Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Gender Issues, part 5 - The Merida Makeover, Ignorance, Trigger Warnings, and pretty much everything in my life (right now)

This will be the final post in the Gender Issues series (see 1, 2, 3, 4 if you need to catch up) for several reasons. One, when I began writing back in February, I chose the most boring title on earth, and when I write about this in the future, I'll come up with something more relevant and snazzy. Two, I am so overwhelmed by my own thoughts and emotions since I opened this Pandora's box of topics that I need to do more reading, thinking, and processing. Friends and family currently ask, "What are you up to?" and I launch into a meandering diatribe of a billion different issues (all having to do with gender roles and stereotypes, mind you) that leave me feeling scattered, like I haven't found my own "personal thesis statement" on all this yet. You may experience this in a minute...sorry. I want some clarity. Third, though there is never really a "break" from reality, I need to step away from some of this for a while and concentrate on other projects. The end of a school year is never a leisurely respite, and my attention is needed elsewhere. However, since I can't stop being a female human, I will continue to read, watch, listen to, and digest the many resources I have found over the last few months. Just with less fervor.

So let me wrap up some loose ends...


the Disneyfication of an anti-Princess
I mentioned in my last post the controversial Merida makeover launched by Disney in the lead up to her coronation into the Disney Princess Hall of Fame. One has only to Google "Merida Makeover" to see the response out there. Most important to me, however, was the reaction of my students, since most of them have seen the movie and many were fans of the character. I began with a brief review of our lesson on altering images and why it's done or for what purpose. When I unveiled the Merida before and after shots, the response was overwhelmingly negative. "WHYYYYYYYYYY DID THEY DO THAT!?" Big ugh.

What was wrong with the original Merida? Why did she have to change to fit into the Disney brand? Upon further reflection, one student actually made the observation that Merida's entire character was changed by this makeover. What she looks like fundamentally changed who she is. I found this to be an interesting point to explore, particularly since Merida was changed into something her character in the movie actively did NOT want to be, which was a princess-y princess.  This led to an interesting back and forth about our appearance and what it says about the kind of person we are. (Dress codes are another hot topic lately, but that's for another post) I pointed out that I changed my clothes and looks to come to school in the morning...I wouldn't show up for work straight out of bed still in my pajamas.  Does that change who I am on the inside? No, they responded.  So why or how is this different? The kids were quick to point out that this characterization of Merida was more than a simple change of clothing and the addition of makeup. The movie Merida hated that dress and getting all "done up" out of obligation to her familial and royal status. This dramatic change stripped that spunky, independent part of her character away and made her into the mold of a proper Disney princess.

Overall, I'd say the big reaction from the kids was disappointment and wonder at why it even happened in the first place. I'm impressed that they have begun to question motives. Though it felt strange to be discussing the digital alteration of a cartoon character, they could see clear parallels between this and the magazine covers of real people we had analyzed in the Picture Perfect lesson. Why does the media insist on presenting these "idealized" images of people? Will the money-making juggernaut that is the Disney Princess collection finally bend to the pressure of activists pushing for change? [To its credit (maybe) Disney has acknowledged the controversy, and a few changes have actually been made.] For an interesting take on the potential role of the Disney Corporation as leaders for change, read this post by the Girl's CEO Connection.

The Luxury of Ignorance

Gary Howard with Benjie Howard and Maketa Wilborn
Our Diversity Committee brought the New Wilderness Project (Benjie & Maketa, right) to our school this year for a wonderful inservice day of learning and sharing. The founders of this group are the sons of Gary Howard, author of We Can't Teach What We Don't Know. They asked us how the dynamics of dominance show up in our school culture, and to really dig in, they provided a framework for discussion around three key concepts:

  1. The Legacy of Privilege
  2. The Assumption of Rightness
  3. The Luxury of Ignorance
In the face of our past and present, many white Americans simply choose to remain unaware, a luxury uniquely available to members of any dominant group. (Howard, 2003)
Though Mr. Howard's work is predominantly focused on race, the idea of the "dominant culture" certainly applies to everyday sexism. The luxury of ignorance concept has stayed with me in the months following our inservice day, and I keep coming back to it again and again. Those who don't  experience sexism, or racism, or any -ism, have the luxury of not being acutely aware of the problem. They do not see it. This doesn't automatically make them bad people, but it means they cannot be fully aware and understanding of a challenge that they never experience. I'm grateful for the reminder of how ignorant I have been about many things. I absolutely have this luxury as a privileged white person. I also have this privilege as a woman in many regards. I certainly have the luxury of ignorance if we start talking about sexual violence and abuse. Having not experienced those things myself, I was ignorant to the need for a *TRIGGER WARNING label on certain stories, videos, or images in the media. I have seen more trigger warnings than I care to count lately. They are designed to let people know that sensitive or graphic content could trigger very deep and powerful feelings in them, particularly if they've been victims of assault or aggression. Though I am saddened that such a thing is necessary, I respect its power, and the bravery of people who continue to work toward justice for others despite what wounds they may carry.

