Saturday, March 12, 2016

Prior to NeMLA 2016: The MCU As Literature and Domestic Ideology in Superhero Narratives

For months now, I’ve been busy. Not just busy, but busybusybusy. Forgetting to eat, barely a moment to breathe, a to-do list that’s more of a too-much-to-do list. And while I love the work I do, it often feels like I don't have the time to properly live my double lives as non-profit director and independent scholar, let alone find time to write about them. Next week’s a big week, though, and Big Weeks occasion an exception to my perpetual no-time-to-write frenzy.
My companions are so critical these days
This week is the Northeast Atlantic Modern Language Association’s 47th Annual Convention, and I’ll be co-chairing both a panel and a roundtable with my colleague Derek S. McGrath. These panels reflect our mutual appreciation for approaching pop culture texts through a literary lens. In the twenty-first century, the superhero narratives in comics, films, television shows, and other “non-literary” texts so voraciously consumed by fans and laypeople constitute shared reading material which transcends social boundaries, textual experiences held in common on a global scale. These stories speak to us, they delight and inspire us, and if literary critics don’t recognize the power of superhero narratives in the digital age, they miss an invaluable opportunity to use analysis to enhance viewers’ intellectual engagement with these texts. 

Luckily for NeMLA-goers, Derek and I have assembled our own super team of scholars ready to dive right in and hold these deep discussions. These sessions are going to be as joyful as they will be trenchant and intellectually stimulating, the perfect combination for any fan-scholar or scholar-fan.

Just check out the paper titles:



If you’re keen to glean insight into my own papers, check out my presentations’ abstracts:


For “The Monster In The House: Domestic Ideology in Superhero Narratives”:

Choosing Monstrosity:
Black Widow, Reproductive Rights, and Domestic Agency in the MCU

“You still think you're the only monster on this team?” Agent Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) asks Bruce Banner (the Hulk) in Avengers: Age of Ultron, having just recounted the terrible trauma she endured in the Red Room, her voice catching on her words. Black Widow’s line here ignited a furious if polarized online reaction from fans, some denouncing her characterization as reductive and disempowering, other defending her right to mourn the loss of reproductive capability as the sole woman on the superhero team.

Feminist criticisms of her characterization certainly provide useful insight into the heteronormative teleology of romance at work in the film’s narrative; whether her “monster” comment is read as her echoing society’s stigma or her labeling herself, the film’s overall conception of idealized domesticity remains the standard conservative definition of nuclear family with a woman giving birth (as depicted through the Barton family). However, when assessed in the context of literary domesticity and in terms of her character development across Marvel Cinematic Universe appearances, the degree to which Black Widow’s arc relies on disempowering gender stereotypes as they relate to domesticity emerges as more complex than the “monster” comment debate would seem to suggest.

This paper will demonstrate how Black Widow’s negotiation of forcibly imposed sterility and monstrous motherhood, when assessed through the lens of American literary domesticity and gender studies as formulated by critics Carol Smith-Rosenberg, Gloria Steinem, and Jennifer Stuller (among others), provides a nuanced narrative of agency and choice amidst gender-based inequality previously unavailable in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Building on Black Widow’s characterization as sexually objectified femme fatale in Iron Man 2 and her character’s focus on Steve Rogers’ romantic interests in The Winter Soldier, I argue that Avengers: Age of Ultron’s depiction of Black Widow taps into modern narratives of reproductive rights and ultimately affirms the importance of domestic spaces as sites in which narrative conflict between superhuman heroics and human domestic desires play out. Given her choice during the film’s climactic battle to prioritize the Avengers’ mission over her burgeoning romance by triggering Banner’s transformation into the Hulk while saying she “needs the other guy,” Black Widow’s negotiation of monstrous motherhood illustrates a mode of female agency than more empowered than it may initially seem.

For “The Marvel Cinematic Universe as Literature”:

Fighting for Interdependence: 

Domestic Flashbacks and Narrative Strategy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is by now famous for its bombastic, explosive elements: Chitauri hordes tearing through a rip in the cosmos in The Avengers, the enormous Black Aster breaking through the golden shield of NovaCorps ships in Guardians of the Galaxy. But the fantastic explosive requires something to explode, and “super” is a hierarchical term, since for something to be “super” there must also be an average point of comparison, a thing against which it can be deemed superior.

