How Miss Representation Ruined and Replenished my World
By: Stephanie Kuhn
I vividly remember the first time that I saw Miss Representation. I was a freshman in college and I was taking my first classes that discussed gender. I had heard of the documentary premiering on the OWN Network, and since I have always looked up to Oprah and was becoming aware of gender differences, I figured it would be a good film for me to watch. I remember being outraged by the facts and figures I was seeing. I always knew that there were different experiences for boys and girls, but I was never able to label it or think about why it happened. It just seemed like how things were. My entire understanding of the world and myself was fundamentally shifted in a matter of about an hour and a half.
Miss Representation opened my eyes to why putting people in boxes is bad for our personal selves and society as a whole. I understood how the focus on physical appearance of young women limits our potential and our ability to see our potential. Physical appearance was more important than intelligence and personal capabilities. I was able to look at my experience as a young woman who loved fashion and cared about her appearance and see how I fell for the tricks of the media industries that shaped the way that I saw myself. I clearly remembered thinking that I could do anything at a young age and then began to question myself once I got into middle school and increasingly so high school. I felt the pressure to look perfect, act perfect, and do everything perfectly to be a valuable person. I was able to look at my own experience in a way that I never could before and realized that the stories and statistics that were shared on Miss Representation were also a part of my experience.
I knew I had fallen for the advertisements, the movies, the music videos, and the magazines. I believed what they said to be true: that the most important thing for a young woman was to look like a lady, be a man-pleasing sexual goddess, and be intellectually accomplished. Of course, the pressure of the first two interfered with the intellectual aspect of it, but the insurmountable pressure to do everything, to be and look perfect all at once was there. It was inescapable.
It took me a while to navigate this new understanding of media criticism. I knew I was enraged and felt like I had been scammed. I felt I had wasted time, energy, and finances on this absurd notion, all to continue feeling inadequate and like I still had to try harder. I had to find the balance between knowing that it was okay for me to want to look nice and understanding that it was not a reflection of my personal value. I’d been awakened to the idea that my looks did not define my worth. Instead, my worth lies within my drive to make a difference, to help others, and to leave the world a little bit better than how I had found it. This has been my driving force ever since. While I still like to be put together aesthetically because I enjoy it, I know what is truly important is how I can create a lasting, positive impact in the world.
Miss Representation enabled me to see my life through a different lens. I was able to become aware of the power of media and critically analyze how I have been impacted, which provided me with the tools to help initiate change. Now, I choose to value my personal abilities over appearance, and that is what I value in others as well. While this seems like something all people should think and understand, when you grow up with a society saturated in media that only values physical beauty, it is hard to see through the fog. I knew the fog was there, but I did not know how to label it. It is similar to when there is music playing in a room, but you don’t notice it until it is gone. This documentary made me able to shut off the music and listen to my own ideas as opposed to getting lost in medias’ melodies, and I am a better woman because of it.
Stephanie Kuhn is a senior at the University of New Hampshire, where she is a Women’s Studies and Communication double major and Business and Race & Ethnic Studies double minor. She has been interning with the New Hampshire Women’s Initiative since August 2013.
Changing Race and Class Landscapes
By Nyomi Guzman
My name is Nyomi Guzman and as the newest intern for the New Hampshire Women’s Initiative, I have been reflecting on my thoughts about social constructs and how they impact the lives of all people, especially those with complex identities.
I believe that with increased globalization and diversification, it’s important to ask what the racial and cultural makeup of different regions will become. Currently suburbia is predominantly white and upper middle class, but that has the potential to change and create new subsections of culture.
As a proud Jamaican and Puerto Rican feminist from suburban New Hampshire, my narrative often differs from others of my racial and cultural groups. The experience of black and Latino people is often one that is manifested within urban culture, while the dominant suburban narrative is white and upper-middle class. So how does one combine these elements in a world where racial and economic justice are still in progress to create outlets for people who don’t fit the dominant narrative to exist? Well, we can change the way that we think of culture and class, and work to better embrace the idea of intersecting identities.
