Violence Against Women: What Qualifies A Woman For Protection?


By Rachel Grate. Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on January 7, 2013. 

 ”For the first time since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act is no more.” –The Maddow Blog

Apparently, only some women are worthy of protection against violence. The Violence Against Women Act had been reauthorized without significant challenge in 2000 and 2005, but because the new version of the bill would extend protection to 30 million more women, House Republican leadership did not reauthorize the bill in 2012.

Essentially, in these politicians’ eyes some women are unworthy of the bill’s protection – specifically Native Americans, immigrants, and LGBT women who would have been included under the new bill.

Native American women are twice as likely as other demographics in the U.S. to be sexually assaulted, according to the Justice Department. One in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetime. About ten percent of hate crimes against gay men and lesbians include sexual assault. The Human Rights Watch found that at least 50% of the agricultural work force is undocumented immigrants, who cannot come forward about sexual assault because of fear of deportation.

In Jessica Valenti’s 2009 book The Purity Myth, she observed that, “The rates of sexualized violence against women of color in the United States are far higher than those regarding white women. In fact, violence against white women is actually declining, while it continues to increase among women of color… [T]he average annual rate of intimate-partner violence from 1993 to 2004 was highest for American Indian and Alaskan Native women – 18.2 victimizations per one thousand women.”

Why are the women who are most in need of support the women House Republicans are least willing to protect?

Valenti argues that “it’s not possible to prove that these increased rates of violence in particular communities are a direct result of society’s positioning women of color as impure. But a society that portrays them as such absolutely contributes to a culture of violence against them – women who transgress purity norms are punished, and women of color transgress simply by not being white.” Similarly, in consideration of which women House Republicans opposed protecting, LGBT women transgress simply by not following the heterosexual purity guidelines.

We have seen other politicians punish women for transgressing these purity norms recently with the constant redefinitions of rape. From Todd Akin’s now infamous “legitimate rape” qualification to Roger Rivard’s “some girls rape easy,” it is clear that these Republicans only believe a certain type of women can be raped – women who meet their preconceived idea of purity. And while these men lost the election, the House Republican leadership is perpetuating the same beliefs that only certain women – chaste, white women – are worthy of protection.

You don’t have to look far to see these beliefs reflected and reinforced by popular media. Native American culture is constantly overtly simplified and sexualized. In the past year alone, Victoria’s Secret featured a Native American headdress in their fashion show (removed from the TV screening), No Doubt pulled their stereotypical cowboys-and-Indians themed “Looking Hot” music video after backlash, and the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for using the Navajo name to sell products like underwear and a flask.

Native American women suffer from these sexual appropriations of Native American culture, and they’re not the only ones. This sexualization is rampant in the media concerning all minorities – the same minorities, incidentally, that the House doesn’t want to protect from violence. Because such portrayals sexualize these demographics, these women lose the protection of “purity” – they lose the respect of men who believe women’s worth lies in their sexuality. This leads to the high rates of sexual assault of women of color, and to politicians considering these women unworthy of protection, all based on stereotypes perpetuated by the media.

After all, as politicians (of both parties) have expressed time and time again, rape only counts if the woman was pure. It’s this idea that’s reflected in our media, and by both our law makers and law enforcers. SlutWalks, for instance, were created in response to Toronto Police Officer’s statement that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” The problem with this statement – beyond it’s obvious victim blaming – is that no matter how modest one woman’s outfit is, it can’t undo the widespread sexualization of women in the media that is too easy to internalize.

When the media portrays women as objects, or only valuable if they meet a racialized standard of purity, it creates a rape culture in which no woman is safe. A rape culture that the Violence Against Women Act had helped to combat.

It’s important to note that this is not a political issue. This is a human rights issue. Nonetheless, House Republicans refused to support the measures expanding protection to millions more women because they considered them “politically driven.”

