Feminism and Halloween: Think Beyond Sexy Nurse

sexyhalloween-148x300Tis the season for an endless array of girls and women dressing up as “slutty” or “sexy” versions of animals, cartoon characters, historical characters, monsters or domestic staff. Yes, it’s Halloween. As if the spike in reported crimes weren’t enough to spook us, the way in which the holiday has become about exploiting women has us wishing for the good, old days of pillowcases cut up as makeshift ghosts. Various blogs are reporting the top costumes this year as Sexy Neytiri (blue gal from “Avatar”), Sexy Batgirl and Sexy Gangster. What’s remarkable about this is that the regular, non-sluttified versions of these characters are pretty empowering. Neytiri led a revolution to save her species; Batgirl broke through the super hero glass ceiling, and female gangsters… well, ok, maybe not that one, but a nice period-specific 1920s character from “Boardwalk Empire” would be both on-trend and appropriately covered-up.

Little girls have it worse: They want nothing more than to dress up as Lady Gaga, a princess or a fairy–and by the looks of selections at amazon.com and my local costume shop, the skirts of fairies and princesses have been getting shorter and shorter. Plus, how long are we going to encourage our girls to aspire to be nothing more than uber-glam damsels in distress while boys get to be firefighters, astronauts and super heroes?

Our Halloween Feminist Action Plan:

Parents: Don’t let your little girls go outside half-naked. It’s exploitative–and it’s cold! Of course there’s nothing wrong with a little girl wanting to be a girlie princess for Halloween, but put some leggings on her under that sheer tulle skirt. And skip the Jon Benet makeup. Wouldn’t it be better to teach her that princesses are naturally beautiful just as they are?

Adult Women: You. Are. Not. A. Teenager. Anymore. So stop dressing like you’re rebelling against your totally-lame parents. Show the world you read more than US Weekly and dress up as a creative creature, newsmaker or feminist icon. Get some inspiration from Take Back Halloween, an awesome site that offers feminist alternatives to Slutty Cow or Sexy Shark Attack Victim. And you’re getting a history refresher to boot!

Happy trick-or-treating!

Reasons to Read

Want to cozy up to a good book this fall and feel empowered doing it? Here, some of our favorite feminist-friendly new reads:

417FhPMiPNL._SL500_AA300_Geek Girls Unite: How Fangirls, Bookworms, Indie Chicks, and Other Misfits Are Taking Over the World, by Leslie Simon: This fun little lifestyle guide had us at that subtitle. And we’re all for any chance to celebrate Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Bjork, and Zooey Deschanel — all cited here as geek role models of our time. Why should guys soak up all the geek love?

The Girl with Three Legs, by Soraya Miré:Terrifying and inspiring, this memoir of a Somali girl’s life after female genital mutilation will remind you exactly why we need feminism now more than ever — and why we need to remember our sisters overseas in our activism.

A Home of Her Own, by Nancy R. Hiller: This gorgeous book full of coffeetable-worthy photos (by Kendall Reeves) of droolworthy homes also offers a great read: Each set of photos is accompanied by the story behind the homes’ transformations, all at the hands of skilled women. Hiller, as a premiere cabinetmaker herself, knows of what she speaks.

Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford, by Leslie Brody: Now out in paperback, this juicy biography tells the story of Mitford, a subversive who broke ties with her aristocratic British family by eloping with Winston Churchill’s son, then went on to become an activist in the United States throughout the ’40s and ’50s. You’ll be there as she campaigns for civil rights, becomes and investigative journalist, and even coins the term “frenemies” (but as a member of the American Communist Party during the Cold War, she wasn’t talking bitches who don’t like your taste in shoes).

Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, by Patricia Bowsorth. Actress, activist, fitness guru, unabashed sex symbol well into her seventies, Jane Fonda is the poster woman for feminist evolution. Bosworth’s biography captures the highs and lows of Fonda’s life–from her empowering success stories (war activist!  outspoken women’s rights crusader!) to a few feminist missteps (a co-dependent marriage and plastic surgery later in life, for which she atones). Above all else, Jane Fonda is an honest, outspoken badass of a woman who continues to be a role model to generations of women.

