Here’s the thing about being cool—the harder you try, the less you succeed. Case in point: last year’s Academy Award’s disastrous choice of hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco. This year the Academy may have taken a different route, but the results were pretty much the same. After the whole Brett Ratner and Eddie Murphy debacle (the two backed out as executive producer and host after Ratner made a series of public sexist and homophobic remarks), it appeared as if the Academy was going to play it safe by dusting off Billy Crystal to host yet again.
And yet, from Crystal’s opening montage, it became apparent that this year’s awards were going to be another series of missteps stemming from the Academy’s desperate attempt to stay relevant while refusing to accept the changing nature of today’s entertainment. How else do you explain the bizarre mixture of Justin Beiber, Billy Crystal, and Billy Crystal in “black face” as Sammy Davis Jr.? The joke fell flat, and so did the rest of the show. With fewer and fewer people going to the movies, the Academy did its best to try and remind us of the golden days of cinema (see: The Artist’s win as Best Picture), but instead reminded viewers of how far the industry has and has not come.
Last Thursday I taught my lesson on feminist media studies to my students in WMS 150. In explaining to them the difference between quantitative and qualitative analysis, we talked about the different kinds of representation we see on screen and why that might be. I asked my students to watch last night’s broadcast and suggested they think about the number of women nominated for awards, the types of awards for which they were nominated, the types of roles available to women, and lastly to just observe in general how men and women were treated during the broadcast. In terms of quantitative data, the Women’s Media Center did a great job of compiling stats on this year’s nominations (
). For example, this year, no women were nominated in the categories of Directing, Cinematography, Documentary (feature), Music (original score), Sound Editing, or Visual Effects. In only three categories, did the number of women nominated outnumber men, but in all these categories there were also male nominees. Clearly, the “male gaze” is alive and well in Hollywood. Need more proof? How about the “popcorn girls” walking down the aisles as the show cut to commercial break. Is this really the golden age of cinema to which we want to return?
There were some highlights, though. Gabby Sidobe’s moving comment that, “When I see myself onscreen, I know that I exist,” served as a reminder for the potential of how far the film industry has come, but also the distances it needs to go. While this montage as a whole was yet another way in which the industry seemed desperate in its attempts to prove its worth, Sidobe’s comment speaks to the media’s complicated relationship to difference—whether it be by gender, race, class, or body size. I applaud her for saying this and the Academy for including it.
Perhaps the best moment of the night, though, was on the red carpet before the main show actually began. When Sacha Baron Cohen, who came in character from his upcoming film The Dictator, spilled the “ashes” of Kim Jong-Il on red carpet host Ryan Seacrest, I thought to myself, “finally, someone gets it.” Cohen’s brilliant mocking of Seacrest, the Academy, and their self-inflated sense of importance may have gotten him escorted off of the red carpet, but by then it was too late. The joke was literally on them, and as Cohen reminded us, it has been for some time.
Republicans Honor “Teen Dating Violence Prevention and Awareness Month” by Unanimously Voting Against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act
Since being signed into law in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act has been reauthorized by Congress in 2000 and 2005. Currently its reauthorization is being debated, and while passing this should be a “no-brainer,” not a single Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the bill last week. In addition to wanting to cut funding to existing programs aimed at combating domestic violence, Republican opposition is aimed at wording that ensures protection of gay and transgendered victims, as well as provisions for illegal immigrants who seek assistance for domestic violence.
The timing of this debate coincides with “Teen Dating Violence Prevention and Awareness Month,” a result of the 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. In response to the alarming rates of dating violence here in the U.S.— 1 in 3 teens is a victim of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner, with girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experiencing the highest rate of intimate partner violence—in 2010 Congress declared the month of February dedicated to raising awareness to this often overlooked problem. Now, I realize that just last week I made an argument about the effectiveness of “awareness.” And while I stand by my earlier comments in relation to breast cancer, I do believe that we as a nation are woefully unaware and ill-equipped in dealing with and understanding intimate partner violence.
If you don’t believe me, we only have to look back to last Sunday’s Grammy Awards and the debates surrounding Chris Brown’s performances, to see the ways in which domestic violence is misrepresented and misunderstood by the media. As everyone remembers, Brown, 23, was arrested on the eve of the Grammy Awards in 2009 for assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna, who was 21 at the time. This past Sunday, Brown performed at the Grammys for the first time since his arrest in 2009. For many, his two performances were too much, too soon. My point here, though, is not to debate the inclusion of Brown at the Grammys, but, rather, to stress the way in which reactions to Brown’s performances indicate our culture’s twisted relationship to violence against women.
Take, for example, this comment from Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich: “I think people deserve a second chance, you know. If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years, and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened.” Umm, I’m sorry, the Grammys were the victim here?? How exactly did the physical abuse Rihanna’s body suffered hurt the Grammys? Oh, that’s right, it didn’t. Rather, this is just one way in which the depoliticalization of the battered women’s movement has shifted the focus away from women—who, let’s face it, are the overwhelming majority of victims in these situations—and instead redirected the problem into what feminist Nancy J. Meyer describes as “a hyper-individualist rhetoric of impartial expert knowledge.” Or, in other words, a “culture of victimization” that sees everyone as a victim, except of course, those who actually are.
Even more disturbing than Ehrlich’s comments, though, were the number of Tweets during the Grammys from young girls saying things such as “I’d let Chris Brown beat me up” (@DontDoubtDani), “Like I’ve said multiple times before, Chris Brown can beat me all he wants…. I’d do anything to have him oh my” (@kelllllx), and “Dude, Chris brown can punch me in the face as much as want to, just as long as he kisses it (:” (@KaylaMarieWatts). While many of these women have fired back that they were “joking,” regardless of their intentions or meaning, they speak to the very warped way in which violence against women is seen as a joke in contemporary society.
