Friday, 2 March 2018

The CSSR research unit adds its support to the SheDecides movement


The SheDecides movement emerged as a response to the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule (GGR) – a US policy which has devastating effects for the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls across the globe. The GGR (also known as the Mexico City Policy) was first introduced in 1984 under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. In January 2017, an expanded version was signed by President Donald Trump. Importantly, this latest version of the GGR applies to all global health funds provided by the US government (where previous versions were concerned with family planning funds). In effect, the GGR ensures that non-US organisations providing information, referrals for abortion, safe abortion services, and engaging in activism to improve abortion legislation, are banned from receiving US funds. Moreover, the latest version prevents organisations from using their own or other people’s funds for these same purposes

The detrimental effects of previous versions of the Global Gag Rule have been well documented including: prevention of access to contraception and safe abortions (for both women and girls) even in cases where rights of access are legally secured; hindered HIV prevention efforts, health clinics being forced into closure; obstructed access to health within rural communities; and the silencing of those who wish to speak out against laws that prevent women and girls from accessing safe and effective health care. The damaging impact the latest version of the GGR will also be considerable. In effect, organisations will be forced to choose between receiving funds from the US government (the largest funder of sexual and reproductive health programmes) and providing a full range of vital sexual and reproductive health programmes and services.

Initiated by the Dutch Minister, Lilianne Ploumen, SheDecides asserts that women of all ages should be able to safely exercise their right to decide what to do with their bodies. SheDecides unites those who believe that all women should have access to sexual and reproductive education and information, modern contraception, and safe abortion services, and should be able to pursue healthy, pleasurable sexual lives – free from judgement, stigma, coercion, and harm.  On 2 March 2017, the first SheDecides conference was held in Brussels. More than 50 governments attended the conference, along with 450 participants including youth leaders, parliamentarians, representatives from UN agencies, NGOs, private foundations, and the private sector. This gathering enabled global leaders to raise their voices in support of the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls, and pledge their commitment to the protection, provision, promotion, and enhancement of these rights.

One year later, various individuals and organisations from across the globe will mobilise on SheDecides Day (2 March 2018) in support of the principles of the SheDecides movement. Adding our support to this movement, the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction (CSSR) research unit will be hosting a panel discussion that will examine the impact of this policy within the South African context. In particular, discussion will explore the impact of the GGR for individual women, and civil society organizations working in the fields of sexuality, reproduction, and human rights in South Africa. Panellists will include Siviwe Mhlana (NALSU), Dumisa Sofika (CSSR), and Yanela Ndabula (CSSR). Discussion will be chaired by Catriona Macleod. We hope that activists, leaders, and supporters from the UCKAR and Grahamstown community will join us in this global day of action for the SheDecides movement, and encourage others to stand up, speak out, and take action to challenge those forces that would deny women and girls the right to make decisions that are theirs, and theirs alone.

This article was written for and originally published on the CSSR website and is accessible at

Posted by Sarah-Ann Moore
CSSR Masters Student 

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Feminisms and Social Media: An introduction to the Special Issue

Abigail Locke, Rebecca Lawthom & Antonia Lyons

This special issue comes at an important time in herstory (‘history’ for women) when a renewed vitality around women and feminisms is evident in many places around the world. There is a real impetus for change in women’s framings (and their acceptance) of gender based expectations. 

Feminism was the most looked up word in Merriam Webster’s online dictionary in 2017, marking a large increase on previous years. This is likely to be linked to a number of high profile events occurring almost simultaneously across parts of the globe, including widespread reporting of sexual harassment and assault, the #MeToo campaign, and collective responses to current ruling political ideologies (particularly in the US).   

In the UK (where the Special issue idea originated on International Women’s Day 2015), we celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave some women in the UK over 30 the right to vote and paved the way for universal suffrage. Since then the right to be heard has monumentally shifted.  We now live in a time where individual and collective voices ring out in global virtual environments, across a proliferation of diverse social media platforms. This Special Issue arose from discussions around a number of key instances where women speaking out over social media were trolled in attempts to silence them, and led to questions about the broader context of feminisms and social media. We are thrilled that the papers published in this special issue highlight the diversity of feminist engagements that are evident across social media as well as the diversity of the people engaging, and the implications of these activities.

