By Maurice Carlos Ruffin
She had it coming.
She should have known her place.
Sometimes it seems as if women are simply guilty of the sin of womanhood i.e. not being men. Violence against women is on my mind. A few months ago, a man in Santa Barbara, California, went on a shooting spree. After he was shot to death by other men, a manifesto was found. In the manifesto, the shooter named women as the cause of his rage. Chicks didn’t like him. Since he was clearly born superior (i.e. not a woman) that meant they had to die.
Nearly 8,000 miles away in Gonda, India, two young women, Murti and Pushpa, were gang-raped, their bodies strewn from a mango tree like lanterns. Local officials were slow to investigate the crimes as many believed justice was served on the girls; the suspects took the girls lives in deference to the country’s “honour killing” tradition. If those girls were killed because they allowed themselves to be “deflowered,” their murders were not only justified, their murders were praiseworthy. It’s the price our gendered world market will bear for the mistake of falling prey to men behaving monstrously.
Meanwhile, 4,500 miles away down in Borno, Nigeria, hundreds of schoolgirls were kidnapped. Boko Haram, the group responsible for the abductions, apparently justified its actions this way: The girls were receiving an education. Educating girls is a sin because girls have but one purpose in this life—to serve men. We’ve put an end to the abomination of filling their minds with knowledge so that they can be married off to us, the men.
Closer to home, NFL star Ray Rice knocked his then-fiancee unconscious and dragged her body into a public lobby. Although there was video of this event, law enforcement, the NFL, and even the public shrugged its collective shoulders. It wasn’t until months later when another video emerged actually showing Rice’s attack that the NFL suspended the running back. Message: it’s okay to attack a woman as long as you’re gentleman enough to do it off camera. If the second, more explicit video had not come to light, Rice would still be playing ball.
The market for young, female bodies, including sex trafficking and prostitution, is by most measures rampant. Domestic abuse against women—like that committed by Rice—is common enough that if you sit between two women in an auditorium, there’s a good chance that one of the women to your left or right were physically abused by a man at some point. Or maybe you’re the one.
It makes me wonder where the anger comes from. Why are men so mad at people who aren’t men?
Following the California shooting, a hashtag campaign swept the internet. #YesAllWomen would encourage women to tell their own stories about the effects of misogyny on their lives. On one of my satirical Twitter accounts, I posted a comment as if I were POTUS answering questions at a press conference. I tweeted: “Yes. All women deserve our respect. Next question.” The tweet was generally well-received, but I was surprised at some of the responses. One stated, “let’s face it. Some truly don’t deserve [respect].” And another, “respect is earned not granted as a default.” Or my least favorite, “What if (as I know in one case) they destroy 2 marriages, and two bi relationships to get what they want and need?” It’s particularly disturbing to me that some of these comebacks were written by women, but for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the fellas. After all, talking smack is one thing. But the crimes mentioned above are just a tiny sampling of what’s happening all around the world as you, dear reader, peruse this post.
I don’t mean for this to be a blanket accusation against men since, according to my driver’s license, I’m XY-chromosome positive. However, I can’t help but notice that every time one of these cultural tsunamis wash ashore and people on either side of the debate poke their tongues out at each other there’s something missing: Group reflection and accountability among men. We have plenty of women saying that men suck. But where are the men of good conscience?
If it’s statistically true that men are doing the lion’s share of beating, raping, and killing of women (and quite often men, too), then shouldn’t men be a significant part of the chorus singing that we can do better? Simply saying that #NotAllMen (to quote the now notorious counter hashtag to #YesAllWomen) are vicious abusers is lame. Obviously, not all men go on spree killings or kidnap villages of schoolgirls. But doesn’t it fall on husbands, fathers, brothers, and boyfriends to interrogate our beliefs about women? Isn’t it our obligation to oppose the culture of misogyny on our own?
It’s easy enough for me to sit here and throw bombs at other men. I’m in no danger of losing my man-card and last I checked no one can lock me out of the Man Cave. Yet, I can only offer what I do when one of these terrible incidents occurs. I imagine the girls and women who have been violated are my sisters or aunts. Or better yet, I imagine they are me. Because perhaps at the center of endemic, violent misogyny is the thought that somehow women are “The Other” in the same way that undocumented workers, slaves (both historic and modern), Jews in WWII-era Europe, and any foreign soldier fighting against our military are The Other. It’s impossible to respect The Other because they are subhuman, shameful, and not worthy of humane consideration. For any male out there who metaphorically looks down on women, just remember that you had a fifty percent chance of being born female, too.
