, Trudeau has the potential to be a transformative prime minister dedicated to instituting feminist policies, but he isn’t there yet and the obsession with his looks is simply demeaning to us all.

 

 

Further reading:

 “Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada,” – Human Rights Watch

Red River Women – BBC

No more Stolen Sisters – Amnesty Canada

Missing and Murder Aboriginal Girls and Women – Native Women’s Association of Canada

Canada’s Missing: Thousands of Murdered or Missing Women – Al Jazeera

National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

Images:

Image 1: Justin Trudeau – twitter

Image 2: Bespoke Films/ Daily Mail

Image 3:  Rachel J./Twitter

Image 4: Maude Chauvin

Real feminist sisterhood

It’s very rare that I share positive stories of women here. I spend so much time writing about male violence and celebrity culture that I forget to share the good stuff.

This is the good stuff: an anonymous donor gave a disabled, single mother 10 000 pounds so she can complete her master’s degree.

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The donor is anonymous so we can’t guess as to their biological sex. What we can say is that due to women sharing Diane’s GoFundMe (and whatever spiteful asshole reported it), a brilliant feminist is now going to be able to complete her Master’s degree in criminology to embark on a career helping young people who have been criminalized following substance abuse. This is real sisterhood.

Kate Middleton: Suffragette

Kate Middleton is officially our generations suffragette for the incredible action of wearing the same outfit twice. At least, according to Patsy Kensit.

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Image via 

Feminism is about liberating women; not who your friends are

On Friday morning, between getting myself ready for work and my child ready for school, I was tweeted an article on the BBC about a report from the Home Affairs Select Committee which recommended anonymity for rapists. I was horrified. Anonymity for rape suspects is incredibly dangerous for all sorts of reasons – starting with the fact that rapists have a huge rate of recidivism and a very low rate of conviction. Because of misogyny. Rapists commit rape knowing that the general public, the media and the police will label their victims a liar or insist she was partly responsible for the rape for the crime of being born a girl.

I was so angry, I started a petition. Whilst I was writing it, I saw a tweet with a press release from the End Violence Against Women coalition so I added their quotes into the text of the petition.

I started the petition because I was angry. I assumed other women would be angry too. I was a bit surprised at the low numbers of people signing the petition, but I hoped it would be a slow-burner with the lack of signatures due to starting the petition during a solar eclipse.

I was really shocked and hurt to discover on Saturday morning that the reason the petition wasn’t being shared publicly was because a high profile media feminist refused to sign and share it because she doesn’t like me. It’s a petition asking the Home Affairs Select Committee review their recommendation on anonymity for suspects in rape cases – a recommendation made with no research-based evidence, just vague worries about the reputation of rapists. It never occurred to me that there would be anything so controversial about this petition that people wouldn’t share it because they don’t like me.

Yet, this is what happened. The petition wasn’t shared by a high-profile feminist because she doesn’t like me. When questioned, the answer changed to “because it’s not well-written”. I wrote the petition in 15 minutes as that’s all the time I had on Friday to do so. I’m a single disabled mother – my time is limited due to caring responsibilities and my disability. I wanted to get it out as soon as possible to challenge the inevitable media coverage of men feeling sad for being accused of rape – as though the real problem in rape was the rapist’s feelings rather than the fact that a woman was raped.

Now, I’m hearing others say the same thing: they can’t sign because the petition “wasn’t written well” – an answer that smacks of classism and disablism. Under this argument, only women who have Russell group university education will be allowed to engage in public activism. After all, a rogue comma could destroy the feminist movement completely since bad grammar is a bigger sin that anonymity for rape victims.