Sexy Feminists Read: Anna David’s ‘Falling for Me’

FallingforMe-pb-199x300In Anna David’s new memoir, Falling for Me, the author sets out to find the empowering side of being single by following the advice set forth in Helen Gurley Brown’s groundbreaking 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl. So should we be living more like women in the ’60s? We talked to David (whose book launch we’re sponsoring in New York City Oct. 10) about that — and why it’s still so hard to be single.

You recently ignited a bit of a blogger controversy by asserting in a post that “women had it better in the ’60s.” Do you really think women had it better then, hands down? Or just in certain ways?

Definitely just in certain ways. Which is what I said in the piece! But I get that when people want to pick a fight with you — or are, say, angered simply by the title of your piece — they don’t see words that might minimize their vitriol. My point was that I wish women would stop making statements about things that don’t matter. I love Gloria Steinem and am incredibly grateful for all that she’s done, but for her to go around making a stink about the Playboy Club TV show when everyone knew the show was terrible and wasn’t going to make any kind of cultural impact seems silly. Instead, I’d rather she talk about things that do matter and we can change, like how judgmental and cruel women can be to one another simply because we always see each other as competition.

How do you think the perception of single girls has changed over time? Or has it?

Well, contemporary society certainly didn’t invent the notion of a spinster or the idea of a single woman being lonely, damaged, or desperate. But when there were fewer opportunities for women, I think it was probably much easier to concentrate on finding and working on a good marriage. Yet our generation was told — or at least I was — that we had to have incredibly successful careers as well as successful marriages. And I know very few women who manage that but hundreds of men. Of course, we now also have millions of shows, blog posts, Op-Eds, Tumblr groups and what have you out there to perpetuate the idea that we should be able to have it all or that single women are pathetic. We put these cultural messages out there; I mean, if you think about The Real Housewives of New York, Bethenny was repeatedly called the “underdog” when she was single. Then she landed a husband and she’s the show’s great success story, off to her own series!

But I don’t really know why we have such a hard time making singlehood okay; maybe it’s threatening to a still patriarchal society that needs procreation in order to survive. Maybe it’s that no matter what we do, some women are always going to find fault with others for their choices.

How do you think we can change the way single women are perceived?

I think we can all work on being open to one another’s choices. And look, I’m as much a part of the problem as anyone because I judge the shit out of women who are perfectly capable of working but instead rely on their husbands entirely — especially when they try to make a big show out of their “work” when really it’s some dilettante-ish thing their husband is funding. And the truth is I judge them because I’m jealous, on a certain level. A part of me wants to have a man say, “Honey, don’t worry about the money. How about you try making that scrapbooking business idea a reality? You’ll have my full support.” Yet ever since I’ve become aware of the fact that my judgment is based on jealousy, I’ve been trying to curb it — by reminding myself that I don’t know what these women’s lives are like, that I don’t know what they’ve traded or had to swallow and that maybe it’s a lot more challenging than anything I do. And with awareness, couldn’t we all — even the Smug Marrieds — stop congratulating ourselves so much and in turn finding fault with the way other women are living?

Is it a failing of the feminist movement that we haven’t been able to move past this?

Yes, in a way I do see this as a failure of the feminist movement because it’s something we can change and we don’t need men to help us. And it’s about spreading positivity rather than negativity. I mean, I get that anger is often required in order to make a difference, but when certain women make the same arguments over and over again about how there aren’t enough women allowed in one field or another, I just don’t know how effective it is. Most people subconsciously tune out those who sound angry because they assume the people aren’t being rational — that’s a psychological fact. And sometimes those arguments fall into that category. Of course, what I’m talking about isn’t something you write an Op Ed or create a Tumblr group about and then hope men change but actual humble efforts of self-examination and trying to change ourselves, which is arguably the most challenging thing in the world.

What was the most important thing you learned from the journey you took in this book?