You just weren’t that lucky.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin is a graduate of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop and a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance and the Melanated Writers Collective. His work has appeared in Redivider, the Apalachee Review, and Unfathomable City: a New Orleans Atlas edited by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedecker. He is the winner of the 2014 Iowa Review Fiction Award and the 2014 William Faulkner Competition for Novel in Progress.
Filed under: Announcements, Contests, Fiction, News, Nonfiction, Opinion, Poetry, Starring Local Feminists
Like many people who love school (or have residual nightmares of it), for me, January 1st has never felt like the start of a new year. Rather it’s September, the time of backpacks and book buying, that signals a fresh start. Whether I’m a student, a teacher, or working in a non-academic job, the new school year signals a time for reflection. How do I want to be this year?
Now, as I begin my first autumn as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak, I wonder, too: what kind of feminist do I want to be? Initially, answers are easy. I want to be a strong feminist. I want to treat others—women who are and are not self-identifying feminists, men, myself—equally and with respect. I want to challenge the patriarchy and stand up for equality. I want to spread the message of feminism with both gentleness and strength, through words, actions, and my own thoughts. I believe that feminism, though often made up of individual choices, is also a communal paradigm, movement, and experience. As with empathy, generosity, and random acts of loving kindness, individual feminism—my feminism, your feminism—increases through being a shared experience. It can inspire others, make them think. That is what I want to do: I want to be a “good, strong feminist,” to inspire others to consider or adopt or increase their own feminist lives. I want So to Speak to do that.
But here’s the reality: all through high school, Septembers passed and I never stopped procrastinating on my Spanish homework. New Januaries turn to Februaries and I never get around to eating more kale. And I know that, most likely, October of this year will enter with its orange leaves and swollen pumpkins and I will still be struggling to be the kind of feminist that I want to be.
I’ve identified as a feminist for going on fifteen years, since high school. I can speak of Helene Cixous and Simone deBeauvoir; I support pro-choice causes; I feel comfortable with the notion that one can be feminist and be a stay-at-home mom, and also that one can be a feminist and burn her bra. The concept of what feminism is, and how open it can be, is not especially troubling to me. What is troubling is doing it: turning beliefs and intellectual knowledge into action and attitude.
I am a feminist, but the other day I still thought nastily that another woman shouldn’t wear her short-shorts because of her body type. I routinely make stereotypical assumptions about what men want women to be—agreeable, needless, pretty objects—which are disrespectful and condescending toward all genders. I catch myself thinking that my female gym instructor is bossy and annoying, while accepting a similarly tough male instructor as motivational. But I want to be better. I want to not have these thoughts, and the first step to not having them is acknowledging that I do.
My point is that being a feminist is a journey. It’s filled with obstacles and struggles. Feminism as a movement struggles, and individual feminists struggle within their own minds. We are all on a journey to be better feminists and better people. As a new (school) year starts, I realize that that’s what I really want to be: someone who takes steps on her journey.
That’s also what I want So to Speak to do. Stories of empowerment and success are always welcome, but so are stories of struggle. I invite you, readers and writers, to share with us your stories of setbacks in your feminist lives. Perhaps you’ve taken steps to overcome your problems. Perhaps you’re just acknowledging them for the first time and beginning your walk toward being the type of feminist, the type of person, that you want to be.
So to Speak is a feminist journal, which to me means that at its core it is a human journal. It is a place that celebrates humanity in its various forms—the beautiful and good, the ugly and difficult. I look forward to hearing your stories and engaging with your art, however it explores the complexities of life, and wherever you are on your own journey.
Our reading period is currently in full swing. Click here for submission guidelines for our blog, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry categories. And don’t forget to enter our Spring 2015 Nonfiction Contest!
Filed under: News, Opinion, Poetry, Politics, Post by: Paula B, Summer Online Issue, Uncategorized, Women's Health
As Americans we like to rage over the outrageousness of news like this summer’s case of a six-year-old in India who was raped by school staff–a security guard and a gym teacher–while on school grounds. It’s a safe kind of rage–much like pretending that longer hems and looser silhouettes protect us from sexual violence, we can huff and puff over treacherous things happening to poor, uneducated, usually dark-skinned folks in some “third” world nation unlucky in their lack of, well, America.
