What if we aimed Haiti relief/aid efforts with gender in mind? Or, It’s not about hating men, it’s about helping Haitian women

If one can wrangle any positive shards from the rubble that now pervades Haiti’s landscape, I would say that it would be the tremendous outpouring of concern and aid. Unfortunately, such concern tends to aid and aid donations shrivel once the media moves onto its next story.

Once the Haiti earthquake is merely a blip on the mental desktop of most Americans (like Hurricane Katrina before it), the situation for the majority of Haitians will not have changed for the better. Rather, especially for women and children, the situation is likely to be even worse. This is why some organizations are targeting their aid at women and children.

As reported by Tracy Clark-Flory, the “women and children” first aid model some organizations are taking makes sense due to the fact that women and children “are typically the ones most vulnerable in the wake of a catastrophe.”
Before the earthquake, Haitian women were already dealing with extreme poverty, lack of adequate healthcare, high rates of HIV/AIDS, and huge infant and maternal mortality rates. They live in a country that only made a rape a criminal offence in 2005, where at least 50% of women living in the poorer areas of Port-au-Prince are raped. And, as reported by the UK’s Times Online, in post-earthquake Haiti, rape is rife in the makeshift camps in and around Port-au-Prince.

Haiti also has a serious child trafficking problem and huge numbers of girls working as domestic servants. The number of women and children trafficked from Haiti will likely rise post-earthquake. In fact, the UN reports children going from hospitals in Haiti, suggesting trafficking as the likely cause.

Even before the earthquake,  Haitian mothers, as detailed by the International Childcare organization, had to “cope with the fact that one in eight Haitian children never live to see their fifth birthday due to infectious disease, pregnancy-related complications, and delivery-related complications. In Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, many parents cannot afford to send their children to school, give them proper medical care, or even guarantee that their children will have safe drinking water.”

For all of these reasons, Haiti needs what Lucinda Marhsall calls “Gender-Responsive Aid.” As she notes,“there are needs that are specific to women, particularly for pregnant women and mothers with new babies and the need to address the added vulnerability to violence that women face when government infrastructures are dysfunctional.” Yifat Susskind of MADRE  confirms this argument, noting “”One of the things we know is everywhere there’s this kind of disaster there’s a stark rise in violence against women in…When men deal with very, very difficult stresses, one of their outlets is violence against women.” In addition to the tendency for increased violence against women in the aftermath of a disaster (as also noted here), women are already economically disadvantaged in Haiti (due in large part to what is commonly known as the feminization of poverty).

As noted by MADRE,

“…women are often hardest hit when disaster strikes because they were at a deficit even before the catastrophe. In Haiti, and in every country, women are the poorest and often have no safety net, leaving them most exposed to violence, homelessness and hunger in the wake of disasters.

Because of their role as caretakers and because of the discrimination they face, women have a disproportionate need for assistance. Yet, they are often overlooked in large-scale aid operations. In the chaos that follows disasters, aid too often reaches those who yell the loudest or push their way to the front of the line. When aid is distributed through the “head of household” approach, women-headed families may not even be recognized, and women within male-headed families may be marginalized when aid is controlled by male relatives.”

Further, to make matters even worse for Haitian women, when the earthquake hit, Haiti’s Ministry of Women was holding a meeting. Almost everyone there was killed or injured. So the very people interested in helping Haitian women were lost to the community. (For the full story, see here).

However, despite the fact women and children were ALREADY disproportionately disadvantaged in Haiti, despite the fact that Haiti has lost numerous women’s rights leaders, men’s rights activists have taken up the “you all are a bunch of man-haters” rallying cry.

For example, Robert Franklin suggests that calls like the one made by Clark-Flory “ignore men or boys in need in favor of women and girls.” Accusing her of misandry, he makes similar arguments to those put forward in the “Amidst Haiti Disaster, Women’s Groups Seek to Deny Relief to Men” article at Spearhead. Claiming that “women’s groups are heading to a disaster area with the same anti-male agenda with which we are so familiar,” pieces such as these ignore the gendered realities of our world – realities that put women at greater risk.