Despite this political party divide, only 2 of 25 Republican Women in the House opposed reauthorizing the bill, and even those 2 seemed willing to compromiseThe Senate had approved the bill 68 to 31, and the bill was co-written by conservative Mike Crapo from Idaho. This divide isn’t political – it’s ideological. It’s a divide between those who respect women, and those who only respect women who have earned their approval by fitting their standards of purity. The latter isn’t truly respect at all.

This is not the end of the Violence Against Women Act. The 2005 version of the bill will continue until a new version is passed, though its services are threatened by budget crises. Because of these economic difficulties, if a new version of hte bill is not approved, it is estimated that 200,000 victims of violence will lose services.

Senator Patty Murray has promised to reintroduce the bill in 2013. But if we want real change, in both our politics and our personal lives, we have to go further than a temporary fix.

It’s time to end the “purity myth.” We need to challenge these degrading, sexualized portrayals of women and acknowledge that all women are worthy of respect, regardless of their ethnicity or sexuality. This is what MissRepresentation.org has dedicated itself to, and we hope you and the 113th Congress sworn in Thursday will join us.

Rachel Grate is an Editorial Intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn or read more of her work on her blog.

Happy Holidays & Good Gifts

Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on December 14, 2012. Editorial Intern Rachel Grate continues her series on Christmas traditions and gender stereotypes

by Rachel Grate

Now that we’ve educated ourselves on the problematic aspects of Christmas traditions, the sexist elements in popular Christmas songs, and the gender stereotypes in Christmas advertisements, it’s time to look on the bright side.

We may be surrounded by the Christmas season portrayal of a perfect family, and it can be depressing when that family doesn’t look anything like our own, but it can also be liberating. Christmas is what we make of it – if we even choose to celebrate it. For those of us who do, we can make our own traditions, listen to the music we choose, think critically about commercials, and vote with our wallet.#NotBuyingIt isn’t just a Twitter campaign, it’s a dedication to boycott brands and products that are selling something you don’t agree with.

This Christmas, let’s use our money to support products that support women. With that in mind, we’re wrapping up this critical look at Christmas with a #MediaWeLike Good Gift Guide.

For All Ages:
Parks and Recreation is a delightful comedy starring Amy Poehler as a determined, smart and hilarious government worker with aspirations of the White House. (You may know Amy Poehler from her YouTube channel “Smart Girls at the Party“.) Get the latest season or some memorabilia.
Feminist Ryan Gosling (the book).
-A “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-Shirt from the Feminist Majority Foundation.
Miss Representation on DVD, or one of our many T-Shirts, including “Future CEO” and “Future President.”
A donation! There are many deserving charities and non-profit organizations that need your help.MissRepresentation.org is just one of such organizations. Another personal option includes making a loan to a female entrepreneur through KIVA in honor of your gift recipient. Once the loan is repaid, your gift recipient can either take the money or reinvest in another woman’s future.

For Children:
-Books that portray complex, strong women include Just Ella or Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix and Ella Enchanted or The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine.
-A Mighty Girl has a thorough list of gender-neutral or empowering toys in their 2012 Holiday Guide.
New Moon is a bi-monthly advertisement-free magazine dedicated to empowering girls.

For Teens:
-Books with powerful, complicated women include The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Divergentby Veronica Roth, Matched by Ally Condie and A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray.
-The online magazine Rookie just released a Rookie Yearbook One with some of their best articles, interviews, and illustrations.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a great TV show to introduce to budding feminists.
-A classic feminist film, such as A League of their Own.

For Adults:
The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic feminist novel that still remains relevant.
-The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a movie (based on a novel) that portrays a complex, powerful female character – not necessarily a good role model, but certainly a refreshing break from the average portrayal of women in the media. (Mature)
-A feminist magazine subscription. Ms. MagazineBitch magazine, and BUST magazine are all great options.