Yet, as a country, we’re still debating whether “no” really means “no.” Especially if the two individuals in question have a sexual history together; especially if she or he “technically” said ”yes” at some point during the act. Sadly, educated young people and university officials in campuses across the nations are apparently among the really confused still. In fact, this past May, the U.S. Dept. of Education named almost 60 schools which investigations of sex crimes had come under close scrutiny.
In California at least, the question of what consent is and isn’t could be cleared up once and for all as soon as September. The state’s senate has passed SB967 and if the governor signs off on it, college students will have to have true ”affirmative consent” before getting on with getting “some.”
“Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.” — SB967
Until then, I leave you with Laura Passin’s “In Stubenville,” published in our online issue this summer. (Haven’t seen our summer issue yet? Click here. Ready to submit your own feminist poetry, prose, or visual art? Click here.)
They peed on her. That’s how you know she’s dead,
because someone pissed on her.
—Michael Nodianos, laughing
The boys have been boys.
They’ve gone to boy jail.
The girl, they thought as good as dead.
You can do anything to the dead:
we only remember them when they are useful.
But the dead girl was not
dead—she was a girl
instead. To be a girl at a party in Ohio
is to be as good as dead.
The boys will be boys
until they are men.
The girls will be dead.
The girls are anatomical
you dissect the body, here is where
the flesh splits clean open.
Here is where the heart used to beat.
Here are the pearls that were her eyes.
The girl was dead.
The girl was a thing
that once, if you looked at it
from just the right angle,
may have been a person. Not a
boy. The girl was slung
and carried, hands and feet,
The girl woke up naked, shoeless,
in a basement. Surrounded.
The boys were shocked: they had held her
funeral. The boys had been boys.
The girl raised herself up, Lazarus,
She told us what it is like:
It is like being a girl
where boys are boys.
It is any basement,
In June, Slate ran a piece about country music’s “bro problem” and singer Miranda Lambert’s aim to take down “bro country,” a (not so recent, but recently more obtuse) trend in country music to objectify women, aggressively corner them in bars, and reduce them to tailgate-dancin’, truckbed-climbin’, flip-flop floozies in tight jeans and/or cut-offs (depending, I guess, on the season).
But these days it’s not Miranda who’s saving the day. Newcomers Maddie and Tae are the dark horses riding up to restore order to country music. The lyrics to their debut single “Girl in a Country Song” takes direct aim at the male megastars who’ve been bankrolling their musical success on the willingness of the prophetic “girl in a country song” to get drunk enough to go for a ride in some dude’s truck.
It’s a gutsy move to take on the likes of Luke Bryan, Chris Young, Thomas Rhett, and Florida-Georgia Line (who do not seem amused by the song at all). And it’s clear from the two women’s comments about the song that they are conscious of the tight-rope they’re walking, playing down the song’s feminism by rejecting that label (a problem I’ve written about before) and cutes-ing up their language with oh-my-goshes. But as the biting role-reversal scenes in the song’s video make clear, these two ladies are tired of the sexist, objectifying nonsense that has lately been dominating the country scene (“Conway and George Strait never did it this way,” they lament).
Calling out “bro country” in a song is a step in the right direction, but first we need to be clear about something: Country doesn’t just have a “bro” problem. It has a straight-up misogyny problem.
The first time I heard Tyler Farr’s song “Redneck Crazy” on the radio, I found it tasteless and uncouth. Then a disturbed young man went on a deadly misogynist rampage in Isla Vista, and now I change the station if it comes on. To summarize the song’s events: Girl dumps boy. Boy stalks girl at her home and taunts her new boyfriend (“I didn’t come here to start a fight / but I’m up for anything tonight”). Boy’s misery is girl’s fault, because, “you know you broke the wrong heart baby / and drove me redneck crazy.”
The similarities between the tragedy in Isla Vista and the song’s sense of entitlement to sex with a woman, and the violent response to not being able to have her, are too eerie. “I’m about to get my pissed off on,” Farr sings, and each verse just gets creepier from there. (In fairness, the song’s subject seems to want to attack both the woman he can’t have and her new man, singing “He won’t be getting any sleep tonight.” Which, in fairness, only makes the Isla Vista comparison even more frightening, given the majority of that day’s victims were men.)
