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Category: Feminism

Your online behaviour says a lot about the person you are

The Waiter Rule was first proposed by newspaper columnist David Barry in the late 1990s.

It preposes that a person’s true character is revealed by how they treat serving staff.

Fast forward to 2017 and I can’t help but wonder what Barry would think about the comments left on both social media and mainstream media platforms, and more to the point about what these reveal about the nature of those who chose to log in, and let rip.

The internet has become so increasingly aggressive and hostile that it is now considered wise to refrain from reading the comments section, to take regular digital detoxes, or to consider leaving particular social media platforms permanently.

Actor Leslie Jones left Twitter in July of last year after receiving a barrage of online racist and sexist hate for daring to star in the remake of the film Ghostbusters.

Feminist author Jessica Valenti followed suit the same month after tweets were sent threatening to rape and kill her five-year-old daughter.

Writer and activist Lindy West deactivated her account recently, declaring Twitter “is unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators”.

Leslie Jones (far left) was subjected to racist abuse for her role in the new Ghostbusters film. That says a lot about the character of the people trolling her. (Pic: Ghostbusters)

It would be tempting to reassure ourselves and think that only a small minority choose to badger, belittle, and bully. Yet research from the US shows that 28 per cent of online users admitted to engaging in malicious online activity directed at someone they didn’t know.

Some don’t even seem to be embarrassed by this behaviour. A 2016 study on online firestorms concluded that non-anonymous individuals are actually more aggressive compared to those who remain anonymous.

How do the people who throw these word-missiles reconcile their online behaviour with the self-perception many surely hold to be true — that they are decent, reasonable people?

Perhaps they do so by reassuring themselves that although they just sent a message to a journalist they disagree with, threatening to sexually assault her with a rusty knife, earlier they had offered to make their wife a cup of tea.

Although they did just post a cap-locked string of expletives on Facebook telling someone they find annoying why they don’t deserve to live, they had put their hand up to help at the school canteen next week.

The internet can sometimes seem a cesspool of hatred. (Pic: iStock)

Or perhaps they simply choose to ignore the fact that the mark of any person is not how they treat those they like, but rather how they treat those they find challenging and those from whom they have little to gain.

Psychologist Andrew Fuller argues that although even the kindest of us can have bad days and be rude, or unnecessarily hostile, “We have a responsibility to recognise that we are capable of belittlement and rudeness and to remedy it as soon as we feel we may have been out of control.” We need to learn to regulate our emotions, he says. Both in our face-to-face interactions, and in our virtual ones.

The modern-day litmus test of a person’s nature should be how they engage with others in the cyber world. Just as most of us would recoil from a blustering fool who chose to bark demands or attempted to demean the staff at a restaurant, so too will we start to move our seats away from the online haters.

Because whether the trolls would like to acknowledge it or not, their comments reveal far more about them than they ever do about those they are hoping to intimidate or discredit.

 

This post was originally published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, and online at RendezView  20/1/17 

Finally, Girl Power being used for the right reason

In the early 1990s, prominent feminists argued there was a media-driven backlash against the women’s movement, and it risked losing some of the momentum gained in the 1970s.

Then along came the Spice Girls to make “Girl Power” fun, and palatable, again.

“If you want my future, forget my past,” sang Posh, Baby, Scary, Ginger and Sporty.

It turns out it wasn’t just their predominantly teen-girl fan base who thought the way forward was through exclaiming “You go girl!”, it was marketers looking for a fresh take on how to sell the same old stuff, with a new pro-female spin.

So addicted have advertisers become to using the rhetoric of empowerment that it is now used to sell everything from cleaning products (“Get the power — the power to clean anything”) super-elastic, stomach-sucking knickers (“Spanx — Power Panties”, insert pictures of svelte women posing with arms on hips), cosmetics (Bobbie Brown’s “Pretty Powerful” range) and even workshops for teen girls that claim to want to empower teens via fashion makeovers.

Because nothing says equality quite like learning what colours best suit your skin-tone, or how to dress to maximise those socially acceptable curves, and to minimise the male gaze’s exposure to others.

Yet when marketers tackle sexism convincingly, their campaigns become viral sensations.

The Dove “Real Beauty” campaign has been running for more than a decade and is considered the industry leader in this genre; their 2013 “Real Beauty Sketches” commercial remains the most watched video ad of all time.

