Monday, July 28, 2014

I Am Not My Boyfriend's Property

Saturday night, Crack Square on Ben Yehuda Street. It’s the main hub of Jerusalem nightlife, so the alcohol is pouring and the music is blaring. My friend and I sit on a bench on the edge of the Square, waiting for my roommate to leave the bar so we can share a cab back to our dorm at Hebrew University. We don’t mind waiting; the weather is pleasant and we’re catching up with each other, two nice Orthodox girls enjoying each other’s company.

Alas, we are not left to our own devices for very long. Two slightly inebriated Americans come over to our bench and begin to chat us up. I am flattered, but not particularly interested. Despite the fact that I refuse to share my name, where I’m from, or any other personal details, the guy hitting on me won’t give up. I’m getting a little fed up with his lack of respect for my wishes, but don’t want to just get up and leave. So, I pull out the only card I can think of: “I have a boyfriend.”

It works. I turn my head to see how my friend is faring, and by the time I look back, he’s gone.

No, I am not currently seeing anyone; I lied through my teeth. Certainly, I hoped that lying about being in a relationship would make the guy go away, and was relieved when it had the desired effect. However, I didn’t expect him to give up quite so easily, particularly because he had been trying, despite my complete lack of interest, for a solid ten minutes.

Why, then, did he give up so quickly upon learning of my supposed relationship status? Some would say that he just realized that he wouldn’t get anywhere with me, that my clearly articulated disinterest coupled with my existing boyfriend spelled bad news for him, so he left. I don’t doubt that this is why he did choose to get up and try his luck with some other girl. What I want to explore is why he left the moment I said I had a boyfriend, and not a second sooner.

I don’t think it’s far-fetched to postulate that he left because he respected my “boyfriend’s” possession of me more than my own humanity. He did not respect my agency or choice in deciding whether or not I was interested in him. He only respected another man’s possession of me, completely disregarding my own interests in favor of respecting a male’s territory. I have no doubt that he would have pursued me further had I told him I was single, considering he continued to hit on me after I made it completely clear that I was not interested by point-blank refusing to tell him anything about myself.

I keep asking myself, why didn’t I just get up and leave? I don’t want to victim-blame myself, but every time I think about this experience, I keep wondering why I didn’t just excuse myself and walk away. My friend was clearly not terribly comfortable with the guy hitting on her, and I’m sure she would have been happy to get up and walk away as well. Was I afraid that they would start following us? But who cares, the street was full of people and completely safe? Did I maybe think that my friend was enjoying herself and I didn’t want to ruin her fun? (It was obvious that she wasn’t.)

Or maybe I didn’t leave because I didn’t want to make it into a big deal. I didn’t want to raise my voice, didn’t want to seem unfeminine in a strong expression of my own desires, didn’t want people to give us weird looks and wonder what’s wrong with that Orthodox girl who can’t take a compliment.

“So why are you here?” the guy hitting on my friend asked us after a while. Um, maybe I’m here to have a good time, hang out, enjoy myself? My existence at Crack Square, or any in space, does not hinge on male attention. I am a human being who has motives beyond garnering a guy, and men need to start realizing that.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Queer Representation in American TV

LGBT+ life in the contemporary day is rich and varied, with same-sex couples included in shows on networks as conservative and cautious as Disney. However, queer folks were not always so accepted, and certainly not as visible in the media.

In the post-World War II era, gays and lesbians began to form what was called the homophile movement, made up of various social, political, and cultural clubs centering on gay life. This emerging gay visibility, coupled with the fear of Communism and a consequent breakdown of American values and family, led to the Lavender Scare, a widespread panic over the existence of gay folks. The watershed moment in American gay history occurred in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, when the police conducted a raid and violence occurred in response. The Stonewall Riot was a modern-day shot heard round the world, serving as the starting point for the gay rights movement.

Consequently, throughout the 1970s, the LGBT+ community began to fight for inclusion in American politics and society. Their slow progress was sharply cut in the early 1980s, when gay men began rapidly contracting and dying of what is now known as HIV/AIDS, but was then a mysterious killer with little to no treatment available. Homosexuality, which came to be equated with illness and fatality, became taboo and stigmatized. Coverage of the AIDS crisis by the media placed the gay community in a negative light, creating a renewed fear of homosexuals. However, the gay community did not stand idly by, but began to organize against homophobia and for a cure to AIDS.

Thus, the 1990s became better for queer inclusivity; Americans began to get used to the fact that gays and lesbians existed within their midst. Queer folks started to come out of the closet en masse and demand the same rights accorded to their straight counterparts. Discussions about same-sex marriage, the status of gays in the military, and job discrimination based on sexual orientation began to be had. The gay rights movement has only gained momentum as the years have gone on. Currently, seventeen states and the federal government recognize same-sex marriage, and barriers in other states and for other rights are being broken every day.