There is a joke in the South about women who shoot their husbands: “She just snapped” is the punchline. I guess in this case, going “redneck crazy” is meant to be the male equivalent of that phenomenon. Yay, equality? The problem with both defenses is they shift blame for a violent crime onto the victim. Not a great fix, considering violence is never the answer and victim-blaming is never okay.
Country music has a long history of celebrating traditional gender roles, roles that progressive society has been moving away from but country music is slow to let go of. In defense of country music—and the women of country who are also topping the charts—it is trying to shift this norm so that women can be empowered, too. But because men in country music are stereotyped for their way of exerting power over women and other men through violence, violence is therefore the medium by which some women in country music, like Miranda Lambert, are trying to assert their own independence and strength.
I’ll be the first to admit that Miranda Lambert is my country music idol, but I also have to admit that many of her songs are uncomfortable examples of the violent female revenge fantasy. Her 2010 platinum hit “Gunpowder and Lead” is about a woman who gets tired of being beaten up by her man, so she shoots him:
He slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll
Don’t that sound like a real man
I’m gonna show him what little girls are made of
Gunpowder and lead
While I give this song credit for the important observation that a “real man” isn’t an abusive one, I’m not sure two wrongs make a right here. This song is from the album Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, an image that has become integral Lambert’s brand. Her latest hit “Somethin’ Bad,” a duet with Carrie Underwood, is yet another effort to assert female power by drinking as hard and being as bad as the baddest man in town. But is matching men drink for drink and punch for punch really the only avenue available for women who want to be taken seriously in country music?
Many responded to the Isla Vista shootings by pointing out that misogyny hurts men as well as women. This excellent graphic art captures how problematic it is to associate masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness. When it comes to taking a jab at a man, Lambert has some impressively emasculating zingers. In “Hurts to Think” she sings, “you’ll never be half the man your mama is,” a brilliant two-for that praises a woman’s strength by diminishing a man’s. But while lines like this might seem refreshing to female listeners who are tired of the same old weepy “I can’t live without a man” bit, we have to stop and admit that these sentiments aren’t helping anyone demonstrate strength. When we allow these destructive, misogynist sentiments to become part of the ether of our everyday lives, we encourage a culture that tolerates and perpetuates the cycle of violence between men and women.
I know some will argue these are “just songs,” or “just fantasies,” and therefore their content is not meant to be taken seriously. But it is a serious matter when everywhere you look in country music, you see men and women embracing attitudes toward each other that, well, just ain’t right. I’m picking on Farr and Lambert in particular, but they’re not alone. Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” cites a man’s inability to keep it in his pants as justification for property destruction, and frankly I have a hard time finding Scotty McCreery’s uninvited arrival at a woman’s home late at night to be as friendly as I’m sure he means it to be. The list goes on.
And yet: these songs come on the radio, and more often than I care to admit, I turn it up. It’s confusing to be a socially progressive woman with an addiction to country music. I’m just as guilty as anyone who ever declared “Blurred Lines” is a creepy tune while bopping along to it anyway. I don’t want to stop listening to country—for one thing, ignoring it isn’t going to make the industry’s misogyny problem go away. So I’ll keep listening, but I’m going to start talking, too, with my fellow country music fans about why these songs are not okay. Maybe if enough of us speak out, the artists I admire like Miranda Lambert will follow Maddie and Tae’s brave lead and find more empowering and less violent ways to make country music a better place for women and men to showcase their strengths and successes. Until then, I’ll keep struggling with the decision to turn it up, or turn it off.
Liz Egan earned her MFA in fiction from George Mason University in 2014, and served as Fiction Editor of So to Speak 2013-2014. Currently Liz is a co-editor of Gazing Grain Press, an inclusive feminist chapbook press that is a project of Fall for the Book and the George Mason MFA program. She lives near Jackson, Mississippi, where she teaches writing and works as Writing Center Coordinator at Millsaps College.
Filed under: Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Post By: Michele J, Uncategorized
Last fall, my sister sent me a link to a posting on a website called Imgur (pronounced Im-ih-ger). I don’t remember what the post she sent me was about, but I do remember how I felt I had found a sort of window into the internet. With a swipe to the left or to the right, I could explore all the “most-viral” images on the internet for that day, often accompanied by stories or shared experiences from various Imgur users themselves. Feeding off of the popular, user-generated website Reddit, Imgur focuses on community, with users voting through “upvotes” or “downvotes” what material makes it to the front page of the site.
