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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...

Merida

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!)

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