Friday, June 28, 2013

Do Mormons have Christian Privilege?

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about privilege. If you're privy to feminism and feminist conversations, this term should come up a lot. There are lots of kinds of privilege, including white, male, Christian, cis, heterosexual, and probably more. You can learn more about it here, but I'm also just going to copy part of their definition here:
Privilege is notAbout you. Privilege is not your fault. Privilege is not anything you've done, or thought, or said. It may have allowed you to do, or think, or say things, but it's not those things, and it's not because of those things. Privilege is not about taking advantage, or cheating, although privilege may make this easier. Privilege is not negated. I can't balance my white privilege against my female disadvantage and come out neutral. Privilege is not something you can be exempt from by having had a difficult life. Privilege is not inherently bad. It really isn't. 
Privilege is: About how society accommodates you. It's about advantages you have that you think are normal. It's about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It's about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf. 
Basically, privilege is about where you fall in the human hierarchical food chain. Some of my high school friends used to have this joke (that they probably didn't come up with) that in order to be the biggest minority, you'd have to be a black Jewish female lesbian, or something like that. And that's kind of what privilege is.

So, that being said, let's talk a little bit about Mormons and privilege.


Mormons are kind of weird. We are Christian because we believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior who Atoned for our sins and etc. Lots of other Christians don't want us to call ourselves "Christians" because we don't believe in the Godhead the same way most other Christians do. We believe in the Bible, but we also have the Book of Mormon. Basically, we're half in and half out of the majority of Christiandom. 

Mormons are also frequently a minority. In my high school, I was one of four Mormons, one of which was my sister. I can remember very vividly the day we talked about Mormons in my U.S. history class. I sat silently while my classmates asked our teacher if Mormons were the ones who never cut their hair and other far-fetched rumors and misconceptions. Most of them had never even heard of Mormons - they were obviously confusing us with Mennonites, Amish, and even Sikhism (I believe). It was only at the end that I revealed to everyone that I was one of these fantastical Mormons. From then on out, I would be called "MormaGirl," or "that Mormon girl," and random students I had never met would come up to me in the cafeteria and ask me if I was "the Mormon." 
The only place where this isn't the case at all is in Utah. Last I heard, Utah is 60% LDS, though Salt Lake City is only 40%. There are obviously other parts of the country where Mormons may not be the majority of the population, but they also are common enough that most people have heard of us and know the gist of what we're about.


Christianity is a type of privilege, at least in most of the Western world. Certainly in the U.S. Find out what exactly this means here. My question has been: if Mormons are Christians, do they have all of the same privileges that Christians tend to have? 

Let's look at the article with the 35 privileges that Christians have.

#3 - It is easy to find stores that carry items that enable you to practice your faith and celebrate religious holidays. Finding stores that are specifically geared towards LDS members is extremely hard outside of Utah. I don't think I ever knew of one in Massachusetts. However, finding stores that sell Christmas items – which Mormons do celebrate – is easy.
    #8 - You can practice your religious customs without being questioned, mocked, or inhibited.

No, practicing our religious customs has not been inhibited, at least not in modern times. That is definitely a big deal. But our religious customs are generally questioned and mocked. “Magic underwear” anyone? That wasn't a fun phase to go through.
    #11 - Positive references to your faith are seen dozens a time a day by everyone, regardless of their faith.

Sure, there are positive references to Mormonism. Many consider Mormons to be hard-working, polite, and clean-cut, giving them a reputation of being excellent hires. But there are also lots of bad references. We've been called a “cult” lots of times. People still can't seem to get over polygamy, even though that was over a hundred years ago.
    #14 - It is easy for you to find your faith accurately depicted in television, movies, books, and other media.

No. This almost never happens. Polygamy, Joseph Smith as a gold-digger, polygamy again, missionaries … Mormonism is apparently great fodder for cheap, cliché, over-used jokes.
    #15 - You can reasonably assume that anyone you encounter will have a decent understanding of your beliefs.