My identities allow me to understand others and shape my approach to pursing gender equity. It’s important to acknowledge that money is only a factor in determining power and social ease. As someone who does not possess whiteness, I occupy the world with that stigma. I call the place I feel stuck in between my Michelle Obama complex, not ethnically white, not traditionally black or Latina. This has been critical in understanding gender equity because it reminds me that increasing pay for any marginalized group of people will have a strong positive impact, but to reach true equality, it has to be a combination of equal pay and challenging institutionalized norms in order to allow each person to live life as one’s most authentic self.
Nyomi is a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire and began interning at NHWI in May of 2014. She plans on earning her Master’s degree in Social Justice Education, where she then hopes to help facilitate corporate diversity trainings and help make businesses more inclusive and open to diversity.
April’s edition of our Gender Matters series: April Gender Matters
EQUAL PAY DAY: APRIL 8, 2014
The simple truth about the gender pay gap is that it still exists in nearly every occupation, in every state. It hasn’t budged in a decade: full-time, year-round women workers are paid 77 percent of what men are paid, despite the fact that the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963!
To call attention to this continuing inequity, April 8 has been declared the 2014 EQUAL PAY DAY , which marks the date when women’s wages catch up to what men were paid in 2013. Many women will wear red on April 8 to symbolize the issue: pay equity is discriminatory, unfair, and illegal!
The gender wage gap affects all women, but for black and Hispanic women the pay shortfall is worse. (White men are used as a benchmark because they make up the largest demographic group in the labor force.) And the gap is greater for women over 35; younger working women typically earn about 90 percent of what men are paid. It is important to remember that when we talk about pay equity we are talking about work that requires the same education, experience, skills – jobs that are equal, and which therefore require equal pay! But that isn’t happening! Women are earning the largest portion of college diplomas these days, and yet they are often paid less.
Why? Why do employers offer women fewer jobs and fewer promotions and pay them less for the same work? Gender segregation persists; sex stereotypes drive women into low-wage, often part-time jobs. Assumptions about pregnancy and care giving responsibilities at the time of hire are frequently made; employers fail to provide men and women with accommodations and flexibility to address their families’ needs. Some employers historically made rules about keeping secret wage scales and negotiations so that women were kept ignorant of longevity raises and bonus potential. (There is a move among some women’s organizations to pressure President Obama to issue an executive order that would protect federal contract workers from retaliation if they discuss salary or wage practices. )
In a perfect world, employers would pay women what they deserve without government intervention. In this imperfect world, however, government intervention is often the only solution to labor problems; voluntary equal pay policies seldom prevail.
Here in New Hampshire, right now, there is the probability of new legislation that will address the pay gap issue on a state level! SB 207 is an act relative to paycheck equity: “No employer or person seeking employees shall discriminate between employees on the basis of sex by paying employees of one sex at a rate less than the rate paid to employees of the other sex for equal work that requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility and is performed under similar working conditions…….” This bill is scheduled to be acted on in the New Hampshire legislature on April 8 (Equal Pay Day!) Keep your eyes on the status of SB 207!
This is vital news for women and their families. Women are the sole or primary source of income in 40 percent of American households with children under age 18. And in this era of growing economic inequality, we all know that in order to maintain middle class status, two salaries in a family are usually needed; improvement in women’s pay raises the standard of living for all!
But at the federal level, the picture continues to be grim. On March 25, the Paycheck Fairness Act failed in the Senate, 52-47. New Hampshire’s Republican Senator, Kelly Ayotte, voted against paycheck fairness. She was apparently persuaded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers who pressured Senators to vote against the Paycheck Fairness Act because “employers would be exposed to increased threats of litigation….” Fear of lawsuits versus expanded purchasing power for large segments of the workforce – those are frequently the competing arguments in Congress. (Such litigation is often the only route to gender pay equity and fairness, as the famous Lily Ledbetter case demonstrated.) The different values here are astounding, and highlight political party differences on gender issues!
