Art as Activism: An Interview with Student Filmmaker Miranda Sieber

Miranda’s interview is the second in a series of interviews with emerging feminists and student activists. Read more here.

Miranda Sieber - Feminist Filmmaker

Miranda Sieber – Feminist Filmmaker

Miranda Sieber is a junior at Purdue University majoring in Film/Video Studies and English. An aspiring visual storyteller, Miranda also enjoys reading, writing, and comic conventions. Her filmmaking passion began with a love of the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Not surprisingly, she has long admired directors and authors who employ strong female protagonists while telling stories that matter, and who approach the arts as a vehicle for social change.

I first met Miranda when she enrolled in my introductory Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies course at Purdue University in the spring of 2015. Over the next four months, I watched Miranda grow even more outspoken and confident, and become inspired to use her filmmaking as a tool for education and social change. I was honored to be interviewed for her film about the Take Back the Night rally at Purdue this past April. Here I talk with her about embracing film as a form of activism and about her plans for the future.

Dana Bisignani [DB]: So this was your first film, right? What got you interested in making films, specifically documentaries?

Miranda Sieber [MS]: I’ve had a strong interest in filmmaking and writing for a while now. The semester I made Take Back the Night, I was taking a documentary film class that required each person to make a documentary on their own that was due at the end of the semester. When I took the class, I was primarily interested in wildlife documentaries, like the ones on National Geographic or Discovery Channel, but obviously it’s a bit difficult making a wildlife documentary in Lafayette, Indiana.

DB: Yeah, you’re pretty much stuck with deer and ducks.

MS: In the class, we were exposed to all kinds of documentaries…some tackled social issues, such as mass incarceration in the U.S., some were humor documentaries, and some were just films that captured the lives of people at home. Seeing the unlimited number of documentaries out there, I was incredibly excited to make my very first one.

DB: What made you decide to focus your film on Take Back the Night at Purdue? You started with a different topic, right?

MS: Originally, I planned on making my documentary about nerd culture because I was supposed to attend multiple comic conventions around the Midwest, and I had friends who were willing to be interviewed. With only a month left of the semester and only a small amount of usable film, those plans fell through, and I had to scramble to find something new and interesting for my documentary.

Luckily, I was also taking [your] Women’s Studies class that semester, which had opened my eyes to sexual assault and rape culture on college campuses. To me, it was almost comforting hearing the term “rape culture” because it was a way of identifying what I was seeing on campus and online. One of the big events happening that month was the Take Back the Night Rally in April that had a series of teach-ins [on sexual assault, victim-blaming, and resources for survivors] beforehand. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to capture a very real issue happening in the world on camera.

DB: What challenges or frustrations did you face in making the film? Any exciting moments along the way?

MS: At first, the only issues I faced with my film were with myself…trying to figure out how to edit footage and learning to do most of the technical aspects of film by myself. However, there were a few challenging moments during filming that really stuck out to me. The first moment happened when I was walking on campus to an interview. It was really hot out, and I was sweating through my shirt while carrying heavy [filming] equipment. While I was walking through an intersection, a pickup truck pulled up by me, and the guy inside yelled, “Hey sexy, need a ride?” I’m no stranger to being catcalled. It made me furious, but since it wasn’t the first time that had happened, the only thing I did in that moment was ignore it, as usual. Mostly, I just thought about how ironic it was that I was working on a film about rape culture on campus and here was this man giving me a prime example of it!

DB: Wow. I’ve had a number of students – some from your class – tell me that they’re often cat-called walking around campus, just going from class to class. That has to create an environment where women students feel self-conscious and even unsafe. I’ve also been cat-called on campus, usually while waiting for the bus – and I’m clearly older and dressed as an instructor or at least a staff member, some professional…so no one’s immune. And why is it always guys in pickup trucks [laughing]?