Humor or Hate Speech?
My work as an educator and a technology specialist often leads me toward stories involving social media and its use by and impact on our kids. The most recent trigger-warning-worthy story has involved a social media campaign to call out Facebook's misogyny problem. The trigger warning is on the story, but I'll throw it in here as well. In asking Facebook to more clearly define and enforce its own content moderation policies, people have been pressuring companies to stop advertising on Facebook until pages that depict graphic and sexual violence against women are taken down. The content allowed, often times in the name of "humor," is utterly shocking and disgusting, so be warned if you choose to take a look. How much of this extremely graphic content do our kids see? I have no idea. But they are confronted with the more subtle references to gender roles in our culture every single day.  Do you recognize and acknowledge it when you see it? Via social media, our kids share, on a massive scale, that which they deem to be shocking or funny. The blatant misogyny called out by WAM is so far from humorous it is being labeled "hate speech." But it was long before this campaign began that I saw "date rape humor" floating around online, and in real life as I am reminded once again of the "it's not rape if you like it" comment I heard a year ago.

I am happy to report that Facebook has finally acknowledged the problem in its standards and is revamping its policies on content filtering.

If you follow this link to Women, Action, and the Media, you will see something amazing. Within a week, this campaign worked. Several companies (whose ads showed up on some of these horrendous pages unbeknownst to them) responded to the boycott and pulled their advertising to pressure Facebook into action.  This is social activism at its finest, people! And social media, through a massive Twitter campaign as well as direct appeals to Facebook, made it possible. Technology can be used for good every bit as powerfully (and hopefully more so) than it can be used to spread hateful and shaming messages. The trolls don't win if we don't let them.

Bottom Line 

I have woken up. Though I have been aware of sexism, discrimination, sterotypes, gender roles, and media portrayals for a long time (and even experienced some shocking street harassment myself recently), I guess I've finally hit my tipping point and acknowledged my own ignorance. I'm more actively educating myself and sharing my thoughts with others. I'm not willing to sit silently any more, nor am I willing to fear being labeled a "crazy feminist." Bring it on. Feminism is not a bad word, and any label that suggests I care deeply about human rights is fine by me. I care about this, I can do something about it, and it is absolutely my responsibility to do so. This writing series began out of a reaction to things happening around me and my perceived need to address it for the sake of my children and my students navigating the difficult social landscape of the digital world. [In fact, it began with an article entitled, "To my male relatives on Facebook who 'like' sexism."] It became, however, an intensely personal journey of discovery that I am sure to be on for the rest of my life.

Join me.

(By the way, I'm still keeping track of resources on the Gender/Social Health Pinterest board. Please send suggestions my way!)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Gender Issues, part 4 - Picture Perfect

I've been using Common Sense Media's Gender and Digital Life Toolkit with my 3rd graders this year. We spent a couple of weeks studying a unit called "Selling Stereotypes," where we looked at advertising specifically marketed to either girls or boys. You can read the full story here, but the gist of it was that the kids spotted the stereotypes fairly easily. The interesting part came in trying to figure out how we feel about it and why it happens in the first place. The Lego lesson resources were brilliant in this regard because it was so easy to spot the stereotypes in them.  But where else are our children "sold" an image of something that requires a critical eye?

Real or fake?
The second lesson in the unit, called "Picture Perfect," asks the essential question, How can photos be changed on the computer, and how can that affect our feelings about the way we look? The second half of that question is much deeper and more abstract, so before we got into that part, we started by simply looking at an image.

Take a look at the lemon on the right.  While it was projected on the screen, I asked the kids, "Is it real or fake? How can you tell?" This discussion actually took a little longer than I thought it would. Though it probably looks like a complete fake to most of us, not everyone was convinced. I showed it to the kids two ways, first without the caption underneath and then I revealed the caption to see if that changed anyone's mind. The words definitely made a difference in whether or not we felt like we were being manipulated, and the conclusion many drew was that we should try it ourselves to test whether or not it is even possible. Hilarious results below...

