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What’s The Role of “Institutions” in Violence?

officer ben fields[Ed Note: This is another great guest post from Katie Christensen.]

An adult white man brutally beat a 16-year-old Black girl quietly sitting in a desk at a public high school and people felt their stomachs drop. A few weeks later, after Officer Ben Fields was fired and the Spring Valley High School student was hospitalized, the outrage continued but the media attention subsided.  An institution is a system that guides social interactions by use of its authority, and several institutions were at play at Spring Valley High School. These institutions supported the violence and discrimination that led to the assault of a minor. (Keep in mind that all institutions in the United States are built upon and maintained via racism as you read this article.)

The first institution that jumps out at me in this situation is education. In the United States, education has taken the form of public schooling, during which students learn to respect the authority of those “above them:” teachers, administrators, and increasingly, police officers. As a product of the public school system, I can tell you that I quickly learned to obey authority figures, even if I didn’t understand why they were asking me to do something. The young Black girl allegedly disobeyed a teacher. The teacher reacted to maintain their authority, even though, by all accounts, the student wasn’t being disruptive. She called into question the authority of the institution of education and a police officer reaffirmed that authority.

This brings me to the next institution: government. The police force is given its authority by the government through money, legislation and judicial processes. At the time, Ben Fields was using that authority granted to him by the institution of government and by the school that employed him. The power that came with being a part of several institutions allowed him to beat a minor without any claim on self-defense. If someone not supported by government and education systems had entered that school and begun beating a student, it would have been a crime that the authority figures in the school were obligated to stop. The media would have told a much different story.

The third institution at play was the media. As soon as the video of the assault was put online, it went viral. Virtually every media outlet from news broadcasts to click-bait factories covered the story up until Officer Fields was fired from the police force. As an institution, the media shows its consumers what it wants us to see. It’s important to remember that news outlets count on viewership/readership in order to function and thus cover news stories they believe interest viewers. Powerful media organizations decided that the Spring Valley High School case was no longer interesting enough for consumers to click on and it was dropped from the news.

The last obvious institution that was part of the story was family. Our society is focused on the nuclear family as a support system for children. The student who was assaulted had recently lost her nuclear family. When Ben Fields acted, he did not risk a confrontation with the student’s upset parent because she was an orphan. It’s the sad truth that children are often exploited, especially when they don’t have an adult standing behind them.

Institutions like the education, government and the media aren’t inherently bad. Plenty of them have beneficial roles in our society. However, because institutions have authority, there is a power differential between groups within society which often leads to prejudice and discrimination, as in the case of the student at Spring Valley High School. In every institution that played a role, Ben Fields was granted authority that the student was not.

In my search through media surrounding this case, I saw the words “prejudice” and “discrimination” used interchangeably, but there is an important difference. Prejudice is an attitude toward members of a social category, while discrimination is an action based on prejudice. As such, discrimination involves a difference in power—one group holds the power to take an action against another.

Institutions hold the power to discriminate based on prejudice. Ben Fields is not a lone wolf. Across the country, students are being discriminated against by the institutions that are supposed to protect them. What I can say for sure is that each of the institutions from which Fields got his authority are discriminatory. Black students across the country are consistently punished more severely for the same acts as their white classmates. Schools are still largely racially segregated, thanks to school boundaries being strategically drawn. Fields actions were despicable and the fact that his boss fired him is a small victory but allowing this story to disappear from the news so quickly missed an opportunity to address a problem that exists on an institutional level. Spring Valley High is everywhere.

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See Suffragette Before It Leaves Theaters!

suffragette

{This is a review from Katie Christensen.}

Suffragette follows the story of Maud Watts (played by Carey Mulligan) as she wrestles with the idea of joining the suffragettes of 1912 England in their fight for their right to vote. Watts encounters famous suffragettes from history, women like Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) and Emily Wilding Davidson (Natalie Press), as well as the fictional Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). Ellyn was supposedly modeled after Edith Garrud, the suffragette jiu-jitsu instructor, but I’m disappointed to report that no jiu jitsu ended up in the final cut.

If there is one thing I can say about this movie with absolute certainty, it’s that it passes the Bechdel Test.

It was refreshing to see a woman-centered and woman-produced movie actually center around women, but the men were so one-dimensional it was almost painful. The one man who showed some personality development was Maud’s husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), but his transition wasn’t flushed out enough to be believable.

