Thursday, September 5, 2013

Slut-Shaming, Gender Roles, and Flames...On the Side of My Face


First of all, I must admit that I was completely inspired by this post by my dear friend Kate to write this.

Second of all, I'm thoroughly obsessed with that YouTube clip of Madeline Kahn you see below.

Third of all, fasten your seat belts, because I have a lot to say about gender equity.

(Fourth of all, this post is best enjoyed while listening to this play list. VERY NSFW & angsty & dramatic.)

In June, I found out that I was selected by the Barazia Gjinore committee to be one of three representatives from my training group. Barazia Gjinore (BG) - literally "Gender Equity" and formerly "Gender and Development" - is a part of Peace Corps Albania and is made up of six representatives, three from each group. I'm incredibly excited to be a part of this committee and get to work on projects! In fact, I just helped with a girls' leadership camp last week in the city of Gramsh (I'll blog about that a bit later).

And today, I had the opportunity to talk about both homosexuality and transsexualism with some Albanian women (two counterparts and a friend). Perhaps "opportunity" is too optimistic of a word..."challenge," "herculean task," or "impossibility" more fittingly describe the task of communicating abstract, cross-cultural, gender-bending ideas in a third language. Even if I spoke shqip perfectly, I could no more explain my perspective than pass up free brownies and root beer and a side of cheese curds. These three women - kind, open, loving, caring, progressive, hard-working - have lived their entire lives within a narrow gender-normative framework that they (seem to) fit without issue, one to which I can't exactly relate.

Even with a degree in  Gender & Women's Studies, I struggled to answer their questions. Each explanation seemed to open a Pandora's box of cultural taboos and unconscious prejudices (both mine and theirs). Committees like PC Albania's LGBT committee (to a greater extent) and  BG (to a lesser extent) have produced materials to help volunteers navigate these language-murky waters. My experiences today have only made me that much more determined to be a productive member of the BG committee here in Albania.

But.

I can't sit here complaining about this country and its gender roles and restrictions and blah blah blah when modern American women still post things like this: FYI (If You're a Teenage Girl). Go ahead and read it. It's pretty short. And needless to say, by the time I finished the article I was so irate I could only channel Madeline Kahn and eat some (pseudo-Chips Ahoy chocolate chip) cookies in emotional distress.


(I suppose this post should have come with a "required reading" assignment ahead of time, but you've read this far and now it's too late to turn back. So feel free to read the following articles in their entirety, because they're all fantastic and most of them are more concise than I am and certainly use less over-the-top adjectives and run-on sentences. And definitely read this parody of the letter: FYI (If You're a Teenage Boy).)

I'm not saying that "Mrs. Hall" 1,000% off her mark. The over-sexualization of girls, teens, and women is a pervasive problem in our society. American and Albanian. Basically the entire world, in general. But that's not what has the internet up in arms about this particular blog post. Professor Rebecca Hains has an excellent and articulate response (I mean, she is a professor): 
I suspect that Hall’s post has gone viral because so many people are concerned with teenage girls’ self-presentation on facebook. We’ve all seen it: teenage girls trying to mimic the scantily-clad celebrities and models plastered on billboards and magazine covers. And naturally, people want to do something about it. After all, the implications of our media culture’s sexualization of girls is serious: As the American Psychological Association has noted, when girls learn that our culture values their appearances above all else about them, they may in turn learn to sexualize themselves–and the impact of self-sexualization on girls’ self-esteem and self-image is devastating. The damage of thinking of oneself first and foremost as an object can take a lifetime to undo. 
Furthermore, once a photograph is online, it’s essentially impossible to remove it from the internet. So when girls place sexually provocative “selfies” of themselves to facebook, it’s a huge issue. For example, the photos can be used by bullies to shame the girls–and they can resurface years later, too, causing myriad problems in their lives. 
But these are not problems that would affect Mrs. Hall’s sons. They would affect the girls themselves. Furthermore, the sexual double-standard in our society is so pervasive that any “sexy” photos the boys may post of themselves are unlikely to cause them similar harm. 
We are living in a post-Steubenville world. We have seen graphic evidence of the results of the sexual objectification of young girls, and of the victim-blaming mindset–that a girl who presents herself in a sexy way “deserves it.” 
Therefore, for parents like Mrs. Hall who are concerned about their sons’ well-being, their best course is not to focus on shaming girls and controlling their behavior. 
Instead, we must teach our sons compassion. Help them understand that girls’ self-sexualization is prompted by a toxic culture.
Ultimately, no matter where you go, women are objectified. "Christian Moms" in the US demand that young women police their own wardrobes instead of teaching their own sons responsibility, integrity, and respect for women. In Albania, a large minority of women appear to accept domestic violence as part of marriage: in the 2008-9 DHS, 29.8% of women agreed with at least one out of a list of five ‘reasons’ for a man to justifiably beat his wife. (Source.) As an American PCV, I know I have a right to bitch slap the old dude who thought he had the right to cop a feel on a furgon; but how would one of my young shqiptare girlfriends react in the same situation? Or what about the young çuns I know/know of - who's teaching them that they do not, in fact, have that right (no matter what the girl is wearing)? 

