Ferguson Part Two: What Now?

Last week, I posted some thoughts on the Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson Police Department.

Reading the document made me feel sick, disgusted, and generally led me to a state of disbelief. It needed some time to sink into my bones for me to really understand, deep down, the level of horror that those many pages contained. The biggest question that cycled through my brain was, “How is this happening in America in 2015?”

Last week was also the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Thousands of people, including President Obama, came out to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama to remember the violence that state troopers inflicted on peaceful protestors fifty years ago.

Fifty years.

Again: “How is this happening in America in 2015?”

So what now? How can we work towards change, both as a nation and individually?

As a start, the changes outlined in the Dept. of Justice report need to be made, not only in Ferguson where they have already begun to reform the city, but nationwide. I won’t pretend to be an expert on police departments or training, but it is increasingly obvious that the tension between minority populations and police officers are not unique to Ferguson. In his speech last month, F. B. I. Director Comey spoke about the inherent biases we all have but stated that police departments specifically need “to design systems and processes” to keep stereotyping out of law enforcement.

Racial bias has been shown to exist across the country–it reveals itself in the job market, housing opportunities, and even in the doctor’s office. However, as people in positions of authority, it should be a requirement for police officers to actively fight against stereotyping and biases to ensure that they treat all people equally as they enforce the law.

So what would these “systems and processes” look like? As the Justice Dept. suggests–explicit officer training focused on the negative effects of stereotypes and bias, more oversight from trained supervisors who are equipped to recognize and respond to discriminatory practices, increased community partnership, hiring a more diverse force, etc. Essentially, common sense practices that will make a difference and shift the focus of policing from producing a profit back to protecting and serving. I hope that these suggestions are taken to improve policing across the nation. But we, as a people, need to use our freedom of speech to hold departments accountable when acts of injustice occur.

But what about the widespread racial bias? Is there anything we can do?

Eradicating racial bias starts on an individual level, which is why it is so hard to root it out of society as a whole. But that personal journey is where we must all begin. I can’t write anyone else’s journey, but here are five things I know that I want to change about my own approach to racial bias after reading the investigation report.

  1. need to do better to understand systems of privilege. After spending years studying my white privilege, it is clear that I am still on the journey to understanding all of its ramifications. I need to continue to read about it, challenge my assumptions, and examine the systems of privilege at work in everyday life.
  2. I need to diversify my media. I need to seek out alternate perspectives from people who have different experiences, (like this insightful article) so that I can change that instinct in us all to otherize and instead seek to relate.
  3. need to know more. Sure, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on history. I took AP classes in high school. I’ll read the occasional biography. I enjoy historical movies. I know how to lose a couple hours perusing wikipedia. But is that “pretty good grasp” good enough? Hell no. This is in part because the aspects of history that address racial discrimination are not the most prevalent special on the History channel. War dramas where we are the heroes? You can probably find that on some channel 24/7. But documentaries about the slave trade? The brutal road toward civil rights? The violence that erupted when schools were desegregated? You have to dig deeper to learn about the things that many people would like to pretend never happened. I need to dig deeper.
  4. need to reserve my judgment for when I know the facts. Supported by a media that is more concerned in getting news out fast and less concerned about true reporting, I can jump to conclusions before the full story is clear. Just this past week, a shooting occurred in Ferguson. Initial reports identified the shooter as a protestor who was targeting police officers, but as more and more information has become available, conflicting accounts have risen. The man claims that he was never involved in the protests and that he was not aiming for the officers. In cases like this, I need to be patient and wait and hear all sides of the story.
  5. need to keep parading. This means lots of things to me–pointing out discriminatory remarks and sharing my discomfort with them when I hear them from friends or family, sharing resources about privilege that I find helpful with others, analyzing and working against racial biases that come up in my job, supporting community service efforts by volunteering more, and feeling empowered enough to write letters to both media sources and government officials when I see bias occurring.

Look forward fifty years. What do you want to see? Now what can you do to make it happen?

Justice Department Finds FPD Practices Racially Biased AND Unconstitutional

[DISCLAIMER: THE FOLLOWING POST IS SOLELY ABOUT THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT’S FINDINGS IN THEIR INVESTIGATIONS IN FERGUSON, MO., AND ALL COMMENTARY ADDRESSES THE SITUATION IN FERGUSON ALONE.]