MS: After I finished filming the interview, I walked back to my car to drop off some equipment. During this walk, I passed the brand new gym [the France A. Cordova Recreational Center] where they were holding a Relay for Life event. People were lined up outside the door in their purple t-shirts, waiting to participate in whatever events were inside. As I walked by them, another truck drove by me, honked its horn, and the man inside yelled, “Woo! Hey baby, nice tits!” I was mortified. Not only was it the second time I was catcalled that day, but it was in front of a bunch of people.

DB: It was really your lucky day, huh?

MS: What really gets to me is that no one said or did anything about it. I knew they heard. There was no way they couldn’t have heard because the man was so loud. When I looked at the line of people, everyone looked the other way and didn’t make eye contact with me, like I was the one who [had done] something wrong. I marched to my car, shoved the camera equipment inside, jumped into the driver’s seat and started crying. I called my mom and told her what had happened, and she said, “I know you feel horrible right now, but this anger that you have is going to fuel you as you continue making your film.” And it did.

DB: What a powerful thing for her to say in that moment. So the film started as a class project, but it seemed to become something more for you. Did you start thinking of your film as a form of activism after that?

MS: Yes. I think after those cat-calling incidents was when it really started to become a form of activism for me. [Creating the film] was turning my own frustrations with the world into something I could show to an audience. Hearing the stories from women on campus at the teach-ins held before the rally especially triggered that need [I felt] to promote awareness and change in the community. It wasn’t about getting a good grade in my class anymore, it was about showing something that would change the way people viewed rape culture and sexual assault.

Student activists march against sexual assault on Purdue's campus, April 2015. Miranda Sieber (far left) films footage of the march. Women's Studies instructor and blog author Dana Bisignani leads chants on a megaphone.

Student activists march against sexual assault on Purdue’s campus, April 30, 2015. Miranda Sieber (far left) films footage of the march for her documentary. Women’s Studies instructor and blog author Dana Bisignani leads chants on a megaphone.

DB: You premiered an early version of your film at the Lafayette Theater in April. What was that like? What kind of response did you get?

MS: I got a few compliments on my unfinished film at the premiere. I felt my film wasn’t the best because of all the experienced students that were also showing their films that night. [But] I had multiple people come up to me and say what an important issue this was to cover because no one had made a film about this topic at Purdue before. People I talked to genuinely wanted to know more about the Take Back the Night Rally at Purdue, and I was thankful people actually cared about this topic. As another way of getting people to know more about Take Back the Night, I brought some of the fliers with me to pass around and spread awareness at the premiere.

DB: Yes, your spreading the word about the event was a huge help! I think your film wound up being a key piece of promotion for the event. Do you have ideas for more film projects in the future? Where do you see yourself going from here?

MS: Even though I’m trying to focus on school and work a little more, I still have that need to capture issues that need to be changed on camera. One of my newer ideas for a film came to me when I was doing a Maymester class in Heavilon Hall [which houses the Department of English, the American Studies Program, and Purdue’s world-famous Writing Lab]. The T.A. for that course was telling us how nothing has been done in the past year to eradicate the asbestos in the building. That seems really unfair to the students and professors who use that building considering Purdue’s English program is the 3rd best in the nation.

DB: Yeah, that’s my home department, and I taught in that building for years. It’s in abysmal shape – a few years back, they had to move out all of the professors over the summer because of a terrible mold problem. They’ve documented too-high levels of carbon dioxide in the building as well – there’s literally not enough oxygen! And yet every Purdue student takes at least one class there, ENGL 106 or 108, the first-year writing course, where students learn the basics of academic writing and research, and argumentation. I always thought, “What kind of message does the condition of this building send to our students about what Purdue values?”

MS: Also, Purdue just received a $40 million dollar donation from the Lily Endowment for the Engineering and Technology programs here on campus, in order to expand lab space and new commons buildings. None of that money went to tearing down and building a new space for English students. Asbestos has been known to cause breathing problems and even lung cancer, yet the Purdue Administration has done nothing about it. Students that pay money to go here deserve better. People I know on campus have been talking about this for about a year, and it’s time that someone call out the Administration on their (for lack of a better word) bullshit.

