Thursday, May 29, 2014

HOLLA::Revolution: Changing the World, One Street at a Time

On Tuesday, May 27, I was honored to attend the second annual HOLLA::Revolution speaker series against street harassment. Although not many people outside of the feminist community are familiar with the term, street harassment refers to sexual harassment that occurs in public spaces, from non-physical intimidation like catcalling and whistling to physical actions like groping and assault. HOLLA::Revolution brought together activists from across the globe, united in their mission to make the streets a safer place. Organized by Hollaback!, an international movement working to end street harassment, HOLLA::Revolution was – as I found it last year – an inspirational experience.

I appreciated how the conference showcased untraditional, artistic methods of activism being used against street harassment. I was already familiar with the work of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, a Brooklyn-based artist whose series Stop Telling Women to Smile (pictured below) has graced public spaces for the past two years, but her discussion of how she came to create the series, what the artistic process was like, and how the project has been received brought a new perspective on the artwork for me. I have always found this series powerful, but my appreciation for it was only deepened upon learning how grassroots and personal it is, to both the artist and women whose images are featured.

Many other forms of art were featured as well. As someone who really enjoys spoken word poetry, I was excited when I saw that spoken word was scheduled to start off the day. The poem did not disappoint. Although it took the performer, Hollaback! Halifax site leader Rebecca Faria, a second to get into her swing, her performance was extremely powerful once she got comfortable on stage. HOLLA::Revolution also featured a dance performance from the Sydnie L. Mosley Dance Company, as well as a highly amusing comedy routine from social activist and comedian W. Kamau Bell. These activists’ performances really impacted me. It was truly inspiring to see people using their talents to take part in activism for a cause important to them.

As a history nerd, I was really excited to hear Professor Karla Jay discuss her activism against street harassment during the Second Wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve written about the history of street harassment before, but had never really heard of actions done in the mid-20th century by feminists. It was a privilege to simply be in the same room as Professor Jay, let alone to hear her speak. She was articulate, speaking from the heart about her experiences working in the radical feminist movement and organizing what she called an “ogle-in,” where she and some fellow feminists stood at the Wall Street subway station and turned the tables on harassers. Although I don’t know if such tactics would be effective or recommendable in today’s world, from a historical perspective, it was interesting to hear.

When she delivered her opening remarks, emcee Sally Kohn warned the audience that “we’re gonna hear some other awful stories [today].” Indeed, speakers and performers shared several stories about harassment and violence that were difficult to stomach. However, HOLLA::Revolution was not characterized by negativity. On the contrary, I came away from the conference inspired. Although there were a lot of very raw discussions of really awful stuff going on in the streets and on the Internet directed against women, especially those who speak up against sexism, there was much more of an emphasis on all the amazing activism that regular, everyday people are doing to change the world.

I really do think that the anti-street harassment movement is representative of the future of equal rights activism, since it is a movement that focuses on cultural change, community by community, in a way that has never been done before. Hollaback! site leaders and anti-street harassment activists are average Jo/es who are out to change the word. And by gosh, if HOLLA::Revolution is any indicator, they’re going to do it.

Monday, May 26, 2014

TED Talk: Violence Against Women - It's a Men's Issue

In the wake of the Santa Barbara shooting, when killer Elliot Rodgers set out on a shooting rampage to "punish" womankind for rejecting his advances, I felt that it would be right to share a TED talk about violence against women. Although this one has been around for a while, its message is more relevant than ever before. Men need to care about violence against women, and be allies to end the violence. Elliot Rodger's actions were terrible and inexcusable, but not an isolated incident. Rather, they are part of the larger misogynistic society in which we live, where men are taught that they should feel entitled to women's bodies. We must end the violence and dismantle this culture.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Women's Representation in Malamud and Ozick: A Comparison

This is an adapted version of a paper that I wrote for a class called Modern Jewish Literature.

Women’s representation in the media is an issue that cuts across genre lines, ranging from Ivy League debates over Lady Macbeth’s feminist merits to fan complaints on Tumblr over how female characters are portrayed in Doctor Who. Women in literature are often relegated to the role of helper, present only to facilitate male characters’ development and push forward the plot. Although the women in Bernard Malamud’s “Lady of the Lake” (1958) and Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; Or, Yiddish in America” (1969) do fall into this trope, it is not their primary role in the stories. Isabella and Hannah are, respectively, characters with agency and independence, serving as a contrast for the women to whom they allude. 