To everyone who said Ferguson wasn’t about race, the Justice Department begs to differ. Yesterday, the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division just released their investigation into the Ferguson Police Department–and it is worse than we imagined.

Only a few months ago, city streets across America and the avenues of the internet alike ignited in protest over the death of Michael Brown, a teenager killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. As we all know, Wilson was not indicted for the teen’s death, leading much of the nation to rise into an uproar.blacklivesmatter

But had justice been served? Was Brown profiled and his civil rights violated? Or, as the court found, were Darren Wilson’s actions justified, excused by self-defense? The opinions were many and almost everyone with a social media account took to their preferred platform to speak their minds. We were a whole nation involved in a heated conversation and even captured the attention of the world at large. Many international news stations covered the story constantly, using it as evidence of America’s inherent racism and inability to police itself.

I saw a lot of negativity, hate, and blatant racism on my Facebook newsfeed in those days. It made me furious. I acknowledge that I am one tiny person in the large sea that this event has affected, but I can honestly say that the conversation around Ferguson changed my life. One particularly upsetting comment I read targeting black children struck a nerve, fueling my fire to return my career to the world of educational nonprofit work (I now manage education services for at-risk students). It also inspired me to start this blog.

Meanwhile, the case took on a meaning larger than itself–it grew to represent the reality of race relations in America and shed light on police brutality. Through it all, the citizens of Ferguson protested, and more stories came out about how the police had treated minority community members unfairly for years.

Now, we have the final word. Yesterday, March 4th, the Justice Department released two reports, one on the Michael Brown shooting and one investigating the general practices of the FPD.

Again, the investigation into the shooting did not find enough evidence to indict Officer Wilson with criminal charges.

“Even if Wilson was mistaken in his interpretation of Brown’s conduct, the fact that others interpreted that conduct the same way as Wilson precludes a determination that he acted with a bad purpose to disobey the law. The same is true even if Wilson could be said to have acted with poor judgement in the manner in which he first interacted with Brown, or in pursuing Brown after the incident at the SUV. These are matters of policy and procedure that do not rise to the level of a Constitutional violation and thus cannot support a criminal prosecution.”

Department of Justice Report Regarding the Criminal Investigation into the Shooting Death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson

Though we all must accept the investigation’s findings, the overall story doesn’t really stop there.

Ferguson Day 6, Picture 53

In the second report, the Justice Department reveals the ugly innards of the FPD and explores the racially-biased policies of the city’s officials at large. I spent last night reviewing the report because I do think it is important to get the information straight from the source and avoid media bias. You can read this post and commentary to find the answers to the five most burning questions I had or read the full report for yourself. I have included page numbers on all quotes so that if you have doubts about my usage, you can check out the context firsthand.

1. What negative practices, if any, were at work within the FPD?

“FPD’s approach to law enforcement, shaped by the City’s pressure to raise revenue, resulted in a pattern and practice of constitutional violations” (p.15).

Aha–from “Protect and Serve” to “Fine and Collect.” The resounding message was that the FPD valued money over public safety. Further proof? “Officers told us that some compete to see who can issue the largest number of citations during a single [traffic] stop” (p.14). Sigh. But–it wasn’t all on individual police officers. Following the example of the City Manager and the Police Chief, this culture was also encouraged by their immediate supervisors, who imposed disciplinary measures for those who did not issue enough citations, and their job performance evaluations, which included a large emphasis on meeting a high citation benchmark each month.

This makes me wonder–when cops are explicitly pressured by city officials to make money rather than protect citizens, can we still consider them public servants?

When they regularly violate the constitutional rights they are supposed to be defending, I’d have to say no.

“Officers violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force. Officers frequently infringe on residents’ First Amendments rights, interfering with their right to record police activities and making enforcement decisions based on the content of individuals’ expression” (p. 15).

Even scarier? The Justice Department also found the FPD’s use of force to be unconstitutional, discovering a pattern of frequent taser and canine use over less harmful force practices. They also revealed that these unnecessary measures disproportionately affected African-American citizens (90% of all use of force was for this demographic group) and were even employed on people with disabilities and young students (p.28).

2. How did the officers view the citizens of the communities they served?

“Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue” (p. 2).

So, in their minds, it’s not like they were taking money from regular citizens, but potential offenders and criminals.