DB: And it’s not just a Purdue problem. Recently, four Southern University of New Orleans professors died within three months of one another not long after their offices were moved to a moldy building at the HBCU. I certainly know a lot of students and instructors here who would be really excited if you made a film about that state of Heavilon Hall! What advice do you have for other aspiring young women film-makers?

MS: My advice for future women filmmakers is to never be afraid to ask for help when you need it. The one thing that helped me the most while working on my film was the help of friends and professors. I wouldn’t have been able to finish my film without them. Another piece of advice: Never be afraid to call people out on their sexism. Although filmmaking is a fairly modern career, there are still a lot of rude and sexist people. There will be lot of people who will patronize you because they think that just because they’re a guy, they’ll be a better editor, director, etc. than you. Nowadays it’s rarely blatant sexism [you’ll experience].

DB: Like someone calling you “sugar” and asking you to get his coffee?

MS: There are always comments like, “Oh, I’m pretty sure you can’t handle this” or “Why don’t you stick to writing. For you it’ll be easier.” That’s the type of dialogue that happens in this field that goes unnoticed – but it is still sexist and it hurts. So call it out!

Watch Miranda’s documentary below. Want to do more? Sign the petition to let Purdue University know they need to establish a Sexual Assault, Stalking, and Relationships Violence Center on Campus!

TAKE BACK THE NIGHT – BY MIRANDA SIEBER

D.I.Y. Activism: An Interview with Student Activist Dana Smith

Dana Smith - Feminist, Mathematician, Activist, Seamstress.

Dana Smith – Feminist, Mathematician, Activist, Sewist.

This is the first in a series of interviews with emerging feminists and student activists.

Dana Smith is a senior at Purdue University studying Applied Math and Apparel Design with minors in French and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS). An avid sewist, Dana makes her own clothes and believes that crafting can be transformative as it gives people greater control over what they’re making, wearing, and buying. She is particularly interested in the anti-sweatshop movement, combining her interests in fashion and feminism. On Purdue’s campus, Dana established a chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and is active in United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), in addition to serving as a Resident Assistant for an all-women’s residence hall community.

I first met Dana through my work as the Writing Consultant in Purdue’s National and International Scholarships Office (NISO), housed in the university’s Honors College. She was drafting a policy statement on homeless women and access to reproductive healthcare as part of a scholarship application for students interested in public policy. But not long after, it seemed I ran into her everywhere – in our meetings for the campus Die-In in solidarity with Ferguson, MO last November, at meetings of the Purdue Social Justice Coalition (which supports individuals and groups planning and executing direct actions on campus and in the community), and in her campaigning for Purdue Student Government with a radical platform that included addressing issues like police brutality and sexual assault. This summer, I chatted with her about her activism, sewing her own clothes, and her plans for future activism.

Dana Bisignani [DB]: How did you first become involved in feminist activism?

Dana Smith [DS]: During my first year on campus, I became close with a mentor who helped me learn a lot about feminism.The first “feminist” book I read was actually Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Although I now hold some pretty harsh criticisms of Lean In, nonetheless I recognize its importance as something that helped me gain entrance to feminism.

DB: Absolutely. A number of feminists have been critical of Sandberg’s arguments, especially for its lack of intersectional analysis and its neoliberal perspective. It created a lot of debate both within feminist circles and in mainstream news outlets.

DS: Basically, as I learned more about capitalism, I became more disillusioned with Lean In and the “lean in” mentality. It’s like, okay so only 23 Fortune 500 CEOs are women, but I could care less about that when over half of low-wage workers are women who don’t have the luxury of “leaning in” because their job is on the line. Increasing the number of women CEOs does not automatically correspond to better wages and fair labor practices for low-wage workers. Furthermore, for the very specific group of women to which Lean In does apply to, “leaning in” is not just going to make patriarchy change its mind about providing maternity leave or pay equity.

Prior to coming to college, I didn’t have much of a social consciousness and didn’t consider myself to be a feminist. But sophomore year, I started to get more involved. I took my first WGSS course, “Global Feminisms” [with Dr. Alicia Decker], which still colors a lot of my perspective on feminism. I also helped with planning International Women’s Day [at Purdue] last March.