Since the inception of the Special Issue, there has been a groundswell of social media activity around a variety of topics including the #MeToo hashtag. This is a movement with a global audience, where initially celebrities shared stories of abuse using social media, and built a sense of solidarity which was then taken up by many users, celebrity and non-celebrity alike. Whilst both recognising the damage and identifying the problem, the movement has not been without critics. Proponents point to the inclusivity of the movement and the way in which it encourages voices to be heard. For critics, it re-inscribes the work of naming back onto women and queries the validity of unfettered and unchecked naming and shaming of perpetrators (see @MeTooCenter for a sense of the argument). The sheer momentum of this movement, its possibility to engage and the varied responses to it typifies the difficulties and nuances of social media. 

Social media can be a tool for enhancing literacy, a force for change and a platform for violence and trolling. This Special Issue contains examples of all of these competing and contradictory aspects of social media, setting them against a backdrop of feminist scholarship and activism, drawing on articles from different locations around the world. The issue contributes to a wider dialogue of feminisms and social media occurring across many disciplinary spaces that we look forward to watching develop further.

The authors are the editors of the Special Issue of Feminism and Psychology on Feminisms and Social Media available here:

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Shattering The Culture of Silence

Raise your hand if you are a victim of some kind of sexual assault, if you have had to mentally police your clothing, your actions, your location, and your company because of the unending fear of assault. Keep your hand raised if in many instances you’ve chosen to look the other way, to pretend that you didn’t hear the lewd comment or didn’t feel the hand that lingered too long. It is not lost on me that many of you reading this will find your hands raised.

In 2018 more than ever, womyn are taking back their power, loudly and proudly. Everywhere you turn, there seems to be some sort of radical feminist approach to issues. People are learning, womyn are refusing to cower and demanding that they be treated like full human beings. Things are so different, and yet, in many ways, still the same.

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles we are yet to overcome is the culture of silence, particularly in relation to sexual assault and harassment. While we are still basking in the light of the #MeToo movement and the trickle down effect that has rekindled the righteous outrage in most of our hearts, the reality is still different for many. While it looks like speaking out about harassment is breaking the Internet, we are yet to fully begin to unwrap the different silences that surrounds this topic, especially when it comes to having honest conversations about womyn’s personal experiences. Countless womyn sit with different traumas inflicted onto them by those that they have loved, by those that we know, by those protected and deemed untouchable by the legal and societal institutions that have made seeking for justice not an option. More than ever before, we must embrace the radicalness that is dedicated to shuttering the norms that have caused so many of us to sit in silence and shame with our pain, while watching our systems and our people protect our abusers.

The truth is that the rot is deeper than has been exposed on social media. One of the biggest tools that has allowed patriarchy and its gatekeepers to flourish as long as they have is the socialization and conditioning that surrounds the oppressed on what they can and can not speak about. And so now, that we can begin to visualize what I would like to imagine is a full feminist takeover, we must begin the hard work of exploring the channel of communication that is cut off by the desire to protect reputations more than we do victims, hold onto family names more than we hold onto children’s innocence, speak in hushed tones and not risk rocking the boat. Why is it that we shame victims of assault more than the vile assaulters? Of course the answers to all these are rooted in patriarchy and perhaps the biggest feminist revolutionary act of all, is rejecting the culture of silence and embracing the loudness of truth.

It is the deafening silence that makes for the prevalent culture of rape and everyday sexism. It is the same silence that has been imposed on survivors through the normalization of assault catalyzed by our cultures, legal systems and reactions. It is the same silence that forces womyn to deal with assault through whisper networks and hushed warnings to each other instead of loudly confronting their abusers. And so we must all begin to reflect on our role as enablers of abuse both actively and passively. Realizing that your silence has played a huge role in turning the wheel of sexual assault for centuries, and that choosing to look the other way, is not any better. Only by owing up to the roles we have all played can we begin to unpack the casual sexism around us, question the problematic-ness of bro-codes, religious and cultural institutions and the idea that “keeping the peace” is more important than truth and justice. All these shield and perpetuate rape culture and must therefore be dismantled if we intend to create a world in which womyn can participate as equals.

This article was written for and originally published on the AfricanFeminism (AF) blog and can be accessed at

Posted by ttwasiima

Sunday, 29 October 2017

We must stop making these mistakes about health & body positivity

In a recent article for Odyssey, Vianka Cotton re-made tons of common mistakes that happen when people try to talk about body positivity and health. It’s no surprise that the article got plenty of traction since fatphobia and healthism are practically national pastimes. There is certainly no shortage of articles like this. But the prevalence of oppression doesn’t make it right, so let’s talk about this.