Such articles also ignore the fact that women get pregnant (current reports estimate that the earthquake has put at least 63,000 pregnant women at risk in Port-au-Prince alone) and also (as humorously pointed out here) fail to recognize that menstruating women require tampons and pads.

For the global mamas in Haiti, for the women and children of this, the poorest country in the Western world, we need to ensure that aid organizations are aware of gendered realities. It’s not about hating men, it’s about recognizing a gendered response to this disaster is necessary.

What if the “best books” were not always centered on male protagonists?

Today we have a guest post from Meg of Planning the Day. Meg responds to Nicholas Kristof’s list of best children books, a list that featured mostly male writers/protagonists. Granted, Kristof’s list was much more diverse than Publishers Weekly Best of 2009 book list that was male/white biased in the extreme. He included some books I would count among “bests” — Charlotte’s Web, Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables. Yet, he, as Meg points out, has chosen a list where ONLY ONE GIRL is front and center. In keeping with the call at She Writes to speak out against the still male dominated world of publishing/writing, Meg offers us a more diverse, less penis-privileged list in what follows:

“I usually enjoy the writing of Nicholas Kristof, the New York times columnist who often uses his space to bring attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur and the plight of trafficked women in Southeast Asia. So I was excited when I saw that his column this week was a list of the best children’s books; I expected selections that would inspire social-consciousness and empathy among their readers.

What I did not expect is that nearly every book would feature male (and when he is a person, white) protagonist. Out of thirteen suggestions, only one is based on the story of a young girl. Who is the lucky lady? Anne of Green Gables, “one of the strongest and most memorable girls in literature.” And not one of them centers around the story of a person of color.

Some of his other suggestions have great girls in supporting roles: Charlotte’s Web, with beloved Charlotte and Fern as Wilbur’s best protectors and friends, topped the list. The Harry Potter series was also recommended, which features such strong women as Hermione Granger and Ginny Weasley.

So what’s the problem with his suggestions? There’s nothing wrong with any book in particular on his list, but it fails to offer characters that young girls or children of color can immediately relate to. There is something special about picking up a book and connecting immediately with its main character by seeing yourself in that person. While it is not out of the question for girls or children of color to relate to a white boy protagonist, it would be great for children to see themselves, with all of their historical particularities, represented in their books.

Kristof invited his readers to comment on his article with their own additions, so I’ve made my own list to add to his. Not all of them feature girls or people of color, but I hope that they represent a more diverse set of characters:

  1. “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell. I vividly remember buying this from our school’s book fair when I was in fourth grade, and then retreating into my room for three days to read, emerging only for meals. This book is based on the true story of a 12-year old Native American girl, Karana, who survived alone on an island for 18 years.
  2. “Tuck Everlasting” by Natalie Babbitt. I was enchanted by Winnie when my mom read this story to me in first grade.
  3. “Number the Stars” and “The Giver” by Lois Lowry. These are two of my absolute favorites from elementary school. I read them countless times between third and fifth grade, and remembering them now makes me want to check them out of the library again. Number the Stars is the story of Danish girl whose family helped her best friend escape from the Nazis in Denmark. And The Giver… just read it, it’s great.
  4. “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D. Taylor is the story of Cassie, a black girl growing up in a segregated and oppressive southern community in the 1930s.
  5. “Walk Two Moons” by Sharon Creech. Native American Salamanca Tree Hiddle travels across the country with her grandparents, trying to find her disappeared mother. I don’t remember much about this book except that I loved it.
  6. “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E. L. Konigsburg. This book-on-tape kept us kids silent for countless car trips, as we listened to the adventures of Claudia and Jamie, two kids who secretly live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art while they try to solve the mystery of the new statue.”

(Please add your suggestions in comments!)