Like, for example, the gentleman who was sitting in his car one day. He couldn’t have been an innocent man getting some cool AC after a basketball game on a public court (which he was); instead, he must have been a pedophile looking for trouble. True story: an officer approached the man, accused him of being a child predator, commanded him to get out of the car to perform a pat down, then wanted to search the man’s car. The man objected–A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT–and was then arrested at gunpoint and held on eight charges. The most unbelievable one? ‘Making a False Declaration’–because he initially identified himself as his nickname instead of his full name, like “Ben” for “Benjamin.” The man lost his job because of the charges.

The findings are simple yet harsh: To most officers, people stopped being citizens worthy of respect and instead turned into dollar signs or potential threats.

3. What evidence is there of racial bias?

There is so much a single quote doesn’t cover it. From blatantly racist emails that were circulated throughout the police department (find a more readable summary of them here) to the overwhelmingly disproportionate arrests of African American residents, the bias of stereotyping ran rampant in the FPD.

This evidence of bias and stereotyping, together with evidence that Ferguson has long recognized but failed to correct the consistent racial disparities caused by its police and court practices, demonstrates that the discriminatory effects of Ferguson’s conduct are driven at least in part by discriminatory intent in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment” (p.5)

The statistics included in the report are outrageous. You can find them listed here, or, of course, in the report itself.

And before anyone has the chance to use the racist attitude of “but black people commit more crime,” that I heard so much of a few months ago:

“The race-based disparities created by Ferguson’s law enforcement practices cannot be explained by chance or by any difference in the rates at which people of different races adhere to the law. The disparities occur, at least in part, because Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias” (p.70).

4. Where did all the tension between citizens and police officers come from?

“Our investigation has shown that distrust of the Ferguson Police Department is longstanding and largely attributable  to Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement. This approach results in patterns of unnecessarily aggressive and at times unlawful policing; reinforces the harm of discriminatory stereotypes; discourages a culture of accountability; and neglects community engagement” (p.6).

Explicit verbal harassment. Threats and intimidation. Complaints ignored by administration. No positive community engagement. Is there even a wonder why citizens did not trust the police?

There are even disgusting and frequent instances of the officers using true moments to provide help and protection as opportunities to fine and arrest those who called them in the first place. Imagine going through a car wreck that severely injured your girlfriend, dialing 911, and then being arrested and hit with 5 violations for trying to stay by her side until ambulances arrive. Or calling 911 to report domestic abuse, then being arrested yourself for a minor housing violation the officers noticed while they were supposed to be interviewing you and providing protection. These are only two stories of many outlined in the report. If I went through either of those scenarios, I would probably never dial 911 again, even if I was in a true emergency.

Why have police when their first interest is no longer protection?

5. What does all this have to do with the courts?

In Ferguson, most cases are cited as violations of the city’s municipal code, rather than under state laws, leading them to the municipal court, which, for all intents and purposes, is considered part of the police department–the Chief of Police is even the supervisor. Naturally, this complicates things. Remember that “Fine and Collect” mentality? Yeah. . . same story here.

“The Ferguson municipal court handles most charges brought by the FPD, and does so not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue (p.45).

“The court’s practices also impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals, and run counter to public safety” (p.3).

A court without justice is not a court. Reading this reminded me of the trial in Alice in Wonderland, with its non-sensical “sentence first, verdict afterwards” refrain. Except that was REAL life for Ferguson residents with pending court cases.

In a nutshell–Ferguson courts went against common practice by imposing extremely strict punishments on minor violations like failing to pay parking and speeding tickets. While state law mandates a temporary license suspension for these issues, Ferguson piled on even more fees and routinely issued arrest warrants for these offenses, creating a cycle that abused the community’s most vulnerable population. Those already combating poverty were fined into debt, stripped of their license, and made to serve jail time, losing their employment or housing along the way. This isn’t just inhumane–it’s bad business. How can a city thrive when its people are treated in this way?

Ferguson Day 6, Picture 13

In summary: The report provided proof that the protestors were right–a greater systemic cycle of oppression towards African Americans in particular was undoubtedly at work in Ferguson. I think it is fair to say that these systems most certainly played their part the day of the shooting as the atmosphere itself  was one of hostility, fueled by the ongoing unconstitutional practices and procedures of the FPD. And though the Justice Department ultimately agreed with the decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson–the FPD, city officials, and courts are far from innocent.