In her parody of Hill's letter, blogger Amy Mitchell states (with tongue-firmly-in-cheek):
So, here’s the bit that I think is important for you to realize.  If you are the parent of a teenage son, you should definitely make sure he never, ever sees a half-dressed girl.  Half-dressed boys are okay, though, because naturally, none of your sons are gay or bisexual.  Posting half-naked pictures of your own sons flexing on the beach is also totally fine, since no one ever equates strength and virility... Besides, it’s not at all exploitative to parade their bodies on the Internet for your own gain; everyone knows that’s much better than making one’s own choices about what to post. 
Please understand this also: you are not responsible for making sure your sons know that regardless of what a girl is wearing, she deserves respect.  All you need to do is assure they don’t see those pictures.  After all, if they don’t see them, then you can relax in the knowledge that your sons do not know what girls’ bodies look like or that they won’t satisfy their curiosity by looking at the Internet at a friend’s house.
I'm not sure how to wrap up this tirade against Gender Roles and Western Society and Slut-Shaming and The Man. And by all means, I am not perfect ("don’t fret – I’ve made some doozies."). Heck, I found myself slut-shaming Miley Cyrus the other day after seeing her performance at the VMAs and I am not proud of it. 

So what does this leave you with, you who managed to make it through this ginormous post? Thanks for reading. Think about it. Ask questions. Tell me when I'm being culturally insensitive or close-minded or nauseatingly self-righteous. Be aware and be proactive.

And where does this leave me, besides irate and frustrated and slightly sweaty? Even the broadest topics here in Albania (equity, equality, opportunity, ability) need addressing. I'm over the moon that I get to be a part of BG. Volunteering at the girls' leadership camp was not only fun and rewarding, but uplifting to see how the simplest activities can change perspectives. I can't wait to develop relationships with local Lushnje girls to talk about choice and goals and personal agency. And hopefully I'll be able to influence the minds of my Albanian friends and coworkers about gender and slut-shaming and society and all the rest.

One poorly-translated, best-intentioned conversation at a time.

3 comments:

  1. Things like this make me miss you x999999999999999!

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  3. Hey Mary -

    Thank you for taking a stand. You have a clear voice and a message to give. YOU are aware and proactive - thank you because our world needs to hear the message that grown men and boys need to learn how to respect a woman and stop slut-shaming.

    There are two issues. The first is Parenting 101: Day one - boys do not hit girls and girls do not hit boys. And the second is Adult 101: Men need to learn how to MODEL respect for the male adolescent and women need to MODEL their own personal respect and boundaries for female adolescents.

    I guess I could go on and on along side of you but the point is respect is learned and modeled beginning as early as age 3 (or earlier!). This is why I LOVE Blackhawk's Next-Gen philosophy. It's a great example. Prepare the next generation by modeling love and respect for the Word of Christ for our children - Day 1.

    You are a very soft, kind, gentle and strong woman who can demonstrate the beauty of such simple behavior. There is a reason why the Barazia Gjinore committee selected you. I am proud of you and many young and old women are learning from your point of view. Just remember patience (calm), understanding and kindness in the voice of the message.

    Oh my compassionate and lovely daughter - you rock and I love you with all my heart, Mom

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