Within the literary epic tradition, this hierarchy often plays out in terms of narrative oscillation between battle scenes and domestic scenes; much like The Iliad's juxtaposition of battlefield aristeia with quotidian domesticity, the aforementioned climactic battle scene in Guardians features over-the-top violence of Ronan’s space invasion interspersed with images of Xandarian families fleeing in terror. Such structural contrast of superhero glory against domestic vulnerability builds momentum and purpose, enhancing the battle’s tension and stakes by reminding the audience of what it is that they’re fighting for: families, children, life and renewal amidst destruction and chaos. 

This formulation, however, often posits a powerless domestic in need of superhuman saviors, and in the context of domesticity in American literary history, can ultimately reinforce sexist gender paradigms in that such representation masculinizes and centralizes the world of battle while feminizing the home and marginalizing the women contained within it. The MCU, however, manages to escape some of the sexist trappings of separate spheres ideology through its meta-narrative strategy of using domestic flashbacks to represent "separate" spheres as positively interdependent.

This paper explores the MCU’s ubiquitous use of flashbacks to domestic spaces/memories in order to explicate the device as a function of the domestic that essentially recasts as positively interdependent the traditionally separate spheres of home and work. Specifically, examining the flashback sequences in Daredevil’s second episode, “The Cut Man,” as well as several MCU films (in particular, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers: Age of Ultron), reveals how domestic nostalgia provides emotional/psychological motivation for work undertaken by superheroes well outside of domestic spaces, creating a rich interplay of positive interdependence between the home and the battlefield, between public and private, between the human and the superhuman, redefining the standard antagonistic dichotomy of conventional domestic ideology.


Derek and I encourage “questions from the audience” in advance. Back-channeling the conversation enriches the conference experience for everyone, so leave a comment/tweet at me (@metamare)/be social with your social media accounts and tell me what you think. Let’s get this NeMLA party started!

You will, though. Oh yes, you will.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Calling all scholars of Film/TV/Literature/Comics: CFPs for NeMLA 2016 Sessions

The deadline for all abstracts to be submitted for the March 2016 meeting of the Northeast Modern Language Association is coming up this Wednesday 9/30.
Along with my colleague Derek S. McGrath, I'm co-organizing two sessions for NeMLA 2016: 

The Monster In The House: Domestic Ideology in Superhero Narratives 

(Panel Session)
In worlds full of superhuman heroes, mythological imaginary creatures and battle narratives of epic scope, what is the role of the domestic? This panel session seeks proposals investigating the ways in which domestic spaces function within superhero narratives as sites of union and/or conflict between the human, the subhuman, and the superhuman. How do teenage vigilantes like those in Runaways construct unconventional homes? How do familial/community obligations inspire the Hell’s Kitchen resident Daredevil to defend his hometown? How have heterogeneous, even internally combative, groups like the X-Men and the Justice League been imagined as odd couple household scenarios? How have extraterrestrials such as Superman used domestic ideology to make sense of their self-appointed mission to protect their adopted homes, and how may domestic ideology help us make sense of reading these characters’ stories as allegories of immigrants’ experiences?
This session seeks proposals that explore how domestic ideology informs and functions within superhero stories, as well as how humanity and the human are depicted in the context of domestic spaces within superhero narratives.
Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 4.47.51 PM
The "Black Widow babygate" plot thread in Avengers: Age of Ultron, for instance, is ripe for exploration through the lens of the literary domestic.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe As Literature 

(Roundtable Session)
From co-organizer Derek S. McGrath:
This roundtable seeks to consider ways of analyzing the Marvel Cinematic Universe (films including Iron ManCaptain America, and Guardians of the Galaxy, among others, as well as television series including Agents of SHIELDAgent Carter, and Daredevil) films and television series as literature. We are equally interested in proposals that focus on one specific film and ones that consider multiple films. And we welcome submissions from various schools of literary and media theory. In addition to points that we outline in our call for papers above, submitted abstracts may consider:
  • Strategies for incorporating individual films and television episodes in course syllabi—or even courses based around just the Cinematic Universe
  • The films’ structures as analogous to much earlier 1930s and 1940s superhero film serials
  • The significance of revisions made in adapting the comics for film, whether changing characters’ backstories or adjustments in visual narrative between comic book panels and film screens
  • Differences in storytelling practices between the films and the television series
  • Challenges when adapting the original Marvel Comics due to rights disputes between Disney and Sony, Fox, and other studios that have led to the exclusion of the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and up until now Spider-man
  • Diversity or lack thereof among the characters, cast, and crew for the films and television series

Submissions for both CFPs are due this Wednesday, September 30. Abstracts must be submitted online at, with a free CFP List NeMLA account.