This agency can easily be seen in “Lady of the Lake.” Although it abysmally fails the Bechdel test by featuring only one female character by name, Isabella is a strong character who does not rely on the direction of the men on her life. On the contrary, she holds the power in her family: she comes up with the idea that they should pretend they are the wealthy del Dongos, and says that her father listened to her advice in this regard. This role reversal is particularly poignant when the story’s publication date of 1958 is taken into account, as this was at the height of Western media’s aggressive push of the ideal family as a patriarchal unit with a father at its head. 

As a consequence of this idealized family, the 1950s was an era when women were pressured to marry (and marry young), as their only road to fulfillment was a husband, children, and housewifery. Despite this societal pressure, Isabella doesn’t let Henry – who is perceived as a rich American able to give her a new start in the States – come in and sweep her off her feet. She exercises agency in her choice to reject Henry’s advances because of her refusal to compromise on her standards (i.e. Judaism) for potential mates. 

Hannah in Ozick’s “Envy; Or, Yiddish in America” also exercises her right to say no to a man through her refusal to translate the Yiddish poet Edelshtein’s poems. Although such a response was more common in 1968, when interest in feminism and women’s equality was renewed, women were still only experimenting with their newfound freedom. Edelshtein tries to take away Hannah’s fledgling agency by infantilizing her: in the text, he refers to her as a child and calls her meydeleh, which literally means girl, even though she is in her 20s. He then goes on to strike her when she refuses to translate him, an attempt to assert masculine dominance over her. However, Hannah will not let Edelshtein and his old world understandings of gender relations prevail. She does not give in to his demands to translate him: she yells at him when he yells at her and defiantly does not touch her face in the aftermath of the strike, resolutely standing her ground. 

Hannah is not the only woman who exercises agency in her decision not to translate Edelshtein; she is in the same boat as the translator identified as the spinster hack. Although the spinster translator candidly says that she will not translate Edelshtein because it is too much effort for too little money, Hannah does not even bother to give a reason for her refusal until prompted. After Edelshtein strikes her, she refuses to translate him even more strongly, outright telling him to die and repeating no several times. 

Although Isabella and Hannah exert agency over their lives and refuse to defer to the men around them, the women to whom they serve as allusions are not as feminist. There is no doubt that Isabella is the lady of the lake referenced by the title of the story, as the reader first meets her rising out of the lake. Although the Arthurian Lady of the Lake was a crucial part of many legends, her only reason for existence was to move the androcentric plot along and thereby facilitate men’s development. Hannah’s biblical counterpart served a similar purpose, as she is only mentioned in Tanakh in relation to her husband and son; in the text, her import is solely derived from her motherhood of Samuel the Prophet. 

Isabella and Hannah rebel against these predetermined roles, refusing to actively facilitate the lives of the men around them. Although it is undeniable that they serve as integral parts of Henry’s and Edelshtein’s respective character developments, Isabella and Hannah have function beyond this role; the influence they have on men in the story is simply by consequence of the decisions they make for their own benefits. 

This feminist reading of Isabella is complicated by Malamud’s treatment of Isabella’s body, however. The story exoticizes and thereby eroticizes her by describing her as possessing a “beauty which holds the mark of history, the beauty of a people and civilization.” Isabella is highly sexualized when the reader first meets her as “a girl in a white bathing suit…[with] wet skin glistening.” Malamud reduces her to body parts: in addition to having a face, eyes, brows, nose, lips, and chin that are “suffused with the loveliness of youth,” she is described as “queenly high-assed” and with a “high-arched breast,” corresponding descriptions of which are absent in regard to Henry, since the reader only hears about his hair, eyes, height, and his “arms and legs and his stomach.” 

Overall, Isabella is little more than a sex object to Henry, a foreign body to be conquered. He becomes interested in her based only off of their one short encounter by the lake, where a large part of the narration is dedicated to describing her physical form, indicating that his attraction is mostly sexual. Although it could be argued that his decision to stay with her after he learns that she is not wealthy is a sign of true love, when she disappears, he is still only interested in her physical form, as he “grope[s] for her breasts.” Although he objectifies her, she does not allow herself to be reduced to a body; when she exposes herself, she chooses how and when, making it a feminist act that is for her own benefit (to reveal her Jewish identity) rather than for Henry’s sexual fulfillment. 