Feminine hygiene company Always’ “Like a Girl” campaign exposed the destructive impact messages we give to tweens about what being a young woman means can have on self-esteem; it has had more than 63 million views on YouTube.

Although many find it hard to believe Dove’s parent company Unilever is genuine in their commitment to fostering positive body image (they also sell slimming products, skin whitening creams, and run the notoriously sexist Lynx advertisement campaigns for boys), and some question how Always pushing panty liners is compatible with moving beyond limiting stereotypes about girls, for many of us it seems it is at least easy to get behind messages that build women up, rather than tearing them down.

The new “I’d like to see that” advertisement for the AFL women’s competition harks back to the popular 1994 AFL men’s campaign of the same name, but the female creatives behind this version have ensured it kicks a goal not just for one of the fastest growing sports (the recent television broadcast of an women’s AFL exhibition match reached more than one million viewers), but for team feminism.

The ad features female AFL players in action alongside prominent Australian sporting figures such as Turia Pitt and Cathy Freeman. They tell us they would like to see “girls who never give up” and “more women making Australian sporting history”.

It is incredibly inspiring (only the most hardened misogynist could fail to be moved by the shot of Melbourne captain Nathan Jones holding his giggling little girl in his arms and declaring: “Our daughters wearing our numbers one day? I’d like to see that”).

But what makes it unique is that it isn’t selling pop music, lotions or sanitary pads. It’s selling female participation in sport and their right to be taken seriously.

In the week since the ad was launched it has racked up more than 300,000 views online. Last weekend the millions who participated globally in the women’s marches proved the push towards equality has well and truly regained momentum.

Feminism is alive, hitting the streets and demanding more. What more would I like to see the women’s movement do? For a kick off, I’d like to see us move beyond messages of faux empowerment.

This post was first published in The Daily Telegraph newspaper 27/1/17 and online at RendezView.

Time for solutions not more talk

Regular readers will know I have spent the past six months as a volunteer Board Director for a new women’s shelter that is opening in Sydney’s northwest, The Sanctuary. Like most Australians, I’ve become increasingly alarmed by the headlines about women dying at the hands of their partners. In my work with teen girls, I hear more and more stories about young girls who are already trapped in relationships that are dangerous. My team of presenters at Goodfellas report the young men they work with also express concern about the men in their lives who make home a frightening place. 

Part of the solution lies in educating youth and broadening awareness through my writing and work in the media. My more hands-on work at The Sanctuary is another more practical part of the way forward.

I’m  happy to do everything from running our social media, to writing media releases, to helping with fundraising. But I am particuarly proud of two of the initiatives I’ve instigated for this refuge. One is The Sanctuary’s partnership with local boys’ college Oakhill. The other is connecting our work to the broader community through the establishment of an Ambassador program. Here our Ambassador Sarrah Le Marquand explains why this connection matters to her.  This guest post was first published in The Daily Telegraph 5/4 and posted online at RendezView.  

Ambassadors Maggie Dent (far left) and Sarrah Le Marquand ( far right) with Sanctuary Chair Yvonne Keane and myself.
Ambassadors Maggie Dent (far left) and Sarrah Le Marquand ( far right) with Sanctuary Chair Yvonne Keane and myself. Photo by Hills Shire Times.

It might sound a bit rich coming from someone who writes and speaks for a living, but talk alone is cheap. Heightened awareness of certain issues is vital, but unless that awareness eventually translates into action then words are just words.

Which is why, at a time when certain aspects of the national discussion regarding domestic violence threaten to descend into a he said/she said slanging match, it is on-the-ground measures and community solutions that are making a real impact.

Late last week I had the privilege of touring The Sanctuary, a new shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence that will open in Sydney’s northwest suburb of Castle Hill this week.

A state of the art facility equipped to provide three months of crisis accommodation for six women and their young families, The Sanctuary is a collaboration between the local community and Women’s Community Shelters that has become a reality despite no government funding.

To see first-hand the generosity of volunteers, including welcome packs for each family put together by male students from a nearby high school, is to see first-hand the triumph of action over talk.

There’s no navel-gazing lectures and petty point scoring on domestic violence here. Just good men and women making a real difference in the lives of victims.