If you have any questions, please email and

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Thoughts on White Privilege, Tal Fortgang, and Racial Profiling at Vassar College

As you've probably seen, about a week ago Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang wrote an earnest but ill-advised op-ed called "Why I'll Never Apologize For My White Male Privilege" that embodies the fallacious defensive thinking many white folks employ when forced to reckon with the privilege they inadvertently receive because they are white. Briana Payton calls the letter

"an attempt at checking privilege that was so unsuccessful it was borderline satirical. Fortgang, a fellow Princeton freshman, complained about the overuse and misuse of the phrase “check your privilege,” and asserted that the phrase was “toeing the line” of reverse racism. To prove this, he detailed his family’s history of persecution under the Holocaust, their journey to America and their ultimate rise to entrepreneurial success. He claims that the only privilege he has is that his ancestors made it to America, were hard-working and passed down wonderful values such as faith and education."

In the wake of this letter and the consequent Internet firestorm, many a blogger has processed how Fortgang's letter sheds light on the ideology undergirding racism in America today. Some castigate Time for publishing on a global scale what was better left to the dusty annals of undergrad campus publications, some connect to other recent race-based controversies in social media, and others correctly point out that to have as a problem that people are always telling you to check your privilege is, in itself, a function of having privilege.

I've seen a lot of friends posting about and discussing this letter, but I want to provide a real-world, concrete, vivid example of how racial profiling and white privilege play out in my every day life, to illustrate to anyone (people like Fortgang, mostly, but also well-intentioned white folks) for whom debates about privilege remain mostly abstract and theoretical have an illustration of what the privilege-checking conversation is really about; how the unseen hand of privilege implicitly biases situations in white people's favor, every day, cushioning white lives in ease and convenience at the expense of people of colors' dignity and freedom.

My real-world example begins with news from another undergrad publication, this one the campus paper of my alma mater: the Vassar College Miscellany News.

According to The Misc:

“A Vassar student called the CRC [Campus Response Center] at 4:18 p.m. on Sunday, April 27 and reported that four to five teens were in the basement of the Library making noise and disrupting students trying to study,” explained Director of the Safety and Security Department Donald Marsala in an emailed statement.
Marsala said, “VC officers responded and a sergeant located the youths in the basement. They ran from him and a short time later the sergeant saw [them] exiting the Library front door.”
He continued, “When he asked for their identification to determine if they were on our trespass list, one complied, one gave two different addresses and two others refused to identify themselves. Per protocol, the police were called to assist in identifying the youths and they were able to obtain their identities.”
The Misc article doesn't say it outright, but the teenagers in question were all young black men. So basically, the fact that some teens of color were being loud and distracting resulted in someone reporting them to security and security calling the actual Poughkeepsie police (which, as anyone who's been to college knows, escalates the situation considerably).

If you don't think that sounds like a case of racial profiling, contrast it to the experience I have as a white woman walking onto Vassar's campus.

As part of my job, nearly every week I drive to Vassar campus, either to attend meetings or produce a live radio broadcast hosted by my students. I drive through the security checkpoint at the main gate, and I am never stopped. I am often playing very loud music as I drive by, but no one questions me, let alone looks for my name on a "trespass list." I park and walk around the campus and no one asks me for ID. No one thinks twice about me being there. Often I'm raucously talking on my phone, but no one reports me for being too loud and disruptive.  I can be as loud as I want anywhere on campus and not even have to consider whether someone may call security or the cops on me. People look at me and my white skin and make an unspoken assumption about whether I have a right to be there. No one regards my presence as a threat. Even when I'm with my large group of students--and I should say here that, for the past few months, the radio student crew has predominantly been white male teens--and we're all chatting boisterously, no one asks for ID, no one questions us, no one thinks we look suspicious, no one thinks twice about us.

And yet those teens in the library, the ones eventually removed by Poughkeepsie police, were just doing what my students and I do every week. Hanging around on campus, talking loudly, laughing loudly. The difference is that when we do it, it's not regarded as suspicious or criminal.