What if Max became Maxine? Musings on Where the Wild Things Are…

I am torn about the new adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. One of the beauties of that book is it has very few words, leaving much open to the imagination of the reader. Having it rendered in film will, I fear, spoil the imaginings of generations of future readers who will see the story as the film interprets it.

I have yet to see the movie, but the preview alerted me that one of the wild things has a female voice. This prompted me to ask — what if Max had been re-imagined as Maxine? Such a shift would have altered the imaginings of many readers, encouraging them to see females as viable wild leads. While some will certainly scoff at this suggestion, I would ask them:

Why are the majority of  books and films still populated with male protagonists?

What messages do you think this might send to young readers/viewers?

When over half the world’s population is female, while are only 1/10 to 1/5 of characters female?

When females are in lead roles in children’s texts, how often are they framed in terms of the princess/romance narrative?

Quick, here is a fun feminist Friday brain excercise for you, name, as quickly as you can, ten children’s films with a female lead who is not a princess…

Published in: on October 16, 2009 at 9:03 am  Comments (14)  
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What if my gaze mattered? On the continuing dominance of the white-male-hetero-gaze and how it’s infiltrating the “feminine” world of Twilight…

All the discussion of making the New Moon film friendlier to male audiences has my feminist panties in a bunch. Why must the Twilight films court the male demographic?

Granted, many feminists have decried the popularity of Twilight, and with good reason. But, I think we have more work to do in terms of scrutinizing why these books have such mass appeal, especially to females. Like Tania Modleski and Janice Radway, I believe the reasons we buy into mainstream narratives of romance are complex.

Liking such texts/films does not necessailry (or only) mean we are strengthening the chains of our oppression, let alone loving the ties that bind us to patriarchy. Many such narratives (Twilight among them) are both regressive and subversive, both rebellious and complicit of dominant mores and ideologies. Women, as we are positioned as lesser in our male dominated world, are drawn to such storylines for complex reasons. They allow us to vent our anger at female oppression, to romanticize the hetero-monogomous couple so that we can swallow this norm in our real lives, to experience the “happy endings” that real life does not foster.

Males are drawn to violence, action, thriller, and suspense for similarly complex reasons.  Yet, these genres are nowhere near as criticized, decried, and mocked. Many films, horror, action, sci-fi among them, speak to a mainly male audience. However, rarely is the need to court female viewers or speak to a “female gaze” ever part of our cultural conversations. In fact,  if one considers the pervasive “male gaze” of virtually all cinema, where women are to-be-looked-at and the camera either obviously or tacitly fondles female bodies to elicit pleasure from the presumed hetero-male-gaze, it can be argued that film in general courts a male demographic. When this is not the case, the rather derisive “chick flick” label is bandied about, with disdainful talk of tears, Kleenexes, and hand-holding.

While the terms “chick lit” and “chick flick” are relatively new, the concept is centuries old. Romance novels, gothic fiction, sentimental fiction, and domestic novels have long wooed a female audience while critics, cultural movers and shakers, and ‘high brow’ audiences have mocked these female forms. Yet, unlike genres identified as male, which are often just as (if not more) “lightweight” in their topics, focus, and messages,  genres labeled as feminine are seen as lesser, as frivolous, as laughable – much the way women have been viewed since patriarchy reared its ugly little head.

Where are the critics rallying about the fact that horror-porn movies  are “male flicks? Where are the cultural analysts deriding the male-centric view of comic book movies, action films, and thrillers? Were Hostel, The Fast and the Furious, and the umpteen zillion boob-filled Bond movies trying to court me? I think not.

I like horror films. I like good sci-fi and mind-bending thrillers. I like anything that has a bit of intelligence, humor, good acting, great effects, heart, and/or provoking ideas. Do most movies play to my gaze? Hell no. But I go anyway, as do most women. This, my friend, is the rub – women will go to “male flicks” far more readily than males will attend anything dubbed “too feminine” – it’s the same way you can call a female a dude, a guy, or ‘one of the boys’ and it’s just fine, complimentary even, but call a male a female, and it’s INSULTING.