It was that I had to stop defining my life based on what the world seemed to think it should be. I love my parents but I was definitely raised by people who have very specific ideas about How Things Are Done and love was sort of doled out based on how “successful” you were. I spent years trying to please them and not succeeding and then very much took that attitude into the world; I was going to succeed at this life game if it was the last thing I did. But in growing up like that and then continuing to be that way, I’d neglected to really ever ask myself what did I want? What made mehappy? And really hitting an emotional bottom and then deciding to devote my life to the principles of a book from the ’60s forced me to get to a place where I could really start to question what I’d always valued and to build a life that involved more than just creating a bright, shiny career. Maybe it would have happened anyway — maybe this is just the place I’m at in my life — but I came to realize I could change those things I didn’t like and learn to really love what I did.

Can we ever balance our seemingly innate yearning for love with, well, all the other things we have to do in our lives — careers, friendships, and the general pursuit of fabulousness that seems to be required of modern womanhood?

It’s definitely possible. I think it takes a certain emotional maturity that I’m only now beginning to feel like I possess. But we have to make sacrifices and give up certain fantasies. The fact is, I know only two married women with incredibly successful careers and in both cases, the husband essentially agreed to remain entirely subordinate — to either give up his career entirely or to just do it more as a hobby. I think a lot of Type A women want a Type A man but most of the Type A men seem to want yes-women. This idea a lot of women have about having it all — the big life, the great career, the successful husband, the group of friends, the fabulousness — is, I think, a fantasy. And somehow doing my book taught me that that’s okay, that it’s not about doing or having it all but being happy with what you have.

What’s the biggest problem with the way we approach sex today versus the Sex and the Single Girl days?

I think we’re as confused about sexual mores as we’ve ever been. Back in Helen’s day, girls either slept around or didn’t and most didn’t. But we were raised at a post-women’s revolution time, where we were told that liberated women could do whatever they wanted. And yet we were raised by women who’d come of age during Helen’s time so that message, to me anyway, always came out contorted or conflicted. Just because we have the Pill and the freedom to do whatever we want sexually, that doesn’t mean we’re always going to feel great about it. I’ve felt ashamed or like I did too much or like I shouldn’t have done something after many sexual experiences and I think many women feel an intrinsic level of shame when they have sex outside of a committed relationship. The fact is, sex is still, on some level, something women give and men take and we act like it’s not — like we’re liberated and everyone’s in the same boat. We’re not. And in many ways I think it was healthier when female sexuality was regarded as more of a gift — when it wasn’t so easily accessible. Until the day that a man could be called a slut and it would be viewed as something other than a compliment — a day I don’t really foresee coming — I believe the way we view and approach sex will be screwed up. I also think that while sex is everywhere — porn stars like Jenna Jameson and Sacha Grey have broken out into the mainstream, Kardashian-wear is sweeping the nation — our society is still so repressed. We’ll worship these sort of déclassé examples of female sexuality but won’t have open, honest communication about sex. And then everyone’s so shocked when wealthy golf players and politicians are embroiled in sex scandals. I actually have one section of my book that’s sexually very graphic and a few months ago, I panicked: called my editor and asked if we could take those six pages out. It was too late as it turned out, but my sudden shame wasn’t about me — I’d written the pages, after all, not to mention had the experiences I documented — but about how other people would judge me. And I think that if we as a society were as open and honest about sex as I wish we were, I wouldn’t have been so scared of that.

SF Talking Points: Bye-Bye to the Playboy Bunnies, F— You to Anti-Gay Presidential Candidates

Amber-Heard-NBCs-Playboy-Club-249x300NBC’s Playboy Club Becomes First Cancellation of the Season: The Peacock Network’s troubled drama has gotten the ax after just three weeks on the air — and probably more controversy than it even warranted. While the show was no feminist prize — the on-screen Hugh Hefner informed us in the premiere that his Bunnies were among the “few women who were allowed to be themselves” in the ’60s, which, just, no — it was also a pretty tame depiction of the Chicago club that helped kick off the sexual revolution. And yet the trusty Parents Television Council still fed the thing extra publicity by strenuously objecting. Luckily, none of this could make enough viewers tune in to TV’s most boring show about sex and murder.

Presidential Hopeful Herman Cain Defends Anti-Gay Stance: Adding to the chorus of distressing ideas promulgated by the Republican Presidential race (yay, executions? boo, HPV vaccines?), Cain told the ladies of The View this week that he’d bring back Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and that he sees homosexuality as a choice. He even challenged the panelists to “show me the science” that gayness isn’t biologically determined. Psst, Herman: As ThinkProgress.org pointed out, you can start by checking with the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Let us know if you need more.