Both “The Lady of the Lake” and “Envy; Or, Yiddish in America” give their female characters independence. Malamud’s Isabella challenges patriarchal norms within the family and exerts agency over her choice of life partner, two highly subversive acts for a woman of the 1950s. Ozick has Hannah engage in similarly feminist behaviors when she refuses to translate Edelshtein, originally out of lack of interest in his work and later on as a result of his infantilizing and abusive language and actions. Isabella and Hannah have their own interests in mind. Any development they help facilitate in male characters is coincidental and tangential to their own, in stark contrast to the literary Lady of the Lake and biblical Hannah they reference. Although Henry’s primary interest in Isabella is physical, she does not allow herself to be wholly objectified. These two women transcend the female character trope of helper, serving as important characters in their own right and creating interesting feminist implications for readers.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

When Women Lead: 5 Powerful Women in 1 Room

Oh, the stock images one finds
when you search "women leaders"...
Recently on campus, I had the honor to attend the panel When Women Lead: Insights and Experience from Women in Power. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, the first woman to head Harvard and the fifth to head an Ivy League Institution, introduced the panel. It was moderated by Karen Gordon Mills, former Administrator of the US Small Business Administration. The three speakers were Jill Abramson, former Executive Editor of the New York Times; Edith Cooper, Executive Vice President and Global Head of Human Capital Management at Goldman Sachs; and Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California and former Secretary of Homeland Security.

This panel’s message about the importance of women leaders is particularly poignant in the wake of Jill Abramson’s dismissal from the Times for calling out unequal pay at the newspaper. I haven’t done a lot of research on this recent development, but I think it’s terrible that the Times would fire an employee for criticizing its practice of pay inequity (which is illegal, by the way). Although the Times’ behavior doesn’t surprise me – historically, the paper never really aligned its with feminism – it saddens me that such an important corporation would engage in this sort of discrimination.

However, it heartens me to know that people like Abramson do exist, who are willing to denounce their employers at risk to their own careers. It also gives me hope that someone so high-profile is being vocal about this issue, and bringing pay inequity and the Times’ practice of it to light. I hope that she proves to be an example to other women who are being paid less than their male colleagues, and serves as a warning to other employers paying their women workers unfairly.

At the panel, Abramson said that “women are very good because we have to be” when it comes to navigating workplaces and situations where being male is the norm. I thought that was a powerful statement to make. Women who have made it into leadership positions have had to work harder than their male counterparts to make it where they are, to fight past institutional and casual sexism from employers as well as colleagues. Of course we have to be good at what we do. If we’re not, we have less of a chance than the men we’re competing with.

When they began to discuss whether women in leadership conduct themselves differently than men, I thought it was interesting that all three unequivocally agreed that they do. Abramson discussed how she was in the first class of first-years who lived in Harvard Yard along with the male students, and how learning how to live in such a male-dominated world helped her in the similarly androcentric world of journalism. “How to navigate that type of situation where you aren’t the majority, that everyone isn’t like you, is important, and I do think women are good at that,” she said.

Cooper said that there is “no doubt, in my mind” that women lead differently. She was particularly adamant that women listen and adapt much better than men do, and that “I often want to take out notes” because there is “so much to learn” from other leaders who are women. I have to admit that I’ve often felt the same way about a lot of the women I sit in class with, as well as those who are my professors. I’m privileged to spend time with so many wonderful women who lead student groups, larger organizations, and various other bodies with strength and dignity.

I was amused when Napolitano shared how when she was running for attorney general of Arizona, a reporter asked her “Do you intend to run as a woman?” Although biology limited Napolitano’s choice in whether she would run as a man or woman, she does feel that growing up as women in America gives women different life experiences, and that informs how women formulate their “priorities and vision.” She and Abramson also talked about the importance of all-women spaces within larger male-dominated leadership structures, and how these sorts of gendered spaces help women feel more confident as leaders.

However, I do hope that we soon come to the day when women leaders no longer have to participate in all-women spaces, and when panels like this will be thought of as quaint and even sexist for its single-gender focus. If we want to live in a more equitable society where women and men can access the same opportunities, women should enter positions of leadership, whether of the New York Times, Homeland Security department, or Goldman Sachs. They bring unique qualities to the job, whether informed by their gender and sex or not. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Gender in Fiddler on the Roof

This is an adapted version of a paper I wrote for a class called Modern Jewish Literature.

Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof (1971) shares the same characters and basic plotlines as several of Sholem Aleichem’s original Tevye the Dairyman stories (1895-1914). However, the two variations tell the tale in different ways. Of particular interest is their divergent treatment of gender. Both Tevye the Dairyman and Fiddler on the Roof are products of their times in regard to gender issues, as seen by the variance in their portrayals of Golde’s agency and Tevye’s assertion of masculinity.