DB: You’ve contributed to a number of feminist events on campus, including our Take Back the Night rally and march this past April.You ran for Purdue Student Government with a pretty radical platform this spring. Can you briefly describe that platform for readers and then talk a bit about what prompted you to run?

DS: Our platform centered on six main issues: improving sexual violence services, combating racism on campus, advocating for the rights of student tenants, addressing LGBTQ issues, fixing some outdated academic policies, and making the structure of Purdue Student Government (PSG) more accessible to students. I was prompted to run because I wanted to see PSG take a more active role in social justice issues, since the organization traditionally has not prioritized these topics. Running on something of a protest ticket was a good opportunity to shift the conversation and force other candidates to talk about issues they were avoiding. Although we didn’t win the election, I think that we still succeeded in many ways: shifting the focus of the debates, gaining momentum for projects like a rape crisis center, and finding other students who were committed to social change work.

DB: That’s a great way to think about it. So how did you become interested specifically in the exploitation of garment workers?

DS: I’ve been sewing and making my own clothes since I was 10. At first, it was a creative outlet, a way to make what I couldn’t find in stores, and a way to make what I did find in stores or see on the runway for much less. Over time it has come to encompass all of these things and also spur an interest in the garment industry. As my feminist consciousness developed, I started to consider what that meant for my interest in fashion, considering all of the obvious problems with the fashion industry. Since I’m more interested in clothing construction and creation (rather than design), this led me to reading and learning a lot about garment workers, especially with the Rana Plaza factory collapse.

A garment factory in Rhana Plaza, Dhaka collapsed in May 2013. Over 1,000 workers were killed, and it has been called one of the worst industrial disasters in history.

A garment factory in Rhana Plaza, Dhaka collapsed in May 2013. Over 1,000 workers were killed, and it has been called one of the worst industrial disasters in history.

DB: So how did you learn how to sew your own clothing? And how did you decide this could be an effective way to disrupt the garment industry?

DS: I asked my parents to sign me up for a class at [JoAnn Fabrics] when I was 10. I took a couple classes – pajama pants, tote bag, sundress, etc. – and then figured the rest out on my own. Along with the development of my feminist consciousness, I began to see sewing as a radical way that I can create something meaningful and have control over what I’m wearing and buying. Crafting can be subversive, in that it gives people – often women – agency within capitalism. I really like the language of “disrupting.” I don’t think that my individual choice to opt out of purchasing new clothing is going to bring the garment industry to a screeching halt. But I do think that the DIY [do-it-yourself] movement, craftivism, etc. – collective actions – can really send a message.

DB: Ok, this next question builds on what you say about individual choice vs. collective action. In the U.S. especially, we’re often told that how individual consumers spend their money – buy this, don’t buy that – is an effective way to address feminist or social justice issues – consumerism as a form of activism. What are your thoughts on that mentality?

DS: This is interesting. Sometimes it just seems like we’re shifting dollars from one capitalist corporation to another. But if, for example, we’re choosing instead to buy food locally at farmer’s markets, then I think that’s important. I guess I see [consumer choice] as one piece of an activist strategy, but I don’t think that consumerism is a sustainable tactic.

DB:
What are the pleasures and challenges of a D.I.Y. form of activism like sewing?

DS:
It’s fun to make something from start to finish and be able to tell someone that you made it! It’s fun to be a part of an online community of people who make clothes and be able to share patterns, tips, and ideas with people around the world. It’s really liberating, in a sense, to create something. It can also be challenging because sometimes it doesn’t work – things don’t always come out how you want. It can be challenging because it’s hard to not just buy new things. And it’s challenging because sometimes you don’t have the resources (whether it’s money, the right machine, the time, etc.) to make what you want.

DB:
I know you’ve been involved with anti-racist efforts and are passionate about reproductive justice. What other feminist issues are you currently working on/interested in?