Unsurprisingly, gay representation in television has largely been influenced by public opinion towards the gay and lesbian community. (Usually, this is to the exclusion of queer folks – particularly youth, people of color, and trans*people – who fall outside of the mainstream, affluent, and predominantly white gay and lesbian community.) Consequently, gay characters and plotlines were largely absent from television from the 1950s through 1980s. During the height of the AIDS crisis, advertisers’ hesitance to link themselves with gay material led networks to avoid touching on queer issues. Throughout this period, activists worked tirelessly to change the status quo in queer media representation. Beginning in 1992, the situation changed rapidly; several television shows began to feature openly queer characters and gay plotlines, which turned into a strong trend.

As a result, the 1990s heralded the beginning of an era when the LGBT+ community became more represented in American media. A “gay and lesbian chic” began to appear in the 1990s, with everyone from advertisers to politicians beginning to actively reach out to the gay population. However, it is no coincidence that queerness began to appear on television at the same time as gays began to become part of mainstream American society and public discourse.

Gay themes became apparent in the movies, with films like The Crying Game (1992) and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) becoming enormously successful. It didn’t take long to bring queer characters onto the small screen. Although shows at the beginning of the decade kept gay characters ancillary and watered down or entirely censored explicitly gay plotlines, shows like Roseanne (1988-1997), Melrose Place (1992-1999), and NYPD Blue (1993-2005) began to push the envelope as the decade wore on. Gay-themed plots began to diversify as well, including a variety of storylines rather than solely focusing on tropes like the AIDS crisis and coming out.

By the mid-1990s, queer characters and plotlines were considered mainstream. In 1997, when the main character of Ellen (1994-1998) came out of the closet, she was the first gay protagonist of a television show. After Ellen, networks rarely hesitated to include queer themes in their shows. In 1998, Will and Grace debuted, featuring an openly gay male lead and several other queer characters. It aired for eight seasons, consistently ranked in the top ten most popular shows, and was nominated for 83 Emmys. Although Will and Grace was unusually successful, several other shows integrated or focused on gay characters and plotlines throughout the remainder of the 2000s and 2010s, from Normal, Ohio (2001-2002) to the presently-airing Modern Family.

Considering the rapid progress that the queer rights movement has made within only a few decades, there is no doubt that equality, or at least something close to it, will soon be attained. Legal barriers are being torn down every day, and social and cultural taboos and fears against LGBT+ folks are being carefully dismantled. There is no better place to observe this phenomenon than in queer representation in television, which has boomed in a short period of time. No, it’s not perfect, but we’re definitely getting there.

Monday, July 21, 2014

An Orthodox Jewish Perspective on Hobby Lobby

Check out the article I wrote for The Crimson!

Liberals and conservatives alike have been abuzz over the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which states that corporations can be exempted from a law to which their owners object from a religious standpoint. The case began with the Affordable Care Act mandate that their employers cover birth control. This stipulation made the evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts supply store chain, feel that their right to freedom of religion had been disrespected. They took their case to court, and the justices sided with them.

As a person of faith and a feminist, I object to the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Hobby Lobby case.

Continue reading here.

Monday, July 14, 2014

My Feminist Heels

The heels in question. With my dog photobombing.

As someone who openly and loudly identifies as a feminist to friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike, people often assume that I eschew articles of traditional femininity, such as high-heeled shoes. However, I’ve never been morally opposed to those sorts of things. I don’t believe that wearing them is an inherently anti-feminist act, or that an inherently anti-feminist act even exists.

Although I’m certainly not against the existence of heels, I have always been vocal in my personal opposition to wearing heels. Shoe shopping has never been fun for me, since I’ve always found it incredibly difficult to find comfortable shoes. I’ve tried on and discarded the entire stock of many a small, local shoe store, been reduced to tears when unable to find a single pair of flats in large corporate stores, and simply shrugged my shoulders and tried not to care when all of my friends were wearing cute shoes and I was stuck in the only overpriced pair I could find that I was able to tolerate.

Because of my own difficulty finding wearable shoes, I very strongly believe that nobody should ever wear uncomfortable footwear. What you put on your feet determines your mobility; an uncomfortable shoe can ruin an entire day, and can hold you back from accomplishing what you want to do. This is why I never even tried to put a pair of high heels on in a shoe store, and was deeply suspicious of my friends’ insistence that not every heel is uncomfortable.