So forgive me if me and my female hormones are insulted by the actors and the director falling over themselves to explain all the ways New Moon will be more “guy friendly.” I don’t need the world to be anymore guy friendly, thank you very much. Couldn’t females, once in a while, be seen as just as worthy, just as much a part of humanity, just as interesting as males? And why is it that when something is popular with a mainly female audience, it is heaped with scorn? You know the answer (s) – patriarchy, sexism, misogyny…

If you have men in your life who pooh-pooh the feminine, refusing anything defined as “for chicks,” too bad for them. Hop on your motorbike and leave these jackasses in the dust.


Cross posted here at Seduced by Twilight.

Published in: on October 5, 2009 at 11:31 am  Comments (3)  
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What if you don’t want a bundle of joy let alone a man to call your own?

We live in a culture addicted to the idea of weddings, marriage, and babies. TLC is just one of the smorgasbords where we are encouraged to stuff ourselves silly on a veritable buffet of shows touting white poufy dresses and perfectly planned pregnancies.

The other evening, a quick exchange left me reeling. “All my daughter wants is to get married and have babies. It’s all she talks about,” a mother told me as we chatted during a concert intermission. Said daughter is eleven. ELEVEN! It is bad enough that each semester so many of my female women’s studies students share in their introductory speeches something of the variety “Yeah, I’m in college, but my real goals are to get married and have kids. I dream of being able to be a stay at home mom.” But – ELEVEN? Makes me want to move to another planet.

Now, far those of your raising your pitchforks in the air and shouting “Shut up you feminist baby hater!,” step back. I do not hate babies. I had two of them. Still love them both even though they are far beyond the gaga baby phase our culture fixates on. I don’t hate stay at home mom’s or see them as feminist sell-outs. This fabricated “mommy war” (so fabulously explored in Susan Douglas’ work) is yet another tool of the patriarchy that hammers away at women, keeping them firmly divided and conquered.

If you wanna have you some babies, fine. If hetero monogamy is your slice of pie, eat up. These choices are not the problem. The problem is that our culture does not present them as choices, but as imperatives. We live under what I have elsewhere called “the woman as womb paradigm.” If you don’t got or don’t want a baby and hubby, you ain’t squat.

Perhaps nothing more vividly captures our accelerating descent into this regressive paradigm than the final book of the Twilight saga, Breaking Dawn. Bella, our intelligent, klutzy heroine drawn to danger and adventure, mutates into a pregnant cyborg, her body bruised, battered, and broken from the parasite within. Gone are her college plans, her motorbike-riding-self – in their place, a fetus-incubator fixated on how much she loves, loves, loves the growing BOY inside her. Of course, said boy turns out to be a girl, but how typical that she transfers her fixation on Edward to what she envisions as mini-Edward! Like a good patriarchal daughter, she envisions the perfect child as male. When the baby is female, she then names it after her mother and mother-in-law, combining Renee and Esmee into Renesmee. Ah, what a potent symbol of this human/vampire hybrid’s future – she too can be a mommy, her name a metaphor for her future role! And, as she ages so far beyond her years, maybe she can aim for mommyhood at 11 rather than Bella’s 18. She already has a wolf-boy to call her own to help her produce the pups. Yuckety yuck yuck yuck.

What if porn makes you gay?

As reported as Salon.com, the “Values Voter Summit” this past weekend (you know with a name like that this has got to be a scary meeting of ultra-right, ultra-white, hetero-loving nuts), a panel entitled “The New Masculinity” discussed how “feminism has wreaked havoc on marriage, women, children and men” in an attempt to get “the principles and ideals for a new ‘masculinism’ right.” Hmmm, sounds like this “new” masculinity is not all that new—rather, it’s the same old “blame women while keeping all our privileges” tactic. And, who deserves the most blame? Those nasty, evil, turning-your-kids-gay-and-away-from-god feminists of course!

But, there is a remedy—at least for sons. Tell them pornography will turn them gay!