DS:
Anti-sweatshop activism is my main focus going into this [academic] year. I’m working to bring a [chapter of] United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) to Purdue. Additionally, I do some organizing with folks in the homeless community downtown.This summer, I’ve been conducting several town hall forums to gather raw, honest feedback from folks experiencing homelessness about service providers, agencies, and the community in general. This organizing work comes out of my involvement on our PATH Street Outreach team (a partnership between Wabash Valley and the Civic Engagement & Leadership Development (CELD) office to connect unsheltered people to services) and several spring/fall break trips to Memphis, TN where we work with a group called HOPE (Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality). I think this relates to my feminism in that I find it impossible to think about feminism and to not consider economic inequality, and by extension, homelessness.

DB: What advice do you have for readers here who want to get involved in activism? 

DS: I think [the idea of] “activism” seems daunting at first,  like how will I ever do this thing?! But chances are there is already someone else or an existing organization doing what you want to do. Do some research, find these organizations and get involved. Also, I think it’s unwise to try to do something alone. History wants you to think that individuals like MLK or Rosa Parks did it alone, but they didn’t. They worked with so many other people. Always work with people.

To see Dana’s sewing, weaving, and fashion endeavors, visit her site – Dana’s Designs.

Dana modeling one of her creations, a pleated skirt.

Dana modeling one of her creations, a pleated skirt.

Pardon My Dust: Sprucing Up “The Gender Press”

The Gender Press is getting a spruce! While the layout of the blog has been updated, the content here will continue to explore feminism and the complex intersections of gender, race, class, and sexuality in our everyday lives.

If you’re a follower, you’ll notice three major changes:

  1. The content will no longer be addressed primarily to my introductory gender and sexuality studies students. Since I’ve just completed my last semester of teaching at my current institution, I’ll be addressing a wider audience here. This will mean fewer lectures and a more diverse range of posts, including an expanded focus on national and international current events of interest to gender studies scholars, feminists, and activists.
  2. You’ll also see more content by guest bloggers, including original writing by and interviews with feminist scholars, activists, and artists, including some former students. In fact, our first guest post on the intersections of feminism and disability is coming soon!
  3. Finally, you’ll find more pages featuring a sampling of my professional portfolio and activism as I plunge into the job hunt!

If you’re a former student, you’ll notice that the content, particularly the links in the sidebar, are less Purdue-specific and of more general interest to a wider audience. Looking for a Purdue resource? Don’t fret. Check out the new category of links titled “Purdue Student Resources” on the right – you’ll still find many important campus and Lafayette, IN community resources there.

Still can’t find what you’re looking for? Shoot me an email at dbisigna@purdue.edu.

Thanks to everyone who has visited, followed, and/or recommended The Gender Press over the last three years! I hope that you’ll continue to enjoy and share the content here. Here’s to a new chapter.

Sincerely,

Dana Bisignani

 

Workers Fight the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership)

As we’re watching Maquilapolis this week and thinking about the effects of globalization on the world’s workers, let’s also think about the current debate over fast-tracking the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, in the U.S., a multi-country trade and investement agreement.

In many cases, major news media like the BBC have focused primarily on the macro-level politics of the TPP, analyzing how the agreement might affect countries and their respective economies. Put simply, reporting has reinforced the idea that such an agreement has little to do with workers on the ground and more to do with international relationships between governments.

Union members and community activists rally to protest the TPP in Miami, FL.

Union members and community activists rally to protest the TPP in Miami, FL.

 

Many of these articles discuss “strengthening economies” and “creating jobs.” While such promises seem appealing on the surface, they often mask how globalization has, and continues, to harm workers, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Washington Post reporter Katrina vanden Heuvel explains how such an agreement will affect workers:

“Our global trade and tax policies have been and still are controlled by corporate and financial interests. They, not workers or consumers, write the rules…In theory at least, workers in both nations might benefit from larger markets and increased trade. But now a significant portion of our trade is intra-corporate trade, an exchange between one branch of a multinational and another. Multinationals have different interests than national companies. They profit even if U.S. workers suffer. Increasingly companies choose to report their profits or ship their jobs to countries with the lowest standards where the legal position of companies is the strongest. Companies like Wal-Mart set up global distribution systems designed to drive down wages here and abroad.”