As a disabled woman who has written at length on my experiences dealing with the brain fog associated with fibromyalgia, I find this idea that women refuse to sign my petition as its “poorly written” humiliating. I know that my illness has affected my writing and my ability to talk coherently (especially when tired as I start to lose words or use the wrong ones). I’ve been really open about how hard it is as someone who loves writing to be unable to put my thoughts out coherently: that what ends up on the paper isn’t what was in my head because of the way the fibromyalgia has effected the ability of my brain to communicate clearly. It’s also effected my ability to speak since I lose words and have huge pauses in between words (that I don’t realise is happening). I also find it difficult to process what is being said to me when tired: I know people are talking but I can’t hear the actual words and, even when I can hear some of the words, my brain can’t actually process the message. When it’s this bad, the only thing I can do is nap. This isn’t exactly conducive to mothering or being a writer.

Hence, the humiliation and hurt at being told that my petition isn’t shareable because it isn’t well-written. Because I have a disability that is slowly destroying my life. I know that it isn’t being shared because this particular woman doesn’t like me – not because of the writing style. But, it doesn’t make it less humiliating when people are being told it’s because it’s ‘poorly-written’.

Feminism is a political movement to liberate women. It isn’t about who your friends are or who is a good writer. It’s about changing the world to make it safer for women. That’s why I started my petition to the Home Affairs Select Committee. And, that’s why I hope everyone will sign it.

Why Men Can’t Be Feminists Redux

 

They say shit like this on twitter and think it makes them a feminist and a gender egalitarian.

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Granted, it’s possible he’s being ironic in his twitter bio:

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Suggesting that women who wear a religious item of clothing are “spineless” is misogyny. It is a total failure to understand structural oppression, choice, faith, and survival. It is equally racist.

Women aren’t property but we also aren’t spineless or stupid – as this man implies. Women make choices within a very limited range to survive. Many women have no choice not to wear the hijab because of threats of violence within the home or the community. Others choose to wear a hijab for a million reasons that this man is clearly too dim to even begin to contemplate.

Telling a woman to wear/not wear an item of clothing is just a bullshit erasure of male supremacy and structural oppression. It holds women accountable for men’s behaviour.

The Dude who came up with #NoHijabDay is equally as misogynistic and racist, but at least he’s not pretending to be a feminist. Not that that is any comfort whatsoever in the grand scheme of things.

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Brilliant Spoken Poetry on Misogyny in Music

This is the first time I’ve seen this video and it just a brilliant response to Jay-Z and misogyny in music (and applicable across all genres).

The name on the video is Madiha Bhatti. I haven’t yet checked if she’s uploaded more to YouTube but this is just incredible.

#WomenAgainstFeminism, Feminist Critique and the Replication of Patriarchal Abuse

These are a few of the tweets currently being posted on #WomenAgainstFeminism by women who genuinely believe that feminism is a serious problem:

bc feminists today are truly intolerant, incapable of debate & will attack anyone who challenges their agenda

because I don’t need to blame everything that happens on a man.

Feminism has hurt men, women, and children to serve the few at the top who couldn’t make it on their own.

And, this is what some feminists are tweeting in response:

Still can’t believe the hashtag is real… I honestly can’t believe the world has people that stupid.

pointing out the stupid people on the tag how fun

i like how every girl in the tag that’s actually against feminism looks like janet reno. pick your battles, uglies.

It is absolutely true that many of the women who are posting grievances on the #WomenAgainstFeminism tag are white, privileged women and there are some very valid criticisms to be had of the tag but calling people ugly isn’t activism and it won’t change the opinions of those you are insulting. Pointing out the privilege of those dismissing feminism, like in this tweet:

“I am so privileged that I wont take the time to understand a movement that is for helping women who aren’t as lucky”

is absolutely essential. Calling Janet Reno ugly is not.

Critiquing the tag doesn’t require insulting the appearance & intelligence of the women posting on it. It doesn’t require replicating misogynistic language or insults. It requires an evidence-based answer – such as those pointing out the battle for women’s suffrage, rape laws, equal pay acts, maternity rights, reproductive freedoms and the ability to have your own bank account. It is feminism that one these rights for women. Feminism didn’t achieve any of these goals by being obnoxious to other women.