What I loved about this exercise was that we started with an image that was altered for artistic purposes--not a person, just a pretty lemon. It's a beautiful picture, isn't it? The initial response from kids was, "That's cool!" Photos can be altered to create things that could otherwise exist only in our imagination.

Once the caption was revealed, however, the skepticism creeped in. Is that really possible with food coloring? We became motivated to test it ourselves. My Results = Yikes! I withstood a few accusations of "I really think you could have been more careful, Ms. Gerla," but after this, we felt pretty comfortable with our conclusion that the Colorful Lemon Visual was fake. It's still a cool picture all by itself, but reading the caption made us feel manipulated.

Now it was time to turn to advertising and the photo manipulation that occurs all the time. Altered images are commonplace, in fact the norm, in visual advertising, and this can range from simple touch ups to extensive alteration. So, if we spend all of our time looking at people who don't actually exist in real life, how does that make us feel about the way we look? Or how we should look? The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has been going on for several years now, and you may have recently seen the viral video where they had a forensic artist draw portraits of women from their own descriptions of themselves and then from someone else's description of them. I suppose this represents the end result of distorted views on beauty...women highlight all their flaws and don't see themselves as beautiful. But I'm dealing with 8 and 9 year olds here, who hopefully don't care too much about that yet. So we watched the original "Evolution" video (which we also share with our 8th graders every year when they're about to start their Photoshop unit in Art class).

Interestingly, before I showed them the video, I was walking around holding my papers for this unit and they spotted the photo below on the back, so I projected it:
They had NO IDEA that the girl in Photo 1 was the same person in Photo 2. Of course that is the point of the whole exercise, so we were definitely on the right track. Simply making them aware of the alterations is an important first step in being a critical consumer of media. How often are we being sold something that isn't real? What is the billboard at the end of the video even advertising? If I buy the beauty products being sold here, will I look like this model? Once her neck got digitally stretched out and her eyes reached inhuman proportions, most of the kids thought she looked pretty creepy. I agree. One student even noticed that once the digital alterations were done, her ears were in the completely wrong place (I had never noticed that in 5 years of viewing this video). So where do beauty ideals come from? Why is this done to someone who looked just fine in the first place? Does it happen to men, too? 

[I should note here that there is a corresponding video of a male model, but it's longer (about 4 minutes) and he appears shirtless, so I opted not to use it in the elementary classroom.]

real life
magazine cover
cover vs. real life
We then looked at images of magazine covers compared to images of the people featured in real-life. Singer Kelly Clarkson was featured, as well as tennis star Andy Roddick. In pairs, the kids compared these images and answered a few questions about the type of products they might expect to see advertised in these magazines, what kind of messages the magazine covers send about how men/boys and women/girls should look, and how they might feel about themselves after looking at these magazines. The first two questions were challenging, but doable. I'm not sure they were ready for that last question, however. Answers varied, and may have been written down AFTER a group discussion to share ideas and help clarify, but here are two samples.

One pair of boys struggled to answer "How might a boy or a man feel about himself after looking at this magazine?" It really is hard to conceptualize and imagine how others feel, so I changed the question a litte bit.  "How do you think Andy Roddick felt when he saw that picture of himself?"  I mean, here you have a world-class athlete in the best physical shape a person can be in, yet they had to bulk him up for the magazine cover. The boys responded at the same exact time, "I bet he didn't like it/I bet he felt awesome!" 

In fact, here's what Andy Roddick thought:
The tennis player Andy Roddick apparently thought that his biceps had been enlarged so conspicuously in the photograph of himself on the cover of Men’s Fitness that he mocked it on his blog, In an entry posted Tuesday, Mr. Roddick wrote that he was “pretty sure I’m not as fit as the Men’s Fitness cover suggests” and “little did I know I have 22-inch guns,” referring to his biceps. He also noted that a prominent birthmark on his right arm had been erased. (NYTimes)
 Meanwhile, for Kelly Clarkson, Self editors said they altered her image to make her "look her personal best." Well, one reader responded:
"Taking out red eye and airbrushing a pimple would be making her look her personal best. You completely changed the way her body looked. Why even bother asking Kelly Clarkson to pose in your magazine if you didn't think her body fit into your idea of what was best?" (People)
I don't know precisely what impact all the airbrushing and altering has on kids who see these things everywhere.  It has certainly influenced my own thoughts on "beauty" and what is "ideal" in our culture. The lesson itself is designed to point out the correlation between what we are shown constantly and the impact it can have on our self-image. While that concept might be beyond a 3rd grader's understanding, I at least want to help them learn to look at things with a more critical eye. And not just images! Our 4th graders are currently debating whether or not chocolate milk is good for you, as they tackle a writing unit on argument essays. They are seeing/hearing/reading so many conflicting opinions, distorted facts, and biased arguments made on both sides. Through articles, radio broadcasts, and videos, we are asking them to wade through several different resources. How do they know what's real? How do we get them to the point of considering the source of information and the motivation behind it? This idea of being critical is imperative to their processing and research. And it is a skill that will serve them well far beyond the walls of school.

