Author Archives: Tamara Winfrey Harris

SBF Shout-out: The Feminist New Crew

This Is What A Feminist Looks Like buttonAs brilliant friend of SBF, Sofia Quintero, said recently, “The face of feminism is far more diverse than the same names and faces that keep getting traction.”

True dat.

We are constantly amazed at the smart and creative feminist thinking, writing, and activism happening–online and offline, in classrooms and nonprofits, on blogs and in self-published books–all around us. And we are disheartened that many of the most insightful people we know are neither name-checked nor used as sources for analysis often enough. There are so many perspectives beyond those of the lions of second-wave feminism and the handful of third-wave feminists whose voices are amplified.

So, we decided to compile a list of feminists we love–voices that you really should know.

Now we tried to stick to brilliant folk who don’t get lots of shine for their work, so you won’t see names like Melissa Harris-Perry, because, come on, everybody already knows she’s great! But we did list a few people we are sure are on the cusp of the kind of mainstream recognition they deserve. (Janet Mock, we are looking at you!) Also, included in this list are some folks who emphatically do not embrace the label “feminist” for valid and understandable reasons, but who are still fighting the good fight on behalf of gender equality and against an oppression that is intersectional.

Also, we are fully prepared to wake up tonight in a panic, remembering someone we left off the list. We apologize in advance. Feel free to suggest more names in the comments. And look for this list to evolve.

Now, here it is, in no particular order, Squeezed Between Feminisms list of the Feminist New School:

Tressie McMillan Cottom

TF Charlton

Janet Mock

Dr. Yaba Blay

Carolyn Edgar

Maegan La Mala Ortiz

Lindsey Yoo

Aiesha Turman

Aishah Shahidah Simmons

The Feminist Wire crew

The Crunk Feminist Collective

Sikivu Hutchinson

David J. Leonard

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Geographic Scapegoating: It’s Not The Place That’s The Problem

Courtesy of Miakosamuio on Flickr

Courtesy of Miakosamuio on Flickr

When I told one friend of mine that my family and I would be moving from Chicago to the Indianapolis area, she asked worriedly, “Will you be safe there?” She, a liberal, white woman, was certain that a black family moving to the heart of a red state would be greeted by open hostility or worse. Her comment betrayed a flaw in the way society often thinks about issues of inequality, relying on geographic scapegoats to avoid addressing widespread, systemic “isms”.

In the United States, the so-called “flyover states” serve as regional boogeymen for a host of social justice issues. The South and the Midwest are the places that denizens of the coasts can smugly identify as the source of all the country’s racism, homophobia, sexism and transphobia. And while it is true that some places have unique histories of injustice and hostility toward marginalized peoples. It is also true that America as a whole has a unique history of injustice and hostility toward marginalized people–no city or burgh within our borders is immune.

In the case of my worried friend, her cartoonish idea of conservative Midwesterners, chasing black families with sticks and torches to the soundtrack of a cackling Rush Limbaugh, allowed her personal racism to go unchecked. More broadly, a national focus on the imagined rampant and open bigotry of geographic scapegoats allows real inequality, especially the less overt kind, to fester both in the flyover states and everywhere else.

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An Ode to Grown and Sexy Music

Customarily, we publish something a little heavier on a Monday morning. But this weekend, I stumbled on to an Anita Baker Spotify radio station that slayed me and gave me life again. It made me yearn for the 80s/90s era of R&B music, “quiet storm” radio, Crown Royal on ice, Southside Chicago lounges, smooth jazz–grown folks doing grown folks things. It was a time and genre that, but for Luther Vandross (RIP), black women owned. And it was the last gasp of seduction, before hip hop’s form of aggressive masculinity completely changed the game of love.

 

Anita Baker, “Body and Soul”

 

Stephanie Mills, “I Feel Good All Over”/”Feel the Fire”

 

Sade, “Smooth Operator”

 

Patti LaBelle, “Love, Need and Want You”

 

Toni Braxton, “Love Shoulda Brought You Home”

 

Whitney Houston, “Exhale”

The Disturbing Sexist Ageism of American Horror Story

It is hard to choose just one thing that is problematic about FX’s American Horror Story. It is the guiltiest of pleasures. The first two seasons of the mini-series were captivating, cringe-inducing, camp celebrations of the art of horror storytelling, complete with cribbed soundtracks from films like The Exorcist and featuring an immensely talented cast: Denis O’Hare, Zachary Quinto, and Jessica Lange(!), gnawing scenery like starved theater mice. American Horror Story also heavily exploited racism, sexism, violence against women, sexual violence, homophobia and ableism.