Feminists should understand that systemic misogyny within the capitalist-patriarchy makes it very difficult for women to see the reality of our oppression. Even naming male violence as an oppression results in women being belittled, abused and harassed online and off. Our education system is designed to teach children to pass exams – not to question authority. Our media is owned and dominated by white men who have a vested interest in preventing women from accessing knowledge.

This isn’t to say that the women who started this tag aren’t causing harm to other women. Of course they are but we don’t need to replicate patriarchal patterns of silencing against women who are blinded by their privilege or too afraid to speak out. This is the true demonstration of the power of the capitalist-patriarchy: using women to silence and control other women. We can challenge these women with kindness or with anger. but we do not need to engage in abusive language.

Instead of insulting the women who started the hasthag, let’s start a real discussion as to why women see feminism as threatening. Let’s start questioning their belief systems and pointing out the reality of the lives of women who do not have similar privileges.

 Calling women ugly and stupid is exactly what men do to us every single day. We do not need to be doing this to other women – even if they are tweeting out messages which cause harm to other women. We don’t need to replicate the lowest common denominator.

And, if you do feel the need to be abusive, why not target some of the men posting on the tag:

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High School Musical: Disney Goes Feminist

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Granted High School Musical 3 has a rather unnecessary number of shots of Sharpay Evans’ arse and there is a very clear evidence of bullying by the two main male leads: Troy Bolton and Chad Danforth who steal the clothes of two younger classmates and make them chase them through the school dressed only in towels. In HS-land this gets the bullied boys detention. In my-land, it gets the two bullies an in-school suspension and a ban from participation in after school activities because it constitutes sexual harassment. And, I can’t even begin to describe the horror which is the Tiki song in High School Musical 2: racism a go-go there.

There are also very few non-white actors in the films. The best friends of the two leads are both African-American but they both are stereotypes. Chad Danforth is basketball obsessed and a loyal friend. Taylor McKessie is bossy, demanding and over-organised. Her character is also incredibly intelligent and loyal to her best friend which is a departure from many portrayals of African-American characters in Disney films. But, they are still only supporting characters living stereotypes of what “good” African-American teenagers are interested in: boys do basketball and girls do smart & over-bossy. On the other hand, the main character Gabriella Montez is Hispanic-American, which is a major departure for mainstream Disney programs. Disney does feature non-white actors but only in supporting roles and frequently as crass stereotypes.

We can’t forget the issue of class as every single one of the characters lives in a huge house, including Gabriella Montez whose mother is a single parent. Poverty is never an issue. In fact, the characters can afford to just hop on planes and fly 1000 miles without so much blinking about the credit card charge. Obviously, abuse doesn’t exist and no one has any disabilities. It is the American Dream: a white heteronormative culture.

There are also serious problems with gender stereotyping. The mothers of all the teenagers are shown in kitchens only bringing in groceries, baking snacks, serving food, and interrupting private moments between teenagers. Fathers, on the other hand, are actively involved in coaching sports and being ‘cool’. The drama teacher is OTT in the ridiculous and Sharpay, well, Sharpay is a blond narcissistic ice queen who treats everyone like shit. Because, that is oh-so-original.

Yet, High School Musical is probably one of the most feminist films Disney has ever produced. The main character Gabriella is a “good” girl who wears virginal outfits. But, she’s also intelligent, loyal and prone to speeches on everyone working together. She changes everyone for the better by encouraging them to be true to themselves. She’s also true to herself valuing her education over her boyfriend. Gabriella isn’t mean and she doesn’t take shit from anyone. Yes, there is an unnecessary amount of twaddle about boyfriends and girlfriends and loving one another forever but Gabriella is an inspiring female character. The value placed on friendships between the teenage girls is so very, very different. With the exception of Sharpay, the girls support one another through their dreams, their hobbies and their lives.  They work together for each other and they talk about the importance of valuing yourself as an individual over any potential relationship.

It’s not a perfect feminist film but it’s a start. And, in a complete departure from normal Disney narratives, the boy follows the girl to university.

 

<this rant is brought to you by my daughters who’ve been watching the trilogy together>