What one will most commonly find on Imgur is pictures or videos of adorable animals, a funny (or not so funny) meme, a tutorial for how to make the best pepperoni calzones. One can browse the site without ever making a profile or username, and this is what I did for some time, visiting the website through its phone app when I had a spare moment in a waiting room or in line at a store.
I was in bed checking the site when I came across a post that has given me a sizeable amount of unease for the past several months. In it, a group of young women hold up hand-written signs declaring why they don’t need feminism. Their reasons range from, “because I believe in equality and not in entitlements and supremacy,” to “I respect men. I refuse to demonize them and blame them for my problems,” to “I am an adult who is capable of taking responsibility for my own actions.” One can see why I immediately created a username and began commenting on this post like my life depended on it.
What I most wanted to point out was that none of these young women seemed to have any idea of what feminism actually is. Somehow, the idea of equality for women has become tied up with these misconstrued notions about the domination of men, the rejection of personal responsibility, and a culture of victimhood. I can’t say how this transformation took place (it seems to have something to do with tumblr, which is another content-sharing, online community, but I can’t dive into that hole right now), but the fact that there are women out there who outright reject the title of feminist is appalling to me, especially when these women so clearly are feminists themselves.
Equality is the bottom line of feminism. You can respect men without also demonizing them (I do it all the time!). Of course you are a capable adult; you can thank the generations of women who fought against the infantilization of our sex for being able to publically declare such a thing. These young women, who took to a public forum to proclaim their independence, personal responsibility, and strength, are utter and complete products of the waves of feminism that have been crashing against American culture for the past 200 years.
The issue is, however, these women don’t know that. And, they shy away from the “feminist” or “feminism” terms. These words have become tarnished, covered in the muck of misandry and fanatical, misinformed rebuttals. I spoke about this in my last blog piece, where I mentioned how I had to combat these misconceptions amongst my own family members, but the problem with the young women on Imgur is even stranger to me, mostly because they are feminists. Reluctant as they may be to wear that badge proudly, it is still tacked onto their bodies somewhere, albeit under layers of ignorance and/or confusion.
This rejection of the feminist identity leads to an even more problematic aspect of this trend: the self-centeredness of it all. I can only conclude that each of these young women has led a life free of sexual harassment or of judgment based on how they look or on their sexual habits. That each of these young women has never had to worry about accessing an education or a driver’s license. That each of these women has never had her reproductive rights challenged or been trapped in an abusive relationship. How blessed these young women are, and how infuriating that they cannot see past their own life experiences into those of others who may not have been so lucky.
Beyond the problem of being unwilling to accept the feminist title, these young women are spreading the dangerous idea that women have reached equality in the US and in the wider world. What they are saying, by rejecting the mantle of feminism, is that there is no more work to be done. They are turning away from the gang rapes that happen with stunning frequency in India and elsewhere. They are looking past the millions of women who are unable, for any number of reasons, to make choices about their bodies and when or if they have a child (or how many). They are saying, “okay” to the overwhelming number of rape kits that escape DNA analysis. They are saying: If you are not me, or like me, you do not matter.
What is most important for these women to understand is that it doesn’t matter what you call yourself (though wearing the feminist badge like a crown would be a welcome fashion statement). What does matter is that, if they see the rights of other women (of other people!) being challenged, though theirs may not be, it is important for them to say something, to do something, to recognize the wrong where there is wrong and confront it.
There’s a fear that goes along with defining oneself as part of a certain cause with perceived expectations. We prefer to live as sketches, erasing and redrawing the lines of ourselves when we feel threatened or uncomfortable. But, I would argue that the young women on Imgur would have to do very little revising to find that they fit into a feminist way of life. And that’s all I wanted to say to them, and to our readers: Like it or not, you’re a feminist. Now, go out there and own it.
Michele K. Johnson graduated from George Mason University with her MFA in poetry in 2014. While pursuing her degree, she taught Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition at the university, and served as Editor in Chief of So to Speak. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in the Ampersand Review, the Ucity Review, OVS Magazine, THRUSH Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.