Sarrah Le Marquand also spoke about her visit on Radio 2UE. You may listen here: 

Not being friends with everyone isn’t bullying. It’s life

It’s the deceptively unhelpful piece of advice that every well-intentioned adult has at one point issued to a child: “You should be friends with everybody!”

Admit it — who among us, parent or not, has not acted as unofficial cheerleader when discussing playground friendships with a young child? Fearful that they might fall into the trap of becoming a bully, we urge them to make friends with everyone. As in, EVERYONE, whether they like them or not.

Amid all the positive messages that were shared yesterday as part of the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence, the edict “You should be friends with everybody!” was the one sentence I dreaded hearing.

Although well intentioned, it ignores the complex dynamics of human relationships.

The truth is, we are not going to like everybody, all the time. And it’s not only OK to acknowledge that — it’s healthy.

It seems we’ve become so hyper-vigilant against bullies that every playground disagreement, or failure to be invited to a party, is now catalogued as evidence of bullying.

To help stem the rising tide of kids who are too quick to cry “Bully!” some schools have taken to posting sign that try to help explain the nuances of our more complicated social interactions: “When someone says or does something unintentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s rude. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s mean. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they keep doing it,- even when you tell then to stop or show them that you’re upset, that’s bullying.”

And it’s not just the kids who need educating. Parents are becoming increasingly quick to call schools to express concern that their child has been bullied when in reality, their child has experienced one of the many garden variety friendship fall outs that we all face at some point.

“There are kids who find school hell as they are subjected to ongoing campaigns of intolerance,” a colleague told me. “I’d much rather see resources poured into resolving this rot than in dealing with the tide of parents who call before their child has even had an opportunity to flex their own conflict resolution muscles.”

It’s problematic too that the friendship police often target girls. Any reluctance to have another student sit with them is viewed as evidence of mean girl machinations. Any whispered discussion about their classmates sees them labelled as gossip girls.

Given young women are expected to be paragons of acceptance and inclusivity is it any wonder that some grow up to unable to recognise unhealthy relationships and struggle to set boundaries with those who would hurt them?

The reality is that there are intricate sets of rules that govern the relationships between all young people (boys and girls) and much of the behaviour we are so quick to demonise is how they solidify friendships and practice social manoeuvring.

After all, don’t we as adults have particular mates that we prefer to spend our free time with? Don’t we also find it cathartic to vent to our inner circle when someone annoys us?

It’s far more empowering and realistic to let our kids know they don’t have to be friends with everyone — but they should be friendly.

It’s OK to not invite someone to your party, but don’t boast about the event in front of them. It’s understandable that you may not want to sit with a student you don’t have much in common with, but you could still smile at them when you see them in the playground. It’s natural that you might want to discuss someone who has hurt you with your mates, but be discreet.

When we give permission to our young people to behave authentically, within a framework of mutual respect for others, we are showing them that we don’t just value the feelings of others, but we value their feelings too.

And when they don’t feel forced into faux friendships, well it’s then our young people might just surprise us (and themselves) by realising that kid they initially didn’t like is actually kinda cool.

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This post was first published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, 19/3/16 and online at RendezView  

Hollywood finally realises women have stories to tell too

The following post was first published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, and online at RendezView, 26/12/15.

Is it any wonder that after overeating, overspending and feeling over the in-laws, so many of us escape between Christmas and New Year to the movies?

The December holiday period is in fact one of the most lucrative for cinemas, as evidenced by the unstoppable box-office performance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which set a new record for worldwide ticket sales on its release.

But as much as I love tales of underdogs defeating dark forces, this Boxing Day I’ll be lining up to see a different set of fighters bravely putting their lives on the line and challenging existing power structures.

Bring on the suffragettes.

Opening in Australia today is this historical period drama Suffragette, which tells the story of the “Mothers, Daughters, Rebels” who risked everything in their battle for the vote.

It won’t necessarily be comfortable viewing. I suspect many cinemagoers may be shocked at both the plight of women in 1912 (when the film opens) and the brutality of the British government’s response to their campaign.

But how vital it is that we learn more about women’s stories; particularly considering much of what we learn at school in history is often so very male-centric.

Back when I was a high school history teacher I was frustrated at just how difficult it was to access quality resource material on the role women played in various historical periods. During wartime for example, most textbooks reduce the role of women to either waving off their sons to war, or to nursing; to narratives of motherhood and sacrifice.