These are just some of suggestions that are personal favorites, items which have changed who I am as a person and helped me develop my beliefs. Still don’t see the perfect gift? There are many other great feminist gift guides, including Ultraviolet’s Holiday Gift Guide: A Non-sexist Guide to 21st Century Holiday ShoppingJezebel’s Gifts for Budding Feminists, and Bitch Magazine’s Bitch in a Box: Holiday Gift Guide.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her via LinkedIn.

Happy Holidays & Troubling Traditions

This blog was originally posted by MissRepresentation.org on December 10, 2012. 

by Rachel Grate

“The depressing thing about the Christmas season – isn’t it? – is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice… They all – religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy – line up with each other so neatly once a year.” – Eve Sedgwick, “Queer and Now”

Christmas is a powerful force. As soon as Halloween ends, the commercials conquer TV and the songs invade radio. Come December, newscasters begin to frame each story in what Sedgwick calls “the Christmas question”: will the soldiers be home in time for Christmas? State-run schools and businesses get Christmas off – but no vacation time is dedicated to Hanukkah or other religions.

I’m not trying to be the Grinch–I love Christmas. It can be a comforting holiday, a celebration of one’s religion or family, but both religion and family are defined very narrowly in the holiday season. Unfortunately, Christmas songs, advertisements, and traditions are unavoidable and are often entrenched in stereotypical gender roles.

Take mistletoe, for example. Mistletoe was regarded as a sexual symbol with fertility powers before Christianity, and like the date of Christmas itself, the church adapted preexisting Pagan customs to facilitate conversion.

According to The Holiday Spot, during the eighteenth century “at Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed…If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect to marry the following year.”

Thankfully, women nowadays have the option to refuse unwanted advances, but avoiding mistletoe at holiday parties can still be an exhausting experience.

This is not to say that a moment under mistletoe with one’s significant other can’t be romantic. But it can be important to remind ourselves of the historical creation of these traditions, especially for those in non-traditional relationships that are often marginalized during the Christmas season.

After all, the pressure to find the perfect gift from Santa (or to fit the cheery holiday narrative) can be at least partially alleviated by the knowledge that an American cartoonist designed the modern rosy-cheeked, round-bellied Santa in the 19th century. These traditions may be comforting, but the moment they become stressful, it is key to remember that they were created – and they are optional.

The modern day illustration of Santa was first drawn in 1865 by cartoonist Thomas Nast.

Perhaps the best demonstration of Christmas’s somewhat arbitrary influence is its effect on the traditions of other cultures. Hanukkah is held up as the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, but this isn’t historically accurate. In Israel, Hanukkah isn’t celebrated as heavily as in the United States, because it is no more important than other Jewish holidays.

A study published in the Economic Journal in 2011 titled “Is Hanukkah Responsive to Christmas?” reported in its abstract that in America, “Jewish-related expenditures in Hanukkah are higher in countries with lower share of Jews. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that Jews increase religious activity during Hanukkah because of the presence of Christmas … Jewish parents in the U.S. celebrate Hanukkah more intensively so their children do not feel left out.”

This holiday season, don’t be afraid to make your own traditions, or rejuvenate the ones you’re surrounded by. Why not hug under mistletoe, or simply exchange compliments? If expensive holiday gifts are wearing down your budget, suggest a White Elephant gift game with friends.

My favorite part of the holidays are the simplest: Going into the mountains and cutting down my own tree, baking pumpkin pies with my father, going to the empty movie theater on Christmas Eve. These aren’t reliant on a pre-defined idea of family or home, but they are what define the holiday season for me.

Throughout this blog series, I’ll be taking a closer look at the Christmas media that define the holidays from a place of privilege. Now that we’ve covered the historical context, in the next few days I’ll walk you through holiday media: songs and advertisements that reinforce gender roles. And we’ll finish things off on a cheery note, with #MediaWeLike gift guide.

Together, we can make sure this holiday season remains happy.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her via LinkedIn.