Rethinking Pretty Woman: We’re loving this recurring Bitch magazine feature re-examining media portrayals of sex work — seeing the sex workers as people, and the stereotypes as glamorizing and ludicrous.

More Great Melissa McCarthy News: Our favorite Gilmore Girls actress (oh, yeah, and scene-stealer of Bridesmaids, and Emmy-winner for Mike and Molly, and awesome Saturday Night Livehost) is now working on a plus-size clothing line.“Trying to find stuff that’s still fashion-forward in my size is damn near impossible,” she said. “It’s either for like a 98-year-old woman or a 14-year-old hooker, and there is nothing in the middle.” Yes, she’s hilarious even when she’s designing dresses.

5 Feminist Shows to Watch This Fall

This fall’s crop of new network TV shows certainly has the ladies in mind — from sitcoms to crime dramas to 1960s-set dramas (thanks for that, Mad Men!), every network seems to have turned into Television for Women. But just because a series has female main characters doesn’t make it feminist; yes, that means you, Playboy Club and Charlie’s Angels. Here, our seasonal picks for the most female-friendly shows on the dial:

screen-rant-reviews-ABCs-pan-am-300x1571. Pan Am (ABC): What Playboy Club botches, this drama about stewardesses in 1963 gets right. The show gives us a look at one of the few ways women then could use their feminine wiles to buy themselves some real freedom — by taking to the newly friendly skies. But it also doesn’t deny the sexism inherent in the process — Pan Am girls had to be beautiful, could be grounded for not wearing their girdles, endured weigh-ins, and had to quit at 32 or when they got married. Also a plus: It’s good, soapy fun, with affairs, broken engagements, and even undercover-spy flight attendants!

2. Grey’s Anatomy (ABC): Sorry, we still can’t help ourselves, even eight seasons in. That could be because this show continues to mature with us, already tackling abortion in the very first episode this season — even using the A-word right on screen and showing Sandra Oh’s ambitious Cristina Yang going in for the procedure, both rarities in primetime. Extra points for a continuing successful lesbian marriage and subtle wrestling with mommy-versus-work issues.

3. 2 Broke Girls (CBS): The pilot episode had the titular waitresses fighting over a guy, but only briefly before sardonic hipster Max (the illustrious Kat Dennings) realized it was her grungy boyfriend, not new coworker Caroline (Beth Behrs, making rich and blond totally likeable), who was to blame. From that point on, the two opposites form an unlikely alliance that has us thinking about the most sacred of female TV pairings, Mary and Rhoda.

4. Prime Suspect (NBC): Nothing can compete with the original, British Suspect — who doesn’t want to watch Helen Mirren solve crimes? But this gritty crime series takes on workplace sexism as well as the politics and brutality of the police world in a way that sets it apart from standard catch-the-bad-guys-in-an-hour procedural shows. Kudos to lead Maria Bello, too, for stepping up in Mirren’s role. That’s no easy feat.

5. Up All Night (NBC): This fresh take on the family-com had us swooning over its cast before it even aired: Will Arnett, Christina Applegate, and Maya Rudolf? We think we had a (very good) dream like that once. The reality, for once, is even better: Arnett and Applegate are hilariously perfect as a hard-partying couple now facing new parenthood and Rudolph is just as great as ever as Applegate’s talk-show-host boss. But even more exciting are the subtle messages underneath the comedy, with Applegate taking on the primary breadwinner role in the house, Arnett functioning as a stay-at-home dad with little fanfare, and Rudolph representing for all the baby-phobic ladies out there. That’s right, we’re allowed to be as non-maternal as we want to; even to the point where we think a wallet is a good gift for a baby.

