Friday, October 12, 2012

smells like school spirit

It's that time of year again, for school colors to come out, pompoms to wave, dress-up days, skits...a.k.a., the decadent pageantry during Homecoming Spirit Week. It occurred to me today that school spirit isn't all that different from patriotism. We have yells and chants, rousing music, we dress up in our school colors like people wear the flag on the 4th. And like patriotism, it's something almost everyone at least pretends to have. But I wonder if, like with patriotism, there's questioning underneath.

Because the thing is, at some point you realize that you ended up in your country not because of any awesome membership in the elect chosen to reside there, not because of some predestined fate, not because of anything that makes you uniquely American or Chinese or South African or what have you, but because of luck--because of accident of birth. And luck is something that is very difficult to be proud of.

To me, it makes little sense to have pride in such accidental membership. It justifies pride based not on the actions that should evoke it but rather because self-preservation dictates that you support your own group. Is this to say that we should disavow our allegiances because of what petty cause we have for them? Not at all.

Just, instead of rah-rah'ing for our mascot or our school's name or (in the case of patriotism) our country, we should celebrate ideals. And if in the process we find that our ideals may be more universal than our school spirit cheers or our patriotic sentiments, that's a good thing. (Guess what, it's easier to get someone to agree with "freedom, justice, and equality" than "I love America!") So why be divisive when we can unite around the things that really matter? I don't know about you, but I really care more about what we stand for than our name, our colors, or (sorry!) whether our football team won at the HC game tonight.

I think we should be proud of our schools. But I think we should have better reasons than, "because I go there." I'm proud because the amazing friends and classmates who performed at the Homecoming assembly today had creativity and drive. The folks who created clubs and rallied members to raise awareness and fundraise today inspire with their leadership and dedication. These kinds of strengths provide ideals we should celebrate.

Sure, it's hard to use face paint and pompoms to cheer on something as abstract as an ideal; but if we hope to give a glimpse of who we truly are, whether as the people of a nation or the students of a school, we will always have to go far deeper than a name.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Remarks at the National Press Club for the Women's Media Center Girls' State of the Union

Today I had the awesome opportunity to speak at the National Press Club in Washington DC to deliver remarks around girls and feminism, due to winning the Women's Media Center "Girls' State of the Union" contest earlier this year. Feminist icon (and tremendous role model) Gloria Steinem introduced me, and I delivered the following remarks.

I’d like to thank the Women’s Media Center for the tremendous opportunity to speak here today, and Ms. Steinem for the introduction—I’m honored. I’ve looked up to Ms. Steinem ever since I knew what feminism was. It’s not every day that you get introduced by an icon, so I may have to, at some point, pinch myself. I’m grateful for the introduction because, to be quite honest, it’s very hard for me to choose how to introduce myself sometimes—I feel like I have to choose somehow, because of the wide range of things I do, causes I support, or roles I embody—student, writer, teacher, activist. So a defining moment for me was when we were asked to introduce ourselves on the first day of my philosophy course at Stanford over the summer. I looked around the room, opened my mouth, and said: “I’m a feminist.”

My convictions didn’t start with finding a way to introduce myself, of course; they started gradually, and in some unlikely places. You see, growing up, like probably a lot of you, I loved princesses. I loved their fancy tiaras and elaborate dresses, convoluted names and inherited power. Now, this could have easily gone in the other direction—the influence of too many princesses getting rescued by Prince Charmings on white horses could have made me buy into this image of feminine as weak—except for the fact that I loved history, too. So in the pages of books, I did find my role models, just maybe not the role models most people would expect. I found Elizabeth the First infinitely cooler than Cinderella, because being imprisoned in the Tower of London while evading the possibility of your sister calling for your execution seems a lot tougher than throwing down a glass slipper. The lesson that being a bookworm taught me was that for every Snow White or Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, there was a Catherine the Great or Joan of Arc or Eleanor Roosevelt. And when I starting writing my own stories, I determined that there had to be some characters who didn’t fit the stereotype of the “good little girl.” That came naturally to me, because that was around the same time I decided I was a feminist.

But I wonder why those three little words, “I’m a feminist,” can be so hard for girls and guys to say. When it is said, it’s often followed by some sort of apologetic qualifier—“…but, I still like when guys hold doors for me” and the like. Or it’s used in a pick-and-choose way, like “I’m a feminist when it comes to this,” or disavowed entirely “I wouldn’t call myself a feminist,” but then followed by an acknowledgement of current wrongs in society and a belief in equality for women that basically makes the speaker a feminist in all but name.
Be honest—you’ve probably done it, or you’ve seen it done.

We shouldn’t ever feel like we have to qualify, deny, or apologize for our belief in what’s right: equality. We can stop being scared of feminism. We need to make it cool, not scary or weird, to say, “I’m a feminist.” In Iowa during the Republican primaries there was a pledge going around, asking the candidates to affirm their family values. I would love for a feminism pledge to go around Congress. That might sound radical to some people. “Aren’t feminists those scary man-hating ladies in giant shoulder-padded power suits?” they might think. Not quite. According to the dictionary, feminism is just advocating “social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.” Definitions have power, because when you tell people that’s what a feminist is they sit up and say, “Well I guess then I’m a feminist.”

