FANGIRL: An Abstract, by Katy Gehred

A Twilight fan.

A fangirl, as I have chosen to define her, is a teenage woman who is enthusiastically dedicated to a particular cultural product, frequently to the extent that her behavior becomes socially unacceptable.  Imagine the shrieking, nameless and faceless teeny-boppers who are depicted chasing The Beatles into phone booths at the beginning of “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Fangirls are a product of media and the modern age, and are frequently dismissed as brainless sheep, gulled into liking whichever pop starlet or television show that mass media demands. However, I argue that choosing a fandom is not necessarily an action motivated solely by outside consumerist forces. Teenage girls are capable of making critical cultural choices, and their decision to obsess over a particular cultural product serves their own purposes. Choosing a fandom can serve a purpose of self-definition, defining who you are by what you like.

“Beliebers” are fans of Justin Bieber, a pop star who comes from a long line of fangirl obsessions stretching back to Frank Sinatra and Elvis.

There is also a social function to being a fangirl. Trading memorabilia, attending concerts and conventions, and joining fanclubs are all ways that teenage girls can form real friendships through their fandom. Also, in many cases there is a sexual element to teenage fangirl obsessions. Idolizing and sexualizing a celebrity or character is a way for teenagers to explore their own sexual identity, in a culture that denies teenage girls much agency in their own sexual lives.

Harry Potter fan fiction includes the above fantasy, in which Harry and Draco Malfoy have a secret love affair.

One’s teenage years are a key period in self-definition. Fangirls should be viewed less as a regrettable product of mass marketing, and more as human beings negotiating their own identity in a pop-culture obsessed world.

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Katy Gehred is a pop-culture obsessed feminist who is too enthusiastic about too many things. Hobbies include co-editing this blog, knitting, smashing the patriarchy with a hammer, and nerdfighting. She is currently working on her Master’s degree in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, and if you have any questions at all about Thomas Jefferson, she is the person to contact.

Bringing the Domestic to Center-stage: Two Women Fight Back Against DV in “Domestic”

“What would you do?” This is the evocative tagline for DOMESTIC, which debuted at an off-broadway black box space a few blocks from Times Square as part of the Midtown International Theater Festival in July 2012. The play, penned by Sarah Lawrence theatre graduate alum Matthew Klein, is the story of seventeen-year-old Jessica Powell, a babysitter who murders her employer when she hears him threaten to kill his wife. Experiences of domestic violence (DV) structure the play, which deals with the aftermath of Jessica’s act. The teenage girl, played by Kelsey Monson SLC ’13, not only fights back against “Mr. Hillson,” but also appears to be ambiguously victimized by her father Richard (the never resolved ambiguity of it being a testament to Monson’s acting). Then there is Leigh, a woman police officer who, accompanied by her even-keeled partner Mitch, arrives at the scene of the Hillson’s house to investigate a noise complaint. Leigh, we learn, knows DV second-hand from her childhood best friend’s home. Though none of the acts of DV in the play are enacted on the stage, the black box was filled with tension and the subtexts of unnamed pain, justified lies, and the cold reality of the law.

The play is one of questioned motives and messy ethics. One of the most striking examples of this is perhaps that Leigh, the cop, uses unorthodox interrogation tactics on both Jessica and her father to get to the bottom of this story. She gives Jessica false information to make her confess; later, she literally twists Richard Powell’s arm to bring him to shame. This and other such moments of “vigilante justice,” as Monson calls it, set the play apart from its CSI genre. Instead of a “who dunnit” structure like television dramas, writer Klein and director Roxy MtJoy, both alums of Sarah Lawrence’s graduate program in Theater, wanted to stage a more complex story: a “why dunnit” of sorts. To achieve this, the director had us inside the protagonist’s head from the very start: as the audience entered the theater, Monson sat centerstage with her wrists handcuffed, eyeing us with pure distrust as we walked to our seats. For the 45 minutes that followed, the seventeen-year-old’s story unfolded, while we the spectators asked ourselves: if we overheard a man, whom we knew to be abusive, threaten his wife’s life, what would we do? The play challenged my own understandings of violence–its meanings, its causes, and its effects.

For this feminist spectator, the play was also about the dangers of false oppositions: that of domestic vs. public, victim vs. agent, justice vs. crime. When we spoke I told Matthew that I thought his play was feminist because his woman characters, despite being in opposing positions of power, are linked by a tacit understanding, unified against the insidiousness of “privacy” in their experiences of physical and sexual violence. Indeed, each character breaks the rules to reach her vision of justice. And each, we can safely say, is successful.