Nope. This would be a refreshing surprise. Even in Utah, lots of people who aren't LDS have some confused ideas about us (not that I can blame them).
    #17 - Your faith is accepted/supported at your workplace.

As a Mormon not living in Utah, your faith will probably be mocked and misunderstood in your workplace.
    #20 - Your faith can be an aspect of your identity without being a defining aspect (e.g., people won’t think of you as their “Christian” friend)

Like I said before, I've absolutely been known as the Mormon friend. This will change depending on where you live.
    #24 - You are never asked to speak on behalf of all the members of your faith.

I've done that many times. I've been trained to do that from an early age.
    #25 - It is unlikely you will be judged by the actions of other members of your faith.

Polygamy falls under this again, but also mainstream LDS political beliefs. People think that “Mormon feminist” is an oxymoron because of ultra conservative Mormons.
    #26 - You can go anywhere and assume you will be surrounded by members of your faith.

No. That's why we have special camps and conferences!
    #27 - Without special effort, your children will have a multitude of teachers who share your faith.
I've only ever had one teacher who had ever been LDS at any point in his life. That was the weirdest fluke ever.
    #28 - Without special effort, your children will have a multitude of friends who share your faith.

No, and that was sometimes difficult. But when I was going to elementary school in a very conservative part of California, I definitely had SOME LDS friends. As I've previously stated, that was not the case in high school. So again, this depends on your area.
    #29 - It is easily accessible for you or your children to be educated from kindergarten through post-grad at institutions of your faith.

I used to dream of a private elementary school that was LDS-run. Now I realize how weird that would be. But there are a few colleges that are LDS-run. BYU, BYU-I, BYU-H, LDS Business College, and Southern Virginia University (though that is not officially run by the Church).
    #32 - Your faith is taught or offered as a course at most public institutions.
Only in Utah.

So that's 14 out of 35 that I believe don't apply to Mormons. There are a few more on there, like having a jury of your peers that share your religious values, but I think in that case the fact that a jury of our peers would most likely be Christian counts as a privilege for us. (In fact, I think in Jodi Arias's Case, her defense tried to use her Mormon faith/culture in her trial.)

And obviously, almost all of these don't count in Utah. In Utah, Mormonism is the majority and the institution in power, so we do have Mormon privilege. That's an odd phenomenon, huh? 

What's the point of all of this? Absolutely nothing. It was honestly something that I was curious about. Obviously, while Mormons have endured lots of shit, especially in our early days, we are still higher up on the religion food chain in the U.S. than many other minority and misunderstood religions. I do not mean to lessen the experiences that those of real minority faiths. Though I do believe that being LDS in some areas can give us an idea of what it means to be a minority, we still enjoy many advantages that Christians in general have in this country.

EDIT: A few days later, this happened:

Then this:

I've never heard of that before. But I guess it happens.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Is the modern world really that bad?

In Mormondom, you here a lot from leaders, local and higher up, that the world is getting worse with time. Our modern days are some of the wickedest ever seen, they'll warn. Something like that.

President Monson said in the latest edition of the Ensign (the July one):
"In the decades since the end of World War II, standards of morality have lowered again and again. Crime spirals upward; decency careens downward. Many are on a giant roller coaster of disaster, seeking the thrills of the moment while sacrificing the joys of eternity. Thus we forfeit peace."
Now, I'm not going to say that all of this is utterly false. I'm sure in many ways the world has gotten much worse. But I don't think things are as bad as they seem. I think to some of the leaders of the Church (especially the older ones), our present-day situation appears to be a lot worse than it actually is.