This was all true until a few weeks ago, when a local shoe store was going out of business and slashed its prices drastically. I went in; I saw a cute pair of heels; I tried them on; they were comfortable. I was shocked. There had literally never been a time in my life when I had just walked into a store and liked the first pair of flats that I tried on, and I had certainly never expected to have that sort of reaction to three-inch heels. But nope. They were comfortable, quality, and bizarrely inexpensive, so I bought them.

Why did I even think to try them on, you ask? In May, my future roommates and I went to my future dorm’s end-of-the-year formal, and we had a professional photo taken together. Although I love the picture and all the people in it, I was – amused? embarrassed? – by the noticeable height disparity caused by my roommates’ heels and my flats.

When it comes to things like wearing heels, putting on make up, and engaging in other activities established and nurtured by the patriarchy and sexist beauty standards, I believe that it is important for women to do what they feel comfortable. If a woman wants to wear uncomfortable heels and spend an hour doing her make up every morning, I think it’s crazy, but if it makes her feel happy and confident, I say go for it; it’s a feminist act. Such actions would be anti-feminist, however, if a woman does it not for her own enjoyment, but because she is simply knuckling under to masculine expectations of the attractiveness and desirability of women’s bodies.

It is for this reason that I have never worn heels. I would not have enjoyed them, and only would have worn them for the benefit of others. Wearing these heels that I bought is not an anti-feminist act, though, since I have made a conscious decision that I wish to wear heels for my own purposes and have found a pair that I feel comfortable and confident in. On the contrary, I believe that they are feminist heels.

If nothing else, at least I’ll break 5’ while wearing them.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Feminist Doctor Who, Part 5: Amy Pond

I’m a Whovian, which means that I’m a member of the Doctor Who fandom. Doctor Who, the smash BBC hit that was named the longest-running science fiction television show by Guinness World Records, was revived in 2005 after over a decade of hiatus. Throughout the classic show and modern revival, the Doctor travels in his TARDIS spaceship through time and space with companions, saving small cities as well as the entire universe from disaster. Many feminist Whovians have analyzed the Doctor and his companions’ representations of gender, race, and sexuality; in this series, I give some of my own interpretations.

Amy Pond is the first companion to travel with the Doctor as portrayed by Matt Smith. She is the only full-time companion in the modern revival to join the Doctor in the TARDIS for more than two series, from Series 5 until midway through Series 7.

Personally, Amy is probably my least favorite companion. After really liking her predecessors Rose, Martha, and Donna, Amy was a bit of a letdown, particularly because she was on the show for over two seasons. While watching, I felt that Amy had a lot of potential to be an interesting, well-rounded, evolving character, but Doctor Who head honcho Steven Moffat really squandered the opportunity.

I think that Amy can accurately be summarized through three tropes of female characters: sexual, damsel, and mother. 

Numerous feminist Whovians have pointed out that Amy is sexualized in a way that the other companions are not. When the Doctor meets Amy as an adult for the first time, she is dressed as a police officer. She’s not actually a cop, though! No, she’s a kiss-o-gram playing an officer. Although most of the Doctor’s companions have jobs that they don’t like or are considered low status – Rose is a shop girl, Donna is a temp, Clara is a nanny – Amy is the first whose profession is sexualized in such a way. Honestly, using the word “profession” to describe her stint as a kiss-o-gram is questionable; she is not shown to like the work she is doing, or as ever doing it again. The next time we learn of her taking a job, she is working as a model – another sexualized career choice.

Of course, there is nothing wrong or anti-feminist with being a kiss-o-gram or model, but the way the show has Amy doing it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t get the feeling that she’s owning her sexuality and being sexual for her own sake; rather, she’s being sexualized, dressing and acting for the male Whovian’s gaze. I think I get this impression because, in general, she is never really her own person. She’s the Doctor’s companion, Rory’s wife, River Song’s mother…never just Amy alone, in the way that Rose, Martha, and Donna were. The audience just doesn’t know Amy’s personality well enough to be able to judge if she’s sexualizing herself because she wants to.

Amy also frequently plays the damsel in distress. Certainly, there are a number of episodes in which she does a lot for her own sake (and the world’s), like in “The Girl Who Waited” and “The Curse of the Black Spot.” However, in general, she tends to kind of sit around and wait for the Doctor (or even Rory) to swoop in. I think this is best illustrated by the fact that she’s kidnapped by Madame Kovarian and waits for the Doctor to save her. Admittedly, she can’t really fight back while being held against her own will in an induced sleep, but Moffat could’ve had her break herself free somehow. I mean, he’s writing the plots. But noooo, she has to be saved by the Doctor, the Sleeping Beauty awakened by the Prince’s kiss.