In reality, female contributions were far more diverse, from women taking on traditional “men’s work” outside the home, to serving as special agents in World War 2 (Australian educated Nancy Wake became the Gestapo’s most wanted person for the work she did with the French Resistance and remains this country’s most decorated servicewoman). Why have there not been more films telling their tales?

In a recent New York Times Magazine article on sexism in cinema a top entertainment executive, who insisted on anonymity, offered an insight into why so few women’s stories, historical or otherwise, reach an audience, “ It’s a hundred-year-old business, founded by a bunch of old Jewish European men who did not hire anybody of color (sic), no women agents or executives. We’re still slow at anything but white guys’’.

Slow indeed. According to Screen Australia, here women account for only 32 per cent of the producers, 16 per cent of the directors and 23 per cent of the writers.

Suffragette is, therefore, a rare cinematic gem as it not only sheds light on a crucial period in the history of the fight for gender equality, but has two women at the helm with both a female director and screenwriter.

So today I will grab my popcorn and head to the movies, not only to honour the memory of my suffragette sisters, but also to support the work of women in film.

Yes, we have come a long way. But it’s clear the fight continues.

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How young men will help put an end to domestic violence

The following post was originally published by RendezView 15/10/15.

 

Like most Australians, every time I hear news reports about yet another woman who has died at the hands of her partner, I feel horrified.

And as at least one woman gets killed as a result of domestic violence every week, I find myself feeling horrified often.

But how does one move from anguish into something more constructive that might form part of the solution?

As an educator and author I’ve dedicated my career to date to working with young women; empowering them to know their worth, encouraging them to deconstruct limiting gender stereotypes and teaching them how to develop and maintain respectful relationships.

But putting an end to violence against women and children cannot just be the work of women; we desperately need the passion, creativity and hard work of good men too.

So when I joined a committed group of people in my local community working to establish a new domestic violence shelter in the Sydney suburb of Castle Hill, called The Sanctuary, I wanted to initiate a partnership with the largest boys’ school in the area, Oakhill College.

It is these lads who can help us ensure that one day, our refuge may no longer be needed. Because while shelters are focused on creating crisis accommodation for women and children, they are also focused on early intervention and prevention work.

This is why all 220 of the Year 10 boys who will be adopting The Sanctuary as their own were briefed about why a refuge is needed in their local area, and about what they as young men can do to help curb violence.

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This initiative was also featured in The Daily Telegraph 14/10

They then did further research — including looking at the underlying issues that drive domestic violence such as gender inequality and sexism — and started creating their own anti-DV posters they will carry when they join in our local White Ribbon march in November.

The boys will also now begin making up Welcome Packs (toiletries, chocolates, etc) that can be given to women and children as they arrive at the shelter. The attached gift card will simply read, “We care about you and we are glad you are safe. This gift is for you to show you that you’re valued.” This small act of kindness has the potential to have a huge impact for both the giver and the receiver.

Their English teachers have also now begun brainstorming ideas for how they can embed this work across their curriculum. The staff love the social justice focus and also the opportunity this creates for the application of learning in the real world.

And like with all projects that young people feel a sense of ownership over, it will evolve in ways none of us can even anticipate at this early stage. From the simple (the lad who approached me to say, “Danni, this really means a lot to me and if you want I’ll get some friends and go door knocking to get you more money”) to the more innovative (there’s talk of producing and performing plays, and of making film projects).

Why has the initial response from these boys been so positive?

The boys have been encouraged to realise they can be part of the solution.

When I first met these boys, I looked straight into their eyes and told them I knew they were gorgeous young men who felt just as distressed as I did by knowing not all women and children are safe in their own homes. And I told them I knew they would welcome the opportunity to learn and be voices of difference.

So often too we forget that in homes where there are violent men, there are young boys who are not violent. Rather, there are boys who feel scared. Boys who feel angry. Boys who feel powerless.

Boys who want to make things OK.

And while I am incredibly grateful for the enormous contributions of the women who work tirelessly in this field, in my community I have been inspired to see there are plenty of men who want to step up and make things OK as well.