Here are some reasons I've come up with for why things SEEM worse, but aren't necessarily:

  1. Crime rates have gone up. This is in part because more laws and decisions have been made, creating more crimes. For example, up until relatively recently, it was still legal for a man to rape his wife. Nowadays we realize that marriage does not give you permission to force someone into having sex with you. 
  2. Crime rates have gone up. This is in part because our forensic sciences and technology has improved immensely. Go read a crime novel written in the 1920s (Dashiell Hammett is the big one). Now go watch an episode of "Castle," "Bones," or "Criminal Minds." There is a GINORMOUS difference in how these detectives solve their crimes - Hammett's characters mainly had to piece together circumstantial evidence and witness testimonies. They didn't have fingerprinting, security cameras, medical technology, or any of the other things we take for granted on our modern-day crime shows (admittedly, some of the stuff Angela does on "Bones" can't be fully realistic, but that doesn't take away from the fact that we have made huge strides in our technology). This all leads to more arrests, more convictions, and more people with jail time. (Admittedly, this does not change the statistic of actual crimes as much as it affects the statistics of criminals. Still, I see those numbers going hand in hand when we mourn the state of this world.)
  3. As our world becomes more globalized, we will hear more and more about horrific events and crimes that happen further away from us. Back in the 1950s, we weren't able to Wikipedia the youngest murderer ever (it's about 8. I checked a few years ago). We didn't have the technology to film or photograph many of the really awful things that happened. Our fiction wasn't even as graphic or imaginative as it is now.
  4. Divorce rates are higher. General Authorities, and for that matter, many of the critics of feminism, love to talk about this one. Lots of people blame feminists for it. But really, why do we assume that all divorce is bad? In the 1950s, a woman could not divorce her husband, even if he was abusive, either because the law was not on her side or because she was not financially dependent. Do we really want to go back to the "good ole' days" of when there was abuse, but it was never reported or talked about? Of course, I'm not trying to trivialize divorce because I know it can have lots of negative consequences for many of the people involved; but I do think we're only looking at the negatives, when in reality, many positive things can come from divorce as well.
  5. Standards are lower. The problem with this is that standards are all relative. For example, it used
    to be scandalous for a woman in the U.S. to show her ankles. Now, we laugh at that. In a hundred years, we may think it's funny that we used to find butts sexually appealing. The LDS church has SOMEWHAT codified their standards, meaning that some of them have not wavered in like, fifty years. At least, we believe that to be true. In actually, many of the more "petty" standards the Church used to promote have changed quite a bit. In the 1950s, the For the Strength of Youth... used to tell young women that it was inappropriate to leave the house with curlers in your hair. I'm serious! Check it out here. So while the Church has never really changed it's position on sex before marriage, it has changed it's position on modesty standards (tank tops used to be okay); alcohol, tobacco, and coffee; polygamous marriages; and many other large and small standards. What I think this proves is ... IT'S OKAY TO BE FLEXIBLE ON
So what does this all mean? While we should continue listening to our ecclesiastical leaders, maybe we don't need to be quite so depressed when they say the world is getting worse. We don't need to feel like we're so much more righteous than the rest of the world. We might make different choices on what we consider is "worldly" or not. 

And, it might make us a little happier living in this world.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

What your clothing "says" about you

Lately, in my internet sphere, there has been this kind of "war" about modesty. There are those who say modesty is important because it shows self-respect and keeps a man from having sexual thoughts about you - and there are those who say that modesty is all well and good, but doing it for the sake of others' is not the right way to go about it.

I think you can guess by now that I'm clearly in the second camp. I wrote about it last year here. You should also check out this great post by another Mormon feminist here; this one is responding to a video that's been making the rounds by Jessica Rey, creator of a "modest" swimsuit line.

One comment the above blog post ("To Every One That Believeth." Not my blog.) was something about what we were "says" something to everyone around us.

Actually, what she said was this:

Of course, I replied something snarky and said she must be exhausted all of the time from "evaluating" and "assessing" people. Although, I truly believe that this lifestyle does sound exhausting. You're already running errands, working, going to school, and trying to have fun - so while you're doing that, you're also turning your head every way to look at people, see what they're wearing, and judge them based on something as shallow as their clothing? 

The idea that a person "says" something with their clothing comes from pure commercialization. When you shop at Urban Outfitters, you're saying you're quirky and a hipster. When you shop at American Eagle, you're saying that you're preppy. But who decides that? The stores do. The commercials do. The commercials convince you that you need to represent yourself a certain way, specifically their way. And that way, you aren't going from store to store finding items that you like, but you're staying at one store and spending all of your money there. They've got you hooked. 