  • “The body positivity movement founded in 1996, has been one of the best movements to help women. The movement encourages women to accept their bodies while improving health and well-being. The movement, growing in popularity, has become an anthem to the plus-sized community.”

The author’s grasp of the history of the body positive movement is embarrassingly poor. The movement has been going on since well before 1996. It is a co-option of the much more militant Fat Rights movement that started in earnest in the 1960s with groups like The Fat Underground. (For some history lessons, check out Charlotte Cooper’s amazing work.) This piece is offensive in its ignorance of the past and its assertions about body positivity necessarily being about “improving health,” but I definitely appreciate the acknowledgment that fat women (and, indeed, people of all sizes) are sexy and can wear whatever the hell they want. Let’s move on:

  • “People have killed to be thin. Bigger women are embracing their bodies, wearing whatever they want. These attitudes are challenging the traditional standard of beauty. What had started out as radical love for one’s body has been diluted and reduced to shallowness adopting negative attitudes towards exercise. As a fitness advocate, the body positivity movement isn’t fighting for health or equality, it is fighting for the crown of attractiveness.”

People have killed to be thin? How does that work? No, wait, don’t tell me lest others die needlessly. Also, while people are certainly allowed to love their bodies and have negative attitudes towards exercise, I have often been called a leader in this movement and I’ve never heard that considered one of the tenets.

Maybe what she meant to say was that people have died to be thin, and fat people have been killed by the diet industry and a medical system that confuses thinness with health. It’s a whole system that is far too often willing to risk the lives (and quality of life) of fat people in the hopes that they can make us look different.

That happens every day and it is precisely why body positivity must be removed from the idea of the obligation to “health” or “healthy behaviors” that she is suggesting.

  • “What is the end message? Shouldn’t self-love correlate to health? Where is the line between body confidence and obesity? “

I’m glad she asked. Self-love should be completely separate from health — health is not an obligation, a barometer of worthiness, entirely within our control, or guaranteed under any circumstances.

Health is a complicated and multi-faceted concept, and it can change at any time. That’s why it’s important that we have the chance to love and appreciate our bodies regardless of health status. (Understand too that the concept of body positivity can be made vastly more complicated by things like chronic illness because of healthism, as well other marginalized identities because of racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and more.) People of all sizes and health statuses have every right to love and appreciate our bodies, and photograph them in any, or few, or no clothes, and post them to Instagram for whatever our reasons might be.

There is no line between body confidence and obesity because they aren’t related — except that living in a fatphobic culture like the one this article attempts to perpetuate makes it more difficult for fat people to have body confidence. Body confidence is how we feel about our bodies. “Obesity” is the end result of a math equation, wherein weight in pounds times 703 divided by height in inches squared is greater than or equal to 30. I’m “class three Super Obese” or, as I like to call it, fat AF, and I have tremendous body confidence. There is no line, nor should there be.

Since she asked, the end message is that other people’s health is not your business. If people care about your opinions regarding their health or habits, I’m sure they’ll let you know. Suggesting that there is some weight at which we are no longer allowed to love our bodies is fat-shaming and oppressive. Suggesting that you should have to achieve some level of “health” to love yourself is healthist and oppressive.

  • “Normalizing obesity is a problem! Are advocates of this movement in denial? Are they too focused on people’s opinions? The messages we are sending to young women and girls are radical. The pressure to be thin has been replaced with it is okay to be obese. Neither one is correct. When can healthy be sexy? When will we normalize health?”

Size-based oppression is a problem, healthism is a problem (including the idea of making “healthy” by any definition “sexy” or suggesting that people who don’t meet her definition of health are not “normal”), not understanding the difference between correlation and causation is a problem, a world where her piece gets published is a problem.

Normalizing obesity is not a problem.