Although other companions come to take on a mothering role with the Doctor, Amy quite literally becomes his mother-in-law. She is the only companion to have a child (she’s also the only companion to be married while traveling with the Doctor), and she comes to be defined by her biological role. Her value is largely derived from mothering River, and River’s value is largely derived from being the Doctor’s wife. It all boils down to their connection with a Doctor, and not their own inherent worth.

According to a recent study, episodes with Amy only pass the Bechdel test 53% of the time. This is in stark comparison to the Doctor’s three previous full-time female companions, whose episodes pass the Bechdel test 74%, 78%, and 100%, respectively. I’m not surprised.

I’m not sure if I can say that Amy is a feminist character. Although she has some good moments, she tends to fall into sexist media tropes and does not do much to challenge those stereotypes. Amy is needlessly sexualized throughout her time in the TARDIS, and not in a way that I believe is feminist. She largely depends on the Doctor and Rory to save her, and is rarely given any agency of her own. She adopts a mothering role, both literally and metaphorically, with the Doctor. I really blame Moffat for letting the opportunity for a really fierce, awesome, well-rounded female character just slip through his fingers, and can only hope that he’ll break this pattern in the upcoming Series 8.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Star of Davida Interviews Maya Rosen

Women wearing tzitzit, a fringed religious garment traditionally only worn by men, have been making it into the Jewish news recently. It's undeniable that women are increasingly more interested in claiming mitzvot (commandments) that they have not had access to in previous generations. Part of this wave is Maya Rosen, a Princeton undergrad and founder of Netzitzot. Star of Davida had the privilege of interviewing her.

Star of Davida: What first made you interested in tzitzit? Was it something you were raised with, or did you come to it on your own?
Maya Rosen: I started wearing tzitzit when I was in high school because I wanted the words of Torah to be more than words. It started to feel incoherent to me to articulate the obligation of tzitzit twice a day in the Shema but never move beyond articulation. I had a sense at the time—and can now much more fully articulate—that Torah speaks to me and also asks something of me. Wearing tzitzit was a way to allow my prayers to materialize, in a literal sense.

Could you explain exactly what Netzitzot is, and how you're involved with it?
Netzitzot is an initiative to create tzitzit (tallit katan) designed for women. I started the project about a year ago, following several conversations with women who were interested in and excited about the mitzvah of tzitzit but were not wearing them because they did not fit right or were uncomfortable. I had been making my own tzitzit for a few years and was disheartened that such a technical barrier was keeping people from tzitzit. With the help of several seamstresses, we began altering store-bought camisoles and tying tzitzit onto them. You can check out our current products at, and we have new product lines in the works!

Tell me more about the tzitzit-tying event Netzitzot held recently.
We held a launch party for Netzitzot in late March with friends, food, and divrei Torah (words of Torah). We also tied on the tzitzit for the first batch of garments at the party. About forty people learned how to tie tzitzit at the event, which was rewarding because teaching people this skills fits into our broader goal of making mitzvot directly accessible to all Jews. The party both helped us get the tzitzit tied faster and also demonstrated what a strong community exists around these values.

Why do you think tzitzit for women is so important?
In the Sifrei, Rabbi Meir asserts that one who wears tzitzit is regarded as if she had greeted the Divine presence. The Baal HaTurim talks about tzitzit as a way for the wearer to remember Torah no matter which direction he turns. Tzitzit, broadly speaking, represent a life in which mitzvot overflow from every corner. The ability to engage in the practices and ideals laid out by Rabbi Meir, Baal HaTurim, and scores of other traditional commentators need not and should not be gendered. It is important for women to wear tzitzit for the same reason it is important for a Jew of any gender to wear tzitzit.

Do you have any role models, either in regard to tzitzit or in general terms of women's inclusion in halakhic Judaism?
I have spent time learning at Yeshivat Hadar and Midreshet Ein HaNatziv. The teachers I learned from in these places have been hugely influential in modeling what it means to live a life deeply infused with and dedicated to Torah. I learned from them that gender issues in Judaism are not simple, and it’s okay to feel upset. I also learned from them, though, how to feel so embedded in the tradition and in Torah that my participation in the system is not a question of “if” but rather of “how.”

How can people who believe in your cause help?First and foremost—order tzitzit! Also consider learning the sources about tzitzit on our website. Additionally, if you go to the “Get Involved” tab on our website, you can express your interest in hosting a tzitzit-tying workshop or in helping to distribute tzitzit in your local Judaica store, synagogue gift ship, etc. You can also sign up to for an email list about gender, mitzvot, and their intersection. Additionally, you can make a donation to Netziztot on this page. We are currently selling the tzitzit for less than production cost because we want the product to remain accessible, but we rely on donations in order to continue our work. Thank you!