9780547738307My father left an advance reading copy of Jennifer Armstrong and Heather Rudulph’s new book, Sexy Feminism, on my desk with a note “I bet you could tear this apart.” I picked it up and wanted to hate it (I mean, the cover? Come on!), but I did walk away with an increased cognizance of the tensions within modern feminism and my views on them. This isn’t necessarily the stated purpose, and I’m not sure that I fit into the demographic the authors are trying to reach (as someone who has already claimed the term feminist and assessed its applications in my own life). Armstrong and Rudulph describe their brand of feminism as “one that, above all else, owns the oft-maligned word feminist and aims to show young women how fun, empowering, and, yes, sexy it is to fight for women’s rights and choices…We want to help other women find their own feminism, just as we found ours” (xviii). As someone who has engaged in the academic conversations surrounding feminism and followed them into digital iterations, my reaction to the book veers from harsh criticism to extremely positive resonance, and the text has raised more questions than it could set out to answer between covers. Don’t get me wrong, I had plenty of issues with the book’s contents, which I explore throughout this post. However, overall, I think the book would be a good transition for a young woman who has previously eschewed the feminist title, but is fed up with the image of femininity painted by media, advertising, and magazines.

The Less-Than-Stellar
The primary flaw of Sexy Feminism is actually its cover, which depicts a pair of glossy lips, slightly open, holding the book’s title. The image seems more “sexy” than “feminist”; at first glance the book looks like a romance novel, instead of a modern woman’s guide to applying feminism in her own life. I love that the authors claim the feminism in the title (and later tell their readers that Rule #1 is “Call yourself a proud feminist” [2]), but it seems they are attempting to modify or rebrand it with the word “sexy.” I was left to wonder if all feminists were sexy, or if some weren’t allowed the privilege. Was this a dig or slight directed at the first, second, and third waves? The authors indicate that “distanc[ing] yourself from the word is to imply there’s something wrong with feminism and/or feminists, an implication that leads to the continued denigration of the cause itself” (4). However, it appears with the modifier in the title that “feminism” isn’t enough, that the stigma associated with the word wouldn’t sell books, and that Armstrong and Rudulph are trying to create “distance” between “feminism” and their brand of feminism. This conflict is brought back into focus later in the text when the authors write, “[T]he dilemma facing second-wave feminists is alive and well. One must look at only a few ads in magazines to see why: A spring color palette of eye shadow is being sold by a model with her mouth agape and sex-hazed eyes” (63). Yet, the cover of this book uses this same image and “sexy” modifier to sell its feminism, making it appear objectified and less-than-serious before you even open it.

The subtitle, “A Girl’s Guide to Love, Success, and Style,” is equally off-putting. I would hope that anyone reading about the contents of this book, which run from graphic descriptions of plastic surgery procedures to detailed analysis of Brazilian waxing and “Vajazzling,” would warrant the title of “woman” rather than “girl.” Also, the positioning of the book as a “guide” to “love, success, and style” feels like a ploy to attract women away from the magazine stand (“20 Tips for a Better YOU!”). This may be an attempt to follow in the vein of all-encompassing woman-focused sites like Jezebel, which deal with feminism, fashion, and politics, but it ultimately reads as a bad Cosmo cover, rather than a serious piece of cultural criticism.

In her review at The New Republic, Hadley Freeman has some similar misgivings about the cover:

[I]t is hard not to feel that a feminist tome that uses as a close-up, quasi-pornographic photo of a pair of parting lips on its cover, paired with the subtitle “A Girl’s Guide to Love, Success and Style” is perhaps a little confused in both its message and its packaging. One can’t blame the authors of Sexy Feminism if the publisher’s designers decided to focus on the first word in the title as opposed to the second. One can, however, query the phrasing of their subtitle: “Girls”? Sisters, please.

Like Freeman, I think the book is not nearly as juvenile or foolish as the cover seems to indicate, though I do think it has value for a wider audience that includes women (in contrast to her conclusion: “ultimately, it’s a book for girls, not women”).

In differentiating itself from prior waves and brands of feminism, Sexy Feminism sometimes perpetuates the negative stereotypes of these earlier moments (and feminism more broadly):

Some splinter feminist groups have, for instance, recommended withdrawing from patriarchal society and establishing entirely new female-run subcultures, ruled out any sex with men as inherently fraught with inequality, and declared lesbianism the only logical orientation for a decent feminist…Feminism is mostly past this by now, but in mainstream society, the movement’s image as a buzzkill lingers, making it a tough sell even for many of the ambitious young women who have benefited from it. With this book, we hope to dispel those negative ideas about feminism once and for all, but, more important, we hope to give any woman with the slightest desire for female empowerment the tools to bring feminist ideals into her everyday life. (2)

This has the impact of diminishing feminists who still adhere to those ideals, minority though they may be, furthering the opinion that they are a “buzzkill” or somehow “negative.” There are plenty of women who see sex as “fraught with inequality,” who don’t shave, or who believe lesbianism to be the purest form of feminism. We all don’t have to leave home for Camp Sister Spirit or Alapine, and other groups are equally limiting in seeing this as the “only logical orientation.” But we need to acknowledge that feminism exists on a spectrum and, in addition to paving the way for us, the women who identify with some or all of these ideals are still an important part of the larger movement.

The moments when the author’s arguments are at their weakest, are when they use a broad lens, ignoring the complexity and tension associated with being a modern feminist. This is most notable in their use of pop star “Sexy Feminist” examples like Lady Gaga. Gaga is absolutely a feminist, and she is sexy too, but the book’s depiction oversimplifies her media image and representation:

“Through fashion, she has protested the use of fur (an outfit made from dozens of stuffed Kermit dolls), told the world she was not a piece of meat (the steak suit), and riffed on how society mutes women (all those lacy facemasks circa “Bad Romance”). She says of most of her outfit choices, ‘They’re meant to be kind of a rejection of what people view about women….I am a feminist. And I want to change the way people view women.’ She went on to say she wasn’t interested ‘in being a perfect placid pop singer that looks great in bikinis’” (91).