I had the privilege of speaking with Matthew, Roxy, and Kelsey about DOMESTIC’s creative process, moral gray areas, and feminist messages.

Matthew, the writer: “This was a piece that I’d worked on a couple of years ago. I approached Roxy, whom I’ve worked with at SLC, and asked for her collaboration. We sat down at a table and did what all great collaborative teams do: we asked questions. We asked about the characters, their actions, and their choices. I did the hardest rewriting of my emerging career. Entire subplots and offstage characters disappeared that have been there since draft one over two and a half years ago–all because we trusted each other and knew what our story was that we wanted to share with the audience.”

Roxy, the director: “Before going back to school to get my MFA in Theatre, I was the senior case manager at a domestic violence shelter in Los Angeles, so I am very familiar with some of the issues this play touches on. While I never wanted this to be some sort of convoluted After School Special about DV, I do think I feel a responsibility to be honest and unflinching when it comes to those issues.”

“I think any play that has fully-developed, complex female characters is a feminist play.”

-Director Roxy MtJoy, SLC Theatre Graduate Alum

Kelsey, “Jessica Powell”: “Something that continually tugged at the back of my mind throughout the rehearsal process was Jessica’s relationship with her father. Matthew made it deliberately unclear in the script, which led us as the actors–and you as the audience member–to make our own choices about what did or did not go on behind closed doors in the Powell home. Ultimately I chose to play it as though Richard was physically and potentially sexually abusive towards Jessica. These are unequivocally awful things to do to another person, let alone your own child. Yet what really struck me was how much love existed between Jessica and Richard. At first I was really conflicted about this – how could she love someone who caused her so much pain? It wasn’t until the final week of rehearsal that I was able to make a choice that I could live with. I think to cope with the abuse she was facing at home, she created a carefully controlled image of her father to insulate herself. She tries to think of him as she remembered him as a little girl. This is how she attempts to take control of her situation at home, but she is still trapped in the reality of it. With Mr. Hillson, [the abuser she murders], Jessica saw the opportunity to have complete agency in a situation, and take control of the abuse in an extreme way.”

Roxy, on feminism and the play: “I am very badly paraphrasing here, but Theresa Rebeck once said something to the effect of feminism meaning women having the right to be as fucked up as men. I love that. I think any play that has fully-developed, complex female characters is a feminist play.”

Kelsey, on feminism and the play: “I would definitely say that DOMESTIC is a feminist play. Both of these women are not content to sit on the sidelines and let men commit acts of violence around them. Jessica takes control by killing Mr. Hillson, and Leigh takes control by essentially going rogue as a cop. While you may not agree with what they do, or the way they do it, these are strong women who are standing up for themselves and taking control of their situations.”

Matthew, on feminism and the play: “What I love about these ladies is that they have both external and internal conflicts. And what they struggle with inside themselves is universal: shame, humiliation, wanting to prove something to others and themselves. … I think that I definitely was tackling institutional discrimination against women, be that institution the police or the nuclear family. It influenced my choices and helped structure their conflicts and hopefully that universality of being judged unfairly and unjustly sparked some understanding and empathy for the characters.”

“I want you to ask the question, ‘Why do I assume she’s lying?’” -Writer Matthew Klein

Matthew, on the many unanswered ethical questions of this play: “I want you to ask the question ‘Do I believe her?’ and then ask yourself the question, ‘Wait, why am I so inclined to believe her?’ or vice versa, ‘Why do I assume she’s lying?’ I think evidence is given to support either path of thought. I don’t like giving clear cut answers. I love the gray. We live in the gray. All of us. And I want the audience to be engaged. I want one person to believe Jessica and another to think she’s lying, because I want the audience to learn something about themselves that maybe they didn’t know before.”

Kelsey, on her character’s act of murder: “While I, Kelsey, right now, could not imagine killing someone, I can’t say in any definitive way that there are absolutely no circumstances that could lead me to commit murder. Even in my first reading of the script, I was instantly on Jessica’s side even though I am staunchly anti-murder. Jessica is clearly a complex individual, whose motivations and desires seemed to change with every new reading of the script. But in the end, I was always completely on her side. Though I am still very conflicted about the idea of justifiable murder, Jessica and her story were compelling enough to convince me that her actions, though morally wrong, were justified.”