There are fellow Sanctuary Board members, like Hills Local Area Commander Rob Critchlow, who helped get the ball rolling here by seeking out a location to establish a safe shelter and managing security concerns. And the Centre Manager for Castle Towers, Martin Ollis, who convinced his QIC Board to donate a fully refurbished property to The Sanctuary rent-free. There’s the Assistant Principal at Oakhill, Bob Munday, who jumped at the opportunity for his boys to be The Sanctuary’s advocates.

And there are these young men.

All are true champions for change. Their attitudes reaffirm that most men in Australia respect women and children and believe that the current culture of violence is unacceptable. And those who feel otherwise are discredited and put on notice.

Update 30/11 – I was asked to speak to Brisbane Breakfast FM radio 97.3 about this initiative for White Ribbon day. You may listen to this animated discussion here:

Is this the best ad campaign EVER aimed at little girls?

The following post was originally published by Kidspot. 

Yep. I’m calling it. This is the greatest marketing campaign aimed at little girls ever.

Much-loved talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has joined with American clothing retailer Gap to help design and launch a new range of clothing for girls entitled GapKids x ED; “It’s for the doers and dancers and dreamers, bikers and boarders and builders …”

The television commercial, featuring a girl empowering anthem by feminist rockers Le Tigre, shows young girls from diverse racial backgrounds skating, biking, climbing, solving math equations. They are a blur of moving limbs, messed up hair and cheeky grins.

And the best part? Ellen also interviews all the girls featured in a series of promotional videos; they get the opportunity to share their real passions. There’s the ‘Pink Helmet Posse’, a trio of skateboarders ranging in age from seven-to-eight. There’s nine-year-old Torrae, a robotic hand builder and 12 year old Asia, an entrepreneur.

These girls aren’t mere models. They are model people

The clothes feature slogans like ‘Fun’ and ‘Become your own hero’. The iconography includes a lightening bolt (a symbol of empowerment) and a speech bubble (reminding girls to express themselves). The collection also encourages kids to express themselves quite literally with self-customisable clothing and accessories that they can decorate freely using fabric or chalk markers.

The Media Release offers one final triumph:

“Using the hashtag #HeyWorld followed by a name, a girl’s friend, mother, father or mentor can issue a call to action for social messages of encouragement and love to any girl in need of positive support, cheering her on through the power of positive words. In addition, there will be a texting opportunity to receive inspiring and encouraging messages from Ellen DeGeneres herself.”

Oh, be still my beating heart

For years we have been dismayed at clothing and marketing campaigns aimed at little girls. And make no mistake, there have been some absolute shockers.

There have been slogans that encourage girls to play dumb; ‘I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me.” “I’m allergic to Algebra.” “My best subjects? Boys, shopping, music and dancing.”

Slogans that encourage girls to play helpless; ‘I need a hero’. ‘Waiting for my Prince Charming’.

And slogans that encourage girls to view themselves as just bodies, not somebodies; ‘Future trophy wife’. ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’.

 

Best ad campaign ever aimed at young girls
Clothing with far from empowering slogans.

 

There’s been designer duds marketed as aspirational for little girls. Think Suri Cruise tottering since the age of three in one of the many pairs of designer shoes drawn from her collection, which is reportedly worth over $150,000 (by age seven she had her own fashion label). Or Kim and Kanye’s two-year-old daughter North West’s wardrobe, which features designs by the likes of Givenchy and Alexander Wang.

And there’s been plenty of advertisements featuring little girls pouting, preening and posing like mini-adults.

The children’s clothing industry is a billion dollar business and many marketers have rushed not just to sell to girls, but also to sell girls out. You can’t help but feel a chill when you read the words of one marketing professional that said at a big marketing-and-advertising shindig in New York recently: ‘Kids are the most powerful sector of the market, and we should take advantage of them.’

So it’s no wonder I found myself fist-pumping at this fresh new girl-empowering approach.

#HeyWorld – meet marketing to girls done right. And other brands? Please take note.

 

A ban on Wonder Woman lunchboxes? Oh come on!

The following article was originally published on News Corp’s popular online opinion site, RendezView. 

Holy Boycotts, Batman! Just when you thought it was safe to send your little one off to school with their sandwich encased in their favourite lunchbox, the powers-that-be impose a new rule.

Two well-meaning parents in America have reportedly found themselves on the wrong side of the appropriate lunchbox-law, having received a stern warning from school administrators over their daughter’s choice of food container.