I must confess that, as a Doctor Who fanatic, I’ve always loved Carey Mulligan. (I even almost enjoyed the terrible modernized version of The Great Gatsby simply because she was in it.) That being said, her performance as Maud Watts was fantastic. Her acting was superb, and I found myself empathizing with her. Watt’s reluctance to get involved in the suffrage movement was relatable and frustrating at the same time. It took me back to the days when I refused to admit I was a feminist simply because of the stigma attached to the word.

This film’s relationship to the male gaze is intriguing. While the video work felt nothing like the average movie (the camera never lingered on the women’s bodies) the male gaze was present within the film itself through the use of the newly invented “discreet” portable camera. (Note: I didn’t expect any moments of combined audience laughter, but when a police officer declared that the giant camera of the early 1910s was sneaky enough for surveillance, the audience couldn’t suppress a giggle.) The images created by these giant cameras demonstrated to the audience how the men viewed the suffragettes: pretty and nothing more than a nuisance.

The parallels between Maud Watt’s struggle to accept the suffragette movement, and women today resisting feminism, are glaring to say the least. There were several speeches in the film that, with a few words swapped out, could be heard at any feminist rally or gender studies course in the U.S. right now. As was true in reality, there were many women shown in the film who are actively against gaining the right to vote, their internalized sexism excruciating to see. Even the tactics used by the men fighting against the suffragettes were eerily familiar to me. Not only were women beaten and imprisoned, but words like “crazy” were used to discredit them and take focus away from the cause they were fighting for.

I was really excited when this film was announced, but the PR nightmare that was the “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” t-shirt photo shoot made me reluctant to see the film. I didn’t expect a lot of diversity in a story so focused on white women but it was shocking to not see a single person of color in the entire film. The lack of PoC felt deliberate—almost forced. Even when natural opportunities arose for the mere mention of WoC, those opportunities were ignored. It felt as though the creators got so much backlash over the t-shirts that they set out to prove that it wasn’t about race by eliminating all mentions of it. An unsuccessful tactic, to be sure.

I could write an entire review solely about trigger warnings for this film. Sexual violence, police brutality, and violence against women were all major parts of the plot. The images can only be described as jarring. However, the violence was not gratuitous, nor was it used to merely advance the plot. Each instance of violence exposed a truth about what the suffragettes went through. Excluding these scenes would have erased a crucial part of history. Also, as the violence is shown the emphasis is placed on the way it impacted the characters rather than being voyeuristic.

This wasn’t a film I’d watch just for fun but it has value as an educational tool for those of us who often take the right to vote for granted. The credo of this film is “Deeds not words.” For all of its flaws, it succeeded in instilling a sense of urgency in its viewers. The passion and conviction of the suffragettes was contagious. I felt myself wanting to run out immediately after the film ended (even though it was 9:00 PM and around 45 degrees outside) and demand equal rights for women everywhere. So, if you’re looking for some extra motivation in your fight for equality, I recommend you watch Suffragette.

Suffragette is still playing! See it before it leaves theaters! 

How to unscramble the alphabet soup–LGBTQIA+

Alphabet soup with brightly colored letters

[Ed. Note: This is another guest post from Katie Christensen.]

Utah is known as a conservative state—one whose cultural leaders fought against the legalization of gay marriage both here and in other states (remember Prop 8 in California?). However, earlier this year, Salt Lake City was ranked 7th in terms of LGBT population among 50 U.S. metropolitan areas. That study found that 4.7 percent of Salt Lake City residents identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender, which is a great sign that our capital city is becoming a more diverse space. Unfortunately, Salt Lake was also recently home to a conference held by the World Congress of Families, an anti-LGBT organization. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the World Congress of Families as a hate group. I don’t know about you, but because of this mashup of two completely opposing viewpoints within SLC I’ve found myself having to explain some acronyms and terminology to my more conservative friends and family members.

All of those letters–what do they mean?

“LGBTQIA+” (often shortened to “LGBT” or “GLBT”) is a coalitional term—a term used to link people with different identities together to fight for their rights. There is no way for me to explain every sexual or gender identity in one article but these are the ones I encounter most often and I’ve found it useful to have these simple definitions ready to whip out whenever someone expresses confusion or starts spreading misinformation. It’s important to remember, though, that these are self-chosen identities. Someone fitting one of these definitions doesn’t mean they necessarily identify as the term.

Lesbian: A woman who is attracted to other women.

Gay: A man who is attracted to other men (though sometimes used as an umbrella term that also includes anyone who is attracted to members of their own gender).

Bisexual: A person who is attracted to both men and women and/or a person who is attracted to all genders.

Trans*: An umbrella term that encompasses a lot of different identities, including transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, and more. Some define it as an individual who doesn’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Others use it to describe a complex relationship with sex and gender.