And are we really "saying" something with our clothes when we all shop at the same prescribed stores anyway? A store produces thousands, millions of the same exact item every time it creates a new piece of clothing. The chances of you running into someone wearing the same shirt as you is actually pretty high. So why do we think that we're "saying" anything unique with our clothing when we clearly have very little say in it anyway? 

Lastly, this is such an unreliable method to get to a decision anyway. Most of the time when you judge someone based on their clothing choices, you are wrong. What about the athletes who sexually assault women? The businessmen who embezzle? In my high school, a group of about 20 of the good-grade-honors-students-teachers'-favorites-athletes-who-got-into-good-colleges weren't allowed to walk at graduation because they got drunk on their way to prom and assaulted a police officer. Last week in the grocery store, despite the fact that my hair was a mess and I was wearing my cleaning clothes (and a wedding ring), I got hit on when I didn't want to. Most of the time when you try to "interpret" someone's clothing, you're going to get it wrong. 

From there, it's a slippery slope into victim blaming. That woman was wearing a low cut shirt and short skirt, which we all know means that she's "saying" she wants sex, so isn't it her fault that someone decided to "listen" to her clothing and not her words? Doesn't that make it her fault she was raped? 

No. It never does. Never ever ever. 

The same thing applies to women in bikinis. This woman, and many other champions of "modesty," are presuming that a woman who wears a bikini is doing it for the sexual attention she will attract. What we should be doing is thinking that maybe a woman in a bikini is wearing it because that is what she is most comfortable in, and she really doesn't care who looks at her. It's a cliche, but there's also that expression that we don't wear makeup for men, but for ourselves. Same thing with bikinis. 

Honestly, I really feel a lot of pity for this woman who posted the above comment. (Of course, I am judging her without meeting her and that's wrong, but ...) I can imagine that she is the type of woman who wakes up two hours before the crack of dawn because she can't stand to leave her house without her make up and hair done. And while many may think "oh, she's showing respect for those around her," really, she's just very insecure about herself. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

"Diary of a Single Mormon Female"

My thoughts

So first of all, I won Diary of a Single Mormon Female as part of a contest over at Modern Mormon Men, and got a copy signed by the author, so thanks Aleesa! (I feel like we're on a first name basis after reading this. After all, I was basically reading her journals. We have to be pretty tight after that.) I was really excited to read this because I was expecting it to address a lot of the cultural issues of the Church, such as pushing marriage onto people and treating single adults as second thoughts. I was not disappointed on that count at all. I think Aleesa did a fabulous job demonstrating how harmful some aspects of Church culture can be. 

I think the beginning of the book is a little slow. Part of this is because I didn't really need explanations of Johnny Lingo and fasting, seeing how I also grew up LDS. Those sections do make me wonder who the intended audience of this memoir is, or if her editor made her include it. (Who published this book? Did Aleesa do it herself? Wow, that's impressive.) 

I also just didn't find her earlier journal entries that entertaining. I think part of the problem is that I feel like my experience literally mirrored hers. I absolutely had church boys that I had crushes on, and our relationships consisted entirely of my daydreams and the very minor interactions we had, which I would blow out of proportion. (Unlike Aleesa, I actually married my Jon ... Yup, I would totally stare at 12-year-old Colby as he passed the sacrament. Then write about it in my journals. Which I still have, and were a huge source of entertainment to my family after I got engaged to him.) It's an interesting phenomenon, and I'd like to see how many women who grew up in the Church have experienced something similar. 

It definitely picked up for me after Aleesa turned 16-17 and actually started to date. Those experiences began to be different than mine. I'll try not to give any spoilers away here, but I was fascinated and horrified by who she was when she was going to BYU. I loved watching her grow, step-by-step, until she was the person at the end of the book. And I loved the end of the book. My favorite line is
"Church culture seems to dictate that life's trials can be discussed only in the past tense, hand in hand with the feel-good declaration that everything ended up working out just fine. Most people are very uncomfortable acknowledging doubt, anger, grief, despair or any of the other, less sparkly emotions. The injuction Christ gave his disciples to "be of good cheer" has been interpreted by many as the only legitimate state of being for a Mormon at any time - hence robust sales of Prozac in Utah" (218).
Emphasis is mine. I just feel like that's a really true part of the Church culture. We somehow are afraid of acknowledge doubt, even though you cannot have faith without questioning things.