We are not in denial, we are in empowerment. We are done being lectured at by any “fitness enthusiast” who can type out an article. As I’ve written before, the only outcome of such a culture is that fat people aren’t allowed to do anything with our lives except try to lose weight, and that’s unacceptable. Not just because almost nobody loses weight long term, but because people shouldn’t be required to look a certain way or have a certain level of health as a prerequisite to live our lives and pursue our dreams.
If you see a fat person being happy, achieving something, being talented in public or on television and that makes you uncomfortable/angry/disgusted etc., then you know that you are dealing with size bigotry. If you believe that your feelings of discomfort/anger/disgust are due to this person’s health status, then you know that you are dealing with size bigotry as well as healthism. Regardless, this is your problem.
Her final paragraph comes so close to getting it, but then falls off a cliff.
  • “What I would like to see is the body positive movement be accessible to everyone having a struggle. Diversify the movent to include women of color, men, burned victims, trans women. After all, the goal is intersectionality. I want to see full-figured women wearing bikinis in commercials playing sports. I want to see big women on BuzzFeed being active and eating healthy. I want to see clothing stores have clothes for those who are awkward and in between small and plus-sized. Can we normalize health please! I want to see positive body positive images. Our bodies are strong and healthy. The message is you can achieve confidence while striving for your health.”
I am absolutely behind the fact that we need to do better when it comes to intersectionality. Body Positivity inherited the issues that the Fat Rights movement always had including a lack of inclusion and representation of People of Color, Trans folks, disabled people/people with disabilities, and other intersectional identities. I want to see clothing stores that carry clothes for everyone, including those above a size 26.
The solution to that is to make the movement more inclusive, for each of us to understand our privilege, and relative privilege, and use it to dismantle systems of oppression and demean inclusion.
The solution is not to engage in rampant healthism. The solution is not to suggest that if fat people want to be seen in public, we must be performing health to someone else’s satisfaction. Many people’s bodies are not “strong and healthy” for lots of reasons, and that’s absolutely normal. Using body positivity to marginalize people as this article attempts to do — whether it’s fat people, “unhealthy” people, or anyone else, is a load of bullshit that I will not abide.
It is absolutely OK to be whatever size you are, including hella fat. It is absolutely fine to not be “healthy” or “strong” by whatever definition.
Body positivity/body confidence/loving our bodies is not a requirement, but it is always an option and nobody — “fitness enthusiasts” or otherwise — can take it from us.

This article originally appeared on and can be accessed at

Posted by:
Ragen Chastain
Speaker, Writer, Activist

Monday, 21 August 2017

#MenAreTrash: What is this movement really about?

To be a woman in this country is to constantly live in fear. Women can’t stay out too late or take moonlight meanders because their gender makes them prey. There are ravenous beasts out there who lurk in various spaces, threatening a woman’s very existence. In the club, in homes, on the streets, on campuses, in taxis, EVERYWHERE – women are not safe” – Blaque Life Quarterly (BLQ)

The #MenAreTrash movement in South Africa began last year when a number of women took to social media to call out the problematic behaviour of men with regard to the emotional and physical abuse they had been experiencing in their relationships. During this time, the hashtag did not gain the public’s attention as it recently did following the brutal murder of Karabo Mokoena, the rape and murder of 3-year old Courtney Pieters as well as many other women and children. After the above incidences, many women began sharing their stories recounting details of their lived experiences on various social media platforms. A thread of tweets shared by a woman about how she was kidnapped by a man who threatened to rape and kill her if she “did anything stupid”, followed by how she jumped out of his car, injured herself badly and had to get up and run was also widely shared. Others shared posts of missing women followed by #MenAreTrash while at other times, the hashtag was used as a response to a tweet or any post that was inappropriate towards women. The movement however has been met with contrasting views from different individuals in society.

Below, I discuss the #MenAreTrash movement in an attempt to make clear what the aim of the movement is. A common response to #MenAreTrash is that not all men are trash. That is, not all men burn, rape, or murder women and children. Let’s put this on hold for now.

#MenAreTrash is not about singling out individual men nor is it about specific men. The movement does not aim to avenge harmful relationships and it isn’t even about the bitterness of women even though it started as a response to numerous crimes against women and children and with women telling stories about abuse by intimate partners and strangers. If a person understands the movement in this way, they do not understand the anger, fear, and pain South African women and women globally experience on a daily basis. This movement is not one to be interpreted at surface level. #MenAreTrash does not only apply to men who abuse and kill women and children but also applies to those men who cat-call women and are complicit when it comes to the injustices women experience in the workplace, men who listen to stories of woe about the female lived experience but still do nothing about it because “It’s not my problem, it wasn’t me so, I did nothing”. The hashtag is about how men as a group or collective have created a world that is unsafe for women to live in. It aims to highlight the fact that being a man comes with privileges that women don’t have. It takes the debate about masculinity including what it means to be a man beyond the ideal constructed masculine identity as it urges men to take a hard look at themselves and evaluate their behaviour towards women. It gives credence to the fact that as women, we understand that the world is not built for us, that unlike men, in order to create our realities we constantly have to push and break barriers and boundaries because we are not recognised. #MenAreTrash creates awareness about the issues society takes for granted which perpetuate patriarchy.