I plan to follow up this post with Ferguson Part Two: What Now? Check back for that post later this week. It will discuss some takeaways from the situation, the changes being made, and some of the positive repercussions that will hopefully be inspired by the investigation. The first step to parading is understanding the systems of injustice so we can work against them. Thanks for reading.

“We’ve been leaders, we’ve been kings…” Oyelowo on the treatment of black narratives

Wow. David Oyelowo just said it. While my recent post about the Oscar snubs focused on the lack of recognition toward females in the industry, the controversy this year has also been about the racial diversity of the nominees. Sitting down for an interview at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Oyelowo, who played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, discusses why he believes he was snubbed and challenges the industry to look at how they treat black narratives.

As we start Black History Month, his message is especially meaningful and worth thinking about–why do we tolerate so many movies that depict blacks as subservient while rarely acknowledging (or even creating!) films that show them in leadership positions? As he points out, movies are typically told from the white character’s point of view. He argues that authentic narratives told from the perspective of black characters are important because “You can’t have people curating culture in this way when we need to see things in order to reform from them.”

I have to agree.

And I wonder what role the media plays when I see such disparities between how white and black people perceive society. In a PEW research study, vastly different responses between white and black citizens were found in issues of equality and racial tension.  In answer to “How much needs to be done in order to achieve racial equality?” 79% of blacks said “A lot,” while only 46% of whites answered in this way. The poll indicates that blacks feel that they are not experiencing equal treatment in almost every aspect of life, while whites do not see blacks being discriminated against. Are we really living in different worlds here or is there a serious discrepancy in what messages we are exposed to?

150130-latin-disney-princess-wide_54ae412a711a00615b7f8a7f6f337fb8

Elena–Disney’s newest princess.

I hope we see and hear more diversity in our culture’s stories. Stories help build empathy and break down barriers between different groups of people. As a culture who generally loves storytelling, wouldn’t we all benefit from diverse narratives? Shouldn’t the films/tv/books we consume more closely mirror the demographics of our society?

I work in public schools and rejoice when I see children’s a book starring a character of color or featuring cultural diversity because there are still so few examples out there. I hope that the upcoming Disney film featuring a new Latina princess will do her culture and identity justice. I also hope to see more movies like Selma and Dear White People hit theaters, films that give empowered black characters the multi-faceted identities they deserve. I hope to see more women and people of color as writers and directors. Let’s continue to demand better representation of diversity across genders and races in our media while also challenging ourselves to reflect on the messages of the things we watch.

A few ways to advocate for gender equality

As I discussed in my previous post, gender discrimination is still alive and well pretty much every where you look in today’s world. It rears its ugly head in politics, in magazines, on television, in the office, on the street, even at your local bar. But what can we do about it? This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I hope you come away with a few concrete ways to take action on this issue.

Stand up for women in your everyday life: We all have moments when gender bias comes out amongst friends, at work, or when we are going about our daily errands. Consciously acknowledge and push back against these instances.

  1. Support women in your workplace. If you are a woman in a higher position at your company, reach out to them with kindness and offer encouragement or mentorship. We need to fight to change the idea that the other women in the office are competition–instead, let them be colleagues. Just the other day, I overheard three women gossiping about a co-worker. Two of the women were really digging in, insulting her actions and even accusing her of lying to get the job. This all stopped when the third woman spoke up and provided positive examples of how hard the woman in question in worked. Be the third woman.
  2. Find your voice at work. Even though studies show that women’s ideas get shut down more than men’s in the workplace, fight to get your points across. The study also shows examples of companies who started a “no-interruption” policy during meetings. The result? More satisfied employees and better collaboration between all staff members. If you are a man, support female co-workers by listening to and collaborating with them just as much as you would a male coworker.
  3. According to Missrepresentation, women hold 86% of purchasing power in America. How you spend your money matters. Boycott products (including movies) that objectify women and share your choices on social media with the hashtag #notbuyingit.