So even though Aleesa's trials in this context revolve around being single and I am now married, I can still really relate to her emotions at the conclusion of this book. I think they are universal, despite her specific context. While I found the duration of this memoir entertaining and informative, it was the ending that really spoke to me.

Your book club

  • When did you start noticing boys? Were they boys from Church? Did you write about them in your journal?
  • How did Aleesa's religious beliefs affect her interactions and attitudes towards boys? Have you had similar experiences with church lessons that revolve around future companions? Have you had any experiences with marriage being taught in different ways or frequencies to the teenage girls than the boys?
  • What do you think of Aleesa's time at BYU? What was her outlook and attitude like during that entire experience? Do you think that outlook/attitude is common (especially among BYU students)? How did she describe the men in her life? What do you think, if anything, went wrong? Did you see any sort of pattern or similarities between all of her crushes (other than them not working out)? Do you think Aleesa's attitudes affected her dating life? In what ways did Aleesa grow during her time at BYU? 
  • What do you think about Aleesa's relationship with Hugh (her first boyfriend)? Have you had a similar type of relationship?
  • Aleesa frequently talks about "potential" with the men she has a crush on. Is this outlook on dating normal or unusual? Do you ever think that way? Do you think it's an effective method? (Read the first paragraph on page 137 about Sam.)
  • On pages 141-142, Aleesa and her friends start discussing sex. Does her experience of learning about sex reflect yours? Do you agree with her about the ways she wishes the topic of sex was taught?
  • On page 171, Aleesa comments that some of the teachings of the Church on dating can be contradictory and confusing. Do you agree? What are some things you'd like to see changed?
  • How does Aleesa represent the men of the LDS church? Do you feel this is a fair representation?  
  • Aleesa sticks to her standard of only wanting to marry LDS men, even though it meant giving up Boris and Amir. What do you think of this decision? Do you think things would've worked out between her and one of those men? Do you think she was being foolish and narrow-minded or strong and uncompromising (or maybe even a little of both)? 
  • Do you agree with Aleesa's assessment on the way Church culture often treats trials, such as in the quote above? Have you ever had similar feelings or feelings that you felt weren't as "kosher" in the Church? Is there anyone you can talk to about these types of feelings?
  • BONUS QUESTION: If you are married, what are some better ways that you can interact with the single adults? What's something you can say other than "oh, you'll find someone some day"?

Yeah, sorry, I know that's a lot. The great thing about book clubs is that you get to pick and choose what you want to talk about! Some topics may not get a lot of response from the crowd, and some you may end up talking about for hours. Good luck! I hope you enjoyed Diary of a Single Mormon Female and any subsequent discussions!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

2 situations in which women commonly find themselves in movies

I went to go see Oblivion ( last week with Colby. He and I are both really into sci-fi. I thought it was a great movie, particularly as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story. There was some beautiful imagery. There were a lot of cool inventions. The storyline was really great. I liked all the characters, including the female ones.

But then, I also have to analyze this movie as a feminist. Interestingly enough, it does pass The Bechdel Test. This is surprising considering that there is a male protagonist and the men generally have all of the violent, action roles. I think a woman picks up a gun and fires it twice in the movie, but only reluctantly (to protect a man in one instance and after another man has dropped the gun in the other). But it's a nice surprise. It's nice that even in a male-centered movie that women can have adequate (maybe?) representation. We just need to step it up by making tons more female-centered movies.

There were two things I noticed about this movie that I think you can find it lots of other movies as well. I don't think you could call them "tropes" exactly, because they aren't character molds. They're just situations that women are frequently found in. Warning - spoilers!