Queer: This is also an umbrella term that includes anyone who feels outside the norm when it comes to gender or sexuality. Historically people used it as a slur against anyone who wasn’t cisgender and/or straight. However, the younger generation has embraced it as an identity and reclaimed it as their own (similar to the way young women have embraced the word “bitch.”).

Intersex: A term used to describe biological variation that falls outside of the binary of “man” and “woman.” For example, a person may be born with a vagina and uterus and XY chromosomes. Intersex people are generally considered rare, but statistically speaking a person is about as likely to be intersex as they are to have red hair. The previously used term was “hermaphrodite,” but that term is now viewed as derogatory.

Asexual: Someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction to anyone.

Plus (+): There are so many identity terms not included in common acronyms that still need representation. Here’s a list of basic definitions for terms that don’t come up as often but are just as important.

Learning to undo binary thinking

I often hear about gender and sexual identities reduced down to gay or straight with no room in between. If a girl likes girls she’s gay. If a girl likes boys she’s straight. End of story. This is an example of a false binary. My favorite definition of “binary” in Gender Studies comes from the book Gendered Worlds by Judy Root Aulette and Judith Wittner (2015): “The idea that factors such as sex, sexuality, or gender can be categorized into two exclusive opposites” (p. 522). Upon closer look, we know that those categories aren’t binaries (i.e. intersex folks).

It’s difficult to shrug these notions of exclusive opposites because we’ve been taught to organize our thoughts into separate, distinct, opposing categories, which makes processing new information easier. But the categories we have were created by our culture and its limited understanding of sex, sexuality, and gender (making them unreliable). Even the most well-intentioned people rely on false binaries to organize thoughts, which is why it’s so important to constantly check ourselves. Every once in a while I find myself looking at a stranger and wondering if they’re a man or a woman before remembering that a) there are more than those two possibilities and b) it really shouldn’t matter to me. Fighting false binaries is a constant battle.

The World Congress of Families conference is over, but it’s only a matter of time until a public figure in Utah says something misinformed and negative about the LGBTQIA+ community, and when that happens, family dinners across the state are bound to get heated. It’s important to remember that a lot of the people you’re talking to about these issues haven’t ever questioned false binaries or been in a position to learn about different gender and sexual identities that exist (hopefully this post helps!). So be prepared to answer a lot of questions after events like the World Congress of Families, and remember that education requires patience.

Are there other terms you have questions about? Tell us in the comments!

How to Talk About Sex, Gender, and Gender Roles

caitlyn jenner

{Ed. Note: This is the first in the Gender Studies 101 series by SLC Feminist Intern, Katie Christensen.}

Whether you like her or not, it’s hard to deny that the publicity surrounding Caitlin Jenner’s transition has opened up a lot of conversations about gender and sex. In a lot of situations (including some less-than-accurate articles about Jenner), news outlets used sex and gender interchangeably. Gender and sex, however, are actually two different things that often interact with each other. I’m going to cover some basic terminology in the Gender Studies canon that you can reference when chatting with hesitant friends and family members.

Sex is the biological identity you’re assigned at birth—usually “male” or “female” (in Jenner’s case, “male”). Most people view sex as a concrete, binary identity—one which is objectively true and unchangeable. That train of thought, while understandable, isn’t accurate. Culture rigorously designates and enforces the binary notion of biological sex, telling people you are either a man or woman. Yes, you are born with certain sex characteristics, but labeling those characteristics “male” or “female” is a social construct. A good general rule is to always remember that genitals don’t equal sex. Chromosomes, hormones, and genitals come in all variations.

Now that we’ve succinctly covered sex, let’s talk gender. Gender combines socialization and self-identification (gender identity). It’s talked about with words like man, woman, transgender, non-binary, etc.  Gender as a concept is tricky because it includes so many different cultural forces. The old-fashioned way of doing things starts at the hospital when doctors assign a binary sex that comes with a pre-packaged idea of gender.

Gender labels come with social expectations, expectations that are socially constructed and nearly constantly enforced by strangers. Consider Caitlyn Jenner, doctors declared “boy!” and with that came sex and gender. The expectation is one of hegemonic masculinity, a masculinity that dictated for years what she would wear, how she would express emotions, and even who she would marry. A good example of this is expectations that men don’t cry–we know this isn’t true. Baby boys cry just like baby girls, but we see the tears stop flowing after years of being told to stop the water works. This idea is a gendered expectation that comes with sex assignment.