Why We Need Female Spiritual Leaders

spiritual-female1I spent the last two weeks meditating for several hours a day, maintaining silence, and chanting a hell of a lot — such is the drill at my Zen temple’s annual summer retreat. It’s 24/7 spiritual development on hyperspeed, thanks to the lack of chatter, the lack of internet and smartphone use, and the endless amounts of time spent staring at a wall to center oneself in the moment. And yet, nothing provoked more thought in me during this particular year’s retreat than two of the tiniest details that have all but escaped me in the past: an occasional chant we do in which we name the female Buddhist leaders of the past (what we call the “Matriarchs’ Lineage”) and a throwaway line in one of our daily services in which the Zen student leading the chant dedicates its merits (we’re very big on dedicating merits) to “the women and men” at the nearby U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

These two little, mundane liturgical occurrences couldn’t help but make me think, this time, of Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois and the chruch’s recent threats to excommunicate him because of he’s been agitating for the ordination of women. The reason our group, the Manhattan-based Village Zendo, made these two tiny changes in our services years ago, of our own accord, was because we were founded by, and are still led by, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara and Sensei Barbara Joshin O’Hara, both women. Of our top tier of four senior teachers, two are women. None of this is a coincidence; it’s exactly why female leadership is needed in any organization, because women see the ingrained inequalities and right them intuitively. The Matriarch’s Lineage was a Village Zendo creation, and took quite a bit of meticulous research to get correct — but our female leadership knew it was worth the effort. It’s not always men’s faults that they don’t see such slights as the fact that many chanted lineages are completely male, and that women have surely contributed to the building of many religions, whether or not their contributions were recorded as meticulously as men’s. That aside, just hearing “women” before “men” in the bit about West Point always warms my feminist heart a little — what a Zen miracle! Not only do we count, but we can come first sometimes!

Of course, having female spiritual leadership goes beyond these superficial — if welcome — liturgical niceties. Much of our retreat time includes one-on-one guidance from teachers, and this year, three of my four individual talks were with women. Debates over female ordination tempt one to mention women’s allegedly inherent nurturing qualities and the saintliness often ascribed to femininity, but I don’t believe in any of that. (Roshi, for one, is very warm and welcoming, but also quite no-nonsense and practical — qualities that attracted me to her in the first place.) For me, talking with these women who are guiding my spiritual development simply gives me a much-needed feeling that I, too, can aspire to be as enlightened as they are. Will I be? That’s a far off time. But it’s a little easier for me to imagine — and when you want to genuinely, truly practice a religion, you need to feel that some level of wisdom is attainable, is, in fact, available to you. You can’t feel like even your very own congregation, or synagogue, or temple, or mosque, or whatever your spiritual group of choice may be, doesn’t think you’re quite worthy of its wisdom (or of imparting it to others).

I also happen to be fortunate enough to have yet another strong female spiritual leader in my life, an old friend who used to be my fellow newspaper reporter and now is an ordained Episcopalian minister. Nobody in the world gives more grounded, sane, spiritually-based-but-not-necessarily-denominational advice than this lady. I never call her unless I have a few hours available to fill with new insights, soulful debates, and the kind of perspective that only comes from having a true calling. If the world had been deprived of her brilliance, commitment, and faith because she’d happened to be Catholic, we’d be the poorer for it. There are likely thousands of Catholic versions of her out there right now who could give the church, quite frankly, a rather overdue new image. When scandals and controversy erupt, particularly of a sexual nature, it’s beyond necessary to have female leadership on hand to lend a balanced perspective.

But church politics aside, it’s well past time for girls to grow up seeing women in robes up there on the altar, creating a matriarchal lineage to equal the far-too-patriarchal one. And it’s time for all of us to support leaders like Father Bourgeois, who follow their truest of callings, even in the face of a wrathful church patriarchy.

Feminist or Not?: ‘Teen Mom’

456x3301MTV’s Teen Mom — and the show from which it evolved, 16 and Pregnant — have taken their share of blame for everything from “glamorizing” teen pregnancy (with some critics even claiming girls were getting themselves knocked up now just to be on TV) to standing by as the young mothers have abused their mates and neglected their offspring. The latter criticism is more valid than the former — we have watched as Amber punched baby daddy Gary and as Farrah let her baby fall off a bed — though producers say they’re there to make a documentary, not to interfere with the girls’ lives. But as the subjects’ lives have also become tabloid targets, questions about whether there’s really some societal good to be gleaned from what some see as an exploitative show have become both murkier and more persistent.