For now, I'm excited to share the latest "altered image" controversy with my students in a few days. Disney is elevating Merida, from the movie "Brave," to official princess status. So she got a makeover. UGH. Why, Disney, WHY?? Was this really necessary? (petition to "Keep Our Hero Brave" already underway at

Friday, May 3, 2013

Gender Issues, part 3 - Girl Rising, Rape Culture, Modern-Day Feminism

In case you missed them, here are parts 1 and 2. And here's a direct link to the Gender/Social Health board on Pinterest where we've been posting more resources.

Long story short, about a year ago, I spent the day with a small group of middle school-age girls, and I overheard something that I wish I hadn't. "It isn't rape if you like it," one casually tossed out there, while laughing about something completely unrelated. Giggled responses. Horrified me. I froze... shocked. Did that really just happen? Did she say what I think she said? I was paralyzed. And what's worse? I said nothing.

Girl Rising
Fast forward a year. The full dive into issues of gender stereotypes, media portrayals, advertising, "slut shaming,"victim blaming, and rape culture has left me reeling. I am a feminist...I'm not ashamed to admit it. As I mentioned in part 1, my gender undoubtedly brings bias to my writing because this is the point of view through which I experience the world. I am raising two daughters, so I care deeply about the way they see themselves and the way the world tells them they should see themselves. I am perpetually aware of the influence I have in this department, and I am doing my best to set a good example (FYI, it's extremely HARD). Opening the fire hose of information that is the internet makes it hard to slow things to a trickle and speak or write clearly on one particular topic. There are so many branches and paths to follow! But here is where my mind has wandered lately, what I've watched, read, or listened to, and here's what I have learned along the way. I realize my parenting style is different from others, and everyone needs to make the best choices for their families. You are the ones who know your own children best, and you wish to instill in them the values you hold dear. I only share my experience in the hopes that it might help make a few difficult conversations a bit easier to face. I also selfishly need to write this down so I can learn from it.

With a huge desire in my heart to raise two strong and confident girls, I took them to see Girl Rising, a documentary film that highlights the lives of 9 different girls from different countries around the world, and the struggles they endure to simply get an education. We come from a world of extreme privilege by comparison to their stories, and I wanted my girls to value more strongly what they are blessed to experience each day, and to get a glimpse of what life is like for girls in other parts of our world. Trailer below:

The film is rated PG-13, and contains some difficult material. But I made a personal decision that this was information--the reality of our world--that I didn't want to shield from my own children. I was overwhelmingly moved by the girls in the film, declaring each successive mini-biography to be "my favorite" as the film progressed. What courage and spirit these girls showed! What unimaginable things they suffered. What lengths they went to for the opportunity to learn and make their lives better. What sacrifices their families made for them. It was utterly awe-inspiring.  I knew there would be references to rape and violence as these crimes are nearly unescapable for girls in some countries. I appreciated the way it was handled in this documentary project...truthfully, yet with sensitivity.  One girl from Nepal, Suma, tells a tragic tale of being sold into bonded labor at the age of six. As she revisits her past and the many homes in which she was forced to work, she simply says, "I cannot talk about everything that happened to me here." The audience is left to fill the silence with our own conclusions, and she doesn't have to relive her childhood horrors to make an already dramatic story more so. It was beautifully done, supplemented with powerful statistics to drive the point home.
There are 66 million girls who are not in school; 14 million girls under 18 who will be married this year; and 150 million girls are victims of sexual violence each year. (AP)
Amina, Afghanistan
Could my children, ages 10 and 12, imagine a life like young Amina? Being forced into marriage with an older man at the tender age of 11? Giving birth to her first child at the age of 12? What a completely foreign concept to all of us. It hurt my heart just to think about it.

