“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?

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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.

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.

Pink for Leelah

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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.

Why Parade?

I recently came across this amazing article from the beautiful mind over at Brain Pickings about Mark Twain. It chronicles his views of slavery as a young, impressionable child and how just a few words from his  soft-spoken mother changed his mind forever towards those around him.

In the Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1, he writes,

“In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind–and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.”

Twain would have gone on accepting slavery without a thought had his mother not one day shown sincere empathy towards a young slave boy, Sandy, making Twain suddenly recognize that Sandy was a young boy like himself, a human with joys and sorrows and the innate impulse to sing.

All it takes is one voice to tear down the ideology of an entire culture.

Nowadays I hear often that you should keep your views to yourself–vote in their favor come election time, yes–but otherwise do not cause trouble by bringing up politics in presence of others. I shudder to think what our society would be like if people throughout time conformed to this rule. And I shudder to imagine a future unchanged from the present because those with opinions are too afraid to offend.

Racism still exists. Sexism still exists. As does homophobia, educational inequality, and religious (and nonreligious) persecution.  And not just in pockets here and there, but on a national and global scale.

Like young Mark Twain, it is easy to be oblivious to the faults of the culture around you. After all, it is all you know, all you have ever known. But we can all purposefully become more conscious of the issues embedded in the daily life surrounding us. And then, we must act.

Whether with bells and whistles down a city sidewalk or a soft voice over a dinner table, we must parade by marching out our alternate opinions and revealing the human face behind our society’s prejudices. Twain’s mother was a soft-spoken woman, but in that moment with her son, she defied everything that her society triumphed as truth, inspiring him to realize that he could form his own judgments concerning the worth of others.

Without speaking out or taking action we perpetuate the biases around us. Find a way to make your own parade.