Bad RomanceGaga has done a phenomenal job of pushing the message of accepting individuality regardless of gender, sexuality, race, or size. However, there are moments when Gaga reverts to traditional standards of beauty—in her video for “Bad Romance,” she dons both a bikini and fur (I suppose this could be ironic?); she wears bleached blond hair and has lost a considerable amount of weight since she started out in the industry. The image Gaga has cultivated as a feminist who is disinterested in “being a perfect pop singer” is not reiterated in all of her choices. And that is completely okay. If anything, Lady Gaga is emblematic of the complexities and multifaceted nature of modern feminism. Let her be that. Let’s examine that. How does she function in this world? What does she do right and what could she do better to destigmatize media depictions of women and their bodies? When Armstrong and Rudulph write Lady Gaga off as a perfect, “sexy” feminist, they take away the difficulty in navigating the modern media landscape that we all face. Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we aren’t 100% feminist in our choices, and that is okay.

Some other minor critiques, which are primarily accounted for by the brevity and breadth of the book:

  • I would prefer that in sections on plastic surgery, dieting, and birth control, the authors first recommend, before any other tip, that the reader reach out to her doctor or gynecologist. But overall the advice they give is sound, and their rundown of options is thorough.
  • The chapter on makeup painted is very broad brush, not dealing directly with the class and race issues associated with makeup, instead mentioning them in offhand comments: “China’s earliest form of makeup…was used as a way to distinguish among classes, not between genders” (67), “the lighter the skin, the higher the social rank” (57), “…this [the 1970s] was the same decade in which makeup was first made for women of different skin tones, which was a kind of small civil rights victory” (58-59).
  • The book also throws away the fact that “men now run many of these [cosmetics] corporations” (61-62) to get to the fact that women pioneered many facets of the makeup industry. The anecdotes thus feel apologetic or excuse-oriented, like “It is okay to wear makeup because women made it once upon a time” rather than “It is okay to wear makeup because it makes you feel good/comfortable/attractive.”
  • The book also slips into a reprehensible pitfall in this section, asserting, “In the Middle Ages, religious leaders decreed makeup blasphemous. They ostracized the women who used it, calling them whores—and often treating them like it” (57). What does it mean to treat someone “like a whore”? That type of language seems to uphold the unfortunate social judgment and treatment of sex workers. This sharply contrasts the section in the middle of Chapter 8 (which deals with slut-shaming directly) where the authors interview Melissa Broudo, attorney for the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. I’ll chalk this up to an error in word choice, because the rest of the book is good about being non-judgmental.

The Promising Start
Sexy Feminism hits it stride when it acknowledges the complexities and inherent tensions of trying to live as a feminist in modern society. Chapters 8-11 deal with this duality, looking at the nature of slut-shaming and sex positivity, flirting and dating, and relationships. In evaluating heterosexual intercourse, the authors explore this tension explicitly, stating, “there’s almost no sex-related act that can’t be somehow twisted into an antifeminist act and thus bring on massive feminist guilt” (148). Armstrong and Rudulph then turn to several sexual practices and eventually conclude (with the help of quotes from feminist rock star like Jaclyn Friedman, Ariel Levy, and Maureen Dowd) that women can’t place judgment on one another, regardless of proclivities. Nor should a consensual, comfortable sexual practice make individuals feel like they aren’t a feminist. This tolerant and non-judgmental attitude with which Sexy Feminism treats sexual appetite and preferences permeates most of the book, particularly the sections about beauty and fashion, which implore readers, “Don’t judge other women based on their beauty habits—each of us is entitled to be as individual here as she wants to be” (68). Note: this doesn’t mean women shouldn’t be critical consumers; the book lists several feminist-minded beauty companies and states readers should “Do your real feminist work in painted face or plain while remaining ever watchful of the images the cosmetics industry feeds you” (60).

The aforementioned “massive feminist guilt” can spring up not only in sexuality, but in building relationships as well: “Therein lies the modern problem with no name. We’ll call it something like debilitating feminist guilt over wanting to join your life with that of a wonderful, feminist guy while also wanting to maintain your own identity” (166). Marriage is a tricky subject that many modern feminists (even Jessica Valenti!) have grappled with in the past, and it was nice to see it treated as a possible area of tension in Sexy Feminism. In this vein, the authors acknowledge that sex and gender norms are also damaging for men and that they “equate manhood with sexual desire, sending both genders into existential crises the minute the guy isn’t in the mood one night” (148). These chapters on sex, dating, and relationships (and the earlier chapter on contraception) are all thus focused around open communication, building comfort and consent, and ignoring the “rules” set out by dating self-help books, websites, and magazines.

I should note that the authors make many attempts to avoid heteronormativity, but the book ultimately reverts to this male-female relationship dynamic. Armstrong and Rudulph discuss lesbianism briefly in all of these chapters, but these moments didn’t resonate strongly and felt like afterthoughts; perhaps this is because they’re focused on patriarchal structures, or it is outside of their lived experience (or mine, for that matter), or simply because these moments are not explored in enough detail to adequately apply Sexy Feminism to lesbian relationships.

One other area where the book was particularly strong, forcing me engage with my personal ideas and actions, was the chapter on dieting. The authors begin with an initial question,

“[I]s all dieting antifeminist? Are you betraying your gender if you join Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig? It depends on the motivations behind the desire to diet. If the goal is to improve your health and feel good, don’t call it dieting; call it living well. If you cite outside influences as motivation—pressure from family, a lover’s passing comment about your ass, or a photo of Heidi Klum in Elle… you may not be making the most empowering choice for yourself” (72).