We can see, there is good news and bad news. New Hampshire legislators are considering a state law that would help to close the gender pay gap. But Washington legislators are once again at a standstill about legislation that is fair, necessary, economically just. At the rate the wage gap is changing, it will not be closed for another forty years, almost 100 years after the adoption of the Equal Pay Gap. Politicians who refuse to make pay equity a reality do not deserve our votes.
Exeter, New Hampshire
by Molly Branch, NHWI intern
Tucked away in a small black-box theater buzzing with women, Debora Spar begins to speak. She jokes that her book “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and The Quest for Perfection,” was actually supposed to be called “The Reluctant Feminist,” but her publisher convinced her to change it. She beat them at their own game and elected to use the word “sex” in the title, because – as we all know – sex sells.
Spar is the author of several books and the president of Barnard College, but last Thursday night was hosted by The Music Hall Loft to speak about her novel. The audience, mostly women and two men, was immediately enraptured by Spar.
She told us that for her whole life she avoided the “f-word.” She told us that she, as many women in her generation, fell victim to the idea that feminism was over –that we had won and that it was no longer needed. She told us that she grew up thinking she could and should have it all, and how her drive to succeed had landed her in fields traditionally dominated by men. Because of that, she told us, she spent a period of her life as The Token Woman in the Group of Men. She told us about how for so long she heard the line, “We really need a woman,” and how that frustrated her. Until one day she decided that was Not Her Problem.
At this point, the audience was comfortable with the conversation – and that had little to do with the complimentary drinks. Something about Spar’s confident demeanor interwoven with light-hearted comic relief left the audience ready to go wherever Spar wanted to take us.
“Let me tell you The Dead Chipmunk Story,” Spar started. She animatedly told the story we all know too well: one disaster after another after another until a half dead chipmunk ends up on our carpet. In this story, she appealed to each woman in the audience. We have all had days like these. Days that, dictated by unwritten law of being a woman, require us to Do It All, and we can’t. We try so very hard, but we can’t. And things fall apart. And Spar assured us, “That Is Okay.” Even with the dead chipmunk.
She cited the “Charlie Perfume Ad” as a source of this unrealistic dream (she even did reenactments of the Charlie girl!). As a girl she grew up watching women like the one in the ad “Having It All.” These women were carefree. They had their lives together. They seemed to not be concerned with the stresses of being a successful mother-worker-wife-house-keeper. Instead, they were happy to finally have options. These women had freedom to have a job, and run the household, and care for the family. They had won the first part of the battle in earning this freedom. That’s when she really started to get to it: Feminism.
Spar spoke for her generation when she confessed: “We got it wrong. We made it about us. Feminists never said that it was about us.” Feminism was never supposed to be about perfection, individually or socially. It was – and still is – about liberation. Then she opened it up to the audience for Q&A. What stuck with me most was one of Spar’s answers, “Life is sloppy,” and that there is a need to find balance between success and happiness. It does not have to be perfect because it isn’t supposed to be.
Spar’s ultimate message remains that women can’t have it all. Something about the “quest for perfection” has really blindsided us to the infinite realms of joy in our lives. One thing’s for sure, women work too hard. We strive for an impossible dream that we cannot achieve. When we feel that we’ve failed, we are harsh to ourselves and too critical of each other. That is not what feminism is about. Feminism’s goal was to create a world of liberated women who supported each other. It’s 2014 and, per request of an audience member – an actual second wave feminist – it’s time to go back to the beginning: to liberation, sisterhood, and celebrating each other’s choices to be or not be a mother, career woman, wife, or whatever we decide.
Hearing Spar speak validated some of my own experiences as a 22-year-old woman who has always been pushed to be perfect. I’ve finally learned go easy on myself. I don’t beat myself up any more for not doing something “right.” Above all, I’m embracing the sloppiness that is life. That’s my personal success. I think Debora Spar would support that.