“We noticed that Laura has a Wonder Woman lunchbox that features a super hero image,” the letter began. “In keeping with the dress code of the school, we must ask that she not bring this to school.”

Why, exactly? Because the school frowns on the childhood preoccupation with crime-fighting superheroes.

“We have defined ‘violent characters’ as those who solve problems using violence,” Laura’s parents were told. “Superheroes certainly fall into that category.”

In other words: no more Wonder Woman paraphernalia on the playground.

The Wonder Woman lunchbox that started all the fuss.

The Wonder Woman lunchbox that started all the fuss.

Now while issuing some guidelines around the celebration of battling beef-heads on school grounds is one thing, who could possibly question a woman who is said to boast the wisdom of Athena and the beauty of Aphrodite?

True, many of the fictional female heroines we’ve been presented with on screen in recent times possess a traditional male version of power that could be perceived as violent. It’s all kick-boxing, weapons, sensible black pants, hair-tied back and hangin’ with the boys. Think The Hunger Game’s Katniss, The Divergent’s “Tris”, Captain America’s ally The Black Widow.

And yet the success of these franchises show girls have been craving something beyond the damsels in distress that have long being dished up to them as role models. Hence why we should be encouraging more Diana devotees, not discouraging them. Because not only does she not need a hero to save her (she does the saving thank you very much) she offers far more than mere muscle.

Wonder Woman is the alter ego of Princess Diana of the Amazons, a nation of women warriors in Greek Mythology. Embracing her inner-girlishness, this longhaired lady rocks some amazing star-spangled knickers and to-die for red boots. And she fights crime using possibly one of the most intriguing super-tools ever, the Golden Lasso of Truth, which compels baddies to speak honestly to her. In the early days of the comics, though, the lasso’s power was broader than that: if Wonder Woman caught you in her lasso, you had to obey all her commands.

The writer who created Wonder Woman back in the 1940s, psychologist William Marston, explained the lasso was a symbol of ‘female charm, allure, oomph, attraction’ and the power that ‘every woman has … over people of both sexes whom she wishes to influence or control in any way’.

A press release issued when the character debuted said: “Wonder Woman was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolised by men” because “the only hope for civilisation is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.”

No wonder Ms Magazine made her their first cover girl in their inaugural issue that boasted the headline: “Wonder Woman For President.”

It is the combination of femininity and power that makes WW particularly lunchbox-worthy. Which is why when I originally heard the story of a letter being sent home asking the parents to refrain from letting their daughter bring hers to school I doubted its authenticity.

And while some sceptics are also now questioning whether the initial post by an unnamed Reddit user was true, we’ve all seen many similar examples of silly knee-jerk reactions by education authorities.

A school in the US recently sent a teenage girl home as her rather demure outfit happened to show her collarbone (this was deemed a distraction to others). Girls at a London school were told they could no longer have “best friends” (such behaviour was labelled as exclusivist). Here in Australia girls at an Islamic school were banned from running (in a misguided and sexist attempt to protect their virginity), while a Year 11 student from a Victorian school was sent home from her English exam because she was wearing the wrong socks.

Was there ever a more patronised and policed demographic than young women?

But who in their right mind would question the ultimate girls-can-be-anything-and-everything princess who fights for justice, love, peace and sexual equality?

Because do you want to know the golden-lasso-style truth? Girls need Wonder Woman.

And so do we.

 

Sex-obsessed. Boy-crazy. Annoying. Not so fast — teen girls are much better than that.

This post originally appeared on News Corp’s popular online opinion site RendezView. 

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“Lies, scams and deceit — just your average teen girl.” “Lost innocence: Why girls are having rough sex at 12.” ‘Drug toll … A generation of teenage girls riddled with fear and anxiety is overdosing in record numbers.” “The Invincible — A startling exposé on this generation of young women who show no fear about the dangers of sex, booze, or even the sun.”

Another day, another media headline urging us to view adolescent girls as either vulnerable victims in need of protection, or as a wanton and wild demographic we need to be protected from.

Worrying about the younger generation is nothing new. An inscription found in a 6000 year-old Egyptian tomb highlights the enduring nature of our fears that youth are lost: “We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self control.”

But thanks to this digital age the hand-wringing dialogue that surrounds our daughters in particular — no matter how well intentioned it may be — is now forming the running commentary for the lives of many teen girls.