Questions like this always stump me (as someone who is currently, and pretty much consistently, dieting). Deep, underlying motivations are hard to ascertain. I want to improve my health and feel good about myself, but what if internal desire is motivated by external norms? Who created the standards by which I judge how I feel about myself? JenniferHudsonThe authors go on to levy an interesting critique against some of the country’s biggest diet chains, which are notoriously women-centric and focused on health:

[L]ooking at the campaigns for the country’s biggest diet chains, we see sex being sold here too. For example, Jenny Craig employs actresses and pop stars to transform themselves from slightly above average weight to bikini-body skinny. This is more problematic than it might seem at first glance. When our few prominent cultural models of bodies that aren’t unnaturally thin constantly harp on their new-and-improved status, it takes away their power. That translates, subtly, into a message that the size they were before was not okay. (77)

As a Weight Watchers member, I could only think of the outpouring of publicity surrounding Jennifer Hudson’s weight loss (and Jessica Simpson too, for that matter). I hadn’t ever looked critically at this campaign before. As a consumer, it is important to remember that even seemingly female-centric companies have ulterior motives. Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig could not stay in business without the standards of beauty perpetuated across media.

Some other positives, which rendered the book more thoughtful and engaging:

  • The section on plastic surgery is well-researched and informative. It gives a graphic description of different procedures (liposuction, tummy tuck, labiaplasty, etc.), which is the single greatest argument against elective cosmetic surgeries. Simultaneously, the chapter is careful not to shame those who go under the knife for life-saving procedures and gender reassignment; Armstrong and Rudulph clearly distinguish between these and dangerous cosmetic procedures performed for the sake of adherence to norms.
  • Another particularly strong part of this book for me was the strike back against the “men’s rights” and anti-feminist movement (whether overtly stated or not). If you don’t know much about “men’s rights” groups and why they suck, check out Kate Harding’s “Fuck You, Men’s Rights Activists” and some facts on the matter from the Southern Poverty Law Center, because I can’t get into it here. Long before the publication of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, critics like Phyllis Schlafly and her daughter, Suzanne Venker, decried the destructive, emasculating nature of feminism. Sexy Feminism gives its readers some of the basic tools and societal evidence to dispute such claims, stating, “The truth is that feminism means choices, and choices breed discontent, because of some irritating quirk in human psychology. Does that mean our lives are worse? No; it just means we have more shit to think about” (140).

The Questions Left Looming
The book ultimately concludes that one can commit a non-feminist act and still identify as a feminist, which I see as its greatest positive for modern feminists, but also as its largest continuing question. I agree fundamentally with the point; it is nearly impossible to operate against the grain of social norms in every aspect and moment of your life, short of, perhaps, joining one of the insular communities like Alapine. But I’m left asking, how egregious can the act be before someone no longer gets to claim “feminism”? I believe (and I think the book argues) that it is up to oneself to define and claim ones feminism, though Sexy Feminism raises the point: “…calling yourself a feminist doesn’t give you a free pass to do whatever you want in the name of your personal liberation,” going on to ridicule Sarah Palin: “I’m totally a feminist even though I’m pro-life and pretty much anti-woman in all my policies, though at least I quit my job as governor of Alaska so it’s not like I can actually make policy anymore” (4-5). I wouldn’t categorize Palin as a feminist, but is it a slippery slope for me to draw that line for her? And what about Lisbeth Salander (fictional protagonist of Steig Larson’s novels), whom the book calls out for having breast augmentation surgery in The Girl Who Played with Fire; is she a feminist? Armstrong and Rudulph attempt to explain:

“[F]eminism’s gray areas also leave lots of room for all kinds of women to identify themselves as feminists…That’s why we’ve come up with our own sexy, fun, empowering brand of feminism—and why we encourage every woman out there to come up with her own as well. So, yes, that means rules, but they’re your own. It doesn’t’ have to mean giving up shaving—or waxing, makeup, high-heeled shoes, short skirts, dates with men, or porn” (12)

But I still get stuck here. If I can make my own rules, what’s stopping my “feminism” from being pro-life and anti-women in the workforce? Those are rules, but they aren’t associated with any kind of feminism I’ve encountered. This displays one of the greatest conflicts existing in contemporary feminism. Are Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer feminists? Even if they don’t identify as such or think we “have a chip on our shoulder? What about Taylor Swift? As Tracy Moore writes in a recent Jezebel piece, “the argument over who is or who isn’t a real feminist can get pretty tired.” She goes on to combat the necessity of defining feminism as “feminism” at all: “Since these [Mayer and Sandberg] are pro-equal rights women who don’t call themselves feminists, maybe it’s time to consider that the term is getting in the way….Call it whatever you like.”

Ultimately, I fall more on the Sexy Feminism side of this particular debate: I think the word is important. I think feminism is not nearing her expiration date and I do think the term is a meaningful signifier that still holds weight in modern discourse. For this reason, I hope Sexy Feminism isn’t just a throwaway book, and that some young women previously turned off by the word “feminist” give the term and its underlying beliefs a second shot.

calibercollectionI traveled to Israel in the summer of 2005. The experience wasn’t what I anticipated for many reasons, but I remember being surprised by some of my peers who became vehemently pro-military throughout the trip. A popular souvenir among this group was the IDF bullet necklace, an M16 bullet strung on a simple chain. I wasn’t sure what the intended statement of the necklace was: some were emblazoned with a Star of David or a Hamsa (symbols for Jewish unification and strength), while others were simply a bullet on the chain. I didn’t feel the symbolic resonance of these necklaces, particularly when (due to El-Al policy) they were all confiscated at security when we were leaving Tel-Aviv, no sooner purchased than disposed of. Were my peers simply saying they supported Israel’s military? Was it a “one less bullet on the streets” sort of thing? Or were they hoping someone back in America would ask them about the necklace and they could share their experience and perspective? In any of these cases, I couldn’t see how a symbol of violence from a space of ongoing conflict was the best “piece of the holy land” to bring home as a souvenir.

This memory came back to me recently, when I encountered coverage of The Caliber Collection, designed by Jessica Mindich. Mindich has created a jewelry collection repurposed from illegal guns that have been taken off the streets in Newark, NJ. The site explains:

The Caliber Collection is made up of metal from 250 guns and bullet casings seized by the Newark Police Department. The result is a series of pieces that embody the gun’s transformation from a destructive weapon to a powerful symbol of renewal. A portion of the proceeds from each sale is used to fund future Gun Buyback Amnesty programs in Newark. It is our hope that this will be a model that we can roll out in other cities across the nation.”