With references to homosexuality as a “malady” that is “inflicted on people” Michael Schwartz, the chief of staff for Senator Tom Coburn (of Oklahoma), shared that “All pornography is homosexual pornography, because all pornography turns your sexual drive inwards.” Whoa, now there is some brilliance of the magnitude that if you touch yourself, your hands will fall off and you’ll be headed straight to the devil. Brilliance such as this harks from the Victorian age, that era of sexual repression that brought us circumcision as a “cure” for masturbation. It is also the era, of course, of thriving not-so-subculture porn and erotica. Surprisingly enough, with all that “smut” circulating in society, not all boys were “turned gay.”

That these conversations took place is not surprising given the right-wing homophobic bent of our nation, but it is still incredibly disturbing that leaders frame homosexuality as a disease, using tired ideas that you can be “infected” with gayness. Ah, if only the world could be “infected” with the idea that policing sexuality is not the answer to any of our problems. Rather, such rigid constructions of sexuality create a multitude of harmful practices and beliefs.

More generally, if we could “infect” the world with feminism, perhaps homophobic, misogynist leaders such as Schwartz would have to hide in the closet, masturbating to images of Dr. Laura or Rush Limbaugh.

Hmmm, how best to infect the world with feminism? We need some summits longer than a weekend to figure out our plan for transmission… Maybe we could sneak a dose of feminism into the swine flu vaccination?

What if being turned into a product is the new form of female empowerment?

According to Megan Fox, or “one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities,” as she is described by the June 19 2009 issue of Entertainment Weekly, being commodified is empowering, not degrading.

As Fox states in an interview with Chris Nashawaty in this issue, “I think all women in Hollywood are known as sex symbols. That what our purpose is in the business. You’re merchandised, you’re a product. You’re sold and it’s based on sex. But that’s okay. I think women should be empowered by that, not degraded.”

Yeah, because being turned into a product is SOOO empowering. What more could a woman ask for than being merchandised based on sex appeal. How uber-empowering!

And all women in Hollywood are known as sex symbols? That is their purpose? Really? So Meryl Streep, Katherine Hepburn, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Susan Sarandon, Jessica Tandy serve no purpose beyond  being commodified into sexualized eye candy? Huh, I didn’t get that message from Sophie’s Choice.

In another part of the interview, Fox discuss that she felt being sexualized at age 15 was “awesome,” adding “I wasn’t a feminist yet.” This indicates she is a feminist now. Pardon me for asking, but what part of wholeheartedly cheering female objectification is feminist? Guess I missed that in the handbook.

What if bedtime stories could get with the feminist program? (A review of Bedtime Stories)

I should have known better, especially given it was an Adam Sandler movie. But, the optimist in me thought there might be some re-visioning of ‘bedtime stories’ rather than a tired re-hashing of all their sexist mores. So much for optimism.

The film drips with delimiting gender stereotypes.  The evil mom (ala Hansel and Gretel and umpteen other fairy tales) is replaced by the over-controlling, health-food-obsessed Courtney Cox. Life with her is no fun – she is the purveyor of wheat-grass cakes, the destroyer of kid-fun. At least she has a job – a principal no less – but, even this career is played on to further the over-controlling, mean meme. Here, she is a descendent in a long line of evil female school marms, from Miss Trunchbull in Matilda to Miss Umbridge of Harry Potter.

Thankfully, cool bro (in the form of Adam Sandler) comes in to save the day. He plays a number of positive (read: male) roles – savior, deliverer of fun, bringer of adventure, giver of roasted marshmallows.