This is a pattern we witness with the maquiladora workers in Mexico in the early 2000s, who worked for companies like Panasonic and Sanyo, corporations that benefited from an older trade agreement, the 1994 North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. NAFTA was also sold to American workers as a way to help the economy and create jobs. In reality, it has had the opposite effect.

The TPP has been privately negotiated by elite CEOs and bankers, and the terms (before information was leaked to Wikileaks) have been inaccessible to workers and voters – a good sign that the agreement is rigged in the favor of those with the greatest power and privilege. In short, Heuvel concludes, “The TPP is a classic expression of the way the rules are fixed to benefit the few and not the many.”

LABOR IS A WOMEN’S ISSUE TOO: ANTI-CAPITALIST FEMINISM

socialist feminis,

This might be a good place to revisit bell hooks’s definition of feminism, which emphasizes “a commitment to reorganizing U.S. society, so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires” (1981). If we follow hooks’s definition of feminism, a feminist critique of economic expansion and globalization must likewise be a critique of capitalism and profit-driven policies.

Read more about the roots of anti-capitalist feminism (sometimes Marxist Feminism) here.

 

Garment Workers Overseas: Unpacking the Feminist Politics of Clothing

Over the last year or so, U.S. companies, including brands like Gap, Joe Fresh (JCPenney), H&M, and Faded Glory (sold at Wal-Mart) have come under increasing pressure to increase the safety standards for the workers in their garment factories overseas. Recent disasters, including the factory fire in Bangladesh (on India’s eastern border), in November 2012 that killed 112 and the collapse of another building that houses five garment factories near Dhaka (in Bangladesh) in May of 2013, which killed 1,127 workers have brought worker safety to the forefront of global conversation.

Why would these disasters be of especial importance to feminists? For one, the majority of the workers are women.

Here is some context for our reading of Cynthia Enloe’s “Blue Jeans and Bankers” from her book Bananas, Beaches, and Bases.

The collapse of the factory in 2014 is one of the worst industrial disasters in history–and some U.S. corporations,  most notably Wal-Mart, still refuse to sign off on the safety regulations for overseas factories that Europeans have already agreed to.

A garment factory in Rhana Plaza, Dhaka collapsed in May 2013. Over 1,000 workers were killed, and it has been called one of the worst industrial disasters in history.

A garment factory in Rhana Plaza, Dhaka collapsed in May 2013. Over 1,000 workers were killed, and it has been called one of the worst industrial disasters in history.

 

These recent disasters have fueled ongoing labor protests and other areas as workers demand safer working conditions and better pay.

Bangladeshi garment workers demand better wages and safety regulations after the industrial disasters of the last year that have left thousands of workers dead.

Bangladeshi garment workers demand better wages and safety regulations after the industrial disasters of the last year that have left thousands of workers dead.

 

If companies like Wal-Mart have gotten themselves in trouble for exploiting their workers abroad, they’ve also come under fire at home, as American workers have participated in ongoing strikes and boycotts for a livable wage and benefits. (FYI: Wal-Mart remains staunchly anti-union.) In fact, despite mounting evidence of Wal-Mart’s numerous abuses (labor, environmental, etc.), celebrities like Tom Cruise have praised the company for improving women’s lives all over the world (Democracy Now, “Striking Workers, Bangladeshi Activist Challenge Wal-Mart”).

This haunting photograph was taken in the aftermath of the garment factory collapse in Dhaka, India, earlier this year.

This haunting photograph was taken in the aftermath of the garment factory collapse in Dhaka, India, earlier this year.

LEARN MORE…

Watch the full story of the Bangladesh garment factory disasters on Democracy Now, including a report from global labor activist Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and Scott Nova of WorkersRights.org.

Read an interview with a garment industry labor activist involved in the protests, who spoke to Purdue’s own Tithi Battacharya.