As more and more women continued to tell terrifying stories and sharing their experiences and as more and more women and children went missing, a new hashtag – #NotAllMenAreTrash in response to #MenAreTrash started doing the rounds. #NotAllMenAreTrash was endorsed by both men and women. In response to Karabo’s murder, some shared in the victim-blaming arguing that in their personal lives they do not attract trash because their boyfriends, brothers, and husbands were not trash further arguing that women who believe that men are trash need to “reprogram their minds”. Some went as far as saying that Karabo’s murder occurred because she did not want to leave her abusive boyfriend because of his money (Khoza, 2017). Some men felt that #MenAreTrash was unfair to those men who have not done anything to hurt or harm women and was therefore a bad generalisation, thus necessitating #NotAllMenAreTrash.
Here’s what #NotAllMenAreTrash really means.  When this hashtag is brought up, what it does is silence women. It allows its supporters (both men and women) but specifically men to tell women that they do not know what they are talking about and should keep quiet because the way they behave and act is a performance of their privilege. By saying that not all men are trash, men are defending themselves, they are not held accountable nor taking responsibility for their actions. As a result, it will take some time for men to take their place in the fight against gender-based violence. If it is said that #NotAllMenAreTrash, why is it that not all men have the courage to speak up when their male friends are mistreating a girl/woman, when they see another man slip something into a woman's drink and just accept it as being “one of the boys”, or when a girl/woman who is drunk and ends up being taken advantage of is told just to keep quiet because “she was asking for it”? When #NotAllMenAreTrash is brought up, it allows men to continue performing socially acceptable toxic masculinity without consequence. Further, when a person argues that they do not attract trash because they have a great boyfriend, brother, or husband (whether this may or may not be true), the very real patterns of abuse, rape, femicide, and toxic masculinity that the #MenAreTrash movement aims to expose are obscured. It undermines the aim of the movement further diverting attention away from the oppressors to the oppressed.
The discussion about the #MenAreTrash movement is still to continue. In summing up this discussion, I want to say the following: In the society we live in, being a woman has become a very terrifying experience. Every day I am more paranoid than I was the previous day. I leave home hoping that what happened to many other women and children out there will not happen to me or anyone else. Many men do not know what it is like to feel powerless because of one’s gender especially in a society that allows men to exercise their power over women with little or no real consequence. Men do not have to be rapists or abusers to be called trash because most of the time men ignore their friends when they call a girl a wh*** and ignore their other friends who spike a girl’s drink. This is where trash starts – when men do not show each other the way. #NotAllMenAreTrash makes things worse as it perpetuates existing ignorance with regard to the issues women are vulnerable to. My response to this hashtag is that it does not matter if not all men are trash because there is no way of telling. The #MenAreTrash movement is not an attack on men. What the movement aims to do is address the patriarchal privilege that men have enjoyed since the beginning of time. It is a call for action and a cry from women who are asking for their freedom. We are not asking men to protect us but to respect us enough to treat us like human beings, not as objects for their amusement or pleasure. As the movement continues to gain momentum there will be people who support the movement and people who will get touched and become defensive. This is okay because the immediate shock and discomfort that comes with this movement is exactly what is necessary if we are going to have honest conversations about how to address gender-based violence in society. In the meantime, I, like many other women out there will continue to live in fear.

This article was written for and originally posted on the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction (CSSR) blog. The link to it can be found here

Posted by
Sibongile Matebese
*Artwork by Ellen Heydenrych

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Moonlight, black boy, and teachable moments

The boys walk through the school quad playing the dozens, verbally slamming another boy in absentia for being a weak “f—g” who can’t be trusted.  It’s part of the “accepted” ritual of masculine schoolyard talk, a violent dance of bonding and ostracism that every queer and cisgender boy must navigate; one that is powerfully dissected in Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning film Moonlight.  For conscious educators who mentor and teach black boys, Moonlight’s searing evocation of the tender, ambivalent arc of black male attraction from elementary to adulthood was a welcome antidote to caricatures of hip hop hypermasculinity.  As educators attempt to safeguard students from the latest criminalizing wave of Trumpist homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism, Moonlight offers teachable moments for a humanist, culturally responsive education that centers black queer lives.