The show’s latest incarnation, American Horror Story: Coven, is no different. It is set in a secret New Orleans school for young witches, run by a headmistress who wants to help her charges harness their powers for good, in opposition to her more powerful nemesis (and mother), who just wants to wreck shit. It’s like X-Men with Spanish moss, crawfish, and three of Hollywood’s best actresses who no longer get roles because they are older than the internet. In addition to Lange, the show includes Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett in key roles.

Perhaps you are expecting, since the history of witch hunts in America is intertwined with the history of women’s oppression or since Coven showrunners clearly recognize the value of three great under-used actresses of a certain age, that this season of American Horror Story would present a tale about women that is less reductive and trite than the usual. You might think, like a person in the clip above, that it would celebrate women.

You clearly don’t know Ryan Murphy (showrunner; see also: Glee and Nip/Tuck).

What would make an all-powerful witch dig up the zombified body of a 19th-century serial killer? What would make a wealthy woman set up an attic torture chamber to perform horrific experiments and concoct a special pancreas-based elixir? If said witch or woman is of middle age, then it must be a desire for the sweet beauty and desirability of youth. American Horror Story: Coven offers up the all-too-typical message that a young woman is always more desirable than an older one and that the saddest and most disturbed of hags can’t deal with the fact that their looks and sexual currency are necessarily fading.

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The Squeezed Between Feminisms Dialogue: How We Got Here, Where We’re Going, And Benedict Cumberbatch

The following conversation appears this week on The Feminist Wire. Here, Andrea and I discuss why we launched this website.

women of color drawing

Tami: You had to work Benedict Cumberbatch in here, didn’t you? I’m beginning to think you’re secretly a bigger fan than I am! I’m no stranger to Andrea shenanigans. We’ve known each other, what, five or six years?

Andrea: Sis, I know Cumberbatch is your catnip, so I knew I could get you here.

As far as knowing each other, I think so. I remember so loving your old blog, What Tami Said, where I committed a few shenanigans in the comments section. But I think that where we realized that we were both born and reared in the Midwest, that we looooved Duran Duran, and that we watched Hee Haw (word to Porter Wagoner, Minnie Pearl, and Dolly Parton).

Tami: And, of course, like all good things, Carmen (Van Kerckhove) Sognonvi is behind our really cyber-meeting. We were both contributors and, eventually, editors at Racialicious. I’m still there, of course, working with Latoya Peterson. I was a huge fan of your work as a Sexual Correspondent there. And we both spent some time writing for Change.org’s short-lived site focused on race.

Andrea: And as quiet as it’s kept, you and I didn’t meet in person until this past Spring. Yes, shenanigans ensued.

We actually thought about starting a blog together about a year ago, but I guess we weren’t at the point where we were ready to do it.

Tami: Two weeks ago, we did it. We launched Squeezed Between Feminisms (SBF). What motivated us is that we both realized our relationship with online feminism is changing as we grow older. You did some research, and it hit us that we probably weren’t alone. A lot of Gen X women are online, which makes sense as the web was emerging as a communications tool as we were coming of age. Still, we both agree that the presence of women our age is not reflected in the content of most popular feminist websites.

Can you explain how you feel online feminism meets or doesn’t meet your needs a black, 40-something woman?

Feminists of a Certain Age

Andrea: I feel like what I’ve seen online really speaks to the concerns and interests of 20-something and 30-something feminists. This makes demographic sense, as stats can support.

But feminism is older than that; at 44, I’m older than that. I remember when, say, bell hooks’ book, Ain’t I A Woman, arrived on the feminist scene. I remember when Making Face, Making Soul first came to my women’s studies classes. I remember the National Women’s Studies Association fallout. But I also remember the seismic shift from Second Wave to Third Wave feminism, not as contested canon, but as a lived contested event. As much as I love talking with and learning from my younger feminist homies, I also wanted a space where I could talk all of those things as lived experience, not just as something learned in college. I wanted a place to talk about the “Porn Wars” and its effect and how the Riot Grrls weren’t the only way to be a feminists–in fact, the Riot Grrls weren’t relevant to me. Lisa Jones was.

Tami: I agree, Andrea. As Gen Xers–and Gen Xers of color–we bring a different context to feminism, but because we are outnumbered, that contribution is often erased.

I have learned a lot from online feminism, but lately I have felt squeezed out of the conversation. Society has long rendered women over 40 invisible. Feminism shouldn’t do that. But I find that spaces like The Feminist Wire, which digs into race and gender and sexuality and class through a feminist lens and speaks across generations, are rare indeed. Jane Pratt is 50, but even her XOJane preferences the voices of 20-somethings. If Lena Dunham and Zooey Deschanel are the pop culture centers of online feminist conversation, then I think a whole lot of people, including me, aren’t getting their needs addressed.

For instance, I want to talk about reproductive health care and that includes birth control and abortion, but I also want to talk about perimenopause and sexual health post-35.