Matthew, on staging DV: “The point of the piece, for us, wasn’t about the acts of violence, but the acts of healing, surviving, and coping. And how those actions inform our choices and lead us down paths to decisions we might not have made before. Which means if you make the violence too explicit, people just focus on the violence and not as much the consequences. To see a 17 year-old girl beaten onstage or commit murder onstage is very powerful, very evocative, but that’s not the story. The story is what she does next.”

For more information on DV, see New York’s Office of Prevention of Domestic Violence, http://www.opdv.ny.gov. To access national services and resources, visit http://www.thehotline.org.

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Emma Staffaroni is a second year graduate student in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College and co-edits this magazine. Her heroes include Frieda Kahlo, Adrienne Rich, Octavia Butler, and Barbara Kingsolver. Emma enjoys post-it notes, board games, and museum gift shops. She can be reached at estaffaroni[at]gm[dot]slc[dot]edu.

“The Legend of Korra”: Badass Feminist TV for Teens

When I asked a friend of mine whether or not he’d be watching The Legend of Korra, an animated sequel series to a show called Avatar: The Last Airbender we had both loved, he responded, “No, I’m not a girl.”

I’m not writing this to explain to you why even though Korra has a female protagonist it isn’t just for girls. Because duh. And I can state with some certainty that I’ve managed to root for characters that (shock horror!) do not share my sexual anatomy, and I know that dudes can too.

I’m writing this to say “ROCK ON” to writers Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino for choosing to write a female character even though they risked that exact sort of response.

The Legend of Korra is a show geared towards a tween and teenage audience that aired on Nickelodeon this year, and in addition to being an extremely well written and entertaining cartoon, it features the most badass female protagonist since Katniss Everdeen.

Korra is a seventeen-year-old girl who has the power to control, or “bend,” earth, air, water, and fire using totally rad martial arts moves. In the fictional world where she lives, select people are gifted with the ability to bend one element, but only the Avatar–Korra–can bend all four. It’s set in a kind of steampunk mixture of 1930s Hong Kong and New York called Republic City, where Korra and her friends fight evil and maintain balance in the universe.

There are a variety of traits that make Korra a great protagonist. For one thing, she is a hero in the sense that she fits perfectly into a stereotypically male hero narrative. You know the one. A young boy finds out that he has been gifted with glorious abilities and is fated to save the world, then, along with a ragtag group of buddies, fights the big bad guy and saves the day. In other words, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, King Arthur, Superman, to name a few. There are times when a female fills that role (BUFFY) but it’s rare. Korra has joined a small but elite group of heroines.

Korra is also dark skinned. Don’t try to tell me this isn’t awesome. Sure, it’s a fictional universe so it’s not like she can identify as any specific race, but she’s still the protagonist, and her skin is CONSIDERABLY darker than any other character. And since we still live in a world where dark-skinned characters are almost always sidekicks or bad guys, this is fantastic.

While costumed roleplay (cosplay) allows people of all races, sexes, and weights to dress as their favorite characters, black cosplayers tend to get stuck dressing as white protagonists. This young woman has chosen to dress as dark-skinned Korra.

Korra’s character design is muscly and badass, and while she’s attractive, she’s not sexualized to the extent that only a heterosexual male audience can appreciate her.

Compare,

Alienating character design:

Korra:

Look! She has a polar bear dog! I’m not at all alienated!

Korra also features a strong supporting cast of characters, including Korra’s crush Mako, and his brother Bolin who crushes on her. For a while the show teetered precipitously on the edge of a mind-numbing romantic triangle.

But saints be praised the romantic intrigues of Korra were as tangled and stupid as real-life teenage drama, and just as impossible to sort out in a half hour segment. The moral of the romance in Korra was essentially, “these things are not the end of the world” which is the sort of knowledge I sure wish I had when I was a teen.

The adults in the series are equally excellent. They aren’t just all-knowing mentors fixing up the mistakes of silly teens, or bumbling antagonists to the teenage leads. The adult characters in Korra make mistakes and have their own lives, and are just as fun to root for as Team Avatar.

Lin Beifong, shown above, is a middle-aged female character who is complex, funny, flawed, and JUST TOO FREAKING HARDCORE TO HANDLE.