The battered women’s movement arose from the second wave feminism in the 1960s and the 1970s, turning what was once seen as a “private, family matter,” into something that challenged patriarchal institutions that naturalized and legitimized violence. With its emphasis on “women,” the battered women’s movement argued that this violence was rooted in misogyny and sexism, and what happens to one woman is an issue for all women. Fast-forward to 2012 where domestic violence has been “domesticated” to the point where girls can “joke” about being beaten by a celebrity, and Republicans proudly put politics before the welfare of women. Maybe I’m too old, or too much of a feminist, but the humor is lost on me.
This week, my students in WMS 320 are thinking about “Feminist Activism and Human Bodies.” It’s a fitting topic considering the recent controversy between Susan G. Komen for the Cure (formerly known as The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation) and Planned Parenthood. As anyone who has been on the Internet or watched the news in the last two weeks is aware, on January 31 Komen announced that it would no longer be granting money to help fund cancer screening services at Planned Parenthood.
In a heated election year where women’s health and reproductive freedoms seem to be at the front of battle lines, this move had many people quickly arguing that Komen was putting politics before the welfare of women’s health. It has been no secret that Karen Handel, a Republican who was appointed Komen’s senior vice president for public policy in April 2011, is against Planned Parenthood. Perhaps what no one expected was the way that Planned Parenthood—through social media—would fight back. Almost immediately, angry responses began popping up on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Planned Parenthood quickly joined in with its own official responses, as well as posting links to the media’s coverage of the story, re-Tweeting pro-@PPact Tweets, all the while reminding individuals how they, too, could help support Planned Parenthood.
When all was said and done, Planned Parenthood received over $400,000 in just 24 hours, as well as a $250,000 pledge from Michael Bloomberg. As donations to Planned Parenthood continued to pour in, and amidst continued public pressure, Komen announced on February 3 that it “will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants.” On February 7, as a result of the controversy, Handel resigned from Komen. Discussing the matter in an interview with The Daily Beast on February 10 Handel conceded, “Komen doesn’t have the strength [of Planned Parenthood] in the area of social media.”
This statement is directly relevant to what I am trying to get students in WMS 320 to think about this semester: how social media has changed the landscape for personal and political activism. While some of them have jumped on-board the Twitter wagon, it has been surprising to me how reluctant many of them have been to use Twitter and this blog platform to partake in their own “feminist thought into action.” I am hoping some of them will comment their thoughts about this here. In the meantime, I have been thinking of ways to integrate social media into the classroom even more, not only for WMS 320, but also for WMS 150 and my courses at RISD.
The Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy also has me thinking about the role of “awareness” in social activism, especially as it relates to women’s health. Each semester in WMS 150 I have my students read Barbara Ehrenreich’s somewhat controversial essay “Welcome to Cancerland.” In it, Ehrenreich discusses what she refers to as the “cult of pink kitsch” and its infantilaztion of women. Komen, with its partnership with companies like Kentucky Fried Chicken (and their infamous 2010 “Buckets for a Cure” campaign), has long been accused of the type of “pinkwashing” that Ehrenreich refers to in her essay. Along with this article, I take the opportunity to educate my students on the business model of cause marketing, and ask them to consider the ways in which breast cancer, and its ubiquitous “pink ribbon,” has been used to sell everything from highlighters to hand guns. Students are routinely shocked to find out that the pink ribbon is unregulated in terms of marketing, and that companies routinely use it to sell products (particularly in October) without any consistent regulation on where funds raised for “Breast Cancer Awareness” actually go.
I then show students the following sets of images and ask them, how, exactly, do bracelets saying “i ♥ boobies” raise awareness of anything other than the fact that women’s breasts are constantly being exploited and fetishized? What do products such as these, or “high heel” races for charity, do other than capitalize on the sexist stereotypes that women are routinely subjected to in society? At this point, aren’t we as a culture already “aware” of breast cancer?
Now, I realize that thirty years ago breast cancer was a “women’s issue,” suffered in silence, rarely even discussed by those dying from it. I am certainly not advocating going back to this secrecy or shame. Fortunately, we have moved past this stage, and today breast cancer is one of the most highly visible diseases in American culture (heck, we even have a month set aside for its awareness). My point is, when does awareness move on to action?
In 2010 the National Institutes of Health, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the nation’s primary medical research agency, designated $631.2 million in breast cancer research, more than twice the amount allocated for any other disease. Yet, according to the CDC, between the years of 1998 and 2007 (the most recent year for which data is available) incidences of breast cancer in the United States have only decreased by 1.3% per year, with virtually no change in the rates of breast cancer among black women. Obviously money—and awareness—are not enough. While funding certainly needs to continue to go in to research and helping those who suffer from breast cancer and other illness, perhaps the Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy can be productive in getting us to think about activism—and breast cancer—in new ways. Since 1990 Breast Cancer Action, a grassroots activism group out of San Francisco, has been arguing that “the breast cancer epidemic is a public health crisis, and a social justice issue.” They advocate for “systemic change that will end the breast cancer epidemic, while supporting women & men at risk for and living with breast cancer.” For those looking to take action aimed at prevention, or to learn more about their “Think Before You Pink” campaign, I highly encourage you to visit their website:
. Their priorities, which include creating a different kind of awareness, “that it is not just genes, but social injustices — political, economic, and racial inequities — that lead to disparities in breast cancer outcomes” speaks to the type of consciousness that can lead to real change.