Dropping the F-Bomb

Amanda Shapiro, Resident Blogger (’15, Brooklyn Law School)

How many times has one of your friends started their sentence with “I’m not a feminist, but…”? If you answered “one,” that’s already too many. We [read: self-proclaimed feminists] hear the beginning of that sentence not just from our friends, but from celebrities, professors, acquaintances, and even blind dates. Sometimes, the qualifying “but” isn’t even thrown in; sometimes it’s the conclusory “I’m not a feminist.” A few weeks ago, a fellow female law student told me after class, “I would never call myself a feminist, but pregnancy discrimination has gotten out of control.” Does that mean feminism could finally warm its way into her heart if pregnancy discrimination hit absolute rock bottom? Now, to be fair, some people just refuse to ascribe any labels to themselves [read: hipsters]. But the most common “I am not a feminist” utterer isn’t someone who really doesn’t believe in feminism or hates labels, it’s someone who doesn’t want to be perceived as a feminist, or just does not understand it. I’ve been told “I can’t possibly be a feminist because I like pink and I like to get my nails done.” But when I pressed whether this person believed that there were social and cultural forces that prevented women from achieving equality on par with men, she answered with an unqualified “yes.” So what is it about the F-word that gives people the heebie-jeebies?

Embarassingly, I used to be a feminism-denier when I was an undergrad at Harvard. But there’s nothing quite like being surrounded by scary-rich young men of privilege to turn you into a practicing feminist. It didn’t help my anti-feminism either to learn that many of my friends had been survivors of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault; and apparently, it hasn’t gotten much better. Aside from the traditional, feminist groups on campus where I gained some much-needed perspective, there was also a growing coalition of conservative women. When one of these women (a board member of the campus republicans) was interviewed about her work, she proudly noted that she was a feminist. In response, one of her male, republican colleagues commented “that’s cute that she thinks that.” His comment gets at the source of the ire for the F-word: supposedly, it’s only reserved for certain women – women who don’t shave their armpits, who attend Lilith Fair, who go on diatribes about killing off the male race.

But the crux of feminism is that, as my Women and the Law professor reminds our class, there are many, many feminisms. They don’t all agree with each other. My feminism, for example, has been pulled in so many directions that it now feels like salt water taffy. But they all embrace the idea that something is wrong with the way our society treats women, and it needs fixing. If you can acknowledge that, then you are a feminist. And when you’re ready, I have an extra ticket to the Lilith Fair revival tour with your name on it.

The World is Round, People! Gender Inequity in Hollywood

Ruth Dawson, Resident Blogger (’12, Emory University School of Law)

“…And perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not.  Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.” – Cate Blanchett, accepting the Academy Award for Best Actress

Earlier this week, Cate Blanchett won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and used her bully pulpit to highlight the film industry’s implicit gender bias. Despite the highly problematic context around Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, the movie for which she won, Blanchett’s statement about women in film rings true at all levels of the entertainment industry.

Women actors, writers, directors, and producers alike face an uphill battle in this town.  This infographic from the New York Film Academy highlights some of the dismal statistics. Perhaps the most shocking number is the most basic: there is a 5:1 ratio of men to women working on films. Another is that the Forbes 2013 list of the ten highest paid actresses made a combined $181 M, compared to the $465 M made by the ten highest paid actors.  Yes, the men made over twice as much from their craft.  In 2014, I have to say this is fairly depressing. I live in Hollywood – in fact, the Academy Awards ceremony took place just a few blocks from my house. So though I am decidedly not in “the industry,” these numbers hit home. Gender justice is at the core of reproductive justice. Women (and other non-male-identified folks, though these numbers don’t reflect this nuance) must be able to work in their industry and support their families, free of systemic discrimination.

The good news is that engaging more women at all levels of the film process isn’t just good for gender equity – it’s increasingly good for business.  As Blanchett mentioned, movies with female protagonists or heroines are increasingly blockbusters.  We just have to get out there and see them.  Despite the uber liberal façade, Hollywood has a long way to go.

Getty Images & The Lean In Collection – There’s Room to Lean Further

Deodonne Bhattarai, Resident Blogger (’12, Northeastern University School of Law)

Last month Getty Images, in collaboration with Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org nonprofit foundation, launched over 2,500 new stock images aimed at depicting “female leadership in contemporary work and life”. As a collection, the images are a beautifully composed collage of picture perfect women, girls, families, and friendship. However, taken individually, some of the images may perpetuate a problematic oversimplification of what it takes for women to thrive in the corporate world.

A number of the images play with the work/life balance motif, showing thin, stylish women in contemporary work and home office settings.  In an interview with NPR, Getty’s Pamela Grossman discussed how these images were intended to present an updated and more dynamic vision of motherhood.