Korra is not a perfect show. Some plotlines were too hastily tied up, and the good vs. evil plotline is not as complex as the series’ writers have led me to expect. However, it appears that the writers and designers of Korra made a string of good decisions that promise to make The Legend of Korra great.

Full episodes of Korra are available online at nickelodeon.com, and the series has been renewed for a second season although the release date has not yet been made public.

So my male friend doesn’t want to watch a girl be a hero. Well, I’m going to bet you will.

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Katy Gehred is a pop-culture obsessed feminist who is too enthusiastic about too many things. Hobbies include co-editing this blog, knitting, smashing the patriarchy with a hammer, and nerdfighting. She is currently working on her Master’s degree in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, and if you have any questions at all about Thomas Jefferson, she is the person to contact.

Girls of Crime: The Interconnected Roles of Nancy Drew and Brigid O’Shaughnessy in American Pop Culture in the 1930s

Any avid reader can remember how difficult it was (and is) to find strong female role models in children’s and young adult literature. For every Harry Potter, there is a spate of feckless Bella Swans, characters who give up too much of themselves in romantic relationships and shy away from actual ambition. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Nancy Drew was the role of young, smart, independent role model for millions of teenage readers. Today, the female sleuth survives as an inextricable part of American  pop culture. However, her status as a heroine must be considered in the cultural environment in which she was introduced and carefully examined before she continues to be lauded as the paragon of female ingenuity and pluck.

nancydrewbook50s.jpeg

1950s illustration of teenaged Nancy Drew on the trail of a case.

The wholesome girl detective Nancy Drew became popular among children with the publication of the first book in the Nancy Drew Mystery Series in 1930 under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Concurrently, the new genre of hardboiled detective novels became popular among adults; the femme fatale was reinvented in characters like Brigid O’Shaughnessy from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, also released in 1930. While produced for different audiences, these books provide insight into the state of the American female at the dawn of the 1930s.

Nancy Drew’s popularity rose just as women were trying to determine the next step of the feminist movement after a series of setbacks. After the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, with which American women achieved a benchmark of equality, American culture pushed back against this and other political advances for women. Facing an economic depression and high crime, Americans grasped for tradition at the dawn of the new century, which evidenced itself as misogyny in traditional and new forms. The growing fear of advances for women can be seen through the female characters of popular literature of the time.

The more-traditional Nancy Drew, who gets by with the help of her father and his male contacts in their small town, survives into contemporary times as a favorite protagonist. However, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a woman who exudes sexuality and has an agenda different than that of the important male detectives in the novel, became the first in a long line of hardboiled femme fatales killed off or imprisoned in detective novels; she was too threatening to the culture and was hastily put away.

Could Nancy Drew have survived as an adult? Would a new narrative, not grounded in her deference to the societally significant men around her have been popular or even publishable in the 1930s or today? Would she have had a place in the hard-boiled genre as a real detective? And could she ever have become independent enough to not endure condescending questions like this?:

“‘Now what?’ Mr. Drew asked, smiling, as [Nancy] burst in upon him. ‘Have you solved the mystery or is your purse in need of a little change?’”

*****

Emilie Egger is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at SLC.

Teen Feminists, Too, Think Sexism is F’d Up

Nineteen-year-old Julie Zeilinger has put out the book I wanted to write when I was her age and started identifying as a feminist. I wanted to call mine Why High School Sucks, But Doesn’t Have To. Hers, released in May 2012, is called A Little F’ed Up: Why Feminism Isn’t A Dirty Word. It’s Full Frontal Feminism for the high school set (Valenti even forewords it!), written in fluent high-school-hallway vernacular. Its down-to-earth tone mixes the sharp-tongued with the profound and factual.

The first chapter, “The Badasses Who Came Before Us: A Brief History of Feminism,” includes feminist insights on Hammurabi’s Code, Muhammed the prophet, the Enlightenment (“Not So Enlightened, Actually,” Zeilinger subtitles this part), and of course the three waves, with mention of significant figures like the Grimké sisters, Sojourner Truth, and Margaret Sanger. Later chapters go on to cover sexism in the media, in politics, and on the internet.