In Defense of Taylor Swift

This post was originally published by MissRepresentation.org on October 23, 2012.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Taylor Swift recently. Not only is her new CD “Red” out this week, but I also go to a college in a consortium with Harvey Mudd College, who recently won Swift’s “Taylor Swift on Campus” contest. So last Monday night I was in the fourth row of her concert, for free. And it was incredible. In addition to getting a ridiculous amount of free stuff from her sponsors, the concert itself – Taylor Swift’s performance and oft-critiqued live singing – were great.


Taylor Swift at Harvey Mudd College on October 15.

But the sentiment was not so united in my Gender & Women’s Studies class. One girl expressed her desire that the campus-wide Humans vs. Zombies competition hadn’t ended the week earlier so that zombies could rush the stage. I’ve been a fan of Taylor Swift since “Tim McGraw” first came out while I was in 8th grade, and I knew the words to every single song she sang at the concert, but feminism is integral to my identity. I needed to understand the hate.

So I did my research. And I wasn’t convinced.

The Taylor Swift criticisms I read all seemed to rely on distinguishing “Taylor Swift the product” from “Taylor Swift the person” (Jezebel). Or, as Salon phrased it, “Taylor Swift, lyricist, vs. Taylor Swift, public figure.” According to them, Swift’s business success is the most compelling pro-Swift argument, but her lyrics hold her back.

The thing is, you can’t separate two halves of a person. Taylor Swift the businesswoman is the same Taylor Swift writing and performing love songs. When young girls hang posters of her in the room, they aren’t distinguishing between the two – so neither should we in figuring out what her impact on them is.

Since Swift’s business savvy is generally accepted as a good model, I’ll delve into the criticism of her lyrics – most of which relies on claiming they reinforce a virgin-whore dichotomy.

First of all, since I don’t think you can separate the person from the artist, I feel the need to point out that Swift is one of the few teen stars recently who resisted the purity ring trend. In fact, as public as Swift is about her relationships, she’s kept her sexuality private and never implied any judgment about sexuality. Even her ex, Joe Jonas, followed the purity ring trend. Admittedly, the song she wrote about that breakup is problematic. “Better than Revenge” claims that his new girlfriend is an actress but “she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.”

I can’t deny that this song relies on criticizing another woman for her choices, sexual and otherwise. But I also can’t deny that I listened to it on repeat when my boyfriend dumped me for someone else in high school. Was that girl a slut? No. Was she the one I should have been mad at? No. But I was, and so was Swift.

That doesn’t excuse the girl-on-girl rivalry that this song sets up, nor the slut-shaming in it, but just as with all feminist works, it’s important to keep in mind the specific historical context. And the context of being dumped for someone else doesn’t often lead to being level-headed.

I concede the virgin-whore dichotomy in that song, but I haven’t been swayed by any other songs. An oft-criticized song is “Fifteen,” in which Swift’s friend “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind, and we both cried.” A critic on Astrostraddle responds by saying, “I’ll spare you the time of listening to the song and give it to you straight: Abigail had sex with a boy, and later they broke up. That’s right. No marriage. She gave him all she had. That’s right. All Abigail had was her hymen.”

The issue is, without listening to the whole song you’re not getting all the context. The phrase “giving it all up” is common to refer to giving one’s virginity, and while I agree that the diction surrounding a woman’s first time is generally sexist and demeaning (“losing it” implies a loss, rather than a gain), Swift did not create this diction. She’s just using it. Swift doesn’t even specify that “everything she had” is sex – it’s the reader, the critic, imposing our expectations of this sexist diction on the song. Everything she had could have been her heart, or too much of her time.

But, granted that it likely means sex, it must be pointed out that Swift never mentioned marriage. She never said Abigail should have waited til she was older and married, she just said she chose the wrong guy. And Swift doesn’t shun Abigail for her choice, instead they simply cry together and take it as a growing experience. The song is hardly a lecture on abstinence – it’s a story of growing up, which includes mistakes of all sorts.

