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

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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

 

Sexual Assaults Plague Purdue’s Campus

The student-initiated Sexual Assault Summit held this past Saturday seems suddenly more timely. Two sexual assaults have been reported on Purdue’s campus just within the last week. In one case, a student was taken into custody and a fraternity suspended during the investigation of the assault.

Learn more from Indy Local News here.

Purdue is the only university in the BIG 10 without a Rape Crisis Center, and is reportedly second only to the University of Nebraska in mishandling cases of sexual assault. This means that Purdue is failing to meet the requirements of Title IX, which guarantees women the legal right to equal education – not just in terms of sports, but also in terms of funding/scholarships and safety.

Purdue students and student organizations, like Feminist Action Coalition for Today (FACT) and Boilers Educating Against Rape (BEAR), and more recently the Purdue Social Justice Coalition, have all been working to convince the university to correct this problem. Thus far, the university’s administration has seemed unreceptive.

WHAT TO DO AFTER A SEXUAL ASSAULT

Need more information about what to do if you or someone you know experiences a sexual assault? Visit What Now Tippecanoe: After Sexual Violence, also linked under “Campus Resources.”

 

 

Welcome to WGSS 280: Introduction to Women’s Studies

Welcome to our course blog. For the next 16 weeks, this blog will serve as the online home for our section of WGSS 280 (Women’s Studies: An Introduction).

smashing-patriarchy-feminism-comic-hammer

 

Each week, I’ll post lectures and class activities, relevant campus events, news and videos, and breaking news here, so check it frequently. In addition, readings, podcasts, and other online resources marked (B) on the calendar attached to your syllabus can be found under the links to the right under “Readings & Podcasts.”

You may already have noticed the posts from last semester’s course below this post feel free to browse those if you like. The most recent posts always appear at the top of the page, older posts toward the bottom.

You’ll also see links to important resources on campus and in the surrounding community, as well as links to feminist activist organizations and blogs that address everything from breaking news to pop culture. When it comes time to write your assignments, you can also find links to helpful writing resources, including a site to help you with citation format.

One more thing: our blog is open to the global public – that is, to anyone with internet access – and it does have a few followers, so from time to time, you might see a comment on a post from someone not in our class. Our class is part of a much larger, ongoing dialogue about changing the world, and I hope you carry some of what you learn here beyond the boundaries of our classroom as well.

I look forward to getting to know all of you over the next few weeks.

Sincerely,

Dana

More on Valuing the Emotional Self

After today’s class, a student shared the following quote with me, which echoes Eve Ensler’s sentiments about reclaiming our full, emotional selves:

“Being tender and open is beautiful. As a woman, I feel continually shhh’ed. Too sensitive. Too mushy. Too wishy washy. Blah blah. Don’t let someone steal your tenderness. Don’t allow the coldness and fear of others to tarnish your perfectly vulnerable beating heart. Nothing is more powerful than allowing yourself to truly be affected by things. Whether it’s a song, a stranger, a mountain, a rain drop, a tea kettle, an article, a sentence, a footstep, feel it all – look around you. All of this is for you. Take it and have gratitude. Give it and feel love.”

— Zooey Deschanel

Homework: Post-Survey on Intimate Partner Abuse

Now that Marie Kellemen has visited our class, please take a few minutes to fill out the short, post-presentation survey on intimate partner abuse. As Marie mentioned in class, the results of the pre- and post-surveys are used to evaluate how much audiences learn from these outreach presentations and to help the YWCA continue to receive funding for their important outreach.

Print the last sheet of the survey and turn it on on Friday, Sept. 27th to receive participation points. Make sure your name is on it.

MORE RESOURCES

Want to find out more about the YWCA and its shelter? Click here.

In addition, here is the link to What Now? Tippecanoe, with advice for what to do if you or someone you know experiences (or has experienced) sexual assault. This resource is also permanently linked on our blog under both “Campus Resources” and “Community Resources.”

Monday’s Syllabus Quiz

On Monday, we will begin class with the syllabus quiz, which should take about 10 minutes. To prepare, you should familiarize yourself with the course syllabus and policies, as well as bell hooks’s definition of feminism that we covered in Wednesday’s class (see the blog post).

Final Reflections on the Semester

Since this is our last day of class, I’d like you all to consider the intellectual, emotional, and activist journey you’ve been on this semester in our class. I look forward to reading your final reflective papers about your service learning experience, but let’s also talk about what else you’re taking away from this course.

FINAL QUESTIONS

Take a few moments and jot down an answer to each of the following questions:

  1. What reading, discussion, or film impacted your thinking the most in this class? Why?
  2. What was the most challenging moment, discussion, or topic for you in the class?
  3. What do you feel is the most important thing you learned from this course?
  4. How will your new awareness change the way you study, act, speak, etc. in the world?
  5. If you could change one thing about the course, what would it be?

Tying it All Together: “Salt of the Earth” (1954)

Salt of the Earth (1954) is based on the real-life 1951 strike that Mexican-American mine workers in Grant County, New Mexico held against Empire Zinc (called “Delaware Zinc” in the film), the company that owned the mine where they worked. The filmmakers cast many real local miners and their families (only five in the cast were professional actors) who had been involved in the actual strike to cast the film. The miners were striking for fair wages (i.e., equal to those of their fellow Anglo, or white, workers) and better health and safety.

Filmed in the heart of the Red Scare and the McCarthy Era, the film was denounced by the United States House of Representatives for its Communist sympathies, and the FBI investigated the film’s financing. The American Legion called for a nation-wide boycott of the film: film-processing labs were told not to work on it and unionized projectionists were instructed not to show it. After its opening night in New York City, all but 12 theaters in the country refused to screen it. During filming, anti-Communist vigilantes fired rifle shots at the set and Rosaura Revueltas was deported to Mexico in an attempt to disrupt filming. Many years later, the film found a new life and an appreciative audience in the 1960s and gradually reached wider viewership through screenings held at union halls, women’s centers, and film schools. It is still often shown today.

Homework: Watch the film for Monday’s class and consider the discussion questions on your handout.

SALT OF THE EARTH