At a recent teacher training I conducted on creating safe spaces for LGBTQI high school students, a teacher asked why it was necessary to “call attention” to issues of sexuality and difference when LGBTQI students were already marginalized?  Shouldn’t educators just treat everyone with the same dignity and respect “regardless” of sexual orientation? Educational justice activists have long argued that the colorblind ethos of classroom instruction disingenuously ignores how the values and mores of the dominant culture indoctrinate us into binary norms.  In her book Other People’s Children, educational justice writer Lisa Delpit  argues that mainstream classrooms are structured around an implicit “culture of power” which disenfranchises students of color.  Consequently, a “treat everyone with dignity and respect” approach that isn’t based on a critical consciousness about how the dominant culture works undermines intersectional identities.  In the classroom, everyday assumptions about interpersonal and romantic relationships “invisibilize” queer students.   Classroom discussions about traditional straight families headed by heterosexual parents and caregivers perpetuate the idea that good, normal family units are straight family units.  Assumptions that everyone has been brought up in a conventional family structure based on a universal nuclear family norm that is uncritically faith-based, brand queer, foster, homeless and secular youth as other.

Moonlight breaks down these assumptions in often conflicting ways.  Though the film’s protagonist Chiron lives with his drug-addicted mother he’s mentored and “fathered” by an older black man, played by Mahershala Ali, who accepts him as gay.  His loving surrogate family supports him in ways that his brittle, largely absent mother cannot.  Ali’s delicately shaded character becomes Chiron’s first crush and compass, while the women in his life are reduced to caregivers or scolds.  Although its depictions of black women play into stereotypical binaries of black womanhood, Moonlight succeeds in foregrounding how black queer youth are often criminalized when they attempt to express themselves and/or defend against bullying and harassment.  The film’s evocative rendering of black male relationships encourages discussions about the ways in which black boys are socialized to fit into the so-called “Man Box”.  These limitations require them to act hard, emotion-less and aggressive in order to avoid being singled out as different.

During a recent Women’s Leadership Project student workshop on rape culture and sexual violence featuring activist, filmmaker and TFW editor Aishah Shahidah Simmons, young men of color at King-Drew Magnet High School in South L.A. talked about how they’re forced to conform to these roles or risk ostracism, ridicule or violence.  In Moonlight, Chiron is goaded into fighting his campus tormentor because of a menacing environment in which he’s constantly taunted and harassed about being gay/effeminate.  This is a familiar scenario in K-12 schools where a climate of fear and intimidation among boys (across race/ethnicity and class) is virtually institutionalized, embodied in sports culture and the often perilous ecosystem of the campus quad.  Yet, traditional anti-bullying training which fixates on “dignity and respect” ignores the way strict messaging about gender non-conformity shapes the behavior and identities of youth.  Writing about a scene in Richard Wright’s Black Boy, in which Wright kills a kitten in order to best his emotionally unavailable father, students from my South Los Angeles-based Young Male Scholars’ program commented that the dominant

culture’s failure to show loving representations of black fatherhood plays a strong role in the sometimes aggressive relationships they have with each other.  In Black Boy, Wright learns violent masculinity navigating Jim Crow society, black patriarchy and his family’s “spare the rod, spoil the child” religiosity.  His relationships with other boys are largely adversarial, based on boasts, one-upping and his peers’ intimidation by his intellectual curiosity.  Early on, Wright’s father becomes the negative role model he inadvertently ends up emulating in his struggle for daily survival. Though Wright was straight, his childhood trajectory as a poor, skeptical outcast forced to fend for himself and “become a man” within the context of unrelenting violence, is similar to the young Chiron’s.  Faced with constant slights and attacks, Wright closes himself off emotionally from the world. Similarly, Chiron withdraws from all but a few of his peers, and his muteness becomes a metaphor for society’s failure to see or hear him.  Yet, Moonlight’s concluding scene between Chiron and his nemesis/soulmate gestures toward healing and reconciliation.  Overall, the film’s timely exploration of trauma, tenderness and caring between men is an antidote to the heterosexist swagger of the Trump administration.  Re-visioning relationships between boys and men and countering the violence of homophobic, transphobic and heterosexist trauma is central to fighting sexism and misogyny.  K-12 educators have a signal role to play in shaping classroom practice, school culture and curricula that takes up this charge, and supports the intersectional lives our youth live.