1. Nurturing/Protecting a Random Child - When a child fell down, it was a woman who picked him up and protected him from that point on. Julia was basically a random stranger to this colony of Earth survivors, but when one of their children is somehow separated from the group and left behind, she picks him up. Why doesn't someone else from this band of survivors protect the child? Doesn't he have any friends or neighbors who are interested in his welfare?

I've seen this happen in a few other movies. Katie Holmes does it in Batman Begins. The whole city is under a chemical attack that causes them to hallucinate. Holmes's character, Rachel Dawes, clutches to a random little boy that is for some unknown reason all on his own. (Interestingly, that boy happens to be a young Jack Gleeson, who plays King Joffrey in Game of Thrones.)

I actually can't think of any other movies, so I'm either brain farting or it's just a coincidence that these two movies have incidences of women protecting children during attacks. I don't think it is, though.

The reason why I don't like this is because it puts women in the role of natural nurturers. By having women who are not yet mothers slip into the role of pseudo-mother instinctually, you are saying that all women are potential mothers. This is a naturally accepted role. I wonder why in these movies you don't have men playing this protective part, or even just the child's own mother?

It also generally happens when the man is out doing hero stuff. Jack sacrifices himself as a kamikaze and Batman is off fighting villans. The women just stay out of the way until the fracas is over. This way, they won't get hurt.

I'm sure there are movies that do have men protecting random children, but I think we are meant to respond to that as an out-of-the-ordinary heroic, compassionate act, whereas women are treated as that being the norm.

But I don't have anything to back that up, so you can take it whatever way you'd like.

2. A Baby as a Consolation Prize - At the end of the movie, Jack Harper, the protagonist, and Julia, his love interest, plan to suicide bomb the aliens. Julia is put into "delta sleep," while Jack flies the spaceship. When Julia wakes up, she realizes that Jack has tricked her, and she is actually safe on Earth. Which really pisses me off. Julia volunteered to die with Jack, knowing full well what the consequences were! Who is he to make that decision for her? Anyway, we flash forward to five years later (or whatever), and now she has a daughter. Somehow during that time, Jack impregnated her. This is a frightening implication on its own because we are never aware of them having sex. I guess there's a possibility they had sex before she went into delta sleep the first time, or they did have consensual sex but we don't see it. I guess.

So even though Jack is dead, it's okay because Julia has a baby, who is supposed to be the next best thing. I guess you can see Jack in the child, or the child reminds her of Jack.

I know this has happened in LOTS of movies. It happens in Cold Mountain, where Nicole Kidman's character, Ada Monroe, has sex with her lover just before he is shot to death. Again, fast forward a few years, and she has a child.

It happened in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Jack is cursed to the point where he is only able to set foot on land once every ten years. His wife, Elizabeth, settles down alone on an island after a sex romp. Jack comes back ten years later, and now Elizabeth has a ten-year-old son.

It kind of happens in Superman Returns (2006). When Superman returns, he finds that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) now has a young child. We realize by the end of the movie that this is actually Superman's son, and not Lois's boyfriend's. So even though Superman didn't die and the baby wasn't the consolation prize revealed at the end of the movie, Lois was still left with a baby by herself for a number of years. 

I'm not a fan of this occurrence either. It is insulting to both the male partner and the kids. Your lover cannot be replaced by a child, and a child isn't just a momento of someone you deeply loved. It's also insulting to the women: it's basically saying that they can get over the man if they only have a child. In Oblivion, Cold Mountain, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, the three mothers stop their adventurous lives and settle down into a domestic one. This is generally seen as much better and safer for them, and a sacrifice the male makes out of the purest most selfless love. It's even worse in Pirates because she's spending ten years waiting for this man while he's running off on adventures - the ultimate working dad who passes off all the childcare to his wife. 

I understand that movies are made this way in order to make audiences less sad. There is more resolution in a movie that ends with this kind of bittersweet ending. And it is very tragically bittersweet - I felt lots of feels when watching (most) of these movies. 

Both of these situations also have a degree of passivity in them. In the first one, women are standing in the sidelines after having been "given" the safest responsibility. In the second, women have no control over reproduction (I know that's historically accurate, but it doesn't stop it from sucking!).