And then there was Yasmin.
“He was strong but I was stronger.” A young Egyptian girl falls prey to a violent attack but, rather than become a victim, she becomes a superhero. Yasmin’s is the story of the triumph of imagination over a reality too painful to bear. (Girl Rising)
Yasmin's story captivated my youngest daughter, because it was told in sort of a graphic novel format,  à la Persepolis, where she becomes the hero in her own tale, explaining her rape to the police officer with the words, "He took me to the dark place." She leaves it at that. Only in her tale she emerges triumphant over her attacker and refuses to see herself as a victim.

Upon debrief the next evening, that particular scene needed clarification. "Mom, what happened when the man touched her shoulder and took her to the dark place?" My daughter knew there was more to the story, but she didn't understand it.

Oh we go.

How do I explain rape when I haven't even officially had the sex talk with my child? I thought to myself. I was already several weeks into my own personal "Gender Issues" study, and I was fully immersed in it.  Steubenville... The Invisible War...the Violence Against Women Act up for reauthorization...Audrie Pott...Rehtaeh Parsons... misogyny... patriarchy... objectification... sexualization.  Where do I begin? I wanted to address the overall theme of women's rights and gender equality, sharing information that would be helpful but not overwhelming. After all, I was actively looking for these stories, not just accidentally happening across them, and the girls certainly did not need that level of exposure. But this simple question from my child was a sharp slap in the face of all the things they DIDN'T know yet.

Now, don't get me wrong. They weren't completely in the dark. I had doled out what I thought was age-appropriate information throughout their childhood. We've done the birds and the bees and the "hit parade of puberty" as we learned about it in our first experience with Julie Metzger of Great Conversations. (I cannot recommend these classes enough!) We've talked about feelings, actions, and consequences.  But I knew that to answer this question, we were going to have to acknowledge and address the dark side of sex (and power and control). And I certainly didn't want that to be the only thing we talked about. So I took a deep breath and dove in, answering the question as simply as I could.

"She was raped."

"I don't know what that means. What is rape?"

Here began my attempt to explain Yasmin's story, Suma's story, and tragically, the story of far too many girls and women in our world. What is rape? It is the sexual violation of a person against her/his will. Without her/his consent. It is a horrifying violation. It is about power, not sex. Of course, this naturally led to (or began with) more questions and answers about what sex is, what it can and should be, how to know when you are ready, what to do to keep yourself safe, why do people have sex in the first place? Lots of curiosity...brilliant opening of a door.

Maybe I overshared, but I used the opportunity to address the Steubenville case, which they HAD seen on the news. I could go on and on about my disgust with the media coverage, but I simply explained to my kids that the victim in that case was a girl who was violated against her will, that other people stood around and laughed and photographed and texted and shared the crime committed against her, and did nothing to stop it. I talked about the concept of consent, and how no one ever ever EVER has the right to do something to you without yours, but that is certainly one topic that will come around again and again. And again.

I went off the rails a little bit, I'll be honest. I seized an opportunity to talk with my children in the wake of an emotional experience the three of us had together. Girl Rising shed light on many things we didn't know before, and ended up teaching me an awful lot about myself in the process. Our eyes were opened more widely to things we hadn't deeply considered before.

The point of the film is to highlight the importance of education for these girls, and for all the 66 million girls in the world who don't get to go to school. "Educate a girl, change the world" is the slogan. In spite of the depressing statistics and the darkness and hardship faced by many of these girls (those in the film and many more around the world and even in our own country) the overall message is one of great hope. Educating girls lifts up entire communities.

As one reviewer wrote:
Education is the engine of change for impoverished girls all over the globe. Schooling is to the mind as food is to the body: an essential source of nourishment and growth. This is a message of hope as well as of responsibility. We are the world. These girls are not separate from us. They speak to us directly in Girl Rising, and if we hear them, we will find a way to help them realize their vision and their dreams. (Moody)
All of us need educating. I need educating.  I think back to that experience a year ago and I wish I would have said something. I don't really know why I didn't, I have no idea what I would have said, and I'm fairly certain it wouldn't have come out right. But I still regret my silence. I feel more capable and confident having that difficult conversation now. I have educated myself more. I won't let it go next time.  Sexual assault is NEVER a joke. Empowering our children to make healthy choices, respectful of themselves and others, will always be our job. I think I could now respond to "it's not rape if you like it" without a lose-my-cool-over-the-top lecture (who listens to that anyway?), but with an honest, open conversation that a statement like that invites. I sure hope so.