Of course, it wouldn’t suffice to only put the story in motion with one evil female; we need an entire cast of second-tier xx types.  To fulfill this sexist media imperative, we have Violet, the empty-headed fashionista (who must be saved by Sandler’s character on various occasions and who, of course, rewards him with a kiss – what else do women have to offer but their sexuality?) Then, we have the goody-two shoes babysitter/friend who tries to ruin all the fun with her rule-bound boringness. Thankfully, her saving grace is she is “skinny,” as one fat-hating scene emphasizes. In the scene, a number of women who used to bully Adam Sandler’s character when he was in high school are put in their place when he parades this skinny arm-candy in front of them. So the fat-is-ugly stick can beat the audience a little more, Sandler’s character verbally attacks a woman who – how dare she – is enjoying a plate of pasta even though she is not an acceptable size zero.

To ice this sexist cake, we have the little girl who, though her masculine name Bobby tries to trick us, plays typical second fiddle to her brother. At first we are led to believe that she controls the stories that end up becoming reality, but, no, that would be just too much power in the hands of one without penis privilege. It is, of course, the brother that controls the stories.

And, for the grand finale, said brother is left with a kiss from the older “hot” girl at the movie’s close – because even the pre-ten-year-old-set needs to learn that the main purpose of female existence is their hottitude.

To summarize, this ‘new’ take on  bedtime stories offers the same savior boy/hot damsel in distress paradigm. Sigh.

What year is it again?

What century?

And Ms. Cox – what were you thinking? You have a daughter for goddess sake!

To be fair, the movie did have its funny moments. But, why can’t we have humor, fun, and adventure sans the sexism? Why can’t we have more movies that don’t drill negative stereotypes into girls and boys heads?

Films are showing some signs of improvement, but still have a long ways to go. This last weekend being a case in point, we had the release of Up. Though I have not seen it yet, from the previews it looks like once again all the main characters are male. And, in the recent Monsters vs Aliens we had only ONE female lead. For more adult fair, take the Star Trek previews – though Uhura plays a significant role in the film, she is sidelined or absent in every preview I have seen. As for Land of the Lost, must the preview feature a boob-grabbing Chaka? Please – Jodie Foster, Camryn Manheim, Tina Fey, Ashley Judd – someone with feminist sensibilities – can you produce a few  family flicks?

What if we had gender strainers rather than gender boxes?

My mom was recently here for a visit. She and I do not see eye to eye on gender. She is a big believer in biological determinism, while I am a card-carrying social constructionist. I concede that our personalities and proclivities are certainly PARTLY determined by biology/genetics (or nature), I give much more credit to societal conditioning and context (or nurture).

I cringe at phrases such as “boys will be boys” and “of course she’s emotional, she’s a girl.” I am equally perturbed by “men and women are just different” or anything that smacks of assuming there are two distinct genders.

I realize that many people fall into “traditional boy” and “traditional girl” categories, yet I think MANY less would do so if there were not so many societal punishments for failing to cram ourselves into those tiny, solid gender boxes.

Why can’t we think of gender like a strainer instead?

You know how when you use a strainer with holes that are quite big to strain pasta shapes that are rather small how a handful escape and end up in the sink? Well, it’s the same with gender. If you dump a whole batch of boys into the masculine strainer, many of them will happily stay in the strainer, but others, for whatever reason, squeeze through the holes. These boys are the ones that the “traditional boy” strainer does not work for.

If we thought of gender in this way – as a construct that is not solid like a box, but full of escape holes like a strainer – then perhaps it would be more acceptable to end up in the sink rather than on the plate covered in societal sauce.

I know a gender strainer doesn’t sound as catchy as a gender box – nor does gender sieve or gender colander. But, as my mom would say, it’s only NATURAL I think in cooking terminology, I am, after all, female.

What if Obama and crew have their eyes and ears attuned to the feminist blogosphere?

Well, after Blog for Choice Day 2009 and the many, many posts around the feminist blogosphere decrying the Global Gag Rule, the day is FINALLY here – NO MORE GGR! Hurray, hurray, hurray. Perhaps right now, at the White House, Obama is reading feminist bloggers as he formulates what is most pressing on his political agenda. Maybe he is even wearing a “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt as he does so. One can dream!

Published in: on January 24, 2009 at 12:37 pm  Comments (3)  
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