“The older model would be that … the mother looked incredibly harried, and she would be juggling a dinner plate in one hand and a baby in the other. Sometimes even more arms would be Photoshopped onto her to show just how indeed she was juggling it all.”  Grossman compared this outdated model of a multitasking mom with that depicted in the LeanIn Collection, “They really feel like they have contemporary style, and they’re engaged and energetic.”

Although the intent behind the collection is admirable, it is hard not to question whether this contemporary view of working mothers may be setting an unobtainable bar for those of us contemplating or trying to balance motherhood with a career.  In a country where income inequality continues to grow and women face a wage gap of $.77 to every dollar earned by a man, where most lack access to paid maternity leave, where the glass ceiling and maternal wall are still very much intact for women pursuing corporate leadership, and where female attorneys represent less than one-third of lawyers at law firms (a number that has actually been dropping for the past four years), the new Collection presents a picture that is hard to reconcile with the reality working mothers face.

Many of the images of working mothers show them sitting at their immaculate desks, working on their laptops while young children balance on their knee or sit serenely nearby. How do these women manage to keep their children from grabbing at the laptops, pouring coffee over the keyboards or pulling on their dangly earrings and perfectly coiffed hair?  Where are these women supposed to be?  Certainly not at work-I have no data on this but I bet there are more dog friendly offices in the U.S. than child friendly.  So are these mothers supposed to be representing the women who are fortunate enough to have a flexible working schedule that allows them to work from home? If so, they must be wealthy enough to afford housekeeping because their offices are immaculate with few or no toys in sight for their perfectly behaved children.

Although the collection does include women of various ethnic backgrounds and ages, it fails to move past the model thin and designer dressed. The idea of a more “contemporary” working mother is nice, but at the end of the day these are stock photos used to depict artificial scenarios in order to sell a product or service, or to communicate a point of view or sentiment..

To claim that the Collection serves a loftier dual purpose is an overreach and I question whether these images of the “contemporary” working mother are actually an improvement upon the traditional multi-armed multitasking mother. What woman can possibly live up to the unrealistic standards these images depict while trying to succeed in a world where working women continue to be discriminated against because they are mothers. The Collection’s embrace of the unrealistic while touting it as “empowering,” left me feeling just the opposite – how will I ever be able to obtain such a lifestyle while balancing my legal career with the needs of my family?

Women’s Mixed Martial Arts: Skilled fighting or glorifying distorted masculinity?

Mangala Kanayson, Resident Blogger (’15, Emory University School of Law)

While in procrastination mode during finals season last year I discovered the inspiring, impressive, and bloody world of women’s mixed martial arts. Women’s Mixed Martial Arts (WMMA) is unabashedly badass. These fighters are strong, skilled, determined, and occasionally terrifying -  as fighters should be. WMMA broke into the mainstream in 2013 after an uphill battle, and this year is more promising than last.

During the 2013 attempt to legalize MMA competitions in the state of New York, women’s groups and lawmakers denounced MMA as a sport that promoted violence and harms women who are victimized by glorification of distorted masculinity.” Women’s MMA involves the same testing of skill, of physical prowess, and presence of mind as men’s MMA does, but sometimes it seems like only the fighters have each others back. The inclusion and mainstreaming of WMMA could help challenge the perception that MMA glorifies a “distorted masculinity” by forcing a shift in rhetoric.

Like most women’s sports, media coverage and promotions of WMMA often relies on the sexualization of female athletes, pressuring them to “keep their hair long, wear make-up even on the court, and emphasize any relationships they have with men or children to “prove” they are straight” to avoid stigmatization.

For the most part, however, sexist incidents are both reported  and censured by fans. Articles that reflect blatant disrespect for female fighters are forcefully taken to task. Hopefully, the mainstreaming of WMMA will continue to shift the top-down rhetoric from “distorted masculinity” and heavy sexualization to a celebration of dedication, talent, and strength.

In the meantime, here are some WMMA-focused websites unlikely to offend your feminist sensibilities while keeping you up to date:






It’s a “Football Thing”

Melissa Torres-Montoya, Resident Blogger (’11, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)

When a prosecutor announced in early December that now 2013 Hiesman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston, would not be charged with rape, his attorney took to Huffngton Post and described Winston and other athletes as “targets” for rape accusations.  Specifically, attorney Tim Jansen said,

“If anybody that knows this young man – he’s poised, polite, he’s the nicest young man and I believe he was targeted. These athletes are targeted by these young women. And if they don’t get what they want, or they expect more, a lot of times you see in these, date rape things, maybe they’re embarrassed, maybe they regret it, maybe he didn’t call her, it’s not the first time I’ve had a case like this with an athlete.”