Author and feminist Emily Maguire, in her essay “Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff” asks us to consider how the teen girls who see and hear these discussions might feel:

“Teen girls are not a separate species — they walk among us. They see and hear and read the same things we do, including all those features about sexting and raunch culture and under-age sex. They notice how those articles are always illustrated with photos of teenage bodies in tiny skirts or low-cut tops, the faces blurred or heads lopped off. They are aware of the way serious news sources and trash media alike use their bodies to sell papers even as they express deep concern about how girls are using those same bodies — their own — for pleasure …

No wonder so many girls feel misunderstood and alienated … And when loving parents buy into it they end up either alienating their daughters or infecting them with their own fear and panic.”

There is in fact a longstanding tradition of using scare tactics as a means of controlling women and this starts early. Fairytales are some of the first cautionary tales told to girls. These stories provide clear messages about obedience, adherence to traditional gender roles, beauty and virtue, and the dangers inherent in being an ambitious woman who seeks any form of power (cue wicked witches). They also often emphasis the need for girls to have male protectors; whether these be handsome princes or kindly kings.

There is also a longstanding tradition of omitting the bravery and resilience of young women from our cultural narratives. We tend not to share stories of girls who thrive and strive, or broadcast statistics that highlight the positive.

Here in Australia teen pregnancy, cigarette smoking, illicit drug use and alcohol drinking rates and all down. Meanwhile school retention and academic performance rates have significantly increased for girls. It seems we have a generation that are not as self-obsessed as we’d like to paint them as being. 80 per cent of Girl Guides over the age of 10 commit two or more hours each week to volunteering; almost double the amount of time contributed by adults.

Anecdotally, as an educator who works with thousands of teen girls every year across Australia I’ve observed that girls are doing remarkably well in a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, or have much faith in their decision-making capacity.

And when we are not choosing to ignore, we sometimes choose to conceal. Historically, we have attributed the achievements of adolescent girls to those of much older women. Case in point, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who in 1955 was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Colvin’s act inspired the civil rights movement that followed as nine months later middle-aged Rosa Parks became the public face for this movement. Colvin has since explained “[t]hey (the leaders of the civil rights movement) thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa.”

None of this is to say that there are not very real issues teen girls struggle with that we do need to address; body image angst, disordered eating, self harm, binge drinking, navigating technology safely, developing and maintaining respectful relationships. These are some of the issues I’ve devoted my career to supporting girls to manage. But the answer lies in education — not moral panic, or policing and patronising. We must give girls the skills they need to make informed choices and encourage them to turn their critical gaze on their culture, not themselves and each other. We must present them with more positive role models. We must actively seek out opportunities to celebrate their wins. Importantly, we must also make it OK for them to take risks and make mistakes.

Dr Briony Scott, Principal of girls’ school Wenona, in her essay on “Women and Power” called too for a change in perspective:

“In the years that I have been a principal, it is abundantly clear to me that families are doing a magnificent job but they do so in the face of cultural expectations that would lead them to think otherwise. There is a social and cultural normalising of the belief that raising girls is an almost impossible task. Along with this comes a presumption that when anything does goes wrong for girls, it must be because they are depressed, mentally fragile, and/or prone to anxiety.

Such a view, apart from being inherently presumptuous, trivialises those young women (and men) who genuinely struggle with their mental health, and pathologises what is fundamentally, a normal developmental path. It does an extraordinary disservice to young women who are simply navigating the road to adulthood.”

Let’s not feed the self-fulfilling prophecy that teen girls are either troubled or trouble.

Because the real picture? It’s far brighter.

I don’t believe self-defence training is “victim blaming”. And I’m a feminist.

I’m a proud feminist. And I’m the CEO of Australia’s largest provider of in-school workshops for teen girls that help develop self-worth and resilience. And I promote self-defence classes to young women.

Here’s how, and here’s why.

The uncomfortable truth? Teen girls are likely to experience violence in their lifetime; this can occur in a wide range of contexts ranging from schoolyard bullying and peer based aggression, through to street based harassment and stranger intimidation, through to physical assault and sexual violence.

And while we all agree this is a situation that needs to be urgently addressed, where feminists disagree is on the kind of advice, if any, which should be given to girls given this reality.