 

When I read about Julie this summer on Forbes.com and Huffington Post, I was exhilarated that this smart and savvy sophomore at Barnard would convert more high school-aged girls to the feminist project. I couldn’t help thinking back to my own high school experience, where in class I read books like The Awakening and Their Eyes Were Watching God, while in the halls I participated in the typical “Mean Girls” high school bullshit. The feelings that drove my 15-year-old self’s stereotypically “catty” behavior were flip sides of more vulnerable, real emotions: I competed with other girls because I felt inadequate; I spent all of my free time with boyfriends because I was intimidated by my female intellectual equals; I pushed away the advice of girlfriends in order to emulate the “rugged individualism” of some of my male friends. What I needed was Zeilinger’s book: a reminder that being strong and resilient are feminine traits– and they are traits best enacted in groups of like-minded, justice-oriented gals. I needed Zeilinger’s book, which spells out what sexism actually looks like for most young women today: not economic disenfranchisement (although there is, of course, still a pay gap), not femme covert, but pure and simple internalized inadequacy and devaluation that comes at us from all angles starting as soon as we can see a TV screen.

In her closing chapter, this young author writes about her “secret weapon for growing up,” and yours: feminism. She spells out the “teenage problems” that feminism has helped her to overcome, one of which being “girls with fangs.” Much to my delight, Zeilinger draws upon that 2001 love triangle that definitely made my personal headlines back in the seventh grade: pop star Aaron Carter’s two-timing with Lindsay Lohan and Hillary Duff. “The result?” writes Zeilinger. “Lindsay began badmouthing Hillary in the press, who in turn played the victim, portraying Lindsay as an evil and possessive bitch. Did we hear one peep about Aaron? No. We were too busy buying into the idea of Lindsay drawing blood from Hillary.”

Girl-on-girl crime, Julie goes on to say, may be unavoidable; young women live out this competitive, dog-eat-dog behavior because American culture sanctions it with its combination of “lenient morals with unrelenting ambition” (quite an insight). But unavoidable as it may be, it is not inevitable, she argues. “Ultimately, our female peers matter. It matters how we interact with them, and it matters how we feel about them.” Here’s the growing up part: true maturity, Zeilinger tells her young readership, is about reaching for fellowship with other young women as an antidote to that cut-throat culture, which in the end tears young girls down, devalues their minds and souls, and gives boys more reasons to look down on girls’ accomplishments, behaviors, and ethics.

Zeilinger is no bell hooks–but most 16-year-olds aren’t ready for that anyway. Julie is a voice within her generation of smart, stressed out, curious young women who need to hear from one of their own that there is more to gain from trusting each other than from “drawing blood.”

Ms. Zeilinger attends Barnard College.

The young author also promotes feminism for “selfish” reasons. She advocates for it, she writes, because it has helped her feel better personally. In the Huffington Post this past May, she wrote about how feminism helps us survive double standards about sex:

Ever feel like crap about the fact that if you hook up, you’re a “slut,” but if you don’t, you’re a “prude”? Feminism sees this dichotomy as a double standard that needs to end. Feminists believe that girls should be able to express themselves sexually (or not!) without feeling shame.

She also sums up the body positivity movement without jargon: just plain and simple, why do we tolerate this stuff?

Feminists refuse to settle for a cultural norm in which women are plagued to the point of mental and physical illness to reach a ridiculous, unattainable standard of beauty, and fight for real beauty, in every shape and size.

Julie’s book will most certainly attract converts. It is pink, it uses the expression “f’d up” (a personal favorite), and it is straight-talking. I was Julie’s age when Courtney E. Martin and Miriam Perez of feministing.com came to visit my campus. A year out of high school, I was a bit more self-assured and felt supported in challenging classes, a whip-smart group of friends, and an awesome all-female a cappella group including older, wiser girls.  Martin and Perez spoke on a panel about their blog’s goals– and about how feminism is, in fact, cool. Courtney said to us, “Feminism has to be appealing. If it looks fun, and smart, and cool, it is more likely to attract young, dynamic women to its cause. Because in the end it is fun, smart, and cool.” Though I don’t believe in “marketizing” every single aspect of life (here I go with feminist jargon!), we can agree that for a political movement with a lot to lose and even more to gain, feminism needs the voice and sass of folks like Julie Zeilinger. And Courtney was right: she and Miriam were so effing cool, I bought their books (on my meager college budget), Perfect Girls Starving Daughters, and Yes Means Yes!, both of which affirm a feminism that is, at its core, a foolproof survival strategy for a young woman in America.

Buy Julie Zeilinger’s book here.

And, for free, read her blog: www.thefbomb.org.