Caliber Collection bracelets sport the serial number of the weapon from which they were taken and “Newark” emblazoned on the interior. The collection has received a ton of press in the past few weeks, with coverage by Vanity Fair, CBS Evening News, and Yahoo, among many others. Mayor Cory Booker has been touting the collection, including a recent plug on The Rachel Maddow Show. According to most articles I’ve read, Mindich has already raised $20,000 for city gun buybacks, an amount that has almost assuredly risen with the increase in press surrounding the collection.

At first, The Caliber Collection seemed to address the issues I had with my 16-year-old peers touting their bullet necklaces: the collection has a clear anti-violence message associated with its material and charitable association. However, I also felt a little queasy about the coverage, and I’ve spent the past few days trying to identify the source of my anxiety surrounding the philanthropic collection.

The first thing that caught my attention negatively was Mindich’s comments on gun violence in Newark, specifically how they varied between a few interviews. In Vanity Fair, Mindich states, “I hope this gives people the opportunity to have something on their arm, wrist, finger, or neck as a symbol of a city that can change its course,” yet in a different publicity interview, she notes, “Sadly, I will never run out of the supply.” The second quotation does not indicate that Mindich sees Newark as a city that can change its course. Just read the comments on any nj.com article about a violent death in Newark, and you will see that all too many people have written off the city as a bastion of violence with no hope for change or development. This point of view isn’t helpful, productive, or accurate. And even if she doesn’t mean to espouse it, statements like this one, trivial though they may seem, further that perspective. Curbing the issue of gun violence in Newark seems like an insurmountable task, and it is easy to be fatalistic; but the ultimate goal of policy initiatives and the gun buyback program (and thus the stated goal of Mindich’s jewelry) is that she will run out of the supply. A video publicizing the bracelets excerpts Mayor Booker stating (at a press conference), “Gun violence is not something we have to accept. It is something we can do something about it [sic]. And our strategies can reap tremendous results.” I know that her support for the buyback program indicates Mindich hopes gun violence will be curtailed, and that Newark’s streets will be cleared of the violence that too often afflicts them. As an advocate for these issues, I’d love to see the hope and promise of Mindich’s initial statement, rather than the fatalistic view of her latter one.

In this same press conference, Booker goes on to say, “It’s our city. It’s our streets and together we can take them back.” This spurred my second question about the line of jewelry: Who are these bracelets for? The current bracelets available on the site range from $150-$375, though the article in Vanity Fair indicates bracelets can range up to $5,000. The steel bangle pictured above goes for $200, the same amount an individual in Newark receives for turning in a gun during the buyback and more than the monthly allowance for groceries in Booker’s SNAP challenge (when he lived on less than $30/week in food costs). Gun violence is not the only issue afflicting the community of Newark—poverty is pervasive, and many community members, particularly in those areas most affected by gun violence, cannot afford the frivolous cost of this piece of jewelry. This indicates that the bracelets are meant for people outside of Newark, a fact that Mindich herself essentially concedes, saying she hopes to “engage the people who will never walk those streets, and still give them a way to help.” This seems to go against the reclamation Booker indicates with his “our city, our streets” speech.

I should note that Mindich does hope to expand the collection, not only into other cities, but also possibly with a less expensive line. In a conversation with Newark Director of Police Samuel A. DeMaio, Mindich states that she wanted to “take a topic that was so full of emotion and is such a challenging thing for a city to deal with and to take it into something that is tangible, that people can wear as a symbol of support or offer as a symbol to somebody else and to possibly give back and help.” Currently, the bracelets border on disaster tourism, allowing outsiders to carry a piece of the violence without having to experience the repercussions that face Newark residents daily. I hope she does expand the collection to allow Newark residents, regardless of income, to contribute both financially and symbolically to the gun buyback in this manner.

caliberpackagingFinally, Mindich indicates that Cory Booker was involved in the product design and that “[h]e made it clear: No gun imagery.” However, the packaging of the jewelry emulates the cataloging of guns by law enforcement across the country in which a weapon is recovered and a tag indicating the case number and other relevant information is attached to the weapon. It seems cartoonish to the point of triviality to include phrases like “tagged as jewelry that used to be evidence,” “suspect size,” and even “weapon,” which denotes the type of bracelet. This is gun imagery that reinforces the disaster tourism associated with the product. There are plenty of products and philanthropic organizations that support causes across the globe without trivializing them or creating an almost patronizing gaze onto the population they are meant to serve. For me personally, this is the easiest issue for Mindich to solve—change the packaging to a more respectful handling of the serious contents contained within.

This is not to say the collection is entirely negative. I see the ramifications of pervasive gun violence regularly, and would like nothing more than for this to be a non-issue in Newark anymore, because my students and their community deserve better. I support the gun buyback program as just one of the ways to tackle the massive quantities of illegal weapons in Newark. In fact, I think it is one of the most effective ways to begin, due to the associated financial incentive and amnesty for people who turn in weapons in this manner. I spoke with a student and asked what he thought could end gun violence in Newark. He said, without pause, “The best thing is to take away all guns from Newark, but that’s not possible.” When I broached the issue of gun buyback programs, he indicated that he thought they were only partially effective, stating, “Some people think they’re lying and they’re going to set us up.” Pushing further, I inquired, “So what could decrease gun violence, if it isn’t possible to end it entirely?” He said, “I guess that [the gun buyback program] is.” Another student jumped in: “If people got life just for having a gun without a license…I promise it would cure that [gun violence].”

The gun buyback program, coupled with strong policy measures and penalties (perhaps more realistic than my second student’s proposal) can begin the long process of getting illegal guns off the streets of Newark. I applaud Mindich and Booker for partnering to publicize and garner donations for this program, which deserves to be funded. I’m not even necessarily opposed to Mindich’s method of publicizing and giving to the issue. I do, however, hope she takes into greater consideration the pricing and packaging of her products, as well as the way she talks about the issue of gun violence in interviews.