Cross-posted with permission from The Feminist Wire where this post originally appeared.

Posted by Sikivu Hutchinson
Contributor for The Feminist Wire
Feminist Author/Novelist
Twitter: @sikivuhutch

Protesting against "peak" masculinity

Wanda Sykes, casually sipping the straw of a fountain soda, saunters up to a group of young boys seated in a fast food restaurant and confronts them about the language they’re using to criticize what they have deemed an unbecoming little statue.

“That’s so gay.”
“That’s really gay!”
“Dude, look at those pants.”
–“Please don’t say that.”
–“Don’t say that something is gay, when you mean that something is dumb or stupid. It’s insulting.”

The trio of teens are taken aback by Sykes and stunned into silence by the time she concludes: “When you say that’s so gay, do you realize what you say? Knock it off.” I first saw this ad last week while indulging in a mindless reality TV show and folding laundry. The message caught me off guard.

Like a whole lot of folks – hundreds of thousands of amazing folks – in the U.S. and around the world, I’ve spent the past few weeks being outspoken while occupying various public spaces. It’s incredible to gather alongside thousands of others who share in my discontent and my desires, to see how many people are also fed up with the sexism and racism, the marginalization and criminalization that have proliferated over the past few months, not to mention been overlooked and allowed to fester for many years.

These ongoing protests, marches and rallies create spaces where people can feel confident and supported by the surrounding crowd; they validate and give voice to the daily, individual experiences of women, people of color, immigrants, queer and trans people, and other marginalized folks. And yet, despite being fired up and feeling a sense of solidarity through so many of the unified chants and colorfully creative signs spelling out what we want or what we’re opposing, I’ve found myself stuck on certain insinuations embedded within some of the words and imagery I’ve spotted.

Amid these protests and present-day debates about free speech, coupled with an immense rise in reports of hate speech and physical assaults, it feels like no coincidence that this public service announcement, originally shot several years ago, would suddenly surface in online streaming ad breaks. As resistance to the current administration’s policies continues, and many of us who are privileged and able continue to show up, we need to consider what values are embedded in our criticisms, and what ideas about each other’s bodies and behaviors we may be explicitly or implicitly reinforcing.

Slowly shuffling up the Ben Franklin Parkway on the morning of the Women’s March, I was overwhelmed. The sheer number of people crowding the street was unbelievable; a vast array of physical forms clad in bright hues, energetic children and elder adults, people of all sorts holding hands, chatting, cheering and greeting one another. This wide breadth of bodies afforded me and many others a context within which to amplify our voices, to say: this is not your body to touch, to take or to talk about, or to treat however you want. This public, physical presence of a collective body speaking peaceful (albeit loud) demands is what makes protest powerful and persuasive, both for those witnessing from afar and for those within the moment, experiencing this sense of community.

There were endless signs declaring love, showcasing drawings of Lady Liberty, and featuring witty quips that involved ovaries or cats. One particularly poignant piece of cardboard merely read, “You shouldn’t have to look like me to have rights guaranteed.” (Perhaps you can guess what this individual looked like.) There were also many, many signs criticizing the new president’s physical features and physique, and a handful of others here and there using homosexual imagery to criticize certain political relationships. Though far outnumbered by exclamations of empowerment and clearly the exception, these errant signs are important to pay heed to because they simultaneously reveal and reinforce unexamined assumptions about how “appropriate” bodies look and act.

In bold blue and red lettering, the above sign states, “TRUMP + PUTIN SAY NO TO FASCISM,” and features an image of both men riding topless on a horse. At face value, this representation is an informal mockery of two political figures who have shown little concern for the harmful effects of their chosen rhetoric, behaviors, and policies. Weaving through the masses that day, this sign elicited chuckles from onlookers, shouts of support and groans of disgust. But when we stop to consider why this reads as funny or even gross in the first place, we can start to uncover the implicit messaging beneath the bare male torsos.

In the very same way that a teenager calling something “so gay” signals to peers and bystanders that being anything but ardently heterosexual is at best abnormal and at worst unsafe, signs that serve up homoerotic imagery to provoke at best a cheap laugh or at worst revulsion are also signaling something to those in the vicinity. Amongst a crowd of so many strangers, all from different backgrounds and living varied lifestyles, these signs render the behavior of men in suggestive embrace a source of ridicule and shame. Not only that; such statements reify norms of what it means to be a supposedly masculine man, and conversely a suitably feminine woman, and the need for a clear distinction between the only two “acceptable” ways of existing. Masculine heterosexuality emerges as the norm (the only space not subject to jeers), and anything veering from it – such as two men appearing effeminate in their intimacy with one another, regardless of who they are – becomes a synonymous stand-in for the preposterously humorous, incorrect and ultimately immoral.