The original Tevye the Dairyman stories give Golde significantly less agency over her daughters’ lives than she has in Fiddler on the Roof. In Sholem Aleichem’s telling, Golde simply passes on the message to Tevye that Layzer Wolf wants to see him. After Tevye informs her that the butcher proposed to marry Tsaytl, Golde claims that she thought that would be the subject matter, but there is no indication in the text that she had any such idea before the meeting. Fiddler turns Golde into an active facilitator in the match between Tsaytl and Layzer Wolf: Yente the matchmaker specifically informs her that the butcher has cast his eye on Tsaytl!” and Golde purposely misleads to Tevye into going to speak with him.

The movie also gives Golde more agency in regard to Chava. In Fiddler, after Chava leaves home with the Russian peasant Fyedka, Golde goes to the Christian section of town, enters the church, and demands to speak with the priest when the deacon seems unwilling to arrange an audience. She then finds Tevye and informs him of Chava and Fyedka’s marriage. This is the opposite of the original story, in which only Tevye speaks with the priest, and Golde never interacts with him directly. When Chava goes missing in the Sholem Aleichem narrative, Golde sends her other daughters to scout the church rather than going herself. Once it is clear that Chava is in the priest’s custody, Golde continues to avoid the church, sending Tevye to confront the priest in her stead.

Golde’s increased agency in Fiddler from the original Tevye the Dairyman stories is a reflection of the times at which the media were created. When Sholem Aleichem wrote his stories in Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women did not have agency over their own lives, let alone anyone else’s; wives were ultimately subject to the desires of their husbands. This inequality was basically irrelevant when Fiddler on the Roof came out in 1971. The Second Wave of feminism, when society began to question and ultimately overhaul prescribed gender roles, began when The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963. Consequently, by the time Fiddler on the Roof was released, its viewers had been influenced by progressive ideas about equality and gender roles for nearly a decade. These feminist sensibilities can be clearly seen in the film adaptation through Golde’s more active role.

In both Fiddler on the Roof and Tevye the Dairyman, Tevye continually asserts his masculinity through attempting to control his own emotions and Golde’s actions. In the original stories, Tevye is anxious that his behavior is not construed as feminine, frequently stating “Tevye is no woman” in his narration to Sholem Aleichem. He says the phrase while refusing to shed tears during what he knows is his last conversation with Hodl, when underscoring his stoicism while waiting for Shprintze to discuss Ahronchik, and when he holds back emotion while Golde is dying. In each of these examples, he is affirming his masculinity by actively disparaging femininity as well as by exerting control over his feelings.

Tevye’s assertion of masculinity and attempts to regain control of life are also easily seen in Fiddler. When Hodl and Pertchik get engaged without first seeking his permission, Tevye tries to take control of the situation and save face with Golde by telling her that he approved the match. “Without even asking me?” Golde yells. “Who asks you?” he roars, devaluing her status as wife. “I am the father!” After Chava informs Tevye of her intent to marry Fyedka, Golde tells Tevye to come home. Tevye refuses, and when Golde insists, he warns her, “Quiet, woman, before I get angry!”, needlessly identifying her by gender. After Golde sarcastically says that she fears Tevye’s anger, he shouts that he is “the man in the house” and “the head in the family.”

This assertion of masculinity to exert control, either over himself or Golde, happens in both the movie and stories; however, as seen in the examples above, it is much stronger in the movie. Although Sholem Aleichem witnessed Communist attempts to dismantle the traditional family structure, such drastic changes never really occurred. Second Wave Feminism had a much more profound impact on practical life and social thought. During the 1970s, many men would have been able to identify with Tevye’s need to assert his masculinity. This is not to say that no men were allies of feminism; however, many were threatened by women’s new demands for equality and disapproved of this break with traditional gender roles. There is no doubt that numerous American men felt the desire to quash or at least take control of their wives’ newfound independence, and would have related to Tevye when he felt the need to remind Golde that he is the so-called “the head of the family.” Consequently, Sholem Aleichem and Norman Jewison’s rendering of gender roles within the narratives about Tevye are clearly products of their times.

Although Fiddler on the Roof is an adaptation of Tevye the Dairyman, it portrays gender in a very different way. The movie makes Golde into a much more active character, taking agency in her daughters’ lives to a greater extent than she does in the stories. Although Tevye asserts his masculinity throughout the Sholem Aleichem narratives, his affirmations are stronger in the movie. All of these differences can be attributed to the fact that Tevye the Dairyman was penned during a time when gender roles were strictly enforced and women were second-class citizens, while Fiddler on the Roof was made after feminism made a reemergence and women were considered equal partners in society. Articles of pop culture reflect the sensibilities of the times and places at which they were created. Although they tell the same story, Tevye the Dairyman and Fiddler on the Roof are no exception.