Homework Due Wednesday, April 15th

In preparation for a more in-depth discussion about globalization and low-wage labor overseas (Cynthia Enloe), visit the following site and answer the questions to see how many slaves work for you around the world.

Slavery Footprint

Write up a lecture card – question, comment, quote – about the experience, and be sure to include your number! We’ll begin class with these on Wednesday.

Controlling Images: Welfare Reform, Work Ethic, and the “Welfare Queen”

Toward the end of the presidential election in 2012, Mother Jones journalists released the following footage of Mitt Romney meeting behind closed doors with some of his inside supporters. Listen especially to his characterization of President Obama’s supporters and how he uses the accusation of “entitlement.”

FYI: he’s not just talking about those on welfare and programs like SNAP here. He’s also talking about anyone who gets (“feels entitled to”) money from the government, including, for example, those of us using students loans or veterans receiving benefits.

At the core of Romney’s speech is the beloved “boostraps rhetoric” – the idea that if an individual starting with “nothing” can just work hard and “pull himself up by his bootstraps,” he will be able to “make it”; and that success is so often defined in a narrow, profit-driven way, that is, as the accumulation of private wealth and material goods. Much of the time, the people who invoke a bootstraps story about their immigrant grandparents, for example, don’t recognize that those relatives may still have come to the U.S. with racial privilege, support from family already in the country, political rights, a knowledge of English, etc. (Here’s another controlling image: who do we picture when we think of an immigrant?)

What stereotypes of poor and/or working class Americans does Romney invoke in his speech? How do such stereotypes connect to public arguments about welfare reform?

STEREOTYPES VS. CONTROLLING IMAGES

One of the most pervasive controlling images that exists at the intersection of race and class is the image of the welfare queen. First, let’s clarify, stereotypes are:

implicit biases about how a person’s race, gender, class, or sexual orientation influences the individual’s behavior that become strong beliefs that influence individual or collective behavior.

A controlling image goes farther than a stereotype and its effects are more insidious. A controlling image is:

a stereotype that has become so ingrained in thought that it becomes a means to control those who are stereotyped and justifies the beliefs of those doing the stereotyping.

In other words, a controlling image is one that has a cumulative effect, that we see over and over to the exclusion of other images or narratives, until we internalize it and believe it to be true.

Such images have the ability to “guide behavior toward and from those persons [depicted], constrain what is seen and believed about them, and when internalized, profoundly influence the self-perceptions of the marginalized” (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman).

THE WELFARE QUEEN IN THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION

Let’s think more specifically about how the stereotype of the welfare queen is often used to justify cuts to welfare programs and other restrictions on the poor and working classes.

A political cartoon of the stereotypical image of the welfare queen living off the government, linked also with Democrats, who have historically been defenders of welfare programs.

A political cartoon of the stereotypical image of the welfare queen living off the government, linked also with Democrats, who have historically been defenders of welfare programs.

The welfare queen was coined by President Ronald Reagan during the late 1970s and was based on a specific Chicago woman, Linda Taylor, who was clearly a grifter and con artist, suspected even of homocide and baby trafficking, and an exception. In an article for Slate, Josh Levin sums up the power on Reagan’s controlling image, embodied by Taylor, who was tried and sent to prison in 1977:

With her story, Reagan marked millions of America’s poorest people as potential scoundrels and fostered the belief that welfare fraud was a nationwide epidemic that needed to be stamped out. This image of grand and rampant welfare fraud allowed Reagan to sell voters on his cuts to public assistance spending. The “welfare queen” became a convenient villain, a woman everyone could hate. She was a lazy black con artist, unashamed of cadging the money that honest folks worked so hard to earn.

Taylor’s story was picked up and carried widely in national newspapers, and her story made a lasting impression. Listen to NPR’s interview with Josh Levin on All Things Considered.