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MILFs, Perimenopause, And Silence: Forever Young, Forever Fertile

*Editor’s Note: This post is part of SBF’s first weekly series, “MILFs, Perimenopause, and Silence,” about how media do–and don’t–talk about people, specifically female-identified folks, in our 40s and 50s in terms of sexual and reproductive health.]

Salma Hayek, who is  47.

Salma Hayek, who is 47.

It used to be that reaching middle age meant being viewed as disposable and irrelevant–especially for cisgender women. But 40 isn’t what it used to be. Even the big 5-0 has an appeal it didn’t just two decades ago, when Molly Shannon’s character, Sally O’Malley, drew laughs on Saturday Night Live for being so damned exuberant about being active and an “old”. But no one is laughing at 44-year-old Jennifer Aniston, 47-year-old, Halle Berry, 47-year-old Salma Hayek, or 55-year-old Angela Bassett. They are viewed as attractive and vibrant women. If not young, at least not old. In fact, in a recent Harris Poll, Americans said they would rather live in good health at 50 than any other age.

Thank the Baby Boomers, who once didn’t trust anyone over 30, we can all be younger longer. But there is a trade off for holding on to our youth: silence about the changes human bodies–even the still acceptably firm and sexy ones–go through with age. Based on celebrity culture, for cisgender women (because the myth excludes other female-identified people) that means maintaining the illusion of fertility.

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Searching for Cicely: The Blanding of Hollywood Beauty

In the narrative surrounding the Emmys on Sunday, Kerry Washington was cast as a modern-day Diahann Carroll. But all the talk about the history of African American women in television, sparked a question in my mind: Who is the modern equivalent of Cicely Tyson, the dark brown-skinned, naturally coiffed sister who earned nine Primetime Emmy nominations and three wins? Is there room for such a woman–a black woman whose appearance defiantly contradicts the prevailing beauty standard?

My apologies to fans of Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Gosling, but I swear I can’t tell those two actors apart. Andrea can attest that I refer to them as “the random Ryans.” To me, the pair are illustrative of a modern bland and homogenous entertainment beauty aesthetic.

When I was a little girl the 70s, Hollywood favored gritty realism. Studios intentionally cast actors as disparate in their physicality as Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino and Robert Redford; Barbra Streisand and Ali McGraw and Tyson. No one blinked at a show like All in the Family, starring two middle-aged leads, or its spin-off, The Jeffersons, whose female lead, Isabel Sanford, was more than two decades older than her TV partner, Sherman Hemsley.

But the age when actors like Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason could serve as headliners in films seems to be long gone, replaced by a narrower expectation of appearance–all hairless, bronzed and white-toothed. A Tom Cruise versus a Kris Kristofferson. If female, lithe and blonde and young–always the appearance of young, even for women who truly are in middle-age. Can you imagine a modern actress of any age volunteering to play aging and washed-up, as 42-year-old Bette Davis did in All About Eve? And if the way into the Hollywood spotlight has diminished, you can be damned sure that women of color will be left out in the cold.

If hyper-mainstream prettiness is paramount when casting, then where does that leave Black, Latina, Asian and Native women, who still struggle to recognized as attractive within the confines of the eurocentric beauty standards? Kerry Washington is beautiful and talented, but what of beautiful and talented black and brown women whose appearances don’t fit so neatly into the ideal–who aren’t young and petite and honey brown with long, silky hair. Would America still be shipping “Olitz” if Washington possessed a different look? If she were browner or nappier or closer in age to Tony Goldwyn, who is 53? (Some particularly odious Scandal fans and Olitz ‘shippers already shade Goldwyn’s real-life wife, Jane Musky, an accomplished production designer and art director, for looking her nearly 60 years. The logic goes that such a handsome man could never be truly in love with an older woman–even one who has stood by his side for 26 years. He must certainly be nursing a “thing” for the younger, more conventionally pretty, Kerry Washington.)

Viola Davis said last year: “I’m a 46-year-old black woman who really doesn’t look like Halle Berry, and Halle Berry is having a hard time.” When I look at the actresses who are cast and feted as up-and-comers, I don’t see many Marsha Masons, but I see even fewer Violas or Cicely Tysons or Esther Rolles or Isabel Sanfords.

The same can be said, incidentally, of a different sort of artistry–fashion. Forty years after American models of color turned out Paris, as part of a 1973  benefit to restore Versailles, one of those models, Bethann Hardison, has to lead a charge against designers who only want their supermodels super white.

Had Kerry Washington snagged an Emmy on Sunday night, she would have been the first African American woman to take home an award for lead actress in a drama–and for a role that positions her as one-half of an interracial couple, including the POTUS, no less. I suppose this is progress. But I can’t help thinking that in 2013, despite gains, Hollywood is an even more hostile place for women of tremendous talent, who would have once been celebrated.