  4. Don’t put up with stereotypes or negative talk towards women. If you are a man, step up when you hear other men talk or treat women badly. If you are a woman–same thing. We need to stop judging and treating each other so harshly regardless of gender. You have the power to walk away from negative conversations.
  5. Be a model for the children or young adults in your life. As someone who works in schools, too many times I have heard kids make gendered statements. For example: “Girls can’t be pilots, they are the people who give out the drinks” (YES, this is something I actually overheard between a group of 6 year olds, so I stepped in). Step in where you can and model healthy interactions in your own relationships so that children can learn through observation.
  6. Consider donating to or getting involved in organizations who work towards gender equality. Here are a few to check out: Women in FilmSisters of Hope, Black Girls Rock!, Women Sports Foundation, Girls Who Code, Girls for a Change. Share in the comments more organizations you love!

Support more female representation in the media: This is hugely important because of the power media has over perception.

  1. Support female-driven movies by seeing them in theaters on opening weekend. The big studios still don’t believe that big numbers will turn out to see stories about women on screen. Prove them wrong by giving these movies your support. Opening weekend is important because studios base on lot of their decisions on how well a movie is received when it first come out. Showing up for a movie early in its release shows that it was highly anticipated. Big studio movies that star women this year? InsurgentJupiter RisingTomorrowland, and Mockingjay: Part Two.

    Stockholm, Pennsylvania. Directed by Nikole Beckwith. Photo by Aaron Epstein - © 2014 by Aaron Epstein

    Stockholm, Pennsylvania. Directed by Nikole Beckwith. Photo by Aaron Epstein – © 2014 by Aaron Epstein

  2. It is also important to support female directors and writers, which means being a smarter film consumer. Look into movie credits before the movie and seek out those with women behind the camera. Unfortunately only 4.4% of big studio movies are directed by women, so this feat might take a trip to an independent theater. Check out the this year’s Sundance favorites and get out there!
  3. Have you noticed that in news articles, female politicians are twice as likely than their male counterparts to be described in emotional terms? This has to stop. Call out biased journalism when you see it by commenting on the article or writing to the news source it came from. Most news websites have a ‘Contact Us’ section. Use it.
  4. Only 20% of news stories focus on women. Share your appreciation for positive media that empowers women via social media by using hashtag #MediaILike or #MediaWeLike. Hashtags hold power.They are tracked and analyzed by industries and the media. Use them wisely.
  5. Share your story. We need more quality narratives about women, by women.

In case you need some proof that one voice can change the world, here is Emma Watson’s latest speech supporting UN Women’s HeForShe campaign.

What do Kim Kardashian, the Oscars, and the State of the Union have in common?

This week, gender bias has been on my mind.

I guess it started when I (FINALLY) picked up Margaret At38447wood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that begins in our present culture and devolves into a dystopian society where women are once again treated as objects. They can serve one of two purposes: A) provide men sexual pleasure or B) become vessels of childbirth. I was riveted, fascinated, horrified, and yet it also made me reflect on our own culture, which still pretty much portrays women in these roles. Despite whatever Alanis Morissette sang about female identity, on TV and in movies a woman is typically still either the wife or the femme fatale.

So, this book really got me thinking. And then other recent events seemed to echo the issue of gender discrimination: the Oscar nominations, the State of the Union address, and HeForShe’s launch of a new initiative called ACTION 10X10X10 all, in their own way, highlighted the challenges women face both in America and abroad.

On Monday, I found myself glued to the TV screen for the State of the Union address. To be completely honest, I felt heartbroken when half of our nation’s representatives refused to applaud or stand for President Obama’s following statement: “Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. Really. It’s 2015. It’s time.”

Watching not only Speaker John Boehner, but most (if not all) of our Republican representatives* refuse to acknowledge this statement infuriated me. It spoke volumes to how women are still perceived and what roles many people believe they should follow.

To me, it said “we don’t think you deserve it.” It said that men are better than women. It said that boys rule, girls drool. The end.

Dramatic? Yes, but so was their gesture.

Naturally, this gave me an itch to parade. So I spent the rest of the week exploring the social injustices that women still experience, on a grand scale, in America today.

I found a few:

  1. There is a huge disparity in how women’s opinions are valued in the workplace.
  2. Women make up 51% of the US population… but make up only 20% of Congress.
  3. Women earn less than their male counterparts in almost every occupation.
  4. Women make up 3% of leadership positions in the mainstream media.
  5. Women make up only 30% of speaking roles in movies and on television (see also here and here).
  6. Despite the fact that 60% of US working women are mothers, we have no national policy towards paid maternity leave, and that of the 185 countries and territories analyzed by the International Labor Organization, only one other country didn’t offer benefits to women having children (Papua New Guinea, in case you were wondering).