With the show back this week for the third season featuring original cast members Amber, Caitlynn, Farrah, and Maci, two things seem clear: These girls’ lives are more complicated than ever — and for all the series’ imperfections, it does still do a spectacular job of highlighting the massive inequalities between what young mothers face versus young fathers. Particularly for Farrah and Maci — who no longer have their kids’ dads around, for very different reasons — life is one feminist lesson after another. Farrah, who lost her boyfriend in a car accident, has been trying to make her way in the world and provide for little Sophia, but the girl can’t catch a break. She’s patched things up with her mom, who served community-service time for hitting her during a heated argument last season, but she’s still, it seems, relatively broke. (The network and the girls are mum on how or whether they’re compensated for the show, but it doesn’t seem like much given what we see.) Farrah’s trying to go to culinary school while waitressing; the stunning girl has also decided to take up modeling, which could be more lucrative, though she’s decided she needs a boob job for that. Alas, after a string of rejected loan applications to pay for the surgery, one bank approved her during last night’s season finale — which kind-of bummed me out, even though I’m rooting for the poor thing. Maci, meanwhile, can’t get her ex to pay his share of child support, but she’s still stuck trying to keep the peace between him and her new beau for the sake of her son. Plus, of course, she can’t move too far away to be with her boyfriend — because she has to share custody with her ex.

Even Amber and Caitlynn, whose baby daddies are sticking with them — or trying to — are stuck with perpetual guilt: Amber for clearly not getting along (to say the least) with the father of her child, and Caitlynn for giving her baby up for adoption (a fact her mom won’t let her live down). Via Amber’s storyline last night, we also got a lesson in domestic violence as she and Gary went to a counselor, who told her that if she gets physical in front of her daughter, that little girl is more likely to become a victim of domestic violence when she grows up. That’s an important feminist message regardless of which gender is the perpetrator.

Is the show good for the girls starring in it? It’s hard to make an argument that it is. But as far as showing the realities of young motherhood, in all their stark grittiness, it sure beats Juno and The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

‘Bridesmaids’ Feminist Milestone

The new movie proves women are not only funny, but viable in a notoriously sexist industry. Here’s one feminist’s review:

bridesmaidsYou know what I think is the most radical thing about the movie ‘Bridesmaids’? That we know the names of the writers. (Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, if you somehow missed it.) That they are female writers is a cool bonus. As a writer, and a person who tends to think of herself as an individual who happens to be a woman, the fact that the writers of the screenplay are being talked about and lauded is a big deal.

As for the feminist debate surrounding the film, the state of affairs for women in the movie business must be really rough going (duh) if this movie doing well is causing this kind of fuss. It’s frightening, but if bigotry in Hollywood runs as deep as it appears, I’m not sure one hit flick is going to cause a sea change

Of course, I am rooting for whatever it takes for things to shift if a major way. In the meantime, I vote for seeing the movie because it’s entertaining. The acting is good. The writing is on point. In an early scene between best friends Annie and Lillian in which they are eating breakfast and discussing their love lives, I thought: Yes. They got it! They got what it means to have a best friend.

Also nice: The actors come off as real people; they don’t carry the star personas that interfere with you seeing them as believable in their roles (you know how, when you see a Jennifer Aniston movie all you can see is Jennifer Aniston?)

Oh, and on the whole bathroom humor issue. Of my female friends, I might be the only one who can’t stomach bodily function gags. Diarrhea makes me squirm. I don’t care if it’s a dude in “Dumb and Dumber” or ladies in haute couture. Judd Apatow said those scenes were more about the shame of bringing everyone out for cheap eats because that’s all you can afford. That, I get. I still think it was unnecessary, but my friend Carol, who chose the movie on the grounds that it could provide us with 90 or so minutes of uninterrupted Reese’s Pieces eating and pure escapism from the grind of our very full, but sometimes exhausting lives, thought it was a highlight.  — Joslyn Cassano

More “Bridesmaids” Fodder:

The New York Times interview with Apatow (um, why are they interviewing him and not Kristin Wiig for this movie?)
Alternet’s take.
Maureen Dowd takes it on.