The best defense is a good offense.  And here, Jansen, attempts to create a narrative that obscures the more prevalent issues that our society faces with rape, binge drinking, and sports culture.  I am not contesting that false rape accusations may occur and that such false accusations are problematic because they diminish the credibility of rape victims, I am arguing that the bigger issue here is not that athletes are targeted but that far more rapes occur then are reported or prosecuted.  That the day the charges were dropped, the media blasted out his attorney’s response to this instance of rape as male athletes at large being “targeted,” loses sight of how only 40% of rape gets reported to law enforcement, only 37% of reported cases are prosecuted, and only 18% of these cases end in a conviction.  These statistics indicate that rather than there being an epidemic of targeting men with false accusations, instead perpetrators of rape are often unlikely to face legal consequences for their actions

Moreover, if we are discussing targeting, I would argue that on college campuses it’s more common that inebriated young women are targeted for sexual intercourse — consensual or otherwise.  The culture of binge drinking leads to situations where one or even both parties of a sexual encounter lacked agency creating a problematic murkiness regarding consent of the encounter.  This case is no exception, whether or not Winston is guilty or innocent of rape, it is clear that drinking was involved and clouded the perceptions of the events of the night by all involved.   Facts also point to some seriously troubling sexual norms for those athletes – Winston’s teammate described going in and out of the room where Winston was having sex with the accuser to also have sex with her, citing such behavior as a “football thing” because she was acting like a “groupie type.”

In short, rather than spotlighting comments about athletes being “targeted” by rape allegations because a girl didn’t get a call back, the media should be exploring how we have a long way to go as a society so that all victims of rape can come forward and report this crime and sparking conversations about how problematic binge drinking and sports culture perpetuates this very critical issue.

If I Were Ruth Bader Ginsburg…

Amanda Shapiro, Resident Blogger (’15, Brooklyn Law School)

Last week, I watched in horror as the Fifth Circuit approved a Texas law that will prevent one third of abortion providers from performing much-needed services. I had two thoughts: (1) I was reminded of the saying in Austin, TX, “The problem with Austin is that once you leave it, you’re in Texas;” and (2) if this gets appealed to SCOTUS (it did), and I were Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), what would I do? If I (RBG) don’t grant certiorari,Texan women will face almost insurmountable barriers to abortion access and let’s face it this is just the latest terrible attack on access to reproductive health services; but if I do, I risk making the Texas law a model move in the war-on-women playbook.

After pondering RBG’s thoughts, I began to think about the cultural climate that produced anti-abortion sentiments today. We have movies like Juno and Knocked Up (recall “shmashmortion”) that gloss over unplanned pregnancies, and that refuse to entertain abortion as an option. But remember the ‘70s? Abortion wasn’t a bad thing. Remember Fast Times at Ridgemont High? That movie had an excellent abortion scene. Stacy has a regretful sexual encounter, she gets pregnant, and the guy (Damone, ugh.) refuses to help her pay for the abortion. But she gets one, and there’s no uproar. The outrage is correctly directed at Damone (ugh.) for just sucking overall. Let me be clear, Fast Times—the movie that features oral sex on carrots, and Sean Penn as a greasy-haired, Hawaiian-shirted stoner—handles abortion better than most of the country today. I don’t know what I would do if I were RBG, but if I were Harvey Weinstein, I would be getting at least one of my leading ladies out of maternity clothes, and into the abortion clinic.

Enough with smooshing already! (Part 2)

Melissa Torres-Montoya, Resident Blogger (’11, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)

Earlier this week I wrote about the merits of the film Don Jon; it was entertaining and delivered a meaningful but not preachy social commentary. While Don Jon brings to light the struggle viewers of pornography face in determining its role in their journey to sexual individuality (or lack thereof), it’s important that we not forget about the real people upon which the pornography industry is based and the public health challenges they face.  The same month that Don Jon was released three performers in the pornography industry tested positive for HIV.  Despite federal workplace laws that should mean pornography actors wear condoms on set, condoms often are not used.  Actors have even expressed fear they would be out of work if they ask to use condoms on set.  The pornography industry has reacted to the most recent HIV-infections by stating they will conduct more frequent STD testing.  However, testing costs fall on the actors.

Regardless of your view on pornography or its role in your sexuality, it’s a lucrative industry that will continue to thrive.  The pornography industry must be pushed to implement workplace practices that protect their employees’ health, including requiring that actors wear condoms.   Learn more about the public health reasoning for advancing policies that safeguard the sexual health of these actors here.