I have exhibited a reticence to write about my experience in Teach For America for a number of reasons. The first is simply that I am busy; while I often talk about teaching with my friends, colleagues, and peers, sitting down to write comprehensive thoughts about something in which you’re entrenched is challenging. Second, Teach For America has a reputation for controlling the social media output of its corps members. This reputation is entirely anecdotal—while I have peers that claim they’ve been asked about their online presence by TFA staff, I have never personally been contacted, nor have I seen a post that was removed at the behest of the organization. Third, education reform in general and Teach For America in particular seem to be lightning rod issues that attract a lot of attention. Everyone has an opinion and no one seems to agree. I don’t mind controversy, but I hate the unproductive conversations into which I feel the education debate often deteriorates.

I was accepted into Teach For America in November of my senior year of college. This was before I’d turned 21 or applied for any other job. I influenced a lot of my friends and peers to apply, and talked some through the application process. My senior year, nine Dickinson students entered into Teach for America, an impressive feat for such a small school. This was the most seniors accepted into the program until the following year, when 13 Dickinson students entered the corps.

In the two years that have followed my acceptance into the program, I have become less and less excited about helping students from my alma mater enter the corps. I am contacted regularly by current students and fellow alumni with interest, and I always give out my email for more further contact, but rarely do I spend hours talking potential applicants step-by-step through the application process. This isn’t to say I don’t want to help people or that I think Dickinson alums aren’t qualified, only that I can’t always recommend people apply to the program with good conscience, because many times they are doing so because it is an easy choice rather than the thing they actually want to be doing following graduation. Calling such a competitive option an easy choice sounds cavalier, but the program is a natural progression for a lot of recent graduates. Teach For America sets itself apart in terms of post-grad options by mimicking the college application process in a lot of ways; it is familiar to scared college seniors entering a daunting job market while simultaneously being exclusive and reputable. However, once you get into the grind of teaching in a placement school (past the Scylla and Charybdis of institute and the placement process), it is difficult and draining. Teach For America isn’t the best option for all college graduates. Frankly, I’m not even sure it was the best option for me.

(Note: I’m a passable teacher. I have gained “effective” and “highly effective” ratings for the past two years. I care for my students deeply and, for the most part, they care for me. Being the only TFA teacher in a new school has allowed me to grow into my own without the stigma and pressure the organization sometimes carries with it. I like the friends I’ve met through TFA and my placement school, and I have the opportunity to interact with professionals I respect and admire daily. I don’t think my presence as a teacher is destructive or negative, but I’m not the poster child for “transformational change” either.)

All of this is to say that I was heart-broken when my friend Jordan (note that Jordan is a pseudonym; my friend likes basketball and I am not creative) was not accepted into Teach For America yesterday. Jordan has already served for two years in a school in one of our placement communities, building the relationships and skills he would need to be a successful educator. Though he went to college far from home, he returned to his community, seeking to make a difference nearby. He is an African-American male who has overcome personal educational challenges, and I know he would be a better educator than I’ve managed to become in the 1.5 years I’ve been doing this. He has so many of the competencies I wish I’d had entering the profession. He has been successful in the role he has thus far (unlike me, he is literally a poster child for his organization). And he wants to teach. He wasn’t using Teach For America as a stepping stone to greatness or Wall Street—he has served in a challenging placement district for two years already and wants to continue on the trajectory of changing students lives in a role with more responsibility. Jordan is everything Teach For America should be looking for. I have never seen someone with as many of the qualifications the organization claims to be seeking.

I’ve been increasingly skeptical of Teach For America in the past 3-4 months as I’ve watched my 2011 peers leave the program early and apply to graduate programs. I myself am not planning on staying in education, let alone my placement school, beyond the two-year commitment. I don’t know what the data says, and I don’t really care about the debate surrounding us—the reality of my tangible lived experience and that of my peers is that most of my corps is not currently planning on staying in education next year (or they’ve left already).

Recruitment is obviously a complex process and I have a number of friends who work for Teach For America in this and other professional capacities. I admire their efforts a great deal, and I’m not trying to diminish their work, or that of the hundreds of staff members across this country that believe in the TFA mission and want to support it outside the classroom. Interviewing 40,000+ hopeful applicants is time-consuming and energy draining, and I’m sure that good people fall through the cracks every day. There are any number of things that can go wrong in the day-long final interview with TFA. Jordan is a great public speaker, and I imagine he interviews very well (though people can get nervous when they really want something.) I can’t speak to his sample lesson or group exercise, because I wasn’t there. Ultimately, he’ll never know why he wasn’t accepted: Teach For America doesn’t provide individual feedback on the admissions process due to the size of their applicant pool. What I do know is that I, along with all of my fellow corps members who have left already or are planning on leaving were accepted through this same process. Were we legitimately more qualified? I doubt it. Did we interview better? Maybe, but that is hard for me to believe. Were we from better schools? Well, Jordan and I went to the same school, but I will say that Dickinson is on the lower end of the TFA spectrum—I am constantly in awe of how many of my peers are Ivy League graduates. Those who aren’t went to large state schools and did unbelievably impressive things (student body presidents, amazing student-athletes, activists and leaders). I believe in the value and import of a liberal arts education (which I’ll write about some other time), but the reality of selective liberal arts institutions like mine is they aren’t as well-known in any application process as Ivies or large research institutions.

Last Friday, TFA distributed its Mid-Year Survey to all corps members. At least three times a year, the national organization compiles the results of a very long survey full of useful data points about the thousands of corps members and their experiences in the classroom and with TFA. To give you a sense of its scope, the survey took me 45 minutes to complete, and I wrote less for the open-ended responses than I typically do. The data-driven nature of Teach for America has always impressed me. They respond to results and change practices accordingly, and are fairly open with corps members about the responses and what they are used for. Many public and private sector organizations could learn a lot from TFA’s collection and use of data. This same data-oriented method is used for the application process (I often refer prospective corps members to this very detailed Atlantic article. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if this data obfuscates some of the unquantifiable aspects of what makes a successful teacher.