Some argue passionately that any attempt to modify young women’s behaviours is in effect victim blaming, and that the onus on change must always be placed squarely and solely at the feet of those who would harm.

I agree that often the dialogue on what women should do to stay safe, particularly after high profile media reporting on the death of a woman, can become (sometimes unintentionally) focused on what women wear, where they choose to go, whether they chose to drink alcohol. It focuses on limiting women’s freedoms.

This is never helpful. This is never OK. And it tends to assume that men who would harm are strangers lurking in dark alleys, waiting for their next vulnerable victim. As the statistics on domestic violence here in Australia clearly show, this is not always the case.

However, if self-defence is framed within a context of unpacking victim blaming and emphasising why violence is always the fault and responsibility of the perpetrator, and never the fault or responsibility of the victim or survivor, it can do much to shift this type of thinking. In fact, at the end of our sessions, many girls have approached us to explain how for the first time they felt understood; “I’ve always felt like maybe I must have somehow been to blame for my boyfriend hurting me like that. I now know that it had nothing to do with me …”

Importantly too, there must be an emphasis on the fact that we must also never blame a victim who doesn’t (for whatever reason) act assertively or fight back when in a threatening situation. Any of us, even trained professionals in the army or police force, can freeze in the face of danger. By explaining the body’s instinctive fight, flight or freeze survival mechanism, again much can be done to alleviate victim blaming and shaming.

In this age of body-image angst, self-defence classes also challenge the myth that women’s bodies are merely ornamental. Girls can be fast, strong and powerful; they can set physical boundaries. They can take up more space.

And girls can learn how and when to set verbal boundaries: “Stop! I don’t like it!”. Self-defence classes encourage girls to find their voices which is in contrast to the passivity-push that would have us believe girls should be sugar, spice and all things nice; seen and not heard.

In addition, girls are encouraged to shout-out not just for themselves but for others too; we also teach ethical bystander behaviour. There is great strength in connecting girls to each other and in fostering a sense of sisterhood.

And let me tell you, girls love all of this. Our self-defence workshop would be one of the ones girls rave about the most in their evaluations of our work. There is always laughter, giggling and a real delight in feeling powerful rather than powerless.

Finally, there is plenty of evidence to show self-defence classes can be useful in certain contexts. After news of an English women who had been trained in martial arts beating her sex-attacker unconscious broke recently, journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cossett argued that it was her own knowledge of self-defence that had saved her in an attack too; “After fighting off my attacker … (I kicked, scratched, punched, wrestled him to the ground, and told him he was a motherf****r) … I am baffled as to why self-defence has become so apparently outmoded, because it helped me when I needed it most. I grew up with a mother who used to run workshops for women who were victims of domestic violence in South London. It was she who taught me to face my attacker kicking and screaming, and in doing so she saved my life.

“That’s not to say that I might not have frozen … you cannot predict how any human will react, and I speak only for myself — but I am baffled that it is not taught more in schools. Why not have kickboxing and martial arts in PE lessons? Ultimately, extra-curricular karate lessons proved more useful to me than netball ever did.”

And what do the schools we have worked with say?

I have had emails from three different school principals in the years since we have been running these courses thanking us for giving their students the information they needed when they were in a potentially dangerous situation. On all three occasions their girls had been harassed on trains and knew to follow their instincts, move away quickly and to let other adults around them know they were feeling unsafe. Importantly, they also knew it was not their fault that they had been targeted: “They felt angry rather than ashamed which is just as it should be.”

And I have had many, many messages from teen girls that have told me that they suspect knowing that it is OK to set boundaries (and how to do this assertively) has kept them safe in a myriad of different situations. Everything from being bullied in the playground by other students, to being cornered at a party by a guy they trusted who tried to coerce them into sex.

Doctors Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey, women’s self-defence advocates and founders of site “See Jane Fight Back!” also argue: “Self-defence challenges the belief that rape is thwarted only by the perpetrator “coming to his senses”, through bystander interference, or divine intervention. “Yep. In a perfect world? It would not be necessary to focus on how women and girls can learn assertiveness and self-defence skills. But we do not yet live in that world.

And while the vital work to help curb violence continues, so too should the programs for girls and women that provide options and strategies for keeping safe.

Knowledge is power. And I choose to pass power on.

This post originally appeared in News Corp’s popular online opinion site RendezView. 

 

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