Imagery that relies upon these dualistic arrangements of masculine/man and feminine/woman inevitably reinforces stigmas attached to supposed “right” and “wrong” ways of being. I started discussing the problems intrinsic to such binaries in my analysis of Peter Berg’s Patriot’s Day. This formula of “if not one, then the other” always diminishes “the other” as something unsavory and undesirable, and erases any gray area. The reality, however, is that most – if not all – of us live in the ambiguous in-between. Notions of masculinity and femininity are ideals that folks of all genders try on here and there, at various moments in our days, but there is no way to embody all the traits of a flawlessly “masculine man” or “feminine woman” all the time.

And what are these traits anyway? If you take a few minutes to list out all the components of these categories, and then try to fit yourself into one of them, odds are good that you’ll find yourself reflecting on the many moments when you simultaneously enact elements of both. What’s more, your list will inevitably vary from that of your friend, your partner or spouse, or your siblings. Clear-cut prototypes simply do not exist in the flesh; and yet we consistently allude to and draw from this illusion in order to define ourselves and those around us. The broad similarities between our lists are what we’ve come to understand as “normal,” and these assumptions help inform what are considered the seemingly acceptable ways to act if you appear as a man or woman (and, in the latter, let’s not forget acceptable ways to dress). They also allow the denunciation – and justify the mockery, harassment and mistreatment – of performances that fall outside of this flimsy framework. The inability to ever fully envision, let alone achieve, “peak” masculinity or femininity is what makes these standards so compelling and resilient in dictating social standards and behaviors.

In the final image (not posted here), a photograph of Trump is coupled with a small cartoon cat, and the words “SHOW US YOUR TAX RETURNS! DON’T BE A P*SSY!” I definitely don’t disagree with the call for transparency but let’s take a second look at the implicit way in which this usage of “pussy” functions. Here, masculinity is questioned by slinging a slang term for vagina at a man. Not only is this sign attempting to discredit someone’s character and decision-making prowess by referencing a female body part, but it swaps pussies in for the presumptive weak or pathetic. It functions the way so many insults directed at men (usually by other men) do: it associates the male target with femaleness or femininity, thereby reinforcing the notion that femaleness is itself deeply shameful. Channeling the wise words of Wanda Sykes, why say pussy when what you actually mean is that someone is utterly ridiculous?

The Sykes PSA is part of a campaign, ThinkB4YouSpeak, developed nearly eight years ago by GLSEN in partnership with the Ad Council. It’s as relevant today as ever. The campaign was created to quell speech in schools that creates an “atmosphere where [LGBT teens] feel disrespected, unwanted and unsafe” (from GLSEN’s website). By influencing acceptations – and encouraging students, teachers and parents alike to intentionally consider the impact of their words – the campaign aims to also change perceptions of bodies and behaviors. Just like youth casually yakking over cheeseburgers and large fries, we all make choices about the words we use, whether we’re seated in a classroom or crowding the streets. And make no mistake about it: communication – language, imagery, and the social and cultural context through which it arises – is integrally tied to how we treat one another.

Even when directed solely at someone causing harm and fostering hatred, words reverberate in ways that impact others well beyond the moment in which they’re uttered. When related to our genders, sexualities and behaviors, language can overtly and subtly hurt us by leading to feelings of shame and isolation, and by letting others know what’s tolerable, who’s valued, and how to act. That’s not to say that we need to do away with or stop using images or words referring to sexuality, gender, or body parts. Rather, we need to carefully consider context and company, and the way in which our statements in turn work to legitimize certain treatments of other people.

There is a never-ending and complicated cycle between what is spoken, what is silenced, and what is sustained. The ThinkB4YouSpeak campaign was created eight years ago and remains disturbingly relevant. What’s perhaps more unsettling is the four, or possibly eight, years stretching ahead. As we continue to speak up and out in resistance, we must continue to value one another by being vigilant about the language we choose to use.

Cross-posted with permission from Feminist Frequency where the original may be accessed.
Posted by Ashley Fellows
Giving Officer and Contributor for Feminist Frequency