I’ve always believed in using systems, and the “elite” nature of TFA and the sheer size and qualifications of its applicant pool would indicate to me that the system is a strong one. With all of the critiques of TFA out there, I’m sure mine is just another one to add to the pile. Yet, if I were being criticized, I would come guns blazing with the best evidence I had for my cause: the strongest force of corps members possible—corps members who had experience and passion for urban education, with exposure to diverse ideas and mindsets, with the ambition to stay in education and affect change in their communities. And I truly believe that Jordan’s rejection (even if it was the result of a botched interview or sample lesson) indicates a genuine flaw in this system.

This post contains spoilers for the Daniel Barnz film Won’t Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis.

I’m not even going to touch the union issues associated with Won’t Back Down. Unlike the film, I don’t want to attempt to give them the complex treatment they deserve in a finite space. I think Holly Hunter’s character is a decent depiction of the simultaneous need for organization of labor and a desire to improve the system in which you work. Most teachers I know fall squarely in this category; very few fit the pervasive stereotype of lazy, pay-check collecting dolts. Additionally, I have a ton of thoughts on the “silver bullet” of school choice, as a teacher in a district with a fair amount of options for parents, but those are for another time.

What I am very interested in is the depiction of race in the film. Almost every review of the film that I’ve read indicates that the characters band across race and class divides in a throwaway line, but then moves on to dealing with the aforementioned union issues. And indeed, the film seems to have egalitarian, stereotype-reversing attributes on the surface. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a single mother who, while employed at two working-class jobs, stops at nothing to get her dyslexic daughter the education she deserves. Viola Davis plays a married (though soon-to-be divorced) middle-class teacher, who advocates against her son being put in remedial classes. Davis’s character even calls herself “the first black Stepford wife” in an early scene of the film. Both women share the commonalities of troubled relationships, children who have more academic difficulty than their peers, and feelings of inadequacy in parenting. In this positive vein, the film passes the Bechdel test by leaps and bounds, and it is exciting to see a movie so full of talented women, though they are given short shrift by the lackluster writing. Indeed, all of the criticisms I levy in the next few paragraphs may just be the products of bad writing. With characters that are so flat and underdeveloped, it is hard to find the complexity associated with real teachers and real parents fighting in the education movement daily.

I’ve been ruminating on the assignment of character flaws (here I mean character not as moral or ethical flaws, but character as in fictional entity) and trying to decide if these flaws are racialized. Maggie Gyllenhaal gets a huge “white savior” treatment, and her primary flaw is that she has dyslexia and that she cares too much about her child. Since dyslexia is something over which Gyllenhaal’s character has no control, it isn’t so much a flaw as a source of strength for her. While her dyslexia leads to their application for a new school being initially rejected (she reverses two numbers in a budget item), that decision is quickly reversed when Gyllenhaal is permitted to get up and defend herself, citing her learning disability and her love for her daughter.

Viola Davis is also depicted as a caring, working mother, who is willing to sacrifice for the betterment of her son, even going so far as to let him move in with his father (from whom she is separated) because the school is better. However, underneath her anxiety about motherhood is an incident from her past in which she consumed too much alcohol and didn’t buckle her son in properly on route to the doctor. She gets in a car accident, her son hits his head, and she continually questions if this is the reason he is slower than his peers in school. We are also led to believe that this is the issue from which her marital discord stems, and thus it is her fault that her home is now “broken.” Ultimately, Gyllenhaal is a supermom, who manages to work two jobs and still go through the grueling process of starting a new school to make sure her daughter gets the education she herself deserved but never received. Davis is an initially lazy, dispassionate teacher who is sparked into caring by Gyllenhaal and plagued by a dark past in which she committed a very real wrong that could have killed her child. I don’t think we’re ultimately supposed to see Davis as a bad mother, but she is not given the same exoneration as Gyllenhaal.

Furthermore, the film does nothing for the pervasive (and inaccurate) stereotype that low-income, minority parents are lazy and uninvolved in the education of their children. I can’t help but question if the reason that audiences are expected to follow the story is because Gyllenhaal is in the lead. Would the target audience of the film get behind a low-income black woman leading the charge to change her daughter’s school? I hope so, but most of the stereotypes surrounding low-income communities are unfortunately aligned with racial prejudices. In the door-to-door sequence, most of the parents who respond negatively to the school takeover are racial and ethnic minorities, whereas the ultimately accepting parents in the large crowd scenes are predominately white. This makes sense since the children in the classes we see are also mostly white (though the school has diverse representation). Some of this may stem from the fact that the film is set in Pittsburgh, which has a smaller black and Latino population than other major cities involved in the current education debate.

The film (again, perhaps because of its setting) shirks the reality that the failure of our education system in this country is disproportionately impacting minority youth. It also ignores the realities of the segregation in cities and surrounding communities of Pittsburgh and our country as a whole, which plays a large part in the creation of the educational divide. The movie seems to completely ignore that the issue of educational inequity in this country is a social justice issue that is deeply aligned with race and class. While all children deserve good schools that grant them educational access, the reality is those students being denied that access in our society are disproportionately racial minorities of low-income backgrounds.

Separate from all of the controversy, the film is just not very good; seriously, it has a 33% on Rotten Tomatoes. The script is poorly written (“luck is a foxy lady”), there are large gaps in time, and impossible feats that go unaddressed (all of the parents hate the idea of a new school and suddenly they’re all behind it, without any exposition indicating how this momentous turnaround was achieved). I can’t with good conscience recommend the film as a quality one, though I do think it is an important reflection of our current views on education in this country. If you are interested in education reform, Won’t Back Down displays a particularly one-sided, though prominent, mentality in American society.