I don't appreciate women being put in this situation over and over again, even in fiction. I believe it has all these implications for "real world" women, including being shuffled into the nurturing/mothering role without any regard for the previous strength and adventurous spirit these women once had. And without any regard to how they felt about the men in their lives before they lost them.

So anyway, if you agree or disagree, please let me know in the comments below! I would also love to hear it if you know of any other movies where these situations happen to women.

Friday, June 14, 2013

How to Read Like a Feminist

Being an English major has taught me that there are a number of ways that you can read the same book. It all comes down to the context in which you want to look at a text. You can look at a book historically, which generally means comparing it to other works that were written around the same time and seeing what they have in common. You can think about colonialism when reading a book, which often means themes of race relations or questions about savagery versus civilization (think Pocahontas).

Generally, a feminist novel is one that has a female protagonist and deals primarily with the relationships between women. (Do we apply The Bechdel Test to books? Comment and tell me your opinion.) But that doesn't mean we can't look at other kinds of books from a feminist perspective.

(It's also worth noting that a female character who isn't "strong" can still be a feminist novel. Sure, we feminists love a strong, kickass woman, but really, who doesn't? But that's also not realistic. Just as men aren't always strong - and many novels focus on the low and pathetic points of a man's life - women aren't always strong either. We can definitely have feminist novels where the women don't come out looking great.)

Reading Like a Feminist

When reading, ask some questions about the book. 
  1. Are there women in this book? Is the protagonist or antagonist a woman?
  2. What is the relationship women have to men? Are they primarily girlfriends, wives, daughters, mothers, sisters? Do you experience female characters outside of their relationship to men?
  3. How do men treat women in this book? Does it seem like the book or narrator condemns or condones the actions of men towards women?
  4. Do the female characters seem realistic and fleshed-out to you? Do they experience growth or learn any lessons? Do they change in any way?
  5. If this is a historical book, are the roles and actions of women much different than they are now? Do they women have anything to say about their roles? Do the men? Does the book take time to point out how the roles of women back then are different from women today? 
  6. If there are multiple female characters in the book, are they different from each other? Do they have different personalities and make different life choices?
  7. Do women come out looking good or bad? 
  8. Do the female characters drive the plot of the novel at all?
  9. Are the female characters passive or active? Are they acted upon or do they do the acting?
  10. Is the author of this book male or female? Do you think that the sex of the author somehow colors the way they write about men and women?
  11. Are the female characters dependent on men?
  12. As a feminist, what do you like about the book? What do you dislike? (This is different from asking you what you like and dislike about the book generally. You are allowed to love any kind of entertainment or literature that makes the feminist in you angry.)

An Example

Let's use the Harry Potter books as an example, since almost everybody has (or really, REALLY should have) read those.

Harry Potter is obviously about a male character. There seems to be an equal balance of male and female characters (but I haven't actually counted, so there could be more men than women). Harry, as a character, has varying relationships with all sorts of women. These female characters have a large range of diversity, displaying traditional femininity, vapidness, intelligence, athleticism, loyalty, cruelty, kindness, villainy, determination, heroics, etc. They all (for the most part) have distinct personalities from each other. Many of the more important female characters have both strengths and weaknesses, and they change over the series, making them round, fleshed-out characters. While they all have men in their lives, none of them seem to be dependent on men, and they are all generally pretty active. 

So even though this is a book with a male lead (and a male antagonist), we can still look at the women within the story. There may not be a ton to glean from different books about the female characters (because LOTS of books center on men), but it is always possible to pick out little bits and pieces.     

Go try this and tell me how your experiences turn out. If you can think of any more helpful questions to ask yourself when reading, please comment below and tell me!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

"Bossypants" and "How to Be a Woman"

My thoughts

I just read Tina Fey's Bossypants and Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman back to back. The funny thing is, they really are very similar. On the cover of Caitlin's book, someone has reviewed it as "the British Bossypants," and it's true! They both talk about the horrors of puberty, being a woman in a male-dominated workplace, their family, and their experiences as mothers.