Let’s just say I found more discrimination than could be easily put into a list. What I began to wonder was, why do we, as a society, put up with this? Just like in The Handmaid’s Tale, it seems that our culture has taken this mantra of “this is the way it is.” But it doesn’t have to be.

Yep, her.

Yep, her.

I began to think about the systems of power over our culture. I began to think about Kim Kardashian.

Stay with me.

We live in a world bombarded with media. Young girls have to make sense of the 500 air-brushed-to-perfection advertisements they come across every day. To them, the cat-fights of reality tv and the superficial woes of Kim Kardashian provide a model for behavior. The Girl Scout Research Institute conducted a study that showed that 75% of teen girls believe reality tv to be unscripted, real-world experiences. To me, reality tv is something to laugh at and occasionally indulge in to turn my brain off. The idea that young girls take it seriously is frightening, especially considering the other ways that women are represented on tv and in film.

Our culture gets most of its assumptions from the media; Movies, television, the news, and even commercials, provide a model for the world—but it just so happens to be an inaccurate one when it comes to female representation.

According to the study “Gender Bias Without Borders,” only 30.9% of speaking roles in movies and television are women—despite the fact that, you know, women make up half of our world’s population. The study also revealed that female characters were twice as likely as male characters to wear sexually revealing clothing, five times as likely to receive on-screen comments about their appearance, and were less likely to portray a person with job. Real women are literally missing from the scenes. The stirring documentary, Missrepresentation, (available on Netflix!) reveals that only 16% of film protagonists are female. Translation? Stories about women are not worth telling.

And let’s go ahead and think about the protagonists we are given. I can think of two types of characters: the woman looking for love and the sexy but bad-ass female warrior. Make no mistake–both of these characterizations continue to show that the purpose of woman is to find and please a man. Don’t get me wrong. As a girl who grew up very much a tomboy, I tend to like badass female characters, but to me, most of them seem just as one-dimensional as the damsel in distress. Just an excuse to have a girl in some tight leather–a dominatrix of sorts. I mean, for every Brienne on Game of Thrones it seems like we have ten of Halle Berry’s Catwoman.

More of well-rounded characters like her please!

More of well-rounded characters like her please!

This message even continues into cartoon movies, where it is especially harmful to young girls. As Geena Davis reminds us, “Between 1937 and 2005 there were only 13 female protagonists in animated movies. All of them, except one, had the aspiration of finding romance.”

Is that one in thirteen Mulan (my favorite Disney girl)? I don’t know, but thankfully, in the past ten years since this comment, animated roles have shown progress for girls. Brave’s Merida rejected the men who came to court her and competed for her own independence, while Frozen’s Elsa struggled to understand her identity (though admittedly, her sister, Anna, was boy-craaaazy). Both movies, by the way, had female directors. Hmm…female directors create well-rounded female characters, who knew? And it’s true that we are seeing more women featured in big box office movies roles that attempt to defy female stereotypes—most recently Katniss of The Hunger Games, who is both vulnerable and strong.

But overall, movies continue to leave out women. Every movie I watch, I measure up to the Bechdel Test, which is just about as basic as it could possibly be in recognizing that women are humans. All a movie has to do to pass is have two women talk to each other about something other than men.

Pretty easy right?5540832_orig

Wrong (according to Hollywood). I’d like to say that more movies have passed this year, but out of this year’s Best Picture Oscar noms, only TWO pass the Bechdel Test (SelmaBoyhood). TWO. But is this surprising when every nominated film this year is male-centric? Let that sink in.

In my opinion, Gone Girl and Wild more than deserve a nod, but with a 76% male Academy, I guess this is what happens.

“Hollywood is based on the assumption that women will watch stories about men, but men won’t watch stories about women.”

—Geena Davis.

So what about the women behind the camera?

Well, let’s just say that recognized female film directors remain as rare as Melville’s white whale. Which brings me back to the Oscars. Am I surprised that no female directors or writers received Oscar nominations this year? Sadly, no.

