Why We’re Afraid of Fearless Girl

 

On Wall Street there’s a bronze statue of a girl who looks about the same age as the sixth graders in the middle school that I teach. She looks pretty fearless as she’s standing up to a raging bronze bull; and she’d better be, it doesn’t take much to see that bull represents men, greed and the lack of women in positions of financial power. The artist, Kristen Visbal, maintains that the statue of a child posed with her fists on her hips represents “the power of women in leadership.” Many feminists who don’t like the statue claim she’s a cheap corporate-centric ploy to hide the real issues like equal pay and reproductive rights (the piece was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors).

Everyone loves the image of empowerment represented by a girl standing up for herself in the ruthless, financial jungle our world has become. But, how would some of us men feel if it were a woman standing there? Pretty intimated, right?

But the problem goes deeper than that for men, women and children.

We aren’t just angry at Fearless Girl. We’re afraid of her, afraid for her. We’re afraid because we know in our hearts her future is imperiled. She doesn’t stand a chance alongside a President who is being mocked as “the pussy-grabber-in-chief”; but also brags his daughter (or is that his wife? Even he often gets them confused) is a model–not just for the latest issue of Maxim–but for longer maternity leave. Will our fearless young women be devoured by the wave of sexism that many attribute to the president’s base? Hillary Clinton recently claimed that she lost the election because of misogyny, that America is threatened by having a woman in the oval office. I don’t believe that a majority of us feel that way. I watch young girls stand up for their rights every day in my classroom.

The real problem isn’t just emanating from the oval office. The truth is, Fearless Girl doesn’t stand a chance against the mixed messages the media sends all young women. We want our daughters to be strong, but don’t we also want them to look gorgeous in revealing bikinis? The media thinks so. And the truth is, we who call ourselves “feminists” don’t even know what that word stands for anymore. The most progressive and intelligent young women I talk to at my school don’t consider themselves feminists, because they think it stands for a woman who doesn’t like men and doesn’t enjoy being herself.

To speak against feminism is to speak against basic human rights. But it’s time for someone to admit that the type of feminism that once worked–or at least, forced people to take notice–has changed. Young women aren’t weaker than they were a generation ago, but they’re a lot more confused about how their voices will be heard. Fearless Girl doesn’t just need a woman mentor, she needs an interpreter who can help separate the truth from the bull. 

Trump l’oeil–What Happens When Dystopia Arrives Too Soon.

In my headline, I’ve borrowed the French idiom, trompe l’oeil–“something that misleads or tricks the senses”–to make a point about what we’re experiencing in America today. We love this notion of being “tricked” in painting and fiction, and maybe art’s greatest contribution is to fool our senses long enough to get us to believe something that can’t possibly be real. But what happens when reversals to our core principles such as equal rights, healthcare, and immigration happen so quickly that the righteous anger we feel when our freedom is threatened just isn’t enough?

We’re in a state of shock. The center cannot hold. Those values we thought were rock-solid are being destroyed and that makes us feel as if our reality has become, well, unreal. When are reality becomes unreal we turn to fiction, specifically dystopian fiction, because fiction is what we need to confront all those issues that are too difficult to take “in real life.” Sales of the classic dystopian novels–1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, are on the rise.

Dystopian fiction is deeply, cathartically, satisfying. Don’t we all love to read about a world in distress? A world that’s really a wake-up call for all those things we need to avoid. It’s all fun and Hunger Games so long when we close the book we can return to our safe, not-too-troubled world.

What if we woke up and found the most unreal dystopia we could possibly imagine right at our door? (Remember dystopia is only dystopia so long as it stays in the future.)

What we’re feeling now isn’t just righteous anger, it’s fear.

Whenever I turn on the TV, it feels as if I’m watching a reality show that can’t be real. That would be a great compliment to a fiction writer who strives for verisimilitude. But it’s real. At least that’s what we have to keep reminding ourselves.

The YA novel I wrote, Cease & Desist, was supposed to be dystopian, but most of its far-fetched notions will be commonplace by the time you read it. Soon you’ll be able to watch young people have sex and harm each other on digital, interactive, WebTV. You’ll be able to vote on who’ll be the winner, the same way the mob chose the winner in the Roman Coliseum.

Do you think I’m making that up? Think again. The future is coming at us way too fast, and we’ve got to stop it before more people get hurt.

“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

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why We Really Love To Hate President Trump

Last week after President Trump called the media “the enemy of the people” he was compared to Joseph Stalin, who first used that term. That’s a horrific comparison that’s thankfully never been leveled at a commander-in-chief, as historians tell us Stalin killed more innocent people than Adolph Hitler. But pundits are making another comparison that really deserves our attention; comparing POTUS with Richard M. Nixon, the 37th President. Most claim that Trump has the same acerbic relationship with the press as Nixon did.

This is true, but there are some important differences that can help us understand why we love to hate this president.

Nixon hated the media, but he needed it desperately the way most men who have a victim-mentality need an opponent. We all need someone to blame for our mistakes some of the time. Unfortunately for Nixon, TV came of age during his career, and the press morphed into the an undeniable powerhouse called “the media.”

Nixon made hating the new behemoth a full-time job. You can still watch the first televised Presidential debates, where Nixon looks lost and haggard alongside the young, handsome JFK. You can still watch the televised new conference where Nixon stated, “I don’t hate the press, because you can only hate what you have respect for and I have no respect for you….”

Nixon became the president everyone loved to hate.  Cold, untrustworthy, was how the media dubbed “Tricky Dicky.” President Washington couldn’t tell a lie. President Nixon couldn’t’ tell the truth. And the media hated him the same way it hates the Donald. Right?

No. not really.

There are some important differences between these deeply conflicted men. Nixon was a total disaster as a TV personality. He blamed the media for his inability to come across as trustworthy. Trump’s a genius at manipulating the electorate through social media. He doesn’t see himself as a whipping boy, but as a savior who bans all negative reportage about his administration as “fake news.”

And that’s our problem. The media is biased. And Trump’s genius is at exploiting that bias to his advantage. His supporters credit him with pulling back the veil on a once sacrosanct establishment and showing us  the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Let’s face it. Fake news has been around for a lot longer than most people want to believe. It existed back in the early sixties when TV came of age,–and over the years we’ve witnessed the news change from a dedication to the facts, to a dumbed-down hybrid of what many are calling “factual entertainment.”

So, was Nixon right? No. After all, didn’t his downfall came with the daring and honest reportage of two journalists named Woodward and Bernstein. But the truth is all reporters are human, and therefore flawed. Times have changed. Do you really want to compare Matt Lauer with Walter Cronkite? Or Brian Williams with Edward R. Murrow? Do you remember Jason Blair? He cut a few corners when it came to reporting the truth. How about that reporter for the Washington Post who made up an entire story and won a Pulitzer prize? Her name was Janet Cooke. 

Times have changed…teenage YouTube stars have more followers than U.S. Senators. Young people have difficulty telling the difference between reality and reality TV; the check-and-balance system that protects our democracy works because we can just vote people off the reality show this administration has become. Right? The system works. But few understand how before the internet “facts” had to be checked; sources confirmed.

We’re all afraid of the truth, sometimes. And we can’t look away from the train-wreck this administration has become (Is it possible, that some of us are thinking those vile things the President is saying?) We need to step back and see what we’re dealing with isn’t a madman in the oval office, but a brilliant tyrant who, like Nixon, will make anyone who disagrees with him an enemy of the people.