The thing I like about both these books, besides being hilarious and easy to relate to, is that they're both gateway drugs into feminism. I mean that in the best way, of course. They are two individuals' experiences with feminism. Because it's so easy to understand, these books are a great introduction to feminism.

They aren't, however, the bottom line of feminism. Tina Fey has been criticized for this one line she has about how beauty standards have evolved to the point where one woman is expected to have body parts from all sorts of ethnicities. The way she comes across in the line is derogatory to women of color, or so I have read from women of color (I didn't find it offensive at first, but that could easily be my white privilege. It might also be that I read it differently than those critics did). I didn't like that both of them criticized other female celebrities, though the reasoning behind it made sense.

So while the books aren't hardcore feminism, or even inclusive, intersectional feminism, they are brilliant, funny, lighthearted, and have some great criticisms of everyday sexisms.

Your book club

Because these books are both very personal, your book club might get very personal too when talking about these books. It might just turn into story time. But that's okay! I think that's the point of both of these books, and that's what reading them encourages.

Here are some questions that will hopefully bring about awesome discussions in your feminist book club:

  1. Talk about your experiences with puberty. Did your parents give you "the talk"? What are some conversations you had about growing up with siblings or friends? 
  2. In Caitlin's book, she talks about what we call our private body parts. Do you think the names we use for our breasts and vagina are important? What are some of the names you hear that you do or don't like? 
  3. What are some of the beauty standards you come up against? How have you had to fight them and learn to accept your body? Do you still struggle with some of them?
  4. Both Tina and Caitlin have mentioned gay friends that they had. What do you think of their relationships with people who are homosexual? How do you think the gay community and feminism relate to each other? Can gay men understand some of the experiences of women in the patriarchy? (You could also talk about lesbian women in this discussion, but this is also a REALLY BIG discussion. You might have to try to reign it in.)
  5. Both Tina and Caitlin use humor to talk about feminism. Tina even uses humor to bring feminist issues to a national audience. How does using humor help feminist causes? You could use rape jokes as an example in this discussion.
  6. Both Tina and Caitlin have experienced sexism in the workplace. Both of them have had to fight for more female representation in male-dominated industries. How do you think things have changed for women as comedians and musicians? Are we making progress in those two fields? You might also want to share some experiences you have had in your own workplaces. 
  7. Caitlin describes her first experience of being in love with Courtney. It's obviously an awful relationship, and Caitlin seems to know that, but she sticks with it. Why does she stay with Courtney for so long? Have you had a similar experience? Why was it so important for Caitlin to be in love?
  8. What do you think of Caitlin visiting a strip club? What are your personal feminist views on women working in the sex industry? Do you agree with Caitlin's conclusions?
  9. Caitlin describes her wedding and all the issues she has with the wedding industry. Do you agree with her? Did you have problems with your wedding, or have you been in a similar situation as her sister, Caz? 
  10. Tina Fey tells a story about Amy Poehler saying to Jimmy Fallon "I don't care if you fucking like it." Talk about that. Talk about male privilege, too. 
  11. Both Tina and Caitlin talk about motherhood, as well as how they bring their feminist outlook to motherhood. If you are a mother, talk about how you try to bring feminist ideals to raising your child. If you aren't, you can bring up goals you have for raising children in a feminist way. Is motherhood a feminist act? (Discuss Caitlin's chapter about giving birth for the first time. I absolutely loved that part. She made giving birth seem so empowering, like a she-warrior.) 
  12. Talk about Caitlin's chapter on abortion. Do you want children? Do you think not having children is a feminist act?
  13. Both Tina and Caitlin are white, mostly middle-class feminists living in developed countries. Discuss some of the privilege that comes with that, and maybe some of the privilege you saw in Tina and Caitlin. 
  14. Now that you've read both books ... which one did you like better and why?
So there's a lot in there. SORRY. You could probably talk an entire 24 hours if you went thoroughly through every one of those questions. So just pick and choose what you and your book club will probably like. 

And I hope you enjoy the books!