Sseko Designs

SsekoSseko sandals are the coolest things I’ve come across in a long time. You choose your sandal size, buy the straps, and then style them any way you want. It is really like having a million pairs of sandals in one. But even cooler than the stylish sandals, Sseko works with women in Uganda in their mission “to provide employment and scholarship opportunities to women pursuing their dreams and overcoming poverty.” That sounds really vague, right? I highly recommend reading their mission and impact statement, but in case you’re pressed for time, here are the basics: Sseko employs Ugandan women during the nine months between high school and college so they can save money for college. 50% of their salary is put into a savings account that goes directly toward college tuition payment to ensure women are not subjected to social pressures that can sometimes hinder them from accessing educational opportunities. They also work to employ women at various stages of their education: from graduates in their upper management team to those women who’ve aged out of the education system to young women who’ve recently come out of the sex industry and are seeking a stable, fair wage. If you’re a woman looking for some new shoes (sorry this is coming at the end of the summer), I can’t recommend these highly enough. Seriously, check them out.

Audible

I have a 45-minute commute twice a day, every day. Audible has proven incredibly useful for me, particularly since I like books, but now have a lot less time to read than when I was in college. I also listen when I’m getting ready for bed, cleaning my room, and while exercising. There are certainly downsides: I wouldn’t recommend that English majors looking to find evidence and support an argument listen to course books on audio. I use the service primarily for more popular texts that I’m not necessarily consuming with a marginalia mindset. Additionally, if you listen before bed, be warned—I’ve fallen asleep listening to the same chapter repeatedly, and it is a little challenging to recall where you left off.

You may be wondering how Audible works differently than the iTunes audiobook store. You purchase a monthly membership, which yields you a certain number of credits a month. (I have the lowest level “Gold Membership,” which gives me 1 credit a month for $15). There are a number of perks to purchasing a membership: Audiobooks are cheaper than if you purchased them from iTunes or another source outright. There are a ton of members-only sales, which allow you to try out books you might not have read otherwise. Books you purchase beyond your credits are discounted at least 30%. There is also a new exchange policy, so if you do not enjoy a book, you can “return it” and access a new book instead. Also note that once you’ve purchased a book (either with money or credits), it is yours forever, and you can download it on any device whenever you like.

Showtime Historical Dramas

I tend to watch TV shows via computer in large, uninterrupted binges. A few years back, I got hooked on The Tudors, consuming the first three seasons in a matter of weeks, and then watching the fourth season weekly until the show went off the air. The Tudors follows King Henry VIII, played by the wonderful Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, through wives, beheadings, and dealings with the Catholic Church. There are some standout performances (Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, Jeremy Northam as Sir Thomas More, and James Frain as Thomas Cromwell, among many, many others). The show is not entirely historically accurate (try as they might, the producers could not get Jonathan Rhys-Meyers to look as repulsive as the king did by the end of his reign), but it is relatively educational and positively addictive.

Last summer, I picked up The Borgias, which held a similar appeal. This series follows Pope Alexander VI (commonly referred to as “the Borgia pope”) and his family as they battle and politically maneuver to maintain their dominance. Knowing almost no European history, and even less about the Catholic Church, I was intrigued by even the basic premise of the show. Like The Tudors, The Borgias is a balanced mix of drama (and some smut, to be sure) and political issues. Having just completed the second season in a matter of three evenings, I cannot wait until next summer for the third.

Both shows are great period pieces with enough historical accuracy, good writing, and strong acting to make you feel like you’re not just watching television trash. Additionally, both shows are time-bound in a pretty realistic way, so The Tudors only has four seasons (six wives in four seasons isreally impressive) with ten episodes each. Both extant seasons of The Borgias have only ten episodes. If you are looking for a new show for a quick weekend (or two) binge, I’d highly recommend either or both of these. Not a Showtime subscriber? The Tudors is on Netflix Instant Watch, iTunes, and Amazon Instant Video. The Borgias Season 1 is on Amazon and iTunes, but I’m not sure when Season 2 will be available, and there is now sign of it on Netflix as of yet.

Slate Podcasts

Last, but not least, Slate has a number of really great weekly audio podcasts. I’m a huge fan of the Political and Culture Gabfests, and I dabble with the others as well. A quick description of the ones I listen to:

  • Culture Gabfest – This one is my personal favorite. Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner discuss cultural issues (both pop and intellectual). They do great coverage of TV, books, and movies, as well as bevy of other topics. I love the way they deal with gender and other politicized issues within culture; this is certainly not just a review podcast. Each contributor also gives a recommendation at the end of every episode, which is a great way to find a new song to listen to or book to read.
  • Political Gabfest – Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz discuss politics, the 2012 election, and other Washington issues. It definitely has a liberal bent, which I obviously don’t mind. Bazelon’s coverage of legal issues is particularly interesting; for a sample of this, look back to the 6/28/12 episode(s), which contain coverage of the Supreme Court ACA decision.
  • Audio Book Club – This show has rotated through a lot of different hosts, including many from the other podcasts on here. They discuss recently published books and some older texts as well (preferably, you’re listening after you’ve already read them), providing a pretty detailed dialogue. Really nice if you don’t have the fortune of being a member of a book club or people with similar literary interests, but want to think more critically about the texts they’re examining. I’d recommend the 8/28/11 episode on Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
  • DoubleX Gabfest – Led by Hanna Rosin, this podcast is from the women who founded the DoubleX web magazine. It deals with women’s issues (and some other topics occasionally). Some recent discussions include: Rep. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments, prenatal depression, and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article. The jury is still out for me on the DoubleX podcast and the magazine in general. I love a lot of the work they’re doing, and they frequently feature one of my favorite bloggers (Alyssa Rosenberg), but they have had a couple of conversations where I felt the feminist, progressive gender perspective was completely missing. I’m definitely curious if other people feel similarly, or if I’m being hyper-critical.

Note: I didn’t want to go into detailed descriptions for everything, but I also listen to the Spoiler Specials Podcast and The Afterward – the former deals with movies and the latter with new non-fiction books. I don’t listen to Hang Up and Listen, their weekly podcast discussing sports, but I’ve heard good things. Slate also puts out The Root Podcasts, which are comprised of conversations with writers from The Root (which I did not realize Slate owns). I highly recommend this podcast as well. In summation, if you’re looking for a little more edification in any of these areas in your personal life, definitely check these podcasts out.

