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.

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.

What Makes You Beautiful? Disturbing Messages In Pop Music

Originally published June 6, 2012 on MissRespresentation.org

Intern Rachel Grate looks at the scary messages for girls embedded in seemingly innocent pop songs

By Rachel Grate

In the length of my hour commute to work it’s not unusual to hear One Direction’s hit “What Makes You Beautiful” upwards of three times on the radio. The pop music phenomenon is just the most recent of a series of artists that have topped iTunes charts and captured the hearts of young girls everywhere. But have you ever listened beyond their catchy beats to focus on the lyrics?

“What Makes You Beautiful” begins with the observation that the girl is “insecure” and the band “don’t know what for.” However, despite the entire song essentially being a list of compliments, the band members never encourage the girl to stop being insecure. In fact, the chorus croons, “You don’t know you’re beautiful, Oh oh, That’s what makes you beautiful.”

The band is telling their target audience of teenage girls not to be confident in their appearance (even if they are as beautiful as the girl from the song), but to remain insecure because low self-esteem is literally “what makes you beautiful.” Is that really a healthy message for young girls to be absorbing?

Disturbed by this song that seemed permanently stuck in my head, I delved deeper into seemingly innocent pop music. Turns out Justin Bieber, the icon of the teen pop music scene, isn’t actually that innocent either. His songs seem to subtly imply that women can be bought, are a source of property, and that being showered with cash is all they need to be happy.

In his first hit, “One Time,” Bieber promises to give his girl “everything down to my last dime.” In “Baby,” Bieber tries to stop his girlfriend from breaking up with him by promising to “buy you anything, I’ll buy you any ring.” In his newest hit, “Boyfriend,” he flaunts that “I got money in my hands that I’d really like to blow/Swag swag swag on you.” Over and over again, his songs support the idea that women are just after men’s money and – judging by how many pre-teens wish he was their actual boyfriend – the message is sticking.

According to One Direction, what makes a girl beautiful is insecurity 

Admittedly, it can be a little difficult to take anything seriously in a song that includes the word “swaggie.” It may seem a bit nit-picky to be analyzing the misogyny in these light-hearted songs when so many other artists (from rap to rock) seem incapable of referring to women as anything other than “bitch”. (Even when Akon, with David Guetta, tries to “find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful,” the best he can do is “sexy bitch.”) So why bother focusing on these pop songs?

Because so many pre-teen girls listen to Justin Bieber that you can actually buy a bed cover with his face on it, or an entire Justin Bieber dental care set. Because these artists’ target audience are at an age where they are most vulnerable and most likely to take these messages as valid life advice. Because the fact that these messages are so subtle compared to those in some rap songs means that it’s actually more difficult to identify and avoid them.

It’s not just male pop singers sending these messages. In Orianthi’s hit “According to You,” she lists all the (disturbingly abusive) insults her boyfriend has hurled at her: stupid, useless, difficult, hard to please, a mess, boring, moody, inattentive and more. But instead of supporting girls to leave an emotionally abusive relationship because of their own self worth, her only defense against this boyfriend is that another boy thinks she’s “beautiful.” The whole song is defining her value according to other people – never once is her target audience given an example of generating healthy self-esteem based on their own thoughts.

I’d love to think that pop songs will change their tune and start encouraging girls’ self-confidence, but given their commercial success, it doesn’t seem likely. Even less likely is that “Beliebers” will suddenly cease to exist. What is possible, crucially so, is to make sure young girls are aware of these hidden messages. The secret is that you don’t have to stop enjoying catchy music to resist the messages it’s
implying.

Raising awareness is as simple as one car ride with my dad. “My Life Would Suck Without You” by Kelly Clarkson came on the radio, and I was singing along to the chorus (which is the title of the song).

“You should never be so emotionally dependent on someone to believe your life would suck without them,” my dad commented. “That’s unhealthy.”

I thought about it, I nodded in agreement, and I went back to belting out the song. Though my action stayed the same, my mindset, if only just a little bit, had changed for the better. And with enough little changes like that, girls will become conscious of these negative messages instead of absorbing them subconsciously.

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.