POLICING THE POOR BY CONTROLLING CHOICE

On November 1, 2013, welfare recipients saw dramatic cuts amounting to a total of $40 billion to their SNAP (or food stamp) allowances. More recently, states like Maine and Missouri have passed bills that prohibit individuals on SNAP from buying particular food items, including cookies, chips, soda, canned tuna, steak and seafood.

welfare queen before and after birth

And many states continue to enforce mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients, despite the fact that such tests have proven to be a monumental waste of government money (typically less than 1% of those on welfare ever test positive for illegal drugs, and in some states, certain prescription drugs found in urine can still be grounds for losing one’s benefits, even if that person has a prescription from a doctor).

According to Lister, who recently published an article in The Washington Post, writes of her own experience:

When I drive my 19-year-old car, with its drooping bumper, peeling paint and loud muffler, the police follow me. Utilizing American safety-net programs (which, by the way, I paid into for years before receiving any “entitlements”) requires that I relinquish my privacy multiple times. I have to reveal how much I pay to live where I live, the amount of my utility and medical bills, what car I own, even whether I have a plot to be buried in when I die. I have to update the local office any time my income changes, or if a family member moves in or out, and even when my college-age children come home for the summer.

Why would policy makers and government officials spend so much money policing the bodies and choices of poor people? Why do we believe that some citizens are more deserving of privacy than others, and who gets to determine this?

Last year, Congresswoman Speier (D-CA) gave this speech in an attempt to put such cuts in perspective, especially in an age of “austerity panic”:

Do you think you could take the SNAP challenge and eat on just $4.50 a day?

Want to now more about common myths the media uses to undercut welfare and perpetuate those stereotypes of the poor that Adair talks about? Read “What the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Welfare: 9 Myths Exposed.”

Student Activism at Purdue: Dana Smith and Caleb Pirtle for Student Government

Since all of you are working on your final Community Action projects, I thought you could use a little inspiration from other student activists at Purdue who are working to create change by running for Purdue Student Government on a progressive platform that highlights many of the issues that student activists, particularly members of the Purdue Social Justice Coalition, have been working on for the past couple of years.

Dana Smith is a WGSS minor at Purdue. Do you notice anything feminist about her campaign?

 

Reading Fat and Slender Bodies: Diet Culture and Capitalism

JOY NASH – “A FAT RANT”

 

In her video above, Nash points out how often people who are perceived as overweight or fat are belittled, shamed, or insulted “for their own good” or out of well-meaning “concern.” Consider Bordo’s anecdote about the woman on the television talk show whose audience insisted that the woman could not be both fat and happy (pp. 203-204). What is it about “fat” bodies that makes people so nervous…or worse, downright hostile?

Particularly fat female bodies.

Since women are often judged first and foremost by their appearance, it is also often deemed acceptable for others to comment on women’s bodies; and one of the easiest ways to cut a woman down to size – physically, intellectually, emotionally – is to call her fat.

And as a culture, our obsession with diets – and a medical community that often equates weight loss with better health and a quick fix to all sorts of symptoms and complaints –  only fuels this fat-shaming culture. Consider how, more than individuals, such body-shaming actually profits corporations:

“HOW DIETS HURT YOU (AND HELP CAPITALISM)”

 

Remember that definition of feminism from bell hooks? People, not profit.

“READING THE SLENDER BODY” – SUSAN BORDO

As Susan Bordo argues in her chapter “Reading the Slender Body,” we read others’ bodies, and our own, as cultural texts, especially as women, and we often connect all sorts of personality traits or characteristics with those bodies based on their shape, weight, and perceived slenderness or beauty.

QUESTIONS

  1. How are unattractive women or women who were perceived as overweight generally portrayed in advertising?
  2. In American culture, what judgments do we often make about people with “fat” bodies? What characteristics do we assign to “fat” female bodies?
  3. According to Bordo, what is our culture’s obsessions with “fighting the enemy flab” really about, if not simply about health or weight management, as we’re so often told?
  4. How are eating disorders – the “extremes” of obesity and bulimia/anorexia – a logical symptom of this cultural obsession?
  5. Historically, how have the cultural politics of fat bodies been connected to socioeconomic status, or class?