SPOILER ALERT: If you are even considering reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, do not read this post. The book is impossible to write about without spoiling, and one of my biggest issues with the novel relates to the portrayal of certain violent acts that give away the entire plot. That said, if you are interested in gender and have no interest in ever picking up Gone Girl, feel free to read on.

I’ll give a quick summary of Gone Girl for those of you who read the above spoiler alert and thought, “Hey, I’m totally never going to read that book.” Amy Elliot Dunne and Nick Dunne are about to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary when she goes missing. The case progresses and all signs point (surprise, surprise) to her husband. Everything from a faked crime scene and his 23-year-old mistress to credit card debt and Amy’s pregnancy indicates to the police in the story, as well as the reader, that Nick is guilty. BUT we find out she’s actually crazy manipulative and planned this all for a year when she found out he was cheating on her. Amy is actually alive and well (and not pregnant at all), hiding out and watching her husband get slammed in the court of public opinion. Eventually he realizes what she’s done and starts playing the game with her, which (because she’s crazy and manipulative) draws her back to him. However, in order to get back to him, she has to fake her own rape (something we find out she’s done once before, prior to meeting Nick) and then murder her “captor” (Desi, a doting ex-boyfriend).

There were some things I really liked about the novel, and I do feel a need to nod at them quickly. I could not put the book down (actually, I couldn’t stop listening; I’m a big fan of audiobooks these days) – the description I just gave makes the novel sound a lot pulpier than it really is. Flynn’s writing is awesome, and she depicts our modern media climate with its 24-hour news cycle remarkably well.

My larger concern stems from the characterization of Amy and its implications for the dialogue around rape in society. Amy fakes violent rape twice in the course of the book’s pages, including a graphic, but cogent description of how she did it once she is returned to her husband. As a reader, I sided with Nick, and I can’t imagine there are any people who don’t: Amy is so unlikable and obviously wrong in faking her death, framing her husband, committing murder, and then faking her sexual assault. I read the text and saw Amy as an absolute sociopath, and an abhorrent, disturbed individual. However, there is a pervasive narrative that asserts women fake rape and falsely report it all the time.

As an activist for broader discussion of rape and sexual assault on college campuses, I ran into this dialogue all the time. In presentations for fraternities or conversations with peers, there was always the question: “But what if we have consensual sex, and she regrets it, and then she says I raped her? That would ruin my life.” This, it seems, is the number one male fear in life (or at least in college). I worry that Gone Girl will reflect this narrative to individuals who do not see Amy as an individual actor, but instead indicative of a much larger social problem of “false reporting” that doesn’t actually exist.

I don’t really have the time or energy to debunk this argument, and other people have done a much better job at it than I can. [The Spark Notes: false reporting of rape happens rarely, just like false reporting of any other crime, which happens with the same statistical frequency but which no one seems to be that afraid of. Rape is actually severely under-reported because women are afraid they won’t be believed. For more see Rape Culture 101 over at Shakesville. Also, I should pause here and apologize for the heteronormativity of my rant: sexual assault can be perpetrated by and on individuals of any gender, these are just the terms of the false report in the text as well as the primary dialectic surrounding rape in general.]

My impression is that this book isn’t being snapped up by men, but rather consumed primarily by women. This doesn’t alleviate the fact that it is reinforcing this pervasive narrative, since I also found in my college experience that women are some of the biggest proponents when it comes to narratives of false reporting. There are women—way more than I would have thought—who believe other women frequently and vindictively lie about sexual assault for attention or out of spite. I’m not criticizing Flynn’s depiction of Amy in the novel—as I said, I read her as an anomalously evil woman rather than a representation of all women. I’m concerned about how a narrower vision of the text or the society in which it is read could reinforce an extant (false) perception that false reporting of rape is an ongoing, persistent issue. These ideas ultimately lead to mistrust and victim-blaming. When women feel like they won’t be believed if they come forward, they don’t come forward.

College commencement season has come and gone. I’ve resisted writing about the topic, because it seems silly to have something to say on the matter a year following my graduation. But as I noted to a Dickinson professor on the morning of graduation, this year was much more difficult for me than my actual graduation in 2011. I am a sentimental person, much more so now than in my teenage years: I get teary-eyed during the bows at theatrical performances and during particularly emotional moments on television. It wasn’t surprising to me, therefore, that I teared up a few times during the graduation ceremony at my alma mater. My sadness stemmed from the overwhelming feeling that the world really does move on without you; that life at a place that was so meaningful for you continues to go on.

My friend Merin pointed out that she feels her life has changed dramatically in the past year (and I should note, as she did, “overwhelmingly for the better”). I do feel that my life has changed, but not necessarily in an overwhelmingly positive way – my job is emotionally challenging and insular, and the friends I love are far away. The first few years out of college are rough for a lot of people, and this isn’t a topic explored in many commencement addresses, for the obvious reasons. Going out into the world isn’t easy and life becomes, even more than it is in college, what you make of it. This is an attitude that I struggle to remember and embrace in the day-to-day existence post-graduation.

Rather than focus on advice from commencement speeches by famous and inspirational authors and leaders, I’m brought to a piece written by Marina Keegan, member of the Yale class of 2012. Keegan graduated on Monday, May 21 and was killed in a car accident on Cape Cod on Saturday, May 26. Calling this a tragedy seems a vast understatement. That her piece has circulated in the aftermath of her death is unsurprising – it is beautifully written. I leave you with her words:

We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time. There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective conscious as we lay alone after a party, or pack up our books when we give in and go out – that it is somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead. More accomplished, more specialized. More on the path to somehow saving the world, somehow creating or inventing or improving. That it’s too late now to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement.

We are still young, and we still have so much time. I look back on my college experience with overwhelming positivity, but I need to keep an eye to the future as well. This is easily forgotten, but being stuck in the past (even the recent past) can make life a lot harder.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.