The other song I’ve seen heavily criticized for a virgin-whore dichotomy is “You Belong with Me,” in which Swift positions herself against a cheerleader who wears “short skirts.” I’m not a fan of the girl-on-girl rivalry created by this song, but as Notes on Pop Culture writes in response to a post by Bitch magazine, “Sady [Doyle] calls the comparison between the two girls ‘girl-on-girl sexism”. What Sady forgets is that this is what people do. That is what girls do, that is what teenage girls do, this is what girls do when another girl has the guy they like. It’s tame, and pretty damn fair.”

There’s also something to be said for the fact that Swift plays herself and her rival in the music video, which provides at least a visual deconstruction of the virgin-whore dichotomy. Notes on Pop Culture concludes that the biggest issue with the Swift criticism is “reading the music from a very adult perspective, completely forgetting that Taylor is singing from a teenage girl’s perspective TO teenage girls.”

As a teenage girl (for one more year, at least!) I agree. Swift’s songs helped give voice to my experiences in love, and otherwise. (Contrary to popular belief, not all of her songs are about romance – check out “The Best Day,” one of my personal favorites, or “Never Grow Up,” “Safe and Sound,” “Ronan,” “Change” and “The Outside.”) It is a privileged experience, to be sure, but that doesn’t call for its dismissal.

This categorization of all of her songs as love songs (which Swift actually made fun of herself for at the concert I saw) is an oversimplification. Astrostraddle wrote that Taylor Swift, “according to her lyrics, has spent her entire life waiting for phone calls and dreaming about horses and sunsets.” While “Love Song” and “Begin Again” and others are about wanting boys, as I’ve pointed out, Swift does write about more. Furthermore, songs of hers like “White Horse” and “Should’ve Said No” aren’t about waiting around for a man, they’re about taking back your life and rejecting the fairy tale ending for your own sake. (In “White Horse”, Swift writes that “I had so many dreams about you and me / Happy endings, now I know / That I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairytale.”)

That’s what Taylor Swift does. She writes about her dreams in love, but she also writes about moving on and becoming a stronger person for it. A stronger woman. Even Sady Doyle (who wrote the Bitch article “Taylor Swift Wants to Ban Access to Your Lady Bits”) admits, Swift describes “women being suitors, not desired objects.” Women may be set against each other to get the guy, but they’re not passive in the experience – Swift isn’t spending her life “waiting for phone calls and dreaming about horses and sunsets,” as has been argued, but she’s out there making her dreams happen. In her lyrics and in real life.

I’m not arguing that Swift is a feminist. Her songs clearly aren’t written with issues of equality in mind. But calling her “a feminist’s nightmare” seems ridiculous in an age when Lil Wayne posted the picture below on his Facebook with the caption “That dick made them rest in peace, I got a bunch of dead hoes!”

I’m also not saying that this means it’s not worth criticizing Swift’s lyrics. Sexist rap or pop songs haven’t stopped me from taking a closer look at their lyrics in the past, and this look is valuable to raise awareness. But separating Swift into two parts to tear one apart – without having to take responsibility for the fact that in doing so you’re also tearing down a successful woman – isn’t the way to go about constructive criticism.

What is important here is perspective, and reality. I love Swift because as generic as they are, her songs have given voice to my emotions throughout my teenage years. I may not have a guitar, but plenty of tears were shed in high school to “Teardrops on my Guitar.” And, in one aspect, isn’t Swift giving voice to the lived experience of women, a goal of feminism?

I’m not dismissing the criticism that’s been done, or its value. But I do respectfully disagree with the simplification of the emotions and situations Swift describes into a “virgin-whore dichotomy.” I propose in the future we deal with Swift as a complex individual rather than dividing her into parts, which seems to be a disclaimer so that we can criticize another woman without guilt. I for one refuse to believe that a successful woman could ever be “A Feminist’s Worst Nightmare.”

Rachel Grate is an Editorial Intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn or read more of her work on her blog.