Enough with smooshing already! (Part 1)

Melissa Torres-Montoya, Resident Blogger, (’11, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)

The term “smoosh” –slang for sex– was brought into the general public’s lexicon through that disaster of hit MTV reality show, Jersey Shore.  Sound silly? Possibly even degrading?  Well, then some would say it’s an apt reflection of the Jersey Shore casts’ outlook on sex.  Don Jon, a film written and directed by Joseph Gordon Levitt opened in theaters September 27 and seems at first glance to bring this “smooshing” culture to the big screen.

Similar to Jersey Shore, the film plays on ridiculing the absurdity of Jersey Shore culture, mostly though, the film provides social commentary in a poignant and delightfully entertaining way. The film explores themes of sexual individuality and sexual freedom.  Everyone enjoys sex differently and sexual freedom is a critical right we must, as a society, safeguard in order to pave the way for each individual to fully explore their sexuality. The movie seems to propose the question; can there be a point where our sexual freedom in fact hinders our sexual individuality?  Namely, does addiction to internet pornography stifle enjoyment and exploration of actual sex?  Gordon-Levitt’s movie suggests that it can.  Moreover, the depiction of sex in most pornogaphy might have a detrimental impact not only on sexual individuality but gender equity.  In Gordon-Levitt’s own words, “The message Don Jon is trying to bring to light—and make fun of—is reducing people, especially women, to nothing but sex objects.”   I appreciate this message.  And any film that tries to tackle gender equity usually gets my seal of approval.  I also love that it tries to remind its audience of a timeless observation; that sex is most importantly about connecting in a genuine and intimate way with another person. 

“Let them eat broccoli!”

Ruth Dawson, Resident Blogger (’12, Emory University School of Law)

October 1st is my birthday.  Usually, this means people being extra nice, fall flowers, and cake.  This year, it was also the day that the state health care exchanges opened for health insurance enrollment under the Affordable Care Act.  Ever since last summer’s landmark Supreme Court decision (if you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can read the decision HERE), I have been looking forward to this particularly special birthday present.  “Let them eat broccoli!” I say.

But as my birthday grew nearer, it became ever more apparent that some members of Congress were willing to do anything to prevent successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act – including shutting down the government for the first time in 17 years.

This debacle reminds me of a similar threat to bring the federal government to a grinding halt.  In the spring of 2011, the same usual suspects who are outraged at Obamacare had another bogeyman in Planned Parenthood.  Governor Mike Pence of Indiana (then Rep. Pence) introduced an amendment to the continuing budget resolution to defund the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and each of the 102 Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country.  The Pence amendment became a sticking point among the House, the Senate, and President Obama in budget negotiations.  In a late-night meeting between Speaker Boehner and the President, the Speaker reportedly asked the President to sacrifice Title X funds (those that go to family planning organizations, some of which also provide abortions) for a deal. This is when the President’s simple, resounding “Nope. Zero.” brought this conversation to a halt.  In the end, Title X didn’t take a harder hit than similar programs.

Imagining what this scene would have looked like with a president who was not a reproductive health advocate really hit home.  Similarly, I can imagine how this current fight would play out with a president who is not such a staunch general health advocate.  I am happy that President Obama hasn’t given in to the tired and asinine calls to gut the Affordable Care Act, but I wish that this year’s foolishness would have had as swift an ending as did the fight a couple years ago.

Brown Beauty

Mangala Kanayson, Resident Blogger (’15, Emory University School of Law)

By now you’ve probably seen the outcry in social media – first aghast and angry that a non-white woman somehow managed to win the Miss America beauty pageant and then indignant that our very own compatriots could be ignorant and hateful enough to express their displeasure at this by crying ‘terrorist’ at her.

Social media was replete with defenders of Nina Davuluri. Thanks to these fearless internet warriors we now know that Nina Davuluri – despite her skin color – is American. We’ve also learned that there exist clear and highly relevant distinctions between the terms ‘Indian,’ ‘Arab,’ and ‘terrorist.’ Thank you, Internet.

In this flood of criticism we’ve managed to avoid reflecting on what it means for a brown American of South Asian descent to have won Miss America. I mention her skin color because it matters to a generation of American-born Desis who encountered a deeply entrenched bias toward light skin perpetuated by the Indian media and often in our own families by well-meaning relatives who kept us from the sun (whom among us managed to escape an encounter with Fair & Lovely?).

Faced with this and the overwhelming whiteness of American beauty ideals, it is a small relief that Miss America 2014 has brown skin. Sure the Miss America pageant will continue to teach girls that how they look ultimately defines their success and self-worth, but Nina Davuluri’s sentiment was not completely lost when she said “I am thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America.”