Here's where it all connects back to Fortgang's letter and white privilege. It's not my fault, nor is it my students' fault, that in our white skin, security and the cops assume we "belong" and let us walk around unquestioned. But it is also not the fault of those teenagers in the library that their black skin translated to being treated as criminal, first by a Vassar student, then by some security guards, then by Poughkeepsie police. The fact remains that white folks are given the privilege of walking around, un-interrogated, while that privilege is not only not given to people of color, but the opposite route is actively, aggressively pursued, for as petty an offense as evading security officers--an offense committed by any Vassar student who's fled an illicit dorm room party when security shows up-- actual police were called. The Misc doesn't mention whether any arrests were made or charges brought, but it does report that some of the accosted were as young as 12. Such an incident of being treated like a criminal has got to have a negative impact on a person--let alone a lifetime of such instances. I really don't know. I've never been forced to know. That's white privilege.

Ok but, some might say, you have professional business being on campus. Those kids in the library didn't. Yes, but the security officers looking at me don't know that! They can't, as they don't stop me to talk to me. They don't ask me for my name or ID. They don't treat me like I'm a criminal up to no good until I prove otherwise. They look at me and make assumptions, just like they looked at those kids and made assumptions.

Ok but, still some might say, but those kids were in the library making noise. Sure, but do you know what else goes on in the Vassar library? All kinds of legally suspect shit. Lines of Adderal and Coke snorted in the bathroom. Sexytime in the study rooms. Vassar students are clever, daring, and often naughty. I can guarantee you that other things were going on that could qualify as "loud and disturbing". It's just that those aforementioned infractions are the white kind, the kind we're trained to see as "kids being kids" or "just blowing off steam" instead of as a dangerous potential threat.

As a white person, one might not recognize the privilege and inequality at work in an act as seemingly simple as walking around Vassar's campus. If one is never stopped by security, one might begin to assume that no one gets stopped by security, that it's normal for a person to never get stopped by security, that all people drive onto campus without even thinking about it. One might not ever see when people of color are not given the same treatment. And that's exactly the point. Whether white people like Fortgang apologize or not, instances of racial discrimination like this occur everywhere, all the time, and will continue to do so as long as the conversation remains centered on people like Fortgang and whether or not they're willing to apologize. As a white person with privilege, even if I apologize for benefiting from white privilege and institutional racism, it won't do a goddamn thing about the larger systemic structures in which we live, in which white folks are assumed to be neutral and black folks are assumed to be dangerous criminals. That's institutional racism, and it's bigger than any one individual's intentions. It's more productive to move beyond intentions to grapple with the questions of how to change the fact that things like this occur everywhere, all the time.

Again, just to be clear in regards to those of Fortgang's ilk, it's not your fault, my fault, nor my students' fault that we're treated like we belong at places like Vassar while people of color often aren't. We didn't tell those security officers to treat us well and not treat those kids well. It would be pointless for us to apologize for something we did not do. But the fact remains that we did benefit from racial profiling and the privilege institutional racism allows folks with white skin in those moments of split-second, internal assumptions.

I don't want to live in a world where the convenience of me moving freely through a college campus comes at the cost of others being interrogated, criminalized, and oppressed just because their skin is a different color. But since that's the world we do live in, if we want a better world, we have to work hard every day to challenge those systems and fight back against that dynamic. Part of that work? When someone tells you to check your privilege, listen. Reflect on your behavior, and try to understand the ways your actions enact microcosms of larger systemic oppressions. Try to do better next time.

Easier said than done, I know. I try, I work really hard, but don't always succeed. I fuck up plenty, and I own that. But the way I see it, systematized oppression exists, we're all complicit in a nasty system, and we can be part of it in a way that also challenges the system, or we can merely be a part of it. To quote the Whedon show Angel (as I usually do), "if nothing we do matters, than all that matters is what we do."

And yes, I am aware of the irony smirking out from behind the fact that as a white person writing about and to white people, this post ends up re-centering the conversation on whiteness, the very thing I criticize Fortgang and my fellow white folks for doing. I own that. I'm trying to wield privilege responsibly here by elucidating the dynamics of privilege with an example from my own experience, but as I said, I fuck up plenty. Leave me a comment. If you're not a troll, I'm listening.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

National Tell A Girl She's Beautiful Day, Everyday Sexism, Jo Swinson, and (Not) Feeding the Trolls

I'm often told that sexism doesn't exist anymore, that talking about sexism and gender inequality is a waste of time because men and women are treated equally these days. Yesterday, though, I had my first experience being trolled on Twitter (regarding the trending hashtag #nationaltellagirlsheisbeautifulday), and it's provided me an anecdote to illustrate some of the ways sexism definitely still exists and continues to thrive in our society.