With the label of a gender comes societal expectations called “gender roles,” or expectations of behavior based on a person’s gender. In modern Western societies the expectation is that men are aggressive, powerful, and emotionless. A man who doesn’t fit into this expectation is less a “sissy” or deviant. Women are decreed nurturing, collaborative, and docile. When women don’t behave this way, they’re viewed as “butch.” People who don’t fit into either gender role based on their actual or perceived sex are deemed deviant.

Gender roles for men are often referred to as “masculine.” This simply means anything that is “manly.” Aggression, deep voices, stoicism, facial hair, and flannel are all considered masculine. If a man is behaving in this way, he is fulfilling his gender roles. If the word “masculine” is ever used to describe a woman, it is to explain the parts of her that aren’t “womanly.” During the Olympics, Jenner fulfilled masculine expectations of competition, domination, and power. Now that she has transitioned, any sign of those traits is held up as proof that she isn’t a “real” woman.

Masculinity is in direct opposition to femininity, which is anything that is “womanly.” Being emotional, nurturing or docile are all considered “feminine,” as are floral prints, breasts, long hair and high voices. Before Caitlyn Jenner announced her transition the media was speculating about her transition simply because she was growing out her hair and dressing more feminine. Though in this case it was true that Jenner was transitioning, people displaying “feminine” traits are not always women.

All of these terms go back to sex. You are assigned a sex at birth, which comes with the assumption of a specific gender, which determines whether you are expected to obey masculine or feminine gender roles. Calling out that sex and gender aren’t the same, and that they’re both spectrums is relatively new to some folks. Just remember when you go into conversations that sex is socially constructed (if someone starts talking about genitals equal sex, ask them if a woman who has a hysterectomy is still a woman?)  Unfortunately for Caitlyn Jenner, the way our culture blends sex, gender, gender roles, and even sexual orientation, makes for some offensive and damaging news coverage. Here’s to hoping her story has helped change that in the future!

How do you talk about gender and sex with people who aren’t familiar with the terms? Tell us in the comments?

You’re Gonna Want to Know Our New Intern

Katie Christensen

I’m so excited to announce that Kaitlyn (Katie) Christensen has joined SLC Feminist for the fall as an intern from the University of Utah. Katie is a senior at the U of U where she’s pursuing a degree in Gender Studies with minors in Sociology and Psychology. She has been a Research Assistant for local legend, Dr. Lisa Diamond the last few years. When she isn’t researching the role of religious affiliation in identity formation, she’s hanging out in South Jordan with her cat Ziggy.

Katie is writing an upcoming series on Gender Studies 101, you know, for the people who don’t want to spend $25,000 on a degree.  Her posts will include breakdowns of canonical texts, introductions to theoretical concepts, and bios of influential feminists. Here’s a little bit about Katie to prepare you for her upcoming knowledge bombs:

Chelsea: When did you first identify as a feminist?

Katie: I first identified as a feminist when I was in high school but it didn’t become a huge part of my identity until college. The issues addressed by feminism have always been important to me but I didn’t have the terminology to identify it as such until I was in a more liberal educational environment.

C: Who are your feminist role models?

K: I love Mia McKenzie (founder of Black Girl Dangerous). Her ability to write something that is important and informative, yet simultaneously personal and passionate amazes me. I hope to be able to write with her passion and honesty someday. Lately I’ve been really impressed by Anita Sarkeesian’s work on representation within gaming. She is a great example of someone working to change a sexist institution from within despite threats to her safety. I also have a big soft spot for Angela Davis, whose work on the prison industrial complex changed the way I think about the United States in general and the US prison system in particular.

C: Tell me three fun feminist facts about yourself.

K: I recently realized I own at least four overtly feminist shirts; I am the co-author of a study about the perception of gender that is currently being run; A feminist tweet I wrote was included in a CNN online article about the “#notbuyingit” campaign. I count that as being published on CNN.

C: What’s your least favorite question you get asked about feminism?

K: I absolutely hate being asked some form of the question, “Are you one of the cool feminists who doesn’t hate men?” I’ve been trying online dating and because my profile includes the word “feminism” I get that question several times a day.

C: Describe what your feminist utopia look like?

K: My feminist utopia is an amazing fantasy. I imagine a place where people have complete control over themselves and their bodies. A place where everyone’s contributions to society are recognized and valued. In my utopia, the world is not constructed to favor certain bodies over others and identities are only self-imposed. I picture a world without false-binaries or labels, in which the same opportunities are given to everyone regardless of age, ability, gender, sexual orientation, class or race.

I think Katie is going to do a great job, and I look forward to sharing her work with all of you.

Her Gender Studies 101 series will start trickling out in October! Subscribe via email so you don’t miss any of her posts!