If we all take this step, of affirming the importance of feminism, it will have a huge impact. But the people who will ultimately be able to make the most change--the people who should speak up the most--the people who will ultimately carry the feminist movement onwards--are today’s young people. Us. We need to make sure that today’s boys and girls know at least as much about the lives of Susan B. Anthony or Gloria Steinem as they do about Kim Kardashian or Snooki. That’s a vision of the girls’ state of the union that I as a teenage girl, hope to see. One where equality, respect, and fairness for all are more than ideals for the nation, but words embodied each and every day. Yet this vision may seem elusive in the present day. Talking to my peers, opinion seems to be split; some are well-informed and know that the work of feminism isn’t over; others point to how far we’ve come and question the necessity of the movement’s modern continuance.

And society has, in many ways, conditioned us to think that way, with artificial constructions of token “girl power” yet excessive segregation and limitation in the merchandise we’re offered, media we consume, and more. If we go on a shopping trip, a simple jaunt down the toys aisle can tell you that something is wrong. It’s easy to see what’s for girls and what’s for boys. The boys get star wars figurines and superheroes, and the girls get Barbies with feet made for high heels or Disney princesses sitting pretty and waiting for Prince Charming to rescue them.

Now you wander down to the magazine section and start looking at the selection for teenage girls: Seventeen, CosmoGirl, Teen Vogue, Girl’s Life. Relationships, celebrities, gossip, hair and makeup advice, “how to get flat abs” on every cover—what more could a teen girl want?

Now you’ve come to the clothing and shoes section. The high heels get higher and higher. In the juniors’ clothing section, almost every bra’s a pushup. You wonder why.
This department store experience might be virtual, but the merchandise within it isn’t. As a five-year-old, I had proportionally incorrect dolls; as a teenager, I see magazines marketed to girls that seem to value beauty over brains, and I see clothes that sell too much on the basis of “less is more,” especially if it’s lacy and pink.

I don’t think that the women I look up to got to where they are now because of Barbiesque figures; I think it took smarts and persistence and hard work. These aren’t the traits that are emphasized on store shelves with merchandise for girls. And misrepresentation of girls continues through adulthood. On TV we see the exploits of the Real Housewives of *insert city here*--stereotypical catfighting—and on Jersey Shore, the drunken adventures of Nicole Polizzi, aka Snooki. Is it right that Snooki, who I hope will never be an influence in government and policy, has significantly more name recognition than Valerie Jarrett, the president’s senior advisor? Who would you rather have your daughters looking up to?

We teenage girls hear a lot of mixed messages. We hear things like inside beauty is more important than outside beauty, love who you are, be yourself; and then we hear things like a quote from Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, discouraging Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign by saying, “She has a large posterior herself.” Is this an appropriate comment for anyone, man or woman, Democrat or Republican, to make? Hillary Clinton once said, “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.” Michelle Obama’s outfits are headline news items. Is this how you would want to be evaluated all the time, by your outward appearance? Step out the door and everything you wear, how you look, whether you’re wearing makeup or not, is scrutinized?

If there is any silver lining to growing up in an environment that tells us appearance is everything, it’s this: we should know from reading enough issues of CosmoGirl or Seventeen how to make something look good. But instead of lipstick or foundation on our skin, we can use feminism to give society a makeover. Making over society is what the Women’s Media Center is doing. Girls are taking action. The SPARK Summit petition asking that Seventeen Magazine provide girls with images of real girls, unaltered by Photoshopping, led to Seventeen vowing to change their ways. High school students Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel, and Elena Tsemberis successfully pushed for a female moderator in the presidential debates. Emma is a graduate of the Women’s Media Center Progressive Girls’ Voices training.

This kind of action is grassroots, it’s effective, and it’s needed. You see, by staying silent, apologizing for speaking up, or criticizing those who do, we’re falling into a waiting-for-Prince-Charming trap: the idea that someone else will come along and do the heavy lifting to rescue us.

But by fighting for ourselves, not being afraid to speak up, and using media to amplify our voices, we can do the rescuing ourselves—because progress doesn’t work the way of fairytales. Progress is a story we ourselves get to write. There are girls who aren’t waiting to write this story. They are taking action now, and it’s worth remembering on this International Day of the Girl that in some other countries, girls are risking their very lives to do so. Fourteen-year-old Malala Yousufzai, an activist for girls’ education in Pakistan, was shot and grievously injured by the Taliban for her courageous work. Malala is still fighting for her life in a hospital. But what is uplifting in this story—aside from the tremendous bravery of one girl—is the solidarity of her community. Men, women, and children condemned the hateful, cowardly action of her attacker. And this quote stuck with me, as I watched the nightly news last night—a girl from Malala’s hometown, saying something along the lines of, “For every girl they try to silence, there will be thousands of us angry and ready to speak up.”

Are we angry?
Yes we are.
Are we ready to speak up?
Yes we are.

Thank you.