I don't go on Twitter all that often---recent conference live-tweeting jaunts to the contrary notwithstanding---so before yesterday, I'd only ever understood the concept of "trolling" in the abstract: someone posts something, someone else replies or comments with the most inflammatory response possible solely for the sake of eliciting a reaction, the original poster then decides whether or not to "feed the trolls." I'd never had a personal experience with trolls, because, well, I'm not on Twitter all that often. Also, my social media circles are small and familiar: people I know/work with, people I meet at conferences, other Whedon scholars. I don't have tons of followers who are strangers to me, so interfacing with trolls hadn't come up yet. I'd followed the massive online harassment campaigns endured by Anita Sarkeesian and Lindy West, and I saw the deluge of heinous harassment both those brilliant, fearless women endured simply for speaking the truth, and I sympathized with how shitty it must feel for strangers to so callously and casually participate in dehumanizing you. I marveled at the strength it must take to shrug off hateful anonymous Internet comments, but that was theoretical sympathy, as until today my own Twitter experience was limited to jokes with friends from real life and occasional updates on my academic work, which never garnered much attention.

Yesterday, I signed in and noticed that the hashtag #nationaltellagirlsheisbeautifulday was trending. Can this really be a thing?  I thought. Having written and presented papers on how institutional sexism plays out--often unintentionally--in pop culture and everyday encounters, my mind started spinning. I remembered the controversy surrounding the Dove "Real Beauty Sketches" video that went viral -- how it rightly points out that we're our own harshest critics, how it admirably aims to build confidence in women, but how it also reinforces a normative "beauty" ideal that, as Jazzy Little Drops says, teaches young women that "physical, superficial beauty is the most significant part of who you are, and the most important determining factor in your life." 

And I remembered Still Failing At Fairness (a study on sexism in American schools originally conducted in 1995 and repeated in 2008, to depressingly similar results), in which the authors observe the manifold ways gender bias and discrimination are inadvertently reproduced and performed in classrooms. In every classroom they visited, boys dominated discussion time, teacher attention, and classroom resources, in every grade level stretching from the primary grades all the way up to high school school. This often happened through unconscious teacher behaviors, such as calling on boys more often or giving boys longer and more detailed feedback (69-71). Particularly engrossing are the descriptions of how girls primarily receive attention in terms of their appearance, while boys primarily receive attention based on their abilitiesBy the time they reach high school, girls have internalized the message that it's natural for boys to be front and center while they're off to the sides, that it's understood that being pretty and popular is more important for them than being smart or hard-working.  I thought about how, once I learned this, I began trying to try to compliment girl students more in terms of their abilities. I thought about how hard that was, and still is - seriously, spend a day just observing how many times a day women/girls get attention based on their appearance only, and compare it to how many times a day men/boys get attention based on ability or skill, and you'll begin to get a sense of how deep our cultural conditioning runs. 

I thought about all of that, and then I tweeted this.

"Really? #nationaltellagirlsheisbeautifulday? How about #tellagirlsheiscapablenomatterhowfocusedonherappearancesocietyis day? @everydaysexism"

I was not prepared for what followed. 

I was also not aware of the history of the phrasing in this particular hashtag, or in what context I was tagging @everydaysexism (which is a much-needed and empowering project you should learn more about here). Apparently, a few months ago Jo Swinson gave an interview in which she advised parents not to praise their daughters for being beautiful, but "for completing tasks or their ability to be inquisitive." In the interview, Swinson is pretty clear that she's not saying appearance doesn't or shouldn't matter at all:

                  I know as an aunt, you fall into the trap of turning to your niece and saying, 'you look beautiful’ — because of                       course all children do look beautiful — but if the message they get is that is what’s important and that is what                         gets praise, then that’s not necessarily the most positive message you want them to hear.

She's effectively trying to counterbalance the biased behavior documented in Still Failing At Fairness by encouraging parents to praise little girls “for their skill in doing a jigsaw and all these other things that they are doing, their curiosity in asking questions and a whole range of things” in addition to appearance. Of course, this is much more complicated and intricate than the headline DON'T TELL YOUR DAUGHTER SHE'S BEAUTIFUL would suggest (way to go, Telegraph). When boiled down to a misleading phrase like that, yes, it sounds horrible. And apparently, there was a bit of backlash from people reclaiming their right to tell their daughters they're beautiful (even though Swinson clearly never tried to take that away). While these responses seem to be more directed at the incendiary headline than at the actual gender inequality Swinson's trying to address, I'm still a bit baffled as to why such empowering advice -- raise your kids to value character, ethic, and skill alongside appearance -- would be seen as so threatening. 