That Time Of The Month: An Excuse For Sexism All The Time

Originally posted on July 13, 2012 on MissRepresentation.org.

by Rachel Grate

“What’s the difference between a Woman with PMS and a Pit Bull?
Lipstick.” – Jokes4Us.com

This is for every woman who, whether assertively stating an opinion or adamantly disagreeing with someone or showing the least bit of emotion or…well, really doing anything at all, has been dismissed with a simple, “Looks like someone’s on her period!”

PMS. I’ve been warned of its dangers since childhood, about how each month women turn into dangerous beings whose only capacities are whining, yelling and eating chocolate. (And to be clear, I’m discussing PMS strictly in terms of supposed emotional effects on women, not in terms of the very real physical symptoms of menstruation.)


Now, don’t get me wrong, I love an excuse to eat chocolate – but that excuse isn’t worth the lack of respect my emotions and opinions are given if one even suggests that I’m on my period. (Besides, I like to think that I can eat chocolate at any time of the month, regardless of whether or not I have an “excuse” to enjoy it.)

In reality, claiming women are essentially incapable of rational thought for essentially a quarter of their reproductive lives (assuming one’s period is monthly and lasts a week) is just another underhanded way to rationalize keeping them out of positions of power.
Don’t believe me? Think back to the 2008 elections. (You may remember this quote from Miss Representation the documentary.)When Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly asked guest Marc Rudov what the downside to a woman (Hillary Clinton) in the Oval Office would be, Rudov replied“You mean besides the PMS and the mood swings?”


Rudov later said he was joking (and that “the main problem I have is if a woman has a female agenda”, whatever that means). But PMS jokes aren’t funny when they discount a woman’s potential and intelligence. And I’ve never heard a PMS joke that doesn’t do just that. And boy, are there a lot of PMS jokes: check out the joke page I linked to above and if that doesn’t satisfy you, there are about 4,270,000 more Google results pages you can take a look at.

There’s a term for when one’s perspective is dismissed: Gaslighting. To quote Wikipedia, gaslighting “is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory and perception.” So when a woman points out someone’s wrongdoing and they play the PMS card, they’re trying to make the woman doubt that she is able to properly assess whether or not it was wrongdoing. They are making her doubt the validity of her own perception.

There’s another part of that definition of gaslighting that needs to be addressed: “false information.” Whether or not the medical existence of emotional PMS as distinct from physical discomfort or PMDD is in question, but I personally neither have the medical expertise to make that call nor the desire to dismiss anyone’s personally experience by doing so. Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that even if women do suffer from some emotional symptoms during her period, we don’t completely transform into a lipstick-wearing pit bull.

A menstruating woman doesn’t lose her rationality, just as a man with an annoying paper cut is still capable of making decisions.# So saying one is slightly grumpy because of PMS? That may be valid, though presumably no one besides the woman herself would know her cycle well enough to make that judgment. But dismissing one’s opinions because they’re ‘unstable’? That’s gaslighting, and startlingly reminiscent of the catchall “hysteria” diagnosis of the 19th century.


Disturbingly, it’s not just overtly sexist jokes or oblivious individuals misusing PMS. The June 2012 issue of Cosmopolitan claims that “PMS triggers all those annoying symptoms: bloating, bitchiness, serious junk-food cravings” and a “Brain Haze” that inhibits your ability to make decisions. Their solution? Sex or shopping. Aren’t women capable of more than that – at all times of the month?

This insistence that PMS restricts women’s intelligence is preventing women from being taken seriously. So next time someone dismisses your or another woman’s opinion with the excuse of PMS, call them out on it. Calmly request that in the future, they try to take other’s input seriously without writing it off in a “joke.” (Not to mention, nothing makes me angrier and more intent on proving my point than someone using a PMS line on me, so it’s really an ineffective method to make me shut up.)


I can’t think of any better way to end any piece of writing ever written than with a quote by Gloria Steinem:

“If women are supposed to be less rational and more emotional at the beginning of our menstrual cycle when the female hormone is at its lowest level, then why isn’t it logical to say that, in those few days, women behave the most like the way men behave all month long?”

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn.