Selena Gomez: A Hollywood Role Model.

For those of you who read my blog and books, you know I teach and try to find role models for my young students. Some of the ones I select lived hundreds of years ago. Some are alive, and giving parents, teachers, and young people better choices than the dismal pantheon of famous teenagers in Hollywood who rely on sex tapes and high speed chases to gain notoriety.

Classes started this week, so I have a lot to hear from my students about who they admire and why. I write the words that are traditionally associated with leaders and role models on the board. “Integrity” “Vision” “Kindness”…but there are other more subtle attributes that we miss, and I think they can be found by looking at two actresses who are making some breakout choices with the roles they take, and some of the off-screen decisions they make about what’s really important in life.

Great leaders and role models share one trait that most of us miss when looking for the next person to follow: Vulnerability. This is an unlikely superpower to most larger than life characters. To make yourself vulnerable is put yourself in a place of risk, to appear weak, to make a choice that tells the world you know the difference between fame and personal achievement, between adulation and respect.

Selena Gomez decided to take three months off to assess her mental health and her career. It was a shocking move to the Hollywood establishment and her fans. Why didn’t she just check into rehab after a wildly publicized and largely manufactured “breakdown.” Instead, she sat down with strangers in therapy and made choices most adults couldn’t fathom. She came back a new different person. What we saw once as a squeaky clean girl with talent and mouse ears has blossomed into a young woman who is ready for a new role. In short, Selena became a real life wonder woman. She made risky choices the way Gal Gadot did in her breakout performance of Wonder Woman.  By showing us her weaker side, she gave us a glimpse into a real superpower we all have the power to possess.

So, Selena is up on my board in the classroom as this month’s young woman to watch. One parent of course took issue with my choice and asked how I could be so admiring of a girl who sings the ultra sultry songs “Fetish”, and “Bad Liar”. How could I endorse an actress who wears a string bikini and sucks off a gun barrel in Spring Breakers. And my answer was because Selena, like any girl who needs to find womanhood on her own terms, is growing and exploring the complex difference between passion and true love in ways that give us the kind of conflicted character who is tired of playing a little girl. The world doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to shoving teenage sex in our faces, why should Selena? Can’t you hear her pain between the lines of those so-called “inappropriate” songs? Can’t you see why she’s supporting 13 Reasons Why as a way to stare down teen suicide? We parents and teachers still have a lot to learn on what it takes to survive as a young person today.

Thank God, Selena is showing the way.

 

“Whitelash” on the day MLK Jr. was killed

MLK jr.

Of all the new words that entered the lexicon last year, “whitelash” was the hardest one for me to share with my students. I felt relief when a local media source in San Francisco chose “Xenophobia” as the word of the year, because that word’s easy to accept. Phobia is a powerful suffix we review in my class because it gives us a lot of leverage to help decipher hundreds of words–it stands for fear, and hatred.

It’s opposite is philia.

“Xeno” stands for foreigners, and it’s easy to admit that many people have a fear of foreigners. We’ve been this way for a long time. (Did you know “Xeno” actually  comes from the name of a Greek general. A guy who lived a long time ago, and you guessed it, didn’t like foreigners.)

Whitelash, however is much worse. According to one news source it means,  “backlash by white racists against black civil rights advances.” It doesn’t hide from it’s racist intent the way a word like “xenophobia” and “superpredator” does. We blame the politics of Donald Trump for this word, but anyone who studies fiction and language can tell you that the fear and resentment of black civil rights advances has been hardwired into our language; into the stories we write, the words we create.

The secret life of racism can be found in words.Words are created to help explain, but the truth is they’re just empty boxcars used to hide our darkest fears. As Toni Morrison eloquently elaborates in her Nobel Prize speech. “The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence…it must be rejected, altered and exposed.”

If you’ve been following this blog you know that I think young people have it a lot tougher than most people think. They’re confused; no–they’re downright stupefied–because we give them dangerously conflicting messages on what it takes to be a man or a woman in our world. They come to teachers and need help. We show them facts, have them recite history, and then with all those stupefying words explain the past cannot repeat itself, because we know who all the bad people are.

Instead, we should quote Toni who gave this dire prediction ten years ago:

“There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination. There is and will be more seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like paté-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words; there will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research; of politics and history calculated to render the suffering of millions mute; language glamorized to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting their neighbors; arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.”

Pretty heady stuff, but let me boil it down for my students and their parents: Donald Trump may be a racist. Donald Trump may be the antichrist. But Donald Trump isn’t responsible for whitelash. We are. And if you really want to find a way out of the hell we may have to endure; only fiction can save us. because fiction sees all the fears that we’re too ashamed to admit, and Toni Morrison, is a much better prognosticator than those clueless Washington pundits, because only Toni can see that language is little more than a racist straightjacket we hide a lot of our fear in.

Today as we celebrate the life of a great man, some of us will point fingers and wring hands at who is responsible for all these new words that just stand for a timeless hate we should’ve seen coming. Evil politicians didn’t create whitelash. We did. And maybe the only way to see the real truth is to read the fiction of a great writer like Ms. Morrison.

toni

 

 

 

 

Why 13 RW is an important show.

As many of you who read my blog already know I use fiction to help teens discuss topics that are too tough to talk about “in real life.” Teen Suicide is one of the most important topics for young people to share on. Today, I’d like to respond directly the recent criticism about the show 13 RW from mental health “experts.”

And The Winner Is…

I loved the empowering acceptance speeches at the Oscars last night, and who doesn’t love watching their favorite star show off on the red carpet. But there was someone missing from the star-studded cast of hopefuls; A forgotten woman. She didn’t get nominated for anything, but men and women are paying a lot of lip service to her in their acceptance speeches.

She’s the woman who couldn’t make the party because she was blacklisted by a movie mogul who wanted sex. Mira Sorvino was one of these victims. Her nemesis: Harvey Weinstein. Mira’s a brilliant actress whose career was nearly ruined because she refused to get on the casting couch with that ruthless Neanderthal. Mira’s mad as hell and has proclaimed it’s #times up for her abuser.

She won’t be working with Woody Allen again, either. Mira will survive, but what about the less fortunate victims who aren’t strong enough to fight back. There are plenty of them. Truth is, when it comes to sexual harassment, Hollywood’s no different from the rest of America and the irony of watching liberal, progressive movies cast and filmed by sexist pigs is hard to overlook.

We’re imprisoned by a culture that applauds women who make impassioned acceptance speeches about sexual harassment while wearing see-through gowns. I love seeing my favorite stars in see-through gowns. I also love hearing them stand up to a male-dominated town that allows harassment. And like most people, I try to dismiss this hypocrisy as “just the way things are.” But the time has come to admit who we really are. I felt a weird, cognitive dissonance as I watched the scantily-clad dancers at the Grammys. I felt the same way as I watched Hillary Clinton take a stab at our sexist President, (but all the while, I couldn’t dismiss the fact that she herself had shielded at least one sexual predator.)

Who’s to blame for this? We point fingers at the accusers. We wring our hands and create new hashtags, but truth is we’re all to blame. Our Hollywood stars represent talent, beauty and all the grit it takes to make it to the top, right? No, not really. Our Hollywood stars are sometimes the darkest projection of our sick selves. We rubberneck their plight the same way we can’t take our eyes off a train wreck–we need Hollywood for reasons we can’t admit; in our hearts it’s that depraved place that could never be like were we live. Truth is Tinsletown’s a real place with real people who do the same things we do. Sexual depravity and equality may never be reconciled but we can start by admitting this hypocrisy is hardwired into all of us. Actors are beautiful, talented people who give great speeches, but this year, as they hold up those golden trophies, I think it’s time for us all to admit that the winner is our own sick selves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sexual Assault and Young People

I teach middle school, not a place you think you’d find sexting, or sexual assault. In the beginning of the year I make a poster to lay out procedures (we teachers don’t like to call them rules) for acceptable behavior in my classroom. At the top I write RESPECT and then I get my students to help me make a list of what is considered acceptable behavior. It used to be pretty straightforward; treat others the way you wish to be treated golden rule type of things. But that was before the sexual assaults on campus, the accusations of groping and body shaming, and the constant sexting made it clear we live in a different world then most parents and teachers ever imagined. Is it me, or is the problem getting worse? I knew sexual assaults are a reality on high school and college campuses, but I teach middle school. Last year I caught a sixth grader sharing a pic of his privates with another student. Am I out of touch? Maybe. But one thing I know for sure, parents and teachers need more tools to deal with sexually active young people. Not just rules and consequences, but a framework we can use to handle what has become a national epidemic.

Parents need tools to talk to their kids about what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship. Young people who are being bombarded with conflicting messages about sex, don’t know where to turn for advice. I have a simple solution for how to begin a dialogue on sex, young people and relationships.

Fiction, stories about subjects that we are too afraid to talk about; because fiction, at its best shines a light on those dark secrets we are too afraid to discuss. In the coming months, I will be asking young people to suggest fictional stories they really loved and wish their parents would read. Parents in turn, will be giving me a list of books they wish they could share with their kids. We will share these books and their important themes in a safe and respectful forum.

Do you want to join a national dialogue on sex and young people? Then please give me your email below. We will be sharing stories by great authors. Stories about dark, unspeakable themes in YA literature. We will do this to shine a light on the all too truthful fears we have about sexual assault. Join the dialogue today. Write me a message and answer this question: what story would you most like to share with your parent or child?

I look forward to sharing your answers next week.