I'm guessing yesterday's hashtag relates to that backlash surrounding "don't tell a girl she's beautiful" phrasing misleadingly being attributed to Swinson. Given my academic background, I immediately read #nationaltellagirlsheisbeautifulday as an unexamined part of systemic sexism, which is why I included @everydaysexism in my tweet.

I didn't know all that when I tweeted this morning, but I still think it's a fairly neutral thing to say. Nowhere in those 140 characters did I say "everyone participating in this hashtag is wrong and sexist" or "you aren't allowed to compliment women, EVER" or "telling women they're beautiful is bad." I didn't say these things, because they're silly, nonsensical, and counterproductive things to say.

But many people seemed to think I did.

"I do not think it means what you think it means"

For about 2 hours there, I was getting a response every 2 or 3 minutes (small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but for me, that's a FLOOD). Obviously, their reactions say more about their thoughts and experiences informing their misinterpretation than they do about my actual point. That last guy's such a beacon of chivalry, right?

Ah, begrudging assent, although it's obvious looking at what others were using the hashtag to say that, uh, most entries were about *superficial* beauty. By which I mean there were multiple entries about gang-banging cheerleaders.

Some trivialized the issue...

Obviously, as we feminists are notoriously ugly and hairy! And also we burn bras or something!

Later, this same guy told me he knew what the definition of sexism was, because he Googled it. Mr. Rocket Science, ladies and gentlemen!

While others were downright crude...

This guy's my favorite, because I've never actually heard anyone use the word "bint" unless they were Spike or maybe Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

That guy ibh lemur was cool. He spent some time schooling Mr. Rocket Science up there.

Some responses were more thoughtful,

but amid the torrent of hateful tweets, I found myself reverberating with anger/adrenaline and unable to form thoughtful responses in terse enough terms for Twitter's 140 character capacity (hence this lengthy post).

As I saw these notifications rolling in, I got upset, of course, as it felt like strangers were bursting into my living room and thrashing their anger in my face, but I was also fascinated. So maybe this is what's meant by trolling, I thought. Does it just keep going on, or will they tire soon and move onto something else? Should I respond? What's the expected Twitter etiquette here? My cheerful and teacherly disposition compelled me to want to elucidate and educate, but my in-the-moment agitation made me want to spew equally flippant curses at them.

Obviously, you can't reason with someone who tells you to eat shit or calls you a bint. But I have responses to some of the other tweets, because I encounter the thinking encapsulated in these tweets all the time. Part of my job entails teaching lessons on recognizing privilege and inequality at work in society and in themselves-- often to people exhibiting thinking similar to these Tweeters. People who've been raised to think that it's only natural that girls are to be valued in terms of their appearance first and foremost, just by virtue of living in the world as we make it. People who don't even realize how well they've learned the "women should be seen and not heard" mentality. People who've spent years in schools in which teachers praise boys' thinking and girls' appearances. People whose school experiences feature boys pushing and shoving and shouting for attention while girls remain to the side, preening themselves in hopes of getting noticed. People who think this is natural. People who don't bat an eye when reporters ask female politicians what designers they're wearing and don't ever ask a male politician the same.

People who get angry when a woman raises her voice against sexism, even in so harmless and small a way as I did.

In person, I'd sit down with these people and talk to them about sexism and privilege (fabulous resource here). Clearly, I can't do on Twitter what I'd do in a face-to-face situation. 140 characters just isn't enough space, not to mention that the instantaneous, rapid-fire rhythm of Twitter is more conducive to zingers and one-liners than for for facilitating self-reflection and deep thinking (although I do think there are very legitimate uses of Twitter for academic discourse; more on that soon).  So what I did was avoid responding in the moment, and instead begin writing about what was happening. In my mind I was repeating the mantra: don't feed the trolls. Don't feed the trolls. And truly, I didn't. My only actual response last night was to send Mr. Rocket Science a link to Still Failing at Fairness on Amazon. ....Okay, so I fed that one a little bit.