Most people know that the Academy is mostly men but what is lesser known is that the individual categories can only be voted on by Academy members that are also peers in that category. Looking at it this way, the likelihood of a female nomination diminishes even further: the screenwriting branch is 81% male while the directors branch is 91%. With those blindingly unbalanced figures, it would be more newsworthy if they had recognized Ava DuVerny (Director, Selma) or Gillian Flynn (Writer, Gone Girl). After all, only four women have ever been nominated in the category of Best Director, and only one, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), has ever taken home the statue. 

The snubs reflect the reality of Hollywood, where women continue to struggle to achieve parity on a daily basis. And it’s not that women aren’t interested in directing. According to the New York Times, they are “well represented” in film schools percentages across the country. So what happens?

Sexism and money, plain and simple.

Though female directors fare pretty well in independent movies, as the amount of money needed for a film rises, it becomes more likely that it will be put into the hands of a man. According to Martha M. Lauzen’s research in “The Celluloid Ceiling,” a data-analysis of 2012’s top 250 domestic grossing films, women directors represented only 9%.

“Their [the six major studios] refusal to hire more female directors is immoral, maybe illegal, and has helped create and sustain a representational ghetto for women.”

—Manohla Dargis, “Lights, Camera, Taking Action,” New York Times

Again, in Missrepresentation, director Catherine Hardwicke described the many times she has been turned down for the job because she was told the content needed a man’s vision. So she turned to female-driven narratives instead, ultimately directing Twilight, which proved that audiences would come in droves to see a movie with a female protagonist. But when the movie became a blockbuster and smashed box office records—SURPRISE—the sequel films were immediately put in the hands of male directors.

Hardwicke bitterly reflects that even though Hollywood deems women unequipped to direct male-driven movies, males often direct films about women. When I looked into this statement, I found she was right. All of the following movies were directed by men: Sex and the City, Eat Pray Love, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Bridesmaids, Easy A, The Hunger Games, Divergent . . . the list goes on.

And for the record, let’s put the “women-can’t-direct-male-movies” idea to rest. I MEAN—Stop-Loss, Big, Zero Dark Thirty, Point Break, American Pyscho—ANYONE? But, I digress.

The point is: if more women were at the helm in movies and television, as directors and writers, our media would get closer to projecting reality and could create a healthier view of gender for young women and men to follow. It would show a world closer to our own. Perhaps it would even lead some voices to wonder why women are so underrepresented in politics.

The good news?

thelma-and-louise

Geena Davis: our hero.

Women are fighting back in Hollywood. Fed up with the way Hollywood showcases gender roles to young children, Geena Davis created the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which provides research-based efforts that educate the world on gender bias occurring in the media and fight for the need to reduce gender stereotyping. Gamechanger Films also works to put out more female-driven stories by providing the funding that nearly every female director struggles to find from studios. Women in Film works to promote equal opportunities for women in media through education, scholarships, and grants. And of course, the HeForShe movement, championed by Emma Watson, is gaining ground with their campaign for both genders to embrace feminism.

And we can help too. Knowing the issue is the first step. But you can act to help accurate female representation in the media become a reality. Check back soon under the “Action” tab to find out how.

*Please Note: This was my observation during the speech and that I do not wish this blog to to be a place of Democrats vs. Republicans, but rather an exploration into the aspects of identity, diversity, and injustice in our culture, open to anyone, regardless of their political party affiliation.

Ellen responds to hate the RIGHT way

Humor. Honesty. Positivity.

When the haters hate, it is so tempting to throw hate right back at them. I myself have certainly fallen into the trap of this in the past. When you are deeply emotionally invested in a subject it can be hard not to. But there are better avenues to take that won’t result in elevated blood pressure.

Whatever you do, don’t feed the troll. Haters love to get emotional reactions from their targets. Getting all heated up and responding back negatively will only feed their sense of power and likely encourage them to continue to bother you.

This doesn’t mean keep silent. Don’t let someone else’s problems take away your voice.

Here Ellen show us a perfect way to stay true to yourself and respond appropriately in situations like this.

She is calm, cool, and collected. She addresses the negative statements with class (no reverse trash-talk). She comes from a place of openness and honesty. She promotes positive aims and shines light on the good causes that drive her instead of letting the hate rule the conversation.

Thanks Ellen, for being our model this week.

