Some physical places suffer from spiritual wounds, the invisible but indelible scars of the past shaping the present in ways both conscious and unconscious, acknowledged and unacknowledged. I live in such a place, one of the five towns that was involved in Brown v. Board of Education: Prince Edward County, Virginia. I have lived here for six years, and in that time I have had two children in the school system: they have both had positive experiences with engaged and engaging teachers. They have also, at times, been bored—the work too easy, the tests too constant, the focus too much on rote memorization. That is a problem with our education system throughout this country—ask any teacher. Another problem with our education system is that a majority of the kids in school are living in poverty, much of it the result of institutionalized, and often unconscious, racism. Much of it the result of our history. Put these things together in a town like mine, a small town with two universities and a significant black population that lives in poverty and remembers, in soul and body, the five years the schools were shut down to exclude black children, and what do you get? You get a day like I had last week: a spiritually significant day in a town struggling to heal its psychic wounds.
Cindy Crawford has famously said that she wishes she looked like Cindy Crawford. Recently, we got to see what she meant, as a photo of Cindy in which her abdomen bears witness to the fact that she has borne children was leaked on the Internet. Author Leslie Goldman sums up the leak and its consequences nicely: “Women everywhere are feeling empowered, relieved and grateful to her,” Goldman said. “I just wish it had come about under her control.” Indeed, here we see the cultural “iron maiden” (as Naomi Wolf describes it in The Beauty Myth) of beauty at work: women—even supermodels—can’t assume privacy or control when it comes to our own bodies. And the images we are expected to live up to are so unrealistic that every time we get a peek at reality, we heave a collective sigh of relief. This, my friends, is a public health issue.
In the three years since The Representation Project has taken on sexism in Superbowl ads, we’ve seen quite a bit of improvement. As Caroline Knorr points out over at Common Sense Media, most families don’t want sex—much less sexism—in the ads that they see with their kids during the big game, and advertisers are responding. They’re also responding to the tweets The Representation Project sends out every year via the #NotBuyingIt and #MediaWeLike campaigns: each year, we see a round of ads and a round of responses. This year, the discussion started early, as some ads were released pre-game. Among them was a very important public service announcement: NoMore.org’s reminder about the realities of intimate partner violence (IPV). So—what does all this say about our culture? Are we making headway against sexism as the foundation for our entertainment and economy? Yes—and no.
In 1985, lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel offered a tongue-in-cheek proposal for judging female representation in films. Her cartoon “Dykes to Watch Out for” presented this vision:
Yesterday—January 11—was Alice Paul’s birthday. Alice Paul, who fought body and soul for suffrage, organizing a famous march for the cause in 1913 that upstaged the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, and later challenging the president’s refusal to pass suffrage by leading a hunger strike in jail. Alice Paul, who I love the way I love all my heroines, with fierce gratitude and pride. I’ve been thinking about Alice this week, as I just watched Iron-Jawed Angels, a movie about Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Inez Milholland, and others who gave female suffrage its final push into being. Although I enjoyed the movie, I was frustrated by some aspects of it—including the way it downplayed the role of another heroine of mine, Ida B. Wells. I think the movie did this for the same reason all mainstream stories of “how feminism got us where we are” downplay the role of black women: white culture doesn’t want to look too closely at the flaws in our heroines.