Now that I've had a chance to process, I'm beginning to wonder about the most productive response to encounters such as this. I wonder if I should have at least responded to the more thoughtful ones.  So I want to begin here to pin down the ways in which the #nationaltellagirlshesbeautifulday hashtag demonstrates some of the ways that our daily habits and our thinking enact everyday reinforcements of institutional sexism.


No one's saying you can't compliment a girl. You can. In fact, I'm trying to do just that! Being called capable, or smart, or brave, should be as validating and happy-making as being called beautiful. But the truth is, it doesn't quite feel that way, right? Being called "beautiful" carries this almost benediction status, as though the art of calling a girl beautiful is sanctified and noble, a charity generously bestowed and gratefully received. And it is true that girls get the message that it's good to be beautiful, and if you call a girl beautiful and she feels good, then that's super for you all. But when we acknowledge that we think it's better for girls to be beautiful than it is to be capable (which is still a compliment, by the way), we're acknowledging we're living in a system that subordinates women by objectifying them - sets up the goal of being viewed rather actually doing or being. That's why, even when we call a girl beautiful with the intention of meaning inner or spiritual beauty, or beauty of character, we're tapping into a lifetime of experiences tying all those other notions of beauty to the successful embodiment of the superficial standard.

We can apply this to the response of the guy who "told an anorexic girl she was beautiful just the way she is." I'm sure she felt good about it in the moment, and maybe he's defensive because he felt good about it, too.  Once that moment passes, though, those same standards of beauty so imperative but so unattainable that this young woman literally made herself sick trying to achieve them are still out there, still operating, still affecting hundreds of other young women who are driven to desperation by the constant pressure to be "beautiful."

We don't need a day to tell girls they are beautiful because, statistically speaking, girls and young women will go their whole lives receiving compliments based on their appearances, while boys and young men mostly receive compliments on their abilities and talents. It happens everyday. What we need is a day to interrupt that cycle, to get a chance to practice validating girls in more complex terms than complimenting their appearances.

We don't need a day to tell girls they're beautiful, because statistically speaking, some stranger on the street will tell them this, incessantly and intimidatingly, probably over and over again, every time she dares to walk alone outside. Again, some of the responses to my tweet reflect the same thinking behind garden-variety street harassment - but I just wanted to give her a compliment! She should be flattered and/or grateful! Whether on the street or at a Twitter hashtag, the beauty conversation still relegates girls and women to an arena governed by constructed standards espoused as though they're normal and natural. Either way our actions are reinforcing the systemic inequality that's the root of the problem. While we're debating whether or not to tell our daughters they're beautiful, we're missing the point: to begin actively valuing them for what they do and who they are, not just how they look.

The format of Twitter, unfortunately, frames the conversation in terms of addressing/attacking specific individuals. This is more about the institution than the individual. We're all part of the problem, as we all live inside this system, but the good news, as Allan G. Johnson says, is that we can also be part of the solution. If we want to attack systemic sexism at its foundational base, we can start by ceasing to compliment girls solely in terms of their appearance and begin complimenting their talents, smarts and abilities as well, the way we do with boys and young men. We can follow Swinson's advice and make sure we're building girls' and women's confidence in all areas, not just appearance. This mini-trolling experience has me convinced it's as important as ever to do so.

And, I'm happy to say, unpleasant as it was to experience yesterday, this also showed me that I'm not as alone as the troll comments would have me believe. My tweet has, at time of posting, been retweeted 136 times, a personal record. Maybe that means there were 136 conversations started at home about beauty ideals and everyday sexism, all around the world. This is one of Twitter's most powerful functions: to help otherwise unconnected people come together to support an idea.

One final word -- I want to recognize the privilege at work in the fact that this trolling session was dozens rather than thousands of tweets, and that it didn't last very long. There's also definite privilege at work in the fact that I'd never been trolled before, that I'd been sheltered enough for such a mild trolling as this to take me by surprise. There are other people on Twitter who get trolled more ruthlessly for longer periods of time than my little encounter here, people for whom dealing with trolls is a constant burden rather than an occasional opportunity for reflection and theorizing. I'm thinking in particular of people of color in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict these past few days. What I experienced is child's play compared to what gets thrown at them. I had no idea the toll that being trolled takes on a Tweeter. Everyone who receives far worse trolling far more often, well.... you're freakin' SUPERHEROES. It's an extra job on top of everything else and you're stronger than I could ever be to keep going. Please keep going.