Pink for Leelah

Leelah_Alcorn

Photo via Leelah’s tumblr http://lazerprincess.tumblr.com/

Make no mistake, a fingernail can be a parade.

There is a new hashtag trend that is taking over Facebook and Tumblr–#pinkforleelah. It is a movement to honor 17 year old Leelah Alcorn, who took her own life and posted her suicide letter to tumblr for the world to take note. To participate, simply paint your ring finger pink on January 6th to raise awareness of both Leelah’s tragedy and, as she wished, call attention to the discrimination of trans people.

If you haven’t read the note yet…it is heartbreaking. Unfortunately, Leelah’s personal tumblr was recently deleted, probably at the hands of her parents, but the note lives on across the internet. You can also find the full text of the note here and in case any of you doubt the truth of this story, here as well. If you have a tumblr you can easily find it reblogged thousands of times over. In fact, the tumblr community has exploded in support of Leelah, with new tribute  pages popping up with nearly every refresh, dedicated to remembering her as she wished to be remembered–as a beautiful woman.

Leelah Alcorn’s birth certificate tells a different story of her identity. On paper, she was a boy named Josh. To her parents, that was that. Despite bravely coming out to them as a trans-person, they rejected her identity and, according to Leelah’s writings, began a series of harmful actions that led her to severe depression, including taking her out of school and isolating her for five months from her friends.

The saddest thing, to me, is that at 17, Leelah was so close to reaching an age where she could get out from under her parents’ oppressive beliefs and seek a more supportive community. But to her, the reality of entering adulthood, completely unsupported by her family and lacking her once-close friends, was horrific to imagine.

Since her tumblr post, additional posts from Leelah have been found on reddit, titled I’m sure someone on here can convince me not to kill myself and Is this considered abuse? Though the content of the first post has been removed, her responses to commenters remain below (for now). Many redditors did their best to convince her that her living was worth living, but her depression continued to drip from every sentence.

When asked what she was looking forward to when she turned eighteen she replied:

“I’m not looking forward to anything. My life is only going to get harder.”

In the next thread, she asks for help, wondering if her parents’ actions toward her qualify as abuse. There are so many aspects of these posts that are chilling, but this excerpt is perhaps the most tragic (emphasis added):

“The way I feel when I talk to my parents and the way my parents treat me like I’m subhuman and that my feelings aren’t valid all make me think that I’m going through abuse, but I don’t know if it counts or not.”

Though many redditors did comment and provide their support, it wasn’t enough to counteract the years of emotional abuse she experienced from those who were supposed to love her the most. To her parents, Leelah Alcorn’s emotions were invalid and her pain, irrelevant. But that Josh Alcorn, they loved and fought for him. His mother even expressed her sorrow to CNN, by stating, “But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son.”

Too bad her son didn’t exist. She could have worked to build a wonderful relationship with her daughter. I don’t mean to diminish the pain that Leelah’s family is going through. Nothing will bring her back. But the ideology her family used made her feel worthless. This is what I take issue with.

Subhuman.

I can’t stop coming back to that word. To me, this word comprises the root of discrimination and provides the answer to why we still do not have social equality. The idea that some people matter more than others, as if we can quantify every individual’s net worth by the race, gender, sexual orientation, spiritual affiliation, etc., needs to be eradicated once and for all. The reality is that our present society makes beautiful souls like Leelah feel unworthy of life. Is there a bigger indicator of needed change than that?

Leelah hoped her death would mean something.

“The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights.”

In one of her reddit posts, Leelah typed a simple request:

“Please help me…”

Though we couldn’t help her then, we can help her now by taking action to bring her final dream to life.

A change.org petition has racked up 277,140 signatures in the hopes of enacting “Leelah’s Law,” a bill that would ban the harmful practice of conversion therapy, already banned in Washington, D.C., California, and New Jersey. You can sign the petition to protect the gender identity of children nationwide from this emotionally damaging and ineffective practice.

Whether you paint a nail pink, sign the petition, or simply make Leelah’s story a part of tomorrow’s conversation–don’t be afraid to parade around. There are teens like Leelah who need to hear you.

For more information on how to prevent suicide or fight for the rights of trans-people, check out Human Rights CampaignAmerican Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and  The Guardianwhich has compiled an excellent list of resources for trans-people and those who love them.